Dee woke up in the middle of the night. Fi heard the bed creak, felt the dip as her girl got up and left their room. It was dark, inky black with only a hint of light reflected off the moon filtering through the window. She rolled over into Dee’s spot and pressed her face into the pillow, breathed in the scent of shampoo and musk and closed her eyes before falling back to sleep.
She half woke when Dee returned, unsure how long she’d been alone. Dee’s long arms pulled her close and their legs tangled up together under the sheets. Her head was heavy with the desire to return to the place where dreams live, but Dee’s mouth was on her neck and her fingers slipping inside her knickers. Long fingers, clever fingers that knew how to touch her.
Dee whispered, “Alright?”
Fi hummed her approval sleepily. “You?”
She felt more than saw Dee nod. “Had a weird dream.” Dee moved her fingers, gentle but sure, and Fi sighed.
Dee shook her head. “Don’t even really remember now.”
“Not bad?” Fi asks.
“Not bad. Just… odd. I think. Felt so real, and now it’s gone.”
Fi nodded, her attention to Dee’s words slipping as Dee touched her. She turned her head and found Dee’s mouth with hers, reached up to touch her face. Dee kissed back until Fi came with her eyes closed and they both let the world fall away again.
Fi dreamed of brown waves and chapped lips and long legs. She dreamed of their house, their room, their bed, of familiar smells in a familiar place and the unfamiliar sensation of being filled. She lay on her back and gripped shoulders that were too broad, kissed a jaw that wasn’t smooth beneath her mouth, but it felt no different. It was Dee but it wasn’t, and before her eyes could show her the truth she was rolling over and opening her eyes and there was light in the room.
She reached up and pushed her fringe out of her eyes, staring at the ceiling and breathing in and out. A dream, not bad but odd. So real and yet not, and already starting to fade into the recesses of her subconscious. What replaced it were the memories of last night, and she smiled to herself, rolling over and reaching for warm skin.
She found it, but it was all wrong. There was hair on the belly, a flatness where they should have been a small swell of breast. She jumped back, suddenly awake, eyes wide in terror as the person sleeping next to her blinked their eyes open and looked at her.
Blinked his eyes open and looked at her. And he looked just as afraid as she did.
Fi forgot how to scream. She forgot how to move. There was a man in her bed where last had been her girlfriend, and she was too paralyzed to do anything but clutch the duvet to her chest and whisper.
And yet, in her terror was a wild feeling of recognition, or maybe some other emotion she didn’t even have words for. She was scared but she wasn’t.
This man, this man she’d never seen before in her life, he looked like Dee. She couldn’t help but see it. Same big brown eyes, same frizzy waves, though his were cut shorter and buzzed off around the sides. His lips had the same shape. His neck was long, the freckles on his face identical to the placement of hers.
Fi choked back a sob, willing herself to wake up. No dream had ever felt this real, but it had to be a dream. No reality could ever make so little sense.
The man spoke first. He said, “What the fuck.”
She recoiled from the sound. His voice was deeper but the same, and she began to cry. “Where’s Dee?” she whimpered. “What have you done with her?”
He frowned. Even his eyebrows looked to be the same shape, just less manicured. “What the— where’s Phil? Who the fuck— Is this a joke?”
She pressed her back up against the wall, wishing she could push right through and escape to a place where things made sense again. “Why are you in my bed?” Her voice was so pathetic, so broken, so small.
His mouth fell open, his head shaking the slightest bit. Even in her fear she could see clearly that he was as lost as her. He said, “This is my bed. How the hell did you get in here?”
She cried. All she could do was cry. “Where’s Dee? Who are you?” She wasn’t wearing trousers. She wasn’t even wearing a bra. “This isn’t funny.”
“Yeah, no shit it isn’t.” He sounded angry then. “Is this a prank? Who put you up to this? Was it Bryony?”
The crying stopped like flicking a switch. “Bryony?”
“I might actually have to fucking kill her for this.”
Fi sniffled. “You know Bryony?”
He rolled his eyes. “Fuck off. Look, no offense, I’m not sure if you thought this would be funny, or she would, but it’s not. Where’s Phil?”
She hugged her arms around herself. “I don’t know a Phil. Can you leave now? I’m really uncomfort—”
“It’s done, okay, I’m over it. Tell her you got me good.”
Fi sat there, less scared but no less confused. She bit her lip and turned her head away, and that’s when the man gasped. She whipped her head back round to look at him. He didn’t look angry anymore.
“Who are you?” he asked. “What’s your name?”
“What’s yours?” she countered.
“Dan.” He looked at her expectantly. “Howell.”
Her heart lurched. “No it isn’t.”
“Just tell me yours. Tell me. I’ll believe you.”
She frowned. “Fi…”
“Like Fiona,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
Her heart lurched again, like it was trying to escape her chest. “This isn’t funny. Get out of my house.” When he didn’t move, her composure suddenly evaporated, replaced by rage. “Get out!”
He started moving, but it was only to get on his knees and let the duvet fall from his body. He was wearing nothing but a pair of black pants. He held up his forearm without a word and pointed to a spot above his elbow. “Look.”
She didn’t want to, but she did it, hoping if she cooperated, he’d leave. When she saw what he was pointing to, she knew he wouldn’t.
This time it was her stomach that lurched, so violently she thought for sure she’d be sick. “The stamp.” She looked at him and begged him with leaking eyes and wordless desperation to explain how this could be possible.
“Your birthday is January thirtieth,” he said softly. “You hate cheese. You love lightning and Haribo and horror films and you’re a monster in the morning before you’ve had your coffee.”
She sniffled, clinging to her denial. “Bryony knows all that stuff. She could’ve told you.”
His eyes are so soft and beautiful. She feels like a traitor for even thinking it, but she’s too confused to stop herself. They’re Dee’s eyes, the ones Fi’s been staring into across the pillow for years.
“I made you come last night,” Dan whispered. “Only I wasn’t me, was I? I was… her.”
“Dee,” Fi whispered back, her voice breaking. “You were Dee.”
“And you were Phil,” he said. “You are Phil. I’d recognize that alien shaped skull anywhere.”
Fi shook her head. “I’m not Phil. And you’re not Dee.” Panic rippled over her. “Where’s Dee?”
He shook his head. “I’m guessing she’s in bed next to Phil.”
“She’s gonna punch him in the balls,” Fi said.
Dan was quiet for a minute, and then a hint of a smile emerged. He even had the bloody dimple. “She is, isn’t she?”
Fi nodded miserably. “I want her back. What if she never comes back? What if—”
Dan reached out and touched her knee. “Let’s try to avoid freaking out.”
She jerked her leg away and looked at him indignantly. “Are you joking?”
He sighed and scrubbed his hands down over his face. “Fuck.”
She could feel the spot where he’d touched her. It was definitely real. He was real and this wasn’t just a very creative dream.
But she had already dreamed this, hadn’t she? Familiar but not. Hers but not. She got up suddenly, too antsy to sit still a moment longer and went to the wardrobe to fetch a pair of much-worn, never-exercised-in yoga pants and one of Dee’s oversized hoodies. She wanted as little of her skin on show as humanly possible.
She’d just pulled the hoodie over her head when her eyes caught on the full-body mirror propped up against the wall. She walked over to it and looked at what was tucked into the frame, a strip of four photos from the photobooth at the arcade. It was her and Dee in those photos, laughing and kissing and giddy on the cheekiness of the pseudo public display of togetherness.
“See?” she said, turning to Dan. “This is my room. Mine and Dee’s.”
Dan’s face fell when he saw that she was right. “I guess so.” He looked away and started biting at his thumb nail. It was something Dee always used to do, though she’d managed to break the habit about a year ago.
“What are we supposed to do?” Dan asked.
She bit her lip and tried not to let the panic swallow her whole. “Given the fact that this is batshit insane and there’s literally nothing we can do?”
Dan shrugged. “You could kick me out.”
She wanted to. Oh how badly she wanted to. But even in this weird twilight zone alternate dimension hellscape she felt drawn to him. To the part of him that was hers. Her Dee. She couldn’t look into those big dark eyes and turn them away. What if somewhere across the fabric of space and time a bizarro version of her with broad shoulders and no breasts was considering doing the same to her Dee?
Because she had to believe her Dee was out there somewhere, waking up in a bed that was hers but not, waking up next to a man with black hair and blue eyes and a weird skull and a freckled back. She had to believe that some cosmic mix up had happened and would soon be put right. She wasn’t gone forever. She couldn’t be.
“I’m not gonna kick you out,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “Good, because I don’t have any clothes and I don’t fancy getting sent to jail in my pants.”
She turned around and rummaged through Dee’s clothes until she found the most oversized of all the oversized hoodies and chucked it at him. “None of our trousers will fit you.”
He pulled the hoodie on quickly and Fi felt a tiny bit better. Mostly-naked men were near the bottom of the list of things she wanted casually lounging around her flat.
“I don’t know what to do,” she admitted. “What the hell do we do?”
He shook his head. “I’m as lost as you, mate.”
“We were gonna go see a film today,” she said, cognizant of the hysteria creeping into her voice. “After Dee went to therapy.”
Dan nodded. “Us too.”
“This is so freaking weird.” Her heart was starting to properly race. She could feel it fluttering in her chest, the beat so fast it made her feel lightheaded. Her hands were starting to sweat. “I think… I think I’m gonna have a panic attack.”
Her breath was getting harder to catch, and before she knew what was happening, Dan was there, stood in front of her and holding her hands. “Breathe,” he said, his voice calm and sure. “Watch me. Watch my chest.”
He breathed in deeply and she watched his chest rise and fall while her own breathing inched toward hyperventilation. She watched him continue to breathe slow and rhythmic and she forced herself to try to match it.
“In and out,” he said gently, pressing one of her hands against his sternum. She closed her eyes and kept trying to match his breath until she forgot about everything else.
They stood there like that for a long time, until Fi didn’t feel quite so close to the edge of her sanity. “Dee does that,” she said thickly.
“Sometimes Phil panics,” Dan replied. “I learned how to at least try to help him.”
She pulled her hand off his chest and looked up at him. He was tall, even taller than Dee. She hated how much she liked him already. And how she thought he was beautiful. “You’re good to him like Dee is to me.”
“Not as good as him,” he said. “As… you.”
She looked away. It was too weird. “I think I need coffee.”
“I can make you some,” Dan offered.
Fi shook her head. “I’ll go out. I need some air. You stay here. Or don’t, I guess. Do what you like.”
“I have no trousers, remember?”
She looked down at his legs. “Right. Dee never wears trousers when it’s just the two of us around the house.”
“Neither do I,” Dan said. “But Phil likes that. I’m guessing you don’t.”
“I’m a lesbian,” she said bluntly. “So yeah, no. No offence.” Suddenly it occurred to her that Dee would be topless in nothing but her knickers when she woke up in Phil’s bed.The thought had her ready to panic again. “I’ve gotta go.”
She grabbed her wallet on the way out of the flat and let the door slam behind her. She took the stairs instead of the lift and was panting by the time she got outside, but the air was cool and pleasant and she breathed it into her lungs in great gulps until her heart rate slowed back down to normal. Outside she could pretend that everything was normal. She could pretend that Dee was having a lie in and Fi would bring her home some Starbucks and they’d have sex on the sofa after.
She lost count of how many coffee shops she walked past before she finally felt steady enough to go into one. She bought herself something huge and full of sugar and sipped it slowly as she walked back towards the flat she and Dee shared. Their home. The home Dee would definitely be returning to very soon, Fi told herself. Maybe she’d even be there when Fi got back. It was a dangerous thought, but once she’d had it she didn’t know how not to cling to it.
She was about two thirds of the way home when her eyes caught on a certain shop sign that compelled her to stop. She stood there on the pavement and looked in through the window at the display of mannequins and hoped that what she was about to go in and buy would all be for nothing.
She didn’t have time to get her hopes up when she got home. She opened the front door and Dan was right there, sat on the sofa in the lounge with Dee’s fuzzy pimp blanket draped over his legs and an apologetic look on his face.
“Hi,” he said.
She grunted and chucked the shopping at him. “Go get dressed please.”
He opened the bag and looked inside. “You bought me trousers?”
“I bought you one pair of sweatpants and one t-shirt. If you want to be proper stylish the rest is up to you.”
He looked in the bag again. “Yeah, but it’s all black. You didn’t have to do that.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just go put the sweats on. There’s not enough material between my eyes and your balls right now.”
Dan actually laughed a little at that. “Well thank you.”
She couldn’t help looking at him. “You’re more polite than she is.”
He shrugged. “She knows you better. Phil wouldn’t say I’m polite.”
She nodded. “We’re gonna see them again, right? Tell me we are.”
“We are,” he said, his voice quiet but fierce. “That bloke is my soulmate and I don’t even believe in soulmates.”
“I know,” Fi murmured.
It was finally his turn to look stricken. “Yeah, right. ‘Course you do.”
Seeing him look so scared seemed to be exactly what she needed to shed a little of her own terror, at least for the moment. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “Did you make coffee while I was gone?”
He shook his head. “Your house. Your coffee.”
“I guess for now it’s yours too.” She hates saying it. But she hopes somewhere across the galaxy Phll is extending the same kind of hospitality to Dee. She hopes Phil has bought her a hoodie and some sweats. She hopes he’s as nice as Dan makes him out to be.
Then it hit her anew that Phil was her. It made her stomach flip in a horrible kind of way. It was almost too much for her fragile little human brain to process. She’d always held space inside her to believe the kinds of things that most rational people didn’t, but this felt like a step beyond. And yet she couldn’t think of anything to dispute it beyond the simple option that she’d gone fully insane over the course of one night.
“I’m hungry,” Dan admitted. “And I could really go for a coffee, if you’re offering.”
“Go get dressed,” she ordered. “I’ll sort out coffee and something to eat.”
He gave her a little smile and headed down the hall to the bathroom and she headed to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee and try to find some food. She and Dee had been fairly overdue to order groceries, waiting on their paychecks.
Remembering work just gave her another thing to freak out about, and by the time Dan was dressed and had wandered into the kitchen, she was resting her elbows against the counter and holding her head in her hands.
She felt his hand on her shoulder, and when she jolted upright, he took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Sorry, it’s just that… god, you look just like him. It’s really fucking with my head.”
She hugged her arms around herself and tried not to even look at his face, because she knew exactly what he meant. “I don’t have much food,” she croaked. “Me and Dee are pretty skint right now.”
She looked up, confused at the confusion in his voice. “Are you not?”
“Uh…” He let his eyes drop so he was looking at the floor and not at her. “Not… not really, no.”
The coffeemaker beeped, and she shoved off the counter roughly to get them each down a mug from the cupboard. She grabbed one for herself without looking, but took care to choose Dee’s favourite and hold it out for Dan. She watched him carefully, wanting to know what, if any, reaction he had.
He took it with a giant hand and seemed to stare at it a long time. “I love this mug,” he murmured, stroking its surface absentmindedly with his thumb.
“Yeah.” It was white with a colourful illustration of Pleasure Beach with its roller coasters and ferris wheel. Fi had bought it in Blackpool, on their very first trip away together, and somehow she’d managed not to break it all these years. It had become a very precious thing indeed, a memento they both treasured dearly.
Apparently Dan had taken that same trip with Phil. Fi felt at once sad and comforted. The weather had been cloudy and grey, the sights nothing like Portugal where they were actually meant to be. But it was special. It made them feel like a proper couple. To know that it happened in other worlds to different versions of them was a strange thought. Did it make it less special or more?
Her mind started to snowball. Were there worlds where Dee hadn’t left the boyfriend she’d had before Fi? Were there worlds where Fi was as obsessed with boys as her friends back home had been? Were there worlds where Dee hadn’t worked up the courage to kiss Fi on the big wheel and they’d let the moment pass them by?
“Fi?” Dan interrupted her thoughts before they could get properly dark.
“Can I put milk in my coffee?”
She got it out of the fridge and poured some in her own mug before handing it to him.
“I don’t need sugar,” he said.
He looked at her, big brown eyes studying her face with an intensity she couldn’t look away from. “Right,” he said finally. “And you do.”
“Always,” Fi said, reaching into the cupboard to fetch it down.
“Are you a cereal thief in this dimension, too?” Dan asked.
She flashed him a look. “We have a frickin joint bank account. It’s hardly stealing.”
“So yes, then.” He smirked.
It made her heart hurt. It was Dee’s smirk. It kept hitting her in waves, the wrongness of it all. This bloke knew her in ways he shouldn’t, in ways she hadn’t given him permission to.
“Do you want me to feed you or not?” she snarked.
She grabbed the box of Crunchy Nut and didn’t bother with bowls or spoons. “We’re eating it dry,” she declared. “And watching telly.” She marched toward the lounge not waiting for a response. She knew her irritation was useless and probably borderline cruel, but she couldn’t help it. She had to let a little of the bad feelings leak through or she’d explode.
She plopped down on the couch, spilling a good slosh of coffee out onto her yoga pants in the process, but she barely felt it. Dan sat on the other end of the sofa and put his feet up on the table like he owned the place. Which, in a way, he did, so Fi didn’t say anything. She turned the tv on and took a big swig of coffee that burned her throat on the way down.
Dan reached over and plucked the box of cereal right out of her hands. She whipped her head ‘round to glare at him, but he was already looking at her with the softest expression.
“It’s weird,” he said. “Usually when Phil’s cross with me there’s at least a semi valid reason.”
She frowned. “I’m not Phil. And I’m not cross.”
“Right,” he scoffed. “You’re well happy.”
“I didn’t say that.” She could hear how defensive she sounded which was just proving his point, but all that did was make her more annoyed. “Obviously I’m not happy.”
“Well I'm not either,” he said simply.
That halted her. Whatever she was going through, he was going through it too. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“I’m scared,” he said, putting his coffee down and pulling his legs up. “I’m really fucking terrified. I don’t know how to live without Phil.”
Her throat tightened. “You won’t have to. This is just… a glitch.”
“I have to,” she said. “‘Cause I don’t know how to live without Dee.”
He nodded. “People would say we’re codependent. People do say that.”
He looks at her with confusion. “You know… people. The fans.”
“Of the radio show?” she asks.
His frown deepens. “What? We quit that over a year ago.”
It was Fi’s turn to be confused. “No we didn’t.”
“You still work for BBC?”
“Yeah…” She put her coffee down and turned toward him so she could give the conversation her full attention. “You really don’t?”
He shook his head, looking bewildered. “I guess some stuff is different after all.”
“When you say quit do you mean they let you go?”
Dan laughed like she was joking, then went serious when he saw that she wasn’t. “Uh, no. They actually begged us to stay.”
“What?” She couldn’t make sense of it. It’s not that she and Dee were constantly worried about job security, but there were times in the past where they were, and she’s reasonably certain that no one would beg them to stay if they wanted to leave. “So what do you do? Do you have serious business jobs now?”
He suddenly looked nervous. “No…”
Her impatience bubbled over. “Well tell me!”
He rubbed his hands awkwardly against his new sweatpants. “We decided we wanted to give our all to the tour. There were other reasons but that was a big one.”
“The tour,” she repeated, monotone. “You went on tour.”
She scoffed. “What the hell would we even be taking on tour?”
“Do you not make videos anymore?”
“No. It wasn’t going anywhere, so we decided to double down on the radio show.” Her stomach twisted up into a knot. “I can’t do the show without her. Oh god, what am I—”
“Breathe,” Dan interrupted.
She nodded and inhaled deeply. She kept breathing purposefully until the threat of panic had once again subsided. “How are you so calm? You don’t even believe in stuff like this. Shouldn’t you be freaking out?”
Dan shrugged. “Technically scientists have theorized about a multiverse. And I tend to be super calm when Phil is freaking out.”
“Phil’s not here.”
He looks at her with a tilted head and a cocked eyebrow.
“I’m not Phil,” Fi said.
“Do you want me to freak out?” Dan asked. “‘Cause I can.”
Fi pulled her legs up and buried her face in her knees. “I’m trying not to, but how can I not? She’s my person. We made a whole life together. I was gonna marry her someday.”
“Wait, really?” Dan asked. “You guys are engaged?”
She looked up at him, glaring. “No. But I would’ve asked her eventually.”
“Does that mean Phil’s gonna ask me?”
She buried her face again and started crying. Hard. Harder than maybe she ever had done before. So hard she barely even made any noise. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt like it might crack in half. Every cell in her body was wracked with the pain of loss.
She was absolutely convinced this was it. This was her life now. She’d never see Dee again, only her strange alternate universe male counterpart. He was lovely and beautiful and kind and probably all the things that Dee was, but he wasn’t Dee. No one could ever be Dee, and Fi could never be Fi without Dee. In one fell swoop, with no warning whatsoever, she’d lost everything.
Her body shook with the force of her sobs, and then there were arms around her shoulders, warm and strong and pulling her in. She knew it was Dan and not Dee, but he smelled just like her and he was there, cradling her and crying with her as he told her they’d find a way to make things right. She pressed her face into his neck and barely cared that there was the scratch of stubble. She curled up and climbed into his lap and let her tears smear against his skin. He stroked her hair and said over and over, “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”
It shouldn’t have made her feel better. She shouldn’t have felt safe in his arms. But it did make her feel better. It did make her feel safe. At least a little. They cried together until they had nothing left. Her throat was raw and her head was aching, but that was just physical. Inside she felt numb, like she’d surpassed her threshold for suffering and now her brain was doing everything in its power to insulate her from the shock.
She crawled away from him and wiped her face on the sleeve of her hoodie. She picked up her coffee to take a sip and then spat it back into the mug when she realized it was ice cold. “Ugh.”
She looked over at Dan. His face was mottled pink, eyes puffy. He was biting his nails again, looking off into the distance, or out the window, maybe. And suddenly she felt so ashamed for how she’d treated him.
He looked over like he’d forgotten she was there, then quickly wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“Do you want pizza?” she asked.
“I don’t know if I’m hungry anymore,” he said in a small voice.
“I’m gonna get pizza,” she said.
He nodded. “And cookies?”
“Of course. Duh.” She pulled out her phone and had the food ordered in no more than a few minutes. “So Dominos exists in your world?” she asked, just for something to say.
He chuckled humourlessly. “Yeah, ‘course. Half Sizzler half Texas Barbecue?”
He shook his head, a finger finding its way back into his mouth so he could continue biting its nail. “So fucking weird.”
“We need to figure out how to harness this new superpower,” she said. “Imagine how rich we could get.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “You’re definitely Phil.”
“Maybe Phil is me. Ever thought of that?”
“S’pose I hadn’t,” he mused. “Anyway, if we wanna charge people for this shit we should probably figure out how to reverse it first.”
Fi stretched her legs out and put her feet up on the table, lolling her head against the back of the sofa. “Right.” She was enjoying the numbness, the lack of energy for any more panic after all that hysterical crying. She could feel an emptiness in her chest, but her brain was doing a brilliant job at keeping her just detached enough from reality to function.
“So you’re still a YouTuber?” she asked. “You’ve got proper fans? People who know enough about you and Phil to accuse you of codependency?”
“They accuse us of lots of things.”
“Are you out yet?”
He shook his head. “Getting there. Eventually. Hopefully. You?”
“Hell no. We’ve been doing the show for five years as mates. Can’t risk it. We need this job.”
He nodded knowingly. “That’s another reason we quit.”
She didn’t know what to say. If she could have felt her own emotions properly she reckoned she’d be experiencing some intense feelings of jealousy and indignance that the version of her with a dick got to have the career she’d been working towards in her early twenties, while she’d had to accept that the internet was a pipe dream and give it up for a regular job. But she wasn’t feeling her emotions properly, so mostly she was left wondering what else was different in her life as a bloke.
“Are you out to your family?” she asked.
“Do you have a brother called Adrian that you barely speak to?”
“Did you drop out of law school in Manchester?”
He made a face at her. “Thanks for reminding me, mate.”
She chose her next words a little more carefully. “Phil was proud of you for that, you know.”
He pulled the sleeves of Dee’s hoodie over his knuckles and looked at her with his sad puffy eyes, asking for elaboration without having to speak at all.
“It was a hard thing to do.”
“It wasn’t,” he said. “School was the hard thing.”
“It was also the thing everyone wanted you to do. It was the thing you were doing because you thought it was what your parents wanted, even though it made you bloody miserable. Quitting took courage.”
“Quitting doesn’t take courage,” he said. “Giving up is easy.”
She looked at him for a long time before she spoke, marvelling at all the ways he really did look and sound exactly like Dee. “Some things are different,” she said quietly. “But some are exactly the same.”
He seemed to understand, nodding and stretching his legs out right next to hers. “So Phil really wants to marry me?”
She smiled in spite of the overwhelming sadness that lay just under the surface of her composure. “Yeah. He does.”
“I never put much stock in that shit,” he said, then seemed to realize the implications of the statement for Fi. “I mean, she might, though.”
Fi shrugged. “I don’t think she does. Not like her parents have modelled it well for her.”
Dan laughed bitterly. “They really fucking haven’t.”
“I don’t care if we never get married. I just want to be with her forever,” Fi said. “But sometimes I think about it, you know. Calling her my wife instead of my girlfriend. Although I guess I mostly just call her my mate anyway. Or flat mate.”
“Fuck that,” Dan said. “She’ll say yes when you ask.”
Fi smiled. “You reckon?”
He shook his head. “I know.”
“Even though it’s just a piece of paper? It’s just an archaic heteronormative ritual that ultimately means nothing and exists to put people in boxes they were never meant to fit in?”
Dan let his head fall back against the sofa. “God i’m a cunt.”
Fi couldn’t help but smile at him fondly. “Sometimes. But it’s an endearing quality.”
He turned his head in her direction. “It wouldn’t be like that for us, you know. For you and her, and me and Phil. We’d make it mean something.”
“We will,” she corrected.
“Right, yeah. Will.” He didn’t sound so sure, but she understood what he meant about being calm when his partner was freaking out. It was like only one of them could be losing hope at once. One of them always had to be strong for the other.
Their pizza came eventually. Fi could tell Dan wasn’t interested, but she poured coke into a glass for him and made him drink some, hoping the sugar might perk him up a bit.
“This shit is basically battery acid, did you know that?” he said as he continued to drink it anyway. “You can use it to clean toilets.”
She opened the pizza box, letting the air fill with the scent of cheese and onion and meat and all things delicious. “I’ll remember that next time it’s my turn to clean the bathroom.” She pulled two slices off and put them on a plate which she then handed to him.
“Did you order any—”
She plopped three different dips down on his plate one at a time. He smiled, dimple-less and a bit cold, but still. It was better than nothing.
“You have to eat this,” Fi instructed him. “I’ve spent more on you today than I have on myself in weeks, and I don’t have a lot to spare. Don’t make it be for nothing.”
He nodded solemnly. “I’ll pay you back.”
She gave him a look usually reserved for when Dee was being a right idiot. “With what? All you brought into my dimension was your frickin underwear.”
He looked down at his crotch. “Oh yeah. Fuck.”
“Next time bring your wallet.”
“That’s such a Phil thing to say.”
“Maybe it’s a Fi thing to say,” she countered.
He ignored her. “Why are you skint? You work for the BBC. As far as regular jobs go, that’s still pretty swish, innit?”
“I mean… we’re fine. We have enough for what we need, but… that’s about it. It’s London, you know. Rent is expensive.”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t looking at her anymore, and she just knew there was something he was trying not to say.
“Dee’s got therapy, and the meds. We fly up north multiple times a year…”
Dan nodded, still exuding an air of evasion.
“What?” she asked, annoyed. “Just say it.”
He tried to look surprised. “Say what?”
“I know you’re trying not to say something. I can read you, Howell. Out with it.”
He looked down at his plate of untouched pizza. “I’m just… sorry.”
“That it’s like that for you. It’s not fair.”
“What’s it like for you?” she asked.
She frowned. “You’re rich. You can say it.”
He looked more and more uncomfortable by the second. Fi knew she was being massively rude, but the sheer injustice of it all was impossible to ignore. She’d grown up without a second thought for how much things cost. Her parents gave her the gift of freedom for the first twenty two years of her life, and she never wanted for anything that could be easily obtained with a credit card. She could technically live that way now if she really wanted, and if Dee weren’t so dead set against letting the Lesters help them out a little more.
But moving to London had been a turning point, for them as a couple, and for Fi personally. It’d been the decision to go it alone. They were going to make it or break it on their own terms, together, separate from their families and the people they’d been up to that point. They were going to be adults, and if they failed, so be it. Dee already knew how to be an adult on her own. In some ways she’d been on her own her whole life. But for Fi, London was a cutting of the cord of sorts. It was terrifying and exhilarating and the most difficult thing she’d ever done, but she’d never regretted it. She still didn’t, even though sometimes it felt like it would never be as easy as it was when she had that wide, cushy safety net stretched out underneath her.
“We do alright,” Dan said. “We’ve got IRL, and the books, and the tour. The gaming channel…”
“Jesus,” Fi muttered. She didn’t even know what IRL was, but she was too bitter to ask. “Yeah, Id say you’re doing alright.”
“We’re actually…” He’s clearly hesitant to admit what he’s about to admit, so Fi steels herself. “We’re looking at places.”
“We want to.”
“To a bigger place?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t have to be bigger, necessarily. But we need more storage. And we’d like… we’d like to buy this time.”
She couldn’t help the bitter laugh that escaped her. “Buy a house. In London.”
“Most likely it’ll still technically be a flat, but yeah. Renting is such a waste of money, especially since we’re gone so often for work.”
Her insides twisted in a weird way that they usually didn’t. She liked her job. She liked her life as it was now.
But she also really loved making videos, and the jealousy washed over her, sour and simmering. Why should the male version of her get to have everything she ever wanted?
As soon as she had that thought, it seemed so obvious she felt stupid for ever having to think about it.
She physically shook her head, keen to stop the downward spiral of her thoughts. “Can we not talk about this anymore?”
He nodded. “Okay. Sorry.”
“I don’t wanna have a crisis wondering if me and Dee made a massive mistake by giving up on making videos.”
“We don’t have to talk about it,” Dan said, putting his plate down.
“I might have a crisis anyway.”
“Don’t,” Dan said. “I’m sure you had your reasons. I mean, fuck, we had reasons it would’ve been smart to stop. We came close.”
“The video?” she asked quietly.
“Let’s definitely not talk about that, yeah?” She put her plate on the table next to Dan’s. She wasn’t hungry anymore either.
He nodded again, then sniffled, then bit his lip. She could tell he wanted to cry again, and she could also tell that he didn’t want to do it in front of her.
“Do you want me to leave you alone for a while?” she asked.
His head shot ‘round to look at her with panic in his eyes. “No, god no. Please don’t.”
“Oh. Okay, sorry, I just thought—”
“I don’t want to be alone. I want— I want…”
“Phil,” she finished for him.
“You look like him,” Dan whispered. “And you sound like him and smell like him, and you know things about me, and I’m alone in the world now. This is your world and I have nothing and you’re the only one who knows I exist and—” His voice broke and he clamped his mouth shut. She could see the muscles in his jaw pulling tight as he ground his teeth together.
Her heart ached, because she felt exactly the same, only she had it a bit easier because he was right, this was still her world. But she saw beautiful golden glimmers of Dee when she looked at him, and she wanted to keep that close if it was all she could have.
And she could see Dan. She could see him as his own person, even if he did have Dee’s lips and Dee’s eyes and a similar kind of grace hidden behind lanky limbs and bad posture. She shuffled over until the side of her body was pressed against the side of Dan’s. “You’re not alone,” she said, slinging her arm across his shoulders. “Tell me about Phil.”
He did. He talked about Phil and it made Fi’s heart break to hear the love in Dan’s voice. He told Fi about how nervous he was on the train to Manchester that sunny day in October and how Phil looked even hotter in person and how they stayed up all night kissing on the sofa and Fi cried because it was her story as much as his.
She played with his hair as he told her about Blackpool and Portugal and Jamaica, about sex in hotel rooms that made him feel like a grownup and being in constant awe of Phil’s creative energy and relentless enthusiasm. She felt moments of pride for the way Dan spoke of Phil, like he was a zebra in a world full of horses.
The more Dan spoke, the more Fi’s bitterness and jealousy started to ease. Her life with Dee had veered off in directions different than that of Dan and Phil, but at the heart of things, they were the same. The things that mattered were the same.
Dan talked for hours and Fi listened with her feet tucked up under Dan’s thigh and a hand in his curls. He talked until they were both calm enough to feel hungry, and they ate pizza and cookies and drank coke and coffee and watched old episodes of Bake Off until the sun went down.
Then it was Fi’s turn to talk, Fi’s turn to tell Dan some of the details of those different directions. How it seemed every new subscriber brought a new way for anonymous people on the internet to leave comments that cut into Dee’s already dangerously low self-esteem. How all the time and effort they put into their videos was so often reduced by their viewers to what they were wearing when they filmed or whether or not it appeared that they’d gained a few pounds since the last upload. How dropping out of school and being outed when the video leaked had pushed Dee over the edge to a place where Fi didn’t even recognize her anymore.
At some point it started to rain. The windows were open and they could hear the soft sound of water, and Fi reckoned if things weren’t so upside down it would actually be nice.
“Can I make you some hot chocolate?” Dan asked, and Fi laughed. She’d unloaded a lot on him, and somehow his response being to offer sweets felt perfect. It was exactly the kind of thing she would do.
She followed him to the kitchen; she didn’t really fancy being alone either. She sat on the counter and watched him, her head swimming with all of it. “What are we gonna do?” she asked. “Like, actually?
He handed her the cocoa and she sipped it gratefully.
“Phil does that too.”
“Drinks things when they’re too hot.”
She sipped again. “Not too hot. Just the right amount of hot.”
He smiled and put his own mug on the counter. “I have no idea what we’re gonna do. Technically I don’t exist in this world, so I can’t get a job. My parents know me as Dee. Your parents know me as Dee.”
“And I can’t exactly go to work either,” Fi said. “Maybe for a couple days I could pretend Dee’s ill, but eventually they’ll be asking after her.”
Dan ripped some of the nail of his middle finger off with his teeth and spat it out.
“Sorry,” Dan muttered. “Pain helps keep me from freaking out.”
Fi tilted her head and studied him. “I reckon if you dressed in drag you could pass for her.”
Dan looked at her like she was fully insane until she shook her head. “Yeah, okay. That was stupid.”
“You could just tell them she left,” he said quietly. “You could get on without her.”
Her chest constricted painfully, the air suddenly squeezed from her lungs. She shook her head forcefully. “I can’t think about this right now. I can’t.”
“Yeah. Let’s not. Avoidance is good.” He picked up his hot chocolate and took a careful sip. “Hot chocolate is good.”
She followed suit, grateful for the distraction. “Chocolate is so good. In all its many forms.”
“Even though you’re low key mildly allergic?”
“Pfft. Take more than that to keep me away.”
“Does Dee ever talk about trying to go vegan?” Dan asked.
Fi couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Yes. All the time. She tries like once a month. It never sticks. Does Phil think it’s as futile as I do?”
Dan smiled. “Yeah, ‘course he does.”
“Do you wanna watch more Bake Off?” Fi asked.
He seemed to think about it for a moment, then said. “Let’s go for a walk.”
He had to cram his feet into a pair of Fi’s old trainers and wear a coat of Dee’s that was too small to zip up, but he seemed suddenly determined that he wanted to get outside. Fi found them both umbrellas and they wandered the streets around their neighbourhood aimlessly, not talking much but enjoying the peace of the wet pavement and the soft pitter-patter on the tops of their brollies.
“Will you be sad to leave this neighbourhood?” Fi asked.
“Yeah,” he answered quietly. He sounded somewhere far away.
“You can sleep in Dee’s room tonight,” she said. “The sheets are clean. We never sleep in there.”
He looked over at her and his smile was so very sad. “I know.”
They were shivering by the time they returned to the flat, their feet sodden and their hearts heavy despite every attempt to ignore the wrongness of the situation. Fi didn’t feel ready to be alone, so she fetched the blue and green duvet for herself and the black and white one for Dan and they settled onto opposite sides of the sofa with Bake Off on the telly.
“We’re gonna have to figure something out eventually,” she said after a few episodes. Her words felt oddly detached, like she was talking about someone else’s life instead of her own.
“Tomorrow,” Dan said.
She didn’t mean to fall asleep. She didn’t actually think she’d be able to, but when she woke up her neck was cricked and her back was sore and it was clear she’d been unconscious for at least a few hours. The tv was still on, the volume turned down low. She stayed where she was for a moment, trying to summon the energy to get up and drag herself to bed when she heard a sleepy noise from beside her that sounded… wrong.
Wrong because it sounded right.
She sat bolt upright and sure enough, the sleeping lump of person on the other side of the sofa had long waves falling onto their face. Fi sat there frozen for an interminable moment, afraid to breathe lest the spell be broken. She watched Dee shift in her sleep and move her head so her hair fell to the side and Fi could see her face properly. It was the same face, exactly the same face she’d kissed before falling asleep the night before.
“Dee,” she whispered into the dark of their lounge.
Dee didn’t wake. Fi crawled forward a little, reached out and touched Dee’s face. She felt real enough, soft and warm and solid beneath Fi’s fingers.
Her eyes fluttered open, unfocused until they locked onto Fi’s. She was awake in an instant, sitting up and reaching out to grab Fi’s hoodie and pull her in violently and crush her to her chest. Fi started to cry like a switch had been flicked and Dee was whispering, “It’s you, it’s you,” over and over, rocking Fi’s body back and forth, over and over.
“What the hell was that?” Dee said, not waiting for an answer. “What the fuck was that?”
Fi climbed into Dee’s lap and wrapped her legs around her waist and kissed her. Over and over. Like they’d been apart for years instead of hours. She’d never experienced relief this profound. Dee was wearing a jumper about three sizes too big, but it still smelled like her. Fi didn’t have to wonder why.
“Was he nice to you?” Fi demanded.
Dee just nodded, pressing her face to Fi’s neck and kissing there too, breathing her in. “I love you. God, I love you so fucking much. I was so scared.”
Fi found her mouth again and kissed her quiet. She didn’t want to waste any time dwelling. She slipped her hands under Dee’s jumper and pulled it up and off and threw it on the floor. It wasn’t hers. It wasn’t her. Fi wanted her. She shuffled backwards a little and touched Dee’s shoulders and her breasts and her back and pressed her cheek to Dee’s chest and listened to the sound of her heart beating wildly.
“You’re here,” Fi murmured. “It’s really you.”
“Don’t ever leave me again.”
“I won’t,” Dee promised. “Never again.”