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**

Ben glances at his phone. It's about seven, so he really should have rang Phil by now. Problem is, he doesn't know what to say, so he decides on texting - texting is safer, saves you the trouble of choosing the right tone, being too polite and when to shut up.

"not gn make it sry m8".

He sighs. The phone is silent after that, and despite hoping to avoid all possible awkwardness and this being the perfect way, it still stings for some reason. Maybe because Phil of the past would never not answer any messages from him.

He waits some more and realizes he is biting his lip nervously.

Anyway, what could Phil say back? "Why?" Well, the only reason could be voiced as a single three-letter name, but it's not how normal people explain things, and it would be too rude anyway. And Ben would seem like a needy fucked-up girl, which he wasn't.

He just doesn't like Howell, all right.

"You're too nice for him", he almost said once, but that wasn't exactly what he meant. More likely, he wanted to ask if Phil is willing to give up so much just because of this new guy he snatched off the computer screen, but Ben was technically from a computer screen himself, so it didn't really make sense; what did, though, is the way Howell would always stare at his phone when everyone tried to socialize, and. His little jokes, and his raised eyebrows, and his weird accent, which supposedly wasn't his fault, but it just added to this whole snobbish thing, and yeah, well. He was really closed-off, and at the same time acting like nobody could understand his royal highness anyway, so why try. Being around Howell was unpleasant. When there were a lot of people it was better, but if they were down to four or god forbid three, Ben felt like he's with his older brother's friends all over again, unwanted and belittled.

And thing is, he wouldn't have given two shits about it, if it wasn't for Phil, sweet polite friendly Phil, who suddenly seemed not to care about any other opinions except Howell's. The contrast with what was before is just too much too handle.

"I'm sorry", appears on the screen.

Ben sighs, looking at his phone and doesn't make an attempt to pick it up.

"No, you're not", he says quietly.

**

"That's a nice shirt".

"Oh thanks".

"Now damn it. I just thought of a better line, I should have actually insulted it".

"So I would take it off?"

It would be a lie, to say there wasn't any flirting. There was.

But then they actually meet in real life, and they're both living, breathing, unbelievably tall guys with actual voices and actual hand gestures and actual annoying habits (Dan, would you for God's sake let me finish my sentence once in a while, and so on, and so on) and it turns out Phil gets sleepy and unresponsive earlier in the evening than Dan does and is sometimes easily offended by harsh humor, and Dan really is bordering on rude with drivers and cashiers with their greeting routines and can be seen as a totally ignorant person if you don't know him well enough.

None of this hurts their friendship, though.

On the contrary, they can't get enough of each other, continue with Skype and occasional trips, talk about anything and everything, but when Phil lets himself look a bit longer, in real life that is, not through screens, Dan seems to clam up, so he stops that.

It was kind of weird, anyway. Probably. Was it?

Phil honestly admires girls, doesn't think of himself as a strictly into guys person. He just doesn't exactly fit into a straight model either. Girls are pretty and he's had some insightful female friends most of his life. Also, their skin is soft to touch. They smell nice and laugh cute. But he never felt the urge to grow into somebody he doesn't feel the mental thing with, while forcing it always seemed like he was cast in a movie, and trying to build a relationship when all your emotions are a piece of film just won't work.

With Dan, he has the mental thing. It's kind of like, well, uh, brotherly love. At least that's how he would describe it if someone asked. It's right there, and it's better than the flirting phase they've been through when they've only known each other through pixels and twitter vagueness. Because then, they were also kind of still in a movie. Now they're the spectators. And Phil wouldn't trade that sharp feeling of reality for anything, he only has it with the closest of the closest, maybe doesn't have it to such extent with anybody else at all. In comparison, the rest of the world is bright, amusing and plastic.

Dan probably gets it.

And a few months in, he suddenly stops clamming up as much.

His mouth tastes like minty gum and warm.

**

Dan tries college, then college turns out to be a flop and he moves in with Phil; they continue with the fan service antiques, don't feel weird doing stuff that can be treated as a bit too much for a guy-on-guy interaction. But they do it publicly, twitter, dailybooth and what not.

Between the two of them they went from firmly being in a friends only zone to a gray scale nonsense filled with kisses and occasionally - something more.

Phil would wake up groggily in the middle of the night, and everything would be slow and warm, and Dan's lips would be pressed against his stomach, and then, lower.

It somehow works for them. In the morning, later, Dan would disappear in the bathroom, and some kind of transformation will happen to him there, because he will emerge all bright, morning-y and funny, but in a friendly kind of way, and he wouldn't kiss him as a greeting, because they don't do that.

But Phil's aching need for a person that will always be there for him is finally filled. He's wholesome. When he speaks with Dan, he feels like every single one of his words matter, despite the jokes and the eye rolls Dan bombards him with in return. He learned to see through that.

Dan says the worst things to the people he loves most, that's how he is made, fortunately or unfortunately. If he's too polite around you, that's just a sign that he doesn't trust you much or doesn't care about you, period.

**

Later, Phil would sometimes wonder about that. Before Dan, his world was divided into people who loved him and thus were nice to him, and the general crowd of folks at school, who would make off-handed jokes about him or right on insult him if they felt like it. Hey, Phil, you a fag, ain't ya. Where's that jacket from, mate, emo reject camp? Somebody call the hair police.

The uni was more alright, though, he had a lot of friends there, the being nice ones. Sure, they teased each other, but that was somewhat careful teasing, fellow my chemical romance lovers who remembered what it was like in high school a little too well perhaps, and spared each other the joy of reliving it. High school was still unpleasantly vivid in Phil's memory sometimes.

He would gladly erase it from his mind, but when you're fifteen or sixteen some things said and made to you just make too much of an impression. This rugby guy, Max, walking past his table, slamming his hand onto Phil's lunch tray, sending all food flying in the air and right onto Phil's lap, orange juice seeping into his jeans, vegetables everywhere. Shouts, cat calls, Max's friends whooping. It was so cliche it could have been mistaken for a scene from a bad comedy.

But that's not as bad, memories where other people suck appear different to you when you're older and realize that it's their stupidity, their teenage hormones and angst and need for self-proof, their shame, something they should look back to and cringe, something they will never tell their kids about - not your fault. All theirs.

Much worse, though, are memories of your own stupidity. When you weren't as nice yourself to a girl everyone else was horrible to. When you stopped talking to someone you were mates with because they weren't popular enough and were going through a weird faze. When you tried to act cool and fit in, making a complete idiot of yourself, sucking up to the guys you were supposed to hate the most, to the guys that always treated you like shit. That's what makes Phil cringe. That's what makes him want to close his eyes and die, overwhelming red climbing into his skin hotly. The feeling of awkward laughter still on his lips, laughter as a response to idiotic jokes some assholes were making.

It doesn't matter now, it doesn't matter now, he's older and kinder and wiser and would never do that anymore, any of that, ever.

His Mom was always nice, so were his Dad and even his brother, to Phil, he was never exactly terrible. They were more of a team, sometimes annoyed with each other, sometimes fighting, but never humiliating one another, not intentionally, anyway. His few friends at school, and not too few friends at uni were good to him, too.

And then, Dan. Dan is a whole other story. Dan is an alien, appearing in his life from a website, practically from outer space. No shared background, no shared memories, completely different childhoods and groups of friends and family traditions - more like, no family traditions, that is. (Sometimes Phil thinks that among all his relatives Dan only loves his grandmother, and that thought scares him a bit too much, because he - he can't imagine that).

Dan would say something really offensive. Dan would mock him, and push him, and even scold him in the most unexpected times, and this is ridiculous, because Phil is older, for one thing. Dan would make fun of him in front of other people, the internet, their friends and even complete strangers.

It is not nice.

It should remind him of school. Of this helpless feeling he got, when Max stared at him and said things. You are ugly. You are useless. You are ridiculous and no one loves you. Maybe in other words, Max wasn't exactly literate, maybe without words at all, but.

At first, it did remind him of that, somehow. Unintentionally making shivers run down his spine. And his first reaction was to scream, to push away, to shut his eyes, to make Dan disappear from his life, because how dare he. How dare he.

But then. Dan would come up and press his chapped lips against Phil's neck, like nothing happened. And hold his waist or grab his fingers like he has a right to. And snuggle closer to him on the bed, trying to fit his body inside of Phil's warmth, which always was ridiculous, considering his height.

And visibly burst with happiness when Phil wins something in a stupid challenge, or makes an alright joke.

And get sad if Phil is sad.

And get angry if someone else dares to mock Phil.

He gets so angry, actually, it's sometimes funny.

**

"You used to think I'm cool".

"Yeah I did".

"You don't think that now, do you."

"Not one bit", says Dan, leaning in.

**

Then it ends.

**

Time goes by, stretches like an old bike tire, then it breaks, like one. Phil finds Thomas.

**


And I think I need to drink, or maybe sleep, I think I need to leave, this is. This is. Oh my fucking god.

There are these hands, arms, wrapped around Phil's shoulders, and a cheek, pressed up against Phil's hair, and the guy is laughing, because Phil said something funny.

"We need to end this", no one ever said. But it did come to an end, didn't it.

Doesn't feel right waking up next to another male, you're so calm in your sleep, and your pajama clad legs are nudging against mine, and I feel like I can squeeze you tight, feel your ribs, spend the rest of my life here, with you sleepily breathing into my ear, but at the same time I feel that it is wrong, I felt it right from the beginning, through the Skype, through all our messages, through your eyes, which stared at me without a care to the world.

My Dad used to make fun of everything, my Mom used to show how few things are worth caring for, as long as you're in your sane sarcastic mind, and no one has ever told me not to be gay, except maybe Grandma, who would probably die of a heart attack, if she knew any of this, this story. No one has ever told me not to be gay, until they did, and even then they told me to quit being stupid and try to show off. I guess this is the American classic, the "it's just a phase" one, British version, but we never used TV show stereotypes in out household, so I was simply told not to continue what I was continuing.

And I don't think that's what triggered me to feel the wrongness, no, on the contrary, it triggered me to move away and only pick up phone calls from them once in maybe three or four times. It was myself, my own inside which screamed and demanded to stop all this. Because Phil is my friend, he's my Luna Lovegood, but he's not anything else and should never be.

I don't think he understood the difference. Or if he understood the black vortex that was my thoughts on the topic. But it was he who deleted things methodically from the Internet, even when it seemed hopeless, as they were piling up and resurrecting and didn't want to die off.

I guess I did hurt him.

**

"Does he realize he told you off for PDA once and you practically haven't looked at him in a video since then for, like, a year?"

"How do you even remember that", asks Phil tiredly.

"Because you told me and because I care about you, you prick", Bryony smacks his hand a little.

"Well, that isn't the exact truth. How we act in videos is more of a mutual agreement. I don't like PDA either".

"I know. This is exactly why I can picture your face when you were being told off about that".

"Bryony..."

"Stop with the bryonies, Phil. Unlike most of our friends, I actually like Dan. And don't you flinch. You know he can be a total bitch".

"Thing is, I don't", says Phil honestly.

"Really?"

"No, I mean... I know he can be impossible, but it doesn't seem like a reason enough..."

"Not to like him?"

Phil folds the napkin he's been holding two times, then one more, then tries to rip it apart, but it wouldn't budge.

"Phil. You're clearly in love with him".

"Hey", Thomas lands in the seat next to Phil, and Phil visibly brightens, smiling at him. Bryony studies Phil's face for a second longer, then turns to his boyfriend. Thomas is good people. He is kind, smart, maybe a bit on the scrawny side, but he makes up for it in being there for people. Exactly the kind of boyfriend Phil's friends would wish him to have.

Bryony can't exactly make herself like Thomas, though.

"Hey, Thomas. I actually should get going, sorry".

"No worries", Thomas smiles at her, and then turns his attention towards Phil, "how've you been?"

"Good", says Phil, as Bryony stands up, "I'm so glad you're here".

You know nothing about Phil, thinks Bryony, you probably can't even tell he's distressed.

"I see you're upset with something", says Thomas and Bryony scowls, hoping no one will notice.

**

As it always does, it all happens unexpectedly.

Phil comes home from a date with Thomas, it's an ordinary evening, and Dan is just sitting there in the dark living room, glaring, and Phil knows it the second he sees him - something's up.

What he's not ready for, though, is Dan being angry. Aggressive, maybe scary even, when he pushes up from the sofa and approaches him in two long strides.

"Had fun?", he spits out.

Phil narrows his eyes, crosses his arms at his chest. He has nothing to worry about, he's not guilty of anything. His pulse, though, didn't get the memo, as it speeds up twice the normal.

"Something tipped you off?" he asks coldly none the less.

Dan grabs his shoulders, looking him right in the eye for a second, and then surges forward. Phil is sort of ready for that, so he dodges away, Dan's lips barely missing his face, and steps back.

"Dan", he says in warning.

"Fuck you", says Dan, not letting go of him. His eyes turn searching. "Do I disgust you now?", he asks with the same venom.

"What's up with you", Phil suddenly feels tired. He can't do it, not like this. It's all wrong.

"Just leave it", orders Dan, squeezing him tighter, "just fucking leave it and answer my question".

Phil remembers, how long time ago, in the snow, Dan, leaning towards him, weird hat and all, was almost the same, suddenly forgot all fears and insecurities of an eighteen-year-old and didn't look like he would take no for an answer. He was so young. They both were. They didn't think about relationship dynamics and couple problems and all that shrink crap, they didn't think about the public eye and media either.

"Leave it", says Dan again, sort of asking this time.

"You don't disgust me".

"Then do you.. do you... with him, do you..."

But problem is, this Phil, he can't not think. They've gone through too much, he's changed too much.

"No, Dan,", he says firmly and tries to pry Dan's hands away. For a second Dan holds, but then lets go abruptly. His expression softens.

"I'm sorry", he says, "is that what you want to hear?"

"Is that what you want to say?"

Dan looks younger now, lips bitten red, but his eyes are still not pleading, they're insistent, like he wants to make Phil understand something and change his mind, like Phil was the one to blame, and Phil is not buying this.

"No".

"Then...", Phil turns to leave, but Dan grabs him again.

"I can't let you leave".

"Because I'm all you have", says Phil. He doesn't like how that sounds. But it just might be the truth.

Dan flinches so hard, Phil stops for a second and waits. It got really dark in the room, but the light switches seem like a vague memory.

"It used to be so", Dan finally says, "but it's not just that. It's not just because I can't stand the thought of him fucking you either".

Phil knew, of course, he knew, or, at least, he hoped. But he doesn't feel triumphant, he just feels sad. Because Dan is Dan, and he hates the idea of something hurting him so much.

"We can figure something out", he mumbles, mind spinning.

"I love you", says Dan simply. He's never said it before.

And of all things, Phil never thought this one would matter, because they were better than this, understood each other more than this, have probably gotten closer than this, but, apparently, it does matter after all, because the world tilts a bit, changes color, and suddenly he knows he's not walking away from this one.

"I...", he hears himself say, doesn't know how to continue. But when Dan leans forward, softer this time, he doesn't pull away.

Dan likes flaws. He likes scratches and birthmarks and even stretch marks, always said so, always been that way. He bites at an old scar Phil has on his ribs from a childhood bike incident, rubs his finger along the weird shape of Phil's nose, strokes the too-pale skin on his stomach, licks his freckled shoulders, and it all feels right, doesn't feel just kinky or just funny, it's the way Dan works, and Phil loves all of it. Dan is relearning how Phil is. Dan is relearning what they're going to be to each other. Dan is caring for him. Phil entangles his fingers in Dan's messed up hair, grabs at his sides where they expand above his belt just a bit more than Dan wants them to, tries to give back just as much as Dan offers, but Dan doesn't care whether he's clumsy or whether he reciprocates well enough, no, Dan just devours him, until it gets so impossibly hot they just might explode, and then they move to Phil's bedroom, Dan marking the territory again, dragging them both towards the bed and almost throwing Phil on it, and Phil laughs at the thought, and he's so happy. So happy.

After, they lie together in a tangled hot mess.

"Would you go make me a sandwich then", Phil tries in a few minutes. He's genuinely hungry.

"I would", answers Dan, "but I have no intent to".

"You are a bitch", says Phil thoughtfully.

"Yep", Dan doesn't hesitate, "and you will love this bitch forever and ever".

Phil watches as Dan gets up. There's not a slim chance he's going to the kitchen. Phil knows him way too well.

"I will".

Dan is already out the door.

"You weirdo", Phil hears.

He smiles.

Things will be fine.