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Professionally, Yours

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It’s the second Friday in April when Dan sees the advertisement printed on a half-soaked newspaper and discarded on a bus stop bench. The drizzle that’s been plaguing the University of Manchester’s campus for the past week is finally easing up, and the gorgeous weather is a stark contrast to Dan’s current mood. Birds are starting their songs again in the trees and the sun is just shining through the thin cloud cover, making every drop of rainwater sparkle.

He leans over to look at the ad more closely, the seat of his jeans already thoroughly soaked from the dripping bench. The newspaper is unpleasantly soggy to the touch, but he can just make out the words bleeding blue-black off the page.

Business professional seeking regular housekeeper. Must be over 16 and willing to work with employer on site. Wages £13.00 hourly. Duties include basic housekeeping and cleaning. Approx. 12 hours a week. Contact

Dan bites his lip as he rereads the ad, painfully aware of the fact that he hasn’t had more than ten pounds in his pocket for the past two weeks. His part-time job at the shitty little petrol station in town just isn’t cutting it. Hesitantly, he pulls his phone out, scrunching his nose up at the cracked screen, and decides to make a note of the email address just before his bus pulls up to the kerb. Who cares about his significant lack of cleaning skills?

He composes an email to this amazingphil later that night, making a futile attempt to be funny once or twice. It doesn’t work. He sends it anyway, because it’s a quarter past three in the morning, he’s had far too much coffee in the past twenty-four hours to possibly be healthy, and the stack of homework on his desk is starting to resemble the fucking Eiffel Tower.

He wakes up on Saturday still in his jeans and leather jacket with a bad taste in his mouth. His phone is on his chest, and when he lifts it up and unlocks it, a reply is waiting on the screen.


Hello Dan,

Thanks for responding so quickly! You sound perfect for the job. Does this coming Monday work for you to start? Let me know and I’ll send you my address.


Dan rubs his eyes as hard as he can and looks back at the phone screen. He can’t decide if he’s lucky or stupid.

He replies with a quick agreement and, after a quick change of clothes, a perfunctory face-wash, and a half-assed hair-straightening, spends the remainder of his Saturday holed up in his room not-really-doing his homework. Halfway through the afternoon, his phone buzzes on his bedside table, and he freezes, staring at it for a long moment before crossing the room.

He looks at the address on his screen blankly for a solid ten seconds, and then copies and pastes it into maps. It’s a good twenty minutes by bus from his dormitory, plus walking because apparently this “amazing” Phil lives way out in the middle of nowhere, but he honestly couldn’t care less. He has a job now.

He responds with an overly cheerful, rather shell-shocked see you on Monday! and realises he feels like a real proper adult for maybe the first time ever. He can’t quite decide if he likes it or not.

Dan takes the bus as close to Phil’s house as he can. Thankfully, there are no transfers, but the shitload of stops between point A and point B more than compensate for the time he’d presumably have saved. He whiles away the ride there playing Temple Run, and once he hops off his bus, resigns himself to walking the rest of the way. It’s been a cold and windy April so far, and the bad weather’s returned in full force today. Wonderful.

The country road he takes according to the route on his phone just gets more and more desolate as he goes, winding through sprawling, extensive square miles of very flat fields. For a little while he trudges by acres of corn sprouts, but beyond that it’s unkempt and half-dead grass with the occasional patch of thistle and/or half-hearted attempt at a wildflower.

It’s half an hour, more or less, before his destination comes into view, and once it does he has to stop dead and rub his eyes to make sure he’s seeing things right.

After a moment, he forces his feet to keep moving towards what looks a whole lot like a proper mansion. A frigid drizzle is starting to fall around him. There’s a wrought-iron gate at the end of the drive, flanked by stone columns and spiky fence, and Dan’s relieved to find it unlocked. It creaks softly as he pushes it open, the bottom scraping over the gravel drive, which crunches under his heels as he makes his way through the rain up to the broad front steps of the―can he even call it a house? It has fucking pillars beside the double front doors.

He makes his way up the steps, worn shoes scuffing softly on the stone, and pauses when he reaches the top. Briefly, he considers the ornate metal knocker, wrought in the shape of a lion, but settles on the doorbell. A soft, expensive-sounding chime sounds from inside the house, and he stands back as soon as it reaches his ears. His heart is pounding in his chest. He feels distinctly awkward standing there, and he’s wishing he’d worn something other than his years-old leather jacket that’s settled permanently in the shape of his shoulders by now. It does provide a grounding kind of comfort in this new, strange environment, but he’s positive he looks far too wannabe-edgy to provide any sort of good first impression to this so-called ‘amazing’ Phil.

The door swings opens without any warning, and he jumps before taking a step back. His heart is thumping in his chest. His feet skid a bit on the rain-wet edge of the top step, and he tries not to fall over backwards as he meets the eyes of the man on the threshold. The aforementioned man, who can only be Phil, flashes him an Oscar-worthy grin, and maintaining his balance and/or breathing capabilities suddenly becomes a lot more difficult.

“Hello!” says Phil, tone polite and cheerful, holding out a hand to shake and fixing Dan with eyes that are probably blue normally but look intimidatingly stormy under the bleak, cloudy light today. “You must be Dan.”

“Y-yeah,” says Dan weakly, taking his proffered hand. “Hello.” Phil’s fingers are warm, and his grip is firm. He turns away after they’ve shaken and gestures Dan inside, glancing over his shoulder briefly to make sure he’s being followed. Their haircuts are almost comically similar.

Dan resists the urge to bury his face in his hands. He can’t decide if things right now are turning out terribly, or extremely well.

He follows Phil through a kind of mudroom, past an umbrella stand, and into an intimidatingly spacious rectangular room that looks, essentially, like a dance studio. The floor is immaculately polished and the two longer walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

The sleek, modernistic interior is at a thoroughly confusing counterpoint to the majestic stone and wrought-iron outside, but Dan likes it. The room is warmly lit, and there’s a huge painting that looks a lot like a Jackson Pollock piece hung on the non-mirrored wall at the far end of the room. There are no furnishings and only two doors: the one they’d entered from and another, exactly opposite the first.

“I know it’s a bit of a strange set-up,” Phil says, voice jolting Dan back to the present. Dan glances at him. It’s ridiculously difficult to meet Phil’s eyes, especially for any longer than a moment or two. His voice is warm and deep and just low enough to be considered gravelly, and at this rate is likely to cause Dan heart palpitations.

“One of my earliest business connections bought this mansion years ago,” Phil continues, tone gentle and relaxed but still, somehow, commanding attention. “He fixed it up with the intention of renting parts of it out to people who needed the space, but he passed away before his plan could really gain momentum. I took it on instead, in his memory, and that’s kind of why I needed a housekeeper. The people who come here―dance classes in this room, mostly, but different stuff in other rooms―try and clean up, but.” He sucks his lower lip into his mouth, making a you know what I mean kind of face, and Dan attempts a sympathetic expression and digs his nails into his palms, because fuck.

“I really appreciate this, by the way,” Phil adds, locking eyes with him, and it’s impossible to look away. Suddenly, the air between them feels charged, almost crackling with sudden, vibrant emotions―which are almost definitely one-sided.

“No problem,” Dan replies, disproportionately proud of himself for getting the words right in one go. He tries furiously not to blush as Phil shifts his weight from one foot to the other, hooking the first two fingers of his left hand in his pocket and pressing his wrist outward in a position that looks more uncomfortable than anything else. Dan lets it slide, mostly a little distracted by the way the rest of him looks, in a pair of suit trousers and a crisp white button down with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Dan is torn between being unable to look at him and not wanting look away at all.

“Sorry for the formal attire,” Phil says, and Dan yanks his gaze back up to Phil’s face, the back of his neck burning. He was staring, and they both know it. “I just got home from work,” Phil continues, and Dan nods sympathetically and immediately afterward feels a bit of a moron.

“Where do you work?” he asks without thinking, and Phil raises an elegant eyebrow, presumably at his blunt tone. Dan considers stuttering an apology, or possibly taking the words back as best he can, and ends up biting his tongue instead and staring at the floor. His desperate attempt to not blush is failing utterly.

“I work in a local publishing company, I edit books,” Phil replies. His voice―low and warm and liltingly Northern―sends brief chills down Dan’s spine. “I dabble in writing a bit myself, but I’m not very good.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Dan says, looking up from his feet a little too quickly. Phil gives him a smile that’s as dazzling as the rest of him, but doesn’t feel very genuine.

“Anyway,” he says, taking on a sharper, more businesslike demeanour, “you’re here to work, not listen to me ramble.” It’s a polite yet rather coldly impersonal way of saying that this conversation isn’t one they should be having. Dan’s heart sinks, but Phil’s voice distracts him before he can beat himself up over being so goddamn awkward.

“Let me show you what needs doing.”

Dan follows Phil across the spotless floor of the dance room, mentally slapping himself upside the head and trying to listen as closely as he can to the instructions he’s given. He’s lead through the door at the far end of the dance room, into a slightly larger-than-average, ridiculously clean kitchen. He tries his level best to remember everything he’s told, but Phil is thoroughly distracting, with his offensively prominent Adam’s apple that keeps making Dan’s eyes return to his neck, and his offensively broad shoulders that, even though they rest concave whenever Phil pauses, somehow manage to strain his white button down every time he shifts. The tails of his shirt pull just on the decent side of coming untucked if he bends over. Dan’s nails have probably left imprints in his palms by now.

Dan manages to take in most of the information he’s told during his tour of the first two floors of the house (apparently there are three, not counting the attic and basement), and is left stranded in the upstairs kitchen. It’s been left in disarray, and it’s even larger than the kitchen just past the dance room. He looks around himself, runs his hands through his hair, and squares his shoulders. He’s going to fucking do this.

It’s surprisingly strenuous work, unloading and reloading a dishwasher again without making too much of a racket. Halfway through cramming an inordinate amount of dirty spoons (honestly, what had the caterers of the last event held here been serving?) into their own compartment, he realises that he doesn’t actually know how to run this kind of dishwasher. He has a minor crisis on the kitchen floor before he takes a wild stab at the buttons and more or less runs away, hoping for the best.

While avoiding the dishwasher, he scrubs the counters, cleans the oven of a mysterious blackened crust, sweeps and mops the floor and sorts the recycling. By the time he’s done he still has half an hour left and he’s sporting a bruise on his cheek (he’d tried to lift the motor of a blender into a cabinet above the stove and misjudged the weight) and a cut on his hand (Knife. Sink of soapy water. No gloves. He’d been too embarrassed to ask for a plaster and have to tell the story).

He emerges at the end of his shift with a clean kitchen and a freshly Hoovered fifty billion feet of hallway behind him. His jacket is slung over his shoulder, his hair is a mess, and his face is most likely bright red. When he comes downstairs, he finds Phil sat on a barstool at the counter in the first kitchen, laptop open and surrounded by an armada of paperwork. He’s got a pen clamped between his teeth and his brow furrowed and his fringe mussed up into some kind of quiff, and on top of all that his goddamn shirt’s untucked. Dan runs his free hand through his hair, again, and tries to remember how lungs are meant to operate.

“Done?” Phil asks, jolting Dan back to reality. He swallows hard and nods. Phil half-closes his computer, pushes off from the counter and stands to stride over to Dan. He holds out his hand again, and they shake. It’s just as embarrassing and electrifying as before.

“See you tomorrow, same time?” Phil says, but it sounds more like a confirmation than a proper question. One of his eyebrows is raised, and Dan swallows again and nods. Phil glances down at their hands, and they let go at the same time before locking gazes. It’s mildly gratifying when Phil is the one who breaks the eye contact, and when he looks up again his face―hitherto the closest thing Dan’s ever seen to the supposed shade of skin called ‘porcelain’―is just barely flushed.

“Thanks so much,” he says, and there’s an awkward moment before Dan realises that’s his cue to leave. He licks his lips and nods and tries to keep from catching flame as he skitters back through the offensively roomy dance room and the little mudroom, all the way to the front doors. Phil follows him a bit more sedately and watches him down the steps. Dan tries not to meet his eyes and resigns himself to a night of agonizing about how socially inept he is. He’s just dreading his return tomorrow when, as his feet hit the gravel, his name is called.

“Hey, Dan! Wait a second.”

Dan stops, turns. He’s ridiculously tense. Phil is leaning against the doorframe, the line of his body lax and casual, one hand still on the handle. He grins, and this time it looks genuine.

“This really isn’t very professional of me, but, um.” He glances down at his feet, looks back up. Dan is vibrating with anticipation. “Is there an easier way to contact you than email?”

Dan is sure the blush that’s spreading across his face is a blush to end all blushes. “Y-yeah,” he falters, silently cursing himself for stuttering, and pulls out his phone. “I’ll give you my number, here.”

“Oh no, just let me add myself,” Phil says, the heels of his shoes tip-tapping on the steps as he comes down to stand beside Dan. He takes the phone from Dan’s hands (their fingers brush during the transaction, and Dan dies a little inside) and doesn’t even blink at the cracked screen that Dan can’t afford to repair. He taps his number in and hands it back.

“Text me so I have yours as well?” he asks, his eyes shining in the cloudy light, and Dan looks quickly away so his red face isn’t entirely obvious and texts Dan’s number to his most recently added contact. Phil’s pocket pings, and he pulls his phone out, unlocking it and smiling briefly at the screen.

“Thanks again!” he says, slipping his phone back into his pocket before waving and disappearing back inside the house. Dan stares down his phone, Phil Lester’s contact information staring back at him, and legitimately smacks himself in the forehead.

This is going to go so well.

Surprisingly, their arrangement doesn’t crash and burn.

By the end of his second week Dan is noticing the difference in both the contents of his wallet (accumulating), his mental stability (deteriorating), and his housekeeping skills (off the goddamn charts). He’s not sure exactly how he’s still managing to control himself, working for one of the fucking prettiest people he’s ever seen. Phil Lester seemingly can’t live a single day during which he looks anything less than ridiculously attractive, and making eye contact isn’t getting any easier.

On the third Monday of his employment (a gloom-filled, dreary kind of day, full of heavy darkened clouds, strong winds, and the threatening promise of rain), Dan knocks on the door and hears a faint, shouted “Come in!”

He pauses, a little thrown. That’s never happened before; usually Phil comes to answer the door himself. The thought that something might be wrong crosses his mind. He tries to ignore it.

The door swings open smooth and silent, just like as the gate at the end of the drive (he’d oiled both sets of hinges last week). He half-tiptoes inside, leaving his shoes in the mudroom and pushing through into the dance room in socked feet, glancing around. It’s empty, and all the lights are low. The back of his neck prickles.

“Hello?” Dan calls, taking a couple more tentative steps forward. His toes slide across the silky wood floor (he’d given it a thorough cleaning and polishing last Wednesday).

“Hello!” Phil replies, voice echoing and muffled, and Dan subconsciously relaxes, relieved. It sounds like Phil’s in the kitchen just through the dance room, one of the places he tends to sit and work regularly while Dan’s cleaning.

Dan hurries to the other end of the room, making it safely through the far door and pausing just inside the kitchen, blinking until his vision adjusts to the sudden change in lighting. As soon as it does, he nearly has a coronary.

Phil’s sat at the bar (like usual), his work spread out in front of him (like usual), only this time he’s not in his work clothes. No, today he’s in dark gray trackies and a deep red t-shirt, his wrists resting on the edge of the counter and the light catching the faint curve of his upper arms, the nape of his neck, his Adam’s apple. Dan’s throat goes dry.

Phil glances over his shoulder (goddamn broad-ass shoulders, Dan is so fucking weak) and his face breaks into a bright smile. “Hey! Glad you could make it. How are you today?”

Dan stands there gormlessly, probably gaping like a dead fish. It takes him a second to register Phil’s words, and a bit longer than that to reply.

“Yeah!” He coughs, trying and failing to remedy his dry mouth. He feels rather as if he’s going to spontaneously combust at any moment. “Good. You?”

He takes a better look, and yeah, he’s going to explode. No doubt about it. That shirt’s v-neck is far too low, and far, far too fucking flattering. Phil’s shoulders are curled forward, his posture relaxed, and he―Dan needs a moment. He can see Phil’s ankles under the hems of the rucked-up trackies, and his shirt is untucked and barely clinging around his waist, fitted just enough to showcase the softness there. This is the first time he’s been even remotely casual around Dan, and it is altogether too much.

“Not bad, not bad,” Phil half-laughs, standing up and stretching. His shirt rides up his waist―of course it fucking does, forget exploding, Dan is going to die―baring a flawless strip of soft, pale stomach. Dan can’t decide if he wants to pull Phil’s shirt back down or yank it all the way up and off. Maybe he could just cry instead.

“You ready, then? Need anything?” Phil eyes him, settling back down and rolling his shoulders, and Dan shakes his head. He’s as ready as he’s ever going to get with this man stood three feet away from him. Fuck.

He’s far too distracted throughout their regular check-ins to register anything more than the bare minimum of what Phil’s telling him. He’s staring and blushing like never before, positive he’s the approximate colour of a beet, and he’d be nervous that Phil would notice but he can’t really bring himself to care because Phil looks good enough to fucking eat and he can’t deal.

Throughout his work hours he’s unable to tear his mind away from that gorgeous strip of lower stomach, but the time slips by quickly enough. It starts raining about halfway through, and by the time he’s done, it’s properly pouring outside. He’s really not looking forward to powering through the thirty-minute trek back to the nearest bus stop in this mess.

He makes his way downstairs, shrugging his leather jacket on. Vehemently, he orders himself to calmly and sedately, without stuttering, tell Phil he’s headed out and he’ll be back tomorrow. He thumps down the stairs, not really watching where he’s going, and nearly collides with Phil himself as his feet hit level ground.

“Shit!” he half-yells, throwing both hands up and stumbling backwards. His heels hit the edge of the bottom step, and he’s halfway to the floor when Phil launches himself forward and snatches the waist of Dan’s jacket, yanking him back upright and letting him go again before he can really register what just happened.

Dan straightens up, dishevelled, and shakes his hair back into place. He meets Phil’s eyes―fucking hell, they’re a different fucking colour every time he sees them, shifting from grey to blue to green with flecks of gold. He looks away, blushing, if it’s even possible at this point, even more than before.

“I’m sorry,” Phil apologises, reaching out and brushing something off Dan’s shoulder. Dan reflexively glances at Phil’s hand and nearly hits it with his chin. He wants to disappear.

“No, it’s my fault,” he says a bit hopelessly, running both hands through his hair, one after the other. His leather jacket creaks slightly at the movement, and his mind immediately goes to the way Phil had grabbed it, as if magnetized to the memory. “I was just about to head out anyway. I’ll―um―”

“Stay for a bit and have a cup of tea, it’s nasty out there,” Phil offers, motioning towards the sheets of rain bombarding the windows. Dan freezes, meeting his eyes. He’s not sure if he’s imagining things or not. Maybe he’s heard Phil wrong, or maybe that was, miracle of miracles, a genuine offer.

“I mean it,” Phil adds, a hint of laughter in his voice, and Dan cracks a weak smile (he’s crying inside) and nods.

Five minutes later he’s leaning against the kitchen counter as Phil bustles around in front of him, figuring out a kettle and mugs. It’s awkward (and a little endearing, that he’s sticking to his promise of tea), but at this point in time everything around Phil is awkward to some degree. Dan’s stomach is full of butterflies.

“I haven’t just sat down and had a cup of tea in too long,” Phil says as he turns on the tap, filling the kettle before setting it on the stove to boil. He leans against the counter opposite Dan and crosses his arms, his shirt stretching over his shoulders. Dan’s head goes a little spinny.

“It’s good to take a minute to yourself and stop looking at a screen,” Phil continues, head tilted a little to one side. He’s watching Dan intently, in a way that’s got a soft kind of welcome about it. “It’s good to remember other people exist.”

“It is, isn’t it,” Dan replies, shifting against the counter and trying to keep his cool. “I know I definitely need to take a break more.”

“What are you doing that’s keeping you so busy?” Phil asks, and his tone―oh god, his voice in general―somehow makes it easier than it ever has been before for Dan to start talking. He starts with uni, but that somehow spills into how he’s struggling with his stupid law degree, and how overwhelmed he’s been lately and how much he wrestles with procrastination and wasting time and he’s on his way to failing half his classes. He stops himself only when the kettle starts whistling.

“I had no idea I was hiring such a troubled student,” Phil says, crossing the kitchen and turning off the burner. He’s got Dan pinned with this sideways kind of look, eyes gleaming, and Dan gapes a little, dumbstruck.

“I’m not―I don’t―I’m not troubled, I’m just―”

Phil breaks into laughter, moving over to the mugs and hooking one little finger in both handles. “I was teasing you,” he says once he’s quite finished, glancing at Dan with an air that would be sly but for the huge smile still on his face. “Don’t get your trousers in a knot.” Dan’s torn between anger at being needled, or just up and swooning at that laugh (and the way Phil’s grin stretches from ear to ear and he tips his head back and lets his shoulders shake).

The mugs clink against each other as Phil goes over to the stove and grabs the kettle, effectively giving him no room to hold anything else. He mutters something that sounds like a curse and holds his hands out away from his body, glancing around for somewhere to set everything down.

He’s halfway to the counter Dan’s leaning against when he stumbles over apparently nothing and his knees buckle, sending him towards the floor at an alarming velocity. Dan reacts on instinct, diving forward and snatching the kettle from his hands. He swears loudly as the still-searing metal hits his hands, a stark contrast to Phil’s half-whispered profanity, and just about drops it before he spins and somehow manages to set it down without slopping boiling water everywhere. The whole ordeal lasts about three seconds.

“Shit! Are you okay?” Phil yelps. Dan squeezes his eyes shut against an equal mixture of pain and humiliation. He’s still stood in the middle of the kitchen, doubled over and curled in on himself, throbbing hands clutched to his chest. He doesn’t think he wants to stand up ever again.

Somewhere behind him he hears the mugs clink onto the counter beside the kettle, and then there are two hands on his shoulders, pulling him gently back into a more human shape. Dan blinks violently several times, fighting back reflexive tears, not meeting Phil’s eyes.

The hands move from his shoulders to the zips of his jacket―a pinky brushes against the bare skin just above the collar of his shirt, and through the haze of mortification filling his every sense Dan somehow manages to let that simple, probably accidental touch get him even more flustered―and then there are fingers wrapping around his wrists, carefully prying his hands apart and turning them palm up. The touch is distractingly nice. Dan is practically vibrating, and for the love of god he can’t tell which of his current searing emotions is causing it.

Finally he manages to look at Phil’s face, and whoops, there go his lungs, out of commission again. Those eyes are downcast, and Dan can see the faint shadow of Phil’s lashes, cast over his high cheekbones. His hands on Dan’s skin are extremely soft, and warm, and shit. Dan’s so fucked.

“Let me get you something for that,” Phil murmurs, glancing up and letting their eyes lock. It only lasts for a single electrifying second before he steers Dan forcibly over to one of the bar stools and sits him down. Dan watches him out of the room, thoroughly speechless. Slowly, his heart calms down.

When Phil comes back in, Dan is pouring tea, ignoring the low, throbbing pain in his hands. He can take care of himself, he’s a grown-ass man (or at least he’s trying). He doesn’t need another grown-ass man to baby him every time he gets a little hurt.

“What on earth―” Phil rushes over to him and sits him down with a little more determination this time, laying Dan’s hands palms-up on the counter and ripping something bandage-y open with his teeth. When he speaks again, it’s impossible to ignore just how very soft and warm he sounds. “Sit still and let me patch you up, it’s my fault you got hurt.”

Dan cringes slightly, but quietly admits to himself that even though he might not need to be babied by Phil Lester, he might be willing to tolerate it.

Phil goes about the task of treating and bandaging Dan’s hands with an almost painful delicacy, and a sense of great importance. It’s a little bit too endearing, and by the time Dan’s been taped up and the pain has faded a little, he’s actually registered their situation and is having a hard time keeping his head on straight. Phil is sat barely two feet away from him, practically holding his hands, dressed in that fucking shirt and they’re completely alone.

“You still want that tea?” Phil asks, finally looking up again after sweeping all the various medical equipment off to the side. Dan shrugs and nods, examining his thoroughly wrapped-up hands. The bandage to injury ratio seems a little off, but he almost thinks this could be a barely-passable excuse for failing to turn in his English homework tomorrow―yet again.

Phil stands up and gives him a little bit of a smile, and Dan’s heart, unbidden, does this stupid little fluttery thing and then he’s examining his lap like it hold the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Anything to try and hide this fucking blush that just won’t go away. He’s not twelve, this idiotic little crush is ridiculous through-and-through, but Dan’s never been good at controlling his feelings.

But as Phil sets a mug of tea on the counter and sits down on the bar stool facing Dan’s, he can’t help but hope (desperately and probably uselessly, but he hopes all the same) that if he does end up falling in love with this man he barely knows, at least he won’t regret it.

“Heading out?”

Dan nods, pausing in the doorway between Phil’s work kitchen and the dance room to look back over his shoulder at Phil himself. The third Friday of May has arrived and Manchester has finally decided to accept that it’s springtime, so it’s properly sunny and warm outside for once. There’s a gentle breeze drifting in through the open windows, carrying the scent of sunshine and making the ends of the curtains flutter. On the walk to the house that morning, Dan had passed an astounding quantity of wildflowers blooming along the edges of the country road between Phil’s house and the nearest bus stop. For once he’s actually looking forward to his hike back.

He is not, however, looking forward to what he has to face when he gets back to his dorm.

“Yeah,” he replies, meeting Phil’s eyes. He’s gotten significantly better at doing that in the past few weeks, although it’s still just as butterfly-inducing. “I gotta get back and write an English paper by tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, what’s it on?”

Dan sighs. “Literature in ancient civilizations and the effects it’s had on significant works of fiction in the early twentieth century to present day―or something.”

Phil makes a smiling noise somewhere between impressed and sympathetic, and Dan gives him a bit of a smile, taking a half-step farther away, into the dance room and towards the front door. “So yeah. I’ve got a lot to get done by tomorrow.”

“No, wait―” Phil says, and Dan pauses yet again and looks back, eyebrows raised.

“I could give you a couple tips if you like,” Phil offers, his voice almost disconcertingly hopeful, like he’s the one nervous about gaining approval. Dan settles back on his heels in the negative space between the two rooms, leaning against the door frame. This feels a bit surreal.

“You mean―for free, you mean? You’d really―?”

“Only if you have the time,” Phil replies, sitting forward on his stool and turning it away from the counter and his seemingly unending sea of paperwork. Dan moves a little closer, a little bit back into the kitchen. A cloud covers the sun outside, and he blinks, adjusting to the shift in light.


He glances at the digital clock on the stove. It’s already late afternoon, and he has plans to go out that night with a couple of people he kind of gets along with in his dorm building, so he can’t push it too late. Even so, Phil’s looking at him with something remarkably akin to puppy-dog eyes and Dan can’t find it in his forlorn, English-failing self to say no to free help.

“Okay,” he manages, and Phil’s hesitant little half-smile breaks into a grin so ear-to-ear and absolutely sunshine-bright that Dan’s heart skips a beat and he forgets to regret anything. As he sits himself down at the bar stool beside Phil’s, the sky shifts again and suddenly the room is bathed in sunlight. A half-hearted breeze picks up the ends of the curtain and plays with the tips of Dan’s fringe. He brushes it impatiently back into place, trying not to blush.

Fuck this. He’d thought that, in the weeks he and Phil had gone without having any out-of-the-ordinary encounter, he might have gotten over his silly little crush. Apparently not, because now he’s turning red simply because they’re sat next to each other.

Fuck this.

Although, as Phil starts talking, Dan, somehow, manages to simultaneously take in the information he’s being given and also slowly find the courage to look from Phil’s hands―god, he has nice hands―up to his shoulders (concave with the way he’s sitting, but still offensively broad) and then to his face. And shit does he looks nice in this light, all warm and easy with his hair ruffled from the gentle wind and his dress shirt creased around the edges and his sleeves pushed up to his elbows so he can gesticulate freely.

“You’ve studied Livius Andronicus?” Phil asks, sitting forward with his hands in his lap for once and his eyebrows raised, clearly waiting for an answer.

Dan coughs a bit too loudly. “Yeah, we touched on him, but there wasn’t really a whole lot of information. This whole project has a few major plot holes.”

“Who’s your teacher this year?”

“Professor Anderson.” Dan clears his throat, unsure if he’s allowed to tell Phil his honest opinion of his teacher. Phil, however, raises one hand in a theatrical gesture and looks away dramatically.

“Say no more,” he sighs, flicking his hair out of his eyes and letting his free hand find a place over his heart. Dan lets out an involuntary kind of giggle, and Phil grins, relaxing back into his regular posture. “I know him,” he elaborates. “I worked with him when I was just starting in the editing business years back. He’s a great scholar, but a terrible teacher.”

Dan nods vehemently in agreement, but he can’t think of a quick enough response to carry on this particular portion of their conversation, and Phil dives back into his monologue about ancient Latin prose. He knows a surprising amount about something so obscure, and he has a good way of talking about it, engaging and informative but not dull.

He has a good voice to do the talking, too, deep without a hint of gravel and just as warm as the atmosphere surrounding them. It goes adorably high whenever he laughs or says something with excitement, and Dan has a hard time resisting the urge to bury his face in his hands and squeal because this is too much. People shouldn’t be allowed to be this hot and this cute at the same time.

By the time Dan remembers to check the time, it’s nearly 7pm and the light has gone from warm and bright to a low gold almost reminiscent of summer. He bids Phil a hasty goodbye and hurries out to the road, torn between marvelling at the literal evening glow surrounding him and mentally kicking himself for letting the “lesson” drag on so long. By the time he gets back to his dorm, he’s either going to have to skip on going out and stay home to finish the mountain of homework he has due by tomorrow, or slack off and fail his assignment and probably his entire English class.

The walk past the wildflowers goes by in a blur of mental back-and-forth, and by the time Dan’s boarding the bus back he still hasn’t made a decision. Four agonizing stops later, the thought crosses his mind that Phil wouldn’t want an afternoon of teaching to go utterly to waste, and on the spur of the moment he decides to stay in.

He texts the girl who’d invited him (he can’t quite recall her real name, having saved her as “invite girl” in his contacts, and he feels a bit bad for it) that he can’t make it, and she replies with a string of sad faces and ur missing out! He doesn’t bother to reply after that, and spends the rest of the ride with his forehead propped against the cool glass of the window, looking out at the slowly fading daylight as the bus creeps further and further into the cityscape of Manchester.

It’s properly dark when he finally unlocks his door and stumbles inside. He hits his shoulder on the doorframe in the dark, and while he’s still reeling from that, narrowly avoids cracking his knee on a little shelf that’s been inconveniently crammed into the tiny entrance hall since he moved in. Fuck this.

Dan flicks on the light as soon as the pain fades, and as soon as he can see his surroundings he’s overtaken by a yawn so large his eyes scrunch closed. Silently, he convinces himself that he’s done the right thing, staying in to be productive. He has a feeling he’d’ve ended up in a bit of a sticky situation tonight if he had gone out―of what nature, he’s unsure, but the possibilities are endless and unappealing.

He shoves a number of unwelcome back-alley scenarios to the corner of his mind and sits down at his desk, yawning yet again. He puts on the Skyrim soundtrack and settles in for a long night. Somewhere, he’d heard that video game music was designed to help you concentrate, which would be convenient if it was true, but regardless of the effect it supposedly has on the human brain he’s just a giant nerd who likes listening to video game music, and he has an essay to write, goddamnit. He needs some kind of fix right now.

Nearly four hours later, at nearly midnight, Dan attaches his completed and hurriedly proofread essay to an email to his professor and sends it prefaced with barely a sentence of context. He’s cleared the deadline by a matter of minutes, and as he collapses into bed, mentally exhausted, he can only hope that he’ll magically achieve a passing grade―and that this has all been worth it.

Saturday night, Dan goes out with a group of people he’s barely met, to a pub he doesn’t remember the name of. Most of the group he’d come with had split up as soon as they’d hit the dance floor, presumably off for a night more adventurous than Dan’s experienced in the past year. A bit forlorn, he orders a cocktail and follows a couple of the mellower members of his group to a little cluster of couches crammed in at the back of the club, where the music is a much more manageable volume.

He sits himself down at the end of one of the couches, crammed between the leather arm and a seedy-looking lad with a half-hearted goatee. Every once in awhile, a waitress drops by, briefly interrupting the meaningless chat that floats around the group, and by the time Dan’s nearing the end of his second cocktail he’s quite tipsy, the world going pleasantly warm and hazy around the edges. The pressure of the guy beside him is starting to feel less claustrophobic and a bit bearable. Dan hasn’t had a good cuddle in a long-ass time, and despite this being about as far from affectionate as you can get, it’s reassuring to be physically reminded that people still exist.

Before that depressing thought can drag his mood even farther down than it already is, he turns his attention to the conversation around him.

The first thing he hears is a tiny, red-headed girl with a complaining tone and a Scottish accent. “I haven’t gotten laid in like ten sodding years,” she groans, running a hand through her hair and taking a sip from a beer bottle. “I need a good fuck, god.”

Dan glances down at his nearly empty cocktail glass and sighs. “Me too,” he mutters under his breath, fully expecting nobody to hear him and the conversation to continue on as normal.

“Wait, what?” The lad beside him, the one with the scraggly beard, turns to him, a look of incredulity plastered across his face. “You’re not the type to be single, not if this is something you do more often than not.”

Their eyes meet, and Dan replies “I don’t.”

Someone from across the group volunteers a “Wait, who doesn’t?”

“Get laid,” someone else replies.

“I haven’t gotten laid in a fucking millennium,” volunteers the red-haired Scottish girl.

“Who even gets laid anymore? Everyone hot’s either taken or taking time to themselves.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No, I said taken or taking time.”

“Everyone who’s even remotely good-looking lately is taken, it seems like.”

“Trying to get fucked is hopeless, honestly.”

“Someone over there hasn’t been fucked in ten years, apparently.”

“I mean, I was kidding, but it sure damn feels like it―”

The guy beside Dan cuts into the babble. “You don’t come here often?”

“Not at all,” Dan replies. “I’m too much of a social hermit and too much of a shitty person to get laid anyway. Not surprising, honestly, what with my―” he hiccups, tries and fails to stifle it, and takes another sip of his cocktail instead “―my current situation.”

“What’s this ‘current situation’, then?” Someone on the other side of the dimly lit almost-room raises their hands and sketches a set of quotation marks around the words, and Dan shrugs.

“A bit incapacitated.” He contemplates the remains of his drink and then tosses it back.

A half-hearted wolf-whistle drowns out the first few words of whoever decides to speak next, but Dan catches the tail end of their sentence. “―got to be someone out there for you.”

A meager chorus of “shut up”s quickly follows, and it takes Dan’s fuzzy-edged mind a second or two to register that they’re directed at the wolf-whistler, not the talker. He turns in the approximate direction of whoever had spoken last and leans forward a bit.

“A bit incapacitated,” he says again, “by this one guy. Oh, man―” and this time the wolf-whistler is swallowed by almost everyone sitting forward as well, clamoring over each other.

“Ooh, who is he?”

“Does he go to UMAN?”

“Is he like―an older guy? Are you into―older guys?”

“Wait, so he doesn’t go to UMAN?”

“We’re talking about a he, right?”

“Come on, what’s he like? Give us the details, go on―”

Dan goes to take a sip of his cocktail to bolster himself before attempting to summarize Phil to a bunch of sad, sexually-frustrated uni students in the back of a club, but his lips meet dry glass and he gives the item in his hand a bit of a befuddled look. Immediately, someone’s calling out for a waitress, and minutes later a new drink’s being pressed into his hand. His drunk brain has decided he rather likes this whole center-of-attention business.

“Tell us about him, go on,” says a tall, curvy girl with short brown hair and flawlessly done nails, leaning forward eagerly with her eyes fixed on Dan’s face. He swallows half the fresh drink in one go and a bit of a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth as the alcohol really starts to soak in, sending the room around him on a mini rollercoaster ride hovering somewhere between pleasant and nauseating.

“He’s―” Dan starts, and has to pause and steady himself against what he thought was the arm of the couch, but instead his hand lands on a very human knee and he lets his gaze wander upwards until he meets the eyes of the lad crammed onto the couch beside him. A bit of a grin makes its way out, as a sort of apology, and he turns back to the group at large, beginning again.

“He’s my boss,” Dan says, ignoring the mixture of ooohs and sharp intakes of breath that immediately follow his statement, “and he’s gorgeous and I promise you all it’s never, ever going to happen.”

“No, don’t put yourself down like that―”

“Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen?”

“So he is an older guy?”

“He’s not as gorgeous as you, I promise. Or that guy over there. Goddamn I need a good fuck.”

“What is he like, though?”

Dan grins a bit at his knees, and tries to think of words that would encompass Phil’s smile, Phil’s shoulders (and endearingly bad posture), Phil’s voice and laugh and dress shirts and gorgeousness and Phil’s undeniable, unadulterated shine.

“He’s like,” Dan begins, and pauses. “He’s like―he glows,” he finishes lamely.

“Like, literally?”

“Nobody fucking glows in real life, Brittany.”

“No,” Dan tries and, after a second of internal floundering, manages to add “He’s got this, this kind of enthusiasm for life, you know? I mean, I don’t know, I’m nineteen and already failing everything but he just―he just shines. Like nobody else I’ve ever met. It’s really like he’s―he’s just in love with his life, and his work, and his house―and I think―” I might be headed for falling in love with him, Dan finishes silently, and swallows a healthy mouthful of the alcohol in his hand to muffle the words.

“You sound pretty whipped, mate.”

“He sounds like great husband material honestly, I know it sounds weird―”

“How old is this guy?”

“Is he hot, though? I mean, having a bright spirit and shit is all well and good but―you know, mate―”

“Yeah,” Dan admits, a little breathlessly, “he’s got these―these shoulders, you know, these broad shoulders and whenever he stretches or, like, bends over it strains his shirt.” In a different, sober life, Dan can see how much he’s exaggerating, but in this drunk life, he’s on a roll. “And he’s not properly fit, like hench or anything, but he’s, he’s really fit. God, he’s gorgeous.” Dan has to pause and breathe for a second.

“His eyes―holy fuck, his eyes, they’re like a different colour every time I see him, it all depends on the lighting, and goddamn when he gets casual―you know, like he’s usually in a suit and shit―but a regular shirt and trackies and I just―”

He gulps down the rest of his drink, and someone’s immediately pressing a new one into his hand. Dan glances around a little bemusedly, but takes it in stride and sips it. He’s thoroughly drunk now, the world taking a nice little merry-go-round ride around him, lights blurring in his peripheral vision.

“How long have you known him? The boss guy, I mean?”

“Mate, he’s hammered, let him be. We’ve done enough.”

“Maybe I’m into older guys. God, I’ve never really thought about it. That’s a strange―”

“Who wants another drink? Next round’s on me, I’ve got fifty quid to waste―”

“What even counts as an older guy?”

“I’m heading out. See you, Jerry, Michael―”

“Hey,” says someone right by Dan’s ear, breath hot and sudden and a little unpleasant on his neck, and he jolts backward, narrowly avoiding spilling his drink. The rather seedy-looking guy with the almost-beard is still sat beside him, pressed against him from knee to shoulder and giving him what might in a loose sense be considered bedroom eyes.

“I was just wondering―y’know, if things don’t happen to work out with boss man, if you wanted―erm, I mean if I could give you my number?”

If Dan was even a fraction less drunk than he is now, he would’ve refused and left guilt-free, but tonight has already gone down the drain, so he unlocks his phone and creates a new contact. He doesn’t even bother to check what the guy saves himself as, and barely even registers the ridiculously over-the-top wink that’s bestowed on him as Mister Vague-idea-of-facial-hair leaves.

He takes another drink of his cocktail and sets it on the table pressed up against the end of the couch. His contacts list is still glowing up at him, and he scrolls idly through it―K, L, M, N, O―

Phil Lester.

Dan stares at the little black letters, ten of them, and marvels a little bit at the possibilities fanning out from the phone number saved under them. He could text Phil and confess his stupidly persistent crush and desperate need to get off, preferably with him―hell, he could call Phil and do it. Nothing’s stopping him. He’s nineteen, he has his life ahead of him―and what’s life if you don’t take a couple risks?

His thumb hovers over those ten little letters. Phil Lester. God, Dan’s so whipped for Phil Lester. The last time he had a crush like this he was fourteen years old and a new girl had just transferred to his school. She was tall, nearly as tall as him, and blonde, and bubbly and nice and extroverted and utterly out of his league. He’d spent a year and a half staring in the halls, obsessed, until he finally worked up the courage to talk to her. She’d been just as easy-going as always and as kind as she was to everyone else, but somehow he’d managed to make it awkward and they’d never spoken again.

In the back of his mind, a small part of his brain that’s managed to retain mostly-sober thinking abilities assures him that if he texts Phil right now, regardless of the nature of his message, he’s going to bungle it up and things are going to change for the worse. Dan sighs and locks his phone, shoving it back into his pocket and taking a final sip from his drink.

The pleasant intoxicated dizziness that’s been slowly increasing in strength over the course of the night is reaching a rather nauseating level. Dan clears his throat and rubs his temples―he can already tell he’s got a hell of a headache coming for him. Thank god tomorrow is Sunday.

He makes his way unsteadily towards the exit, weaving around the dance floor and pausing just outside to breathe in the nighttime air. About ten feet out of the door, he nearly runs into a Honda, both drunk and distracted. He’s heavily tempted to just collapse on the pavement right there and reconsider all his life choices.

Save it for when you have an actual bed, he tells himself, and pushes on. It’s a long, wearing, morose kind of journey back to his dorm building, kicking off his shoes in the hallway.

As soon as he’s inside his room, Dan pulls out his phone and squints, bleary, at the brightness. It’s nearly 2am. Stumbling, he makes a beeline for his bed, and falls asleep knowing exactly how awful he’s going to feel in the morning. He’s really, really not looking forward to waking up again.

Sure enough, Dan feels like a steaming pile of headache-y horseshit the next day, and the hangover lingers evilly all the way to Monday afternoon, Dan’s first work day of the week.

The ride there is uneventful, mildly unpleasant but bearable nonetheless. The day seems thoroughly confused about what look it’s going for; the pale blue sky is patchworked by scraps of cloud and moments of sudden, unexpected, and fleeting sunlight. By the time Dan reaches the gate at the end of the driveway, the clouds have started to disperse a little, and the gravel crunches under his heels as he strolls down the driveway to the front porch, basking in the watery sunlight.

He knocks briefly on the front door and tries the handle; unlocked, like almost always. Fully expecting to find Phil sat at one of his regular work stations, most probably the counter in the kitchen just through the dance room, he leaves his shoes in the mudroom and goes through to the door that separates the dance room from the kitchen. It’s ajar, which is unusual.

Even more unusual is the utterly deserted kitchen. Phil’s work things are nowhere to be seen, and Dan pauses, looking around, suddenly second-guessing himself. Is it really Monday? Is this an off-day, for some reason? Had they arranged for today to be an off-day? Had Phil been in some kind of accident?

Dan shakes his head slightly, trying to calm his thoughts. Phil would have contacted him if something urgent had happened. He takes a couple steps into the kitchen and pauses to listen.

Distantly, he can hear a downbeat, vibrating down through the floor above him. Three more steps forward, and he can make out the hint of a melody, mingled with the sound of a running shower.

It throws him pretty soundly. Dan’s mind goes through a wide range of emotions in the space of about seven seconds; confusion at the abnormality of the situation, relief that Phil is most likely just fine and he simply couldn’t hear Dan coming in, suspicion as to why he’s upstairs in the shower as opposed to waiting downstairs to tell Dan what rooms need to be cleaned, and a sudden, sharp-edged thought that quickly swallows all the others: does Phil have someone over, someone in the shower with him?

“Phil?” Dan half-shouts, taking another half-step forward. He’s torn between a vindictive sort of refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Phil might have someone over, and a want to know what the hell is going on. The music fades out a little, and he calls again, louder this time; “Phil!

No response. Determination fills Dan’s chest for a brief moment, and he powers five feet forward before losing all momentum and stopping dead in the doorway at the other end of the kitchen. He can see the stairs leading up to the second floor from here, and the music is even clearer―he thinks it might be the Strokes, but he can’t hear it well enough to decide.

Barely twenty seconds later, it fades out, and he takes the opportunity to really shout this time. “Hello?

There’s a worrying kind of thud, and then the shower shuts off just as another song starts again. Dan stands back, a little anxious, and listens as the music is abruptly silenced and footsteps come thundering down the stairs.

Phil stumbles into view, and Dan stumbles a half-step backwards, as if he’s been knocked off balance. He might as well have been, because Phil’s got one towel wrapped around his waist and another draped around his neck and a third in his hands, and he’s dripping wet and well shit. This is a new, unexpected, and rather disorienting development.

“I’m so sorry, Dan, I hadn’t realized―”

Phil’s blushing, too. Well, they’re both blushing, but Dan’s barely paying attention to how red his own face is because there’s pink spread across Phil’s nose and cheeks. There’s a rosiness blooming across Phil’s chest and creeping over his collarbones and fuck, he’s got nice collarbones, and this is terrible.

“I don’t know how, but it just―” Phil tosses his third, hitherto unexplained towel over his head and starts rubbing his hair dry. He’s still talking, but it’s unintelligible until he emerges again, and Dan catches the tail end of his monologue “―been busy, I can’t believe I just forgot―I’m really sorry.”

Dan is the farthest from coherence he’s been in a long time. He swallows, hard. There’s still water dripping down Phil’s torso and the light is catching on the high planes of his body like delicate gaps in pencil shading, the angles of his collarbones and his hips defined by barely-there shadows. That towel around his waist looks dangerously close to just slipping to the floor.

“I should―” Phil glances around himself, and Dan finally realizes how dumbly he’s been staring for the past few seconds and manages to tear his gaze away. He runs a hand over his mouth and then through his hair. His face is positively burning, and out of the corner of his eye he can see that Phil’s blushing a colour that’s probably equivalent to beet-red for someone with a complexion as fair as his.

“I’m―” The word comes out hoarse and practically inaudible, verging on a squeak, and Dan swallows hard and clears his throat. “I’m sorry, I’ll just―”

He points rather hopelessly back over his shoulder towards the dance room. Phil lifts a hand in something akin to a protest and says “No, it’s fine, it’s really―just, um, you can―just get started on the usual, yeah, I’ll be down in―”

He gives Dan one last wild-eyed, flustered look and flees, tripping back up the stairs. Dan takes several dazed steps over to the kitchen counter and collapses onto one of the bar stools. His thoughts are running in a repeating loop―Naked. Dripping. Far too hot to be allowed. Fuck this is one of the strangest situations he’s ever been in, packed to the brim with equal measures of mortified and inappropriately worked-up.

Dan gives himself a minute or six to compose himself and then he gets up, not even daring to look at the staircase. Instead, he spends the next twenty minutes dusting and sweeping in the collection of bathrooms and guest bedrooms tucked away near the back of the first floor, trying very very hard not to think about glittering droplets making their way from Phil’s hair, down his neck and shoulders and chest to his waistline―


Dan jumps about three feet in the air, dropping the mop completely. The handle clatters to the floor and he whirls around, taken completely off-guard. Phil is standing just outside the doorway, hands in his pockets and hair dry, dressed in a pair of casual jeans and an indecently fitted black jumper.

“H-hey,” Dan gasps out, thoroughly shaken. He smooths the front of his shirt and fixes his hair unconsciously, and Phil gives him a bit of a sideways smile, taking a step or two closer to lean against the doorframe.

“I’m really sorry, Dan, for all―” Phil makes an expansive gesture up and down his body and pulls an apologetic face “―all that.”

Fuck, Dan wants to pin him against a wall. He runs his fingers through his hair, utterly ruining it yet again. He’s so fucking red in the face he’s surprised he hasn’t just up and burst yet.

“It was really, really very unprofessional of me, to just completely forget that you were coming to work,” Phil continues, features settling into an earnest expression. “I really do apologize and I want you to know you’re not at fault in the least. This is completely on me, and I promise it won’t happen again.”

“It’s really, it’s fine,” Dan says. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not like, er, like.”

“Like?” Phil prompts, a smile hesitating just shy of the corners of his mouth. Dan coughs.

“Like I mind the view,” he finishes, under his breath, and Phil freezes before making this hesitant little half-movement like he wants to come closer but he’s embarrassed to. Out of the corner of his eye, Dan can see that Phil’s blushing even more than he was before.

An agonizing moment drags by before Phil finally stutters out “I―um, I―oh, god, okay, bye,” and leaves, and Dan crumples. He’s five fucking seconds from just melting into the floor and leaving behind this terrible, terrible earth where people are expected to have social skills and filters between their brains and mouths.

He picks up the mop and leans against it, hoping to god that the rest of today will go slightly better than the beginning. That was the most humiliating thing he’s done in months, and he’d really rather not leave this room. Facing Phil on his way out is going to be physically painful.

Dan powers through the rest of his regular work, doing all he can in his mental power to not spend the entire time cringing at the memories still fresh in his mind. God, what if he gets fired? Phil’s been unreasonably nice thus far, but the more Dan thinks about it, the more shitty, childish things he can remember himself doing and the fear of being dismissed grows to the point where he spends at least ten minutes bolstering his courage to make the trek out the front door.

He promises himself he’s just going to go for it, but ends up pausing in every doorway, listening for a good few seconds before daring to peek through. Phil is, surprisingly, nowhere to be found on the first floor, and Dan’s pretty much sure he’s made it out unscathed by the time he slips his shoes back on in the mudroom and opens the door.

His feet―and brain―stutter to a halt as he sees Phil, sat on the front step with his back propped against one of the pillars, a book in his lap and his face turned towards the sunset. He glances back over his shoulder at Dan and a cheerful little smile quirks the edges of his mouth.

“Hey,” he says, his voice light. He closes the book, and Dan’s eyes skitter unintentionally over his fingers―long, and lit up from the low light. He forces any further thoughts very deep down. Thinking about the way Phil looks would normally be easier than breathing, but with the dread of losing his job cold and heavy in the pit of his stomach, it’s a bit easier to avoid.

“Hey,” Dan replies, somehow managing not to stutter. His fingers are tapping nervously against his hip, and as Phil stands up and leaves his book where he’d been sitting, he can’t quite manage to keep his gaze steady. If he’s getting fired, this is it. This is the moment.

“What are your plans once you get home?” Phil asks, and all the tension surging through him kind of fizzles out into utter confusion and an intense relief. Dan runs his hand through his hair, a little overwhelmed by the anxiety bleeding out of him, and huffs out a hopeless, breathy little almost-laugh.

“Hole myself up in my cave of a room and let the school system devour the years of my life when I have the most potential to succeed,” he replies wryly.

Phil grins. “Not to sound pretentious,” he says, “but every butterfly spent at least some time in a cocoon doing nothing before it reached its full potential.” He pauses. “You know what, ignore me, that was very pretentious and I meant it that way.”

“That may have been pretentious, you’re not wrong there, but it was a damn good metaphor,” Dan tells him, shoving his hands in his pockets. Phil shrugs and sighs and toes his book out of the way so he can sit back down.

“That’s the kind of metaphor I should’ve payed attention to when I was your age,” he says, melancholy shadowing his words, and flips back the front cover. “I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

“Right,” Dan says distractedly. Half of him is utterly relieved that he’s not fired and the other half wants to hear the meaning behind what Phil just said. He deliberates for a second too long, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and Phil looks back up, eyebrows politely raised.

“Is there something else you need? Is today pay day? I wouldn’t put it past me to forget that too.” He ends with a bit of a laugh and Dan’s heart flutters, unbidden.

“I just,” Dan begins, and pauses, hesitant and unsure. “I was just wondering―what do you mean, you should’ve payed attention to the butterfly metaphor?”

The second he’s spoken, he wants to eat his words and/or run away. He does not ask questions like that. He does not, and has never, been good at initiating conversation. This is not the kind of thing Dan Howell does, or the kind of thing he should ever do―especially in this context, in a situation as rickety as this one. He’s a breath away from blurting out a panicked nevermind goodbye and speed-walking down the drive when―

“I just took my career too fast,” Phil says, closing his book for the second time and meeting Dan’s eyes briefly. He looks back down at his hands almost immediately after, brushing his thumb back and forth across the spine of the book. The motion looks like an afterthought, something unconscious and habit, and Dan doesn’t try to fixate on it but it just kind of happens anyway.

“Spent too much of my energy on working,” Phil continues, pulling Dan back into the present, “and now it’s like―that’s all there is. Just work.”

Dan is silent for a second, thoroughly taken aback, but he manages to reply. “There’s always going to be a downside, regardless of the way you decide to live your life, I guess,” he says, and Phil huffs out a half-laugh and looks up at him.

“You wouldn’t think there’d be a downside to working hard, but if this is how it is now, what is it going to be like in five more years? What am I going to do when I hit thirty?”

“God, that’s a strange thought,” Dan replies, sinking to the ground and sitting so he’s a mirror image of Phil, leaning against the pillar on the other side of the front doors. “What are any of us going to do?”

This feels weird on a lot of different levels. Phil’s talking to him like they’re real friends, not housekeeper and house owner. There’s a kind of anxiety lingering in the back of his head from all his pent-up fear of being fired, and he’s still thoroughly afraid of fucking this up, but he keeps talking.

Phil replies, and Dan fires back, awkwardly but apparently sufficiently, because he gets a response and the conversation somehow carries on. It’s mundane and it’s definitely out of the ordinary, and they don’t talk about anything even remotely personal after the rather strange initiation, but eventually (surprisingly) Dan starts to feel a bit at ease.

By the time he finally leaves, the sun is properly setting, filling the western sky with colours, and he calls a goodbye over his shoulder before he spends the rest of his walk home utterly baffled. Today has, without a doubt, been the most memorable day he’s had in the past year.

Tuesday morning, Dan wakes up to a text from Phil Lester and just about has a heart attack.

Phil: Hey Dan, I’m really sorry but I’m out of town on an emergency business trip. I’d have you come and clean anyway (you know your way around at this point) but since I’m not staying at my house the days that I need you to come work are going to be a bit weird. I’ll try and text you a day in advance if I need to you come clean up after someone, but regardless, consider your Tuesday afternoon freed!

It takes Dan a second to register what ‘clean up after someone’ means, but then he remembers the baffling variety of people who use Phil’s house as a meeting place and he texts back.

Dan: okay, sounds like a plan

Immediately after he’s sent it, he thinks of another thing to say, and his stomach twists uncomfortably at the thought of double-texting, even though he knows it’s perfectly reasonable. Even now, this idiotic infatuation is getting in the way of interacting with his employer, for god’s sake.

Dan: when do you think you’re going to be back?

Phil texts back much, much later, when Dan’s almost done with classes and he’d normally be getting ready to head out to Phil’s place.

Phil: Hopefully by the end of this week. If not, I’ll definitely let you know.

The lack of closure sits a little weird with Dan for the rest of the day. There’s nothing he can do, though, except wait it out and agonize over Phil’s opinion of him (and his absence of social skills), so he leaves it and tries not to let it take over his thoughts.

The next day, he gets to his first lecture and for whatever reason, spends the next three hours dreading the rest of the work week. His mind seems determined to spread out the absolute worst scenarios, and by the time he gets a free period, he’s thoroughly terrified of what might happen if he doesn’t make enough money for the next seven days.

He gets himself a donut and a hot chocolate, and finds himself a corner as far from everyone else as he can. He’s just taken a bite when Phil texts him, and he reads it with his mouth crammed full of overly sweet dough.

Phil: Hey there, again! There’s a cooking class using the big upstairs kitchen this afternoon from 5 to 6, do you think you could come tidy up after them today? Whatever time works best for you. There’s a spare key under the potted plant to the right of the door.

Dan swallows and texts back with sticky fingers.

Dan: yeah, sounds good. i can be there from half 6 to half 8. that work?

Phil: Perfect! Thanks so much.

The rest of his day floats by, he’s so unreasonably, utterly relieved by the fact that he still has work, Phil isn’t going to fire him, he’s not going to lose all his money and have to drop out of uni. He knows, somewhere in the sane part of his brain, that he’s over-thought and worried about this tiny little instance far too much, but he can’t help it, and his tension doesn’t really fade until he gets on the bus that’ll take him out of town.

The spare key is exactly where Phil had said it would be. Dan leaves his shoes in the mudroom and goes quietly through the dance room, which is dark and deserted. It’s a little eerie, but he puts his head down and makes it safely through.

He goes up the stairs and pads along the darkened hallway, socked feet barely making a sound on the carpeted floor. It’s disorienting, being here this late when all the lights are off and he’s alone.

He’s looking around a lot more than usual (and moving maybe a bit more speedily than entirely necessary, but it’s dark and he knows there’s nothing there but there could be something). Once he turns the corner, he can see a strip of light shining out from under the upstairs kitchen door. He pauses for a moment, supernatural monsters who hide in the shadows be damned, and listens intently. Has he gotten the time wrong? Is the cooking class still here?

The house is silent but for the soft, distant rumbling of the pipes, or maybe the air ducts. Dan doesn’t fucking know how houses work.

He throws caution to the winds and tiptoes forward, pushing the door open carefully. Light hits him square in the face, and he blinks several times, taking a single step over the threshold. The moment his eyes adjust, he stops dead.

Impulsively, he pulls out his phone and sends a text.

Dan: it looks like a massacre in here

Dan: GOD they made a mess

He takes a couple awed steps forward, gazing around with an air of wonder. The sink is full to the brim with dirty dishes, and there’s a little collection of untouched avocados kind of stacked into a pyramid shape beside it. On one counter, what appears to be an entire carton of blueberries has been scattered, and on another about five cardboard containers of confectioner’s sugar are just . . . sitting there, in a delicate scattering of their own contents.

Phil: Who, the cooking class?

Dan: yeah them, the big upstairs kitchen’s a disaster area

For a second, he considers having second thoughts about texting Phil, but manages to suppress them and instead trails his fingers along the edge of a counter, looking warily around. The atmosphere in the brightly lit room is a bit like a crime scene, and he can’t tell if that’s because of all the food scattered everywhere, or his own paranoid mind’s doing.

He’s jolted out of his thoughts by another sound notification.

Phil: How bad is it? I can ask them to come back and clean up after themselves.

Dan: no, don’t bother, i can do it. i have no clue what they were making though, there’s like a pint of blueberries on the counter

Phil: Just lying there?

Dan: yeah

He glances at the fruit in question and grins.

Dan: so lonely

Phil: Poor fruits need a friend

Dan: maybe they can get along with the raspberries once i put them away

Phil: Ha that’s a bit of a coincidence

Dan: ??

Dan lays his phone face-up on the island, pulls a colander out of the cabinet below the mysterious boxes of sugar, and starts sweeping the blueberries into the strainer to rinse them off.

His phone pings again as he’s heading over to the sink, and he pauses to glance at the message.

Phil: The two guys leading the meeting I’m in right now are wearing blue and red. raspberries and blueberries. you know

Dan’s stomach flips unpleasantly. Of fucking course he texts Phil at the least convenient time possible. He puts the blueberries down and picks up his phone in one hand, chewing on the thumbnail of the other; he’s torn between apologizing for being a disturbance and not wanting to lose the easy conversation.

Dan: why are you bothering to respond to my texts if ur in a meeting?

He lays out a cloth for once he’s done and is in the middle of rinsing the blueberries to take his mind off the wait for a reply when his reply actually comes. He shuts the water off hurriedly and dumps the blueberries onto the waiting napkin, darting back over to his phone.

Phil: Don’t tell anyone but it’s really boring and completely unnecessary

Dan is now torn between laughter and/or shock at Phil’s honesty. He ends up replying with the most juvenile, meaningless thing he can think of.

Dan: ooooooooo shots fired

Phil: Haha

Phil: But honestly this is so irrelevant to everything I’ve been working on back in Manchester

Dan: just power through it you’ll be free soon

Phil: This is WASTE of my TIME

Dan takes one wavering glance over at the dirty dishes in the sink before telling himself he’ll do them soon, later. He hikes himself up so he’s sat on the island, his phone in his hands.

Dan: everything’s a waste of time if you think about it

Phil: But this especially

Phil: The stuff they’re talking about now? I covered this WEEKS ago with my company

Dan: wait, /your/ company? like you own it?

Phil: Oh god no that came out wrong. I don’t own it I’m just stupidly high-ranked

Dan: aha i see

Dan: you’re like the lucius malfoy of this particular publishing corporation

Phil: Did you just compare me to a Malfoy

Phil: How dare you

Phil: I don’t know if this relationship is going to hold out after that

Dan smiles vacantly and texts backs, but his mind is filling with empty repetitions of relationship relationship relationship.

Dan: oh god i’m so sorry

Dan: will you ever be able to forgive me

Phil: We’ll have to wait and see. This is a borderline criminal offense

Phil: Speaking of criminal offenses

Phil: I should stop distracting you from doing what I hired you to do

Dan: that was an interesting segue, to say the least

Dan: but yeah, i’m gonna go actually do my job

Dan: tell me how the rest of your irrelevant meeting goes

It takes a moment after he sends the text before he realizes he’s smiling off into the distance, and he forces himself to put his phone in his pocket and get to work. The kitchen isn’t that much of an ordeal once he actually gets going, and the fact that he can’t get Phil fucking Lester off his mind only serves to make the first of his two work hours go by even faster.

Halfway through, though, his mindset shifts. He closes the dishwasher, presses the start button, and then thirty seconds later he’s sat beside it on the freshly swept floor, staring at his knees. What is he getting himself into?

He works for Phil. They can’t be the kind of friends their conversations (recently, at least) suggest they are, and they definitely can’t be anything more. If this continues, something between them is going to change, and none of the options careening through Dan’s head are going to turn out okay. He can’t lose his job, he’s barely making enough money as it is, and he’s failing his law degree and half his other subjects. He can’t imagine himself having time to maintain a healthy relationship.

Somewhere in the back of his head, between all the spiky threatening thoughts, a sneaky little voice reminds him that there are tons of jobs out there, and if he actually applied himself he could find one in no time. If he actually applied himself, period, he’d stop failing half his coursework. Hundreds of uni students maintain healthy relationships, anyway. Dan’s doing a pretty decent job of maintaining a perfectly healthy budding friendship, at the very least. He shouldn’t just throw that away.

The dishwasher makes a violent noise and Dan nearly falls over. He pushes himself to his feet, entirely done with his goddamn brain and its stupid habit of shoving all his worst thoughts on him in the least useful way.

He rubs his hands violently over his face, runs them through his hair one after the other. Standing there in the half-clean, brightly-lit kitchen, alone in someone else’s house, he resolves to not get attached. Not in this context. Not in this situation. Now is, very simply, not the best time to be seeking out anything even resembling a relationship. He’s not going to let himself go for it. He doesn’t even know if Phil’s into men, for god’s sake. He’s going to work through this stupid little crush and keep working here, because he needs the money and he doesn’t need a boyfriend.

He’s not going to get attached. He’s not.

Phil: Okay so I think I have everything figured out

Dan rubs his eyes and waits for the next message. It’s Thursday morning, obscenely early, and he’d thrown on a giant sweater and got himself a double espresso because May has decided it wants to cosplay as February and he has a lecture at 7:30am. He’s sat just outside a Starbucks now, wasting the time until his lecture starts, his cheeks and the tip of his nose nipped pink by the chilly air.

He yawns, and as his eyes are scrunched shut, his phone vibrates briefly in his hand.

Phil: I’m getting home late Monday night. The ballet class is using the dance room at their usual time this afternoon, but they’re usually really good about cleaning up so you don’t have to come tonight. Friday’s pretty empty as well, but the weekend’s going to be a mess, so get ready.

Dan rolls his eyes and takes a sip of his espresso before scrolling down.

Phil: All day Saturday there’s an art class that wants to use one of the empty back bedrooms. I think they’re painting. I told them to put down newspaper so that should be fairly okay to clean up.

Phil: Then there’s another dance class happening right after lunch on Saturday too, like in the early afternoon, so the dance studio’s going to need cleaning after that. Just the regular sweeping and mopping and wiping down the mirrors and whatnot. You know the drill.

Phil: Also on Sunday there’s going to be a writing workshop most of the afternoon, meeting in the spare office upstairs but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Not that much of a challenge to clean up after.

Phil: AND there’s another cooking class on Monday morning, in the downstairs kitchen this time. It’s a different one this time, though, so hopefully they won’t be as careless.

Dan: lord almighty

Dan: okay, when do you want me to come clean all this up?

Phil: Monday afternoon/night would be great if you could wrangle it. Does that work?

Dan does a quick referral to his calendar app, which is full of his class schedule and literally nothing else. He’s used it once, at the very beginning of the year, to fill out his timetable months in advance, correctly predicting his future self to be too much of a procrastinating moron to keep it up to date. He has to admit that afternoon of productivity has proved pretty damn useful.

Dan: yeah, sounds great. what time do you think you’ll be getting back?

Phil: Late. ETA after midnight. You’ll hopefully be done and long gone to get some sleep by the time I get home.

Dan: bummer

Dan: fair enough though. okay, i gotta run, i’ve got a lecture in like six minutes

He locks his phone and shoves it in his pocket.

Phil: Good luck!

After his third lecture of the day lets out, lunch break comes as a massive relief and a much-needed reprieve. Once Dan’s gotten himself a hot chocolate and a prepackaged sandwich from the nearest deli, he meanders his way to an open grassy part of campus and sits down at a picnic table to check his phone.

Nothing new.

He pauses for a moment, his mouth full of sandwich, a little let down. He doesn’t know what he was expecting (yes he does) but whatever it was (a text from Phil) isn’t there. He chews and swallows slowly, and wipes his fingers classily on his jeans before he picks up his phone to send a message.

Dan: so you never actually told me how that boring irrelevant meeting ended up going

He sets the phone back on the picnic table and takes another bite, closing his eyes to enjoy the pale sunlight filling the lawn around him, burning away the fog that’s been lingering in corners and clinging to brick walls. By the time he’s eaten half his sandwich, he’s given up on receiving a reply in his remaining thirty minutes of free time.

Of course, the moment he takes his next bite, there’s a ding. He scrambles to read the message, swallowing hurriedly and washing it down with too-hot hot chocolate.

Phil: boring and irrelevant

Phil: Absolutely no new topics were addressed and there was a very irking lack of a conclusion

Phil: I’m getting all grumpy thinking about how useless it was wow

Dan’s smiling so wide it almost hurts. His sandwich lies in the sun beside his hot cocoa cup, forgotten.

Dan: oh god i’m so sorry to have brought back that traumatic memory

Phil: Maybe one day I can forgive you

Phil: For now, however, you’ll just have to clean my house before you can win my heart

The world comes to a screeching halt, and Dan runs his free hand through his hair, staring at those last five words. He’s rather tempted to drop his phone and run away yelling like a maniac, or possibly text someone for advice.

He doesn’t have anyone else to text, though. Phil is the only person he talks to on a regular basis at this point. Besides, what would he say? Hey, I think I’m falling in love with my boss and he keeps making these romantic innuendos and I don’t know what to do. Goddamnit, he can feel himself blushing and and Phil isn’t even here.

Phil: Oh god I’m sorry that comment was really careless of me

Phil: I’m getting into a habit of being horrifyingly unprofessional around you

Dan exhales long and slow and takes a sip of his hot chocolate to try and calm himself, but he’s already so red, back of his neck prickling restlessly, that it doesn’t really help. He can’t think of a single thing to say in return.

Phil: You probably have better things to do than talk to me, though. I’ll let you go live your uni life

Dan wipes a hand over his face and forces himself to reply.

Dan: it’s fine i’m on break, you’re cool

Dan: i should go eat though

He sets his phone down and picks up his sandwich, promising himself he won’t check for messages until he’s done eating. He fails about thirty seconds later.

Phil: I would say that food is just a temporary, time-consuming way to postpone inevitable death, but that would be creepy so I’ll just say enjoy your meal

Dan buries his face in his hands and makes a strangled sound. Not get attached, his ass.

The writing workshop shouldn’t be too much a problem, he said. Not that much of a challenge to clean up after, he said.

It’s Monday night, the sun is setting, and Dan’s stood in the doorway of the spare office upstairs, his phone in his hand and an incredulous look on his face. He’s had a more or less shit Monday already, because apparently the weekend is long enough to make him forget how he deals with classes for eight hours straight. He lets out a long, world-weary sigh and leans hopelessly against the doorframe, pulling up his most recent text conversation.

Dan: how did they even manage to make such a mess i thought they were just wrITING

As he sends it, a flicker of a second thought lights up in the back of his mind, but he stifles it right away. He’s exhausted and done with university and he needs something to distract him from the job he’s got to do before he can go back to his dorm and sleep. He looks up from his phone and has to restrain himself from echoing his own sigh from moments before. The scene in front of him warrants some serious despair, though.

There are scraps of paper scattered across the office floor, both plain white and from a wide variety of magazines (judging from the sheer amount). The magazines themselves have been sliced into something that pretty accurately resembles Swiss cheese, and are stacked on a table below a bookshelf. A colony of glue-sticks and glitter have made a home in the seat of the leather office chair. Dan thanks every deity he can think of that the glitter is, as of now, still contained.

Thankfully, all the drawers seem more or less undisturbed, and the books on the shelves all around the room are still neatly lined up, but Dan is getting impatient just looking at all those paper-y scraps. He knows firsthand how fucking annoying it is trying to sweep up flat, slippery, irregular little pieces of magazine.

He shoves his phone back into his pocket and thumps his way defeatedly downstairs. The dance room won’t be that much of an ordeal, he’d passed through it on his way in and he knows what to do in that department by now. The kitchen hadn’t looked too bad either, just dirty dishes on the counter above the dishwasher and probably some incorrectly put-away ingredients to sort through, but he’s almost frightened to look at the mess the downstairs art class has left.

The moment he opens the door to the back bedroom that Phil had directed him to, he knows he was right to be scared.

Dan: and the art class oh my god

Dan: it looks like they were trying to recreate a frEAKING JACKSON POLLOCK PAINTING


That’s quite literally the only accurate description he can think of. Newspaper is, at least, neatly laid out from one side of the room to the other, but on top of the newspaper―dear god. Paint is splattered almost up the walls, in loops of nearly every colour but mostly violent shades of red and yellow and black. It all blends together into some kind of sickening mess in the middle.

Dan is filled with the strong urge to facepalm, very hard. His phone buzzes at that very moment, which is probably lucky.

Phil: Are you okay with cleaning it up?

Dan rubs his hands hard over his face. He wants to say no and I want to go home and go to bed and uni is kicking my ass and I’m at a loss for what to do about it and fuck and I’m lonely, I need a friend or a not-friend or someone.

He doesn’t say any of those things.

Dan: yeah i’m sorry, i shouldn’t be complaining. i’ll get it done. no worries

He locks his phone, shoves it in his pocket, and runs his hands through his hair―left first, then right, and then he presses them to his face and lets his eyes fall shut, lets himself have a moment of darkness.

Just clean. Just get it done. It’s one evening out of however many hundreds you have left. Just get it done and you can be done. Dan opens his eyes and inhales soft and deep, steeling himself before he dives in.

He spends the next four hours with his brain slowly going numb. He doesn’t let his hands stop working, doesn’t let himself think too much about it, and only pauses when the back bedroom, the dance room, and the downstairs kitchen are spotless.

At half past 10 at night, he trudges wearily up the stairs back to the office with a Hoover in hand. Cleaning up all the paper scraps from under everything actually doesn’t take more than half an hour, which is a relief, and he unplugs the Hoover once he’s finally done and falls limp into the nearest desk chair.

Two seconds later he’s on his feet, spitting a stream of swear words that rivals any and every foul-mouthed thing he’s said in the past month. The glue and glitter that’d been nestled together in the seat are knocked over, but none of the bottles or jars that Dan frantically snatches off of the leather and drops on the floor have opened―or, god forbid, broken.

He scoops up the last jar of silver glitter and pauses, although he’s not exactly sure why. There’s a prickle on the back of his neck, like he’d almost heard something but been too preoccupied to really register what it was. Seconds after he falls still, a door slams downstairs, and Dan’s stomach performs an unpleasant kind of lurching movement.

He stays frozen, tension so present in his limbs he’s practically vibrating, and waits for the next sound.

Floorboards creaking. Whoever’s decided to trespass in Phil’s house at―Dan glances at the analog clock on the wall―11:09 at night is not taking the greatest care to stay quiet. It’s a little baffling, because Dan had left most of the lights on downstairs (sue him, shadows are freaky and it’s less than an hour til midnight).

He sets the silver glitter jar down by its other multicoloured comrades on the floor and quietly, carefully, moves over to the nearest desk lamp, which he unplugs gingerly and hefts in his left hand. He’s not going downstairs unarmed. The hallway outside is brightly lit, and he tiptoes down it, pausing on the landing at the top of the stairs and listening hard.

Someone’s moving around the downstairs kitchen, Phil’s favourite place to sit and work. Dan can hear a cabinet door being closed, the scrape of the legs of a barstool being scooted along the tile floor. Could―is that Phil downstairs? Is Dan just being ridiculously paranoid about a perfectly normal situation?

He reminds himself sharply that it’s not perfectly normal, though. Phil had said he’d be home after midnight, and Dan, having flown with far too many different airlines in his nineteen short years of family holidays, knows that it’s more likely to be dismally late rather than hours early. He tightens his grip around the neck of the lamp and start making his way carefully downstairs.

He steps out painstakingly slowly into the empty space between the bottom of the staircase and the entrance to the kitchen. He can’t quite see into the room yet, but he can tell all the lights are on and there’s definitely someone in there. There’s a bathroom just to the right of the kitchen doorway, and Dan hurries over, tucking himself in the shadows behind the loo door and making a valiant and wildly unsuccessful attempt at composing himself.

His palms are unpleasantly damp with sweat, slipping slightly on the metal lamp, and he lets it go briefly to wipe his hands off on his jeans. In that split second of distraction, the intruder in the kitchen emerges, and starts making their way towards the bathroom.

Dan’s heart skips a beat and starts galloping in a single breath. Panicking, he readjusts his grip on the lamp’s neck and launches himself out into the open, brandishing his weapon. He’s on the verge of swinging when the figure says, sounding utterly confused, “Dan?”

The lamp clatters to the floor, and Dan covers his mouth with both hands, his face instantly burning. He takes a half-step back, and Phil, standing directly in front of him, clearly exhausted and very out of it, rubs a hand over his face and says incredulously “Were you going to hit me with that lamp?”

“Oh god,” Dan gasps, “oh my fucking god I’m so sorry, I thought you were getting home way later and I didn’t know who you were, I thought you might be like a burglar or something so I wanted to defend myself and oh my god I’m such an idiot I’m so sorry―”

He stops because Phil’s laughing. Dan clamps his lips shut, lets his fingers fall away from his mouth, and grips the hem of his leather jacket, blushing so hard he might as well be on fire. He can see the humor in the situation, especially from Phil’s point of view, but goddamnit he’s so embarrassed he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to meet Phil’s eyes again.

“I’m―shit, I’m sorry,” Phil giggles, and Dan’s stomach flips despite himself, both at the way that simple swear word sounds when Phil says it, and the way Phil’s voice is so bright and breathless from laughter. He’s so fucking humiliated he thinks he’s going to cry.

“You must be mortified, and I’m not helping,” Phil says, voice a little steadier now, reaching out as if to cup the side of Dan’s face. Dan takes in a sharp breath, hands jolting up from the hem of his jacket. In the half-light streaming from the kitchen, Dan sees Phil’s eyes flick to the side as if he’d done something he wasn’t supposed to, and his fingers veer to land on Dan’s shoulder. The touch is gone the next second.

“Do you want―wow, I’m―sorry,” Phil barely manages, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth as another wave of laughter threatens to spill through. He hiccups, and grins. “Are you done cleaning?”

Dan tries to respond, but his mouth is dry as sandpaper and it comes out as a raspy kind of whisper rather than a proper sound. He clears his throat and tries again.

“Yes,” he responds, his breath hitching as he tries to continue. “There’s some―crafting supplies upstairs, I―came downstairs halfway through sorting them out. I’m not sure―”

He means to finish that sentence, means to complete it with where they go but Phil’s got his face buried in his hands and Dan’s shivering now, something unnecessary and akin to shock settling in. He’d been pumped full of adrenaline, sneaking down the stairs with that gooseneck lamp in his hands (looking back on it, what a fucking ridiculous thing to do), with no idea of what he’d do if he’d actually ran into a burglar. But now that he knows what’s going on and he’s safe and his breathing is more or less back to normal, it hits him the kind of danger he could’ve been.

“Dan, are you―Dan, you okay?”

Without realizing it, Dan had completely tuned out from his surroundings, and Phil’s voice jolts him back into the moment. He rubs his hands over his face, and absentmindedly registers that they’re trembling.

“You’re shaking,” Phil says, his voice tinged with worry now. “I’m sorry, I really―I shouldn’t have been―”

“I’m fine,” Dan interrupts without thinking, his voice shaking as well as he goes to shove his hands in his pockets, and Phil makes a disbelieving noise, reaching out. He grips both of Dan’s wrists and pulls them out into the space between them. Dan flexes his fingers unconsciously. He really is shaking, trembling all over. He’s split between thinking about the safety he’s in, and the danger he could have been in.

“Come with me,” Phil says, and as he lets go his fingertips trail from the insides of Dan’s wrists to the tips of his fingers, the contact electric. Dan follows Phil into the kitchen like he’s being pulled by a string.

Five minutes later, Dan is sat on a barstool with a cup of tea in his hands. He’s pulled his arms out of his leather jacket and has it wrapped around his shoulders, and the incessant shivering is slowly easing to a stop.

Phil’s puttering around the kitchen, the kettle on the verge of whistling for the second time since they’d come into the room together (he’d given Dan the tea he’d made for himself) and the fridge door open. He gets himself a container of leftover pasta and makes himself a mug of something herbal before he sits himself down beside Dan.

There’s a moment of silence, and then “I’m sorry I laughed,” Phil says, and Dan drops his head, closes his eyes, and starts giggling.

It takes a minute, but he manages to lift his eyes to meet Phil’s and reply, “No, don’t worry. I was just hyped up on―you know, adrenaline and anxiety and relief and god I’m tired.” He pauses, and Phil takes in a breath like he’s going to keep talking, but Dan continues “It’s not your fault. It really isn’t. Please don’t beat yourself up over it.”

Phil pulls a bit of a doubtful face, but nods wordlessly and pries open his pasta. Dan nudges his mug of tea out of the way and slumps over on the counter, pillowing his head on his forearms. He’s struggling to keep his eyes open already.

“You don’t have to stay here,” Phil says, watching him closely, a forkful of pasta hovering halfway to his mouth. Dan tries to respond, but a yawn interrupts him, and he has to take a moment to laugh. Phil joins in this time, softly, but he joins in nonetheless.

“No,” Dan manages after a while, “I feel obligated to drink this now.” Just to prove his point, he sits up and takes a sip of his tea. It’s sweet and soothing, and he really wants to lie down with his head in his arms and just sleep.

“You’re not obligated to drink anything in my house,” Phil replies around a mouth full of food. Dan looks at him and smiles, an undeniable feeling of fondness swelling in his chest. He hasn’t taken a good look at Phil for an entire week, and he finds himself a little fixated now, on the mussed-up hair and the tired, happy eyes and the hoodie. Phil’s wearing a loose-fitting blue hoodie clearly designed for comfort and Dan, all of a sudden, just wants to hug him. God he looks huggable―hot and huggable. It’s just not fair.

“It’s obligation by choice,” Dan replies, perhaps a little too late to be considered entirely reasonable, but Phil smiles anyway.

“Was the mess really horrible this time?” he asks, taking another bite. Dan sighs and shrugs.

“It really wasn’t, but today was kind of shitty so I was in a bad mood.” He pauses and breathes in the steam rising off his mug. “Let me reiterate. Today was really shitty and I was in a terrible mood, and I felt the unnecessary urge to complain about a perfectly reasonable mess that was perfectly reasonable to clean up. My bad.”

Phil huffs out a half-laugh and nudges Dan’s foot with his own. Tingles shoot up Dan’s leg, and he closes his eyes, gathering all his exhausted will and determining not to make this any more awkward than it always is. He distracts himself with his tea, and the silence settles comfortably between them for a minute or two.

“How’ve classes been?” Phil asks, and Dan lets out a long breath.

“Harrowing,” he replies after a second, and Phil responds with a quietly amused little noise that’s clearly asking for more of an answer. Dan gives himself a heartbeat to think about what he wants to say before he says it.

“It’s like,” he begins, and pauses for a brief second thought dabbling on the topic of how wise it is to complain about school to the person you work for.

He’s silent for a good few moments, and then Phil goes “Mhm?” and it hits Dan that they’re not just employer and employee anymore. It’s gone beyond that, in a good way, and the realisation makes his heart skip a beat.

“It’s like I knew what I was getting myself into, but it’s still too much,” Dan says, wrapping his fingers around his mug and staring at the reflection of the ceiling lights in its contents. “I knew perfectly well how heavy the workload would be, especially for getting a degree in law, but I can’t force myself to realise that if I don’t get my shit together I’m not going to get a degree at all.”

“How did you do on that paper I helped you with?” Phil asks, and Dan grins a bit and takes a sip of his tea.

“Really well,” he replies, the warmth from his drink settling into his stomach. He’s so goddamn tired. “Highest grade I’ve gotten on an English project in a long time.”

He blushes, and covers it by taking another drink. That may have been slightly over the top.

Phil smiles, and says, “Do you want more help from me? Because I’d be happy to―”

“No,” Dan half-laughs, rubbing his eyes. “No, don’t worry about it. All the information I need to learn is right there in my classes, I just can’t work up an incentive to actually learn it.”

Phil takes another bite and chews pensively before he swallows and replies “And you had an incentive with me?”

Dan’s face goes hot and he pulls his jacket tighter around him, glancing away from Phil. You’re pretty, he thinks, really fucking pretty, and I wanted to impress you and and actually listen to what you were saying.

“Yeah,” he says aloud, “you just say things clearer, easier to understand, you know? And the one-on-one means I can ask every question and get an answer.” He coughs slightly.

“I see,” Phil says, sounding convinced, but Dan can’t stop himself from reddening even more.

There’s a silence for another few minutes, distinctly more awkward than the last. Phil breaks it. “You know, it could all be worth it in the end.” Dan glances at him, and he’s got his chin propped in his hand, eyes fixed on Dan’s face.

“What, uni?” Dan asks, unable to keep a shadow of incredulity out of his voice.

“Yeah,” Phil says back. “I wouldn’t know, I didn’t go to proper uni at the proper age, but there’s pros and cons to everything. I guess you just have to look for the good things.”

“But looking is so much work,” Dan mock-whines, seconds before what Phil had said fully registers, and he turns fully so they’re facing each other and asks “How do you mean you didn’t go to uni?”

“It was this―” Phil says with a full mouth, and has to pause to snort out a laugh and finish his mouthful of food. Dan pillows his head on his crossed arms again and tries desperately not to look too enamoured.

“It was this really unconventional arrangement, you know?” Phil says once he’s swallowed, propping his chin on one hand and meeting Dan’s eyes. “I was in secondary school and my dad had a friend over, and this friend knew somebody who was working with Cornerhouse―Cornerhouse Publications, I don’t know if you recognize the name―and my grades and or interests got mentioned in passing and all of a sudden I was an intern.”

Dan closes his eyes briefly and listens to the sound of Phil’s voice. It’s soothing, quiet and a little raspy near the back of his throat, probably from being on a plane for who knows hows long. He pauses his monologue to take a sip of his tea, and Dan blinks his eyes briefly open.

Phil’s watching him, his eyes warm under the kitchen lights. He looks a little amused and unbearably fond at the same time, and Dan’s stomach swoops weakly.

“You look exhausted, are you sure you want to sit here and listen to me ramble?” he asks, tucking two fingers under the handle of his mug and sliding it a little closer. His pinky taps out an irregular rhythm against the porcelain.

Dan tries to respond, but a yawn interrupts him yet again. Phil huffs out a little laugh, and Dan grins, shifting his cheek so it’s positioned a little more comfortably against the curve of his wrist and says “This is a less depressing atmosphere than my dorm room, so keep talking.” He pauses, not sure if it was totally clear he was being sarcastic, and tacks on a more genuine little “And I like listening to you.” He’s blushing even as he says it. That was definitely too much.

Phil’s smile turns soft, and he shakes his head slightly, but it’s not rejection, more some kind of gentle incredulity. He keeps talking, his voice lowered.

“Yeah, so I was an intern, and I just―I climbed the ranks really easily, because this kind of business just worked with my brain and my thought process and before I really realized my entire life was this work, just working with Cornerhouse, and I was pretty high up there so it wasn’t―it was essentially zero to a hundred in a year and a half, and by the time I was the age to be going to uni I already had a steady job and it just―never happened.”

Dan smiles slightly. His eyes have drifted shut again, but he’s still listening. “Lucky bastard,” he says, and Phil makes a quiet, noncommittal noise.

“Everything’s got its pros and cons,” he replies. “I’m only twenty-four, I’ve already helped found a publishing company and I’m so much more advanced than anyone else my age, it just―I feel like I missed out on part of growing up, you know? All I know how to do is work. I never got a chance to take a gap year or go to uni and make friends my age. I spent all the years leading up to my metaphorical prime making sure it’d be as fabulous and successful as it could possibly be, and now I’m here and it feels―incomplete, in a way.”

Dan hums sympathetically. He’s trying to think of a good reassuring response, he really is, but the thing that comes out of his mouth instead is “Wait, you helped found a publishing company?”

Phil lets out a sharp almost-laugh and says “Yeah. Sotto Voce Press. It’s still quite new, coming up on a year in business, but I had help from people at Cornerstone so it’s pretty well-established already.”

“Sotto Voce Press,” Dan muses, actually sitting up. “I’ve heard of them. Aren’t they, like―activists, or, or something?”

Phil snorts and says “Yeah, yeah we are. It’s a good fit for me.”

“What are you―” Dan wants to ask something along the lines of what Sotto Voce is so active about, but a third yawn interrupts him. It’s of hitherto unrivaled monstrous proportions, and as soon as he opens his eyes Phil is smiling.

“You need to go home. Get some sleep. It’s past midnight.”

The clock on the stove only serves to affirm Phil’s statement. Dan complies reluctantly, slips his arms back into his jacket, and takes one last drink of tea before letting Phil walk him to the front porch.

There’s a slightly awkward moment, standing there in the half-light just before Dan leaves, where he’s not quite sure if he should go in for a hug or stick with the usual friendly, distant goodbye and be on his merry way. He nearly reaches out, nearly goes for the hug, but stops himself just in time, giving Phil a slightly less sleepy smile and bidding him goodnight before heading down the steps.

By the time he reaches the road, the chilly air has sunk into his clothes, and he quickens his pace, not wanting to spend any more time outside than entirely necessary. As he makes his way back into town to see if there’s even a bus he can catch this late, he mentally marks today down as a more-or-less success in the Dan-tries-to-socialize book. A messy success, but a success nonetheless.

Phil: How late did you get back last night?

Dan: too late. i’m almost asleep on my feet

Phil: Oh god. I’m sorry I kept you so long

Dan: shut up it was nice just talking

Dan: i’m sorry you feel all existential-y and gross i know what it’s like

Phil: It’s really nothing I just think too much

Dan: i’ll try and help you feel like you never missed those trashy uni years (trust me you’re not missing a whole lot)

Phil: I can’t decide if that’s sweet or suggestive

Dan: maybe both ;)

Phil: You’re terrible

Dan: i know. i’m also going to be late for biology

Phil: Go go go

Dan: zzzzzzz

Phil: GO


Dan: you have no right calling me terrible if you’re going to say things like that

Phil: Let’s just say we’re both terrible and leave it at that

Dan: sounds like a plan. k gotta run

Phil: FASt

Dan: i hate u

Dan’s pulled out of a pleasant, comfortingly warm dream by his phone going off full-volume right next to his left ear. He sits up, disoriented, and rubs his eyes harshly, the incessant, artificial ringing clattering around the inside of his skull.

Thoroughly shaken, Dan picks it up, first registering the time―7:04am, fuck―and then the caller ID on the screen―Phil Lester. He accepts the call and lifts the phone to his ear, swallowing to try and get rid of the bitter morning taste in his mouth. It doesn’t work.

“Dan?” says the voice on the other end of the line, fuzzy around the edges from the static but undeniably Phil’s and undeniably agitated. Dan tries to collect his thoughts, rubbing his eyes again with his free hand.

“Yeah,” he replies, his voice so sleep-hoarse it comes out more or less inaudible. He tries again, and this time it comes out at an appropriate volume, but with the raspy undertone of someone who smokes a pack a day, or have literally just woken up.

“Thank god, okay,” says Phil, obvious panic bleeding through into his voice and waking Dan up a bit more. “I have an unexpected thing, a lunch dinner thing I don’t know it’s stupid and unexpected but it’s happening today at two thirty and I’ve hired a caterer but they need a helper and they can’t find one because of this sodding short notice, and the place is a bit of a mess and we only have like five hours to get this ready―”

“Wait, Phil,” says Dan, pushing his blankets clumsily aside and getting up to pace. He feels considerably more alert by now. “You have a short-notice lunch dinner thing happening and you’ve found a caterer but they need help and also you need help cleaning up―are you asking me to work on a Saturday?”

Phil inhales shakily and launches into another rapid-fire, almost manic monologue. “God, I mean it sounds really shitty when you say it like that, I’m so sorry it’s a weekend and I’m all screwed up and I didn’t know who else―”

“Phil,” says Dan again, trying to make his voice as grounding and matter-of-fact as he can. “Phil, I can help if you need it. When should I be there?”

He doesn’t know why he’s agreeing, he got a royal five hours of sleep last night and it’s 7 fucking o’clock in the morning and it’s gonna be a long-ass time until 2:30. But Phil sounds so panicked and Dan is, honestly and very secretly, just a little bit flattered that he’s the one Phil turned to when he couldn’t think of anyone else.

“Fuck, thank you,” Phil breathes out, his voice dripping with relief. “I’ll pay you regular wages, I promise, I’ll take you out for ice cream or something after to make it up to you. I’m so sorry. As soon as you can be here would be great.”

“Yeah,” Dan replies distractedly, already digging through the clothes at the foot of his bed in search of something clean and kind-of nice. “Yeah no problem, see you soon.”

He ends the call, cutting off Phil’s response of “Thank you!” halfway through, and jumps in the shower, scrubbing himself a bit too vigorously in an attempt to wake himself up. By the time he’s dressed and out the door, it’s 7:21 and he actually finds himself jogging to the bus stop.

The bus ride out to Phil’s place is tense, even though Dan receives no other indications of Phil’s evident near-hysteria. The walk along the road out to the house would’ve been idyllic, if it wasn’t for the lingering tension that’s still filling the pit of his stomach. The sky is practically glowing with the promise of a gorgeous day ahead, the sun peeking through sparse, fluffy clouds and a soft breeze ruffling Dan’s hair.

He runs his hands through his hair―still damp―and realises with a jolt he hadn’t straightened it after his rushed shower. Well fuck.

It’s not exactly like he can go back and fix himself up now, so he just keeps on, swallowing apprehension at the fact that Phil’s never seen him completely “au naturale” before. The innuendo in that phrase gets under his skin, and refuses to leave until he’s knocking on the front door.

Phil answers him, in a rumpled Muse tee shirt and a pair of worn out trackies. “Hi,” he says, pulling Dan inside and leading him at a speedwalk through the dance room, “thank god. Casey―the cook―they’re in the upstairs kitchen, they know you’re coming―I’ll probably come drag you away at some point but―go on, good luck―”

He drops Dan at the base of the staircase and bolts away with a hasty smile thrown over his shoulder. Dan raises his eyebrows and runs a hand through his hair. He’d never even imagined Phil this flustered.

A petite person with red hair is standing on tiptoe near the sink to reach a moderately high shelf when Dan peeks into the upstairs kitchen. He knocks on the inside of the door, and they turn around, smiling.

“Aw, hey,” they say, gesturing him inside. “You must be Dan. I’m Casey.”

Dan takes a step forward and shakes their hand. They’ve got nice nails and a firm grip, freckles splashed across their face and the back of their hands, and their hair is tucked back in a neat, short little ponytail at the back of their head. They give Dan an appraising look and nod. He feels like a bit of a gangling giant in front of them.

“You’ll do,” they say, and then laugh, and Dan joins in politely. Twenty minutes later they’ve set him to work chopping vegetables, and they’ve complimented his hair and he’s complimented theirs and then they’ve lapsed into a comfortable, business-like silence.

That silence lasts for the next four hours, by the end of which Dan is a sweaty, nasty, exhausted mess, but the meal’s finally coming together, on platters crammed onto the island in the center of the room―chicken and salad and some kind of cranberry thing, with a mystery pudding that Casey has abjectly refused to let him near as a dessert. Dan’s no cook, but he’s good enough at slicing things and mashing things up and stirring pots and changing the heat on the stove, and Casey doesn’t seem too irritated with his limited cooking knowledge so he marks it down as a success in his head.

Downstairs, there’s a dining room lined with windows accessible just past Phil’s work kitchen, and by 1:45pm Dan’s setting the table, trying desperately to remember Casey’s instructions about which utensil goes where and exactly how he’s supposed to fold the napkins. Casey’s upstairs, changing into something more presentable, seeing as they won’t let Dan come anywhere close to the serving process. Dan doesn’t blame them.

He’s deliberating over the placement of the very last salad fork, eyes flickering from the utensil in his hand to the utensils lined up on the table. He’s on the verge of reconsidering all his previous choices, when Phil barges in, dressed up smart with his hair pushed back off his forehead. Dan drops the fork and it lands on the final plate with a clang.

“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re like literally here,” Phil pants, coming to a screeching halt and brushing his dishevelled fringe impatiently out of his face. Dan quickly readjusts the stupid salad fork to a more reasonable position and joins Phil at the head of the table.

“Calm down,” he murmurs, propping himself against the back of the closest chair. They’re standing perhaps a bit too close together, but he can’t bring himself to back away. Phil gives him a wide-eyed look and smiles a little manically.

“I’m trying,” he replies, his tone rather desperate and very breathless, and Dan reaches out without thinking with his free hand and fixes his hair for him. Phil stills under his touch.

“You’re going to be fine,” Dan says, refusing to meet Phil’s eyes as he brushes the last few strands into place. “You’re going to be suave and savvy and charm them all. They’ll be wrapped around your little finger when they leave.”

His hand falls away from Phil’s fringe, and their gazes brush in passing and whoops, eye contact. Phil’s eyes look very, very blue in all the natural light filling the room.

“Thanks,” he says, reaching out. His fingertips skim the back of Dan’s hand, the one resting on the chair at the head of the table, and stay there for a second or two before slipping away. Dan shrugs a bit and smiles, trying desperately to conceal the way his heart is fluttering white-hot in his chest like a tiny, desperate flame.

Outside, tires crunch on the gravel driveway, and Phil starts, effectively bursting the little bubble of quiet surrounding them. “Go, go go go,” he hisses, quite literally taking Dan by the shoulders and steering him over to the foot of the stairs. “Go!” he half-whispers again, glancing from Dan to the direction of the front door and back again. “I’m sorry, we’ll be done soon―hurry!”

Dan bolts up the stairs and takes a moment to peek in the kitchen. Casey’s dressed in a pair of suit trousers and a sharp black dress shirt, their back turned to the door. Dan slips quietly away. They’ve tolerated him for long enough, he doesn’t want to bother them any more.

The upstairs hallway is lined with doors, and Dan strolls absentmindedly along it, still a little jumpy. His mind keeps returning to Phil’s fingers on the back of his hand―he hadn’t had that much time to register it, but god that gesture had some pretty heavy implications. So did his reaching out and brushing Phil’s hair back into place.

He stops and leans against the wall, burying his face in his hands. He’s so bad at socializing, he’s frightened that he’s misread all the cues that Phil’s been giving him and he’s gone too far. One part of his brain, the rational bit, is telling him they’ve had nearly three months of almost-daily contact to get to know each other, weeks of texting behind them. Plus, Phil had reciprocated. He’d touched Dan’s hand. He’d touched Dan’s hand. There are butterflies dancing a fandango in the pit of Dan’s stomach.

He slides limply, giddily to the floor, back against the wall, and once his arse hits the carpet he holds his right hand out in front of him, examining the back of it in the dim light as if he’s expecting the places that Phil had touched to be glowing or something. Two seconds later he’s dropped his hand to the floor and his forehead is resting on his knees, his thoughts going a million miles an hour.

Another bit of his brain, the definitely not rational bit, the bit that epitomises the latter part of “fight or flight”, is telling Dan he’s ruined everything. He reached out and let himself do something that only close, close friends or couples do (and it’s such a small, insignificant gesture, really, but it’s weighing down on him like lead) and he’s ruined everything, he’s torn their fragile, unconventional relationship apart and there’s no hope for friendship anymore, there’s definitely no hope for anything else―

Dan pushes himself to his feet so fast his vision goes fuzzy around the edges. He’s not going to let himself stew into a seething pit of agony and self-doubt for however long he’s trapped up here while Phil’s business lunch dinner thing goes on downstairs. Determined to find something to distract himself, he sets off with purpose down the hall and finds himself in the office.

Predictably, three and a half fucking hours later, he’s slumped over in the high-backed desk chair, spinning back and forth in lazy semicircles. He’s thoroughly engrossed in an article magnificently entitled ‘Paintings Of The Torture Of Prometheus Where It Actually Looks Like The Eagle Assigned To Tear Out His Liver Is His New Boyfriend’ when the sound of a car starting up jolts him out of an awestruck stupor.

He locks his phone reluctantly (not before bookmarking the page for later bemused perusal) and stands up, peering out into the hallway. He can still hear voices downstairs, and props his shoulder against the doorframe, listening. It’s useless, he can’t distinguish a word that’s being said, but still he waits until the voices recede. A second car starts up and crunches slowly away over the gravel driveway, gaining speed until the sound of its engine fades into the distance.

Dan waits a good minute or more until he finally dares to venture out into the hallway, tiptoeing downstairs and padding softly over to Phil’s work kitchen. Phil and Casey are stood a comfortable distance apart, talking quietly, amiably.

Casey glances over and sees him lingering awkwardly in the doorway. They grin. “Hey, Dan,” they say, and suddenly all eyes are on him. Phil breaks into the biggest grin Dan’s ever seen him wear, and gestures him into the room. He picks his way tentatively closer and settles himself beside Phil, leaning back against the side of the breakfast bar that’s not lined by stools.

“I’ll be heading out, then,” Casey says, matter-of-factly, and reaches out to shake Phil’s hand and then Dan’s.

“Thank you,” Phil tells them earnestly, “really. It means a great deal.”

“You’re fine,” Casey says, their eyes flicking from Dan to Phil, skimming over the decidedly narrow space between them. Their friendly grin melts into a knowing smile, and they depart with one last nod, calling over their shoulder at Phil to “keep in touch!”

“Will do!” Phil calls back, before turning to Dan. That smile is still on his face, but softer now, and Dan is torn between finding it adorable and funny. Not, to be honest, the worst two choices in the world. His eyes are stunning in the early evening light, too, almost green now with highlights that match the sunlight filling the room. The butterflies in Dan’s stomach make a valiant comeback, and he gives up on trying to subdue them.

“You still up for that ice cream I promised you?”

The walk to the nearest town usually takes half an hour, give or take, but with Phil next to him it flies by. They leave just a little after 6pm. Phil had insisted on changing into something a little more casual first, and he’d left Dan alone downstairs with nothing to do but bury his grin in his hands and happily try to comprehend what was happening.

The view on either side of the country road is ridiculously beautiful and the weather is flawless, just like the morning had promised―the sun filling the sky with colours as it sets, tinging everything warm shades of gold and orange. The wind hushes softly over and between the grass and wildflowers filling the fields on either side of the road, vibrant purples and blues fading in and out of prominence. Under any normal circumstances, it’d be captivating, but even after ten minutes of walking Dan can’t keep his eyes off Phil.

He’d changed into a pair of skinny jeans and comfortable shoes, but kept his dress shirt and god is he gorgeous in this sweet low light, with his broad shoulders and trim waist, his hands in his pockets and a smile lilting permanently at the corners of his mouth. The wind keeps ruffling his hair up into new, ridiculous shapes, and Dan has to resist the urge to reach out and keep brushing it back into place.

Conversation slides by easily, nonsensically, and Dan finds himself laughing far more than he usually would, doubly as giddy as he was before. He’s drunk on the sunshine, on the warm scent of summer slowly flooding into the country around him, and especially on Phil’s proximity. They’re walking right beside each other, they’re walking in time, and Phil’s shoulder keeps bumping his (accidentally or on purpose, he can’t tell, and can’t find it in himself to care) and Dan’s dizzy with the closeness.

By the time they reach civilization (more or less) the sun is on its way to properly setting, clouds stained red-orange-pink, gold and pale blue lining the horizon. They meander their way through town until they end up at a little local outdoor ice cream parlour, and their effortless, meaningless back-and-forth lulls pleasantly as they get in line.

Dan glances up at the sky, then turns to Phil and asks “How long has the ballet class been renting out the dance room?”

“Oh god,” Phil says, gaze drifting upwards as he thinks. “Nine months now? They’re regulars, I was pretty good friends with the old instructor, but she moved away December of last year.”

A mixture of apprehension at Phil and a ballet instructor being good friends, and relief that that particular ballet instructor is no longer in the equation, fills the pit of Dan’s stomach. “‘Good friends,’ huh?” he asks, raising his eyebrows exaggeratedly. He’s bluffing away his second thoughts and he knows it.

Phil lets out a quiet little laugh and looks down, almost bashfully. “No, not like that,” he clarifies, “she―she wasn’t my type.”

The line moves a step forward, and when Dan looks back at Phil, those incredible eyes are flicking back up to meet his. He’d bet a reasonable amount of money that he was just being checked out, and he waggles his eyebrows again, even as his stomach flips. Phil does that quiet little laugh again, not breaking eye contact, and shoves Dan’s shoulder. It’s gentle, there’s no power behind it, but it sends him reeling on the inside.

“Ballet dancers amaze me,” Phil continues, his tone matter-of-fact as if the tension crackling between them was nonexistent. They take another step forward. A child just ahead of them in the line loudly exclaims something including the words dinosaur and rainbows. “They’re just, quite literally the epitome of the human body at its peak.”

“They beat the shi―crap out of their bodies to get there,” Dan says, eyes flicking guiltily to the child who’s now yelling about eyeball sprinkles, “but you’re right. I wonder if that lasts into old age, and stuff―like, would a seventy-year-old ballerina still have lingering amounts of fit-ness, or would they just go completely to seed?”

“Oh, it lasts,” Phil assures him, “if you keep yourself in peak condition for long enough that’s just how your body works. You’ll keep that strength, at least a little bit, unless you literally sit on a sofa and eat crisps all day for years on end.”

“Oh god,” Dan says, in a faux-distressed tone of voice. “I’m going to be the anti-ballerina by the time I’m thirty then, with the way I’ve been treating myself.”

“You’re not too bad at the moment,” Phil says back. There’s a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but even so Dan has to look away until they step up to the window to order because he’s blushing fit to burst.

Once they get there, he orders himself some fancy kind of vanilla with caramel sauce, and Phil gets himself orange and lime sherbet mixed. They wander back out of town, eating as they go and only speaking every once in awhile. It’s not awkward, though, and Dan’s mind lingers quite unnecessarily on that thought, refusing to let go. He knows why he locks onto it, really, because nearly every social encounter he has these days is painfully compromising. Somehow, things with Phil have gotten to the point where they can walk for five minutes along a country road in almost complete silence, and it feels as easy as anything. It’s quietly exhilarating.

Halfway through their ice creams, Phil breaks the silence. “We should trade,” he says, stopping. Dan takes another step or two before realizing and he stops as well, turning around so they’re facing each other.

“Excuse me?” he says, clasping his cup close to his chest. “How dare you suggest such a thing?”

Phil giggles, but persists, taking half a step closer. They’re near enough that Dan can make out Phil’s eyelashes, he can see the sun illuminating the few strands of hair that stick up at the crown of his head.

“It’s like, a proper psychology exercise or something,” Phil insists, holding out his sherbet. “I have yours and you have mine, and we find out if we like the taste of each other―or something,” he adds hastily, but the innuendo has already really gotten itself under Dan’s skin. A little dumbstruck, he holds out his ice cream, and receives Phil’s in return.

“Success,” Phil grins, scooping the spoon out of his new cup and matter-of-factly licking the remainder of Dan’s last bite out of it. Dan has to look away. The air between them feels so charged, practically crackling with tension. Dan thinks he could slice it into thin pieces and enjoy it with a cheese and cracker spread, if he fancied.

“You know,” Phil says as they pick up their lazy pace again, “there’s an interesting story behind why I made your wages thirteen pounds an hour.”

Dan swallows a melting mouthful of bright, sugary sherbet, and replies “What would that be then?”

“Well, there was―this is such a ridiculous story,” Phil interrupts himself, half-giggling, before he picks up again. “Before I hired you, I put out an ad in the papers for the exact same job, only the wages were only twelve pounds an hour, and this little old lady replied.” He pauses to lick cream off of Dan’s old spoon, and Dan’s eyes catch on the flicker of his tongue, on the way the handle of the spoon presses a divot in Phil’s lower lip. He lingers at the curve of Phil’s mouth for a little too long before he manages to drag his gaze away, blushing.

“She shows up, right,” Phil continues, effectively jolting Dan out of his stupor, “and she’s like four foot seven, she’s absolutely tiny, and she’s about a hundred and ten. She says one word to me and I already know that it’s not going to work out, cause she’s got this accent thicker than treacle and I’ve got no clue what she’s trying to tell me.”

The wind picks up a little bit, and Phil pauses to turn his face into it, letting it whip his fringe out of his face. Dan, walking right next to him, shoves him gently, absentmindedly, with his shoulder. He’s laughing a little. Their eyes meet briefly when Phil turns back towards him, and Dan’s heart skips.

“Keep going, then,” he says, trying to make it as obvious as he can that the pompous air of his words is absolutely a joke. Phil grins a bit and obeys.

“So I take her through the dance room, show her around the ground floor, like I’m going to give her a chance. I mean, you never know, maybe she’s got like super cleaning powers and she’ll get everything done in record time. As soon as we started going up the stairs, though―oh my god.”

He pauses to eat another spoonful, as if he needs the sugar to bolster himself through the next leg of his story. Dusk is settling over the countryside, and when Dan glances up at the horizon ahead he can’t quite tell if the darkness there is just night slowly fading in or storm clouds. He rather hopes it isn’t the latter. Briefly, he considers picking up the pace, but Phil’s voice makes a return and effectively derails his train of thought.

“She starts moving,” says Phil, “at the speed of an arthritic snail. Hand on the banister, one foot up, the other foot up, pause. Scoot hand up banister. One foot up, other foot up, and pause. Lather rinse repeat. It was agonising.”

Thunder rumbles in the distance, low and ominous, but still faint. The wind picks up even more, chilly this time, and Phil pauses his story, glancing around. “Let’s speed up a little,” he says, his voice mostly cheerful but tinged with a little bit of apprehension, and Dan agrees.

“So I’m waiting at the top of the stairs, and she finally gets to the top and there’s this pause. Like this solid full four-second silence. And then she―” Phil has to pause and muffle his oncoming laughter in his hand. He keeps talking through his fingers. “―she lets out this scream, like a sodding banshee I swear to all things holy, and she goes waddling down the stairs at the speed of light.”

Dan’s covering his mouth with his hands too, on the verge of giggling, a little bit at the story but mostly at the way Phil’s eyes are shining with mirth.

“Of course I run after her, and she’s in the kitchen with this old, like, brass teapot in her hands. I take one look at her and, like, I don’t own a brass teapot. I have no idea where this thing came from―and it was a hefty teapot, you know? That thing was as big as my face. She could have pulled it out of hammerspace for all I know. I’ve no idea what’s going on, so I stop in the doorway and I’m like ‘what’s wrong?’ and she screams again, like full-on screams and she―” there’s a snort of laughter, buried in the crook of Phil’s elbow “―she fucking throws the mystery teapot at me and just runs out of the house, and just before she slams the door behind her I hear her yelling something about unlucky numbers.”

Dan smothers his laughter in the palm of his hand, unable to look away from Phil’s storytelling face. He talks so animatedly, with his hands and his eyebrows, crinkling his nose and scrunching up his mouth at the appropriate times. It’s engaging, irresistibly so, and so fucking adorable.

“So I go and count the steps, and sure enough, there are thirteen of them.” Phil’s barely coherent at this point, and he takes a moment to compose himself, to stop laughing. The thunder takes the opportunity to throw in a dark, growling word, and Phil casts a quick look at the horizon before continuing. “She threw a fucking teapot at my head and ran out of my house screaming because there are thirteen steps between the ground and second floor.”

“Priceless,” Dan says, unable to quit giggling, and then there’s another thunderclap, almost directly overhead. They slow their steps simultaneously, almost pausing, and in that moment where both of their faces are turned up towards the sky the first raindrops start to fall.

“Well, fuck,” Phil says, and breaks into a bit of a jog. Dan follows his lead. The droplets hitting the pavement around them are sparse thus far, but they’re big and heavy and threatening. For the next few minutes, the rain sticks with its steady, warm-summer-night patter, and they stick with their steady jogging pace. Dan is silently glad he’d gotten to finish his ice cream―the ice cream that was technically Phil’s―before this began.

They make their way along the road, the rain slowly soaking their hair, both of them apparently refusing to pick up the pace. Dan’s getting more and more antsy as they go along, and he’s just glanced over at Phil, wondering a little anxiously if he should suggest they speed up, when it hits him.

He’s heading back to Phil’s place as the sun’s going down, like he’s going to spend the night there. He could’ve said farewell in town and caught a bus before the rain started, but no, they’re heading back to Phil’s place and they’re going to be alone there and there’s no way Dan is walking back to town in this rain, and they haven’t talked about this at all and―

Lighting splits the sky above their heads, thunder roaring to fill its place seconds later, and Dan lets out an involuntary little shriek. They’re properly running now, and the rain is properly pounding down. They hurtle along the road, splashing through every puddle in their path, and as soon as the shock from the storm hitting abates, Dan starts laugh, and Phil joins in.

It’s a little bit insane. He’s running full speed down a country road in the pouring rain, heading back to the dwelling place of his biggest crush in a long time, and he’s thriving on it. Phil’s house comes into view in the distance, and they sprint off the road, cutting across the field to try and get to the gate faster.

This strategy proves pretty damn useless, seeing as all it does is soak them from toe to knee even more thoroughly than they were before. Laughter spills out of Dan in giddy bursts even as they finally reach the gate and shove it open together, barely taking the time to kick it closed before they’re pounding down the gravel drive.

They’re soaked to the bone, quite literally dripping as they finally make it to the front porch, and Dan hops anxiously from foot to foot as Phil fumbles with the doorknob. Finally he manages to get it open, and they tumble into the mudroom, slamming the door shut behind them.

Dan’s stomach is roiling with adrenaline, breath heaving in and out of his lungs. The abruptly muffled sound of the rain, pounding down on the roof above, provides a handy backdrop to the sudden silence between them. Up until this point, there’s been no chance to even think about what’s going to happen when they finally reach safety, but now it’s the only thing on his mind.

His eyes find Phil’s face. The only source of illumination is one puny window, set high up on one of the shorter walls of the rectangular room, and Phil’s features are outlined by the stark difference between light and shadow. Dan’s soaked to the skin, and his chest is heaving. They’re standing so fucking close together. He’s never wanted to kiss someone more.

Phil takes in a shaky breath. The sound echoes around the room, echoes around the inside of Dan’s head, and then the tension between them snaps. They collide, and months of buildup crash over them like a breaking wave. Dan’s back meets the wall and Phil’s mouth meets his and right now, he couldn’t think if he tried.

Phil is pressed against him head to toe and Dan is helpless, trapped between the unyielding wall and Phil’s warm, barely yielding body. They’re dripping wet, and Phil’s fingers are sneaking up under the hem of Dan’s shirt, pressing unforgivingly into the give of his waist. Dan gasps into Phil’s mouth and grips helplessly at his soaked collar, trying desperately to stifle the sounds threatening to escape him.

Phil’s mouth is hot and insistent, and fuck he’s a good kisser, gentle but so, so warm, and unrelenting, not letting Dan get away, not letting him get distracted. Dan is going to pass out. He kisses back desperately, clumsily, shivering from a mixture of lingering cold and overwhelming contact. Phil catches Dan’s lower lip in his teeth, and the kiss breaks briefly as it slips free, but Dan barely has a second to breathe before Phil shifts the grip on his waist and pulls him back in. The movement is abrupt, almost rough, and Dan inhales sharply, heat curling sharply around itself in the pit of his stomach.

He lets his hands get themselves into Phil’s hair, sliding up until he can clench his fingers around the longer bit at the back of Phil’s head. He tightens his grip, tugging just the bit. Phil gasps into the kiss, mouth falling open, and fuck that’s tongue, hot and slick and Dan forgets how to do anything but feel. He kisses back purely on instinct, and he can’t pull away from the heat, from the addictive rush and the dizzying way Phil’s tongue slides against his, the surge it gives him when he’s pulled in even closer.

He tugs Phil’s hair again, guiding that mouth down along his jawline to his neck, and then Phil’s latching onto the spot just below his ear and he’s gasping at the feeling, sensation thudding through his body. His fingers are tight in wet hair, nails pressing into the back of Phil’s neck. He grinds forward involuntarily, pressing into the warm, nonexistent space between them, and fuck that’s nice, that’s―

Phil presses back against him, and then there are teeth digging into his skin which only makes him buck forward again, wanton and suppressing a whine. A muffled, desperate noise vibrates against his neck and, really, this whole thing has been so long coming Dan can’t decide if he wants to savour it or get to the point.

They find a rhythm, and it’s fervent and primal and Dan is panting with every movement, clutching Phil to him by the hair and the back of his shirt and aching for more. He’s holding back, he doesn’t want to make noise and embarrass himself, because even though his mind is full of heat and haze and wanting he’s still insecure, still doesn’t want Phil to think he can be any more awkward than he’s been already.

He flexes his fingers, searching for something to get him out of his head. Somehow, miraculously, Phil gets it, and he does exactly the right thing. His right hand leaves Dan’s waist and he tilts Dan’s head back with it, not roughly, but there’s a certain take-no-shit air to it. Thoughts of disobeying and suffering the consequences fill his mind for a brief second, but then Phil latches onto his bared throat in earnest, teeth and tongue unrelenting, and when he pulls away Dan is positive he’s left a mark. He whines through his teeth, unable to keep silent any longer.

“This is very unprofessional of me,” Phil murmurs, breath hot just under Dan’s jawline, “but we should definitely get in the shower together.”

“I―” Dan begins, and has to pause and start over because he’s so breathless he can barely speak. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Phil grins, pulls away―Dan flinches at the sudden loss of contact―and laces their fingers together, pulling Dan at an almost-run through the dance room, through the kitchen, and up the stairs.

“What―where are we going?” Dan pants, half-laughing, tugging Phil to a halt once they reach the landing. Phil takes it in stride, and pulls Dan in, hands on his waist again. He kisses Dan once, lingeringly, like he’d happily do nothing else for the rest of the night. Dan’s head is spinning when they break apart.

“My room,” he whispers, his voice raspy in an unfairly attractive way. “You’ll see why.”

They go past Phil’s office, past the upstairs kitchen. Dan’s never actually been in this part of the house before, and it’s close to pitch black until Phil pushes open the very last door and they tumble together into a dimly lit room. Dan barely registers floor-to-ceiling windows, the rainy twilight outside casting all the furniture into deep shadow, before Phil’s pulling him to the right. They trip through a sliding door that Phil doesn’t bother to close behind him before he’s got Dan pressed against the wall again.

A light switch clicks by Dan’s left ear, and just before Phil kisses him again and his eyes involuntarily flutter shut he catches a glimpse of a long, rectangular bathroom. Instead of looking around, though, he toes off his shoes clumsily, refusing to open his eyes. His height drops by an inch, and abruptly, Phil’s just that little bit taller than him. His stomach flips and he lets out this high, helpless sound. It’s an accident, and he wants to swallow it as soon as it’s left him, but Phil returns it by humming into Dan’s mouth and Dan’s brain ceases functioning.

Somehow they manage to get each other mostly undressed, fumbling and hasty. Before Dan’s really collected himself enough to think about what the end goal of this is going to be, they’re both in their pants and nothing else, and Dan’s suddenly almost sick with nerves about the next step.

He’s not really all that fit, he never has been, and here’s Phil with his broad shoulders and his fucking collarbones and his stupid smirk, tugging Dan in and hooking his thumbs under the waistband of Dan’s pants and snapping them against the small of his back. Dan gasps and arches away from the contact, consequently pressing into Phil, and fuck he can feel everything. They’re both half-hard and there are two entire hands down the back of his boxers by now, and then Phil gives his arse a proper squeeze and he actually giggles. He can’t help it, he’s so fucking nervous and dizzy and overwhelmed that he just buries his face in Phil’s neck and laughs.

They stay like that for a moment, and then Phil pulls Dan away from the wall he’s pressed against and they stumble a bit closer to the open half of the sliding shower door. Dan digs his fingers into the bare expanse of Phil’s upper back. He doesn’t want to pull away, doesn’t want to be faced with the tidal wave of insecurity and anxiety and, essentially, stage fright that he just knows is going to hit him when he actually accepts the situation he’s in.

Phil shifts his head a bit, just enough so he can drop a kiss on Dan’s shoulder, and then he’s pulling away to shove Dan’s pants down and wriggle out of his own. Dan loosens his grip on Phil’s shoulders, gasping when Phil’s leg slips between his thighs, just barely brushing him. Before he knows it Phil’s got them both stark naked, and then there are his fingers locked in Dan’s hair and Phil maneuvers them into the shower, pulling the glass door shut behind them.

It takes up a good two square metres of space at one end of the dimly lit room, and Phil reaches out to twist a handle at waist level to the right, and then another one at the left. Dan glances up, only then realising how this shower is laid out, and gets a faceful of lukewarm water.

Phil’s laughing before his vision has cleared. Dan would be embarrassed, but then he’s being tugged into another kiss and he doesn’t have the chance to really agonise over the consequences of looking straight up at two showerheads set opposite each other that have just been turned on.

The water quickly goes from lukewarm to pleasantly steamy, and glass wall is fogged up in minutes. They keep making out, lazily now, and Dan lets himself actually take in exactly how Phil feels pressed against him. His shoulders are just as broad and gorgeous unclothed as they are covered, and he takes his time mapping them out, running his hands from Phil’s neck to his wrists, following the path that the water takes. He’s firm in the chest and a little soft in the stomach, and his legs are lean, his arms slender. He’s trim and sleek, more or less all the way through, and Dan even lets his hands sneak down Phil’s back and slide over his arse, just barely daring to squeeze. He’s half-convinced this is a dream.

“Can I,” Phil murmurs, so close that his lips brush against Dan’s cheekbone, not quite asking a question. His hand is between them, slipping down Dan’s stomach, fingertips skating across the ridges of Dan’s rib cage before skimming his hipbone.

“Fuck,” Dan hisses, wrapping his arms around Phil’s neck and stepping closer, shifting them so they’re directly under one of the showerheads. “Please.”

Phil wraps his fingers around Dan’s cock and strokes once, twice, and Dan makes a choked sound, breathy and pornographic. As soon as it’s left his throat Phil swears in his ear and tightens his grip, picking up a proper rhythm. Dan’s stomach jerks, and he whimpers this time, high and needy, his nails digging into Phil’s shoulders. He’s not going to last long at all.

It’s so fucking intense, for a multitude of reasons, the most prominent of which are that he’s had a terrible crush on Phil for literal months, and that he hasn’t gotten off with someone else in at least that long. His stomach is tight and he’s panting harshly, already on the verge of coming. He scoots himself closer, tucks his face into Phil’s neck, and tries to keep his feet with this much feeling coursing through his body.

Heat curls through the pit of his stomach, tingling and gorgeous and utterly overwhelming. His orgasm hits before he can gather himself for it, white-hot and trembling. He goes tense and arches forward, struggling to draw breath as the first wave crashes over him, and he lets out a helpless little noise with every contraction as he jolts up into Phil’s grip.

The second he starts coming down from his high he collapses, leaning against the wall and tries to catch his breath. Phil does the same.They’re both slightly out of the direct stream of the water, but the whole room is so full of steam and heat that it doesn’t really matter.

Dan looks over at Phil, pressed against the wall to his left, and can’t tear his eyes away. Phil’s got his back pressed against the wall and his right hand wrapped around his cock, jerking himself off slow and steady. His chest is heaving, and his eyes are closed, lashes clumped and adorned with water droplets. His head is tipped back, and his fringe is wet and slicked down over his forehead. Dan wants to get his mouth all over his skin, wants to drop to his knees and just let it happen.

He turns so Phil’s shoulder is pressed against his chest and lets his fingers slip down Phil’s arm until both of their fingers are wrapped around Phil’s erection, tangled together and pressing against tense hot skin. Phil makes a low, drawn-out sound, his free hand coming up and swiping his hair out of his eyes.

Dan leans in, lets his lips brush Phil’s shoulder, and closes his eyes, taking advantage of gravity and sinking to his knees. He settles himself right in front of Phil, hands finding the perfect curve of his hipbones, and looks up at Phil’s face.

Phil is looking back at him, lips parted, and eyes a warm, almost gray-green in this low, misty lighting. Dan focuses on that colour and nudges Phil’s right hand to the side, replacing it with his own. He lets his eyes slip closed, tries to let the thoughts out of his brain and settle himself enough to focus on what’s happening right now. Phil is tense and searching for contact, trapped between the wall at his back and Dan kneeling before him. Dan leans forward and takes Phil in his mouth, closing his eyes and fixing his focus on the feeling.

He’s done this before. He knows how to get a guy off with his mouth, and he knows how to do it well. Phil lets out a harsh, desperate breath above him―not quite a vocalisation, but definitely a plea for more. Dan complies, fresh, muted heat unfurling in the pit of his stomach.

As soon as he works up a rhythm, Phil chokes out a proper noise, a half-swallowed whimper, and Dan’s stomach swoops, clenches. He hums, deep in his throat, and there’s that sound again, and he lets out a muffled moan in response. As soon as it leaves his mouth, almost involuntarily, he’s blushing.

He ignores the heat in his face and blinks his eyes open instead, looking up and meeting Phil’s eyes. His eyelashes and stupid curly fringe are obscuring the view, but Phil lets out a weak sound as their gazes lock and slips his fingers into Dan’s hair, brushing it out of his face. “Fuck,” Phil gasps, and Dan whines in response. He slides one hand up until it’s resting on Phil’s abdomen and works his tongue, and Phil’s stomach jerks under his fingers, the hand in his hair clenching briefly.

“Fuck, Dan,” he says again, and shit, that’s a sound and a half, his name in that tone of voice―breathless and needy and wrecked. He keeps his eyes locked on Phil and speeds up his tempo, bobbing up and down steadily. Phil lets out a tiny little hah and slides his fingers into Dan’s hair again, holding but not pulling―yet.

“God, you’re gorgeous,” Phil says, his voice undeniably tinged with a growl, and Dan pulls back and sits on his heels to give his jaw a rest, working Phil’s cock with his hand instead. “I can’t―you look so pretty, Dan, on your knees, I’m so―”

Dan pushes Phil’s cock flat against his stomach and licks a slick stripe up the underside. Phil gasps and finally tightens his fingers in Dan’s hair. “So good,” he sighs, although it’s more like a moan really, and throws his head back. “So fucking good for me.”

He sounds absolutely ruined, and Dan picks up his rhythm again, the realisation that it’s because of him that Phil sounds like that washing over him. He looks up at Phil again, through his lashes on purpose this time, and their eyes only meet for a second before Phil looks away, like it’s too much for him.

“Fuck,” Phil gasps again, “close―”

Dan pulls back again, tilts his face up, and jerks Phil off fast and hard, his free hand resting on Phil’s hipbone. The shower is still running against his back, and he closes his eyes. “Please,” he says, his voice hoarse and high and needy, and Phil makes a choked, faint sound. He tenses, fucking up into Dan’s grip once, twice, and then he’s coming, hot wet stripes across Dan’s face.

Dan lets him, savoring the way Phil pulses against his fingers, and only lets him go once he’s completely spent. Dan only realises just how fucking exhausted he is as he stumbles to his feet and moves under the water, letting it wash his face clean. Phil comes up behind him, arms slipping around his waist, and drops a kiss on his shoulder. It’s affectionate, and probably out of the ordinary for two regular people’s first time, but their―friendship? relationship? something in between?―has thus far been anything but regular.

“Here,” Phil says softly, reaching around Dan to grab a bottle of something fruity-looking from a little shelf at elbow height. He insists on washing Dan’s back for him, which is both cute and a little bit hot when he gets handsy down south. Dan retaliates by shampooing Phil’s hair, sculpting it into a mohawk before he lets Phil rinse it clean.

Once they’re clean, they end up with their arms wrapped around each other, directly under one of the showerheads, pressed against each other head to toe. It’s disgustingly sweet and extremely intimate, and Dan is just a little bit overwhelmed.

“Come to bed with me?” Phil murmurs, lips brushing the shell of Dan’s ear. It sends shivers down his spine.

“Yes, please,” Dan replies, voice quiet, hesitant, and a little raspy. Phil presses a kiss to his cheek, to the corner of his lips, and then one sweet, short one square on the mouth before shutting off the shower and pulling Dan out through the thoroughly steamed-up glass door.

As Dan accepts a ridiculously fluffy towel―and then another, and another, because apparently that’s how Phil does things―and follows Phil back out into his bedroom, he’s struck with the surreality of the situation. He knows they’re going to have to talk about it―soon―and figure something out, but as Phil turns on the bedside lamp and looks up to meet Dan’s eyes and just smile, he comes to the temporary conclusion that tonight has not, altogether, been the worst night he’s ever had.

“So what are we going to do?”

Dan turns onto his side, tucking his right hand under his face. His eyes meet Phil’s, and he smiles before he can form a real thought. They’re a mirror image of each other, turned in towards one another on Phil’s giant-ass bed, with the lights as low as they can be, and their rain-wet clothes running through the washing machine in the laundry room across the hall. Phil looks tired but happy, the faint, dark gold illumination catching the high planes of his face and softening his features into something sleepy and sweet.

Dan blinks slowly, letting his current reality wash over him―snuggled into Phil’s bed, in Phil’s warm dry clothes, with Phil close enough to kiss―and lets out a long, tired sigh.

“We’re going to have to do something,” he murmurs, closing his eyes properly. The mattress dips under him as Phil scoots closer, close enough that he can sling a leg over Dan’s calves and brush Dan’s stupid curly hair out of his eyes.

“Dan, you can’t go to sleep yet,” he half-whispers, his voice tinged with exhaustion and something warm, familiar―fond.

Dan whines childishly, unable to find the energy to speak actual words. He turns his face up into the faint touch of Phil’s fingers, and Phil lets out a soft, sweet half-laugh, letting his palm settle along the curve of Dan’s jaw and running his thumb lightly along Dan’s cheekbone. It’s incredibly soothing.

“‘If I thought I could help you,’” Phil says gently, “‘by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I―’”

“Are you really quoting Harry Potter at me?” Dan half-laughs, opening his eyes and letting his free hand come up to his cheek to rest on top of Phil’s. It’s all so soft and warm and easy, like they’ve known each other in this way for years instead of a mere night. He’s finding it hard to believe.

“Books are how I make my living, you should know that by now,” Phil teases, fingertips pressing the short hair by Dan’s ear up the wrong way. Dan hums and presses weakly into the contact. He can feel a lazy smile curling the corners of his mouth, and makes no attempt to stop it.

“Ah yes, I remember now, Mister Big Important Publishing Prodigy,” he shoots back, his tone equally as lighthearted and taunting. “You and your company of activists that you founded.” He pauses, letting his brain catch up with his mouth. “I never properly asked what your company is so active about.”

Phil huffs out a bit of a laugh. “In a nutshell, we publish and promote LGBT+ stuff. That was my vision for the company, and mostly my doing.”

Dan lets the silence fill the space between them for a moment, dimly lit and easy. When he finally does speak, it’s quiet, and hovering on the edge of hesitant. “Do you―where do you fit into that equation? I mean―you know, the whole LGBT―thing.”

That little half-laugh is back again, and Phil picks up on his thumb-over-cheekbone thing again. Dan hadn’t realised he’d stopped. “I’m not huge on labels, but if you insist, I’m somewhere in the middle between straight and gay. Clearly, I’m into guys. Speaking of―”

“Speaking of,” Dan sighs. He’s so fucking tired. He wants to have this conversation tomorrow, but he knows he can’t let it sit.

“Okay.” Phil lets out a long breath before meeting Dan’s eyes and asking, “What do you want?”

“I want,” Dan begins, and then stops. “I’m not sure. You. I want you, and I also don’t want to be broke, and I want a good life.” He giggles a bit. “Some of those things might be a bit easier to achieve than others.”

Phil’s thumb pauses, resting featherlight on his temple. “You can probably have all of those things if you try hard enough.” He speaks quietly, delicately, like he doesn’t want to shatter the moment.

Dan groans. “Life is too much fucking effort.”

“I know,” Phil replies, his tone warmer this time. Amused. “But this could be something pretty dang good if we figure it out.”

“‘Dang,’” Dan mocks, unable to stop the stupidly fond smile that returns full force, softening his mouth into a shape that’s more lovestruck than anything else. “You nerd.”

“I am a nerd, yes, we’ve been over this.” Phil swallows, like he’s bolstering his courage for something. “Whether or not I’m your boyfriend has yet to be determined.”

“That was smooth,” Dan responds, trying and failing to ignore the butterflies that start swing dancing in the pit of his stomach the second he hears the word boyfriend.

“I know,” Phil shoots back, a smug smirk quirking the corner of his mouth. There’s a pause, and it fades into something gentler around the edges, something more sincere. “But we need to figure something out.”

“Okay, okay, I just―” Dan takes in a deep breath. “I need the money that you’ve been paying me, okay, and if we get together―when we get together―fucking hell, I don’t know.” He’s rambling already, words bubbling up from his chest, and if Phil doesn’t stop him soon he’s going to work himself up into something bad. “I don’t think it would be particularly legal for me to work for my boyfr―fuck, okay, I really want to, to do this, but I don’t know if I can find another job and if I don’t then I’m screwed, I’m fucked over to the highest degree and―”

“Dan,” Phil interrupts, shifting his hand slightly so he can press his thumb against Dan’s lips and effectively silencing him. Dan closes his eyes, warmth swelling in his chest. The gentle, barely-there pressure of the pad of Phil’s thumb against his mouth is the most reassuring, familiar thing he’s felt in a long time.

“Dan, listen. We can figure this out. You can find a new job. I’ll help you find a new job.” His thumb slips to the side, brushing the corner of Dan’s mouth instead.

“You wanna date me that bad, huh?” Dan raises his eyebrows, smirking. The butterflies in his stomach do the wave.

“Cocky,” Phil snorts, and Dan raises his eyebrows even further.

“You know it,” he replies, and then winks, exaggerated and ridiculous but Phil laughs.

“You’re terrible.” Phil’s eyes flick from Dan’s down to his mouth, like he wants to go in for a kiss but he’s holding himself back. “And I really do want to date you that bad, believe it or not.”

Dan blows out a long, incredulous breath, closing his eyes and burying his face in his hands. Phil’s fingers slip from the side of his face, but they return elsewhere the next moment, slipping beneath the hem of Dan’s shirt―technically Phil’s shirt, but Dan’s wearing it, and that thought alone gives him the shivers―so he can rub gentle circles into the curve of Dan’s waist.

“I’m in shock,” Dan groans. “Okay. Say that again.”

“I really do want to date you,” Phil repeats, only this time his words are full of laughter. “Can I kiss you so you know you’re not dreaming?”

Dan uncovers his face, blinking until he can make out Phil’s features in the dim light. They’re so fucking close. He wonders how he’d have reacted if, in April, when he’d seen that application on the corner of a soggy newspaper at a depressing bus stop, he’d been told that this was where he’d be in two months’ time.

“Only if we make this official,” he says. He’s only half-joking. The butterflies in his stomach are dabbling in Morris dancing, only with a bit less organisation and a bit more frantic flailing around.

“Let’s do it, then.” Phil’s voice is taut with anticipation. His hand leaves Dan’s waist and he holds it between them, little finger extended, like one half of a pair of kids in elementary school making a pinky promise to be best friends forever. “Boyfriends?”

Dan’s head is spinning, but he manages a snort and an eyeroll. He’s so fucked. “Boyfriends,” he agrees, linking his pinky with Phil’s, and the butterflies in his stomach lose all order and explode into something that involves a lot of bouncing off the walls and running into each other.

Somehow, their pinky promise turns into hand-holding, and Dan stares at their fingers for a moment, interlocked with each other in the soft, low light. It’s just the right side of perfect, and he can’t quite believe it.

“This doesn’t feel very real, does it,” Phil says. It’s not a question, and when Dan looks at him he’s got his eyes fixed on their intertwined fingers as well.

“No,” he agrees, “I’m not entirely convinced I’m still awake.” He pauses for a second, and then grins. Phil meets his eyes, already mirroring his expression.

“You better kiss me now so I know I’m not dreaming,” he says, raising his eyebrows in invitation, and Phil snorts but obliges anyway. It’s soft and syrupy-sweet and sleepy in the very best way, and Dan doesn’t let him pull away for a long time.

Tonight has, altogether, been one of the best nights of his life.

Dan’s late, and he knows it.

He picks up his pace as Phil’s house comes into view down the road, bathed in bright afternoon light. He’d gotten straight on the bus as soon as his final lecture of the day had let out, but regardless of his attempt at being punctual, the event had started a good hour and a half ago.

His stomach flutters as he takes a mostly pointless shortcut to the gate that leads through the strip of perpetually damp, mowed grass between the road and the fields on either side. From the end of the drive, he can see at least three cars parked just outside the house, plus however many people had showed up via taxi. Dan had been promised a low-key houseparty with only the coworkers that Phil’s closest to at present, but he’s still nervous. This is, after all, the first time he’s been in a remotely public setting with his―it still gives him butterflies to think about―boyfriend (as of two weeks ago).

The gate’s hinges creak softly as he pushes it shut behind him, and he pauses a second, smiling slightly. It seems that Phil’s new housekeeper isn’t quite up to task.

He has to stop and take a breath on the front doormat, trying to settle his nerves before diving into the metaphorical fray. The logical part of his brain knows perfectly well that Phil wouldn’t have invited anyone horrible over, but the rest of it is having a hard time grappling with the concept of socializing―while sober, mind you―and with more than three people at a time.

He bites down on his lower lip and tries the front door. It’s unlocked, and doesn’t creak as he pushes it open. He gives it an appreciative nod and leaves his shoes in the mudroom.

He can hear voices the second he leaves the entryway, and forces his feet to keep going all the way across the dance room. The door to Phil’s work kitchen is ajar, and he takes a moment to peer in while nobody knows he’s there.

Everyone is more or less paired off, and almost all the pairs are same-sex couples. Dan’s stomach settles slightly. When Phil had reassured him that none of his coworkers would care in the slightest that he and Dan were a thing, Dan had believed him, but there had been a lingering doubt that hadn’t quite left until now.

There are dishes of food laid out on the breakfast bar, and Phil is busy with the kettle, talking animatedly to a tall blonde woman with striking eyes and a wide smile. Phil looks relaxed but bright, clear interest in his conversation shining through his features. On an entirely unrelated side note, he also looks delicious, in a black short-sleeved shirt that makes his skin look flawless.

Unconsciously, a bit of a smile has found its way onto Dan’s face as he watches Phil simultaneously wrangle his kitchenware and laugh at whatever the blonde woman’s just said. The kettle clinks as it finds its place on the stovetop, and Phil turns the burner on and settles himself leaning against the counter, his gaze drifting from the people sat around the table, to the door, and then to Dan.

The moment their eyes meet Phil breaks into a grin and starts forward, hastily excusing himself from his rapport with the blonde woman and making his way across the sparsely populated room. Dan bites his lip, stomach jitters making an unwelcome recurrence as the door is tugged gently open.

“You don’t need to hide, Dan,” Phil murmurs, gripping the hem of his shirt and tugging him into the open.

“I know, I just―” Dan tries, but he’s blushing already, glancing around at the people surrounding them. Half of them have already turned towards the disturbance he’s caused.

“Dan,” says Phil again, voice quiet enough that they’re the only people who can hear it, reaching up until his fingertips brush Dan’s jaw and coaxing him in for a kiss. It’s brief and chaste and soft, and Dan’s lips are tingling when Phil pulls away.

“You’re fine,” Phil tells him, still close and quiet, linking their fingers together, and then at a more normal volume: “Come meet Charlotte.”

Charlotte is, it turns out, the blonde woman with the wide smile. She’s got a voice that goes high when she talks about something she loves, and she’s kind and funny and is gentle with Dan when he inevitably stumbles over his own words. For that, he’s indescribably grateful.

The afternoon wears on sweet and easy, and somehow Dan manages to more or less keep his cool. Phil’s coworkers are all ridiculously welcoming and none of them give a second thought to the fact that he’s dating their boss, except for one brown-haired guy with a thick Scottish accent who teases Phil for a minute about finally having found himself a boyfriend.

By 6pm, they’ve all made themselves plates from the potluck dishes scattered across every surface in the kitchen and migrated into the dining room. Somehow, even sat around the giant table with a chandelier glittering above them in the lamplight, the atmosphere remains relaxed, and Dan finds himself actually beginning to enjoy the company and the conversation it brings.

About halfway through the meal, Charlotte’s wife Alexa asks the question. “So how did you and Phil meet?”

Dan chokes on his cold rotini, and takes the opportunity to hide behind a glass of water and gather his thoughts. He’d let his guard down, and now he’s got to tell the whole story, which he’s been anticipating and/or dreading all afternoon.

By the time he emerges from his drink, Phil has somehow rescued the situation. “Long story short,” he says, his hand finding Dan’s under the table, “I hired Dan as a housekeeper and it just kind of escalated from there.”

“Long story short? Oh no, we want the details,” says Alexa. She brushes her hair out of her face and settles her chin in her palm, leaning forward with an expectant look on her face. Phil glances at Dan, the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“Well,” he begins, and two sentences into the story Dan has his face buried in his free hand. The recap of the time Dan had come over for work only to be brought up short by a Phil who was naked but for three towels (Dan’s still baffled by his self-drying choices) has Alexa howling with laughter, and by then half the table has tuned in.

“How do you manage the relationship, then? You know, if Dan works for you?” says a dark-haired woman halfway down the table, watching Dan and Phil curiously with pale eyes that err on the side of stunning. Somehow, Dan finds the courage to actually reply.

“Oh, I don’t work for him anymore,” he says, glancing at Phil briefly and receiving the barest hint of a nod in return. Underneath the table, Phil’s thumb picks up a steady rhythm, stroking across Dan’s knuckles.

“Why not?” asks Charlotte, her voice quiet and encouraging. Dan realises that this is perhaps the first time he’s actually said anything in any setting where more than two people are listening to him, and that almost derails him, but Phil squeezes his hand softly and he finds his voice again.

“In my personal opinion, it’d be a little weird, and also possibly illegal, and Phil seemed to agree.” A couple people chuckle at that, and it simultaneously encourages Dan and makes him even more nervous.

“Where do you work, then, Dan?” asks the Scotsman who’d taunted Phil earlier, and all of Dan’s courage evaporates. Phil jumps in to save him.

“He’s in uni, actually―” the Scotsman wolf-whistles and Phil rolls his eyes, continuing undeterred― “but he’s working at a record store in town. They pay significantly better than I do, so I don’t blame him.”

After that, everyone seems more or less satiated, and the talk turns from Dan and Phil to someone’s obscure music taste and moves on from there. Only when they’ve changed the subject at least three times does Dan finally relax, and Phil squeezes his hand again. I told you you were fine.

If they were alone, or if Dan were a little less shy, he’d have leant over and kissed him, and it would’ve been a mixture of shut up and thank you and I love you holy shit but they’re in a room full of people so he just squeezes back and takes another bite of his pasta.

By half past 7 people start leaving. Phil gets up and goes to the kitchen to see them off more efficiently, and Dan follows him, knowing just how lost he’d feel if he was left alone in the dining room. He gets a goodbye hug from Charlotte, a wink and a nod from the brown-haired Scotsman, and a high-five from a giggling Alexa, who wishes them ‘a very good night’ and makes him and Phil promise to tell her the rest of their ‘pre-relationship love-slash-pining story’ some other time.

He promises at her request, even as thoughts of the time he nearly hit Phil in the face with a lamp fill his head, and waves Alexa and Charlotte out the door with a red face. At long last he and Phil are alone, the last ones in the house, and Dan collapses onto one of the bar stools, burying his face in crossed arms and letting out a long, weary sigh.

Phil’s fingers slide into his hair, brushing it gently back. Dan groans and tucks his face into the crook of his elbow, and Phil lets out a bit of a laugh, the warmth of his hand disappearing.

“Tea?” he asks, footsteps moving away from Dan, and Dan lets out a muffled “Please”. They sit in comfortable silence, Dan slowly winding down to the sounds of Phil moving unhurriedly around the kitchen. Maybe ten, maybe twenty minutes later, a mug clinks down onto the counter by Dan’s ear and he emerges from the safety of his elbow, tugging it closer to him and inhaling the steam as Phil slides onto the barstool beside him.

“Was that terrible?” Phil asks, and Dan sighs and turns toward him.

“No, but yes, but no,” he replies, and Phil nods, scrunching his face up into something reminiscent of Yoda’s resting expression.

“Thank you, Wise Master Howell, for that oh-so-clarifying clarification,” he says, and Dan snorts with laughter and kicks him half-heartedly.

“You know what I mean,” he says, running his hand through his hair and rubbing his eyes. He’s tired, but for once it’s not the pure exhaustion kind of tired where all he wants to do is crash and sleep for a day. Right now, everything is soft around the edges, and he’s sleepy but he wants to stay up with Phil and talk and ingest unholy amounts of tea and probably try to watch a movie but end up making out instead. Silently, he curses 7am lectures and promises himself that one day he’ll do all of those things.

“Yes, I do know what you mean,” Phil says, pulling him out of his head and back to the present, “but explain anyway so I don’t feel horrible about inviting you.”

“I’m just bad at talking to new people,” Dan tells him, nudging his toes against the leg of Phil’s stool and then his heel against the leg of his own. “It was nice, I promise. I’m just tired.” He pauses and tests his tea with a fingertip. It’s still far too hot. “And I’m happy that I get you to myself.”

“I see,” Phil says, his tone knowing and far too suggestive to be remotely acceptable. Dan kicks him again, but Phil ignores it, reaching out instead to curl his fingers around the nape of Dan’s neck and pull him in close.

Phil kisses him, and this time there’s nobody watching and they can take their time. It lasts for a while, and Dan is still blown away by the fact that he’s allowed to do this now, after months of wanting to so badly it hurt.

They break apart after an embarrassingly long amount of time, and Dan half-whispers “My tea’s getting cold.” He doesn’t really care, though, because Phil’s mouth is kissed red, and Dan can’t help but brush his thumb over Phil’s bottom lip, captivated. Lukewarm tea is the last thing on his mind right now.

“I’m so glad,” Phil starts, and then falls silent. Dan looks up from Phil’s mouth, and realises just how intently Phil’s watching him, eyes searching his face. He licks his lips and lets his hand fall from Phil’s cheek, shifting his hair self-consciously back into place.

“Me too,” Dan says, and somehow that settles it. They drink their tea and sink into an easy, quiet, laughing back-and-forth until the display on the stove reads a quarter past 10 and Dan reluctantly sets his mug aside.

“I need to get back home, I have an early lecture tomorrow,” he says, standing up, and Phil follows suit. They make their way through the darkened dance room, pausing in the mudroom so Dan can wrestle his shoes back on.

As soon as he stands up, Phil moves in close, slipping his arms around Dan’s waist. He doesn’t kiss him, though. He just watches him, drinks him in.

“This is the farthest thing from a textbook university romance you could have gone for, you know,” Phil says finally, and Dan half-laughs, letting his arms rest on Phil’s shoulders and shifting so his back is against the wall. Memories of this room on a rainy night fill his mind, but he pushes them away, focusing on the moment.

“Do you want to make me regret it?” he jokes, but Phil is pressed against him and his voice is a mess. It’s been two weeks of this almost every day and being this close still makes him just as dizzy as that first night.

“It’s just,” Phil says, light and hesitant like he’s not quite sure what he means to say. “I don’t want to drag you down. You’re only nineteen, and here I am, twenty-four years old, and―”

“I’m nearly twenty,” Dan interrupts, a little more strength behind his words now, and Phil sighs and shakes his head a little.

“I know, you’re four years younger than me. You’re in your prime. I don’t want to take that away from you.”

Their eyes meet the dusky light filtering into the room, their only source of illumination the window set high on the wall, and Dan’s stomach flips. His heart is beating hard, and he wants to kiss Phil, wants to avoid this suddenly solemn talk for as long as he can, but instead he just swallows and waits for Phil to continue.

“You always leave so fast, you have your own life back in the city, and you should be living that.” Phil takes in a deep breath. “And I want to keep you out here, that’s the thing. I don’t want to have to give you back to lectures at seven in the morning and dorm rooms and work at the record store, because we never have enough time and―”

“Phil,” Dan breaks in, letting one arm fall from Phil’s shoulder and fitting his hand against Phil’s jaw instead. “Phil, listen to me.”

He ducks forward and kisses him, and with it tries with all his might to put into it everything he can’t quite articulate into words. He tries to say you worry too much and you’re not the only one who wants me to stay out here and I barely have a life back in the city anyway and believe me I worry too, but instead he just nips at Phil’s bottom lip, sucks it briefly into his mouth to soothe it, and pulls away.

Dan thumbs over Phil’s cheekbone, watching him intently until he looks up and their eyes meet. Something akin to electricity bolts through Dan’s stomach, and he takes in a shaky breath, a smile blossoming through the darkness and spreading infectious to both of them.

“Don’t worry about time,” he says, his voice full of promise and laughter. It’s only really there because of the man pressed against him, and he hopes it’ll never leave. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”