Of all the places Phil had ever fantasised about meeting Hollywood film star and celebrity heartthrob Daniel Howell, the white, well-lit men's restrooms at the BBC have never featured even once. (Other, decidedly dingier and darker restrooms on the other hand…)
That's probably why it takes him a moment to understand what he's even seeing in the mirror above the sinks. Yet when he looks again the person washing his hands right next to him is most certainly Dan Howell.
Phil tamps down on about a million different reactions and tries to avert his eyes.
Dan Howell, however, gives him a casual nod and a vague smile. Phil would never have expected even that much.
But then Howell actually opens his mouth and says, "You'd think the BBC would at least provide a private restroom while you wait."
"Uh, yeah, I guess not," Phil replies, fighting the urge to stare.
Dan Howell looks good in real life. Perhaps not as sleek and polished as he does on screen or in pictures (his fringe seems to be frizzing slightly, and Phil is sure he has never seen the slight darkness of stubble on his upper lip before). The tiny imperfections just make him look more real.
"I guess even with all that taxpayer money, it's still too much to ask." Dan smiles at him in the mirror, looking more present now than when he had first nodded silently to Phil. He steps over to the paper towel dispenser and takes out just one sheet. "I'm waiting for someone to come show me to make-up."
Phil can't help but stare dumbly now, turning to face the real Dan and not the one in the mirror. He lets his wet hands hang awkwardly by his side, too embarrassed to step any closer to the incredibly famous person, who for some ungodly reason is chatting him up in a friendly manner, almost as if they know each other.
Howell seems to finally pick up on his awkward star struck condition and visibly pauses. "I'm sorry." He looks more closely at Phil. "I thought I… Are you... a presenter?"
It makes sense now, except Phil couldn't really think of anyone he thinks he could be mistaken for, with his black emo fringe and black skinny jeans.
"Uh, no. I work in editing?"
Howell seems as if he is actually beginning to feel embarrassed, so Phil keeps talking rapidly.
"I always make a habit of going to a new washroom whenever I take a break? They say variety is good for you, plus I get some exercise, see some new things." He feels his accent growing thicker, cursing himself for what a bumbling idiot Howell must think he has bumped into. "Never met anyone famous before, though," he almost says, but stops himself just in time. Probably it isn't good form to acknowledge that he has recognised Howell. Then again, the man is famous enough to no longer be able to walk down the street in peace, he's probably used to everyone knowing who he is.
Howell seems as if he has stopped listening partway through Phil's rambling speech. His head is cocked slightly to the side, as if he is listening to something else far off. "Have we met before…?"
It's impossible to stop the snort and quirked eyebrow that is Phil's automatic reaction to those words. But the look of sheer panic on Howell's face makes the pick-up-like line instantly unfunny again. Phil doesn't think that he and Dan Howell frequent the same establishments, though.
"I'm sorry," Howell says, looking stricken. "I didn't mean to... I'm sorry." He seems unable to tear his eyes away from Phil for another awkward moment. Then he gives another vague, eye-contact-free smile. "Nice to meet you," he says and flees out the door, leaving Phil still standing stunned by the restroom sinks, wet hands slowly drying.
He isn't prepared for his next thought to be regret that no one will ever believe he has met Dan Howell in the men's. He should have asked for an autograph. Or no, really, he should have asked for a selfie. But the whole exchange was just too deeply bizarre and unexpected for Phil to react in any sensible way.
Then another thought strikes him. Did he really just manage to imply that Dan was trying to pick him up and mock him for it? Belatedly sweat breaks out all over his body, on his lower back, over his top lip. His heart beats double time. There's no way he's going to be able to go back out there right now. Howell is probably long gone, but what if he is still lurking somewhere out there? What if Phil has to pass by him?
He digs his phone out of his pocket and makes the call before he has any more time to spiral.
"Hey, man, why aren't you at your desk?" Jimmy asks as soon as he answers Phil's call. "Did you get lost on your way back from the loo again?"
"I just met Dan Howell in the men's room," Phil says, heart still in his throat.
"You what? Dish!" Jimmy says immediately. Phil can hear a rustling, and imagines Jimmy sliding down in his chair, trying to disguise that he's on the phone.
"I met him. He was just in here!" Phil's shrill voice echoes off the tiles.
"Was he hot?"
"Was he at the urinals?"
"Yeah, guess I'd use the stalls too if I were him."
"I kind of implied he was flirting with me. It was horrible!"
"You talked to him!?"
"He asked if we knew each other."
Jimmy laughs, quite loudly, then chokes it down. "Mate! Maybe he was flirting."
"He definitely wasn't!" Phil leans back against the wall.
Jimmy makes a thoughtful noise. "He always kind of pinged my gaydar, you know."
"You think everyone pings your gaydar, James."
"Not true. Charles from group two? Definitely a straight."
"Stop talking before someone hears you." Phil sighs. "I can't believe this is my celebrity encounter. The first time in my twenty-five years of life that I meet a famous person and it's going to feature in my anxiety dreams until I die."
"Buck up, mate. Come back to your desk. And bring me a coffee on the way."
"You're closer the machine than I am!"
"But you're walking right past it when you get in!"
Jimmy doesn't bother waiting for a reply. He hangs up and Phil is left holding his phone up to his ear for another minute like an idiot. He sighs again and goes over to the door.
He has barely stepped through into the hallway when he almost collides with someone who's coming out of the break room opposite. Phil's mumbled "sorry" dies in his throat when he sees that it's none other than Dan Howell again.
Howell frowns at him, glancing behind him into the toilets, clearly wondering whether Phil has actually been stood in there ever since Howell left. Phil wants to die.
Then he notices that Howell is holding a Nintendo 3DS in his hand. Phil probably stares a little. It seems so incongruous that someone as famous as Dan Howell would be wasting his time playing video games, especially on the same handheld as Phil has.
Phil is just about to reiterate his "sorry" and run away, when Howell leans his weight back and gives him an evaluative once-over that freezes him in place.
"You wouldn't happen to know if the BBC has a charger for this somewhere?" he asks. He holds up the 3DS, and Phil's eyes track it like it's a card and Howell is about to do a magic trick.
"Uh, I don't think…"
Howell sighs in clear annoyance. "I forgot to pack mine. My PA is running around somewhere doing God knows what so she's no help."
"I have one," Phil blurts out.
Howell looks at him as if he is trying to decide whether Phil is actually brain damaged. "Yeah? With you?" He glances pointedly at Phil's jeans pockets which don't appear to be holding much.
"I play on the tube so I always bring the charger and leave it plugged in for when I go home." Phil flaps his arm in the general direction of his cubicle. "I can… go get it." He swallows awkwardly.
"Would you?" Howell peers at him, soft brown eyes, a hint of that lethal dimple Phil has definitely never spent any time staring at on his tv screen. "I still have over an hour to kill apparently."
Phil forces himself to look anywhere else. "Uh yeah. It's on my desk. You could come with?" He doesn't know why he says that. He kicks himself mentally.
Howell glances down the hallway behind Phil. There's a wry twist to his mouth. "Best not."
"Right, of course," Phil nods, flapping his arm some more. Of course a famous movie star doesn't want to wander all around the BBC, drawing attention to himself. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere?"
Howell smiles and it's blinding. "You sound like my PA. Alright if I go back in here?" He points a thumb at the door of the break room behind him.
"Oh! Yeah! Of course!" Phil stammers.
Howell smiles even more. His dimple looks even deeper than it does on Phil's tv. "I'm kidding! I'm kidding..." He pauses.
Phil marvels that he manages to pick up on the unspoken prompt. "Phil," he says.
"Phil," Dan repeats. Something passes over his face then, something slight and soft that Phil doesn't know how to interpret at all. He doesn't say anything else, just stands there looking at Phil expectantly.
It takes Phil another moment to realise he has to move now. "Right! Be right back!"
Howell actually gives him a slight wave as he turns away. He tries to walk at a normal pace. What is a normal pace? How does he normally walk? Why are his feet so big and flappy? Maybe he shouldn't swing his arms so much. Howell probably isn't even looking! Why would he be? He breathes a sigh of relief the moment he turns the corner, and then he sprints.
"Hey, where's my coffee?" Jimmy asks when he turns up at his desk.
"Not now!" Phil says harshly. Did he forget to pack the charger this morning? He knows he didn't plug the 3DS in like he usually does. What if it's not in his bag? Does he go back empty handed? Does he try to find a charger? Maybe he could go buy one…
"What is going on with you? Did Howell's proximity spark an aneurism or something?"
Phil gives up, upending the bag on the floor by his cubicle. There it is! He grabs the charger and goes flying back out the door. "Gotta go!"
The trek back to the unfamiliar section of the BBC takes forever. His heart is pounding, his palms and armpits are sweating, and twice he thinks he's lost his way and forgotten where he's going. Thankfully his subconscious seems better able to find his way back than he is.
Soon enough he's standing outside the opaque break room door, raising his fist to knock, when a short, young, blond woman pushes past him and tears the door open. Inside Howell looks up with a start. He's slung on one of the chairs, one foot up on the seat and one foot down on the floor, his legs looking ridiculously long in black skinny jeans. His brown eyes are wide and startled.
"We're in the wrong building!" the woman yells. "I can't believe this! We have to move! Now!" she snaps when Howell doesn't immediately jump up.
Phil blinks in surprise. This isn't how he expected a PA to talk to a multi-million dollar Hollywood star.
Howell spots him behind his agitated assistant just as another two people slip around Phil and into the quickly filling room. They're both wearing headsets and carrying clipboards, one person talking rapidly into her cellphone.
Howell is taller than all of them and seems to only have eyes for Phil. He smiles and glances down at Phil's hand where he's clutching the 3DS charger.
"Is that the charger?" he says, kindly and unnecessarily.
Phil nods dumbly, a little dizzy with all the other voices talking around him.
Howell slips past the other people, two of which are trying to talk to him, and holds out his hand. "May I?"
Phil hands over the charger. Their hands brush. Dan Howell's hand is big and soft and warm. Something swoops through Phil's stomach. Dan Howell looks into his eyes. He's actually a little taller than Phil, Phil notes stupidly. Phil thinks he can smell his cologne. Dan Howell smiles at him. Again. Phil can't feel his face so he doesn't know if he smiles back.
Then the sounds seem to snap back into focus. The tiny blond woman takes Howell by the arm. "We need to get you to make-up."
"Don't we still have ages?" Howell protests weakly, but he's already letting himself be swept along, breaking eye contact with Phil.
"Early bird catches the worm," she replies, which makes no sense.
"That literally makes no sense," Howell says skeptically as she herds him out the door. He raises the charger towards Phil in a kind of salute and Phil waves awkwardly. Then they're all out the door and he can hear them moving quickly down the hall.
Phil stands there, staring vapidly into space. Did Daniel Howell just steal his 3DS charger?
Phil ends up getting sucked back into work. He's lost something like an hour of his day to his celebrity encounter with Dan Howell. Jimmy does try to drag him away when he clocks out, but Phil ends up staying behind and then staying late.
Eventually he is proper late, and it's a rush to get out the door and onto the tube. This is probably why it takes him until he's sat there to realise that not only is his 3DS out of battery, he also forgot to find out how to get his charger back. He feels like a bit of an idiot, but he resolves himself to making it into a funny story.
It doesn't quite land.
"So did he just keep it?" Martyn asks around a mouthful of take-away dinner.
Phil shrugs awkwardly and plays with his food a bit.
"It's sad if his fame has made him so inconsiderate," Cornelia says, a serious look on her face. She's sitting next to him and looking thoughtfully at Phil.
"It's funny," Phil insists weakly. "I need to buy a new charger because Dan Howell took mine."
"Should pay for his own bloody charger," Martyn snorts, unimpressed.
Phil rolls his eyes, then thinks. "Maybe I should vlog about it."
Martyn and Cornelia seem to share a look. Phil hates that. They're always sharing looks, having silent conversations right in front of him.
"How is the vlog doing?" Cornelia asks carefully, and Martyn clears his throat as if he's the one launching into a precarious topic.
Phil stares from the one to the other. "It's fine," he mumbles. He doesn't know why he's suddenly feeling as if he's about to be put through the wringer.
"We just notice you're uploading less and less," Corn says.
"I've been busy with work," Phil says defensively. He knows where this is going now.
"It's just that…" Corn hesitates.
"It's just that you said you still wanted to do YouTube," Martyn supplies.
"Yeah, well, it turns out it's hard to do YouTube while learning the ropes at a full time job." He's trying hard not to pout and probably failing.
Cornelia goes on as if she's launching into a rehearsed speech, hardly even acknowledging what he just said. "And if you'd changed your mind, that would be fine. We'd completely understand. It just seems to us as if…" She looks to Martyn, but he's quiet this time, so she plows on, "as if you're not happy with your decision."
Phil huffs a bitter laugh. So he's not happy working long hours doing menial editing jobs in the hopes that he will one day be noticed by the great British Broadcasting Company and moved up the ladder to somewhere that actually requires a bit of creative input? Hardly surprising.
"We can't all be popular DJs and up-and-coming musicians," he says with a quirk of his brow. "Some of us are destined to be just regular people with regular day jobs." He doesn't want to sound bitter. He wants to exude enthusiasm for everything Martyn and Cornelia are accomplishing. He can't do that if they insist on pitying him for not becoming the next vlogbrothers or something.
Martyn gives him a long look. "I know mum and dad managed to scare you into accepting that position--"
"They didn't scare me!"
"--but they don't understand about the Internet like you do."
"YouTube isn't a career," Phil mutters. Even as he says it he can hear his dad saying those exact same words to him so many times.
"You told me you were starting to get AdSense."
"Yeah, maybe enough to pay for groceries but certainly not enough to pay rent here." He flaps his arms to indicate all of London.
"We told you you could have the office," Cornelia says quietly. "We meant it."
Phil shakes his head. "You don't want me as a live-in third wheel."
"What we don't want is for all your weird talent to go to waste," Martyn says with a frown.
Phil stares. Martyn squirms.
"I'm your brother not your cheerleader," he huffs then and gets up, collecting their plates and disappearing into the kitchen.
Cornelia looks at Phil and shrugs apologetically. It's another silent conversation, this time one she carries out with him on Martyn's behalf. She unfolds herself from the chair and follows Martyn with the empty take-away containers.
As the guest, Phil feels like he should get up and help them, but he wants to sit and feel sorry for himself for just a moment. He pulls his phone out for a distraction.
He has a new follower on Twitter. That isn't exactly unusual except it usually happens right after he's uploaded a new video. And as Martyn has so kindly pointed out, it's been something like a month since that last happened.
There's something about the profile picture that strikes him as vaguely familiar, which is the only reason he clicks through to her profile. He looks closer and realises with a wash of dread that she is Dan Howell's personal assistant, the harrowed young woman who dragged him away earlier. Phil follows back with shaking fingers, not knowing at all what to make of it.
After doing the dishes they move to the sofa. Martyn and Cornelia curl up in the corner, her tiny frame fitting under his arm as if she was made to sit there. Phil sits on the opposite end of the sofa, resting his feet on the coffee table.
They watch TV together. It's nice, even though tonight Phil is feeling more unsettled by their public display of affection than he normally is. Most of the time he's okay on his own, but then he sees how seamlessly the two of them fit together and he feels so incredibly lonely.
They're good about including him, though. He really appreciates that. They always have time for him. They're always inviting him for dinner or out to their shows. He hasn't been good about coming out with them. He's just been so tired. He resolves to do better.
One of the reasons he moved to London in the first place was because of them. He thinks he would have been terrified to go to a city this size on his own. But knowing his brother was within reach by the tube made him feel safe.
Martyn is changing the channels rapidly, not stopping on anything for more than a few seconds, until suddenly he comes up on BBC1. Dan Howell is on the screen. Martyn and Cornelia both exclaim and look at Phil.
Phil stares at the tv. Howell definitely looks different on TV. His skin looks less freckled, his fringe glossy and straightened. He looks taller as well, even sitting down, and Phil realises how casually slumped he had been in real life. His signature dimple is beautifully on display. He exudes an air of ease and camaraderie as he chats to the interviewer.
"You didn't tell us what it was actually like meeting him," Cornelia says. She sounds amused.
Phil tries to look at her, but he has to struggle to tear his eyes away from the TV.
"He's kind of your type, isn't he?" She's teasing now, that much is clear to him. "He broke up with his girlfriend, I think. Maybe you had a chance."
He scoffs a little at her silly comment, opting to ignore it. "He was nice, actually. Very normal."
Well, no, that's not actually true, is it? Phil remembers once again that weird first meeting in the men's room, the one he didn't tell Martyn and Cornelia about. He doesn't know what's prompted him to keep that bit to himself. Because it's not nearly as funny as the other story? Because he felt painfully awkward the whole time? Or because he still doesn't understand why Howell spoke to him in the first place? That odd familiarity that was cut off so abruptly…
"Except for how he took your charger and kept it," Martyn says, amusement evident in his voice as well.
"Huh? Yeah…" Phil says, but he's barely listening. He couldn't account for what Howell is actually speaking about on screen, but his lips are pink, his shoulders broad, his hands large and expressive…
He jumps out of his seat. "Anyone want a drink?"
He's halfway to the kitchen already when their laughter behind him makes him realise what he's just said. He alters course to the bathroom, needing a break from them for a moment.
"I thought you wanted a drink!" Martyn yells after him.
"Sod off!" Phil yells back and closes the door with a bit more force than necessary, their laughter still ringing in his ears.
He stares at himself in the mirror. His fringe is getting too long, and he needs to touch up the roots soon. Even he can see his eyes look tired behind his glasses.
He has to leave not long after. He shivers as he sits on the tube, rattling his way to his affordable but still depressingly expensive one-bedroom apartment south of London. It's not too terribly late by the time he gets home, but he's still tired from all the unusual events of the day. This morning feels like ages away.
Still he doesn't go straight to bed when he gets in, landing instead on the sofa in his small lounge and combined kitchen. He eyes the camera on the tripod in the corner across from him. He's too tired to even think about filming a video tonight. He doesn't have proper lights anyway. He'll have to wait for this weekend when he can record during daylight hours.
His phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out thinking it's Martyn or Corn checking to see if he got home alright. Instead he has a Twitter notification for a DM. He frowns, because he's not been talking to a lot of people on Twitter lately.
He feels an instant lurch in his stomach when he opens the app. The DM is from Dan Howell's PA. It reads:
"Thanks for following back. I have a personal message from Dan Howell. You met earlier today. He apologises for taking your 3DS charger. If you would like to come by The Ritz tomorrow afternoon at 3pm he will deliver it to you himself. He is registered under Cloud Strife. Announce yourself at reception."
Phil's mind is reeling. He never thought he would see that stupid charger again. He was already mentally preparing himself for ordering a new one online and living without his precious Mario Kart until it arrived. Now suddenly he's invited to a swanky hotel just to get it back. Why would she not just ask for his address and send it to him? Is Dan Howell really planning on personally handing over the charger? Whatever for? And most importantly: Dan Howell plays Final Fantasy?
He reads and re-reads the curt message an alarming number of times, but it doesn't yield any more information or begin to make any more sense. He goes to bed with a strange fluttering sensation in his body, a nervous energy right under his skin that only allows him to sleep fitfully.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been commenting! I promise I read them all and cry and laugh over them, and I appreciate every single one so much!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Phil has never been inside The Ritz before. Now just the facade unnerves him, and when the doorman in the ridiculous outfit actually opens the door for him, Phil nearly stumbles. Does he say thank you? Does he pretend like men in high hats holding doors open for him is an everyday occurrence? He chokes on his own tongue and gives a weird smile. The doorman stares into the middle distance.
The concierge behind the desk is far less polite. She looks him up and down with a doubtful expression before he's even reached her. She's very pretty and very made up, and Phil doesn't know where to look. He feels entirely misplaced in his worn sneakers, black skinny jeans, and blue plaid shirt.
"Good afternoon, sir," she says with a doubtful air.
"Uh, hello. I'm here for Dan Howell?" He feels kind of ridiculous even saying those words. Surely he's made some kind of mistake or misunderstood the meaning of the message.
Her face assumes a forcefully neutral expression. "I'm sorry, sir, we don't have any guests by that name here."
"Oh! Uh…" For a moment he wonders if he's at the wrong hotel. "No, I was told to come here."
She stares at him mutely, neutral expression firmly in place.
"I have an appointment? Dan Howell?" he says weakly.
"I'm sorry, sir, I can't help you."
A lady in a beige pants suit and giant sunglasses comes up next to him. Her perfume wafts over him as the concierge ignores him in favour of greeting her warmly and passing her a room key. Phil kind of wants to cry. He left work early. It took him half an hour just to get here. Then he remembers the DM on his phone.
"Cloud Strife!" he says, probably too loudly, holding out his phone so the concierge can see the message.
She glances at it in confusion, brow furrowing for a split second. Then she clears her throat and says smoothly, "Why of course. Mr Strife is in the Prince of Wales suite. Andrew will show you there." She signals a bellhop, who comes over immediately, a curious look on his face.
The journey through the hotel is eerie. Everything is posh, and the thick carpets on the floor seem to absorb all sound. It's sombre and sparkling and completely quiet.
It's a complete contrast to the noise and bustle inside the suite when Phil knocks on the door, which is instantly yanked open by a frazzled-looking woman.
"Oh, another one," she says, and ushers him inside. "We're running late, so I'll have to ask you to not waste anyone's time."
Phil has no idea what's going on. Inside, the living room has been filled with extra chairs, and a large number of people are waiting. There are more official looking types running to and fro, and the whole place has an air of urgency.
"Um, I'm here to see Dan Howell?" he tries again.
"Yes, of course," she says with a distracted air and disappears down a hallway.
Phil's palms are sweaty and he has absolutely no idea what to do.
"Best have a seat, mate. They're running late," a man around his own age says to him from a chair.
He sits on the very edge of the chair and tries not to stare at anyone.
"They're always running late, am I right?" the man says.
Phil glances at him. "Oh, uh, I wouldn't know."
The man raises his eyebrows. "First time, eh?"
Phil shrugs awkwardly. It's like one of those nightmares where you're supposed to do something and everyone else is prepared but you're not.
"Don't let him run you 'round, yeah? He's notoriously good at not giving any real answers. You gotta get right in his face with those direct yes-or-no's. Hit him with some "can you describe"s." The man is gesticulating like he's illustrating a boxing match. He sighs. "Sometimes I think our lives must've been so much easier before they invented media training."
The situation is slowly beginning to dawn on Phil. He glances around at all the people, who all seem to be wearing lanyards around their necks, some of them lugging around recording equipment. "Oh yeah?" he says blandly.
"The people want to know the real Dan Howell. Not the facade his management has him put up. I think he's a pretty decent bloke, actually."
Dan Howell's PA comes into the room then, scanning the crowd. "Phil Lester?" she calls.
The man hooks his thumb at her. "Some no-show. They've been calling his name for the last hour. Can you believe missing out on your Dan Howell interview? Guy better have a bloody good excuse to tell his boss--"
Phil is torn between listening politely and answering the PA. He stands up kind of awkwardly, trying to pay them both equal amounts of attention. He gives the PA a weird kind of wave.
She gestures him over. "We thought press would be over an hour ago. He doesn't have a lot of time, but he doesn't want to keep you. This way."
She leads him into another sitting room with a set of overly plush sofas in flowery upholstery. Dan Howell couldn't be more of a contrast in his black skinny jeans and a black t-shirt and blindingly white sneakers. He's standing next to the sofa. The PA has already left them alone.
Dan Howell smiles at him, something that looks soft and genuine, and Phil nearly chokes on his own tongue. He needs to get his shit together, he tells himself. He's not here to be a creep.
"You're not wearing your glasses," Howell says, which is not among the first hundred things Phil would have guessed he might say.
"Oh," Phil says, reaching up as if to check. "No, I put in contacts."
"I've always liked the glasses," Howell says next, which makes Phil stare so hard that Howell must notice that he is breaking Phil's brain.
He looks away in seeming embarrassment, smile slipping off his face. He reaches for something on a side table and holds it out to Phil. It's the 3DS charger.
"Thanks for this. It was literally a life saver. They had me waiting for another hour after make-up."
"You're welcome," Phil mumbles and comes closer to take it.
Their hands brush again, and Dan Howell's skin is still surprisingly soft and warm and smooth. Phil wants the touch to go on forever. He doesn't know what's gotten into him. He feels mildly crazy.
"I'm sorry about all the people," Howell says wryly. "I…"
Just then the door opens and an older man slips into the room. "Ah, I see you're just about to get started," he says with fake enthusiasm and slips onto a chair behind the sofa. He gestures to Phil to sit on the loveseat. "I'm afraid we don't have much time, so if you would…"
Phil stares in open-mouthed surprise, shaking his head. When he looks back at Howell, his eyes are dancing with barely-contained humour. He goes around the sofa and sits down, grinning up at Phil and raising his eyebrows in challenge. Phil's heart pounds at that look. His knees almost give out as he sits down opposite him.
"What medium are you with?" the other man asks kindly, as if he is used to dealing with starstruck journalists all the time.
"Uhm," Phil says, wildly, glancing around desperately for inspiration. His eyes fall on the wire gripped tightly in his fist. "Nintendo... Magazine?"
"Right," the man says neutrally, as if this might very well be true. Does Nintendo even have a magazine? Phil thinks. Why would they be interviewing Dan Howell? Apparently it doesn't matter.
Howell looks as if he's about to burst out laughing. There's something elf-like about his sly smirk and those dark eyes sparkling with mischief. Phil is mesmerised.
"If you would ask your first question, please," the man prompts, ever kindly.
Phil casts about wildly for a question. It's a movie. He knows that much. What do journalists asks film stars about?
“Did you enjoy filming this movie?”
The man in the chair smiles and leans back, seemingly pleased with the innocuous nature of the question.
Howell clears his throat and seems to try to straighten out his face. “Oh, quite a lot. It was a nice change from my last one.”
“Oh,” Phil says. “Which one was that?”
“Blood Moon?” Dan says.
“Oh right,” Phil says weakly. Only the sequel in the franchise that shot Dan Howell to fame.
“And… why is that?”
“Significantly fewer stunts in this one,” Howell answers in a teasing tone.
“Did you do all your own stunts in Midnight?” Phil asks in undisguised surprise. He thought surely actors had stunt doubles for that.
Howell’s eyes sparkle, but before he can answer, the man who must be a PR agent of some kind says, “If you would please focus your questions on the movie in question…”
Phil feels parched. He tries to swallow, but his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth.
There's a vague buzzing and the man gets up to answer a phone call, slipping out of the room without a backwards glance.
“He's with the production company,” Howell says and rolls his eyes.
Phil nods as if he knows what that means or how press tours function or anything else about how to exist in the same room as a hot Hollywood actor.
“Are you…” Howell says. He leans forward and Phil leans to meet him without even meaning to. “I mean-”
The door opens and the production company man comes back inside.
Phil scrambles to think of another question. “Uh and do you think they might turn the movie into a video game?”
Howell’s eyebrows dance. There's no other word for it. They wiggle up and down in delighted surprise, and Phil thinks he understands exactly why Howell is worth millions of US dollars and Phil is scrambling to pay for an apartment in Norwood. He kind of wants to cry.
“I don't really see that happening,” Howell replies, a depth of concealed amusement to his voice.
“Why not?” Phil asks with probably too much of a pout.
“Because it's set in 19th Century rural England?”
“Oh right.” Phil thinks he may actually start to remember a few clips from a trailer he saw on TV. His stomach does a tumble. “They could, though,” he says, surprising himself. “Like Oregon Trail only with arsenic poisoning instead.”
Howell laughs, full-throated and pleased. “Victorian Trail? ‘You have died of arsenic poisoning’.”
"What do you equip? Horses and carriage?"
"Successfully navigate a ball season. Start by travelling to Bath. We recommend each young unmarried person purchase at least 5 sets of evening wear. How many sets of evening wear do you want?"
Phil stares, because he does vaguely remember Oregon Trail and this sounds a lot like the dialogue prompts in it, but he wasn't expecting Dan Howell to be able to quote an old '90s DOS game from memory.
"I don't know what half of those words mean, but that sounds right!" Phil grins and Howell smiles back.
The man’s phone buzzes again, and Howell rolls his eyes as he goes to answer it.
“You play a lot of video games then?” Howell asks.
Phil shrugs. “Yeah.”
Howell laughs again, a smaller guffaw that seems to take him by surprise. He tips his head back to reveal his throat and runs a hand through his hair. Then he turns his gaze back to Phil with a new intensity.
“Do you want to stay?”
Phil gawks in what he thinks is cold shock.
“I mean, would you hang back?” Howell squirms at the look on Phil's face and lets out an irritated breath. “Do you wanna hang out, I mean. Here. With me. Once I’m done with this shit.”
Phil's conscience may have been thrown clean out of his body. It seems to be hovering somewhere above him. He can't think so he just says,
Because he does. He wants to talk more. He wants to know what other weird ideas are hiding behind those soft brown eyes.
Howell smiles, a small pleased tug of the lips. “I’ll let Marianne know. Just… don't leave, yeah?”
Phil nods dumbly.
The man slips back into the room, hovering by the door this time.
“I’m afraid there's no more time,” he says politely. "Did you get everything you wanted?"
"Almost," Phil mumbles, staring at Howell unthinkingly.
Howell's eyes flicker away from his, and he thinks maybe he sees a vague blush splotch the lower part of his cheek. He feels a tug of embarrassment. He doesn't want to be creepy.
"Maybe just one final question," the man says from the doorway.
"Right." Now Phil has to think of something. "If Nintendo wanted to pursue your game idea further, how might they contact you?"
It's meant to be a joke but as soon as he's said it, he realises that it just comes off as more flirting, and he wants to kick himself.
Howell's eyebrows shoot up for a moment. He smiles, but it's as if he's put down a filter between the two of them. The strange warm openness and vulnerability from a minute ago is gone.
"I'll make sure they get my contact information," he says, not unkindly.
The man clears his throat. Phil gets up, feeling like he messed up. Howell gets up too. He reaches out his hand for Phil to shake. Their hands touch, and it's still electric. Howell presses his fingers around Phil's hand softly. It's not one of those masculine battle-for-domination handshakes. It feels quite meaningful… Phil thinks he is getting whiplash.
Howell's eyes bore into his for a moment. "It was nice to meet you," he says.
"Nice to meet you, too," Phil mumbles as he finally gets his hand back. He squirms past the man in the doorway, the next person in line for an interview hovering impatiently behind him. In the hallway he stops for a moment just to breathe. He has no idea what is happening.
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Waiting around in the hotel suite is a kind of a surreal experience for Phil. The room is still busy when he comes back, some people talking together, some people on their phones, some people typing furiously, and a few just staring morosely into space.
He spots a table where some biscuits and bottled water and a pot labelled 'coffee' has been set out. He pours himself some into a styrofoam cup and adds several packets of sugar. You'd think a fancy hotel would serve nicer coffee, but apparently this is the pleb supply. Phil swallows the lukewarm stuff down and goes to a corner where he eyes an electrical socket.
He can't think about the fact that he's hanging out at The Ritz waiting for Dan Howell to have more time for him, because if he does he's going to become sure he's lost his mind. At what point did he fall and hit his head? Or when did he get transported into an alternate universe where major celebrities find him so interesting they don't want to stop spending time with him?
After plugging in the 3DS he pretty much shuts out his surroundings.
He doesn't notice the number of people in the room slowly dwindling until it's empty. Someone is clearing the snacks table onto a trolly, and another person is stacking the extra chairs. Phil blinks, and then Dan Howell is coming through, stretching his arms above his head and smiling. Phil nearly drops his gaming console. The hotel staff studiously avoid looking in Howell's direction at all.
"Hey," Howell says softly. "Do you wanna come through?" He hooks a thumb over his shoulder.
Phil scrambles to shove his things back into his backpack and stand up at the same time. When he turns back, he thinks Howell is studying him with a fond expression.
He leads Phil down the hall, past the interview room, and into yet another sitting room. This one looks slightly more lived-in. The pillows on the floral sofas are disordered and flattened, there are a few personal items scattered on the coffee table, and most notably a slim PlayStation 3 has been haphazardly hooked up to the television. A number of plastic game cases are scattered around it.
"Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?"
Is it his imagination or does Howell sound as nervous and weirded out as Phil is feeling?
"Your coffee was shite, mate," he says before he can check himself.
Howell grins. "I can get you the good coffee," he says as he picks up the phone. "Espresso?"
"Macchiato, please. With sugar."
Howell places an order with room service for two macchiatos while Phil hovers awkwardly in the middle of the room.
When Howell places the receiver back down he sighs and stares down for a moment. "You're probably wondering what's going on." He glances up at Phil, slightly askance.
"Um, yes, actually."
Howell smiles a bit ruefully. Then he turns to look at Phil head on and says, "I know who you are."
Phil doesn't know why he feels it almost like an accusation. He has no idea what that means. Is Howell secretly crazy? Did his PR team successfully manage to conceal this fact from the public? Does he make a habit of luring unsuspecting people into his hotel room only to accuse them of being someone they're not and then, what? Killing them gruesomely?
Phil stares at him.
"That's why I was staring at you the first time we met. In the toilets. I recognised you but I couldn't place your face." Howell looks at him now and can probably tell that Phil still has no idea what he's talking about. "I used to watch you," he continues, weirdly subdued. "In my room. When I was younger."
It's finally starting to come together, realisation dawning on Phil as Howell says,
Phil sucks in a great big breath and nods slowly. He is definitely having a bit of an out-of-body experience, learning that Dan Howell used to watch his YouTube videos once. "That's me," he says weakly.
"I still don't understand why I'm here," Phil says hesitantly.
"Maybe I just want to hang out with AmazingPhil. Live out a teenage dream." Howell grins. Then he seems to sense Phil's hesitation. "If you still want to, that is."
"I'm not… really like that in real life," Phil says. He's suddenly worried that Howell is somehow expecting him to be like he is in his videos. He has never felt more boring in his life. "I'm not that weird. Or. I am, but. Not usually in an entertaining way."
Dan nods as if that makes sense. "I'm not like Damon at all, but people seem to wish I was. At least with you AmazingPhil has come out of your brain. That's your creativity. Not just words someone has put in your mouth."
The last part sounds bitter, and Phil has no idea how to reply so he tries to make up a silly joke. "Are you saying you won't bite me and turn me into one of the damned?"
"I promise I won't bite you," Howell grins.
If there's a shiver of odd disappointment down Phil's spine that's between him and his libido.
"Well, in that case, Mr. Howell, I am at your disposal," he jokes.
Howell rolls his eyes. "Please, you sound like one of the characters in the movie I'm almost done with. And please. It's Dan."
"Dan," Phil says with a small awkward nod.
Dan looks him in the eye for a long, strange moment.
There's a soft knock on the door and someone brings in their coffees.
They settle down on the sofa, and Phil sips his sugary macchiato (which is very good) and tries not to feel weird.
"So… what did you want to do?" he asks hesitantly.
"I dunno," Dan says. "Video game?"
"Sure," Phil shrugs. "What do you have? Besides Final Fantasy, I mean." He glances down at the games on the floor.
Dan quirks a smile. "It's just an extra layer of protection, registering under a false name." He gets up and goes over to the PlayStation. "I have Mortal Kombat?"
"Yeah, that's fun."
"Oh wait. I only have one controller here." He holds it up apologetically.
Phil ignores the thought of Dan sat alone on the overly posh sofa with no one to play a video game with. He stretches his neck to look at the selection. "What about Sonic? We can just take turns with the controller."
Phil shrugs. "Yeah, I do that with my brother all the time."
Dan pops the disc in and goes to sit next to him again. "You have a brother?"
"Yeah, older. He's alright."
"I have a younger one. He's not really."
Dan shrugs and looks at the screen. "So new game?" He sets one up without waiting for an answer.
They take turns playing Sonic, passing the controller back and forth when they die. At first it's maybe a bit weird and stilted. Phil feels like he's trying too hard to be polite, and like Dan is noticing.
But as the levels get harder, they both slowly relax. After about an hour Dan starts cursing quite expansively, and they end up sitting so close they barely have to reach to hand the controller over. At some point it stops feeling like he's sitting next to film star Dan Howell and it starts feeling like he's just hanging out with Dan.
It's nice. There's something familiar about it. Phil can't remember the last time he played video games with someone he didn't already know. Maybe it has been a while since he made any new friends.
Quite suddenly Phil's stomach gurgles.
Dan laughs and looks at him. "Alright there, mate?"
Phil shrugs defensively. "I'm a growing boy! I need to eat!"
"Are you really, though?" Dan crinkles his nose.
"Probably not really anymore."
"Right. 'Cause you're old."
Phil lets his mouth hang open in mock outrage. "I'm not old! I'm twenty-five!"
"Old," Dan says cheekily. Then he looks at Phil appraisingly. "Wanna stay for dinner?"
"Gee, let me ring my mum and ask."
"Yeah," Phil says. "I'd like that."
They have pizza delivered to the room. Phil thinks it's such a weird thing. A fancy actor in a posh hotel getting Domino's for dinner. Apparently he's back to thinking of Dan as Dan Howell the film star rather than Dan who curses out Sonic when he dies.
It doesn't really help when Dan moans at the first taste of the pizza.
Phil stares. He can't help it. It's such a lewd sound, and it goes right to his dick, which is just horrible in so many ways. By now he actually likes Dan and he doesn't want to be inappropriate.
But then Dan laughs with his eyes closed and Phil has to say something just to distract himself.
"Should I leave you two alone?"
Dan's eyes fly open. He seems to evaluate Phil's expression for a moment before his shoulders relax minutely. "Would you?"
Phil laughs and grabs a slice for himself.
"No, but seriously," Dan says. "This is so good. We're eloping. I'm marrying this pizza tonight."
"You sound like a starving person."
Dan shrugs. "Kind of am. Always on a diet."
"What? That's ridiculous."
"That's showbiz. Nobody wants to hire a fat actor."
"You're not fat. You're not even close."
"Right. Starving pays off." Dan takes another huge bite and moans again, but this time he keeps one eye cracked open as if to gauge Phil's reaction.
Phil rolls his eyes, but he can't stave off the smile entirely. "You're ridiculous."
"Might as well go all out seeing as this is cheat day now."
"Cheat day? I thought you were gonna make an honest pizza out of it."
"Cheat day as in day to cheat on your diet?"
"Oh. Guess I'm not down with the Hollywood lingo." Phil wobbles his shoulders and does air quotes to really emphasise his sarcastic tone.
Dan eyes him with a soft smile on his face. "I kinda like that. It's been a while since I talked to someone who's not just as steeped in it as I am."
Phil doesn't know why that makes him feel weird. He doesn't know what to say to it.
Dan seems to sense some shift in the mood as well. He looks away. "It's too bad I don't have my Wii. I could've kicked your ass at Mario Kart."
"I have a Wii."
As soon as he's said it he knows it's not just a statement of fact. The way Dan looks at him says the same.
Phil shrugs and nods. His heart pounds wildly but he still says, "Wanna come to my place and play Wii?"
Dan is quiet for a second, studying him. Phil doesn't know why he feels his answer will be so momentous.
"Let me ask my mum first," he jokes. He wipes his fingers on a napkin and throws it on the pizza tray. "Is your place far?"
"Oh, uh, kind of? It's like 50 minutes by tube."
Dan grimaces slightly. "Tube isn't really gonna work," he says wryly. "Okay if we go by car?"
It's another thing that brings Phil screeching back to the reality of who Dan is. Of course he can't just go on the tube. Phil's an idiot. He nods dumbly.
Dan hesitates. "Unless you were joking…"
"No! No, that's not… I just… I was trying to remember if I'd cleaned up the kitchen before I left this morning."
He doesn't know why he doesn't want to bring attention to Dan's celebrity status, but something about the soft expression on Dan's face tells him it was the right decision.
"Let me ring the driver," Dan says.
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Dan puts in a short phone call and then disappears for a moment to get ready. When he comes back his hair seems to have been re-arranged. It's back to something far more orderly than it's been since he theatrically tore at it and screamed after a particularly frustrating Sonic death.
He leads Phil out of the suite and through the hotel. Some part of Phil almost feels like they're escaping. The thought of Dan acting so autonomously, without being accompanied by his ever-harried PA seems almost strange.
But of course, Phil reasons, Dan is a grown-up. He can do whatever he likes. Right now Dan seems to want to play Mario Kart at Phil's flat.
His stomach plunges at the thought. He was only half kidding about the cleanliness of his kitchen. The thought of Dan seeing Phil's flat after they've literally walked for a minute just to leave his hotel suite seems excruciating.
They're leaving the lobby, Dan smiling at the doorman and making eye contact, when a flash goes off. It's so unexpected that Phil stops and takes a step backwards.
“Hey, Dan!” someone shouts. It's loud and abrasive.
There's a group of photographers in front of them. Phil has never seen so many cameras so close together, and they're all trained on him.
No, not him, obviously.
"Hey, Dan! Dan! Did you and Emily break up?"
There's an absolute blitz of flashes. Phil feels his pulse kick up. He wants to run, but the photographers seem to be surrounding them on all sides now.
No. Not photographers. Paparazzi.
Suddenly Dan is back by his side. He's looking down at the ground, but he puts a hand on Phil's elbow. Phil stares at it.
“Just keep walking,” he mutters. “Come on.”
A man is barging towards them, and for a moment Phil thinks he's about to attack them. But he shoves his way through the paps and spreads his arms to hold them back.
"Hey, Dan! Who's your friend?"
Dan takes the few remaining steps and slides into the car parked along the pavement, sliding all the way to the far side so Phil can get in too.
The driver, who had helped stave off the paps, jumps back in the car. He pulls away swiftly and drives smoothly away from the shouting people outside the hotel.
“Thanks, Jonathan,” Dan says.
The driver nods in acknowledgment. “Bleeding arseholes,” he says.
“Right,” Dan snorts.
He's quiet for a moment before he turns to Phil. “Sorry about that. I should've expected it.”
Phil honestly doesn't know what to say. He's feeling clammy, heart still working overtime. Dan may have expected it but Phil sure hadn't.
Dan peers more closely at Phil. “You alright?”
Phil doesn't want to admit how shaken he is, but he also doesn't want to lie.
“Does that happen a lot?” he says stupidly.
Dan shrugs expansively and glances away. “Yeah.”
Now Phil is just sorry he asked. Clearly that was a bad way to deflect.
“It's happening an extra lot right now. They smell blood.”
Phil doesn't know exactly what it is that makes it click for him. Emily as in Emily Marks, Dan’s Midnight co-star. Phil definitely remembers they were dating because he and Jimmy had a long inappropriate discussion about whether she was just a beard or they were actually a thing. (Jimmy maintained Dan must “surely” be gay, but Phil thought there was something genuine about the photos of the two of them together.) He feels bad for that gossip now, especially because he has seen the headlines speculating that she and Dan have split up.
It's all so sordid, Phil realises. What does it matter whether two people are together or not? It shouldn't be anyone's business but their own. He feels sorry and ashamed for participating in that kind of speculation.
He has no idea what to say so he falls silent and Dan does the same.
The driver is wending his way smoothly in and out of traffic. The car is just a normal-looking sedan on the outside but inside it's luxurious and beautiful. Phil feels weird. He's in a private car with Dan Howell, who was just attacked by paparazzi.
He actually has no idea why Dan wants to hang out with him. So he used to watch Phil's videos once upon a time, but surely by now he's discovered that Phil is not actually all that amazing at all.
Dan is quiet, staring out the passenger window. He's biting at a thumbnail and tapping one foot against the floor of the car. If Phil didn't know any better he’d say he looks nervous.
Then Dan flicks his gaze towards Phil and quickly back again, and Phil is sure about the nerves. He feels a wash of compassion for Dan then. Maybe he's having second thoughts about going to Phil's flat. Maybe he's just as uncertain about what is happening as Phil is.
But if there's one thing Phil thinks has been remarkable about today, it's how easy actually talking to Dan has been. He keeps expecting things to be awkward, and everything about the situation is weird, but nothing about hanging out with Dan has been anything but fun.
“Hey, Dan,” he says.
Dan turns his head to look at him. There's something surprised and maybe apprehensive on his face.
“Wanna play I Spy?”
Dan’s face shifts to surprise. Then it splits into a huge dorky grin. It doesn't look like anything Phil has seen on Dan's face before. Not on a screen or in real life. There's something childish and pure about it. He ignores the new weird feeling in his chest.
Dan rolls his eyes and seems to notice he's been biting his nails. He stuffs his hands between his thighs, which just makes him look more innocent still.
“Go on then.”
Phil casts about for something, but he can't quite tear his eyes away from Dan’s face.
“I spy… something beginning with a D.”
Dan quirks an eyebrow. “What, a Daniel?”
Dan frowns. “A… driver?”
He looks about, but nothing seems to present itself. “What?”
“It's your dimple!” Phil laughs.
Dan gives him an incredulous look for just a second. Then he tries smoothing his face into a stern expression. “You're not seeing it now.” But even as he says it his lips are curling, cheek dimpling ever so slightly.
“Oh, I see it,” Phil laughs.
Dan turns his face away, looking out of the window again, a frown and a smile flashing a war across his features. “Stop it,” he says. It's quiet and soft.
Something about that tone sobers Phil up. He didn't mean for it to be flirty, but maybe he still made Dan uncomfortable.
“Your turn,” Phil prompts him quietly.
Dan looks back at him. For a moment he just looks, and Phil squirms a little. Then he narrows his eyes. “I spy something beginning with an R.”
Phil's eyes flick down himself involuntarily, then around the interior of the car. “The roof?”
Dan just smirks and shakes his head.
“Road!” Phil says, certain he has it.
Dan shakes his head.
Phil slumps back in his seat. “Okay what?”
Dan leans in. “A rat.” He pokes him in the chest exactly once before he sits back into his own space.
“Hey!” Phil complains, rubbing his chest where he can still feel the spark of Dan's touch. “That's rude!”
“Um! I think you started it by calling attention to my broken facial muscles.”
“Your face isn't broken!”
“Dimples are literally a deformity.”
“Dimples are cute!” Phil protests, and there it is again, showing itself on Dan’s face. Phil squints at it. “If I were being rude I would've named it Derek or something.”
Dan stares at him like he's gone off the deep end.
Phil pulls out his phone and snaps a picture of Dan's profile without even thinking. He zooms in on it with a pinch and flips it around to show Dan. “Look.”
The dimple combined with those two freckles close by really does look like a little smiley face.
“He looks kind of sad, though,” Phil muses.
Dan is giving him a strange look. He's staring at the picture on the phone and then back at Phil.
Phil realises what he's done and instantly feels like crap. Now he understands why it's particularly bad form to snap photos of celebrities without even asking first. For a moment he thinks Dan is about to say as much, and Phil is ready to apologise profusely. Then Dan seems to relax again.
"Derek," he says dryly.
"He looks like a Derek!" Phil gestures with his phone.
Dan shakes his head just a little. “You are such a strange person!” He says. It's fond, though, a kind of wondering tone to it.
It doesn't make Phil feel bad. He feels a little giddy actually. He ignores it.
“Hey, Dan," he says instead. "I spy something beginning with a C.”
“What?” Dan says, a bit exasperated.
“Car!” Phil giggles.
Dan rolls his eyes so hard it must hurt and pushes his entire tongue out of his mouth and makes a sound like he's having a stroke.
Phil laughs because he looks so stupid. He says that out loud without thinking, and then Dan is laughing too.
Once they've fallen quiet again, Dan says, "Thanks for not being weird about it."
Phil feels his stomach kick. "Weird about what?" he says, trying hard for blasé and clearly failing.
Dan smiles at him.
Phil needs to not think about it. He doesn't want to think about it. Not about the fact that Dan is famous, or the fact that Dan is making Phil's insides do the tango.
He needs to just enjoy this and have fun hanging out with his new friend.
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It's about as weird as he expected when the driver parks the car outside his building. The red brick looks dingy and kind of bleak. Phil fumbles for his keys as he leads the way up the stairs to the front door.
"It's not much," he says. He sounds like his mother.
"Phil." Dan stops on the stairs, which makes Phil look. "I literally grew up in a place just like this. It's fine."
Phil really knows nothing about Dan. He nods and opens the door.
"Right. Come in."
His hallway is just a five-by-five foot square with four doors leading off it. The two of them barely fit in it at the same time. Phil presses himself against the coat rack and opens the door to the sitting room and kitchen.
He bites down on every urge to apologise further and just gestures Dan inside. Dan goes, looking around with shy interest.
It's odd how having guests over always makes him see sides of his flat he usually doesn't. He is definitely seeing the stack of dirty dishes in the sink, the hoodie that he's left hanging on a cupboard handle, the disordered bookcase overflowing with knick-knacks.
Dan sees the camera mounted on the tripod and points, eyebrows raised. It's standing in the space between the door and Phil's TV set, taking up a ridiculous amount of floor space. He should pack it up when it's not in use but he's too lazy.
"This is where the magic happens, then?" Dan says and grins.
Phil shrugs. He remembers vividly the long lenses on the expensive paparazzi cameras. He can't even imagine the kind of equipment Dan must work in front of every day.
"Actually, the magic happens in the bedroom," Phil says.
Dan quirks an eyebrow but Phil refuses to take the bait.
"But my bedroom is too small to actually have the camera in? I put it in the hallway and film through the door."
"I remember you sitting in front of your bed when you were talking," Dan says, pointing a smiling finger at Phil.
"Viewers seem to like it," Phil shrugs. "I did try filming on the sofa when I first moved in, but they actually complained."
"So you sit on the floor of your bedroom with a tripod blocking the doorway just to give them what they want? You're sweet." Dan smiles.
"Do you want anything to drink?" Phil asks and goes through to the kitchen, which is only separated from the sitting room by a half wall. "Coffee? Tea?"
"Coffee might be good," Dan says.
"Oh, uh, I only have instant," Phil remembers.
Dan laughs. "Mate. And you were complaining about the hotel coffee?"
"That really was awful! I actually think my Nescafé is better."
"Let's have it, then," Dan says. He goes over to rest his palms on the half wall.
Phil puts the kettle on and pulls out mugs. "You can set up the Wii if you want," he says and nods to the TV.
Dan goes gamely.
It's not long before Phil hears the Wii music from the TV.
When he turns with their mugs, Dan is standing by the bookcase, studying the backs of the books and DVD cases.
Phil goes over and hands him an AdventureTime mug. Dan takes it with a raised eyebrow. His eyes go back to the bookcase. "You're a right nerd, AmazingPhil."
Phil takes a sip of his coffee. "I am."
Dan toasts him with his mug. “Who's your favourite AdventureTime character, then?"
"Lemongrab," Phil says without a moment's hesitation.
"'Unacceptable!'" Dan screeches in a surprisingly good imitation. Sadly it shatters Phil's eardrums. He laughs nonetheless.
"I don't know, maybe Lumpy Space Princess," Dan says.
Phil can't help being surprised by that answer. Dan seems to be purposely avoiding eye contact, so he doesn't ask about it. He goes to sit on the sofa and Dan joins him.
He's never been particularly bothered about his little loveseat before, but suddenly it feels a bit awkward to have to sit so close together. Dan doesn't seem bothered though.
He hands Phil a controller and says, "Ready to have your ass kicked?"
"Please," Phil scoffs. "Do you think you can psych me out that easily?"
Phil has his ass kicked. He struggles and screams and even resorts to elbowing Dan in the side out of sheer desperation, and Dan just continues to kick his ass.
There's something dogged about the way Dan plays. He's good. But there's also a compelling sense of determined concentration about him. He's not as loose and relaxed as he was when they played Sonic.
Phil thinks maybe he preferred it when they were working together. It's a silly thought, so he doesn't pursue it.
They play for hours.
The love seat stops feeling too small. They end up pressed together, thighs to shoulders, jostling each other pretty much constantly. It's not rough or violent the way some guys would probably make it. Dan is just warm, his arm only firm and unyielding against Phil's side.
Eventually the embarrassing gaps between their finish times become smaller and smaller. Phil's pretty sure it's only because Dan is getting tired.
Finally Phil throws the controller on the coffee table. "I need a break!" he moans, leaning his head back against the wall.
Dan grins down at him. "Admit defeat? Am I the ultimate Mario Kart champion?"
"Alright," Phil says and shoves his shoulder a little. "You win this time."
Their thighs are still mashed up against each other, but Dan isn't moving away.
"This time? Does that mean you're planning on a rematch?"
Phil looks over at him. "I mean, if you want. I can't just let you go undefeated."
Dan smiles. "Well, clearly I can't let you go around thinking you losing was just a fluke."
"But not tonight." Phil barely has the words out before he cracks a gigantic yawn. He has a feeling it's late, but he doesn't want to check the time. "I have work in the morning."
"Oh," Dan says. He sounds as if he has forgotten all about work. "Yeah. Me too, actually."
Phil always hates his bedtime but never more so than right now. He's so sleepy, though.
"Hey, Phil. Hand me your phone?" Dan asks.
Phil passes it over without thinking.
Dan rolls his eyes. "Unlock it?"
Phil realises what might be happening and taps out his pin. His sleepiness is dissipating.
Dan quickly types in something and hands the phone back. Phil has a new contact, which only has a phone number. The name says "dan."
"Did you actually force it to put your name in all lowercase letters?" Phil laughs incredulously.
Dan ignores him.
"You can text me to set up our rematch. Don't leave it too long, though. I'm only here for a couple more days."
"Where are you going?" Phil tries to ignore how put out he sounds.
Dan glances at him sideways. "Around the country for a bit. Scotland. More press. Gotta go see my family while I'm here. Then back to the States for a bit."
“At least you get to see your family,” Phil says. He can't imagine living so much of his life on a different continent than them.
Dan rolls his shoulders. “It's kind of hard for me being back there.”
Phil is quiet. He can't help being surprised by even that level of honesty from Dan. He doesn't really understand why Dan trusts him so much. Maybe it's not really conscious. Maybe it's the AmazingPhil thing. He does occasionally meet his viewers in real life and sometimes they talk to him as if he's an old friend.
“Do you ever go back home only it doesn't feel like home anymore?” Dan asks. “It feels small. Like you don't fit in.”
“I do feel like that, actually,” Phil says quietly. “Even more so since my parents moved out of my childhood home. My room isn't even there to go back to anymore. It's weird.”
“The one with the striped wallpaper?”
Phil huffs and smiles and nods.
“Sorry, is that weird?” Dan says.
“It's okay,” Phil says.
“Guess I know what that's like,” Dan mumbles thoughtfully.
Phil thinks he knows what he means. It must be strange to be on the other side for once. He supposes they're both on both sides at once. Knowing more about each other than strangers would and also not really knowing each other at all.
It does feel like they know each other, though. As if they've known each other for more than a day. He feels comfortable with Dan in a way he usually only feels with his family or very old friends.
Dan is quiet. He seems sad, as if there's more there, about family and fame, but Phil doesn't want to ask. He doesn't want to come across as nosy. Instead he asks,
“What are you doing in the US after? Filming?”
Dan shakes his head. “Just more press. We’ve barely started, really.”
"Sounds like a lot."
"Yeah. Let's just say press isn't my favourite part of the job."
"What is your favourite part?" This feels like a safe question. And for some reason Phil isn't ready to let go of Dan just yet. Especially if he's not in a hurry to go.
Phil turns so he can face Dan more fully. He pulls his leg up so he's sitting sideways on the sofa. Now his shin is pressed up against Dan's thigh. He thinks he really needs to stop himself from all this casual touching, but his tired brain isn't listening.
Now it's Dan who rests his head against the wall. He shrugs and stares at the TV screen. "I dunno. I like acting. I like how it feels to tell stories with my whole body. That sounds weird."
"No," Phil says. "I get that. I love telling stories."
"At least they're your own."
"I don't know that that's necessarily a good thing."
Dan rolls his head to look at him. There's a frown on his face. "No, it is." He looks away again. "Telling other people's stories can get really old."
He sounds so sad just then. Phil doesn't quite trust himself with the sudden flood of tenderness he feels for this beautiful almost-stranger on his sofa.
"But you bring joy to so many people," Phil insists.
"Do I, though? Is it joy?"
"I think it is. Escapism. It's one of the things I've seen with my videos. You wouldn't believe how many people comment saying I make their days just a little brighter."
Dan smiles wryly. "That's because you're a virtual ray of sunshine, Phil."
Phil ignores him, because those words do something strange to his insides. "Imagine how many more people you touch with your movies."
He rests his arm on the back of the sofa and his chin on his hand.
Dan looks at him. "You're right. That's the other thing that makes it worthwhile. Not the soul crushing press tours. But meeting fans." His eyes darken, mouth turning down. "The stories they tell, Phil. There's so much pain." He pauses. "And so much caring." Phil knows what he means.
"You care, too," Phil mumbles.
"Do I?" Dan murmurs.
Their eyes are locked.
Phil nods. "I can tell. You're a good person, Dan Howell."
Dan's eyes widen slightly, and he draws in a breath only to let it out explosively.
He's done it now, Phil thinks. He made it weird. He came on too strong even though he was trying so hard not to come on at all, and now Dan is weirded out by him and doesn't want to see him anymore. He hates how sad that makes him feel.
Dan sits up, leaning forward on the sofa for a second before springing to his feet.
"Thanks, Phil," he says. His voice is soft and warm and not all what Phil expected. He looks down at him. "I'll get out of your hair now."
"Alright," Phil says uncertainly and gets up too. He hovers awkwardly on the other side of the coffee table.
Dan takes his phone out of his pocket and calls the driver, Jonathan, who has been waiting downstairs the whole time, Phil realises. It makes him feel awkward again.
"I had fun," Dan says firmly. "I can't remember the last time I felt so… normal."
"Well, compared to me anyone would feel normal," Phil jokes. It feels feeble even to him.
Dan gestures with his hand as if to brush the comment away. "You know what I mean."
"I think so," Phil concedes.
"Text me," Dan says then.
It surprises Phil who definitely thought this was his brush-off.
"Okay?" Dan says.
"Okay," Phil nods.
Then Dan is in the tiny hallway, pulling Phil's front door open, and Phil is alone.
Thank you for reading. Like/reblog on tubmblr.
Phil doesn't sleep for a couple of hours before turning in. All the events of the past two days keep churning in his mind. When he finally does sleep it's fitful, and his dreams are filled with brown eyes and dimples and warmth. He wakes up bleary and heavy when his alarm goes off after too few hours.
"You look like shite," Jimmy says when he comes in to work.
Phil glares at him over the lip of his second large Costa coffee of the day.
"Up late on a weeknight, Philip?"
Phil shrugs. He hasn't really thought about what to say about Dan. He didn't even tell Jimmy about being summoned to The Ritz. All of it feels too weird, and he's not sure he dares burst this bubble of unreality quite yet.
"Didn't sleep well," he mutters and gets to work.
The tasks he's handling are mundane. It's not long before his mind has caught itself back up in the same thoughts as last night. He keeps replaying it all in his mind. He keeps thinking about what he said and what Dan said, wondering what any of it meant. Did it mean anything? Surely it didn't mean anything the way Phil's pathetic, love-starved, over-active imagination is wanting it to.
Daniel Howell is just a guy wanting a friend to play video games with.
Surely Phil can give him that without making things weird. Dan deserves it. Something about the way he latched onto Phil makes him seem… lonely.
Phil can relate to that. Besides Jimmy and Martyn and Cornelia he hardly sees anyone. Work and recording the occasional video takes up most of his time.
He takes out his phone and starts a new message. Then he sits and stares. The little "dan." in the "To:" field seems glaring. He realises he should've sent a quick message as soon as Dan handed him the phone back. Now he's stuck. Not only is the ball in his court he'll also have to come up with something friendly and witty and not weird.
Hi, Dan. This is Phil.
No, too formal.
Hiya Dan! Ready for that rematch anytime ;) -Phil
Too peppy. What is that smiley? And the weird sign-off?
Hey Dan, let's meet up. I'm fr
Too casual and too desperate all at once.
Eventually he gives up and browses Twitter instead. There's a silly Adventure Time meme that makes him chuckle. Next thing he knows he's pulled up the Send feature and sent it to Dan.
The reply comes fairly quickly, so he doesn't have too much time to worry.
Phil: That's me :)
dan.: thanks for the meme ig
Phil: YW. It made me think of you :)
Was that weird again? Thankfully Dan doesn't let it get weird.
dan.: forever the cartoon guy now i see how it is
Phil: Nothing wrong with being the cartoon guy.
dan.: i guess there are worse things to be.
Phil: And anyway I hardly think you've got me beat.
dan.: oh no? you haven't seen my anime collection ;)
That makes Phil guffaw. He shoots back the first thing that pops into his head, before he can second guess himself.
Phil: Is that an invitation? :P
dan.: could be. or are you just trying to get out of losing at mario kart again?
Phil is about to reply when Jimmy’s face comes into his peripheral vision.
“Who are you texting?” Jimmy asks, eyes suspiciously narrowed.
“Um, just a friend,” Phil says. He avoids eye contact and knows immediately he's made a mistake.
“A friend? Who’s this friend?”
Phil shrugs. Or maybe it's more of an uncomfortable writhing. Jimmy wheels himself closer.
“Just a new friend.”
Jimmy gasps in exaggerated realisation. “Is that why you're tired? Did you go on a date!? On a week night? Philip!”
“It wasn't a date! We just hung out and played video games!”
He's sounding desperate even to his own ears.
Jimmy ignores him, grinning ear to ear. “Phil Lester, you old horndog! I haven’t seen you since York!”
“Shut up,” Phil mumbles. “It’s not like that.”
“So what if it is? Live a little!”
“No, but it’s actually not like that.” Phil feels it’s very important, for Dan’s sake, that he makes that clear. “I think he just wants to be friends.”
As if on cue Phil's phone buzzes with another message.
dan.: strike a nerve did i?
Jimmy raises a doubtful eyebrow.
Phil: Sorry, I’m actually at work. I am definitely not passing up my opportunity to see you eat my dust.
dan.: ooh famous last words ;)
“Yeah,” Jimmy says. “I definitely spend all my mornings texting my new friends like that.”
A calendar notification pops up on Phil’s computer. He has a meeting in five minutes.
“Look. I promise I’ll explain everything soon.”
Jimmy sighs and lets him go.
On the way to the meeting room he texts Dan.
Phil: Headed in to a meeting. BRB.
When he comes out an interminable hour later, Dan has written back.
dan.: lol who even says brb anymore. are we in an msn chat?
Phil: Hey, don’t knock MSN. I’ve had some good times on MSN.
dan.: do i even wanna know?
Phil: Probably not :D
This attention is so much for him. Dan is just bored. The flirting is all in Phil’s head. He needs to check himself. He can't get too lost in this.
His phone buzzes again.
dan.: so don't you have something you wanna ask me?
Okay, but that's definitely flirty. Isn't that flirty? Phil curses texting. For once in his life it seems like the inferior option. If he was just in the same room as Dan he would know that he was just being friendly, and maybe a bit impatient with Phil.
Maybe Dan wasn't really wanting to text for so long. Maybe he was just waiting for Phil to get his act together and set up a time to play video games again.
Phil: I was hoping if I did this long enough you might ask me…
He hopes it communicates how awkward he is.
dan.: hmm. playing the long game are we?
Phil's heart beats a little harder. He's too lost in his own head. Dan doesn't mean it like that. Phil needs to deflate whatever this feeling in him is.
Phil: Sorry, I'm just awkward. In case you hadn't noticed.
The truth is he's awkward because he doesn't know what this is. He thought he could be friends, but if Dan's standard friendly banter is this flirty Phil is not sure he can stand it for long.
dan.: well then. phil do you wanna come over and watch some anime tonight?
He actually feels relief that Dan is asking. He's grateful that he still wants to hang out, even if Phil is stupid and awkward.
Then he remembers with a flash.
Phil: Oh! I can't!
Dan's reply comes in as Phil is furiously typing his explanation.
Phil: I'm sorry! I just remembered I have plans with my brother and his girlfriend! We're going to a club where he's DJ’ing.
Several minutes pass and Dan doesn't reply. Phil is trying to compose a suggestion that they see each other tomorrow when a new message comes in.
dan.: oh. i could come with?
Phil stares at his phone. He supposes clubs might be more Dan’s speed anyway. They're not really Phil’s at all. Still, he absolutely doesn't want to turn Dan down again.
Phil: Yeah! Absolutely! Do you really want to?
dan.: sure. might be fun. your brother is a dj?
Phil: Yeah. He got all the cool genes.
dan.: aww. ur cool phil.
Phil: Thanks :P
dan.: wanna get something to eat before the show then?
Phil: I was gonna eat with my brother, but sure. I don't know when the gig starts, though.
dan.: i don’t mind eating with your brother and his gf
Phil stares at his phone. It seems like Dan is the normal one. Phil is just the one projecting a shine of stardom and flirtiness onto him.
Phil: You want to come to dinner at my brother’s in Camden?
dan.: sure why not. if it's cool i mean
Phil: No, it's cool! Absolutely :D
dan.: cool :)
Phil: I’ll text you the address. Is that okay?
dan.: ofc. unless you want me to pick you up?
Phil: Oh no, that's okay.
dan.: i dont mind
Phil: It'll be like an hour in the car for you :/
dan.: phil. just let me spare you the tube
Phil: Okay. If you really don't mind. Thank you!
dan.: i don’t mind! see you at 6?
Phil: Yeah. See you :)
He puts his phone away. He can't help smiling. It's just nice to have plans. It's nice that something is happening in his life. It will be nice not to have to drag himself through the tube for once.
“Ah, young love,” Jimmy says.
Phil looks up with a start. Jimmy is studying him. He's leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest and a smile tugging at his lips.
“Jimmy,” Phil sighs.
“I’m sorry! It's just been a while since I've seen you like this. You haven't been making new ‘friends’ in forever.”
He does actual air quotes around the word. Phil ignores it. He's even more offended by the other point Jimmy is making.
“I’ve dated!” he protests.
“And what lacklustre dates they’ve been,” Jimmy says dryly.
Phil ignores him for the rest of the day.
As soon as he leaves work he calls up Martyn.
“Is it okay if I bring a friend over for dinner tonight?” he asks.
“'Course,” Martyn says. He sounds about as cool and relaxed as ever.
Still something about all of this is making Phil nervous for a whole host of reasons. He thinks about trying to explain that he has invited the literal film star who stole his charger to dinner at their place, but he has no idea how. The words sound ridiculous in his own head. He's sure if he tries saying them out loud it will burst whatever weird dream state he's been in. He'll wake up and realise it was all just a hallucination.
“I just need to know you’ll be cool.”
“When have I ever not been cool to your boyfriends?”
“He's not my boyfriend. He's just a friend.”
Martyn snorts. “Sure, Philly.”
“This is what I mean,” Phil whines. “I need to know I can trust you.”
“I don't know what you're on about, little brother. Of course you can trust me. I'm cool. We’re cool.”
Maybe Phil should just tell him what to expect. He thinks he doesn't want to because a part of him isn't really sure that Dan will actually be there to pick him up. He won't fully believe it until he sees it.
“Thanks, Mar,” Phil sighs.
Last time I tried not being sappy about all your comments, but then you just posted even lovelier ones than usual so. Thank you! So much :')
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dan does pick him up like he said he would.
Phil has barely closed the car door before Jonathan pulls the car smoothly out of the parking spot and has them on their way through the early Saturday evening traffic.
"You really didn't have to pick me up, I could have taken the tube just fine," Phil says.
Dan looks at him with a smile. "Maybe it's actually you doing me a favour. I might be nervous about going to the house of some hip London DJ."
Phil rolls his eyes. Everyone always thinks Martyn is the cool one. But Dan may not be joking. He keeps chewing his bottom lip and brushing careful fingers across his fringe.
"You know you're fine, right?" Phil says gently.
Dan glances at him.
"They're both super down to earth."
Dan turns a bit to look at him more fully. "If they're anything like you, I think I'm good." He pauses. "I trust you."
Something Phil doesn't know how to name flushes through him then. He fights the simultaneous urges to puff up and to reach across and… he doesn't know what. He twists his hands and opens and closes his mouth without actually saying anything.
Dan is still looking at him. A weirdly fond expression is settling on his face. "You're so…" he says. But then he stops and laughs and shakes his head. "Tell me about them?"
That Phil can do. He launches easily into an account of his brother and his brother's girlfriend, which takes them almost all the way across town. Dan listens and comments. By the time they're in Camden the already familiar ease has settled between them.
When they reach Martyn and Cornelia's landing, the door has been propped open. The sounds of their quiet voices and shuffling footsteps slip into the stairwell. Phil knocks, but Martyn just calls,
"Come on in, fellas!" and continues talking to Cornelia.
Dan looks nervous as Phil pushes the door open for him. The expression only grows when Cornelia comes into the hallway and stops dead in her tracks.
"Hello." That's all she says.
Dan glances behind him to where Phil is standing.
"Cornelia, this is Dan," Phil says. His heart is hammering in his chest, but he tries not to let it show.
"Of course," Cornelia says blithely. She reaches out to shake Dan's hand, and he seems to visibly relax. "Nice to meet you. Can I take your coats?"
If it weren't for that last bit of over-formality, Phil would have thought she hadn't even recognised Dan. Instead he just looks on with admiration as she accepts Dan's mumbled hello and thanks and takes his coat.
He is taking off his own outer layer when Martyn comes out of the kitchen.
Martyn does a full double take as he sees Dan. "Why you're the spitting image of--" Martyn's eyes flicker to Phil, and something on his face must tell him all he needs to know. He sticks out his hand instead and says, "Hi. Martyn."
Dan shakes his hand with a weirdly serious expression. “Dan.”
Martyn nods like a man receiving terrible news.
"Wanna help us in the kitchen, little brother?" Martyn says as he turns away from Dan. He raises his eyebrows in a not very subtle way.
It reminds Phil of their mum. He looks at Dan to make sure he's okay.
Dan shrugs, a barely imperceptible ripple of his shoulders.
"Make yourself at home," Cornelia says kindly and gestures to the lounge.
Dan drifts into the room, looking around as if he is trying not to look around.
Phil, Martyn, and Cornelia all huddle into the kitchen.
"What is happening?" Martyn hisses as soon as they are in the narrow strip of a kitchen off the hallway.
Phil shrugs, or maybe it's more of a squirm. "It's kind of a long story. I can't really tell it all right now."
Martyn's eyes are almost bugging out of his head. Behind him Cornelia is studying him with a thoughtful expression.
"You promised you'd be cool!" Phil says. He holds up a finger and wags it under Martyn's nose.
Martyn steps back a bit, blinks, and clears his throat. "Right," he says. Just like that he's cool again. His shoulders sink and his eyelids lower. Phil is kind of impressed, and he kind of hates that he is.
Cornelia takes a plate off the counter. "Help set the table," she says and hands it to Phil.
Phil takes it and goes. Just as he crosses the threshold there's the sound of a single piano note.
Dan is sitting by Cornelia's upright piano. His back is curled over the keys. He startles slightly when Phil enters, but relaxes again when Phil smiles at him. Phil has never really thought Dan looked young before, but suddenly he does.
Phil puts the plate on the table and goes to join him.
Dan moves over to make room for him without any prompting. His hand is still resting, gently, on the black and white keys.
"Do you play the piano?"
Dan shakes his head. "Not really." He looks at Phil. "Everything okay?"
Cornelia and Martyn are still puttering around in the kitchen. Phil puts his pointer fingers on the keyboard and plays the first bit of Chopsticks. The moment he reaches the end, Dan puts his hands over the higher keys and plays the next part without missing a beat.
Phil gives him a look of betrayal and lets his hands drop into his lap. "I thought you said you didn't play!"
Dan gives him a truly shit-eating grin and proceeds to play Fur Elise, not just the first few notes, but what feels to Phil like a long section of the song. His hands move effortlessly, his pace sounding right to Phil. He has to reach across Phil to reach the left side of the piano, and his arm brushes up against Phil's stomach. Phil doesn't move.
"You play the piano, Dan!" Cornelia says delightedly as she comes into the room.
Dan lets the melody peter out. He twists on the bench to look at her, and his knee knocks against Phil's. "Nooo," he says, managing to sound bashful. "You've now heard fully two fifths of my repertoire." He glances up at Phil. "But you play, Cornelia?"
Phil gets up and Cornelia takes his seat on the bench beside Dan.
"I mostly play my own music," Cornelia says.
"Will you play something for us?" Dan asks.
Cornelia smiles at him. "If you play us the third song in your repertoire."
Dan laughs. "I'll be out of material too soon." But he lifts his hands again and picks out a quiet, dainty song on the piano.
"Wait!" Phil says. "That's from Final Fantasy 7!"
Dan laughs again and stops playing. "Caught me. I just really love that game, I guess."
"Apparently you do, Cloud Strife."
Martyn and Cornelia are both looking at them in confusion, Martyn from where he's leaning in the doorway. Phil crosses his arms.
"Go on then."
Dan smiles and bends over the piano keys again. He starts the song over.
Phil can’t shake this new impression of him as small. His shoulders look skinny under the black material of his t-shirt, and there’s something vulnerable about the pale nape of his neck. He looks carefully poised, his face showing concentration.
Then Phil makes the mistake of looking at Martyn. He isn’t looking at Dan, but meets Phil’s gaze right on. Phil looks away again immediately. He doesn’t want to see whatever was on his face reflected in Martyn’s concerned expression.
After Dan’s performance Cornelia sings and plays for them. Dan acts duly impressed. Phil feels Martyn and himself glow with pride as Dan sits quietly next to her small frame and stares in awe.
They have home-made burgers, building them at the table and eating them with their hands, and Phil forgets to be nervous about anyone being cool. The conversation flows effortlessly. It turns out that Dan is a huge music nerd. He keeps up easily with Martyn and Cornelia’s shop talk until Phil happens to mention Muse. Suddenly it’s a quarter of an hour later, and Martyn and Cornelia have left them to their conversation about the merits of their various albums. Phil blinks out of whatever weird bubble he has been in to see Dan next to him, gesturing wildly and rambling. He’s saying words like classical influence and genius and instrumentals. With anyone else Phil thinks he would have felt uneasy seeing so much enthusiasm. But Dan’s words still somehow make a kind of sense to him. He wants to dive back into that bubble where he wasn’t thinking.
“Right?” Dan says. Phil nods.
Across the table from them Cornelia laughs. It’s a sweet sound, but Phil’s head still whips around. She is laughing at them, not even bothering to hide it. Next to her, Martyn has an arm around her chair back. He’s grinning too, but there’s something strained about it. His eyes flick back and forth between Phil and Dan.
Dan stops talking slowly. “Sorry. I get...”
“No, no, no! You’re fine!” Cornelia exclaims, shaking her hands at Dan. Martyn murmurs something similar.
“Don’t apologise,” Phil says and pats him on the thigh. “We love nerds.”
Martyn and Cornelia laugh.
Dan rolls his eyes. “Gee, thanks.” His eyes flicker down to his thigh and then up to Martyn and Cornelia. Phil realises he has rested his hand there. He pulls away quickly, and Dan doesn’t react, but suddenly there’s a sour note at the back of Phil’s throat.
"You're coming with us to Martyn's show, right, Dan?" Cornelia says.
Dan looks at her. "Is that okay?"
"Of course. I think you'll really enjoy it."
Dan's smile looks young and genuine. Somehow it's hard for Phil to believe that this is a person who has been featured on more than one awards show. He just seems shy and happy to be included.
“More food, Dan?” Martyn offers. Again he reminds Phil of their mum.
“Oh no, I couldn’t.” Dan shakes his head and pats his stomach. “It was delicious, though. Can’t remember the last time I had a family meal.”
There’s something both formal and sad about this new exchange. Except for their Muse moment Dan has been different tonight. A bit more stiff, his posh accent prominent. Phil finds himself missing the relaxed Dan that he’s already become so used to over the past few days.
Martyn starts clearing the dishes and Dan makes to help, but Martyn waves him off. “Delicious is high praise coming from you. I imagine you get a lot of gourmet burgers in LA.”
He says it casually, but it’s the first time anyone has acknowledged what Dan does for a living. There’s a slight pause before Dan answers. It seems to Phil as if everyone is holding their breath.
“I do,” Dan says seriously. “But this is the best hamburger I've ever had!”
Martyn smiles, pleased, and carries the dishes away.
Dan leans across the table conspiratorially. “Normally I get the vegetarian option, though,” he stage whispers.
Cornelia covers her mouth with her hand, looking torn between horror and laughter. Phil just throws his head back and laughs.
He shoves Dan’s shoulder. “You could have just said!”
Dan grins and shrugs. “Didn’t want to seem rude.”
Cornelia reaches across the table and grips Dan’s arm. “Never,” she says intensely.
Dan looks at her in some surprise.
“Next time I’ll make sure there’s a vegetarian option for you.”
The words ‘next time’ make Phil’s stomach fairly gurgle with nerves. He doesn’t even dare glance at Dan, who just says, “Thank you.”
“What were you laughing at? My cooking?” Martyn asks as he wanders back in.
“No, just the fact that Dan’s a vegetarian,” Cornelia says.
Dan stares at her. It is his turn to look torn between horror and laughter.
Martyn stares at Dan. “No! Surely not?” There’s actually a slight blush creeping over his cheeks. Phil can enjoy it because Martyn is his older brother and it’s nice to see he can lose his cool.
“It was the best hamburger I’ve had in years,” Dan says, laughter shining in his eyes. “At least I assume it was meat? Are hamburgers even made of ham?”
Martyn makes some unintelligible noise.
“Ham,” Phil giggles.
Dan turns to look at him. “Ham.”
And then they’re both laughing like maniacs. It feels like being back on Phil’s love seat, laughing at Mario Kart and jostling each other. Dan finally feels like the private Dan Phil has come to know.
“Alright,” Martyn mutters, but he’s smiling a little. He shakes his head and continues clearing the table. This time when Dan gets up to help he doesn’t stop him.
Special thanks to kouredios for being so invested in making this story as good as it can be <3 Thank you as always to everyone who leaves comments, you all rock!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The look on the manager's face when DJ MookenTooken turns up to his gig with Daniel Howell in tow is kind of priceless.
Still, Phil is just happy he can hover awkwardly in the background while Dan and Martyn exchange pleasantries with him, even as he goes quite quickly from starstruck to overly enthusiastic. Phil finds the whole thing kind of excruciating, but Dan seems to take it in stride.
They're no sooner inside than the first set of Martyn's and Cornelia's friends turn up. They're artsy and alternative and cool, effortlessly stylish. Either they are determined not to let on or they are simply too alternative to know anything about Dan Howell. For whatever reason they greet him casually through the din of voices and music and then go back to their own conversations.
The manager leads them up a set of rickety black metal stairs to the balcony. There's a section close to the stage that has a square of leather sofas. It doesn't look the way Phil imagined a VIP area, but despite knowing the club he has never been up here before himself.
Before, the manager has never hung around for long. This time he talks and talks, and Martyn answers in his usual cool way. The music is so loud that Phil can't quite hear their conversation. The manager keeps looking over at Dan as if he wants to include him.
But Dan keeps mostly quiet, the same kind of bland smile on his face that Phil remembers briefly from their pretend interview at the hotel.
Was that really only a couple of days ago? If Phil thinks about any of this too hard he feels sure his head will explode.
Dan has slipped his shoes off and squeezed himself into the corner of the sofa. His knee is pressing into Phil's thigh. It's an insistent kind of contact that Dan must surely be aware of. Phil has no idea what it means. It's another thing he absolutely cannot think about. He watches Cornelia talk to her friends on the sofas opposite them.
Then Dan nudges him, knee pressing into him kind of painfully. Phil looks at him and Dan smiles. It's not bland. It's warm and open and… Private. Phil grins back.
Dan leans in close. He is warm and his cologne is musky and woodsy and sweet.
"I'm actually really bad at this," he shouts into Phil's ear.
Phil leans back to look at him.
"Usually at all the fancy parties I just end up hovering awkwardly by the food."
Dan's eyes are dancing again. Phil forgets to smile back for a second. Then he remembers himself and leans in. Dan turns his head to offer his ear, column of his throat long and pale.
"I think my ears are broken," Phil shouts into the perfect shell of Dan's ear.
Dan turns minutely to look at him. Surely Phil can't actually feel the warmth of his skin from this far away.
"Can you hear what they're saying?" Phil nods towards Martyn and the manager on the sofa perpendicular to Dan's corner.
Dan looks at them and then back at Phil and shakes his head. Then he laughs, and Phil laughs with him, because surely this is ridiculous.
Dan taps his shoulder and leans in again, but this time they tip to the same side and almost knock their heads together. Phil's stomach plummets. He knows he needs to control himself, but he has no idea how.
"Maybe you're not supposed to be talking," Dan shouts.
There's an additional foot for Phil's stomach to drop. He hopes Dan doesn't mean dancing.
"What then?" he asks, already fearing the answer.
But Dan just shrugs and looks away. Everyone around them seems caught up in their own conversations.
He turns to Dan and holds up his thumb. Sometimes on long car journeys he and Martyn would play thumb wars. Maybe it's the feeling of being left out of a conversation that reminds him of it.
"Thumb war," he shouts.
Dan's eyebrows wiggle in surprise. He looks at Phil with incredulity and then mirth before he takes Phil's hand. His hand is definitely bigger than Phil's, fingers soft but thick as they hook around Phil's.
Phil ignores the shiver that runs down his spine. They tap out the "one-two-three-four" silently, Dan's face comically solemn. Then they wrestle for all they are worth, groaning and laughing silently.
They play several rounds. Then Dan does a particularly nasty twist that makes Phil squirm with his entire body. He can't help a guffaw of a laugh escaping him.
It's weird. He couldn't hear the conversations before. He can, however, hear the absence of them. The grown-ups have stopped talking.
Phil looks over at the others. The are all looking at him and Dan. The manager looks a bit embarrassed, which right now Phil just finds funny.
"How old are you again?" Martyn shouts across at him.
Phil merely sticks out his tongue at him. Dan laughs with his whole body, throwing himself back against the sofa and tipping his head back. Phil feels something warm pulse through him.
Eventually it's time for Martyn to settle behind the table on the small stage below them. Their small group listens avidly for what feels to Phil like a long time. Phil will never really be able to tell what's so great about what Martyn does, but he can tell that everyone else seems to enjoy it. Even Dan is nodding his head and tapping his hands against his leg.
The group breaks up to go dancing, and Cornelia does her best to persuade them to come with. Dan excuses himself, graciously waving her off. Phil simply stares at her in horror and shakes his head. She laughs, expecting nothing else of him.
They haven't been alone since they were in the car earlier this evening. It feels like ages ago. Phil thinks he'd be tired by now if it weren't for the presence of Dan still sat right next to him.
"They're really nice," Dan says. With no one near them it's a bit easier to hear him over the music.
"They are," Phil agrees fervently. He doesn't know why it means so much to him to know that Dan can see that.
"You're lucky to have them," Dan says solemnly.
"Do you come out with them a lot?"
Phil shakes his head. "I've been bad at it lately."
Dan gives him an evaluative look. "I looked at your channel last night."
Phil stares at him. "You didn't!"
Dan grins. "I did! It was like I remembered. Cool."
Phil scoffs. He isn't cool. His silly vlogs certainly aren't cool.
"I liked the one with the balloon. It was funny."
"It was silly."
"It was creative genius," Dan insists. "The ending had me cry-laughing!"
Phil can't help but smile. He doesn't know why Dan would care enough to say something like that.
"You're too nice."
Dan shakes his head. "I'm not."
"You are. You've been so nice to me."
"I'm not nice," Dan insists. A shadow seems to glide over his face then.
His eyes seem to be hanging by Phil's lips. Surely Phil is imagining it, but it's still making his heart pound in his chest.
“Do you want another drink?” Phil asks, impulsively.
He jumps to his feet and hovers awkwardly, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
Dan looks up at him, and Phil has no idea how to interpret the expression on his face.
"Actually… Can we get out of here?"
Phil swallows past the nerves and lump in his throat and nods.
Dan gets up.
"I know you came to hang out with your brother, but…"
"It's fine!" Phil says quickly.
Dan pauses. Then he nods and motions for Phil to lead the way.
The place has filled up considerably outside the small VIP area, people hopelessly crowding the stairs. Phil isn’t very good at fording his way through, and no one can hear his shouted, “Excuse me!”
Suddenly he feels a hand on his lower back. His heart jumps into his throat. Dan’s hand is large and warm, and Phil’s back is sweaty and breaking out in goose pimples at the same time.
Then Dan brushes up close against his side and slips in front of him. He glances back at Phil, but he doesn’t look him in the eye.
Next thing he knows Phil feels Dan’s fingers close around his wrist and his heart pounds, his throat closing around it. Dan guides Phil’s hand to his waist and leaves it there. The material of his shirt is so soft under his palm, Dan’s side warm and lean underneath.
Phil knows he’s staring, but Dan isn’t looking at him, and then he starts walking purposefully down the stairs. Phil curls his fingers into the expensive cotton of Dan’s t-shirt and clings, letting Dan lead him through the throng of people.
They're halfway through the club when Phil realises he should say goodbye. He stops and tugs on Dan's shirt. When Dan turns to look at him, Phil points to Martyn on the podium. Dan nods and they wend their way slowly through the crowd.
Martyn soon sees them and comes around his DJ's desk to crouch down.
"It was nice to meet you!" Dan shouts.
"Come back anytime!" Martyn grins. He runs back to his spot by the laptop and turntables and waves at them.
Cornelia is hovering by the corner of the stage. She leans up on tippy toes to plant kisses on each their cheeks. She squeezes Dan's upper arm warmly and says, in a voice that carries effortlessly through the din,
"Hope to see you again soon, Dan."
He dimples at her, and Phil can't help the feeling of pride that he is the reason these two extraordinary creatures have crossed paths.
The night air is cold and damp when they step out of the club's rear exit. Outside the back of the building it's quiet, and the absence of sound is almost a physical change from the voices and music inside.
Dan sighs deeply. His breath is just visible as a wisp of grey in front of his face.
Phil thinks it's best to start walking, but Dan holds him back with a hand on his chest. There's a group of young women standing around smoking up ahead of them. Dan steps back towards the wall of the building, eyes never leaving the girls. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and makes a quiet call for the car to come around.
Phil is just about to speak when his ears pick out what the girls are talking about.
"I heard Daniel Howell is in there."
"Yeah right, and my mum's the Queen. Why would he come to a place like this?"
"Why, he's looking for me, in' he?"
The others laugh. Phil looks at Dan, who smirks.
"I heard he broke up with that Emily bird."
The smile slips right off Dan's face.
"Don't believe everything you hear."
"Yeah. They weren't even together to begin with. It's all just media stunts anyway."
"Piss off. They was real!"
Dan is smiling again, a bit sadly, but their debate seems to amuse him slightly.
"Girls, come on! He's gay as anything! Can't you tell?"
There's a general outburst of disbelief. Phil feels a wash of dread all through him. He knows the young women aren't talking about him, but somehow he feels exposed. He hardly dares glance at Dan, but when he does, all thoughts of himself instantly evaporate.
Dan looks incredibly sad and worried and hunched in on himself. He has stuffed both hands into his front jeans pockets, which should be nigh impossible considering how tight they are. His face is drawn, and he looks like he wishes he was anywhere else.
"The good-looking ones are always gay!" The same girl is shouting triumphantly over her friends.
Phil doesn't realise he's moving towards them until he feels Dan's hand on his arm.
"Phil!" he says, and when Phil looks back at him his eyes are huge. "Don't."
But Phil slips out of his grasp and goes up to the group of girls.
"Excuse me," he says. His heart is pounding. He has no idea what he's doing.
The girls all turn to look at him with a mixture of surprised or irritated expressions.
"Hi," he stammers. "Do you think you could not speculate about other people's personal lives?"
"Do you think you could mind your own fucking business?"
Phil blinks at the expletive.
"It's just that these are real people you're talking about," he says. "They don't just exist for your entertainment."
"Piss off, mate."
"Who died and made you celebrity defender?"
"This conversation was personal, actually!"
"I just wish you'd think before you started rumours about someone's sexuality," he insists.
The girl who made that particular remark looks him up and down. "Oh yeah? Don't worry, love, we won't have to be starting any rumours about you, that's for sure."
"Phil," Dan says from behind him. He's pulling on Phil's arm, face turned away from the girls as much as possible.
"Aw, is that your boyfriend, then? Boyfriend to the rescue!"
Dan freezes and suddenly Phil is worried. He goes to Dan and tries to nudge him away, but Dan doesn't budge. He stands statue still, and Phil doesn't know what to do. The girls are laughing.
Then Dan slips around him. There's a weird look on his face, a kind of half-smile that makes him look kind of vapid and scary at the same time. He takes the few steps over to the girls slowly, carefully.
"Hello all," he says in a calm, overly friendly voice. "How are you this evening?"
Phil sees the matching looks of silent shock on all their faces as they recognise him. When Dan doesn't speak further, the girls eventually start stammering out polite replies.
"Lovely," Dan says. "Have you lot watched Midnight, then?"
The girls nod and mumble out affirmatives.
Dan nods as if he is listening to a riveting conversation. When they all fall quiet again, he goes on.
"Do you remember the scene where Annabelle asks Damon why it's her he loves? And Damon talks about how he’s an ancient being and how he thought he’d seen everything? But then he says he’s never met anyone so generous and kind before?"
There's a weird smoulder to Dan as he talks. His voice drops into a different register, his posture slowly morphs into something different. Phil is staring and still can't quite put his finger on how he does it. The girls seem to be quivering, eyes and mouths perfect Os of rapture.
"Do you sometimes wonder how you would respond if someone told you that?" Dan muses.
The girls look like they're ready to pass out, nodding mutely when Dan makes another artistic pause.
Dan's lips twist into a sarcastic smile. "Well, there’s no need to wonder, because I can guarantee you it will never happen. Have a lovely rest of your lives, ladies."
Jonathan pulls up in the sedan then, perfectly timed. Dan twists on his heal and marches towards it, but he stops when Phil doesn't follow right behind him. He turns his head to look back for him and reaches an arm out to lead him to the car.
Phil goes, dazed.
Jonathan sets the car in motion.
They're quiet for a long time. Phil's heart is still beating wildly, and his head is spinning with everything that just happened.
Eventually Dan sighs. "I'm sorry," he says.
Phil gapes at him. "No, I'm sorry! I should have ignored them!"
Dan shakes his head. "You were nice. You were just trying to defend me." He gets that same glum look on his face. "I wasn't nice. I was rude."
"You shouldn't be nice to people like that!" Phil sputters. "They didn’t deserve nice!"
"They're the public," Dan says. "You should always be nice to the public. They can make you or break you."
It sounds like he's quoting someone, but Phil doesn't want to know.
"They were idiots," Phil insists. "They don't know what they're talking about."
"Don't they?" Dan murmurs and looks at him thoughtfully.
It sends a shiver down Phil's spine that he doesn't think he can hide.
"Uh, Dan?" Jonathan says from the driver's seat. "Where to?"
Dan gives him a long look. Phil thinks he forgets to breathe for a moment.
Phil stares at him, at his soft, serious face and dark eyes.
“I don’t know what that means,” he wants to say. “I don’t know what you're asking.”
But all he says is, “Yes.”
Never apologize for leaving comments, omg! All your comments mean the world to me ;__;
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Phil doesn't know what any of it means. All he knows is that he doesn't want them to go their separate ways. He wants to go wherever Dan goes.
There's been an energy in the air all night. Something electric about the way Dan has looked at him…
The truth is he can't let himself hope.
He shouldn't let himself believe that any of it means anything. Not their shared looks, not Dan's expression when the girls were talking about him, not the fact that he has invited Phil back to his hotel. Dan is not gay. Phil is… a mess. Dan is a film star. Phil is a nobody. They're not even mates, not really.
Disappointment is hovering in his near future, he's sure, misunderstandings and regret, but he can’t care about that right now. His nerves are balancing on a sword's edge as the car takes them closer and closer to Dan's hotel room where… He just wants to see this through, to whatever bitter end is inevitably waiting for him.
Dan sits quietly and looks out the window. He's worrying his bottom lip, seemingly totally lost in thought. His hand is resting on the seat next to his thigh. Phil stares at it and wishes he could… something. He wouldn't even take it. Maybe he'd just hook their pinkies together. Safely out of Jonathan's line of sight. He just wants to distract Dan from whatever dark thoughts seem to be tumbling through his mind. He's never seen him like this before, this thoughtful and frowning.
He's staring, which is probably why Dan looks at him. For a second Dan's face is still impassive. There's a weird energy between them suddenly. Or maybe it's just Phil making it weird.
It looks like Dan is about to speak when something shocks Phil. He jumps before he realises it's just a text on his cell phone.
Jimmy: Im drunk phik whre r u?
"Sorry," Phil mutters.
Before he has a chance to reply another text comes in.
Jimmy: Com meet me
He can't help the snort he lets out. Dan is looking at him with a curious expression. He types out a quick response.
Phil: I can't tonight, Jimmy. Be safe, alright? :O
Jimmy: W u
Before Phil has a chance to try to decipher either of those two messages, his phone starts ringing. He really doesn't want to talk to any version of Jimmy right now, least of all a drunk one. He glances from the phone to Dan, who just nods and gestures for him to answer. He looks intrigued.
"Phil!" Jimmy shouts.
"Where are you?" Jimmy enunciates slowly and loudly.
"I'm… in a car," Phil says, scrambling for something neutral.
"A car?" Jimmy yells, confusion clear in his voice. "Who're you with?" He sounds suspicious already.
Phil tries to sound casual but knows he's failing. "I can't really talk right now?"
"Wait, did you go out with Martyn and Cornelia?"
Phil breathes a sigh of relief. "Yeah."
"And you didn't bring me?!" Jimmy, in his drunken state, sounds genuinely hurt. "What club are you at, I'll come meet you!"
"I'm not there anymore." Phil squirms. "Can we talk tomorrow?" he begs.
"ARE YOU WITH SOMEONE?" Jimmy shrieks.
Phil has to hold the phone away from his ear. He cringes and doesn't know how to reply. Dan is staring at him outright, and Phil doesn't want to think about how much of Jimmy's side of the conversation he can hear.
"Phil Lester! Is it that bloke you were texting?!" Jimmy sounds far too delighted.
Phil sinks down in his seat and wishes he could just seep out of the car and onto the road. "Jimmy," he grinds out quietly, trying not to be obvious about how he's angling himself away from Dan. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Jimmy is laughing. Phil is about to hang up.
"Phil! Phil! Phil!" Jimmy shouts to get his attention.
He's just drunk, and Phil can't be mad at him, even though this is a mortifying phone call to be having next to the film star he might possibly be going home with.
"What?" Phil says, gently.
"Be safe, alright?" Jimmy laughs.
Phil rolls his eyes at having his own words thrown back at him. "You too. Drink some water."
"Don't mother me, mother!" Jimmy shouts.
"Oh my god," Phil mutters.
Phil pauses, because he almost said it back by rote.
"Love you, babe! Why won't you say it back? Looooove youuuu!" Jimmy is fairly cackling.
Phil knows he's practically lying down on the backseat by now. He thinks his soul is slowly leaving his body. He needs to hang up before he dies of embarrassment.
"I hate you," he mutters and hangs up while Jimmy is still busy laughing his head off.
Of course Dan doesn't let him pretend it didn't happen.
"Who was that?" he asks. He sounds equal parts amused and curious, but there's an undertone to it that Phil doesn't know how to interpret. He knows how he wants to interpret it.
"My friend Jimmy." Phil tries to shrug. "He's out and he wanted to meet up." He laughs. "Wow, it sounds like I have a life!"
Dan smiles. "It does! It looks that way. Friends, family, clubbing. Maybe you're not such a nerd after all."
"Oh, I am!" Phil says before he can think about it.
Dan laughs and Phil feels a little weird about it. Maybe Dan picks up on it.
"It sounds like you know each other… well," Dan says. It's such a leading kind of non-question that Phil can't help smirking a little.
He could leave it there, but Dan's face says he's dying to know, and Phil doesn't actually want to be ambiguous. Especially not if Dan heard the last bit of their conversation.
"We've been friends since uni," Phil explains.
Dan nods, and he already seems a bit relieved. Surely it's just wishful thinking on Phil's part.
"We studied together at York. And now we work together at the BBC."
"Sounds nice," Dan says. "I don't really have any uni friends from Manchester."
Phil nods before Dan's words fully sink in.
"Wait, you studied in Manchester?" Phil's head is spinning. It doesn't fully make sense to him.
Dan shrugs. "For a hot second. I moved there in… 2009? To study acting at Manchester Metropolitan. But then I was cast in Midnight and, well…"
"My family still lived right near Manchester in 2009! Were we there at the same time?" Phil knows his voice is pitched too high. He doesn't know why, but somehow knowing they were practically living in the same city at the same time is making him feel cheated out of something.
Dan is looking at him with an amused expression on his face. "I was an 18-year-old drama school loser, Phil, you never would have noticed me."
"I would have!" he insists, unthinkingly. "I would have cast you in all my final projects. I had to do some of my own acting, and I was so bad it. I kept walking into a tree once."
Dan is smiling. "Well. Teenage Dan who used to watch AmazingPhil on his computer would have been incredibly excited by that."
Phil still doesn't know what to say whenever Dan compliments his videos. His mind is reeling at this strange twist of fate.
"I thought you were from the south. Why'd you go to Manchester? Not, like, London or something?"
Dan shrugs. "MMU actually has a very good reputation. Plus they accepted my application. And I kind of wanted to get far away from home…"
Phil wants to know but he also doesn't want to ask. Whenever Dan speaks of his past before becoming an actor there's a shadow there, a sadness he seems to carry with him. He leaves it alone for now.
"Imagine if we met in Manchester," Phil mutters, lost in thought.
"Oh, I've imagined it," Dan says.
Phil looks at him, and he's smiling a bit slyly.
The butterflies are back in Phil's stomach. He had managed to forget his nerves. When he looks into Dan's eyes right now, he doesn't really believe that he doesn't know what's going to happen between them.
Phil smiles and Dan smiles back.
Phil feels like an old hand at going through the doors of The Ritz by now. He's smiling and saying thanks to the nice man in the weird top hat when he nearly trips and falls over his own feet.
Dan cackles. There's no other word to describe it. He laughs so hard and gracelessly that the arm he reaches out to steady Phil with is functionally useless. It should sting, but somehow it just reminds Phil of what he sounds like playing video games. He thinks there's a whole library of noises that Dan makes when he's not busy being a celebrity actor, and Phil wants to hear all of them.
Maybe Phil is too preoccupied thinking about Dan's private noises. Maybe he forgets to smile and laugh and be normal. Dan is dimpling at the night concierge and taking the proffered room key, but his smile slips off his face when he turns to look at Phil.
They walk through the hotel silently. Phil is fairly shaking with nerves. Suddenly he feels like it's been ages since he saw a bathroom or a mirror. He has no idea what his hair looks like. He has no idea whether his breath stinks. He has no idea what his boxer briefs look like but he has a sinking suspicion they are anime ones.
Is it his imagination or does Dan fumble the key in the lock just a little?
Either way they're soon inside, behind a closed door, and Dan is standing stock still staring at him. They're close. Phil doesn't know what to do with his hands.
"Phil," Dan says. There's something hesitant, maybe even vulnerable, in his voice. His eyes are hanging by Phil's lips.
"Yeah," Phil says. He swallows. "Dan--"
But Dan cuts him off. "I should tell you--"
A female voice with an American accent carries down the suite hallway. Hesitant footsteps follow behind. Then a girl - woman - appears in the lounge.
"Emily," Dan says. He sounds shocked and caught out. "I thought you'd gone."
"I had, but then you said on the phone we had to talk." Emily Marks walks slowly closer. She seems unsure of herself somehow. She is beautiful with long, wavy blond hair and big brown eyes.
Dan slips around Phil and goes to greet her. He gives her a peck on the cheek, and Emily crosses her arms across her stomach. She's model tall, Phil notes, coming up a good way past Dan's shoulder.
"Where have you been?" she asks, when Dan doesn't say anything more.
"Oh, we were, uh, out," Dan says.
Emily looks at Phil then and frowns.
"This is Phil," Dan says and gestures towards him.
"Hi," Emily says, subdued but politely.
"Hi," Phil offers back. He feels intensely awkward.
"I don't think we've met," Emily says then and walks past Dan to Phil.
She holds out her hand.
Phil shakes it.
"Uh, no," he says.
He doesn't know why he's being so reticent. He supposes he's waiting for Dan to take over. He looks to him with a slightly desperate look on his face. Even though they literally hadn't been doing anything, he still feels like they have somehow been walked in on, and his stomach is roiling with it. The look on Dan's face isn't helping.
Emily frowns and turns back to Dan.
"I don't remember you ever mentioning a Phil before," she says.
"Phil's a… friend of mine… from Manchester," Dan says.
Phil's stomach plunges. If there had been any doubt at all left in his mind there isn't anymore. Dan and Emily are together. And Dan and Phil nearly kissed right here in what is probably their shared suite. He feels wretched, soaked in embarrassment and disappointment.
"Oh, from acting school?" Emily says. She sounds relieved. There's a little bit more warmth to her voice.
She steps back to Dan and slips an arm around his waist. He puts an arm around her seemingly without even thinking about it. They look picture-perfect together.
Phil moves his mouth but no words are coming out. Emily is looking expectantly at him. Dan looks wrecked. Phil can't look at him.
"I should… get going," Phil says.
"Oh, weren't you going to hang out?" Emily says. It sounds pleasant enough on the surface, but she remains standing tucked into Dan's side, clearly signalling that she wants Phil to leave.
Dan shakes his head, and Phil doesn't actually know what he's trying to communicate. Phil forces himself to only look at Emily.
"It's fine," he says. "You lot probably have things to talk about." He turns and fumbles a little before he manages to get the door open. His heart is thumping in his chest, and his hands are shaking.
"Yeah, man," Dan is saying in a completely unrecognisable voice and coming up behind him. "Great hanging out with you."
"You too," Phil mutters.
"Phil!" Dan hisses.
Phil startles and turns, and Dan's face is right there, as close to his as it was earlier tonight in the club. There's something bitter and stinging at the back of Phil's throat.
"I'm sorry," Dan whispers furiously.
He looks desperate and sad, but Phil glances away from him almost immediately. He doesn't want to see it. He doesn't want to think about what it means, what almost happened here. His stomach curls in on itself.
"Goodbye," Phil says. His face feels numb.
"Phil," Dan says again. This time it's low and insistent.
"Don't," Phil says and resolutely doesn't look at Dan or Emily, even though he can feel two sets of eyes boring into his face. He tries to smile and wave, but he has no idea whether he actually succeeds.
He wrests the door out of Dan's only mildly resisting grasp and closes it on him.
Phil takes the tube home. The rattling clatter of the train around him seems like the perfect sound to accompany his mood. Harsh realism.
There's an excruciating sense of humiliation rolling around his entire body. He can't stop thinking about Dan's face right inside the door of the hotel room. That look of vulnerability and hesitancy that…
He tries so hard not to let himself think about what could have happened. But his mind is an enormous traitor. It soon forces an impression on him, a guess at what it would have been like to kiss Dan just then.
His memories helpfully supply the smell of Dan's cologne from when he leaned in at the club, the warm lean flesh of him as they walked through the crowd. Phil imagines touching him all over, imagines making him cry out, imagines Emily walking in on them in bed together--
Phil wants to punch his own brain. He hates these thoughts, the sexy soft ones as much as the excruciatingly embarrassing ones.
He can't let himself believe that it ever would have come to that. Dan is not that kind of person. Nothing he said or did ever indicated that he would be so dishonest. So selfish.
His heart almost breaks at a story he remembers then, of Jimmy talking about a one-night stand who threw him out when he got a text from his boyfriend. Jimmy had been so relaxed about the whole thing, telling the story like a big joke.
It hadn't bothered him much that the bloke was already with someone.
He'd just shrugged and said, "That's his business, innit?" and laughed at Phil's frown. "You're too ethical, Phil. No one got hurt."
He hears Jimmy's words now as if he is sitting right next to him. Maybe Phil is just naive. Maybe he's old-fashioned to think that sex should mean something. That it's not irrelevant who you have it with or when. Maybe it's not fair to project his values onto other people.
He thinks of past uni hook-ups, of the immediate excitement of skin on skin, of the confirmation that yes, this is it, this is what I want, this is the type of person I want. But how quickly that thrill faded and left behind a dark, cold feeling.
He remembers that first spark of connection, that heady interest he would feel in someone. It seemed to never really catch flame in any of the dates he had gone on and so he had stopped, began working harder instead. He thinks of soft brown eyes, a hyena laugh, a smell like…
The train screeches to a halt, and Phil gets off. He walks quickly, wishing he could shake the thoughts off, leave them behind in the cruelly lit tube compartment. But he knows he'll find more of them at home.
He opens the door almost fearfully. He can see straight into the lounge, the love seat up against the wall. He feels there should be traces here, some concrete evidence that Dan was ever in here. But of course he left nothing behind.
Phil turns away from the sight of his empty sitting room and topples through the doorway directly onto his bed. He lets his nose dig painfully directly into the duvet, shoes hanging off the side of the bed. For one glorious moment everything is quiet.
Eventually he kicks off his shoes and jeans and crawls into bed, but his mind and stomach keep churning long into the night.
He wakes up with a headache just before noon. It's so exactly the last thing he needs that he's not even surprised.
Martyn has texted him already. The fact that his brother, who was probably awake far longer than Phil, is already up and about just puts him in an even worse mood.
Martyn: Have a good night, then? Dan was nice.
Phil stares at his phone for a while.
Phil: Can we just pretend that that was a mass hallucination and never speak of it again?
It's not long before Martyn sends back a reply.
Martyn: What happened? You seemed to be getting along.
Phil sighs. Everything is still too fresh, flooding back in on him the more he wakes up.
Phil: Talk later pls.
He knows he's giving everything away, but he doesn't have it in himself to pretend with his brother. Maybe he doesn't want to.
Martyn: Alright. Don't think we won't.
It's just the right combination of caring and threatening to wring a small smile out of him.
He gets up to make coffee.
The doorbell rings while he's still in his pants, stirring Nescafé into boiling hot water in the kitchen.
"Just so you know, I came all the way out here with a massive hangover on the off chance I'd catch you out with Mr Texts-a-lot," Jimmy says and pushes past him.
He has his arms full of greasy take-away containers and is carrying a cup-holder with two massive coffees. He sticks his head into the bedroom and surveys the bed before going through to kitchen and dumping everything on the counter.
"I see you went to his place, then. Smart. Would've definitely done the same." He takes a huge gulp of one of the coffees before he says, "Now. Spill."
He finally takes a look at Phil and puts his coffee down. "What happened?"
Phil shrugs kind of helplessly, still standing in the doorway.
Jimmy feels good. He feels familiar. He smells familiar. His hoodie is soft, and Jimmy himself is warm. Phil buries his face in the crook of his shoulder and breathes out wetly. Jimmy squeezes him and rocks them side-to-side a little.
"There, there," he says as he pulls back.
He smoothes a thumb over Phil's cheek and gives him a concerned smile.
"Tell Uncle Jimmy everything. But go put on some trousers first, you're positively indecent," he says and smacks Phil's hip before he goes back to the food on the kitchen counter.
Phil almost manages a smile. He goes to put on joggers and a hoodie and joins Jimmy on the sofa. He has laid out all the greasy hang-over food on the coffee table. Even though Phil doesn't have a hang-over it still looks really good to him.
Jimmy puts a hand on Phil's knee, and Phil spills it all.
Jimmy listens attentively. He shows just the right amount of surprise and engagement and finally indignation.
"His girlfriend? You mean -- Emily Marks was there? He's actually with Emily Marks? But you--!"
Phil shrugs and eats another chip. "I was an idiot."
"No," Jimmy frowns. "He's an asshole."
"He's not an asshole! I took everything the wrong way. I must have."
"Phil." Jimmy gives him an incredulous look. "He texted you. He went out with you. He flirted with you, didn't he?"
"I don't know! Maybe he didn't!"
Phil tears at his hair in frustration. Jimmy pulls his hands down, keeping a hold of them.
"He invited you back to his hotel room. Again. Why? To play scrabble?"
Phil squirms. "I don't know. Maybe."
Jimmy quirks an eyebrow at him. "You know what was happening. The fact that he has some poor girl strung along for a beard just shows you -- he's an asshole."
Phil shakes his head sadly. It doesn't gel with anything else he's seen of Dan so far. There's been nothing disingenuous or conniving about him. Only shyness and sweetness and some intoxicating… connection between them.
Jimmy stares at him for a long moment. "Oh, Phil." He sounds full of horrified pity.
Phil slumps forward and hides his face against Jimmy's chest. Jimmy throws an arm around him and sighs.
Phil had known it was all too good to be true.
He knew he had been getting his hopes up for no reason. He knew he was reading everything wrong. And still he kept doing it.
He had got swept up in the presence of Dan Howell, that gripping mixture of star quality and humanity. He had let some childish crush fester and grow, and then he embarrassed Dan in front of his girlfriend.
His beautiful, supermodel slash actress girlfriend of several years.
Of course Dan had never intended to lead Phil on. It was all just in Phil's fevered, love-deprived, touch-starved imagination that a few jokes and a friendly touch or two translated into any kind of interest.
They were just two strangers. Dan had been nice. He had wanted someone for video games and diversion. And Phil couldn't even be that. He'd just left in a huff like some kind of offended idiot.
He hopes Dan is alright. He hopes he's not even thinking about it. Phil ignores the pang in his chest. Yes. He just hopes Dan has already forgotten about him.
Just then his phone dings with a text message. Then another.
He feels a rush of ice through his veins when he sees that the message is from Dan. The first message is a link.
dan.: sorry to bother you. the press published the photos of us leaving the hotel. just thought you should know. they asked for a comment and i had the agency say you were an old uni friend. should throw them off your scent.
Phil stares at the message for what feels like years. He has no idea how to interpret any of it.
He taps the link and looks at the article that recounts "Dan Howell's wild nights in London" and also cites sources spotting him "clubbing in Camden.”
The photo they've chosen is of Dan and Phil striding towards the car, next to each other. Phil has a stupid, dazed look on his face. Dan's head is turned down, but he's reaching back for Phil. From the angle the photo is taken it almost looks as if he has his arm around him, but Phil knows that's not the case.
The caption below reads: "Always a gentleman. Dan guides his friend towards their private car."
Something about the whole thing feels weirdly ominous to Phil. There's some malicious intent just below the surface, some unspoken rumour that is somehow being fanned by these innocuous photos and sentences. He feels a little sick.
He has no idea what he should write back. Just the thought of replying to Dan makes him feel like screaming and running.
Jimmy takes the phone from his unresisting hand and looks at it. He's quiet while he scans the article.
"Right," he says, and unceremoniously dumps Phil's phone back in his lap. "You have to think about something else. We're gonna film the worst hang-over vlog in the history of bad hang-over vlogs." He gets up and goes over to the camera.
Your comments continue to be so lovely <3 kouredios thank you once again for being so dedicated to hammering this out with me <3<3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Phil and Jimmy film a hang-over vlog, and it truly is horrendous. They're stupid and inarticulate, but at one point Jimmy says something so incredible it has Phil almost cry-laughing. Phil has a feeling that they can work with that in editing. He's imagining a loop with changing colours and sound distortion.
Jimmy has gone uncharacteristically quiet. He's flung back on the sofa, staring at Phil.
"You love this shit," he says quietly.
Phil feels something unpleasant settle in his stomach. He shrugs. "Yeah?"
"You should do it more," Jimmy says, insistent voice at odds with his laid-back position.
Phil looks at him. He is too tired to deflect at this moment. "I don't have the time."
"Then you should make the time."
"Yeah, I know! I'm right there next to you! Are you gonna go that speak workshop I told you about?"
Phil squirms. "I thought this was you consoling me, not some weird intervention."
"It's just a speak workshop to train radio voices. They're looking for new talent. Younger talent. I talked to one of the girls who runs it, she's right cool."
"It's not just speaking, Jimmy. It's like… buttons and… being live on air."
"You could do it." Jimmy shrugs.
Phil feels something dark looming up in him. "I don't know if I want to work with the BBC forever." He can't help the way it comes out, like a shameful secret.
Jimmy leans over and shakes him by the scruff of the neck. "So don't. Take some time to think about it. But think about it! You're too young to get stuck at a boring desk job."
Phil shrugs. "Doesn't feel so boring as long as you're there."
Jimmy grins at him. "Look at you being a sappy fuck. Could you tell me I'm pretty, too?" He holds up his hands to frame his face and flutters his eyelashes ridiculously.
Phil pokes him in the side. "Don't push your luck," he grumbles.
Jimmy squirms and Phil keeps poking until they're fully play-fighting on the small sofa. Eventually Jimmy squeals defeat.
"Stop! Stop or I'll hurl on you," he moans.
Phil laughs, and for a moment he feels okay.
It's not a feeling that lasts, though. There's a gloom that's settling over him that he doesn't want to examine. It doesn't seem to be made up of just one thing, but in bed at night it feels like failure. Failure to connect with Dan, failure to care about his job, failure to go all-in on YouTube.
It dulls everything to a degree that has him simply going through the motions for the whole week. It's a loop of staying late at work and accomplishing nothing once he's home and sleeping like crap and getting up early to do it all again.
On Friday Martyn calls without warning during Phil's lunch break.
"Right, look," Martyn says without preamble as soon as Phil picks up the call. "We've been giving you space all week, but I expected to hear from you eventually. You're coming over tonight. No!" he says, even though Phil hasn't tried to say anything. "You're coming, and that's final. See you at 6." Then he hangs up.
Phil sighs and looks at his phone.
It is absolutely true that he has been avoiding both Martyn and Cornelia's messages all week. He always knew it wouldn't work forever, but he still dreads having to catch them up on what happened.
At least his engagement with them allows him to get rid of Jimmy, who has been hovering all week. Phil has been ignoring his concerned looks and only been relieved that he hasn't tried to draw him into any more serious conversations. Now he gets to send him home with the excuse that he's going to hang out with Martyn and Cornelia.
The two of them greet him as tentatively as he feared they would. They walk on eggshells for what feels to Phil like hours, until finally Martyn breaks.
"Phil," he says, in an exasperated tone of voice.
Phil leans back in his chair and sighs. Here it comes.
"What the hell happened?" Martyn asks.
“I messed up,” Phil says quietly.
Martyn and Cornelia are both quiet. Phil sighs.
“I thought... maybe there was something there. But I was wrong.”
“What do you mean you were wrong?” Cornelia asks carefully.
“Emily Marks really is his girlfriend,” Phil says, flapping his arms in defeat.
“How do you know that?” Martyn asks in disbelief.
Phil glances at him. “I met her. I saw them.”
“But... you did have a connection,” Cornelia says carefully.
“No,” Phil shakes his head. “I just... got caught up in it.”
He makes the mistake of looking at them then. They sit across from him with twin expressions of pity on their faces.
“Oh, Phil,” Martyn says quietly.
"It was a lovely little fairytale while it lasted," Cornelia says compassionately.
"Not much fairytale about how it ended," Phil says wryly, folding his hands on the table and staring glumly at them.
Cornelia reaches across to squeeze his arm and looks at him with too much sympathy. "You'll meet someone. Someone right."
Phil covers her tiny hand with his own and tries his best to smile. “I really don’t think the two of you realise how lucky you are. To find someone you’re that compatible with. Who actually wants you back.”
“He really made an impression, huh?” Martyn says quietly.
Phil huffs out a morbidly mirthless laugh.
He is walking home from Martyn and Cornelia’s place when he spots a familiar face out of the corner of his eye. He turns his head to look before he’s fully conscious of it, and there he is - Dan smiling at him in triplicate lit-up posters from the cinema across the street.
Phil stops in his tracks and lets himself stare. Suddenly he feels tired. He feels as if he’s been running from something, which has suddenly caught up to him again.
Someone huffs past him and he mumbles an apology. Dan’s skin looks preternaturally smooth, freckles airbrushed away and a strange artificial glow emanating from him. His brown eyes look as soft as ever, the white collar of the historical suit he’s wearing hugging his long neck.
Phil’s feet are carrying him across the street before he even knows they’re doing it. He feels shameful even as he buys the ticket. He knows he’ll regret it but he can’t resist.
The trailers are already on when he walks into the theatre. The gloomy room is empty save for a couple of young women who have placed themselves in the middle of one of the middle rows. They're sitting close, heads bent towards each other and giggling. It gives a sting to see their happy intimacy. They move apart when they notice him coming up the stairs towards them. He gives them a small nod of respect and they send him twin smiles of relief as they sink back close to each other. He picks a seat a couple of rows away from them where he can't make out their whispered conversation.
Phil settles into the loneliness of the dark cinema and lets himself feel a sad flutter of excitement as the movie begins.
The costume drama is slow and Dan is not on screen nearly enough to really make up for it. But when he is Phil lets himself drink up the sight of him, ignoring the voice at the back of his mind that tells him he should be letting this go already.
Dan is standing, very straight-backed and poised, next to a sofa while he gives some earnest speech about love and devotion. It brings back a memory, but for the first time since that first sting of humiliation, Phil lets himself dwell on it. He remembers the floral sofa in the Ritz sitting room, their laughter there, and suddenly one particular conversation comes back to him.
He goes home, his head swirling in a million different directions at once. He kicks his shoes off in the hallway and dives for his computer, and the ideas are spilling out of his brain before he has even sat down properly.
He's outlining shots and basic narration and calculating outcomes, the stories forking and sprouting like tree roots in his mind's eye. He hasn't filmed anything interactive in years. Surely no one even does them anymore. He doesn't care.
He works long into the night, typing furiously one moment and then digging desperately through his props collection the next, clothes and toys and miscellaneous items piling up on his bedroom floor.
He sets an alarm so he's sure to be awake with the natural light, catching only a few hours as a result. Over his three morning coffees he cuts the script down to size, editing and amending until he is left with something he can feasibly film and edit in time.
He films all day, even after the sun has gone away again, fiddling with the last of the close-ups in horrible-looking artificial light, but he doesn't care at this point. As long as he keeps working, he doesn't have to think about anything else.
He's too antsy to sleep when he finally has all his shots, so he simply boots up his laptop and starts editing until the headache hits around three in the morning. He goes to sleep and forgets to set the alarm and doesn't wake until almost twelve hours later and then goes straight back to editing. At one point he thinks vaguely that he probably needs a shower and a change of clothes, but then he's back in the flow of it and forgets.
It's late again by the time he can finally start the laborious process of uploading. He sees the clock counting down the hours until he has to be at work, but he refuses to put the project on pause. He wants to post while it's still Sunday somewhere in the world. He wants something to show for this frantic weekend and all the energy he has put into it.
Eventually it is all there, all ten videos of Lion Space Trail uploaded and linked together in three different outcomes that all end in death by space syphilis.
The comments begin to tick in before he manages to fall asleep. People are enthusiastic, kind, positively screaming in text form. It makes him feel warm, accomplished and welcomed, in a way that work never does.
Phil falls asleep, exhausted but content, although his head nearly splits in two when his alarm goes off after only a few hours.