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(when you gonna realise) it was just that the time was wrong

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--2. epistolary romance--

Dan says, “You lost one.”

Phil says, or squeaks really, a sad explosion of a word that snaps as soon as it comes out of his mouth. “What?

Dan has hi scrawled on a post-it, stuck to his open palm, held up to Phil (it’s ridiculously underwhelming, hi, Phil almost says it back, hi Dan. You look exactly like I imagined you would. You look like all of them at once).

Phil repeats, “What.” Not exactly a question this time. Dan has straight hair and is wearing a sequined black jacket that Phil thinks he’s seen before. Somewhere. When Dan smiles at him, awkward and unsure, he only has one dimple. Phil says, “I thought,” but has to stop because he has no idea what he thought or what he’s thinking.

“I’m sorry about this.” Dan casts his hands over the balcony, over himself, towards Phil. Sorry about everything.

“But you look like you,” Phil says.

Dan looks confused. “Who else would I look like?”

Phil repeats, “I thought,” and then all of his thoughts somehow come out at once. “I thought that you were hiding, I thought something was wrong and that’s why you don’t have any mirrors, but then you said that you didn’t like mirrors, so I wasn’t -”

“I smashed all the mirrors.”

“ - and then I didn’t really - You smashed them? All of them?”

Dan nods.

“You said the background was changing.”

“The background was changing and I was changing with it,” Dan says.

“That makes no sense.”

“How many times would you say that you’ve said that over the past few months?”

“A lot,” Phil says, helplessly. “A lot.”

All of the sequins on Dan’s jacket are catching the sun, flashing shades of blue that are gone before Phil can put a name to them. He has a sense of having been stood on the balcony for a long time, far longer than Dan’s three-two-one countdown, but that can’t be right. It’s only been five minutes. He still has the Hello Kitty mug clasped in his hands, with all of her meerkat facts. Though now, when he comes to think of it, none of them actually say that they’re about meerkats specifically. you need to learn what his calls mean. they use different calls for different things. if you’re not around he’ll cry a lot. He doesn’t know why he assumed they were.

learn what his calls mean

“These are about me,” he tells Dan, waving the mug so violently that some of the notes fly off.

Dan says, “Everything’s about you,” like this should be an obvious fact, an answer Phil should already have known. “I’m only here because of you.”

“Why did you smash your mirrors?”

Dan watches the post-its float gently down towards the street below. “I wasn’t really thinking when I did it. And I think it broke something and now I’m stuck here.”

“Because of me?” Dan nods again but doesn’t come back up from it, stays facing the wooden slats of his balcony floor. Phil says, “But I’m the one who’s - I’m the - It’s me who’s -” he has to stop, collect his thoughts into some semblance of actual words. “It’s me who’s having the dreams.”

Dan huffs. “You think that’s just you?”

“I hoped it wasn’t. I hoped -” Phil touches the side of Dan’s face, he can just about reach, from one balcony to another, across a great divide that just about allows him to brush his fingertips at Dan’s hairline. “You look like you.”

Dan goes incredibly still under Phil’s hand (Phil had almost thought that Dan would vanish if he touched him). “I look like every version of myself. All of them mixed into one.”

Phil puts his thumb to the single dimple. “I don’t -”

“Sometimes I have an earring, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my hair is different, I think, but I can’t really see it. I wake up in suits that don’t fit me or covered in an old coat or a white jacket and everything smells like coffee and you.” He looks up at Phil and his hair is starting to curl on the tips. “I thought that I would have dreamt up something more entertaining than this.”

Phil is leaning so far forward that the railing is pressing into his waist. “What?”

“Like, I don’t know, that we’re pirates on different ships or leaders of rival armies or something. Owners of companies that hate each other but we have to pretend we’re married for some reason, I haven’t thought of why yet. I didn’t really expect just neighbours with balconies that are too close together. Have you ever seen any building in real life with balconies as near as this? You could jump right over.”

Phil’s thoughts stutter on in real life but he says, “I could. I would. I want to.” His hand is still curved around the side of Dan’s face, thumb to dimple, fingers to temple. Aside from his first sudden reaction Dan has given no further acknowledgement that it’s even happening. “And I’m the one dreaming, it’s me, and I touched everything in my flat. Yesterday. Or maybe two days before that. I touched everything and it’s real. This is real. I’m real. And you’re real.”

We’re real,” Dan says. “We’re just in the wrong place. Or maybe we’re not real here.” He tilts his head, turning into Phil’s hand. “And why do you always assume it’s just you dreaming?”

“Do I always assume that?” Phil doesn’t wait for any kind of answer. “There’s no other way it would be. I was dreaming about you before I met you.”

“Before you met me?”

Phil casts his other hand back and forth between them, to indicate here and now. We’re meeting now. Dan’s hair is curling and there are snowflakes caught on the edges. Has it been snowing? It can’t have, the sun above is blinding. He has a tiny gold hoop in one ear (giving the people want they want Phil) and freckles and laughter lines and not enough dimples.

Dan laughs and Phil instantly thinks hey, that’s his real laugh. “Phil, do you honestly think this is the first time we’re meeting?”

Phil, honestly, says, “I don’t know.”

--3. caramel macchiato--

One of the mirrors is broken. It looks, as Phil nudges one of the pieces with his foot, too perfect. Too deliberate. Like someone smashed it with a hammer and then very gently laid it all out across the floor in the shape that it once was. It’s a small square with holes in each corner where it must have been nailed to the wall. The type of solid basic mirror that you get in hotels. Or dorm rooms. If Phil squints at it hard enough he can almost see the reflection of standard beige walls and a tiny desk. A single bed. A place that Phil knows that he can no longer get to.

He blinks and the beige is gone. There are just a hundred tiny Phils, with red hair at their temples and a blue coffee shop apron. He wonders whether the mirror threw itself from the wall or if it just gently lay on the floor and shattered. Either one looks likely. Phil feels as guilty as if he’d done it himself (but then he may as well have done. Broken the mirror and broken his heart. He’s always unintentionally doing that).

Dan didn’t understand, had frowned down at it and said are we still talking about the mirror? when Phil had never been talking about the mirror at all. He wanted to say we were there, you and me before his thoughts ran away with him and a whole storm of I never came to your room at university before, why did I never do that started brewing.

(The answer to that is sadly obvious; Phil had never wanted to see Dan’s room because he didn’t really want to see Dan at university. Dan’s life outside Phil was a scary thing filled, in Phil’s head, with a whole cast of students like Dan: tanned and gorgeous, inviting him to parties, being confident and flirty and various other things that Phil was not. He’s lived a lot of lives convinced that Dan will one day wander out of his grasp).

“I’m sorry,” Dan had said about the mirror, like he wasn’t sure why he was saying so but felt like he should. His hand had been on Phil’s sleeve.

Phil looked at Dan’s fingers and measured the distance they would have to travel to be touching his wrist instead. “For the mirror? Why? It was my fault. I rushed. I didn’t think it would happen.”

Dan repeated, “The mirror?”

“I don’t think I can fix it,” Phil replied, and he knew it was true.

He still knows it now, even if he doesn’t recall the full details. There’s a receipt in his hand with Dorm room, 2009, are you here, I don’t care scrawled on the back because it was all he remembered when he woke up under the staff room blanket and all he was clinging onto as he rushed to the second floor, avoiding invisible obstacles and tripping over his own feet.

PJ shouts, “Phil, are you upstairs again?”

Phil says, “Yes.”

PJ leaves a very polite pause before he says, “So, are you coming back or -?”

He’s waiting on the bottom step when Phil returns, blinks owlishly up and him and says, “Are you okay? You haven’t been - I was going to say you haven’t been yourself but I’m not sure if I remember what that was. My memory’s not the best at the moment. What were you doing up there?”

Phil says, “Just trying to fix something. It didn’t work.”

The receipt, crumpled into a tiny ball, goes in his locker with the wedding favour and each marble and petal that has ever fallen from Dan’s briefcase. He has every shade on the spectrum, every piece of blue that could ever be imagined.

Dan himself is at the counter, folding and refolding his coat over his arms. Phil waits for him to say caramel macchiato but instead he says, “Phil.”

At some point after realising the mirror was broken Phil had touched Dan’s face. His thumb had almost been on Dan’s mouth and Dan had let him do it. Moving too quickly had caused some other Phil to end up in pieces on the second floor, but Phil can’t quite bring himself to slow this one down.

Dan repeats, “Phil?”

He’d smiled, last time, and Phil had almost seen a dimple somewhere in his too perfect face. Had knocked over everything on the counter in his desperation to reach for it.

“It’s weird coming here and you not being behind the counter or in the staff room,” Dan continues, still tidying his coat. “It’s like coming to the wrong place.”

“I was upstairs.”

Dan obviously wants to guess the mirror, his lips are half-moving around the word before he says,”Okay,” instead. He looks out of sorts, pale and fidgety, shifting his weight back and forth foot to foot in unison with the movement of his coat, arm to arm. Sleep ruffled and sleep deprived at the same time. The circles under his eyes are almost indigo coloured. Phil regrets having taken him upstairs, regrets sitting next to him at the inevitable piano and then touching his face, regrets his satchel overflowing with azure petals. He was trying to wake himself up but seems to have succeeded only in pulling Dan under with him.

Dan says, “Phil,” because the third time's a charm, the third time gives it meaning.

Phil says, “Dan. You look tired.”

Dan almost smiles. Phil watches his cheek for the dimple’s potential reappearance. “I look the same as I always do.”

“But just more tired.”

“I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”

Phil sighs. “I know how that feels.”

Dan actually does smile, full and blinding. “How? You’re always asleep.” He tracks Phil’s gaze, one cheek to the other, and his mouth flattens as he realises that whatever Phil had found last time has now disappeared.

“It’s not like sleep,” Phil says. “It’s more like I’m continually going on really tiring journeys.”

Dan didn’t remember the wedding invitation. He’d said I don’t know anyone who’d invite me to a wedding and also frowned at all of Phil’s blue collection. He barely seems to realise that any of those things are real, even when he’s the one handing them to Phil every single time. He said you like blue? when Phil wanted to say you gave them to me. All of them.

“I was going to ask if I could stay. When you finish your shift.”

“Is this you asking?”

Dan grimaces. “Yes. In a really awkward way. I should have just said -” He stops abruptly like Phil had interrupted him, looks at Phil expectantly. Phil frowns. Dan says, “I should have just said that this is what I look forward to the most in my day. That’s what I should have just said.”

“What else do you even do with your days?”

“I don’t know.” Dan stops again, eyes on Phil’s mouth, like they’re acting out a play and Phil’s supposed to come in with the next line but he never does. Or they’re filming a video and Dan is leaving a space for Phil to say something. “I just walk around and wait to see you. I suppose. That’s what it feels like. I don’t - Sometimes I don’t even remember what else I did at all.”

“I was going to ask you to stay.”

“Then ask.”

Phil says, “Stay,” which isn’t asking at all really and Dan is nodding on the first sound, right on the St. Phil thinks they’ve moved past questions, somewhere along the way, straight into knowing exactly what the other person wants and the inevitability of it happening. It’s too fast. He’s misjudged the pace completely.

“Were you looking at the mirror?” Dan finally asks. “When you were upstairs?”

“I don’t think I can fix it.”

“It’s just a mirror.”

“It’s not - That’s not all it -”

“What else would it be?”

Dan repeats the same thing, what else would it be, up on the second floor, later. The glorious later that stretches out between Phil’s shift ending and night beginning. Dan doesn’t touch any of the pieces, he clasps his hands respectfully in front of him and says, “It’s weird though. The way it fell. Did you move all the pieces like that?”

The empty square of wall is bookended by a plain black bordered mirror and a huge ornate one with gold plating in each corner. Dan looks at the mirror just above that one, shaped and marked like the surface of the moon. “That’s cool. I’d have that one in my bedroom.” He turns back to Phil. “Do you have a favourite one?”

Phil can feel his eyes widen, the sudden staccato of his breathing. “I-”

“It’s not that serious a question,” Dan says, aiming for light and landing somewhere else.

“I don’t like this room.”

“But you’re in here a lot. This is the third time we’ve been here.”

“It’s important.”

“To what?” Dan tilts his head but Phil says nothing. He touches the side of the moon mirror. “Are these melded to the wall or something? How did that one -”

“We could go to the piano,” Phil says. The room feels suddenly devoid of air, his pockets heavy with marbles and there’s too much movement on the corners of his eyes (endless loops of different Dans in different mirrors, spinning and smiling with too little and too many dimples). “I mean, I want to go to the piano. Please.”

Dan says, “Sure,” and holds his hand out as if beckoning Phil across an abyss. One balcony to the other.

The piano is out of tune and in need of a lot of love (according to Dan, who pats it and says and it’s so old). Each key has a tinny sounding reverb behind it that makes Phil wince. Dan hardly seems to notice. He plays something light and bouncy and says, words skipping over the music, “You knew I wanted to be a pianist.”

Phil says, “Yes.”

“But you know a lot about me. Apparently.”

Phil sighs. “Yes.”

Dan’s playing slows down. “It disappeared again, didn’t it? The dimple.”

Dimples,” Phil corrects. “And I don’t - I’m not sure if I even saw it in the first place. It was -” he reaches out, puts his thumb to Dan’s cheek. “This one. The deeper one. I thought it was there, but. Maybe I was imagining it.”

“Or wishing for it,” Dan says. “What else is missing?”

Phil ignores the question. “You really don’t remember the wedding favour?”

“I told you I -”

“But you gave it to me. Your handwriting is on the back.”

“You can’t.” Dan stops playing completely, then starts up something much more ponderous. Almost like a funeral march. “You can’t be annoyed that I’m not - What are you trying to get me to remember?”

Phil says, “Us,” and the word lands in the space between them just as Dan hits a solid B flat.

--4. slow show--

There’s an explosion of noise, the press of a piano key hidden somewhere in the middle of it, and then Thor wailing at the top of his tiny lungs. When Phil startles awake he’s met with a betrayed look (Thor) and the incessant buzzing of a portable radio that he didn’t even know they had. Thor looks at it and then back at Phil as if to say why have you brought this here?

Phil holds it to his ear, like he’s trying to listen to the ocean inside a shell, the piano in the static. There’s a flashing red button which he pushes and almost immediately the noise settles into a voice he doesn’t recognise. A girl’s voice. The piano starts to sound like a guitar, the gentle plucking of strings. She says, “Phil.”

Phil, for reasons he can’t explain, looks at Thor. Thor blinks. “Yes?”

“You’ve been there for too long.”

“Here?”

Thor, remembering that he’s supposed to have a cold, suddenly sneezes.

“You’re going to have to make a decision at some point. We’re all going to have to.”

Phil says, “I’m not understanding you.”

She says, “Don’t look at me like that.”

The button turns green. The noise stops, abruptly, reducing to just Phil (staring at his hands) and Thor (snuffling his way to another sneeze).

“I know you were faking,” Phil tells him, without looking up. “You don’t have to keep it up.” Thor stops. “Did you hear that?”

He half-thinks that it must have been a missed signal, but she said his name. Should he remember something about guitars? Does he remember anything about guitars? He recognises her voice, an echo of it saying this isn’t right at all as he and Chris watched Dan and PJ leave in a taxi. He puts his hand to his forehead and feels tired from the sheer effort of waking up.

It’s two am. Phil stands to look out through the windows, Thor under one arm, the hills and mounds of the enclosure bathed in silver. He keeps one hand wrapped around the radio. “I lost one,” he tells Thor. “And broke another one.” None of the words make sense and yet he’s the one saying them.

PJ says, “That makes no sense.”

Phil looks at Thor first, in the ridiculous hope that he’s suddenly gained the power of speech, and then at the doorway second, at PJ, leaning on the doorframe, hair askew and colour high in his cheeks. Phil says, “Hi. You’re here late.”

“I’m here late,” PJ repeats. “That’s - That’s how we’re starting, with me being -”

“Starting what?”

“We need to talk.” PJ pushes himself up and off the door. “Don’t say what about, you know what about. And I’m not even going to ask if this is a good time or anything because you never go anywhere, you’re always just here, you’re either asleep or you’re -” he waves one hand, vaguely, towards Phil’s face.

“Or I’m what?”

“Falling in love with my boyfriend,” PJ replies. “I suppose.”

The sudden silence hits like someone has kicked Phil in the back of his knees. He tries to gain his balance against it but can’t, stumbles over thin air and has to right himself with his free arm, the one that doesn’t have Thor tucked into his elbow. He doesn’t say what or I’m sorry or I was going to tell you or any of the variety of things that he could say. I didn’t fall in love with him PJ, he should say. Falling implies that it was a process, a start and an end, a moment in between where I was neither out or in love with him. It wasn’t like that. I saw him and it was instant. I blinked in love with him.

Instead he says, “He told you.”

“Told me what?” PJ’s face falls. “Have you been -”

“No, no, I just - I told him, earlier.” Was it earlier? It could be hours ago, weeks or months. “I only just -”

“Phil,” PJ says. “I think you were telling him something he already knows.”

Phil, realising that he hasn’t actually said I’m sorry yet, ends up blurting it out in one mangled word, an i’msorry that makes PJ sigh and doesn’t sound like it means enough. He says it again, “I’m sorry,” rounding off each syllable.

“I know you are,” PJ replies.

“No, I mean -”

“I know you are. Thanks for not trying to deny it and tell me I’m wrong or that I’ve been misreading all the signals.”

“I couldn’t do that. I’m a terrible liar.”

PJ snorts. “No, you’re not. You can’t pretend to be anything other than yourself.”

Phil thinks that his grasp on himself has been getting steadily weaker of late. “I’m still - I should have told you sooner. I should have told Dan sooner. I should have - everything, really. I should have done the whole thing differently.”

“You never would have said anything, though,” PJ says. “That’s not you, that’s not what you’re like. You would have sat back and just waited. I don’t even know what made you say something now, or even what you said, or -”

“I told him to break up with you. Because I’m in love with him.”

There’s a second where PJ almost looks impressed, like if this was a different scenario, a scene in a different universe, he would be whooping and holding his hand up for a high five. Would be saying wow that’s not like you at all! because it’s not, he’s right, Phil has never stepped forward for anyone, in any circumstance, even when the signs are all saying yes he’s looking for the one that says but maybe not. This PJ in another universe might then say but why now? and Phil would have to say that he doesn’t know. Like there was another voice in his head willing him on and the words had tumbled out.

And Dan had looked at him. And Phil had thought there it is because his expression was so suddenly obvious, Phil had just been looking at it wrong. Squinting without his glasses for something he’d hoped was there, a Skype connection breaking Dan’s face into blurred pixels until Phil looked harder and - there it was. The signs said yes. The signals made sense. Phil saw him across the platform of a train station and felt as if someone had knocked their fists to his temples. Waking up from a dream.

PJ also looks like someone has knocked a fist to his temple, but in a different way. “You should have told me. We’re friends. We were best friends.”

“Don’t say it like -”

“I mean it, It’s different. It’s been different for ages. You’re different.”

Phil says, “PJ.”

“I love him,” PJ replies.

“I know. You think that I don’t know that? That’s why I wasn’t - I wasn’t going to say anything, I was just going to -”

“That’s worse!” PJ exclaims. “What were you going to do? Cling onto any interaction you ever had with him and, like, pine from afar for all eternity?”

“Yes,” Phil says. “Probably.”

“So, why did you tell him now?”

“I felt like I should. Like it was important and that I’d left it for too long.”

PJ exhales, an annoyed sounding breath that clicks on his teeth. “That’s very considerate of you. To think about the timing.” When Phil tries to reply he sighs again. “Actually, this is perfect timing, isn’t it? I decide to come over here and talk to you about it on the same day you decide to tell Dan. What are the chances.” It’s not a question, the words are sad and flat. “You want to know when I knew.” Again, not a question.

Phil answers it anyway. “When?”

“He got Thor out of the enclosure and scratched his face. You remember. You had blood on your sleeve but you hadn’t been in there. And it was smudged, like you’d -” PJ puts his own hand to his face, touches his thumb to his cheekbone. “Like that.”

Phil says, “Like that.”

“I wish that you didn’t.” PJ sighs, looks up at the ceiling. “If someone else was going to be in love with him I wish it wasn’t you.” A thought suddenly seems to occur to him and he snaps his head down, looks directly at Phil. “What did he say?”

Thor hisses, a low rumbling of well there it is. Phil, weakly, can only manage a feeble “What?” which is in no way the response PJ deserves and they both know it.

“What did he say back? My boyfriend, when you told him you loved him and that he should break up with me?” PJ has both his hands in the curled mess of his hair, tangled up in his own ringlets. “And that date, that double-date, I definitely knew then, when he was looking out of the taxi, and you were -”

“It wasn’t -”

“What did he say?”

“He should be the one to tell you that.”

“I want you to tell me.”

“I don’t -”

“Stop being so passive,” PJ says. “All the time. You’re so -”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? Being passive?”

“Yes,” Phil replies, hopelessly, wanting to get into Thor’s pen and bury himself under all of the straw and blue paper, to stay there motionless until PJ leaves. “For all of that.”

PJ says, “Tell me what he said.”

Phil fixes his gaze somewhere near PJ’s left foot. “I took Thor over there -”

“And look at me while you do it.”

Phil does so. PJ stares back at him, unblinking. “I took Thor over there because he had a cold, remember?” Thor sneezes obediently. “And I just wanted to tell him. I don’t know why it was the exact moment but I just wanted him to know, I couldn’t - I didn’t want to carry on like I was, PJ, that’s all. I’m so tired. All the time. And it was making me more - And I thought -”

“You thought he felt the same way,” PJ interrupts, and then laughs at whatever expression Phil makes. “Come on Phil, of course you did. Why would you tell him if you didn’t think there was a chance? You knew, you saw -”

Phil says, “PJ.”

“I knew,” PJ says. “I saw.” He finally looks away from Phil, out past him towards the enclosure. “I interrupted you though, if it was today, you left.”

“I went back.”

PJ gets the same strange half-impressed expression as before, looks at Phil like he’s a different person (or a different Phil, a Phil that has been transplanted in from somewhere else with slightly more confidence. Slightly more everything). “Were you right? With what you thought?”

“I don’t know what I thought,” Phil says. “I don’t know what I think. Everything’s so -”

“Phil,” PJ says, gently, like he has so many times, leaning over pub tables, at parties, at conventions just before he says we should collaborate on something soon, bending his knees so they can all fit into one of Dan’s instagram posts. The familiarity of it makes Phil take a step back. I mean soon, we never do that much together anymore. Half-promises made on beaches in Brighton for projects that never happen. “Phil.”

Phil has to brace himself on the roof of Thor’s pen. “What?”

“I’m asking if he feels the same way.”

Phil, with too many encouraging, patient, creative PJs in his head, always the first person to message or comment on anything he posts, says, “Yes. He does.”

PJ sighs (a short little release of air, as if Phil had stepped forward and pinched him). He doesn’t sound surprised, more the complete opposite. The soft sound of someone confirming a fact that he already knew. “Right. That’s - Okay.”

Phil says, “I’m -”

“Stop saying that you’re sorry, Phil, please. I just.” PJ sighs again. “I just wish you’d told me first. I think you owed me that. I think I deserved that.”

“That’s what I wanted to do,” Phil says. It sounds weak to his own ears. “I wanted to tell you, but I - I had to tell him. It had been too long, it was -”

“Too long? You’ve only known him for a few months. I’ve only known him for a few months. It’s not like you’ve been pining for years or, like, been in love with him for a decade or -”

“I have,” Phil says. “I have.”

PJ blinks. “No, you haven’t. That’s ridiculous.”

“I know it is, I know that it sounds that way, but I’ve been having these dreams, PJ, for weeks, and -”

“Be serious. Can’t you just have a serious conversation with me?”

Phil has a distinct memory of PJ saying I’m never serious before making some sort of gloriously abstract video about space travel with props made entirely of cardboard. He’s never serious (though he tries sometimes, turning down the sweetness of his face and the corners of his mouth). But this isn’t the same PJ. And he’s not really the same Phil (or maybe he is, a Phil lost out of the right place and time). “I’m being serious. You have to listen to me, when I met him, I knew -”

“Are you trying to justify this to me by saying that you knew Dan from a dream,” PJ states. “Is that actually -”

“Will you let me -”

“I think you’re past the point of asking me to let you do anything.”

Phil says, “PJ,” as PJ starts to turn and walk back towards the door. “I haven’t explained.”

“I don’t think you could,” PJ replies. He hesitates in the doorway and adds, “Get some sleep. It’s late. I only - I knew you’d be awake. And I knew you’d be here. You always are. Where else would you be? Where else do you go?”

Phil leaves it too late to say anything back. PJ is already gone, the stamping of his feet disappearing into the dusk outside and the door closing back in Phil’s face, before he manages, “I don’t know.” To everything. He doesn’t know where else he would be or where else he would go. Is there anywhere else to go that doesn’t revolve around Dan.

He lets Thor back into his pen and takes his usual place in the chair beside it. Thor watches him through the mesh of the cage, chirping questioningly.

“I don’t know if I broke this one too,” Phil tells him. “I’m breaking them all.”

--1. absent treatment--

Dan is trying to write notes for a new couple, a wedding that he has in a few days, one that’s going to be all different shades of purple. They’d been wearing plum and lavender when Dan met them. “Like flowers,” he says. “Perfectly matching ones. They’ve all had a colour scheme, have you noticed that?”

Phil realises that he’s been stirring his coffee for so long that it’s gone cold, a whole mound of sugar marooned in the centre of his cup. He can’t see their waitress to order another. “Do they not usually?”

Dan says, “What?”

“Do they not usually have colour schemes. For the weddings.”

“I don’t know.” Dan looks startled. Phil watches the realisation creep over his face, catch somewhere in the tired softness of his eyes. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of the ones before. It’s just, these.” He sweeps his hand over his notes, scattering little index cards of paper in his wake. “All these perfect ones. That’s what I remember.”

Phil pats down the escaping pieces of paper from the air. He says, “That’s alright.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.” Dan frowns at his own intelligible writing. “I’ve been thinking. About university. Twelve thirty until four. About - About you losing it.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I didn’t mean -”

“Losing it implies that I just let it fall out of my hands. That’s not what happened at all.”

“I didn’t think we could lose them at all,” Dan says. “I didn’t think they would leave.” He’s said that a lot, since Phil had first mentioned the loss, the mislaying, of twelve thirty until four. I didn’t think they could go.

“There has to be,” Phil begins, half-stops, and then continues carefully, like every word is stepping over a spiderweb crack in a mirror. “There has to be an ending point. A natural sort of finish.” The curtain coming down at the end of a play, the fade to black in a film, the zooming in on the lead couples’ adoring faces. “When they get to where they’re supposed to be. Where we’re supposed to be. Or where we should have been all along. Something we should have done before, or something we didn’t do right.”

“I could try and dream about it,” Dan says. “I’ll try, really hard, before we go to sleep tonight - I could get back there.”

“But what do you remember about it?” Phil taps his fingertip to the peacock blue notebook. Dan’s notes, in comparison to Phil’s files, are still scattered and fleeting. The smallest hints of memories. Dan can sometimes recall the colour of a coat, the way Phil’s hair had looked, if there was music, the smell of a terribly made caramel macchiato. He wakes, sometimes, blinking with his hands outstretched, as if he was just about to catch hold of something.

“That I wanted you to come to me,” Dan says. “To meet me. That you were keeping me far away. That I loved you.”

Phil sighs, lays his hand flat against the table. “Isn’t that the same?” Dan touches his wrist (briefly, like a passing breeze). “It’s like that everywhere.”

“I felt younger,” Dan replies. Phil raises an eyebrow. “More optimistic, I suppose. More hopeful. I’m not like that everywhere.”

“You’re not optimistic here?”

Dan shrugs. “I wasn’t before. Before we met. At least, I don’t think so.”

“We didn’t really meet,” Phil says. “You made an appointment to come and see me.”

“Before I came and found you then.” Dan starts tying string around his notebook, enclosing all the index cards and wedding invitations that threaten to escape from the pages. “But, I’m being serious. About the weddings.”

“And the colours?”

“They’ve all met three months ago, Phil. All of them. But they act like they’ve known each other for years and they’ve been waiting. And the ceremonies are ridiculous, you said that, remember? All the feathers and the lace and how much does that even cost? I mean, I can’t ask because that’s not really what they want in the article but how can all of these people be having dresses made with hundreds of crystals and pearls and -”

Phil says, “Dan.”

“They’re like weddings that have been dreamt up.”

“What are you saying?”

The string snaps, index cards scattering back over the table. Phil gathers several into his palm (a small thank you for coming to a wedding, a yellow square with you need to learn with his calls mean scrawled on it, a typed business card for Somers Town which looks nothing like the coffee shop they’re currently sat in). He holds the yellow one up to Dan, who frowns at it. “That’s your handwriting,” Phil points out. “What calls do you mean?”

“Mine,” Dan says. “Or yours.”

The back of the card is sticky, it catches against Phil’s fingers. He repeats, “What are you saying?” though he’s fairly sure that Dan doesn’t even know, that the words are just bubbling out of him before he’s had time to process them.

“You’re remembering more,” Dan replies, not to Phil, eyes still firmly on the broken string holding his dreams together. “And I’m not.”

“That’s not - There’s nothing wrong with that, Dan. I chase ghosts for a living. I listen to people’s dreams because PJ never believes them. I’m just - I have practice with this.” Dan raises one eyebrow. “Not with you though. I’m not practised with you.”

“But you’re practised with ghosts.”

“There were a lot of them,” Phil says. “I think. I wouldn’t - I don’t know why I said chase, we don’t really chase them, I just did the interviews while PJ knocked on walls and said it was the pipes. There wasn’t any chasing involved.”

Dan says, “Wasn’t there?” lightly and also not lightly at all.

--6. dan howell--

Phil says, “Have you had any dreams about me?” which is an odd way to start a conversation that would, thankfully, only work with PJ. Phil can almost feel the steady build of his grin down the phone line.

“Dreams.” PJ repeats. “About you.”

“Yeah. Like, recurring ones.”

“What, recently?”

“I- Were you having them before?”

“We’ll never know for sure, will we?” PJ replies. “And no, Phil, I sadly haven’t had any recent dreams about you. I haven’t seen you in person for months.”

“We were going to come up,” Phil begins. “But, with the tour and-”

“I know. I didn’t mean it like that. We’re all busy. I mean, I was in London a while ago for meetings and I was going to text and- It’s just finding the time, isn’t it? There’s never enough. But I really did want to meet up. And then they had photos of you and Dan all over the place just to make me feel extra guilty about it.” There’s a pause and PJ adds, “Not in, like, a stalkery way. I think you’d been there for a shoot, the calendar? There were dogs.”

Phil instantly says, “Zils Street. You had meetings in-”

“That’s the one. How do you remember that? I never remember anything. I only know the name of that one because of all the-”

“Mirrors,” Phil supplies.

“Yeah! In the dressing room or whatever. Weird. But they had the photos of you and Dan, the one where you’re in polo necks, and I was like wow, I really wish I could spend more time with Phil and- like it was before. When we were starting. But, you know.” PJ’s voice trails away a little and picks up again for, “Busy. We all are.”

“We’ll come to Brighton,” Phil says, automatically. He’s instantly aware of how many times he’s said that exact thing over the past year.

He repeats it when the call is ending, says it twice, until PJ is saying, “Sure!” and Phil is saying, “We will, I promise we will,” until PJ is the one to finally politely hang up.

Louise is more bemused to hear from him, mainly because she’s always been more Dan’s friend, and sounds like she’s waiting for him to pass the phone over. She puts up with his increasingly awkward small talk for exactly ten minutes before saying, “Is there something I can help with Phil?”

Phil stops in the middle of whatever he was saying about the weather. “I - Possibly? I don’t know actually. I was hoping so.”

“What is it?”

“This is going to sound weird.”

“That’s fine,” Louise says. “I’m good with weird.” There’s the snuffling sounds of the baby, obviously being held on her shoulder. Her voice turns into more of a coo, not addressed to Phil at all. “Aren’t we? We love weird.”

“Have you been having any recurring dreams?” Phil says, all in in a rush, one on burst of air. “Ones that potentially I’m in. Possibly.”

The baby coughs. Louise hesitates. “Is this for a video?”

“No it’s - It’s just for me. Just a question I need answering.”

“I’m not great at remembering dreams,” Louise says. “And I don’t really sleep that much at the moment, not with this one.” There’s a delighted sounding gurgle, as she presumably touches the baby’s cheek (or whatever else you do to make babies laugh. Phil’s never sure).

“That’s not a no,” Phil replies, hopefully.

“It’s not. It’s weird that you’re asking this, actually, because I was just about to film a vlog and I was going to mention it, but I didn’t know where to start, really, and you just get people sending you analysis and wanting more -”

Phil says, “Louise.”

“They’re not exciting. And I don’t even go anywhere, it’s just me sitting in a room, or two rooms, one’s just like an office, and the other’s red, I think. I don’t remember the red one so well but the office one is just people coming in and me giving them advice and handing them leaflets. Why couldn’t I get a recurring dream where I’m a millionairess with a really cute pool boy?”

Phil is about to say am I in them but it’s more important to ask, “Have you been in London recently?”

Louise doesn’t even pause at the change in conversation. “A few weeks ago for a book thing. I texted Dan, didn’t he say? The place I was in had photos of you two everywhere.” She half-laughs. “You must remember it. It had absolutely loads of -”

“Mirrors,” Phil supplies, for the second time.

“That’s the one. No one needs to see themselves from that many angles so early in the morning.” The gurgling of the baby starts to get slightly annoyed sounding with the potential for tears. “Oh dear. Phil, it’s been lovely to -”

“That’s okay,” Phil interrupts. “Listen, do you have Dodie’s number?”

Louise says, “Dodie Clark? Yes, I think I do.”

“Can you send it to me? When you get the chance but, like, soon. Please.”

“Of course.” Louise’s voice fades in and out, probably bouncing the baby up and down. “I hope I answered your question properly Phil.”

“You did,” he tells her, even though he’s not sure what the proper answer would be.

Dan’s spreadsheet (Student!Me, Vet!Me, Coffee!Me, Hipster!Me and Balcony!Me) looks accusingly out from the screen of his laptop. Phil supposes that Student!Me can be crossed out now. He highlights the whole column in a deep navy that hides the text.

Dan, next to him on the sofa, having been listening to each conversation with a look of eye rolling fondness (the same expression he uses whenever Phil has to have a serious discussion with anyone over the phone), says, “The student one? That’s the one that went?”

“I haven’t had it again. And the mirror’s broken.”

Dan says, “What?”

Phil echoes, “What?” back, aware that he’s said something but isn’t sure what.

“What mirror?”

“The -” Phil puts his fingers to his temples. Dan immediately pulls them away. “At the coffee shop.”

“What coffee shop?” Dan nods at the spreadsheet, now close to falling off his lap. “That coffee shop?” Phil nods into Dan’s hands. “What mirror?”

“Mirrors,” Phil corrects. “Plural. You don’t remember.” That shouldn’t surprise him, the mirrors had come with the argument and Dan was good at letting those slip from his memory. “At Zils Street.”

“No, I remember. They were all over the walls. I took a billion selfies in there.” Dan frowns. “What do they have to do with any of this?”

“It’s not going to make any sense.”

“Try and explain it anyway.”

“It’s not going to make any sense,” Phil repeats.

“Phil.” Dan removes his fingers from Phil’s forehead, loops them around Phil’s wrists. “This is getting weird. Okay. It already was weird, I know that, but it’s getting - We need to actually do something about it. It’s pointless just tracking them on spreadsheets and deleting them when.” He stops, changes the subject in the sort of swooping way that only he can, leaving Phil in mid-air. “You should be happy it’s gone. That’s what we wanted, wasn’t it? For them to stop? That’s one less to - to worry about.” Phil sighs, Dan must feel it under his hands. “You’re getting attached to them.”

Phil says, “Yes.”

“They’re not real.”

Phil says, “I don’t -”

I’m real.” Dan presses his forehead against Phil’s, the space where his fringe used to be, when he blinks his eyelashes catch on Phil’s cheekbone. “I feel like you’re cheating on me sometimes, but with me. Better versions of me. Younger and cuter ones. I’m watching you sleeping and wondering which one you’re with and I just want to wake you up. Every time. And when you do wake up I think you wish that you’re back there.”

Phil almost shakes his head but to do so would dislodge Dan so he just, with not enough feeling, without the vehemence he was aiming for, mumbles, “That’s not true.”

“Which one’s your favourite?”

“You know that it’s -”

“Which one? Don’t think about it, just answer.”

Phil doesn’t think and so answers, “The 1920s.”

There’s a pause, a long one, long enough for him to regret having said anything, before Dan makes a huh noise. “I thought it would have been the student.”

“They’re all -” Phil having started decides that he may as well finish. “I like them all.”

This apparently makes Dan sad. Extremely so. His mouth downturns and the frown that’s been hovering around his expression finally settles onto his face. Phil immediately wants to apologise, but finds that he can’t. The only way to apologise is to say I didn’t mean it or that came out wrong and neither of those things are true. He’d meant it and it had come out completely correctly. He leans forward until his forehead is in the curve of Dan’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I said that.”

Dan’s fingers flex around his wrists. “I - I’d like any version of you too. I’m not mad at you for saying that.”

“But you’re sad that I did.”

“You’re going places without me and I can’t chase after you. You’re living lives without me.”

“I’m dreaming,” Phil says, surprised. “That’s not a group activity.”

Dan sighs. Phil feels it against his cheek. “I really thought it was going to be the student one that was your favourite. I thought that’s why you’re sad it’s gone. It would have been my favourite, if I was having them.”

“Because of the hot student-teacher thing? Me in glasses sitting at a desk?”

“I wasn’t always that patient with you, when I was actual student me, was I. I said a lot of stuff that I wish I could take back and then didn’t say a lot of stuff that I should have done. It was just a lot all at once and, I mean, I was sometimes pretty obnoxious.”

“Everyone’s pretty obnoxious when they’re nineteen.”

“If I could do it again, just that part, I would. And I’d say what I meant to say instead of worrying what people thought all the time. And I’m be more obvious.”

“Dan.” Phil leans back so he can make eye contact. “You couldn’t have been more obvious. You were the most.” He doesn’t finish. Dan was the most of everything, too much for Phil to keep hold of in his two hands, always had been and always would be.

“I’m just saying, I would see the appeal. Of that one. Of getting to do that again.”

“I’ve never thought of doing it again.” Dan huffs. “No, really. It wasn’t always perfect and I’m not going to pretend like I was happy the entire time but it’s part of how we got here. We might not be here if it hadn’t happened that way. I wouldn’t want it changed. I’ve never thought about it.”

Dan says, “I have,” because of course he has. “Sometimes.” Sometimes, for Dan, means all the time. Forever worrying about his place in the universe. “Like, what I should have said, what I should have done.”

Phil, fondly, purposely fondly so Dan knows he isn’t teasing, says, “You think that about everything. You think that about the tone you used to the barista when you order your coffee. You think that about conversations you had years ago. You think that about -”

“About how we could be different. What if I’d never messaged you. What if I’d carried on with my degree. What if you’d carried on with a post grad. What if we’d never met. What if we eventually had but differently.”

“Slow down.” Phil leans forward again. His nose brushes Dan’s, so close that he has to whisper. “I’m the one having the dreams.”

“I know,” Dan whispers back. “I wish you weren’t.” Phil kisses him, his wrists still caught by Dan’s fingers, the laptop containing his other lives finally tumbling to the floor with a not very gentle sounding thud. Dan opens his mouth under Phil’s, like he always does, always in a rush, like there’s always someone about to burst through the door and catch them. He murmurs, “Why the 1920s?” against Phil’s jaw, and then his cheek. “Why there?”

Phil presses “What?” into Dan’s right dimple.

“Why there? What am I like there? What are we like there?”

“You write,” Phil mumbles. “You’re a writer, you wear a coat with holes in it, you came to find me, your hair is -” he releases one hand from Dan’s grasp, pushes into Dan’s hair, tangles the curls around his fingers. “I lit a candle for you. In the window, so you knew where I was. You’re sad there, I think, your eyes are sad sometimes. I kissed you on a piano bench.”

“You love me.”

Phil isn’t sure if it’s a question, it can’t be a question at this point, it hasn’t been asked as a question for eight years. You love me? Dan knows he does. He knows the reverse. It’s the sort of obvious thing that there’s no comparison to, a thing that never truly started, a fact that just was. You love me. “You know -”

“No, I mean, you’re in love with me. There.”

“Oh,” Phil says. His hands are somehow both free now, out of Dan’s hair and under the neverending folds of his sweater, splayed on the bare skin of his back. Dan repeats it, like he’s already said it a few times, you’re in love with me there, like a few minutes of time have passed unnoticed in between each of their sighs. “Yes. I am.”

“You’re in love with all of them.”

All of you, Phil wants to say. All of you.

--3. caramel macchiato--

The mirror stays on the floor. Phil thinks, somehow, that by sweeping it away he would be tidying up a part of himself. A lost part. He feels like he pulled the mirror from the wall himself, smashed it down and then possibly stamped on it for good measure. PJ, who never walks up the stairs (why is that, he wonders. He never goes outside, PJ never leaves the bottom level of the shop), says, “Hey, you’re spending a lot of time on the second floor. I don’t mean - it’s not a problem, I’m glad you’re getting out of the staff room, but -”

“PJ”, Phil interrupts. “How long have I worked here?”

PJ frowns. “What?”

“How long have I worked here?”

“I barely remember how long I’ve worked here.” PJ doesn’t laugh. Phil feels the absence of it. “Actually, I genuinely don’t. It must be a long time. Why are you asking?”

“How did we meet? When did you first see me?”

PJ laughs now, but it isn’t genuine. “Phil, I don’t know, I came to work one day and here you were. Wearing a load of prints that don’t match. And I was probably like, hi Phil, can you smell burning, and -”

“When did I tell you my name?”

“You probably told me at some point, Phil. What are you asking me exactly?”

Phil says, “I don’t know. I’m just really tired.”

“How can someone who sleeps so much be tired?” PJ bumps Phil’s shoulder, lightly, with his fist. “Look, I know that there’s obviously something going on or you’re overthinking something but, you can tell me. You could tell me. If you wanted to. I could try and help.”

“Do I ever leave this shop?” Phil asks. “In the time that you’ve known me, have you ever seen me in the street? Am I ever outside?”

PJ’s hand stays at Phil’s shoulder. “What’s going on?” When Phil sighs he says, “No. I haven’t. I see you here. Just here, at work. I come to work, you’re already here. I leave work, you’re still here. I think you live in the staff room, on that couch. Or upstairs. Maybe you’re living on the second floor. I don’t know.”

Phil almost says I think many versions of me are living on the second floor but that would be a step too far for PJ, who is now patting reassuringly at Phil’s coffee shop t-shirt. He can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be a step too far so says nothing at all.

PJ says, “I wish you’d told me.”

“What?”

PJ frowns. “What?”

“You just said -” Phil puts his fingers to his temples. PJ clucks his tongue sympathetically, starts to say something about a headache, do you have a headache, Phil, you said that you were tired. “No, it’s nothing. I thought - I thought you said something.”

He burns the milk almost instantly. So instantly that it almost seems intentional. Dan, first in line, of course first in line, says, “Is everything okay?” and then tries to pay in bluebell petals, piles of them that cascade out of his hand and onto the counter. He stares at them, surprised. “I don’t.”

Phil’s voice is high pitched when he says, “Something’s happening,” when he means to say something’s going wrong. Something was wrong all along. “I have to tell you,” falls out of his mouth unbidden.

Dan says, “Tell me what?”

“Can you come into the staff room?”

“There’s a -” Dan pointedly looks behind him, “Whole line of customers here, Phil.”

“What are these?” Phil gathers the bluebells into his hands. “Why do you keep giving me these?”

“I like you in blue.”

“So, they’re presents?”

“No, they’re signals. You keep.” Dan stops speaking, then looks astonished, like he’s been listening to someone else talk. Whatever Phil keeps is left unsaid. “Do you want me to come back? I’ll come back.”

“No, I want you to stay.”

The smell of burning is getting worse, Phil isn’t sure how. Some customers are leaving, actually all of the customers are leaving, maybe Phil had burnt the milk on purpose, but Dan stays, awkward in his always ill fitting suit, his always too straight hair. Looking at him is like seeing another Dan through an extremely dirty window, or in the reflection of a smudged mirror. A Dan that he can’t get to.

Dan raises his arms, as if to announce the fact that he’s staying, as if to say here I am, then lets them drop back to his sides. His every motion sends more petals scattering in Phil’s direction. “That’s the first time you’ve actually given me a direct answer.”

Phil says, “It can’t be.”

“No, it definitely is. I remember everything you say and that’s the first time. You’re normally just speaking in allegories.”

“I don’t mean to. It just happens.”

Dan is suddenly very close to the counter, petals piling into snow drifts under his hands. “What do you want to tell me?”

Phil wants to take the words back, he doesn’t know how to tell something that he doesn’t understand. He wants to ask Dan if he’s real, if this is real. He’d wanted the milk to burn and it had done so, immediately. He wanted Dan to be there and so Dan was. He wanted Dan to come closer and Dan is an exhale away. Phil wants to ask what is this, what is this over and over until someone can answer.

He says, “What are these?” instead, again, to the bluebells. “Signals for what?”

“For you,” Dan replies. “I suppose. I don’t collect them, my pockets are just always full of them. They’re always in my hair or in my wallet or - I feel like it’s important that you see them, so that you know I’m here.”

“I know you’re here.” Phil lifts his hand but can’t decide which part of Dan he wants to touch and so just skims his fingertips across Dan’s cheek. “I can see you.”

Dan leans into the touch, keeps leaning even as Phil is drawing his hand away. “What do you want to tell me?”

The shop (counter, tables, chairs, all of the cups and saucers) seems to curve around them, like someone has the whole scene cupped in their palm and is pushing them into the centre. Phil says, “It won’t make sense. And I know you’re going to say to tell you anyway but it really won’t make sense. I don’t understand it and it’s happening to me.”

“Or to both of us simultaneously,” Dan suggests. His tilting towards Phil has set him off balance, he’s pressing his hands to the counter like he could press through it. “Have you ever thought about that?”

“I dream about you,” Phil tells him. “A lot.”

“How much is a lot?”

“All the time. Constantly.”

Dan raises his eyebrows. “What types of dreams?”

“Just, all kinds. I don’t know if they’re dreams, they could be - they don’t feel like dreams.”

“I don’t know what dreams are meant to feel like,” Dan says. He watches Phil pace back and forth, all the blue in the room rising and falling with the breeze he’s creating. “Is that what you wanted to say? That you dream about me?”

“I don’t - It’s more like I live a lot of different lives. With you.”

Dan looks momentarily thunderstruck (or what Phil imagines someone being thunderstruck would look like: shocked and awed, having witnessed something wonderful). “I- I feel like I would be aware of that.”

“It’s difficult to -”

“I’m guessing I have dimples in them.” Dan touches one side of his mouth and then the other. “That’s why you’re always looking for them.”

“It’s not -”

“I would make them, if I could. I don’t know how to make dimples, exactly, but I would do it if you wanted me to. And whatever else you said. Freckles, and laughter lines. I could-”

“You don’t have to -”

“But you’re always looking for them,” Dan says. “Like you’re trying to find someone else’s face.”

Phil bows his head. There is a sudden ringing in his ears, a cracking at his feet like he’s standing on ice, on pieces of glass, so much blue behind his eyes. The feeling of having gone too far, said too much too fast, why couldn’t he have just waited, always doing too much of everything, is heavy on his shoulders.

“They’re not different lives with me, they’re lives with someone else.” Dan mirrors his earlier gesture, raises his arms and drops them. It’s just me. Here I am. “Or dreams about someone else.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re you or a version of you, or me, or if they’re real at all, but what I do know is that you say things sometimes, and bring me things, that are the same everywhere. And I don’t know what that’s trying to tell me.”

“The wedding invitation?” Dan guesses. “These?” He picks up the bluebells again.

“You’re always giving me blue. There’s always blue, everywhere.”

“You like blue,” Dan exclaims. “I like you in blue.”

“Oh.” Phil blinks. “Thanks.”

Dan says, “You don’t,” and “It doesn’t,” before he shakes his head, fingers to temples. “It doesn’t have to mean anything, the dreams. You’re overthinking it. We just met in a coffee shop, that happens all the time, it’s the start of, like, seventy percent of all fan fictions, it’s a trope, it’s a normal thing, can’t you just -”

Exactly.”

“Exactly what? Is it that unbelievable that I would walk in here? Am I that unbelievable?”

“But you didn’t just walk in here, you said that you felt like someone was calling you.” Phil, finally, feels ready to play one of the last cards, one of the pieces he’s been holding close. As soon as he feels ready he immediately doubts himself, as is standard in almost everything he decides to do, but he says it anyway. “That’s how I knew your name. From the - the dreams.”

Dan huffs, almost a laugh, almost an of course I’m called Dan everywhere, that’s so boring, an uplift at the end that’s almost something else. “So what are you saying exactly? That this is all predestined because you dreamt about me?”

Phil says, “Yes,” because it’s easier than saying no, I’m not sure if this is real at all.

When they go to the piano, a tradition, an inevitability, Dan plays something new. A thing that could be the closing number of a show. It makes Phil want to sit on the piano top and look down at him. He doesn’t say so. He wishes he hadn’t said anything at all, is conscious of having made it too light, revealing only one line from a whole book, one piece of a mirror.

“What does Dream Me do?” Dan asks, still playing. “For a job or, like, in life.”

“Lots of things.”

“No other lawyers though.”

“No, that’s just you.”

Dan huffs again. His huffs are starting, to Phil at least, to sound like sobs. “Lucky me.”

“You don’t have to be a lawyer. You could quit.”

“And do what?”

“Whatever you wanted.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Dan says. “I’ve never really wanted anything. I’m a really - I procrastinate or I sort of spoil the things that I like by being casual about them. I always want wanting things was too obvious and too much of yourself on show and I just quit everything I liked and just ended up.” He stops playing, abruptly, leaving a note in mid air. “Like this. Just, like this.”

Phil waits, but nothing happens. The note stays where it is, the closing number never closes. “It can be scary sometimes. To want things.”

“I never wanted anything until I met you,” Dan replies. Phil puts his thumb to where the dimples should be, left and then right. “It’s not even wanting at this point, it’s just like longing, or pining, or my day just not seeming right until I’ve seen you. I don’t even remember what else I do without you.” Phil coasts his fingertips over invisible freckles. “Or if there’s anything outside of you at all. I want to meet all the other yous too.”

“You’d probably just find me really boring then.”

“Not possible,” Dan says. “You’re the least boring person I’ve ever met.”

This, Phil knows, is the moment where he says something, where he says I’m in love with you. Everywhere. In all ways. This version of you, this you who didn’t meet me, or met me too late, I want to smooth out every frown line you have. He wants, very badly, to pull this Dan into some other reality with him, is that a thing that he could do, a light and gentle place where Dan could be happy, shrug that awful coat off his shoulders. This is the moment where he kisses Dan, his hands cupped around Dan’s face, fingers under his jaw. But.

“I think if I do things, in the - if I cross lines, in the dreams, then they end.”

Dan blinks. “Cross lines?”

“Or, do what I want to do.”

“Oh,” Dan says. Then sudden realisation, “Oh.”

“That’s why I’m not telling you things. Everything.”

“What if I just tell you instead?”

“Then I’ll just want to say them back and it’ll be impossible.”

“Has that happened to any of them?”

Phil still has Dan’s face cradled in his hands. His fingers are still splayed, searching for things that don’t exist here. He says, “I think so. I think one got lost. Or broken.”

“You think you broke it?”

“You’re so sad here. Why are you so -”

“I haven’t been that sad since I met you.” Dan leans away, out of Phil’s tentative grasp. “Maybe that’s the whole point. I’m not unbelievable, but you are.”

Phil says, “That’s -”

“Just tell me what you want to tell me. What do you think is going to -”

“That this stops, I can’t get back here, I think that’s -”

“Just tell me.”

“I can’t, I don’t want to lose -”

“I think I might be in love with you,” Dan interrupts. “That’s me telling you.”

There is silence where Phil thinks there should be noise. A hundred mirrors falling from a hundred walls and smashing. Fracturing beneath his feet. He says, “Dan,” helplessly, like he is falling through glass, drowning in petals.

“That’s what the signals are for,” Dan adds. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I’m leaving them everywhere. You never work out what the calls mean.” He shifts further away, to the other end of the piano bench, and resumes playing.

Phil leans further towards him, reaches out. “Dan.”

Dan doesn’t turn around. “Wake up.”

--4. slow show--

Phil wakes up with Dan’s hand on his forehead (wake up) and Thor’s chirping very close to his ear (Dan, presumably, must be holding him in the curve of his elbow). Phil blinks and Dan whispers, “Hi,” followed by, “I think it’s later now. Or, I don’t know. I couldn’t wait. I don’t care when later is.”

Phil grabs at Dan’s shirt, at his too long sleeves, frantic in a way that he never usually is when he wakes up. Dan makes a startled sound. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just me.” He allows himself to be pulled closer, turning to avoid Thor being crushed between them. “Were you having a nightmare? It’s okay. You’re awake now.”

Phil says, “Am I?”

“What?” Dan frowns. “Of course you are. Do you want me to pinch you?”

“No.” Phil is gasping for air, like he’s been falling. “No, I’m awake. It’s fine. It wasn’t - I don’t know if it was a bad dream or not. It wasn’t -”

“You were reaching for something,” Dan says. “Your hands were like.” He extends his free arm, opens his fingers into Phil’s hair. “Like that. Like you were trying to get to something far away.”

“PJ knows. He was here earlier. Maybe earlier. He asked me and I told him.”

“I know,” Dan says. “I know. He came to the office.”

Phil asks, “How was he?” and winces as he does because it’s an awful question with an obvious answer.

Dan winces right back. Phil feels it. “I mean, he was sad. I knew he would be. He said some stuff but I think he knew, he knows how I feel and it’s just. It could have been different. If I’d waited.”

“If I hadn’t waited,” Phil says.

“He said that you said some things about dreams.”

“I did.” Phil feels shy, suddenly, not used to being around Dan when he knows, when they both know, all of the inner workings of his heart, everything on display. He’s unpractised at actually holding eye contact with someone that he’s been staring at, holding that person’s wrist in the loop of his fingers. He’s blushing, he can feel it.

“Dreams about me?”

“I don’t dream about anything except you.”

“You’re blushing,” Dan says, sounding mystified by the fact.

“Well, I’m not used to looking at you. Or, you looking back.”

“I was always looking back.”

“I don’t know what we do now. I never really thought about this part.”

Dan raises his eyebrows. “What? Not at all.”

“It seemed too impossible.”

Dan laughs, the high pitched explosion of his genuine laugh, delighted and amazed, dimples deep. “Anything’s possible, Phil. We can do anything you want.”

The fact of anything being possible seems too infinite for Phil, the list of things he wants to do with Dan, the things which can now probably become reality, if he just asks, are too much, too detailed. He trips from happy to having one foot solidly in overwhelmed. His own voice in his head, but more heavily accented, telling him to slow down. He says, “I wouldn’t know where to start. I only ever just want you. I’m not - You were always so far away.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Dan says, sounding genuinely apologetic.

“I love you. A lot. A ridiculous amount. I thought everyone could see it, all over my face, in everything that I did, and that someone was just going to call me out on it at some point and I wouldn’t know what to say because I’d never said it aloud. And I used to wish that PJ would get transferred away but you wouldn’t be able to go, or all these elaborate things, like, really awful things because I was too spineless to say anything, and just thinking about scenarios where we could be together when I should have just -”

“Maybe that’s why you dream about me so much. They’ll probably stop now.”

Phil blinks, feels his grip on Dan’s wrist tighten without meaning to. “What?”

“Now that we’re together,” Dan explains, gently. “They’ll probably stop. I’m not going anywhere. I - I used to do that too. Think of ways things could change, but with us still there in the middle. It wasn’t fair. All of that when I could have just told you. And you weren’t - I couldn’t see it on your face. Sometimes I could and I’d think, or I’d hope, but then you’d just shut down and not look at me and I’d think, oh, maybe not, it’s just me wishing. But you were wishing too.”

“I don’t wish,” Phil says. “I need - there’s things I need to tell you. About the dreams.”

“You can tell me later.” Dan, finally, pulls Phil out of the chair and to his feet. Phil does not let go of his wrist so they end up stumbling, tangled together, to deposit Thor back in his pen. “You can tell me everything. I’ll listen to all the details. But we’ve got things to do first.”

Phil trips over his own feet, over his own words, over his own voice, voices, jumping around his head, over and into the anticipation of what’s about to happen. He says, “Things?”, a word that opens like a flower, breaking into petals. Things.

Dan laughs again. “Yes, things. I’ve been waiting for so long. Let’s go home.”

Phil says, “Home?” because he’s not entirely sure where that is here. He has a vague recollection of a lot of disorganized games and dvds, a lamp shaped like a cactus, but no real memory of when he was last there, when he was last somewhere that Dan was not. “I don’t know how to get there.” He starts to move towards the door, taking Dan with him. “I don’t know -”

“Hey,” Dan says. “It’s okay.” He touches the flush of Phil’s cheek. “You seem like you’re freaking out, don’t - I’m - This is happening. For real. And, I know that it wasn’t ideal and I know there’s PJ and I know and I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that, I’m not, but I also never stopped feeling the way I felt about you when I saw you first and you nearly fell in the otter pool and I thought if you had fallen in then I would have jumped in after you. No question. And then every day I just kept thinking that you were falling further away from me.”

“I wasn’t,” Phil whispers (he feels like he should whisper, now they’re saying things aloud). “Or, I was, but not intentionally. It was just, it was self preservation, I just wanted - I needed for you to be happy, even if that wasn’t with me.”

Thor lets out a series of chirps, frantic sounding, that only stop when Phil turns back to him.

“You didn’t say goodbye to him,” Dan points out. “They’re clingy, remember? I know my meerkat facts.”

“They weren’t all meerkat facts.”

“No,” Dan says. “A lot of them were just about me.”

Thor clings to Phil’s sleeve when he pets him, and then tries to climb the side of the pen, chirping the entire time. Phil can still hear the chirping when they’ve left (after he’d had to gently disengage tiny meerkat claws from his sweater) when they’ve walked from the enclosure to the car park, stopped next to an ocean blue Corsa that, apparently, belongs to him, judging by the keys he’d found in his pocket.

He has the keys crushed in his palm when Dan pushes him against the expanse of metallic blue and kisses him, open mouthed and rushed. Phil thinks that there should be some release of tension, a lightning strike or a swell of music, a confirmation that this is happening, he cannot believe that this is happening, that the world is still standing around them, that there’s Dan still talking, still saying something like finally and, confusingly, it’s not too much anymore. Phil mumbles, “It’s all too much,” somewhere near Dan’s chin and then, “Don’t let me fall asleep.”

Dan blinks, Phil feels the movement of his eyelashes. “What?”

“I mean it, don’t let me fall asleep.”

“What? Not ever?”

“Dan, please.”

“I don’t know how that’s -”

“I’m serious,” Phil says. “I can’t. I can’t leave.”

Dan’s expression changes from confused to almost understanding. “Is this too fast? Am I rushing? I didn’t mean to, I just - We can -” He starts to step away, Phil holds him in place. “I didn’t really - I sort of invited myself and we did only just.” He stops. “Tell me what I can do.”

Phil has the distinct feeling that if they drive away, if they leave the sanctuary, then the whole thing will fold closed behind them and disappear. Or they’ve gone past that point already, had passed it as soon as Dan touched his forehead. He cannot put any of these into words, there is no combination that he can make Dan understand. Dan, if I fall asleep I don’t think I’ll wake up here again. Maybe I should have stayed waiting. I would have waited. I don’t know if that would have been better.

“It’s okay,” Dan repeats. He has one hand on Phil’s hip, the other in his hair. “We’ve got so much time. Just say what you want to do.”

“That’s an impossible question,” Phil says, still whispering. “There’s too many things.”

“Pick one.”

Phil thinks Dan hopelessly, over and over. It’s too late to pick one. In picking one he may never be aware of getting the others. He doesn’t know where the worry is coming from, like he’s getting nostalgic for a thing that’s only just starting. This is stupid he tells himself, the voice in his head. You’re being ridiculous.

Dan starts to say, “Is this too-” again.

“I want you to come home with me,” Phil interrupts and the ground beneath his feet shakes.

As he drives (stalling constantly, missing every second gear) he says, “So, the dreams,” and “I should tell you about the dreams,” but can never quite finish the sentences, cannot look in the rear view mirror at the sanctuary disappearing. “It’s hard to explain. They’re hard to explain.”

“You don’t have to try.” Dan is beaming, drumming his fingers on the dashboard like he’s playing the piano. Phil never quite understood what that mean, to beam, to be so happy that it radiated from every pore, but he does now. It hurts his eyes to look at him. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.”

Phil misses the turning to his street, has to do an awkward three point turn to get back, and then stops in the middle of the pavement when Dan says hey you never said your street was the same name as the sanctuary because he lives on Zils Street. Of course he does. It seems important but he doesn’t know why. Phil Dan says. You’re staring at it like you forgot. Phil kisses him again, hands inside Dan’s ink stained coat, feels the wingbeat of his heart like it’s going to flutter right out of his chest. He wasn’t sure if he had much of a heart left, bruised as it must be, but it’s there. Dan sighs. Phil sighs back. He doesn’t know which house is his, which room, which floor; none of that really seems to matter.

Dan pulls back, only a small way. “You left a candle in your window?”

Phil says, “What?” and looks up. There’s a candle in one of the second floor windows behind them. “That’s not -”

“I remember having a conversation about this. You and your scented candles.” Dan tilts his head to one side. “It’s like having a signal that you’re home. If it wasn’t a massive fire hazard.”

They kiss by the front door, by the post boxes in the lobby, every third step of the stairs, the awful porcelain wallpaper outside Phil’s door. He presses Dan against every inch of space he can find, puts himself between Dan and the rest of the world.

Dan’s pockets are full of blue paper, the kind that is in Thor’s pen (Thor Phil thinks, suddenly horrified. He should have brought Thor), it scatters over the hallway of Phil’s flat and rises in clouds around their footsteps, follows them around the rooms like a breadcrumb trail. Phil says, “Why?” and plucks one from the air. “Why do you have these?” Dan leans in and Phil holds him back. Not quite at arm’s length but far enough.

Dan smiles, unsure, and he’s so beautiful here, with his untidy hair and his tired eyes, smudges of ink at his collar and his sleeves. “Are you -”

“No, I just wanted to look at you.”

“Oh.” Dan hesitates, awkward under the attention. “You can do that whenever.”

“I love you here.”

“You don’t love me anywhere else?”

“You can’t let me fall asleep, I’ll find - I’ll drink black coffee forever, I’ll hold my eyes open, I -”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Dan doesn’t look concerned, just incredibly fond. He smooths out something on Phil’s forehead and Phil wonders how he’d ever convinced himself, or pretended, that expression meant anything else. The waste, he thinks, the complete waste of time.

“We could have been doing this,” he tells Dan. “For so long.”

“You have no idea how much I wanted to. On that date, when you - when we left in the taxi and you and Chris were still there, I was so - I felt it, like someone had punched me or something, and then I felt like such a coward because I wanted you so much but I never did anything about it. I thought I was being so obvious and giving you so many signals but I wasn’t at all, was I? I should -”

“I think you were,” Phil says. “Being obvious. I just didn’t see it at first and when I did it just seemed like wishful thinking.”

“Like your dreams coming true?” Dan instantly wrinkles his nose. “No, forget I said that, it’s -”

“It’s exactly right,” Phil interrupts. “That’s exactly what it was.”

He makes black coffee, drinks three cups, it makes his mouth taste bitter and then Dan’s mouth taste bitter in return. He pulls Dan’s coat off, then his shirt, makes all the blue on the floor rise and spin in mini tornados. He kisses Dan’s dimples, his freckles, his laughter lines, like he’s missed them and is happy to have found them again, pushes Dan onto a bed he doesn’t recognise in a flat he doesn’t recognise, presses their foreheads together, and says, “I love you everywhere. That’s what I should have said earlier.”

Dan, breathless, looks like he doesn’t remember when earlier was. “Okay.”

Phil’s eyelids, despite everything, close. It feels like the gentle shutting of a book that he’ll never be able to read again.

--2. epistolary romance--

Phil wakes up tangled in his duvet, almost on the verge of tears that could be happy or sad, his hands outstretched, reaching towards the ceiling. He feels angry with himself, has no idea why, and half-falls out of bed in his rush to get to the balcony, almost drags the blue green yellow of the duvet outside with him.

Dan is sat cross-legged on his side, wearing silver sequins and expensive looking loafers, looking like he’d spent an hours in an unbroken mirror styling his hair. He doesn’t look up.

Phil is so taken by surprise that he almost walks right into the plants. “Have you been out?”

“What, this?” Dan shakes his right arm so the sequins catch the light. “Nope. I just woke up with it on. I told you that happens sometimes.” He hesitates. “All the time.”

“Is that why you never came out here? Because you looked different all the time?”

Dan shrugs. “I didn’t know how to explain it.”

“I think I’d understand it better than most people.” Dan laughs, very softly. “Are you a composer? Really?” Dan nods. “How long have you been doing that?”

“Is this is a job interview?”

“I want to know.”

“I don’t remember.” Dan sighs. “How long have you been editing?”

Phil says, “I don’t remember exactly.”

“I have memories, but they don’t feel like memories at all really, it’s just like someone else telling me that I did them. It’s like I woke up in someone else’s life and then just got really scared by it because I kept waking up here. And other places.”

“And then you broke your mirrors.”

Dan smiles. He still hasn’t looked up at Phil, but Phil watches the corner of his mouth uplift. “Wasn’t as helpful as I was expecting it to be.”

“What were you expecting it to be?”

“The mirrors are important,” Dan says. “Or, they were important. I thought that if I broke them then I would stay here and just wake up as myself and that would be that, but -”

“I don’t know what you mean by stay here.”

“- I don’t think it’s really my decision to make.” Dan stops, finally turns and frowns at Phil. “What did you say?” His frown deepens as he looks Phil, obviously just fallen out of bed, up and down. “What’s wrong?”

Phil lies. “Nothing.”

“I should have come out before. Properly. I kept leaving the notes but - I should have just said. It just got scarier the longer I left it and I thought that if I did come out then I’d break it all before I saw you, but -”

“Then what made you do it yesterday?”

Dan says, “Yesterday?”

“Was it yesterday? I don’t know.”

“I felt like something was wrong and, I don’t know, that you needed to see me so you knew I was really here and -”

“I’ve been needing to see you this whole time.”

“Okay.” Dan pulls one of sequins from his jacket loose, then another. “I just wanted to keep it - I liked it as it was, with the notes. I like it as it is, but I know that you don’t - not that you don’t but that you want me to take that step with you, and it’s not even about getting a dog, or what it represents -”

“A dog?”

“ - it’s about you and me. And I guess about keeping us safe, and I just wanted to keep us on these balconies, but I couldn’t even do that. Keeping away from you is impossible. I’m always chasing after you. But I wanted to prolong it, for a bit. Talking to you through notes. It’s like leaving comments on your videos but with less teenage desperation.”

Phil feels like they’re filming a video now, only Dan hasn’t told him what it’s about, or given any indication of the theme or the point, and so he’s just sat uselessly on Dan’s right, trying to think of something to say that shows that he’s following. That he’s totally in on the joke. If it is a joke. It doesn’t really feel like one.

--32. the cereal aisle--

Male, 32, London. Tescos. One of those small tescos though not the proper aircraft hanger ones. The ones with a really tiny cereal selection and if you’re not there early you’re going to miss out on the last cinnamon crunch. I buy cinnamon crunch like I’m hoarding it, I don’t know why. I live alone. Obviously. If you’d seen me, or noticed me in any way, that would be obvious. Cinnamon crunch isn’t even in my top ten cereals really but I buy it because I feel like someone else likes it and if I have a steady supply of it in my kitchen then they’ll be happy when they come over. Is that weird? I am weird, should specify that. I don’t think I’m doing this right. The lady from the Metro said there’s only limited space, so. Small London Tescos. You took the last cinnamon crunch. That’s never happened before. It’s always me who gets the last box but, no, there’s you. You looked stressed. Were you stressed? You said fuck (can you print that?) when you saw it, like you’d been looking all over London for this one box of cereal and I felt like I’d been looking all over London for YOU. You were wearing a suit. Your hair was straight but like it was resisting being so. You smiled, after you’d said fuck, and you have dimples that I want to put my hands to. Meet me there again. I have all the cereal you want.

--2. epistolary romance--

PJ, when he answers the phone, says, “Oh, it’s my silent business partner who I haven’t seen or heard from for a week, wow, hello Philip, don’t mind me, I’ve just -”

“I know I haven’t been in much for the past few days -”

“Few weeks,” PJ corrects. “Weeks.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m going to come in today. Or tomorrow, I’ll come in tomorrow.”

PJ’s tone softens. “No, I didn’t mean to sound harsh, I was only - If there’s something going on, and I feel like there is, then you can tell me. You know that.”

Phil says, “The Dorothy Clark trailer.” PJ makes an anguished noise. “No, listen. What do you think it means?”

“It doesn’t mean anything, Phil, it’s the same trailer we’ve done a hundred times. It’s a standard art student project trying to use too many themes and references and you can’t keep hold of any of them. Plus, you have to be behind on the deadline for the tone by now. It was, like, a month ago. At least.”

“What?” Phil feels like he was handed the trailer yesterday. “And, this one’s different. I feel like it’s trying to tell me something.”

“Tell you something?”

“I don’t know. Like she’s trying to be helpful or something, she wanted me to do it remember, I think she’s trying to give me a hint, but I don’t get it. PJ, will you just watch it again and tell me what you think it means. Please.”

“Fine,” PJ says. “Give me a sec.” He hangs up.

Phil cradles his phone in his hands and waits for PJ’s photo to reappear. When it does (PJ on a pebbled beach, wind in his curls) he only lets it ring once. “What did you think?”

“I think it deliberately makes no sense. But also maybe that she wants someone, the people in the trailer, to go back to a house? Is it a romance? I feel like it is but one of them is always trying to keep hold of the other one. I don’t know, Phil, why is everything yellow? It’s so - “

“But you think she wants me to go to a house.”

“Why do you keep saying you? Is this about you? Why am I not in it?” When Phil doesn’t respond PJ adds, “Fine, yes, I do. It says a house out of time, and what’s gonna happen when they go back to the house on whatever street. I guess it’s meant to be mysterious. Just, finish it. She paid. Ages ago.”

“I’ll come into the office,” Phil says. “I’ll work on it there.”

“Sure,” PJ replies, obviously unbelieving.

When Phil rewatches the trailer later, it’s no longer yellow at all, but varying shades of blue.

--1. absent treatment--

Phil and PJ are back in Finsbury, back at the Howards’ huge house, with its endless green rooms and peppermint china. PJ is irritable, because the Howard job always makes him so, and Phil is exhausted because just being around Mrs Howard makes him feel awful, like he’s taking on all her sadness for himself, adding it to a thing that’s already too much for him to carry. Mr Howard is convinced that they’ve seen her, the girl, that he caught sight of her disappearing around a corner but was too slow to chase her.

“Something’s changing here,” Mrs Howard says to Phil, when he and PJ have taken up their usual positions (PJ upstairs, Phil in the parlour). “For all of us.”

Phil almost spills his tea. “Pardon?”

“We’re all in the wrong place here, I told you. You think - you think it’s wish fulfillment and it’s lovely but it’s not.” She casts her arm out, sweeps across the room. “Look at this.”

“I don’t know what you mean -.”

“I only wanted us to spend time together.” Her voice has started to crack, a sign of the sobbing that’s about to start. Phil readies himself. “That’s all. I wanted us to all be be in the same place.”

Phil says, “You wished for that?” just as PJ walks into the room, a stack of banknotes in his hand, and nods frantically at the front door. A signal that Phil does not miss.

He meets Dan at Great Ormond Street, where the banknotes get disposed of in the donation box and PJ leaves to go and get very drunk, Phil presumes with Chris. Dan is wearing a purple flower in the button of his coat, a leftover from the all purple wedding, and seeing him without blue makes Phil want to stamp every other colour in the world into the ground. He doesn’t. He says, “Can we go to your rooms tonight?” instead and doesn’t know why.

Dan looks as surprised as Phil feels. “My -”

“Yes. Please.”

“But my landlord -”

“I can be quiet, I can be so quiet.”

“You hate the house,” Dan points out, not unfairly. “It reminds you of -”

“It’s -” Phil searches for the word and can only come up with, “Important.”

Dan says, “Yes,” in the manner of someone who can never deny Phil anything. “You can. Just don’t get me evicted.”

“Why? You can live with me.”

Dan gets a beautifully hopeful, and familiar, expression on his face. Phil hears his own voice saying come and stay at mine for the week , just live with me, there’s room, it saves you bringing your laundry back and forth and why don’t we just move to London together? He’s seen that expression before, so many times. “I don’t know about that. You’d be seeing me at my worst if I was around all the time.”

Phil’s heard that before too. “I’m sure I’ll cope.” He takes the purple flower from Dan’s coat and puts that in the donation box too. “Sorry. I just - It’s strange not seeing the blue.”

“I never wear blue, I always just give it to you. And it was their colour scheme. I told you, there’s always a colour, they’ve always just met. It’s the same story with minor details changed.”

“That’s all anything is at the moment, isn’t it? Mrs Howard said we’re all in the wrong place.”

“Mrs Howard is the one who lost her daughter?”

“Literally,” Phil says. “Lost her. They think she’s still in the house somehow, like she’s there and not there at the same time.”

“Like the man with the mirrors.”

Phil is saying, “I suppose,” before he realises what Dan has said, and then is saying, “Wait, what did you -” far too late.

“I have to get to the office and file this.” Dan pats vaguely at his pocket, where his notebook must be. His work notes aren’t any more organised than his dream ones. Dan says, sometimes, that he could just file the same article every time and no one would ever notice. “But I’ll meet you.” He touches Phil’s wrist, then his elbow. “Later.”

They never decide on times, Phil realises, as he watches Dan walk away (shoulders hunched, like he’s bracing himself to step into a storm), they just say later and somehow arrive in places at the same moment. Or one arrives to find that the other is already there and waiting. Phil is continually turning corners and finding Dan there, walking out of work to see him sat at the wall of the British Library, unfolding like a (very tall) flower when he sees Phil approach. Dan looks surprised by it, every time.

Phil goes back to the office to update the Howard file, writes wrong time, everyone’s in the wrong time. He has not told Dan about vet, the possible loss of it, Dan is not yet over the ending of twelve thirty until four, but Phil is sure that it’s gone and already misses the feeling of holding the meerkat in his arm, misses Dan in his white coat (as much as he misses Dan with his young face and too long hair? As much he misses Dan in oversized sweaters and curls?) Phil is always missing Dan, even when he’s finding him.

Mrs Howard, when they’d left, stood in the front porch and shouted, “Don’t come back!” with such vehemence that PJ whispered what did you say to her? “Don’t come back! Go to where you’re supposed to be!”

Phil wishes now that he’d responded. That he’d said I don’t know where that is.

--24. skipped beats--

“I don’t know why you even come to shows if you’re going to sleep the whole time.”

Phil says, “I wasn’t sleeping,” which is a lie. He has a ridge across his forehead from where he’d been leaning against the seat in front. “Or maybe - a little bit. I’m just tired a lot lately and none of these other pianists are him, so -”

“You’re saving your energy,” PJ remarks. “For when he comes on.”

“I suppose?”

“We shouldn’t have sat in the second row in that case.” PJ shifts in his seat. “Though, it’s been, like, two hours. I could do with a nap too. Why can’t you speak to him at the library like a normal person?”

Phil, horrified, says, “No. He always looks stressed at the library. He looks calm when he’s playing, it’s the best time to be - to introduce myself. To be like, hi I’m Phil, I’m the guy who stares at you when we’re in the library at the same time, why are you studying Law when you apparently hate it so much, is it cool that I worked out where you play piano on weekends and came here because if it’s not then that’s fine, I get it -”

“And I would like to take you on a date,” PJ adds, eyes slightly wide. “Maybe just say hi I’m Phil, your playing was awesome and I would like -”

“You to come home with me.”

“You’re skipping several steps here. You haven’t even spoken to him yet.”

“I feel like I have.”

“Not this again,” PJ says, longsufferingly, and then, “Wait, no Phil, don’t fall back asleep, it’s -”

--6. dan howell--

Phil has sometimes, always, felt out of control of his emotions around Dan. Not in a bad way, but in a way that was difficult to understand. Phil was a shy kid who became a shy teenager and then a slightly less shy but still awkward adult, never asked for anything he wanted, too scared to even make appointments on the phone or give his order in a restaurant. He tripped over words unless they were scripted, could only speak confidently if he’d rehearsed it a few times, looking at a tiny reflection of himself in the camera display. At some point during that first weekend, maybe when Dan was about to go home, looking back at the Manchester Eye like it had happened years ago, Dan had said, “Do you want to do this again?” in a way that seemed to say do you want this to happen again, do you want me to happen again, like Dan was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that them being together was a chance in a million. And Phil said, “Yes,” without anyone having to prompt him or nudge him or say speak up Phil, use your words. It’s always been like that, with Dan. Like the words don’t stop. Like every inch of him is showing itself all at once.

Sometimes he feels like they’re in a snow globe, not a particularly pretty one, a series of scenes; Manchester train station, the balcony of their old flat, some awful youtube influencers party. A snow globe that someone is always tipping at one side, always always sending him falling into Dan.

Dodie listens to all of this with her head on one side. She’s wearing a sunshine coloured sweater that’s at least five sizes too big, the elbows are almost at her wrists. She’d ordered caramel macchiatos, even though Phil finds that he doesn’t like the taste of them anymore. She says, “You’ve been there for too long.”

“Here?”

“You’re going to have to make a decision at some point.”

Phil says, “I’m not understanding you.”

Dodie sighs. “Don’t look at me like that.”

Phil blinks, says, “I’m sorry,” and tries to stop whatever expression he’d been making. It probably looked sad. He can feel the frown at his eyebrows. “It’s just - you’re very calm about this.”

Dodie shrugs, the collar of her sweater falls off one shoulder. “I made up my mind pretty quickly. But it was easier for me.”

“Made up your mind? Past tense? Which one?” Phil asks, and then finds the answer himself. “The coffee shop. Right? You played music there, I remember, you said it was the right one for you. Except I didn’t know it was you. Or. You’re old. In the Hipster Me one.”

Dodie says, “Hipster you?”

“Not me, it’s - Dan named them.”

“Right,” Dodie says. “Dan. Let’s talk more about Dan.”

She doesn’t say it in a mean way, but the again is obvious. Phil has talked about Dan a lot since he got here, he realises, as soon as he got to the table. Had he even asked Dodie anything about herself? Probably not. Everything had been an explosion of Dan, Dan would like it here, Dan used to pretend to like this coffee just because I did, it’s strange that we haven’t met before, Dan always used to say, you’ve met Dan, haven’t you.

“Sorry,” Phil says. “I talk about him a lot when I’m nervous.” Dodie raises both eyebrows. “I talk about him all the time.”

“So are you nervous all the time?”

“More than usual recently. I suppose.”

“We should talk about him. It’s because of him that it’s happening. I wished for music, to be better at music and to be successful and -” She catches herself mid-sentence. “You wished for him.”

“But I didn’t. That’s the point. I didn’t. Why would I wish for something I already have?”

“I already have music,” Dodie says. “Just not necessarily in the way that I wanted it.”

Phil lets that settle for a moment (it feels heavy, like the sentence should have dropped from the air and broken the table they’re sat at, but he doesn’t know Dodie well enough to even offer anything in reply). “I didn’t wish for anything. I’ve thought about it, I’ve tried to remember, and I didn’t. I don’t wish.”

“You don’t wish? For anything?”

“I’m a realist.”

“Cool,” Dodie says. “I’m not. Is he?”

“I -” Phil thinks. Dan, really, is a mixture of a realist and a dreamer. He has extremely dark, almost nihilistic, thoughts a lot of the time but he also buys flowers just because they make the flat look pretty, blowing the dropped petals into Phil’s hair. Sometimes, when they see a dog or a particularly chubby baby, he scrunches his eyes closed, like he can’t bear to look at something so cute. When he says things that make Phil smile or laugh he stores the words away and repeats them when Phil is sad or lost. Phil feels himself frown. He repeats them.

Dodie misreads the frown. “Oh, he’s not. That’s okay. We can -”

“No, it’s not that, it’s -” Phil grabs the thought and tries to hold onto it. I’ll leave a candle one of the other Phils pipes up. It’s just so that you’ll find me. Is this a signal did it work don’t miss it. You need to learn what his calls mean. Dan, yawning, amongst the foundations of a pillow fort, you’re not always the one doing the waiting.

“Your face is doing a lot of complicated things,” Dodie observes.

Phil says, “He says a lot of things that he’s said to me before. In the - in the dreams. He repeats things that he’s already said. He’s always looking for me. He’s always the one who does the -” he can’t think of the right word and so comes up with, “Arriving. He always does the arriving. He makes the appointments.”

“Appointments?”

“He wakes me up. Everywhere.” He suddenly leans over to Dodie who leans forward to meet him when anyone else probably would have lent away. “What are you going to do?”

“Break the mirrors,” Dodie replies.

Phil says, “What?” in a voice that he doesn’t quite recognise, all the Phils at once, speaking over each other, a symphony in his head. “You can’t.”

“The best part of my day was going to sleep. Is going to sleep. I can’t wait to see which one’s next or what’s happening. I’m asleep, like, 80% of the time. That’s not - I can’t carry on like that. I’ve got so attached to them and they’re not real, Phil. What are we supposed to do? You can’t live all these different lives at once, that’s exhausting.”

“But there’s no choice,” Phil says. “Is there? If smashing the mirrors stops them, then I’m just here. That’s not choosing, that’s -”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t pick here?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“It kinda is.” Dodie shrugs. “And I didn’t say you’d break them here, you’d break them all in whatever one you wanted to stay in. Then there would be no way back.”

“That’s - how do you know that?”

“I don’t. I’m just guessing. I’ll probably test it.”

“But what if you don’t come back?”

“I don’t think it’s that I wouldn’t come back, I just would only be aware of the one I was in. Does that make sense?”

Phil exclaims, louder than he means to, “Nothing makes sense.”

Dodie gives no indication that she’s noticed him raising his voice. “I wished for music, and I have it, just in lots of different ways. I’m old, looking back at a career. I’m successful, but not too successful. I’m a waitress who plays shows on the weekends to two or three people. I make music for film trailers. I -”

Phil says, “Film trailers?”

“I’m only trying to be helpful.”

“I spoke to PJ and Louise. They’re in my -” he hesitates. Is it even right to call them dreams anymore, what even are they at this point. “My, whatever, sometimes. PJ is always my friend and when I spoke to him that’s what he wished for, he wanted us to spend more time together, so we always do, and he remembers but not very much, and I don’t - I didn’t wish for anything. I mean that. I didn’t.”

Dodie reaches down, into her bag, and pulls out what looks like a parchment scroll, thick paper the colour of butter. When she unrolls it across the table (with no real care for the cups and plates) Phil sees that it’s a spider diagram, but huge. There’s a small doodle of Dodie in the centre and a hundred branches around her. Each branch has a title and then several twigs shooting from it. They say real? and dream? and, sometimes, sunshine? She says, “This is my dream journal.”

Phil instantly feels protective of his boring spreadsheet. “But you’ve only got dreams for some of them, you’ve written real after more than one.”

Dodie shrugs. “I have a plan.”

“What’s that?”

“We go back to Zils Street and stay there overnight.”

Phil thinks that having a conversation with Dodie is somewhat like trying to keep hold of several hyperactive kittens, or like the dog calendar shoot all over again. Everything is very sweet and lovely but you can’t keep their attention for long and they keep bouncing off onto new paths and tripping over their own feet. He says, “Why? What will that do?”

“I feel like we should go back there. That’s what I’ve been telling you.”

“You could have told me that here.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so slow on the uptake.”

Phil laughs in spite of himself. “Fine. If you think it’s going to help.”

“Cool. Bring a mallet or something.”

“Sure, I’ve got one of those lying around.” Phil hesitates. “What for? No, I know what for, but you just said that you chose -”

“It’s not real,” Dodie says. “None of them are. They’re wish fulfilment, they give you what you want in a hundred different ways, they’re just like reading stories you wrote about yourself, where people act how you want them to, and things happen and you end up, or I ended up, just getting fixated on them all. Look at you, you made a spreadsheet.”

“You drew a tree!”

“They just multiple,” Dodie says. “One ends when you get what you want and then another one starts. Haven’t you noticed any new ones?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe. I don’t know, it’s been a bit much.”

“Which is why we have to end them. I’m writing an opera in one, Phil, an opera. I think about it all the time, they’re all just blending into each other, it’s not achieving anything other than making me tired all the time and not even existing here. I’m existing everywhere else. Do you not feel like that?”

“I love him,” Phil replies, like it’s the answer to any question that could ever be asked of him. “And they’re all him, but in different ways. Couldn’t I just - I could just end each one, I think I know how, I could -”

“It never ends.” Dodie looks sympathetic but is already rolling her scroll back up. “It will never end. We’ll go tomorrow night. I’ll book it for a rehearsal or something. Bring an instrument so it looks like we’re filming.”

“An instrument,” Phil states, flatly. “Does a rockband drum kit count?”

Dodie looks genuinely excited by the prospect. “Sure, we can write a song about dreams!”

She leaves the scroll behind when she flits out of the door (Dodie moves like she’s been picked up on the breeze and is carried places that are constant surprises to her), gives Phil strict instructions to not spill any coffee over it. He doesn’t, but it’s a close call when his third caramel macchiato arrives.

In the bottom right she has written A missing girl, a house out of time, what will happen when they go back to the house on Zils Street? and then, afterwards, in different colour ink. Come on Phil. You didn’t think I’d forgotten. You’re the least observant person I’ve ever met.

Then, again, so far into the corner that the letters blend into each other. You have to pick somewhere to live. You can’t have all of them.

--3. caramel macchiato--

One of the mirrors has a new crack, diagonal, spider-webbing out from the centre and reaching every corner, exploding from the inside out. Dan stares at it, questioning it with his eyes. “But it’s still on the wall.”

Phil, in the doorway, nods. “I think I broke it.”

“While it was still on the wall? How?”

“I went too fast.”

Dan says, “Don’t start this again. I’ve been, like, rejected before, but this whole we can’t do anything or say anything because it’ll break a dream is -”

“I’m not rejecting you,” Phil exclaims, the thought is so impossible that he almost laughs. “How could I. Have you -”

“You’re not exactly accepting -”

“If I do something and then I can’t get back here to you I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know what to do now.”

“Phil.” Dan takes a step forward. “You can’t break dreams. Or get stuck in them. They’re meant to be nice. They’re meant to be about living things that you can’t have in reality. This -” he gestures between them. “Is not a dream. Would we be here, in a random coffee shop, if it was?”

Phil picks his words carefully, he doesn’t know which could be the one to start the crack, the glass under his feet. He speaks like he’s walking over ice. Dan scatters blue everywhere, every movement of his sleeve releases petals, and Phil doesn’t know if that’s a sign, if something is telling him that he’s close, so close, that if he just stepped forward as Dan was stepping forward then - “I think they can take place anywhere. It just matters if you’re there.”

Dan reaches out, as though they are very far away from each other. “Would it really be so -”

Phil says, “I have to,” which could mean anything. I have to not do this, want to do this, want this you, want all the yous, have everything at once no matter how tired that makes me, keep you at arms length because what would I do I lost two already. “Go back to the shop. I’ve been on break for a long time.” He wishes Dan would stop reaching, it only makes him want to reach back.

Dan pulls his hand back, and Phil regrets the wish instantly.

--2. epistolary romance--

“It wasn’t your wish,” Dan says, not on the balcony, from just behind the half-open patio doors. “It was mine.”

Phil drops the Hello Kitty mug picked up from the kitchen when he was still half asleep, (rushing out here because he felt like he had to apologise to Dan somehow), right off the side of the balcony. “What?”

“It was me. They’re not your dreams, they’re mine. You’re just stuck in them.”

The mug apparently never hits the ground. There’s no smash, no sound at all. Phil says, “No, they’re not. No, I’m not. They’re mine.”

“Are we going to argue about this? Really? Remember what I said.”

Phil says, “When? Here?”

“Not here.”

“You have to help me out here. I’m not -”

“I’m trying.”

“Try a different way, where you actually say things out loud.”

I wished,” Dan exclaims, finally above a monotone. “It’s always been me, I’m always trying to tell you, I’m always giving you things, I’m always telling you, Phil, but you remember more than me, I don’t get how you remember more when it’s -”

“What did you wish for?” The mug still hasn’t hit the ground.

“It’s obvious. Think about it. About what’s the same, in all of them.”

Nothing’s the same except you and me.” Phil realises that Dan’s going to close the doors before he actually starts doing it. “No, wait, you can’t keep doing this.”

“You have to work it out,” Dan says, voice getting steadily quieter as he retreats further inside. “I don’t think I can tell you, that’s the point.”

The doors close at the exact moment that Hello Kitty, several stories below, finally reaches her destination, smashes across the pavement into shards of white porcelain.

--1. absent treatment--

Phil is sat on the wall of the British Library when Dan approaches, smiles and says isn’t that my spot? before he hesitates and adds, “You look really tired. More than usual.”

“I slept.” Phil stands up. They touch hands, very briefly, index finger to index finger. “For a really long time.”

“Did anything happen?”

“I think one’s gone. Another one.”

Dan’s eyes widen. “Which one?”

“The vet. White coat. I haven’t remembered it for a while.”

Dan is very quiet until they reach Zils Street (as eerily silent as Phil remembers it, he has never been on a street where you could hear the scattering of leaves against pavement), when he whispers, “I think that was my favourite.”

Phil whispers back. “The vet?”

“Yes. I woke up really happy, a few nights ago, and, I don’t know, safe. It was like something wonderful had happened and I couldn’t remember what but I think it was from that one. Do you think that was it ending? Do they end when they’re happy?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

They reach the house, lamp burning on the bottom floor, and Dan mumbles, “Right, remember, no knocking into anything, no loud noises, just follow me up to the fifth floor, don’t trip. I’ll play the piano, I’ll play anything you want.”

Phil says, “I thought we could go to the second floor. I - I think we should.”

“The - His room?” Dan frowns, touches his temples. “Why?

Phil is remembering more, he’s told Dan so, a few times. He’s able to write down pieces of dialogue, small details that he’s noticed, how he’d felt at a given moment. How much he wants, how he waits. He’d wanted to watch Dan play the piano again but then. A girl in yellow telling him that you’d break them all in whatever one you wanted to stay in, then there would be no way back. How badly he wants to keep them all, to keep this one, to keep this one. Which one’s your favourite. Which one.

He says, “I love you here.”

Dan still has his hands on his temples. He blinks at Phil from under them, like looking into the sun. “You don’t love me anywhere else?”

“I love you,” Phil replies. “Here.”

(another Dan, in black, just back from a run, flushed and glowing, laughs in response to a thing that Phil cannot remember, tries to chase him around the flat so he can push a sweaty palm right through Phil’s hair. “Wait, stop, come back. Where are you going?”)

Dan smiles, almost in spite of himself. “I told you, if I get evicted -”

“And I told you, come and live with me. I’m not going anywhere.”

(“Wait, Phil, stop.” Still laughing, Phil loves every curl of his hair, every freckle on his face. “Wait for me. I’m not going to do anything. Wait.”)