Dan slumps down in his seat as the train finally pulls out of Reading station. He rams his earbuds further into his ears and flicks through his iPod until he lands on Muse's The Resistance and waits for Matt Bellamy's sweet crooning to fill his head as he settles in for the long journey.
Phil's probably still asleep, there's no point texting him just yet. The man can sleep for England, Dan's been envious since the day they started talking. He'll text in a bit, let him know his progress. But this is a long journey, and he's got plenty of time yet.
He’s immensely grateful to his past self for having the foresight to book a window seat as his eyes drift over to take in his surroundings, watching as the train gathers speed and first the station, then the dreary office buildings in Reading city centre gradually fall away, replaced by blocks of flats, and grimey council houses, then smart, fashionable townhouses, and then, eventually, muddy brown fields and green countryside villages. Farms adorned with tiny picturesque pig styes and flocks of sheep splodged about the hillsides. If he keeps himself busy enough he can trick his brain into not getting too bogged down by the usual barrage of thoughts and worries that he can just feel lurking in the peripheral, waiting for the opportune moment to pummel him. He sighs, and the knot in his stomach tightens. The prospect of a 3.5 hour train journey with nothing more than his iPod for company doesn't bode well.
Dan blinks, squinting out at the tiny farm animals in the distance, looking for an interesting text opener. Something to make Phil giggle as he drifts back into the conscious world with the help of his morning coffee. Him and his weird animal facts.
Dan watches as a couple of unusually feisty bulls face off for what must be a particularly lushous patch of grass, batting their horns at each other and huffing aggressively when they get too close. The train turns sharply and the farm falls into the distance. He slumps back in his seat with a huff, his focus pushed inward again. Does Phil want to hear about some random frisky cows? Is that interesting enough?
He plucks moodily at a loose thread on his plaid shirt, tugging at it until the whole thing comes loose leaving a frayed edge running parallel all the way down the buttons. A great hobo look when you’re meeting your, well, friend - or almost maybe something more… He sighs again. What is he even doing?
There's a funny prickling at the back of his neck and he has the sudden feeling he's being watched. His eyes flick up to the window, hands clenching instinctively round the backpack on his lap. Reflected in the glass, he catches sight of a little girl, probably only about 3, staring at him wide-eyed from across the aisle. She's staring so intently, even in the reflection, that it's too much for Dan to actually hold eye-contact and pull his usual cooing, baby-pleasing faces. He feels so scrutinised, so judged in that moment, by a fucking child, like they're looking right at him saying, "What're you doing? Fool. He doesn't actually know you, won't actually like you in person."
Dan turns sharply and looks at her straight on. She immediately bursts into tears, poor thing, and Dan feels guilt drop like a deadweight into the pit of his stomach. The father across the aisle pulls an apologetic face at him as he rocks and hushes his baby and Dan, helplessly frozen to the spot, can only pull a half face back which he hopes indicates sympathy and understanding rather than anger or frustration.
Fortunately, it’s not long before the train pulls into the next station and the father, still clutching the screaming child in his arms, hastily makes a swift exit onto the platform. The carriage is thankfully silent once more as the train starts up again.
But it sticks with him. That feeling. Not that a little kid could possibly read his mind and know his thoughts. He knows he's projecting. He just can't help it. And now he's opened the floodgates to those feelings of doubt and insecurity, out it all pours.
That worry slowly eating away at him that Phil wouldn't actually like him in person, that it would be awkward and they'd have nothing to say to each other. When they first started all of this, whatever the hell this is, it had been so low-stakes, so chill. A bit of a flirtatious thrill over the summer holidays to talk to someone so exciting, so cool, so confident in what they want and who they are. But Dan's invested now. He's really fucking invested. Has all these deep and intense and solid feelings. A sense of surety that he knows what he wants from this deep in his heart of hearts. Hopes desperately that today will take a particular turn for the better. But there's so many what ifs to get through before anything like that. And Dan’s trying not to jump the gun and get ahead of himself. He’s really fucking trying. Knows he’s got to be realistic.
Sure, they've spent hours at a time on Skype, or MSN, or texting, talking into the early hours, but there's always so much more time to think about what he's saying when he's typing it out. Even on Skype with the little white light of the webcam blinking at him, and his little video in the corner of the screen, he can make sure he presents himself in a certain way, make sure his angles are always flattering, tone down those awkward, brash bits of his personality through the pixelated screen and shitty internet connection. Hell, he’s even written handy little notes for conversation starters that he can pin up next to his computer in case he needs them during an awkward pause.
And a Skype call always has an end point, regardless of whether or not that end point recently has been drifting on longer and longer as they find themselves wanting to talk more and more, getting carried away long into the night.
But spending actual non-stop days together is infinitely so much more than that.
It's navigating real life activities and other people out in the real life world together; enduring awkward silences face to face with no lag to blame things on if you get all tongue-tied and nervous. Spending an extended amount of time together, running through more topics of conversation than you can in just one evening. There’ll be a morning after, and a morning after that - regardless of whatever might happen the night before.
And that's even before you get on to the horrors of eating in front of each other, sleeping in the same room, the same bed even. Maybe?
At the heart of it all though, is the fact that he's never been on a date with a guy before either. And if this isn’t jumping in the deep end, Dan doesn’t know what is… The fact that he’s even managed to persuade the AmazingPhil to go on a date with him, some 18 year old loser from the other end of the bloody country, is just madness. Madness. Phil is such a good person, and he could do so much better than Dan, and yet here he is willingly inviting him to spend several days with him. In his house. Dan doesn’t know the etiquette. Doesn’t know what to do. The ball is in Phil’s court and Dan doesn’t quite know how to level the playing field.
Of course, he knows logically that Phil had said they don't have to do anything, but what if Dan wants to?
Or what if he doesn't want to?
Phil's finally going to find out he's a total fraud; he's not cool or suave or any of those things that attractive people are. He's just a massive sad, gay wannabe. And he can't get the idea out of his head that this is his colossal opportunity to really fuck up this thing that’s been so irrevocably, fundamentally stable and good in his life over the past few months. It’s become something he relies on. Something he feels hopeful about for the first time in- well, for the first time in the longest time.
His phone buzzes against his leg and he nearly jumps out of his seat in shock. He fishes it out of his pocket and his heart thuds hard in this chest when he sees who's texted him.
Phil: Did you catch the train ok?
Dan: first time I've ever been early for anything
Phil: Can't wait to see you xoxo
Dan's brain stutters and short-circuits. Then reboots into overdrive.
What if Phil sees his hobbit hair, and laughs at him? Or thinks his clothes are lame? What if Phil doesn't like the aftershave he'd liberally applied that morning? What if they’re not compatible in real life, what if Phil’s just being nice, doesn’t actually care the way he said he did? What if he’d just been exaggerating his enthusiasm this whole time?
His brain can’t take it anymore. Ultimately, it winds down to one question.
What if Phil's the one and he totally cocks it up?
Dan doesn’t even believe in any of that bollocks, and yet he just can’t help but wonder.
His text alert pings again.
Phil: I'm gonna give you the biggest hug
Phil: if you still want me to...?
Dan lets out a shaky breath. Smiles despite himself, and pushes a hand over his mouth to mask it from anyone on the train who happens to look his way and see some idiot kid grinning at nothing like a twat.
Dan: oh believe me when I say that I want you to
Phil: hehe, lucky me
Phil: Can I tell you a secret?
Phil: ...I'm actually really nervous to meet you
Dan gapes at his phone in disbelief. Refreshes his text messages. Waits for the follow-up punchline text to come through.
And it doesn’t make sense to Dan. Phil can't be nervous. Phil is... Well, he's Phil. He's AmazingPhil, with all his cool confidence and bubbly personality and unapologetic weirdness that Dan cannot get enough of. Phil's done this all before, with other YouTube friends, acquaintances he'd spoken to far less than he and Dan had been talking.
Dan only realises he's been typing this all out in a text when his thumb automatically goes to press the send button. He stops himself just in the nick of time, grabbing hold of his thumb with his other hand and physically pulling it away from his phone. He thunks his head back against the headrest and stares blankly out the window, taking deep gulping breaths and trying to focus on the tiny flock of sheep out in the distance.
Christ, life would be so much easier if he were a sheep.
He turns up the volume on his shitty iPod. Matt Bellamy croons on in his ear, bringing with him a sense of comfort. Familiarity. Happiness even. Reminds him of Phil. Muse had been one of the first things they realised they had in common, over one of their first ever chat conversations, way before they’d moved across to Skype.
His phone buzzes again.
Phil: I mean. Urm. I'm totally cool and not nervous at all. I've absolutely definitely not accidentally woken up 2 hours before my alarm and then drunk 3 cups of coffee to make up for it
Dan grins, and presses backspace on his previous ramblings.
Dan: i'm a cesspit of nervous too you giant idiot
Phil: Oh phew, I was worried it was just me
Dan: nope lol, took me ages to get to sleep last night I had so many butterflies
Phil: Dan! We said goodnight at like 1am!! Your train was at like 9am this morning!
Dan: good job the first place you're taking me is a coffee shop
Phil: every good date starts with coffee
Dan’s heart thuds loudly again. He ignores it.
Dan: god, stop reminding me - you're making me even more nervous than I already am!
Phil: I like saying it though! Reminding myself that you're real and you're really coming to see me
Dan: do you really mean that?
Phil: Of course I do! It’s actually a bit scary how much I like you, even though we haven’t met yet
Phil: I do like you, you know. I hope your brain isn’t playing tricks on you again
Phil: Because I really really do like you. I promise
And this really is just too much for Dan. He doesn’t know how to play it cool and flirtatious anymore. Doesn’t want to. He just wants to be honest.
Dan: I really like you too