Phil isn’t here for his own sake. He’s here to support—or maybe, if he’s being honest—appease his brother’s very socially aware girlfriend. Cornelia cares about a lot of things, and she does so quite loudly. She’s probably a better person than Phil is. Right now he’s being a stand-in for Martyn, who had to stay at home with his and Cornelia’s baby with a cold, and he’s never felt more like a fraud.
There’s banners and pride flags on the walls in the bar Cornelia rented for queer musicians to perform in. Phil recognises about two of them. Two and a half? There’s the rainbow which he thinks is the main one, or maybe it isn’t anymore, and then there’s the blue, pink, and white one that’s for transgender people. Phil stares at another one for two minutes, just black white and purple stripes, before he remembers that it’s the asexual pride flag. So, at least he got three.
People are setting up their instruments and mingling about the small tables in the rented space that’s starting to feel smaller as more and more people arrive. Cornelia is chatting to some skinny guy with brown hair who’s part of setting up the event. Phil is supposed to be participating in that conversation. But he’s stuck on looking around at all the flags covering the space, and asking himself why Cornelia is more adept at deciphering their meanings than he is.
“My sister’s playing a piano piece later,” the skinny guy says, to which Cornelia brightens. “Yeah, I know. She owes me, so.”
“Isn’t this a pride event?” Phil asks. He’s been quiet for ten minutes, but he tuned in to ask the stupidest question possible. It probably is, anyway, given the way Cornelia and the guy— oh, he’s got a name tag. Adrian and Cornelia are staring at Phil like he’s stupid.
“Yeah,” Cornelia grins. “Glad you came back down to Earth to join us for it.”
“No, I mean—,” Phil attempts to think up an explanation that doesn’t sound weird or too confronting to someone he’s barely just met. He fails. “Nothing,” he decides to say. “I forgot what I was thinking about.”
Adrian nods at Phil with a strange smile that probably means he’s being nice but secretly thinks Phil is insane. Phil shrugs it off. He’s not here to mingle, really. He’s here to make sure someone’s got a phone available for if Martyn has updates about the baby and Cornelia’s a first time mum that gets that worries about her child having a cough.
The evening is boring, mostly. Phil is alienated in this welcoming space, listening to artists sing and talk about queer experiences. He zones out for most of it once enough time has passed, telling himself he’s bored while deeply aware he just doesn’t want to think about why he feels so out of place.
Phil’s pulled up to the surface by Adrian, who beckons his attention by telling him his sister’s up next and that she’s really good. Phil doesn’t have reason to trust straight Adrian, whose interests seem to mostly center around being outside of the house, but he does find himself intrigued by the person walking up to the piano. She’s tall, but not taller than Adrian, wearing black skinny jeans and a black jumper. Her brown hair is trimmed short around her ears and neck, descending curls over her forehead.
“Hi, I’m Dan Howell, and if you have to refer to me I go by any pronouns. This song’s about pride.”
It’s so no-nonsense and matter of fact, it keeps Phil’s interest.
Dan sets her hands over the keys. Phil notices a plaster around the nail of her ring finger. It looks like she’s about to start playing, but then her shoulders relax and she looks out at the audience again.
“Do you ever feel like the closet’s a revolving door? You spend all this time realising things about yourself, and how maybe it’s different to what you expected, or what other people expected of you. So you find community, answers anywhere you can find them, right? And you try to make sense of all this stuff going on in your brain or between your legs, hey, who am I to judge. Nature versus nurture or whatever. But then when you’ve done that horrifying task of identifying what’s going on to yourself, trying on this label just in your mind, you feel different. Like maybe you don’t feel like yourself, putting this name on what’s different about you, because maybe the name isn’t for you. Maybe it’s for people who wish you weren’t this way to begin with. But that’s easier, right? Decide on something that at least these people have heard of before and be done with it. Or settle for the visible confusion on their faces when you refuse to define yourself.”
“Maybe that’s what this song is actually about,” she says, turning back down to look down at the piano keys. “But that doesn’t really matter, does it? There’s no lyrics. You’ll take it for what you hear, what makes sense to your circumstances and general understanding of the world. And you might forget it just as fast. Which is kind of what it’s like to walk through this world, to me. People place you in a category based on what makes the most sense to them. And then they’ll forget you. And yet you stay tossing and turning on the inside, knowing who you are but remaining complacent to what you’re perceived as by people who don’t live in your brain.”
“Whatever. It’s just a song.”
There’s a microsecond of silence, and then Dan starts playing. Phil isn’t sure if the whole room is holding its breath or if it’s just him. The melody is somber but the tempo is quick, creating a strange duality that might not be the most pleasing to Phil’s ears, but it makes sense in reference to what Dan said. It’s as though the melody can’t keep up, but there’s no turning back. The beat has been set and whatever the melody is trying to communicate gets lost in the thunderous bass pattern.
Phil really doesn’t want to think about what Dan said. He really would like to leave, and take this strangled feeling elsewhere. But he can’t stop listening to Dan’s song. He can’t stop the intrigue he takes in the way the song’s strange duality eventually blends together to create a beautiful, heart wrenching climax. The melody is finally heard through the chaos and that’s… It’s too much.
When the song ends, Dan nods at the audience, then gets off the stage. There’s applause, nothing more or less than there was for any other performer tonight, but Phil keeps clapping for a second too long after everyone else has stopped. It doesn’t take more than that for Dan to notice him, where she’s already on her way to Adrian and Cornelia. Phil’s never felt more exposed, staring back at someone who just voiced something that he’s tried to push down his whole life. He’s not sure if he’s grateful or resentful, now that he’s on the other side, finally having an explanation for what’s been fucking with his brain for so long.
Ignorance was bliss, but Dan’s eyes are magnetic on Phil’s.
Phil’s surprised by how bright and cheerful Dan sounds, talking to her brother. Adrian seems supportive, even though he questions the talk beforehand. He suggests that it might have been a little too long, and hadn’t Dan said song explanations were convoluted and unnecessary anyway? But Dan shrugs it off, smiling wide, until what must’ve been pleasantries are over and she’s looking at Phil again.
“That was great,” Phil says. The next performance has already started, but Dan keeps looking at him and not saying anything. “I loved the song.”
“Thanks,” Dan says. “Who are you?”
“Oh.” Phil clears his throat. They’ve made their way to the bar, and they’re sitting down on bar stools away from the noise. “I’m Phil. Cornelia’s brother in law.”
“Pronouns?” Dan asks.
Phil somehow stutters without even making a noise. Dan laughs, and then her eyes are so incredibly kind as she reaches out and pats Phil’s arm.
“I’m joking,” she says. “You don’t have to answer that.”
He/him is on the tip of Phil’s tongue. He wants to tell Dan that’s what his pronouns are, they’re his goddamnit, he feels a short rush of entitlement to the prison he put himself in and then he catches himself. What does he have to prove? Why does it feel like proving something to begin with?
Phil smiles at Dan and shrugs, because right now he doesn’t want to answer.
Right now it doesn’t matter to him, whether he insists on agreeing that he’s the gay man everyone else perceives him as anyway, or lets it flutter into space, unaffected by his own social conditioning.
At the same time, hypocritically, he’s got a growing discomfort with the fact that Dan doesn’t seem to insist on being anything, either. She seems to have the same issue Phil does on the opposite end of the spectrum, but then, Phil knows nothing about her. He doesn’t know her history. He only knows what he thinks, and before today he never really questioned the immediacy with which he decided who someone else is for them. At least not before they gave him any reason to doubt it.
And it’s strange to feel as attracted to it, to her, as Phil does. The second Adrian referred to Dan as a ‘she’, as his ‘sister’, Phil made a mental decision about Dan. But if he switched pronouns, seeing as Dan said they’re fine with any, maybe Phil would feel differently about his attraction to him as opposed to how he felt about his attraction to her.
Conversation flows between the two of them for the rest of the night. They’re not talking about anything deep, or out of the ordinary. Phil explains Cornelia’s association with the event and makes a joke about how she’s a better activist as an ally than he is as a living breathing queer person, and it makes Dan laugh. Dan agrees that his straight brother surely does more for LGBT than himself, whom he describes as a ‘dead-end creative’. Phil laughs at that, too, because he much feels the same way. They’ve both got these two things; queer and creative to a fault. Gifted with some of the means to be part of change in a time era that asks for it, and way too busy feeling anxious about it to really do anything with it.
Okay, it’s pretty deep, now that Phil thinks about it. It just doesn’t feel that way, because it’s so easy to talk to Dan, and then Dan keeps touching him and looking at him in this way that Phil would’ve felt weird about in any other circumstances. If he’s honest with himself, he realises it’s because he’d have perceived Dan as a lesbian and never given him an ‘in’ if they’d been introduced somewhere else. Now the evening’s over, though, and they did meet in this particular circumstance. Phil says goodbye to Cornelia, and ends up taking an uber with Dan back to Dan’s place rather than going home alone to his own flat.
Phil expects to feel worried once they’re in Dan’s bed. He expects to second guess himself, and panic about not knowing what to do because he’s never really touched someone without being absolutely certain about how to refer to their body, or what it might look like, but he ends up not worrying about any of that. In the quiet of Dan’s low-lit bedroom, the rush and magnetism that seems to flow between the two of them is as easy to succumb to as it was in the noisy bar. They take off their jeans. They get in bed with boxers and t-shirts on. Dan straddles Phil’s lap and they kiss. A lot. Phil’s been in plenty of situations just like this one. If anything, he feels less worried than he’s done whenever he’s fooled around with someone he just met. And none of those guys have been as good a kisser as Dan, anyway.
After some heated kissing and groping, they settle down. The white-hot intensity of their instantaneous mutual attraction turns into something softer. Dan rests his head on Phil’s chest, and Phil strokes his hair.
“I don’t know if I wanna, like—” Dan gestures vaguely. Phil grabs his hand, letting his thumb run over the lines and creases of his palm. “—right now. Sorry.”
Phil’s already switched focus entirely, much more interested in Dan’s large hand, thinking about all the little things it can do that Phil can’t. Like performing a piano piece that awakens something in a perfect stranger, forcing them to confront something they didn’t know needed confronting. Or to realise he’s allowed to confront it at all. Dan’s apology feels completely misplaced.
“Me neither,” Phil says, turning Dan’s palm down to lie flat on his chest, running his fingers between the knuckles. “I like your hands.”
Dan looks up at him for a second. Phil doesn’t feel brave enough to meet his eyes. Dan kisses him softly.
Phil nods. “Love to.”
“I’ve never really done that.”
“What, brought a guy home?”
“No,” Dan says, rolling his eyes like it’s obvious. He points a banana at Phil, pretending to shoot. Phil lies back down, crying out, accepting his banana death. The morning sun glares right into his eyes by effect, so he squeezes them shut.
“I mean,” Dan says, somehow still keeping track of what they were talking about, “I’ve never brought someone home and not ended up having sex or whatever.”
“I take it your family doesn’t visit,” Phil says, eyes still shut. “I really hope your family doesn’t visit.”
Dan lets out a startled laugh, shifting closer to Phil. He covers Phil’s eyes with his hands, protecting them from the sun. Phil relaxes.
“How the fuck’s that the first thing you say to that?” Dan asks, still giggling. “That’s horrible.”
“Your hands smell like bananas,” Phil comments, trying not to laugh. He moves his head to get his nose closer, sniffing Dan’s hand like a moron. Dan’s delighted, though, still laughing like Phil isn’t being weird and inappropriate and immature but actually like, funny? Phil always means to be funny, but people often don’t get that.
“Good for you,” Dan smiles. Phil opens his eyes, no longer blinded by the sun. Dan gets his face close and kisses him.
It’s the first time they’ve kissed today. Outside of the weirdness of last night. Like, they’re just hanging out now, they’ve had breakfast and showered, and apparently they’re allowed to kiss. It’s really… nice.
“You taste like banana too,” Phil grins.
“Is this your version of dirty talk?” Dan asks. “Weirdo.”
Phil shakes his head. He got his ‘being annoying’ done for the time being. Now it’s time to try to convince Dan that he’s not a freak.
“Not really,” Phil says. “Unless you want it to be?”
Dan goes quiet, looking completely incredulous. Okay, now Phil’s done being annoying.
“Sorry,” he laughs. “You were trying to say something. You should say what you were meaning to say.”
“I don’t know. Now I’m just thinking about how I shouldn’t eat bananas before I kiss people.”
“Well, you killed me with a banana,” Phil reasons. “I’m a haunted ghost now. I’m gonna have a heightened sensitivity to bananas.”
“Right,” Dan says. He’s got a secret little smile on his face.
They stay lying next to each other in bed, listening to sirens and watching the sun ray disappear as the London sky inevitably goes cloudy. Phil looks at Dan’s bare legs, at the soft hairs that cover them. He feels a strange impulse to kiss them, but now he’s unable to move or to initiate anything.
“I was gonna say,” Dan says. They’ve been silent for a bit, not distracted by phones or anything, and yet Phil doesn’t feel in a rush to be anywhere else. “I was gonna say—I don’t know. I feel weird saying what I was gonna say now.”
“Oh.” Phil’s not sure if that’s his fault. Maybe he should apologise. “You don’t have to. I’m not easy to talk to.”
“You are,” Dan insists. He looks Phil in the eyes. “You’re really easy to talk to, actually.”
Dan moves closer again. He looks at Phil, and Phil looks back. Maybe now Phil feels a little bit able to do something. He closes the distance between their mouths and kisses Dan softly. He gets a strange fear for a fraction of a second, an idea that Dan’s gonna move away from him, that he’s done with this weird guy that ended up in his bed and didn’t even get him off yet. But Dan deepens the kiss, and Phil’s hands twitch. He wants to touch, but he’s kind of scared.
“You good?” Dan whispers.
“Are you gay?”
That’s not something Phil’s been asked while he’s kissing someone before.
“I… am. Yeah. Are you?”
Why is he shooting the question back? Does he want Dan to say yes, because that means Dan’s a guy that likes guys? Phil doesn’t even think he’s exactly a guy. But he knows what it looks like. That was the whole thing that drew him to Dan in the first place, understanding that.
“Kind of,” Dan nods. “I meant to ask if this, like, works for you?”
That’s a question Phil understands. That’s a question that’s easy to answer. “Yeah.”
Dan smiles, cheeks dimpling. He purses his lips like he’s trying not to smile too much.
“Come here,” he says.
Phil turns to him. Dan wraps his arms around his neck. Phil levels himself on an elbow against the mattress, finding balance by grabbing Dan’s waist. Dan breathes hard against his mouth before Phil slides his tongue between his lips.
Phil is hard. He’s got a thigh pushed up between Dan’s legs. He already knew, but right now he’s incredibly aware of the fact that Dan doesn’t have a dick. Dan is warm against Phil’s thigh. Phil can feel that even through Dan’s underwear. Dan’s chest is soft against his own. And it’s nice. It’s not something Phil’s fantasised about, rather something he’s been scared of, but because it’s Dan’s body, it feels amazing. Not wrong, or less like a guy, or like he’s not completely what Phil wants. Dan is complete. But the more they kiss, the more their hands wander, the more Phil feels incomplete. He wonders fleetingly if this is why he’s avoided bodies like Dan’s. Not because of a sexual preference, but because—
Phil moves away. That strangled feeling from last night returns. A billion complex half-thoughts are thundering inside his skull, causing him to untether from his body. He’s not here. And at the same time he’s viscerally, painfully, in this moment.
He looks over at Dan, at the flushed, messy haired state he left him in. Phil knows himself. He’s internalised what’s happening before. It’s never been quite like this, though. It’s never broken him like this. That feeling never managed to get this close to him. But he’s aware, always has been. He’s aware of the real reason he’s only ever been sexual with cis guys rather than trans guys, or cis women, or trans women. Because being around them, let alone touching them, fills him with an inconsolable longing for something he’ll never be, or have. It’s a longing he hasn’t reconciled with. He hasn’t mourned, because he’s refused to accept that there’s something he might be missing. That there’s something that isn’t quite right with the way he feels in relation with the way he looks, or how he’s perceived.
But it’s not defined enough to give him an answer either. It’s not binary. There’s no guideline to what steps he can take to feel more in control, or look more like he feels.
“We can stop,” Dan says.
They’re still looking at each other. It’s only been a second since Phil pulled away. Dan’s here and he’s hot, and Phil wants him.
“Phil,” Dan says. Apparently Phil didn’t say that out loud. “Hey.”
He comes closer. He strokes Phil’s cheek, knuckles brush over skin. It’s comforting.
“Sorry,” Phil chokes out.
“Don’t,” Dan whispers. “Okay? Just… don’t.”
Phil kisses him. He wishes he could articulate everything he’s feeling. Tell Dan that it’s not that he’s a gay man who’s not down with the way Dan’s body feels. He wants to tell Dan that his body is perfect, and he wants to touch it more. But he’s barely started coming to terms with this, with himself. With the fact that who he told himself he was and who he’s been for most of his life is a consolation, a quick fix to avoid thinking about his identity and what it truly means to himself.
What calling himself a gay man means to him is simply… words. Words that best fit him into a world where the complexities of who he really is won’t ever be understood or seen without him explicitly explaining it.
It’s so hard to speak. Saying anything that’s on his mind feels like he’d push himself into just another corner, one that would have even worse repercussions on his psyche than the one he’s grown used to.
Dan’s stroking his cheek, and they’re kissing softly. Phil has calmed down. His heart isn’t beating quite as fast as it was a moment ago. He’s here, but not as painfully.
“Hey,” Dan says, face so close.
“Hi,” Phil says.
“You’re pretty.” Dan kisses his cheek. “You’re so pretty.”
“I’m scared,” Phil whimpers. Fuck.
“Is it me?” Dan’s voice is soft, comforting. “Or? Brain?”
“Brain,” Phil says. “You’re perfect. I just— ”
Fuck fuck fuck.
“—I’m not scared of you. I’m scared of myself. Because you make me feel like I don’t have to be. But I keep catching myself. I don’t know how to exist with someone that lets me just… be. And not compromise for what someone else would understand. Because I feel like you do understand.”
“I think I do,” Dan says. “I mean, you know what Adrian calls me. And that’s fine with me, but. It’s just that. It’s just fine. And sometimes it’s really, really not.”
“Yeah,” Phil says. He lets out a breath. “Yeah, exactly.”
They’re silent for a beat.
“D’you wanna play Mario Kart?” Dan asks.
Phil nods, flooded with relief at that one question, at the chance of a change of subject. “Yeah. Let’s.”
Dan’s too good at Mario Kart for Phil to have time to let any brain space to stray from focusing on the game if he wants to beat him. That’s good. A lot of things are good in Dan’s bedroom, like playing video games and kissing. Phil kind of doesn’t want to leave. If the things he thought of before were hard with Dan there, he can’t imagine what they’ll be like when he’s alone. But he has to leave, eventually, and he does. He’s got Dan’s number in his phone and a desperate need to message him the moment he’s out on the street again, away from Dan’s comforting yet confronting presence.
They end up texting a lot. They have a pretty much never ending back and forth over text, talking about anything and everything and nothing. Dan reveals that the only times he feels like his gender is during sex with people that agree to refer to him like he asks them to. Except, he adds, Phil. He says he doesn’t care as much about it when he’s with Phil, because Phil gets it.
Phil explains more about why he freaked out with Dan, and Dan definitely gets that. He says he’s been in similar situations. They joke about how weird sex is, and how they definitely don’t have to have sex, but also want to see each other again. And touch each other. And kiss.
Those conversations get Phil feeling hot, and when he’s alone with Dan as a thought in his brain, he’s able to push past the discomfort he experienced when they were in bed together. It makes him think that maybe the next time they see each other, it might not be an issue anymore. But Dan tells him time and time again that it’s not a need-to-do, it’s a want-to-do, and that there’s a lot of other things he wants to do with Phil. He tells him that Phil is already giving him what he needs from a friend or a partner.
It’s strange, this connection. Phil can’t put a word to what it is, much like he can’t define himself. He worries, sometimes, that he only feels this way about Dan because Dan opened these floodgates and caught him in a vulnerable moment. Maybe Phil would have felt the same way if a different person did the same thing. But.
No one else did. That’s the thing.