He lives in a house on a hill. It’s modest and old, made of white brick with a red door and a stone path that leads down to the beach.
There are no other houses around it, just rock and grass, cliff and sky, and out a little further, sea. He can see the beach from his bedroom window and the fog that rolls over the water in the early hours of morning.
There aren’t many people walking the sandy shore this time of year save a brave few, bundled up and braced against wind that cuts with an icy bite.
It’s a remote part of a small island, and that suits him just fine.
He lives alone, which suits him too. His brother moved to London a long time ago and his friends exist only in text messages and promises to meet up soon, but he’s got a mum and a dad who live on the other side of the island and a smattering of relatives here and there. Town is close enough to walk to if he fancies a trek and the sound of people living lives more normal than his.
He could learn how to drive, but he doesn’t. The roads are narrow and winding and his hands are never steady, his attention always pulled in too many directions to focus on any one thing for too long.
Walking is good and usually he kind of likes the burn in his calves and the tightness he feels in his chest by the time he makes it into town, but today the sky is grey and rain drizzles down lazily, the kind that’ll seep cold all the way down to his bones.
He takes the bus. It’s empty apart from the driver and a little old lady at the front, knitting what looks to be a baby-sized jumper. She’s chatting with the driver but pauses to smile and offer a hello as he drops his fare into the box. He could get a pass but he likes the way the coins clink. He smiles and returns her greeting before choosing a seat near the back to watch the grey and green out the window.
He’s got no particular aim today, no specific errands to run besides breathing air that hasn’t already recycled through his lungs and seeing faces that aren’t filtered through the pixels of his laptop. He’ll keep a careful distance and make sure to leave his hands shoved in the pockets of his fleece lined denim jacket, but he knows it’s good to spend some time in the real world every now and again.
He gets off the bus as soon as it reaches the edge of town, eager to walk some feeling back into his legs. The rain is mostly just mist now and the ride had been long and twisty enough that the travel sickness is swirling sour in his gut. The cold moisture in the air is actually a relief.
He wanders in and out of shops just to see what they sell and watch the people within them. He buys a candle that smells like peppermint and chocolate and a jumper with a little picture of a cactus on the front. He’s careful not to touch the girl’s hand when she hands him the bag.
Next is a cute coffee shop with colourful art on the walls and baristas with arms that are more tattoo than skin. He gets something that sounds sweet and takes it to go.
The coffee is his downfall. He’s got the cup in one hand, extra large and hot against his palm and his bag in the other and he’s not paying attention to where the pavement dips and suddenly his shoe is catching and he’s falling forward, spilling coffee all down his arm before he reaches out blindly to try to save himself crashing to the ground.
His fist finds something warm and solid and closes around it and his head explodes. A wave of emotion too intense and negative to even process wracks through him and his vision goes black from the outside edges in.
When he wakes up there are arms around him squeezing so tight he can’t breathe properly. His hand throbs with the pain of being coated in hot milk and espresso but it’s barely more than a twinge compared to the agony pounding heavy against the inside of his skull.
“Mate, holy fuck. Are you alright?”
Someone is speaking to him. He can hear it, a deepish voice with a southern accent right close to his ear and he knows he’s supposed to form words to answer the question but his tongue feels too thick for his mouth, his throat constricted and his lungs aching. His knees buckle and he feels himself falling, but slowly.
Someone is holding him up, keeping him from cracking his head open on the pavement. He’s tall and his weight is dead, so he still meets the ground but it’s controlled by the arms crushing his chest.
“Can you sit?” the voice asks.
He can, slumped over into the kind stranger who for some reason has seen fit not to push him away and shout at him for being a clumsy idiot.
“Should I call an ambulance?”
That jolts some sense into him. Phil shakes his head and forces himself to sit up and support his own weight. It’s been so long, so long since he let himself make the mistake of feeling this. He’d forgotten how much it could take from him, how instantly it could deplete his faculties.
This may be the worst it’s ever felt, though. He’s never fainted before.
“Mate, your skin is fucking white as a sheet. I really think you need a doctor.”
“No,” he croaks. “I’m fine. Sorry for—” He gestures weakly. “I’ll be fine. I’m fine.”
“You just spilled boiling hot coffee all over yourself and passed out in my arms, man. You’re not fine.”
“I’m sorry.” He holds his head in his hands and tries to breathe through the nausea.
“What’s your name?”
He can’t think of a reason not to say it, so he just says it. “Phil.”
“Phil. Are you diabetic?”
“Are you ill in some way?” the stranger asks. Phil doesn’t understand why he hasn’t bailed yet.
“No,” Phil says. “I’m alright, really. I’m good. You don’t have to—”
“I can’t just leave you on the pavement like this, mate. Give me something to work with here. D’you live nearby?”
“Kinda.” Something is stuck in Phil’s brain now, lodged in the corners and spreading a cold emptiness into his chest. He knows it’s not meant to be there. It’s not emotion that actually belongs to him. It belongs to this strange man with a strong arm around his shoulders. Has it been there the whole time?
“D’you have a car?”
Phil shakes his head. “Took the bus.” He’s looking down at the pavement, afraid to meet the eyes of the person in front of whom he’s utterly humiliated himself.
Afraid to meet the eyes of the man whose innermost fears are swirling around Phil’s own head right now.
“Are you alone?”
“Very,” Phil mumbles, before actually thinking about what he’s saying.
“And you really don’t want to go to hospital?”
Phil shakes his head. “No need. I’m— I’ll be fine. Just need a minute or two. This… happens sometimes.”
“You’re not like— you’re not drunk are you? Or like, strung out?”
Phil whips his head up at that. “No!” The eyes he meets are dark and ringed with blue fatigue, which makes sense. It matches the heaviness in Phil’s heart.
Phil looks down again. “S’fine.”
“I reckon you need to let me take you home.”
“My car’s parked just down the street.”
“No,” Phil says, slightly panicked. “I’ve already ruined your day enough—” He tries to stand and his legs wobble like they’re boneless. Somehow this guy is already stood up and catching Phil again like it’s his job.
He’s tall. And strong enough to support Phil's weight without making it seem like a big deal.
Phil can’t really argue again. He’s genuinely not sure he can do anything right now but sit on the curb and rock back and forth trying not to vomit. He’s just going to have to trust that this bloke isn’t a serial killer who preys on pathetic clumsy morons who fling their coffee at him in the street.
“I don’t know if I can—” Phil presses some weight down on his feet and his thighs shake. “My legs feel weird.” The embarrassment heats his cheeks. If he doesn’t get a grip on himself soon he’s going to start crying and that’s a level of humiliation he’s quite sure he can’t withstand.
The guy reaches for Phil’s arm and Phil jerks back.
“Uh, sorry, I was just gonna help—”
“Sorry,” Phil mutters. He’s never actively wanted to cease existing until this precise moment. He shakes the sleeves of his shirt down over his fists and lifts his arm tentatively.
The guy gives him a look but doesn’t say anything as Phil drapes his arm around the back of the stranger’s neck and leans his weight against him.
“You’re a strange person.”
The defeat is plain in Phil’s voice when he says, “Yeah.”
They walk slowly down the pavement and turn onto a side street, stopping when they come to a beat up looking green car. There are a couple suitcases piled in the back and what looks like a pillow shoved down under the back of the passenger seat.
“It looks like shit but it runs fine,” the guy says.
Phil just nods. Whatever his fate may be, he’s accepted it now. The guy opens the passenger door for Phil and helps him in.
Phil leans his head against the window and sighs at the relief of the cold glass against his overheated skin. The guy walks around and gets in on his side and starts the car. “Where are we going?”
Phil tells him the address.
“You’ll have to direct me,” the guys says. “I’m… new in town. Also, I’m Dan by the way.”
“Oh,” Phil says and even to his own ears he sounds a little drunk. “Dan. Hi.”
“I’m sorry I threw coffee on you and made you into my personal caretaker,” Phil says.
Dan just gives a little chuckle. “Reckon it’s a good thing I was there to catch you or you might have a busted up face right now.”
“Yeah.” Phil doesn’t say that he’d take a busted face over the turmoil that invaded his brain like a tumour the instant their hands touched. He’d really have no way of explaining that.
They don’t speak again for the rest of the ride except when Phil has to give directions. If he didn’t feel so awful he might be able to register awkwardness in the silence, but as it is he has to close his eyes and breathe deeply just to keep himself under control.
“Wow,” Dan says as he pulls into Phil’s drive. “This is…”
Phil’s not listening. He’s pushing the door open and stumbling out so he can be sick in the grass and not in a stranger’s car. He feels a hand on his back and despite everything he still has room to feel deeply embarrassed.
Everything hurts, both inside and out but strangely, he feels better once his stomach is empty.
Phil straightens up and wipes his mouth on his jacket and finds that he can actually support his weight on his own now. He looks at Dan and something else nestles in between the sense of dread that’s lodged into Phil’s chest - something warm. Dan’s hand is still on Phil’s back, rubbing gently right between his shoulder blades.
“Sorry,” Phil croaks. His throat burns and his mouth tastes disgusting.
“Are you alright?” The concern sounds so genuine.
“I feel a bit better now. Thanks for the ride. I can—” He shoves a hand into his pocket to fish out his wallet.
“You’re not gonna give me money are you?” Dan asks.
“I’m not a fucking taxi driver.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Phil mutters. “I just feel bad.”
“You just sicked all over your garden and burnt the shit out of your hand mate, of course you feel bad. C’mon, you need to get inside and rest.”
“Ok.” Phil retrieves his bag from Dan’s car with a strange feeling of loss in his chest. “Well. Thanks. I hope your day gets better from here.”
Dan looks at Phil like he’s well and truly an idiot. “M’not leaving you like this. Unless there’s someone inside waiting for you?”
He could lie. He probably should, to spare this kind and likely troubled stranger having to act on the responsibility he seems to feel for making sure Phil is ok.
He could lie and it would be a kindness, but suddenly Phil realizes he really doesn’t want to. He wants Dan to stay.
“I don’t,” he says quietly. “I’m alone.”
“Let’s go then.” Dan gestures to Phil’s house. “Can you walk now?”
“I think so.”
He’s a bit shaky and his head is still pounding but walking he can do. Dan matches his pace and keeps his eyes on Phil all the way up to the front door where Phil digs his keys out and prays he hasn’t left the place too much of a mess.
“You really don’t have to worry about me,” Phil says as he opens the door. He can’t not say it. “I’ll be fine.”
“D’you want me to fuck off?” Dan asks.
Phil looks at him. He looks so tired. Phil knows he’s tired. He knows Dan is sad and tired and scared because he feels it.
He also knows Dan is good. He knows Dan is good because he’s already proven that he is, and maybe Phil’s not quite ready to be alone again. He could use some good.
“Do you want me to stay?” Dan’s eyes are the prettiest brown Phil’s ever seen.
Dan steps inside and Phil follows, closing the door behind them. Dan shrugs off his coat and kicks off his shoes like he’s at home already.
“You should sit. Or like, lie down,” Dan says.
Phil drops his coat on the floor without even a thought of hanging it up. “Actually, I was thinking of taking a quick shower?”
Dan frowns. “If you fall you’ll break your neck and die and then I’ll be blamed for your murder probably.”
“You haven’t touched anything yet,” Phil says. “No fingerprints.”
“I’ll just stand here while you shower then,” Dan says. He picks Phil’s coat up. “If you’re not out in like ten minutes I’m making a break for it.”
“Guess I gotta make it quick.”
“Yeah sorry mate, no shower wanks today.”
Phil feels his face go red.
“Sorry,” Dan mutters.
“Sit,” Phil says. “Make yourself comfortable. Please. I’ll shower really quick and I swear on my mum’s life I won’t fall. Or wank.”
Dan almost smiles, Phil can tell. “For all I know you hate your mum.”
“No one hates Kath, least of all her socially awkward accident prone son,” Phil says, watching as Dan hangs up both of their coats.
“Ok fine,” Dan says. “Go shower. Reckon if you’re trusting a complete stranger unsupervised in your house I can trust you not to die, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Phil agrees.
He showers quickly as promised and without touching his dick except for a second to rub soap on it. He does kind of wish he could take his time because the hot water feels amazing on his tense muscles but the thought of an actual real life person in his kitchen waiting for him keeps him on track.
He brushes his teeth vigorously and lotions his whole body with the nice stuff that smells manly and expensive and not like a cupcake or a fruit basket. For a moment he contemplates trying to find an outfit that makes him look like he has his life together but then he remembers that ship had sailed before he even knew Dan’s name and he puts on his new cactus jumper and a pair of dark grey sweats.
The smell of coffee is in the air when he finds Dan sat at the little table in the kitchen with two steaming mugs in front of him.
“You made coffee,” Phil says.
“Hope that’s alright. Figured you probably needed one. Didn’t know what to put in it though.”
Phil turns his back to fetch milk from the fridge. If this guy does one more selfless thing Phil’s going to start crying and he reckons he’s made fool of himself enough for one day. “Thanks,” he says gruffly.
He sits across from Dan and takes a long drink even though it’s too hot. It’s strong and Phil feels himself perk up a little almost instantly.
“Feeling better?” Dan asks.
Phil nods. “Hand hurts a bit.”
“Nah, it’s fine. My head hurts a lot worse but drugs don’t… I’m kind of like, immune to them.”
Dan frowns. “Isn’t that a bad sign? What if you’ve got a tumour in there or like, an aneurysm or something?”
He slaps his palm to his face before Phil actually has a chance to respond. “I shouldn’t speak.”
“I don’t,” Phil says. “I don’t have a— I just… get headaches sometimes.”
“Um… yeah. Like migraines, I guess.”
That’s a good cover, Phil reckons. It’s not entirely inaccurate.
“D’you need to lie down?” Dan asks. “I can stop talking entirely. Or leave, if you want.”
“Shower and coffee helped loads,” Phil says. “But yeah, I’m fine now. You definitely don’t need to stay out of obligation or guilt that I’m about to drop dead.”
“Alright,” Dan says. “Just lemme finish this and I’ll get out of your hair.”
He doesn’t know how to finish that sentence. They’re strangers to each other. He can’t explain why the thought of Dan leaving makes him feel weird. He can’t explain it to himself let alone to Dan.
“How do you feel about video games?” Phil blurts.
“I feel quite favourably toward them actually, thanks for asking.” Dan smirks.
“How do you feel about playing video games with a stranger?”
They relocate to the lounge and Phil sets up Mario Kart. They end up playing until the sun goes down and instead of asking Dan to leave Phil just asks him what he likes on his pizza.
They don’t really talk. When the food arrives they switch to Netflix and eat their dinner right there on opposite ends of the sofa.
Phil keeps waiting for Dan to stand up and say he has to go, and Dan keeps not doing that. His ankles are crossed on the coffee table in front of him and he’s clutching a cushion tight to his chest. Phil keeps stealing glances just to watch the way the light from the telly falls against the curves of his face.
It’s dark but he can still see how tired Dan looks, how small despite the length of his legs and the broadness of his shoulders. Even if he couldn’t feel it, Phil can still see it. Dan is tired, and not the kind that can be fixed with a good night’s sleep.
It’s late when Phil stands up to stretch and he’s sure Dan will follow suit and apologize for staying all day but he just looks up and watches Phil with his tired eyes and nods when Phil says he needs a wee.
Phil finds he doesn’t mind. He brushes his teeth again and takes note of his own dark circles and heavy eyelids and chooses not to analyze the fact that he’s prepared to pull an all nighter just to see how long Dan will push this thing.
Dan’s head is slumped to the side and his breathing deep and even when Phil returns to the lounge only a few minutes later. He stands there a moment wondering what to do. Would it be worse to let him sleep or wake him up just to kick him out?
The thing is… Phil doesn’t want to kick him out. Not even now. Not even in the middle of the night. Dan looks so peaceful like this, the pillow still hugged tight between his arms, a strand of wavy brown hair brushing his eyebrow. What kind of monster would Phil be to wake him up now?
He decides after a while that he’s already made a number of questionable decisions over the course of the day, what’s the harm in making one more? If Dan was going to murder him he’d likely have done it by now. And asleep he looks about twelve. Not that Phil knows how old he actually is.
Or anything really. All he knows is that Dan is good at Mario Kart and makes his coffee strong. He likes parma ham and rocket on his pizza and he was kind enough to take care of Phil when he needed it.
Phil fetches a blanket and drapes it over Dan, lightly so as not to wake him. He lowers the volume on the telly and turns off the lights, and when he heads up the stairs to his bedroom it’s with a slight feeling of reluctance.
When he comes back down the next morning the blanket is folded neatly on the arm of the sofa and Dan is long gone.