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quiet on widow's peak

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The wind is loud in this one. That's frustrating, and it makes Phil's job a lot harder, but he can't control the weather. Be cool if he could. He does his best to level out his voice and the background noise of Mother Nature before he settles in with his good headphones and really cranks the volume.

It's even more annoying to listen to the alternating crackle and whistle right in his ears. Phil has dealt with worse during this whole process, though, so he finds the strength to power through it. He listens to the full thing three times, scribbling a few timestamps down on a Post-It pad as he does. He takes a break after that, does some stretches around his tiny bedroom and tiptoes out to get a snack without waking the whole damn house, and then he's right back in his apparently ergonomic office chair to subject his ears to more of this nonsense.

Wind, wind, and more wind. And sometimes just Phil's own voice. Nothing of note.

Phil is about to give this video up as a loss altogether when he hits one of the final timestamps and... can't figure out what that noise is.

For the first time since he opened this file, Phil grins. He exports the clip and plays around with it in Audacity. Some videos are always more fun than others, and Phil had felt like he was slogging through this one until now.

"Do you hear that, Theodore?" Phil murmurs. The tiny cactus on his desk, thankfully, does not respond.

It sounds like a person. It sounds like a person, whispering, and it definitely isn't the wind, and it isn't Phil's own voice, because he's in the middle of a question in this clip.

Phil might just be going crazy from sleep deprivation or wishful thinking, though. He pulls out his phone and texts the only group chat that doesn't cause him anxiety, which is comprised of the housemates that he actually gets along with. Anyone up? he asks, adding a single eye emoji for good measure.

Even though it's gone two in the morning, he gets immediate responses from all of them. A string of vaguely dirty emojis from Chris, a simple yeah from Sophie, and a cheerfully morbid did you know that insomnia leads to an early death? from PJ.

Wanna listen to a noise for me?

Within three minutes, Phil's bedroom is full of people in various states of sleepiness. All of them are in ridiculous pyjamas - including Phil - and PJ's hair in particular has taken on a mind of its own. Phil's room isn't really big enough for all of them, so there's some awkward shuffling before PJ claims the office chair. Phil sits at the foot of his bed with Sophie and Chris on either side of him, pressed close against each other's shoulders. It's a good thing he likes these people.

"I mean, it isn't the wind," is PJ's confident opinion. "Did you have anyone with you?"

"No, it's just me and my camera against the world," says Phil.

"No need to be a twat," Chris informs him. He taps at PJ's upper arm, impatient. "Let me have a go, then, if there's something there."

Chris is famously bad at hearing things in white noise, but PJ acquiesces the seat easily enough. Phil laughs, watching them do a weird step dance around each other in the small space between Phil's bed and desk.

"I can't hear any specific words," PJ says as he flops down across Phil's pillows, making himself comfortable. Phil just nods, because neither can he.

"How d'you know it's a person, then?" Sophie asks. Her voice is probably the only one soft enough for the hour. Their other housemates hate them for their frequent all-nighters, but Sophie is kind and quiet enough that she slips under the radar.

"You'll see for yourself."

When Sophie goes to respond, Chris interrupts in a hilariously loud voice, as if he's forgotten that having headphones on doesn't mean they can't hear him. "It's some kind of ghoulie or ghostie! I can barely fucking hear it, Philly, why didn't you mic it?"

"Why didn't I mic the ghost?" Phil asks, bewildered. Naturally, Chris doesn't hear him.

Sophie taps Chris on the shoulder and stands, leaning over his shoulder as she takes her turn listening to the sound clip over and over. Chris spins in the chair a few times and gives Phil an unhinged sort of grin.

"You got something this time," says Chris. He sounds like he's having just as much fun as Phil is, now that there's actually a thing to listen to besides his own voice and the loud, loud wind.

"I think so," says Phil. "Why didn't I mic the ghost?"

"I'm saying it would make your job a lot easier if you mic the ghost, yes."

"If I could mic a ghost, I'd be a millionaire."

"Then you better get on it, eh?" Chris laughs, spinning a bit faster. Phil has never seen the man sleep. It's a little bit worrying.

"Sure," Phil says, giving up on trying to teach any logic to someone who's clearly long lost their hold on it. "Next time I spend all night in a graveyard, I'll mic any spirits that might be hanging out."

"Shut up," Sophie tells them, mild.

Chris mimes zipping his lips, wrapping an easy arm around her waist, and PJ laughs.

For the first few months they all lived together, Phil had struggled to keep up with whatever dynamics were going on between the three of them, but he's long since given it up as something he's not going to understand.

After a moment of quiet, Sophie nods. "I hear it," she tells them. Even with the headphones on, she's quiet. "It's not words, I wouldn't put any subtitles over it."

"Yeah," PJ agrees. "Just let your audience duke it out in the comments like they always do."

"Thanks, guys," Phil says, feeling a sort of warmth sink into his shoulders. He notices that Chris is pulling up another application and half-heartedly protests. "Chris, you don't need to edit this one for me. I still haven't paid you for the last video." Or the one before that. Or the three or four previous. Phil has it written down somewhere.

"Don't be stupid," Chris hums, already clicking around erratically. It makes the editor in Phil want to scream, but he has to admit that Chris manages to find more weird visual stuff to isolate than he could on his own.

"I feel bad," says Phil, chewing his lip.

"I've told you," says Chris, "you can pay me back in chores and sexual favours."

PJ's slippered foot knocks against Phil's hip, and he grins brightly when Phil turns to him. "You know, I do have a bit of a laundry backlog."

"Funny thing, that," says Sophie.

Biting back a laugh, Phil shakes his head. "Alright, alright. Everybody leave their laundry in front of my door tomorrow."

"That's a no on the beej, then?" Chris asks, raising a single eyebrow and pointing dramatically at Phil. It has been near two years of this, and Phil is still too afraid to ask if it's a joke.

It's not as if Phil's answer would change if it wasn't a joke, because he's not interested in Chris, and he's especially not interested in becoming entangled in whatever nonsense his housemates have gotten themselves into. But, still, he might be kinder about letting Chris down if he were being genuine.

"That is a no," Phil confirms. "But I will wash your pants."

"Kinky," says Chris. He turns back to the screen and makes an incomprehensible hand gesture. "This is pretty shit. You know that, right?"

Yeah. Phil does know that. It's getting harder and harder to have the same optimism in every video that he'd had when he first started recording his wanderings around the supposedly-haunted places of Rossendale. He'd brought the camera with him when he left, but might have left that optimism behind. Phil only kind of believes in supernatural things - the way he only kind of believes in giraffes or true love - but it's been more fun than anything else to pick up a camera and try to find some evidence.

He's been doing this since he was nineteen, though, and he's getting a little bored by the formula of it all. Go into a haunted place, try to communicate with the spirits, pick up some garbled words or creepy noises, highlight visual oddities like orbs, and let the internet tear it all to shreds. Honestly, he'd have more fun making proper horror at this point in his life.

Phil shrugs and pulls his knees up to his chest. He wants to hide away from the sympathy in Sophie's eyes, from Chris' blunt words. "Yeah. I'm getting kind of... I don't know. Restless."

"Maybe you should ask people to submit things again," PJ suggests. "That went well last time."

It had, actually. Phil had needed to sort through a lot more ridiculous stories and obvious hoaxes than usual, but he'd found some nuggets of gold in all that hay. Or however that saying goes.

"People did like having their stories read out," Phil says slowly. "I'd just need to be extra sure that nobody's, like..."

"Ripping off r/NoSleep," says PJ.

"Yeah, exactly."

"We can help," Sophie says, and Phil could cry at how easily PJ and Chris agree with her.

He really doesn't deserve to have such great people around him. They've got work and lives of their own, but they're always happy to spend time crowded around Phil's computer listening to weird noises together. Phil sometimes wonders what they get out of it. Do they just like helping him, the way he has fun holding the boom for PJ's films or testing Sophie's concoctions? Or are they just as fascinated as Phil by the weirdness of it all? Do they want to see the cool instances of paranormal activity, too? At this point it feels nearly impossible to ask.

"That's going to be a lot of washing pants for me," Phil sighs. He doesn't know how to thank them, not when they always just wave it off.

"Sure is," says PJ. "But you should... ask the audience!"

"Your Chris Tarrant is pretty good," says Phil, only a little surprised by it. PJ's voice is as much of a tool to him as the rest of his body, and it's one he's always been skilled with. The impressions still tend to catch Phil off guard sometimes.

PJ tips an invisible hat. "Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week."

At his friends' not so gentle encouragement, Phil makes a few posts on his socials to ask his followers for new creepy things to explore. It might be the middle of the night in Brighton, but he has a feeling that Chris isn't leaving his desk until he's found every instance of an orb or strange shadow in the fifty minutes of currently uncut footage.

It seems like Sophie is on the same page, because she excuses herself to make tea for everyone. PJ leans over Chris' shoulder and watches the clips without sound, his lips moving as if he's murmuring to himself.

Sometimes this feels more like a group effort than Phil is comfortable with. He's never been very good at asking for help. As grateful as he is, he still itches with the need to take back control of the situation. He uses the slow trickle of fan submissions to distract him from that feeling, because all three of them do make his videos better when he stops being so possessive over his footage. Phil flops onto his back and scrolls through the incoming emails, tweets, and Tumblr messages to see if there's anything promising.

For the most part, the answer is a resounding no. Some things are blatant lies - there are countless ripoffs of films or novels that Phil happens to be familiar with, a few things swiped from creepypasta or subreddits, and his usual amount of conspiracy theorist fans insisting that some high profile person or other is a lizard - but most of it, to Phil's dismay, just doesn't grab his attention the way he wants it to.

Sophie comes back with tea and snacks. She leans her head against Phil's shoulder and watches him cycle through his apps, fact-checking idly and sighing every time something easily proves to be a hoax. Her hair smells like coconut and she makes a soft humming noise every time she lifts the mug to her lips. Her presence alone, small and warm and supportive, is enough to keep Phil from throwing his phone across the room and having a right sulk about how his career is in a tailspin because nobody makes ghosts like they used to. At some point in the night, Sophie's breathing evens out to the point that Phil thinks she's asleep, but then she reaches out to tap a tiny finger to his screen.

"What's this, then?" she murmurs.

Phil has been zoned out entirely for at least fifteen, and he blinks back into reality. There's a new message in his Tumblr inbox, one that seems like it must be over the character limit for asks. He must have submissions turned on or something, that's the only possible explanation for an actual essay being sent to him. It's barely broken into paragraphs with very little punctuation and no capitalization, and Phil has been staring at screens for far too long to try and parse this on his own.

"Can you please make sure this isn't, like, the entire Bee Movie," Phil asks, handing Sophie his phone with only a slight twinge of anxiety. He trusts her not to go snooping, but. Still. "I need to pee."

"Mhm," Sophie hums, already apparently lost in whatever stream-of-consciousness has been dropped into Phil's inbox.

The floorboards in this old Brighton house creak, and Phil has always envied some of his housemates for being able to sidestep the noises. It doesn't seem to matter how long he lives here, how much he tries to avoid making any noise, it's like the floorboards are determined to creak under Phil's weight. He winces as he passes two bedrooms whose occupants surely don't appreciate creaking outside their doors at such an ungodly hour.

At least he doesn't run into any walls this time. The nightlight in the bathroom at the end of the hall is the only thing lighting Phil's way, and he tends to stub his toes on absolutely nothing in this kind of semi-darkness.

When he makes his - very, very creaky - way back to his own room, he's bewildered by the scene that greets him. PJ and Chris have joined Sophie on his bed, and all three of them are poring over Phil's phone as though they're looking at a map to the Holy Grail.

"Hello," Phil says slowly, closing the door behind him. It creaks, too. "You aren't going through my pictures, are you?"

"No," Sophie and PJ chorus without looking up.

"You got nudes on here or something?" Chris asks with a mild sort of interest, clearly also too engaged in Phil's phone to put his all into the flirting.

"I don't," says Phil. It doesn't sound convincing, even though it's true, and he waits for Chris to tease him about it some more. When he doesn't, Phil has to admit that he's curious. "So I guess it isn't a meme or something?"

That makes them look up, in almost comedic synchronicity. Sophie blinks a few times, as if she's coming back to herself. She holds out Phil's phone and shakes her head.

"It's not a meme," she says. "And near as we can tell, it's genuine."

Phil joins them and takes his phone back, adjusting his glasses. His bed really wasn't made for four people, but his housemates have never had any personal space amongst themselves, and Phil isn't one to say no to human contact when he isn't getting it anywhere else.

The message is just as hard to read as it was at first glance, but Phil puts his brain to work. If his friends are reacting like this, it usually means he's in for something good.

hi ok so the thing is that this is completely ridiculous and i dont think its what youre looking for at all but theres a building near my uni thats got a ton of stories around it and it only started happening like this year like it isnt an old obviously haunted type of place but theres a lot of weird shit that goes down there so i found all the references to it online that i could and ive summarized them here (w/ sources ofc im not a dick) and its all just this side of strange so it seems like the sort of thing you might be interested in ok here we go SO

And it goes on like that. Phil feels his eyebrows raising as he clicks the provided links in the following walls of text, which are exactly what they're advertised as. Not a single rickroll in there. Just a handful of posts on Reddit and Facebook and independent blogs about various experiences people have had with a particular abandoned building in -

"I know this place," Phil says, surprised. He looks up at PJ's grin, Sophie's wide eyes, Chris' palms rubbing together in exaggerated interest. "I've been to parties here. Well, okay," he corrects himself before his friends can do it for him, "I've gone with Martyn to parties here and left early."

"Yeah, it isn't far out of Manchester," PJ hums. He bounces in place a bit, like he's suddenly energized enough to go jump on the soonest train up north.

"It didn't seem that weird," says Phil. "It's been a few years, I guess, but it wasn't even that scary."

"Sounds like it's only just started, though," Chris pipes up.

Phil isn't sure how much he likes that. The idea of a place he's been a few times, half an hour from his childhood home, being so suddenly full of haunted activity feels... weird. Still, it's catching his interest in a way that nothing else has in months, so.

"I'll look into it some more tomorrow," he decides, glancing at the time. His brother is probably still awake, to be honest, but Phil doesn't want to be that guy asking 'hey, do you remember the Wilkins place?' before dawn has even broken. Again. He has definitely done that sort of thing in the past. "I'll have plenty of time while I do, what, seventeen loads of laundry?"

"Something like that," PJ laughs. "Want us to clear out?"

As nice as the company and help has been, Phil still feels a rush of relief at the concept of being left alone again. He nods, still scrolling idly through the Wilkins place submission.

It hits him, very literally, too close to home to ignore. He wonders if his fan knows that, if this is somehow an elaborate prank that will end up just wasting Phil's time, but he's too curious to leave it alone. He'll just have to ask around, see if anyone else has heard these murmurings.

Til then, maybe he ought to try and get some sleep. Phil's computer, still open on the editing software, tempts him.

Well. What's another couple hours at this point?

Chapter Text

"Do you remember the Wilkins place?"

"I'm well, thanks." Martyn's voice is dry, and Phil finds himself grinning at the wall despite himself. "How are you?"

"Good," says Phil. It's mostly true, although he could do without the piles of clothes he's sorting through. He holds his phone between his shoulder and his ear as he picks up a top of Sophie's and starts a whole new pile that he's calling delicates, aka things he's absolutely going to screw up somehow. "People think the Wilkins place is haunted."

There's a beat. Presumably, Phil's brother is trying to fit the name into adolescent memories to see where it slots in. "Oh, that wreck in Rusholme? It hasn't been condemned yet?"

"Apparently it's still a hot spot for binge-drinking teenagers," Phil says.

"Well, sure. But haunted? Really?"

"That's what I said!"

Phil feels a little vindicated by the skepticism in Martyn's voice, to be honest. His friends hadn't taken his weird feeling seriously at all.

"I mean, it's a dump," says Martyn. "More likely to be haunted by a bunch of rats than anything else. Why haven't we heard this before?"

"According to my sources," Phil says, only feeling a bit ridiculous about referring to a bunch of strangers on the internet as 'sources', "the activity only recently started. Which makes me think that someone's lying, or maybe one incident kickstarted everyone else's imaginations?"

"Both could be true. Why don't you ask Ian to go check it out?"

It's not exactly a sore spot, but something inside of Phil still twinges at the question. "He's a little busy, isn't he."

"So am I," Martyn says in that same dry, familiar tone that makes Phil feel as comforted as his mum's fretting or his dad's bad jokes do. "And yet here you are, on my phone."

"You don't have a toddler," Phil points out.

"I don't? Yet here you are..."

Phil snorts a laugh and drops all of the socks he's gathered into an empty basket. It's as good a place to start as any. "Shut up, Mar. I'm at least six."

There are, literally, enough dirty socks and pants between the four of them that Phil has a whole load of just underthings. He spares a moment to be grateful to Sophie for not including her bras, because he'd have no idea where to begin with those. He sighs and picks up the basket, fitting it against his hip with one hand so he can hold his phone with the other.

"Well, I can ask around," says Martyn. "I think my friends might be past the point of sneaking into abandoned houses to party, but maybe they've heard something from their annoying little brothers."

"Ha, ha," Phil says dryly. "Think I should contact some of the people making these claims?"

"Deffo," says Martyn. "If you can record them, it'd be best."

"Yeah, that way I can use them in the video," Phil hums, setting his basket on the washer and opening every cupboard to try to find the detergent. "I mean, if they're okay with that, obviously."

"I actually meant because your bullshit detector is dysfunctional, so me or Peej will have to tell you if someone's lying."

"Wow, rude. Whose fault is that?"

"Yours," Martyn informs him dryly. "Just because I told you Santa would pull you up through the chimney doesn't mean you had to believe me."

Phil rolls his eyes, but he's grinning. Maybe it's just a big brother thing, or maybe it's their personalities, but Martyn isn't wrong - Phil has a hard time telling when someone is lying to him. Martyn was always good at lying with a straight face and seeing right through Phil's outlandish stories.

"I still blame you," says Phil.

"Alright," says Martyn. "When are you coming to visit?"

"Probably not ‘til after this one," Phil says slowly, glancing at the kitten calendar on the fridge. They'd let one of their milder housemates pick this year's after everyone got tired of looking at Chris' previous choice of nude knitted puppets.

"Yeah? You gonna head up north for this one?"

In the very last cupboard he checks, Phil finds the detergent. He wants to be annoyed about it, but the truth is that Holly's habit of switching around the kitchen when she's anxious has saved many a pack of biscuits from expiring behind some flour. Phil has never once been useful to anybody when he's having a meltdown, so.

Phil absentmindedly loads the washer while he considers Martyn's question. Maybe it would be best to check the place out for himself, see if anything's really going on. He likes being on-site best, trusts his own gut more than he trusts strangers' eyes.

The problem, of course, is that Phil's childhood home is up for sale, he has no money for a hotel, and Ian's gone and got himself a child. The last thing Phil wants to do is impose or, like, get roped into babysitting. A trip to Manchester might be out of the question for him right now.

"Maybe," Phil says, noncommittal.

Martyn sees through him in an instant, like always. "Want me to ask Mum if they've got any viewings next weekend? I'm sure you know not to trash the place."

"Have I ever once trashed the place? Don't answer that," Phil adds, remembering the shaving cream incident.

A huff comes down the line, and Phil feels the same pride at making his brother laugh as he had when he was seven and making weird noises out the car window. Yeah, he definitely needs to go to London soon, the Isle afterwards - he hasn't seen his family in way too long.

"I'll let you know what's buzzing, if anything," says Martyn. "And I'll call Mum for you and all. I know you get weird about asking them for favours."

"I get weird about asking anyone for favours," Phil says instead of a thank you, because if he gets weird about asking for help, then Martyn gets twice as weird about reacting to gratitude.

"Except me."

Phil smiles, watching the rainbow of socks and pants spin. "Yeah. Except you."

--

Laundry does end up taking Phil most of the day, but he doesn't mind much. It's the least he can do when Chris always does the first draft edit for him, PJ reminds him to take his EMF meter and his meds when he's packing for an overnight, and Sophie sends him pages upon pages of research while she's at work. He's so fond of these people, and he appreciates all they do for him, but being in debt to them - and not in sole control of his projects - makes Phil feel like he's got ants crawling up his arms.

While he waits out the machine cycles, Phil starts putting feelers out into this story. He checks the sources linked to him again and shoots off a couple of direct messages and emails to see if any of the people posting about the Wilkins place are eager to chat one on one.

He's got his laptop set up at the kitchen table and he's on his third coffee of the day when it occurs to him that he's not out of the woods of owing favours just yet. He clicks back into the Tumblr submission that started this spiral.

He decides that he needs to thank this person, at the very least, and maybe offer to buy them a coffee or something when he's in town. They did so much of Phil's grunt work that it feels weird not to pay them back somehow.

"Well, I can't exactly do your laundry," Phil murmurs to the screen. He hopes none of his other housemates are milling around to hear him.

Another click, and he's on the blog. It's minimalist and monochrome in a way that makes things easy to read, but not very interesting to look at. Phil's eyes start to glaze over as he scrolls through, because it's entertaining enough but - well. It's a typical Tumblr blog. That familiar mixture of memes and rants about social issues and some gifs from shows that Phil doesn't have time to watch. There are a lot of familiar walls of text tagged as personal posts, but Phil still can't parse them without really trying.

They do reblog Phil's video posts, though. That makes him grin.

He scrolls back up to the top of the page to shoot them a message and immediately gets distracted by the bio.

winnie. 21. any pronouns.

For someone who sent Phil a wall of text that could be mistaken for copypasta at first glance, it's surprisingly succinct. Phil takes another swig of his coffee and tries not to get caught up on the last part of it.

Any pronouns? What does that mean, any pronouns? What if Phil uses the wrong ones? He isn't exactly a queer theory student, and as much as he supports everybody under his little rainbow umbrella, he's got to admit that a lot of things still go over his head.

He dithers for so long that his laptop screen goes black, and he makes a face at himself in its reflection. Surely he's overthinking this.

Hi!, Phil types, and then accidentally hits enter. He was just trying not to send the fan a paragraph back, but, fine. Oops. So I'm looking into the things you sent me on the Wilkins place and I'm really impressed by the amount of time you put into this? Like it makes MY job a lot easier haha. Is he a triple-texter? He's a triple-texter. The first one didn't count anyway. So thanks!!!!! I'll def give you credit in the video, but is there anything else I can do to pay you back?

Not literally, he wants to add right after he's sent it. Oh, well. He can't just keep spamming this poor person's chat. He hopes it's obvious that he'd offer monetary compensation if he had it.

Phil leaves the Tumblr tab open and works on editing for a little while. It's almost frustrating how bad this video is, how little effort and energy Phil has started putting into these, and he doesn't know how to fix it short of rethinking his entire career.

He could easily keep churning these out for as long as people watch them, but. He's not having fun anymore.

The Phil on his laptop screen is asking questions, wandering around a cemetery just to see if anything will happen, and Phil can't help comparing it to things he did last year, the year before that, the year before that - it feels like his content is declining as his enthusiasm for the topic does, or maybe vice versa.

Phil zones out for so long that the dryer chime goes off from the hallway, echoing through the old, creaky house. He'd given up on sorting the loads after the fifth shirt that could belong to any of them, so he just takes his own things out and folds his housemates' clothes into one basket.

They can figure it out, he's sure. There's only two bedrooms between the three of them, so there's only two closets, and Phil has gone so long without knowing who's officially sharing that it would be awkward to ask now.

Phil swaps the load over and goes back to his laptop, even though the very last thing he wants to do is continue editing and uploading this mediocre video.

The thing is, Phil doesn't need his content to be perfect. He's happy to post things that just make him laugh or have a nicely spooky vibe or whatever, he doesn't need to solve mysteries every month or two. It's just that. He can hear how little he cares about it, lately. It won't be long before people notice, if they haven't already.

Phil sighs and exits the project. Maybe this video is best left unposted. He's not happy with it at all.

Maybe, if this Wilkins place video doesn't pan out, Phil can start redirecting his energy into a different type of creative output. He's got so many stories bouncing around in his mind, he just needs to figure out how he wants to tell them.

It sounds like his father's voice inside his head, telling him you can't chase ghosts forever. He wishes he still had the gumption to disagree with it.

His laptop makes a little noise, and Phil blinks back to reality. He has to click on a few different tabs to figure out where it came from, but then he realises that he's gotten a response on Tumblr.

Phil smiles despite himself and gets ready for another difficult-to-read message.

Sure enough: UHHHHHH hi hello what the fuck i didnt expect you to say anything this is so weird i am being so weird right now um like no problem? i was procrastinating an essay and this was more fun to research so you dont have to thank me or pay me back whatever that means like i was just fucking around its fine but thank you?????

Phil thinks about the four word Tumblr bio again and snorts. Maybe Winnie wanted to seem as cool and minimalist as their theme itself was.

Procrastination or not, I appreciate it!, Phil replies. Would it be ok if I use you as a reference?

?????????????? i mean yeah but what the fuck, he gets back almost immediately.

It's nice to see you know some punctuation! Sorry if it's weird to reach out like this, I just wanted to like acknowledge the work you put in. I don't have to mention you in the video if you'd prefer!

The sound of the front door creaking open and slamming shut interrupts Phil's nervous typing. He freezes for a moment, fingers still on the keyboard, but then PJ comes in the kitchen with a little salute and several bags of craft supplies, and Phil can breathe again.

It isn't that the other people who live in this house are bad people. Far from it. It's just that, of the people Phil has opted to share this large space with for nearly two years, only three of them have made any kind of effort to understand Phil. The others are nice enough, he supposes, but sometimes they come and go and new people replace them and - Phil isn't exactly good with change, is the thing.

So he relaxes when he can talk to PJ instead of making small talk with someone who thinks he's weird and too messy. "Hey! How's your day?"

"Better than yours," PJ laughs. He drops all the bags on the table and starts puttering around the kitchen. "Hungry?"

"Please. And it wasn't so bad, I got some work done."

"Yeah? Any new info on the new haunt?"

It's incredible how genuinely interested PJ always is in Phil's work. Phil grins down at his keyboard and shrugs a bit. "Some. Mostly just poking around right now, though. Mar's asking his friends too. Oh, and I thanked the person who sent it in."

"That's good," PJ says. He's putting the kettle on, because that's what PJ does when he comes home. "How'd they react?"

"Mostly confusion," Phil laughs. He glances at his screen to see if Winnie has responded - they haven't - and chews on his lip a little bit. "Hey, Peej? If someone says any pronouns are fine, what does that mean?"

"Generally," PJ hums, "it seems like it would mean any pronouns are fine."

"Oh, shut up." Phil runs a hand through his hair, always anxious about getting stuff like this wrong.

"I'm not joking," PJ says, although his tone is still light.

"Oh. So it just... doesn't matter?"

"Not to some people, I guess." PJ leans against the counter as he waits for the water to boil. At least he's smiling, although Phil can't help but notice that it's a little patronizing. "You do know that I'm not a gender guru, right? I'm barely a gender novice. I failed gender out the gate, buddy."

Phil knows his cheeks are pinking up a bit, but he rolls his eyes. "Shut up," he repeats. "You still know way more than me."

The shrug he gets in response makes Phil huff a laugh. This isn't something they talk about, but Phil has been present for enough of Chris and PJ's conversations that he'd gotten the idea.

He wonders if PJ cares that he's bringing it up. Is he making PJ uncomfortable? They don't talk about this.

"Stop spiralling," PJ says easily. His smile is warmer, now. "I don't hate you, nobody hates you, and the fan who doesn't care about pronouns certainly doesn't hate you. If you're that worried about upsetting them, though, you can always ask."

Maybe he's known PJ too long. He's grateful for it, still, so relieved that he doesn't have to voice the swirling anxiety of doing something wrong when he only has the best intentions.

"I guess I could do that," Phil mutters, embarrassed by how easily he's been read.

Winnie's responded by the time Phil looks back at the chat window, a lmao yeah ofc thats fine i just cant believe you want to, im not trying to b weird ive just been a fan for a really long time?? (used a comma for you too) (and brackets) (youre welcome) that makes Phil smile.

Awesome! And are the name Winnie & they/them pronouns fine to talk about you with, or do you prefer something else for this?

no yeah thats good idc how you refer to me, is Winnie's immediate response. It's stupid how much of a load feels like it's been lifted off of Phil's shoulders at that easy reassurance.

"You were right," Phil informs PJ.

PJ nods, solemn, as he stirs his noodles. "I often am."

"You're annoying, also," says Phil. "Hey. D'you wanna come up north with me?"

"Phil," says PJ dramatically, holding the wooden spoon up to his heart. "Are you asking me to run away with you?"

"No, absolutely not, stop making that joke." There's no way in hell Phil is going to keep putting up with this from both of them, and PJ is more likely to listen to him than Chris is.

PJ laughs. "Yeah, yeah. You going to see the haunt?"

"If my parents are okay with us hanging out for the weekend, yeah."

"Oh, okay," says PJ. "We're just waiting on confirmation that Kath and Nigel want to spend time with you? Might as well pack now."

"Your stuff's folded," Phil says helpfully. PJ throws a noodle in his general direction. It flops onto the floor between them, a sad, wet spiral of a thing, and Phil touches his nose at the same time PJ does.

"Well, one of us has to pick it up," PJ says in his Reasonable Adult voice, as if he hadn't thrown it in the first place.

Phil looks at his laptop, valiantly pretending not to see the floor noodle, and blinks.

and i mean i havent seen any of this shit firsthand but if you need to ask me anything about the stuff thats gone down im always free. like literally always.

Chapter Text

Interviews used to be Phil's least favourite part of this job. The research was always captivating, the filming was always fun, the editing was always challenging, but talking? To people? About things? Absolutely not.

He still doesn't love doing it, but he's long past the point of begging Martyn or Ian to pretend to be him on the phone.

The curtains in Phil's room are open for once, letting natural light in so he doesn't look as dark on the Skype screen. His eyes keep drifting to himself, distracting him as he tries to fix his hair or laments not getting out of his pyjamas. This is his fourth interview of the day, and he's starting to hate the process with a renewed fervour.

"Okay, thank you," he says, clicking out of the screen record window. "Can I message you here if I have any further questions, or would you prefer this to be your final statement?"

"Oh, um," the girl says, her eyes round with some kind of emotion that Phil can't be bothered to parse. "No, no, that's... that's all I saw. I don't have anything else. But you can still... message me, if you like."

Ah. Phil makes a face that he hopes reads as apologetic and not panicked. "No, I - sorry. Gay. Just interested in your ghost."

"Oh!" she says again, looking more puzzled than Phil thinks she has any right to after a forty minute conversation where he mostly just asked her clarifying questions that she kept dodging. She tucks some of her long hair behind her ear and shakes her head. "Sorry, that's just - you haven't said that online."

Phil isn't very good at knowing when people are lying to him, but now he's definitely suspicious of the half-assed testimony he'd gotten from this girl. He sighs. "Okay, you know who I am, then?"

"I mean, I looked you up when you messaged me about a video and all," she says. "Wanted to know if you were a creep or, like, legit."

Okay, that's fair enough. Phil supposes that if he were a girl in uni and a stranger asked to video chat, he'd also do a little digging first. He still doesn't quite believe her story, though - most of it matches what she'd written on Facebook, word for word, and she didn't go into detail on anything she claimed happened.

"Right, of course," says Phil, feeling awkward and exposed.

Her eyes are wide and blue and she can see into his room, into his life, and she's giving him this look like she thinks she knows something about him. He hates this feeling.

"That a secret, then?" she asks.

"No," Phil says. "It's just not relevant to my job. I don't have a lot of ghouls asking me out."

She doesn't laugh. Phil is getting more and more uncomfortable by the second, and he's wondering if it's worth it to hang up on a potential lead - no matter how dubious her claims - when she says, "Well, alright. I won't tell anyone anyway."

"Thanks," Phil says automatically. He doesn't particularly care if she does or not, but he does want this call to end as soon as possible. "And thanks for your time. Message me if you think of anything else you forgot to mention about the Wilkins place or if you know of someone who's seen something."

Before she can even respond, Phil hits end on the call and groans, resting his forehead on his thumbs for a moment.

Unsurprisingly, this is giving him a migraine. It doesn't take much to make the twinge of a headache turn to insistent throbbing, because Phil's body hates him and overreacts to everything.

Phil takes a couple of deep breaths before he comes out of hiding. He attaches the final screen recording to the email he's already got open and ready to send to Martyn. After a moment's thought, he CCs PJ and Sophie in and adds, Nobody sounds credible except the second person to me, so... it's not looking good lol, before hitting send.

He takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes for a moment. Interviews are still draining for him, especially when they don't go as planned, and Phil's starting to get the impression that there's nothing to even find at the Wilkins place.

But. Phil pauses, considers his options. He hasn't interviewed everyone, has he.

Before he can talk himself out of it, Phil shoves his glasses unceremoniously back onto his face and opens Tumblr. Winnie hasn't said anything to him so far today, so Phil feels only a little like he's bothering them when he shoots off a quick, Hey! I just finished interviewing the sources you gave me and most of them aren't very promising. Would you consider letting me ask you some questions to round out the video?

me?????, Winnie replies almost immediately. i didnt even see anything?? like im happy to answer questions but idk how much use ill b in an INTERVIEW

I know! And you don't have to lmao so don't feel pressured or anything but you know so much more about the place than they do. Everyone claimed that they didn't know other people were having paranormal experiences.

oh bullshit, Winnie says. Phil is surprised into a huff of laughter.

There's a part of Phil, fuelled by anxiety and uncertainty, that worries Winnie is just pulling an elaborate joke on him. That part of him feels a little more at ease every time he actually talks to Winnie. They just seem... genuine. And maybe Martyn would disagree, would blame Phil's desperation to see the best in people, but there's a reason Phil doesn't tell Martyn everything.

Before Phil can agree with Winnie's colourful derision, his laptop beeps again. i look like an ogre rn but i can voice chat if you rly think itll help

It would!!, Phil assures them. The tender spot behind his eyes twinges again, serving as a reminder. Can I call in like an hour? I've got a headache from the screen lol

sure i really have nothing else going on today

--

So it's later in the day, late afternoon light still streaking through Phil's window, when Phil sits back down at his computer and adds the Skype username Winnie gave him. His head still hurts a bit, but it isn't all-consuming now that he's had another coffee and some painkillers. The padded headphones feel good to put over his ears, blocking out most of the typical noises from such a full house and a busy street, and Phil just sits in the blissful quiet for a moment before he sends a voice call request.

It gets picked up almost immediately, and Phil presses a smile into his palm before he says, "Hi! Can you hear me alright?"

There's a beat. Phil waits, in case Skype is lagging as usual, but he's opening his mouth to repeat himself by the time he gets a response.

"Yeah," says Winnie. "I can hear you."

Phil isn't really proud of himself for being surprised by Winnie's voice. It's just. He knows his viewer demographics, okay, and he has a rough grasp on Tumblr demographics, and the name - alright. It isn't his proudest moment, is his point, because he's expecting a much higher pitch for absolutely no good reason.

In addition to that, his brain automatically tries to classify Winnie's voice as very obviously masculine, and Phil has to push back against that.

"I can hear you, too," Phil says cheerfully, not allowing his anxieties to spill over into the conversation.

"That's good, probably," Winnie says. There's another beat of silence, and then a huff that might be laughter or a sigh comes through Phil's headphones. "Sorry, I - I'm not trying to be fucking weird, this is just surreal."

"Is it?" Phil hums. "But I haven't even asked you about ghosts yet."

A snort - definitely laughter, this time - follows, and Phil is so glad that he's able to put Winnie at ease even if his brain is betraying him. "That's true. I guess it's gotta get weirder from here."

"That's kind of, like, the subtitle of my whole channel," says Phil. After a moment, he frowns. "Subtitle? No. What's the thing, on the poster -"

"Tagline," says Winnie. They sound so amused and warm and, okay, they've got a nice voice. That's not gendered. Phil can think that. "You're thinking of a tagline, you buffoon."

"Tagline," Phil echoes gratefully.

"Don't you," Winnie starts, then stops abruptly. They don't finish the sentence, but Phil can kind of guess what they were going to say. There's the sound of some rustling, like Winnie is getting comfortable, before they change tacks. "Again, I didn't see any of this alleged ghostly activity with my own eyes, but I know the hot goss."

Phil opens the recording program out of habit, nodding even though Winnie can't see him. "That's still really useful at this point," he says encouragingly. He clicks a couple of buttons. "And, yes, I do have an English degree. Thank you for not asking."

Winnie laughs, the sound of it filling Phil's headphones and making it feel like they're in the room with him. It's warm, like everything else about their voice, and absolutely contagious.

"I didn't want you to think I was, like, a big stalker," Winnie says, and Phil can hear the grin in their voice.

"Eh, I know you watch my videos," says Phil. "So I figure you know some stuff about me. You probably know that I'm going to ask this, too, but - is it okay if I record our conversation? I don't need to include it in the video if you don't want me to, but it's still useful for me if I don't so I can, like, actually remember the things you told me."

"Yeah, sure," Winnie agrees easily. They hesitate, for a moment, and Phil waits for whatever the caveat will be. "Uh, can I still swear?"

The question surprises Phil into laughing. "Yeah, you're fine. I can bleep them out."

"Then I am all for it. Ask me the ghost questions, ghost man."

Phil presses record and glances down at his notebook, where he's scrawled some disjointed questions alongside his usual doodling. "Uh, okay. Yes. I am totally a professional."

"If you say so, mate," says Winnie.

"Hush. Okay." Phil finally gets his brain back on track and taps his pen against a question near the end of his list. "So, Winnie, you did all this research into the Wilkins place on your own downtime, but you mentioned that you've been hearing murmurs about it for a while, right?"

"Not that long, actually, I've only been hearing about it since term started," Winnie says, and Phil is struck by how comfortable they suddenly are now that there's a guideline. Or, maybe, now that there's a non-Phil audience. "Which I thought was pretty weird, since I'd been there a couple times since I moved here, and it's a spooky fucking place but nothing to write home about."

That's more or less exactly how Phil feels about the situation, except that he doesn't remember the Wilkins place to be scary at all. Maybe it's gotten worse in the years since, or maybe he's just got a higher threshold for empty, decrepit homes than Winnie does. Either way, he's not sure if he should be relieved or suspicious that their thoughts on it mirror his own so well. He starts a spiral in the corner of his page as he considers the answer.

"So, you never got the impression that it was haunted before?"

"I - can I be perfectly honest?" Winnie asks, and then doesn't wait for a response. "I don't get the impression that it's haunted now. I dunno if people are just making shit up or if they're doing too many drugs, but we all know that ghosts don't actually exist."

Phil snorts. He does have a fairly large number of skeptics who watch his videos to argue in the comments about logical explanations for his findings or to just enjoy watching him fail so much, but he hadn't really expected that from someone who sent him a sourced essay on the topic of ghosts.

He's recording right now, so he's not about to give away the fact that, yeah, he kind of does agree with Winnie on this one. Instead, he keeps his tone neutral and says, "You don't believe in ghosts."

"I don't believe in most things that can't be explained by science," Winnie says, so matter-of-fact that Phil has to smile.

"I don't really believe in science," Phil says, mild.

A beat. "Excuse me?"

"I said I don't believe in science," Phil repeats, doubling down on the joke so he can hear that incredulous pitch of Winnie's nice voice again. "I mean, isn't it all just as made-up as anything else? People just tell us stuff exists and we have to believe them?"

"We believe them," Winnie says slowly, "because it's a fact."

"How do I know that?" Phil asks. He knows how off track he's already gotten, and he decides to cut this part out before he sends the file to Martyn or his friends.

"Because you can. See it. With your eyes." The genuine bewilderment in Winnie's voice is very funny. "Like. What the fuck, Phil. If someone drops an apple and it hits the ground and they're like, 'oh that's gravity', how are you supposed to say, 'uh, no it ain't'?"

Phil leans back in his chair a bit, his spiral turning into an apple. "Because, what if that's just what the apple wanted to do? It's not like we know any of this for sure, Winnie."

"You're fucking with me," Winnie says, but they don't sound very certain.

"I am," Phil admits happily. "Do you remember the first incident that kicked off the Wilkins place rumours?"

"You," Winnie says, and then cackles. They lean away from their mic as they do, but the sound of it still makes Phil feel some secondhand giddiness. He wonders if their laugh has a volume limit, or if it's just going to keep getting louder the funnier Phil is. He is so tempted to put that to the test. "Fuck. You little fucker."

Phil hides his own giggle in the palm of his hand and clears his throat, trying to get back into the professional mindset he'd forced himself to be in for the four earlier interviews.

"Do you need me to repeat the question?" Phil asks. He can't resist teasing, just a bit.

"No, fuck off," Winnie chuckles. They take a deep breath and let it out on a hum, low and thoughtful. "So, there was this shindig during fresher's, which I obviously didn't go to because I'm not a fresher and I'm too old to go to shindigs, but people were talking about how the house was making weird noises. A girl I know - I linked you to her Reddit post - said she saw someone just standing outside the window watching them, but, like, is that really a supernatural occurrence in Rusholme?"

"It's not. And she hit on me as well, so I'm not sure her judgement is trustworthy."

"Sounds like her. Sorry. Anyway, nobody really thought 'ghosts' as much as they thought 'rats in the walls and a pervert on the street', but then - this one didn't get spoken about online. I don't even know how valid it is."

"Word of mouth is how most ghost stories get passed," says Phil. "I'm not going to hold you to citations on rumours."

Winnie huffs a laugh. It's soft, quiet, and Phil almost wishes he could say something ridiculous to make them cackle again. Unfortunately, he has a job to do.

"Fair enough. Well, some idiots spent the night there to see if anything weird would happen," Winnie says, and Phil feels a bit attacked, "and three separate dudes had sleep paralysis."

Phil hums and jots some messy notes down. "In the same night?"

"At the same time," Winnie corrects him. "The other idiots were trying to wake them up for a long time, apparently. They're convinced that the guys who fell asleep were just pulling a prank on them, and maybe they were, but that's when the ball really got rolling."

Out of everything Phil has heard today, this is the most compelling story so far. Maybe that's a good indicator of the Manchester students being full of it - maybe there truly is nothing to find in the Wilkins place - but it piques Phil's interest anyway.

"For someone who only believes in cold, hard science, you're good at telling ghost stories," Phil says.

"Thanks," Winnie says, sounding pleased with themselves. "Learned from the best."

Phil is suddenly very, very glad that this isn't a video call, because he can't stop himself from smiling like an idiot. "Oh, is that what they're calling me?"

Another cackle. Phil doesn't remember the last time he made someone laugh so much without tripping over his own clown feet.

"I never said I was talking about you."

"Uh huh."

"Oh, shut up," says Winnie, and Phil can still hear the laughter in their voice. "Don't you have a bunch of questions to ask or something?"

Phil does. He has a whole list of questions that he should be following. He chews on his pen and looks at the doodle-covered list of things he's meant to ask Winnie. His head still hurts - maybe the extra caffeine didn't help after all - and all he really wants to do is take a nap.

"Yeah," Phil says, reluctant. "I've just got, like, a migraine. Can I call you back another time? This was a really great start."

"Oh, yeah, sure," says Winnie. They've dropped their voice down to something soft, like they're worried that they'll make Phil's headache worse.

"I'm actually going up to check the place out this weekend." Phil isn't sure what makes him say that. He meets up with sources in person, sometimes, but usually only if they've seen something with their own eyes. He just feels comfortable talking to Winnie, far more than he'd felt talking to the other students he'd interviewed today.

Phil doesn't actually extend the invitation, and Winnie either doesn't pick up the hint or doesn't care to.

"That'll be good," they say, still soft. "Get some rest, Phil, you can call me back when your brain stops trying to drill a hole through your temple."

After Phil says goodbye and hangs up, he sits at his desk for a long moment. It feels too quiet, all of a sudden, his padded headphones blocking out all the ambient noise around him. It's good for his head, but Phil is still weirdly disappointed.

Chapter Text

Phil did not invite Chris and Sophie to come to Rossendale with him. Not because he doesn't like spending time with them, but because he wouldn't know how to explain a situation to his parents that he doesn't even understand himself. To his knowledge, PJ also did not invite them.

"Change it," Chris whines from the backseat. He'd lost the scuffle against Phil to claim the front, and he's been complaining about Phil's music choices for half the trip so far in retaliation.

"You like McFly," Phil huffs, continuing his search for an album that won't elicit a loud sigh from behind him.

"That's fucking slander, is what that is. You hear that, PJ?"

"Oh, I hear you both," PJ says, flat. "Loud and clear."

They've only been driving for probably forty minutes and PJ already looks like he wants to kick them all out of his car. Phil doesn't exactly blame him, although he resents being lumped in with Chris in the 'annoying background noise' category.

He has no idea how they've managed to invite themselves along, but Phil was too polite and PJ was too smitten to tell them off when they came out to the car with their bags.

So, this is a group activity now. Phil's parents had been thrilled to hear it when he texted them the updated situation - they're taking it as a sign that Phil has a motley crew of good friends again, like he'd had as a kid and again in uni. He supposes that they're not wrong, exactly, but he's definitely anxious about introducing them to Chris.

"I like this song," Sophie says, mild, and Chris closes his mouth.

"Fine, this one is alright," he says begrudgingly. Phil glances at them in the rearview - Sophie is patting Chris' knee and giving him the sort of smile that always makes Phil feel like he shouldn't be present. He looks back down at his phone so he doesn't have to sit with that feeling too long.

PJ turns up the volume, probably to curb any more bickering before he has to toss them all out of his car, and Phil tries to just lose himself in the music for a little bit.

His friends sing along at varying levels of obnoxiousness and Phil tries not to keep opening the Tumblr app to see if someone has messaged him. Well, someone specific. I'm going north today!, is the last message sent between them, and Phil is still waiting for Winnie to offer to meet up or something.

After their non-starter interview, Phil and Winnie kept missing each other's free time to finish it over Skype. Phil kind of wants to hear more from them before he checks it out himself, but that's not looking likely at this point, especially if he's lugging his housemates along with him all weekend.

Phil opens a puzzle game on his phone and lets the mostly-mindless swiping distract him. It's a long drive up to Rossendale, and the last thing Phil wants is to be left alone with his thoughts.

--

Phil's parents love having guests round almost as much as they love to have him home, so Phil isn't at all surprised to walk in and smell a roast cooking. He expects that treats will be made as soon as the oven is free, because that's what his mum is like.

"Hello," Phil calls into the house, kicking off his shoes. His friends follow his lead - PJ puts his boots carefully on the mat that Phil didn't bother aiming for, and Sophie struggles with a particularly stubborn knot in her laces - as he hangs up his jacket. "Mum? Dad?"

"Child," his mum greets him happily, appearing in the entry to the kitchen and making grabby hands at him until he envelops her in a hug.

"Missed you," Phil tells her, quiet enough that his friends won't hear to make fun of him.

"Oh, I missed you," she says, giving him a kiss on the side of his face. She turns her beaming smile onto his housemates, who all pause in what they're doing like a frozen tableau. It's a little funny. "More children! Hello! I'm Kathryn, it's so nice to meet you. And so nice to see you again, PJ," she adds in that somewhat pointed voice that Phil hates so very much.

"Hello, Kath," PJ says, grinning wide. He gives her a hug, too. Chris holds out his hand for her to shake when she's done squeezing the life out of PJ, but Kath will have none of it.

"Don't be silly," she says, wrapping her arms tight around Chris' waist with a laugh. "We hug in this family."

"Really?" Chris asks, and the look he gives Phil is almost more embarrassing than if he'd asked 'so why isn't your son a hugger?' out loud. "Something smells absolutely delicious, Kathryn. Is that you, or is supper cooking?"

Phil stops himself from groaning out loud, but barely. He probably shouldn't be surprised at all that Chris' cheeky, flirtatious charm extends to mothers as well. Kath laughs and smacks lightly at Chris' chest before she turns to Sophie.

Skilled at making people feel comfortable in four seconds flat, Kath chatters away about supper and how lovely Sophie's curls are and how long it's been since she's seen Phil, did they know how long it's been? She herds them all into the kitchen like they're cattle and insists that Phil take their things upstairs while she puts the kettle on.

"Er, alright," Phil says, looking at the small collection of bags that they'd brought with them. Their clothes and toiletries are all there, of course, but so is all the filming and hunting equipment. He'll have to make at least two trips.

"Your father got the guest room and Martyn's room all set up before he went out," she tells him, either not noticing or ignoring his internal struggle.

Oh, wonderful. Phil had somehow forgotten about the part where they had three beds for four of them. He's positive that his housemates won't mind sharing with each other, but now he's been tasked with the anxiety-inducing puzzle of whose bags to put where.

"Okay," Phil says again, even though they've moved on to talking about their favourite kinds of cakes so that Kath can wow them all with her skills. He tries to catch PJ's eye, but PJ is too wrapped up in a conversation about strawberries to notice.

Alright, well. Phil grabs as many bags as he can carry and brings them upstairs, feeling some tension deep inside him get a little tighter as he notices that most of their personal effects are packed away, either in storage or already on the island, and his childhood home looks more like a show home than he's comfortable with. The stairs only creak a little under his weight, nothing like the old house in Brighton, but Phil still feels unsettled.

In the end, he throws PJ and Sophie in the guest room. It's a selfish move more than anything, because he's brought PJ for enough visits to be familiar with the way his parents look at each other every time PJ teases him.

They don't ask. They're not the type of people to pry, and Phil isn't the type of people to offer information unprompted. They've all been in this limbo for years where Phil doesn't tell them that he likes boys and they don't outright question if PJ is just a friend and, frankly, Phil is tired of it. So, Chris can sleep alone.

He takes his own bags up last, because he knows that stepping into his bedroom and seeing all the personality stripped from it is going to make him feel things he isn’t prepared to feel. Phil takes a deep breath before he goes inside, and releases it shakily as he drops his things on the floor.

The beige carpet is almost mocking him, telling him that it's time to grow up, and Phil leaves the room as fast as he can.

--

God it is so hard to get anything done here. Sorry to complain at you randomly but like... I forgot how hard it is to work when my parents are hovering and asking a million questions lmao

Winnie still hasn't responded to Phil's early morning message, but the frustration of his parents distracting him and his friends from their work is starting to get to him. Chris has completely charmed them, somehow, and both Sophie and PJ are too polite to put headphones on and ignore them the way Phil has decided to.

Surprisingly, he gets a reply right away: omg how have i never considered the fact that you had to tell your parents you wanted to hunt ghosts for a living thats so fucking funny also that sucks i live in a house full of students and i always have to go to the coffee shop to work on essays and shit

There's nothing good like that where my parents live. Your coffee place is in the city, right?

“No! He didn’t!” Chris is laughing, somewhere in the living room, and Phil has to turn up the white noise on his headphones. The idea of his parents and housemates trading embarrassing stories about him while he's holed up at the table with audio files he hates makes him itch.

yeah, Winnie says. Phil is so thrown off by the short message that his fingers pause on the keyboard.

Is he annoying them? He doesn't mean to. Phil thinks over the messages they've exchanged since talking on Skype, the wheel of worst case scenarios spinning quickly.

Before Phil can apologise or even really get his anxious mind to settle down, his laptop bloops again, once, twice, three times. Relief from the worry that Winnie doesn't like talking to him curls around Phil's shoulders, relaxing them.

It's a screenshot of Google Maps with an address pulled up, a different building circled in a bright blue. yeah i hella recommend and it's really close to wilkins as well, is the message accompanying the screenshot. Then, right afterwards, 10/10 hot chocolate if i do say so myself.

Phil isn't very big on hot chocolate on its own, but he is very big on quiet coffee shops.

It takes a lot of cajoling and promises that he won't be out too late for Phil to convince his parents that they'll be fine to drive to the city by themselves. His dad gets the same look on his face that he always does when Phil talks about work, but his mum merely pats his cheek and says, "Oh, love, be careful. I'll be cross if I have to get you from the police again."

"That was one time," Phil says, feeling his face flush as Chris looks at him with glee.

"One time too many," Nigel says, a bit too sternly to be a joke. Phil wonders if his friends pick up on it or if they just think he's banting like he's been all through supper, that same dry humour that Phil can see in Martyn making him funnier than his housemates had expected.

PJ and Sophie both laugh a bit, so... probably just Phil's knowledge of his dad making it more pointed than it really needs to be.

The coffee shop is open late, so Phil and his housemates decide to do some recon at the Wilkins place. The sun hasn't quite set yet, and the street isn't completely deserted or anything, so they have to wait for a good moment to leave the car.

They're careful. They've done this before.

The Wilkins place is an older townhouse in Rusholme with windows that have been boarded up since the early noughties because they kept getting broken. Technically, someone still owns the property, but the Wilkins family either didn't care about it or had forgotten it existed, because it's been abandoned as long as Phil can remember.

It also isn't very scary in his memory. It's draughty and has rats scurrying about, but the electricity and heating still worked, somehow, and the social situations he'd gotten thrown into at Martyn's shoulder were definitely more nerve-wracking than the house itself.

All of these things are still more or less true, according to everything Phil has been told, but when Phil climbs in through the loose boards of the kitchen window, the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. He hesitates for so long on the sill that Chris pushes a bit at him, reminding him to move before some annoyed neighbour calls the police.

It's dim inside but not so dark that Phil's eyes strain; the streetlights and setting sun filter in through the boards and showcase the dust covering every surface.

Phil helps Sophie and then Chris through the window, PJ giving them boosts from the outside. They take the various bags from PJ and Sophie immediately pulls out the camera, ignoring the thuds that PJ's feet make as he launches himself up and clambers in like a monkey.

"Sexy," Chris drawls as PJ nearly tumbles onto his face. He's grabbing out equipment of his own, and so Phil is tasked with getting PJ through the window safely.

"At least I've got a modicum of upper body strength," PJ says. Neither of them are bothering to whisper, and that's making Phil anxious.

He can't put his finger on it, but... it doesn't feel like they're alone in here. There's probably someone hiding out from the chill of late October in one of the various empty rooms, and Phil's worst case scenario wheel is spinning so fast it's making him dizzy.

"Do you hear that?" Sophie asks, hushed. That stops PJ and Chris from continuing their bickering, and all three men freeze as they strain for whatever it is that Sophie's hearing. After a moment of complete silence, Sophie shakes her head. "It stopped. Hopefully the mic caught it over you lot."

PJ looks appropriately abashed, but Chris just shrugs. He's got a flashlight and an EMF meter, and he slings one of the bags over his shoulder before disappearing.

This is technically for Phil's channel - they're checking the place out, and Sophie is filming just in case something happens - but Phil still feels weird when PJ ducks off in another direction and Sophie stays at his side instead of following one of her boys, camera steady in her hands and the tip of her nose pink from the cool air.

"What did you hear?" Phil murmurs, beckoning her further into the house. The sound of creaking wood is so loud, like it's right above their heads, and Phil can only hope that it's one of his friends going upstairs.

"It could have been the wind," Sophie says mildly. "Or rats."

"Is that what it sounded like?"

Sophie blinks up at him and her mouth twists in an emotion that Phil can't place. "No. No, it sounded like a person talking."

Yeah, that's what Phil was afraid of. "Someone might be living here," he whispers, focusing on the dark hallway and trusting that Sophie is following.

The creaking again, this time from beside them, and Phil peeks his head around the corner to confirm that the staircase is what he's hearing. Chris is halfway up it, flashlight off between his teeth as he grips the railing like he's afraid the stairs are going to give out under him.

Phil hates this part. He'd rather do this completely alone than have to herd his friends like sheep. He leaves Chris to his own devices and moves into the lounge. This is where the majority of the litter is, empty bottles and cans and crisp bags everywhere. Phil takes a couple photos of it all and sends them to Martyn.

Remember your friend who used to bring a garbage bag to every party? Looks like he was the only one lol

He pauses. All too aware of Sophie's eyes and possibly the camera lens on him, Phil sends the photo to Winnie as well with a different caption: Does it always look like this?

Neither of them respond by the time Phil has picked his way through the first floor, which is at least good for his focus, but it doesn't explain why the house feels so much different than it had seven or eight years ago. Phil feels unsettled here in a way that he doesn't usually get anymore, goosebumps down his arms that aren't from the cold and the constant, unnerving feeling that someone is looking at him from the shadows.

Phil's phone buzzes as he and Sophie debate in whispers if they should go upstairs. Phil hates leaving anything to someone else, even if it's just a few rooms that surely PJ and Chris are capable of exploring on their own. He's in the middle of trying to explain that to Sophie when his voice catches in his throat.

"Peej says we should go," Phil says, interrupting himself. "He found something weird in the attic."

"What's he doing in the attic?" Sophie hisses.

"Dunno. I didn't even know there was an attic."

"We should go, then," says Sophie, like that decides it. Although it does rankle a bit to be lower on the totem pole of his own project, Phil has to admit that Sophie is right. If PJ is saying that it's time to go, then it's time to go.

Phil climbs out of the window first, taking the equipment with him, and then helps hoist Sophie safely down. She's so small that it's not even a strain, really, even with how little exercise Phil gets. They wait, huddled together, and Phil feels some of the knot in his chest start to loosen when he hears Chris and PJ arguing in whispers before the window boards get slid out of the way again.

"What did you find?" Phil asks immediately, and PJ hushes him on his way down.

"Let's go, I'll tell you at the café," he whispers, leading the way down the pavement with strides so purposeful that Phil wonders if he's been in this area before. It's all the rest of them can do to keep up with him, and Phil spares a moment to feel sorry for Sophie and her short legs.

He hangs back with her and lets Chris keep pace with PJ. Chris is still talking at a silent PJ in a hushed, passionate tone, like he's fighting with a brick wall, and Phil doesn't need to be involved in that.

The coffee shop is only a couple of streets away, but the tension that the Wilkins place and PJ's subsequent discovery has brought to the group makes it feel much further. PJ stops in front of a purple door, and Phil has a begrudging respect for his ability to remember where something is after simply being told the address. The shop is small and a little dingy, but the lighting inside is soft through the narrow windows and there's a fireplace that Phil longs to curl up in front of like a cat.

Chris scowls at PJ and holds the door open for him in the same breath. Phil doesn't understand their relationship and at this point he's too afraid to ask, but he ducks into the inviting warmth anyway to try to get the goosebumps off his skin.

The two employees behind the counter look at the door like they've been caught with their hands in a cookie jar. A girl with brightly-coloured hair is holding a bunch of marshmallows, a hand poised mid-throw, and an unreasonably tall guy with an unreasonably large mouth is gawping as one of the marshmallows hits him in the chin.

"You missed," Phil informs them, grinning a bit as he unwinds his scarf.

"Oops," the girl laughs, setting the marshmallows down and pulling up a customer service smile. "What can I get for you guys?"

While PJ and Sophie pore over the menu and Chris starts asking if she'll throw marshmallows into his mouth if he asks very nicely, Phil's eyes drift to the other worker.

His mouth is still open, a bit, and his face flushes when their eyes meet. "Er," he says, glancing behind him as if Phil is looking at someone else, and that's so endearing that Phil is sufficiently distracted from the mystery down the street.

Phil isn't extremely self-conscious or anything, but he also knows he's not going to be the hottest guy in a room, so he's a bit flattered and a lot confused about this guy's reaction to him.

The thing is, the guy is very attractive. A couple of perfect curls poke out from under his cap, and there's some type of shimmer on his face that Phil could not put a name to if you paid him. He knows literally nothing about makeup, but he knows that it makes this giant of a man look softer and his blush even more obvious when it deepens.

"Hi," Phil says, giving him a little wave. He can still hear Chris chattering on and Sophie debating the merits of a hot chocolate versus a cappuccino, so he's pretty sure nobody is paying them any attention. The guy twitches like he wants to look over his shoulder again, but he stops himself.

"Uh, hi? Sorry to be, like, weird, I just - I didn't expect -"

The voice is familiar, the rambling is familiar, and then it clicks. "Oh, hi," Phil says again, warmer this time. He steps closer to the counter and grins up at them - an unusual thing in itself, since Phil doesn't meet many people taller than him. "You didn't mention that you work here."

Winnie's shoulders slump forward in a kind of relief, and they scratch the back of their neck, looking awkward and out of place even in an outfit that coordinates with the colour scheme of the whole shop. Phil looks the uniform over and immediately regrets it, because he didn't mean to see Winnie's name tag and now he feels weird about knowing something he wasn't actually told. He doesn't feel too weird about being here, though, because - well. Winnie had technically invited him.

"Honestly, I didn't know you'd be 'investigating' so soon," says Winnie. They're still blushing and the finger quotes are somehow cute, even though they're being used to poke at Phil's career. Their nails are dark and sparkly, and Phil desperately needs to stop noticing things about their hands. "I would have told you, probably, or I'd just - I dunno, try to make a better first impression."

"You're making a fine first impression," Phil assures them.

Winnie snorts. "Oh, bullshit."

"Phil," PJ says, nudging him. Phil suddenly remembers that there are, in fact, other people around him, and he can't just keep looking at Winnie's long, dark eyelashes. "What are you having?"

Honestly, Phil hasn't even looked at the menu. He's so easily distracted by pretty boys with big hands and - oh, right, he's got to be careful about that, even in his own head. Especially in his own head. Winnie isn't a pretty boy, he really shouldn't be thinking about them like that at all.

"Uh," Phil says eloquently. He's very particular with his hot drinks, usually, but he's got a lot going on in his mind right now and it's easier just to shrug at Winnie than to look away and think. "Dunno, actually. Surprise me?"

Winnie smiles, and Phil's stomach twists. "I can do that."

Chapter Text

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking at."

"Oh, for the love of - you're holding it upside down, Christopher, that's why you -"

"How is this my fault? Why don't you have your screen rotation enabled? ...I still don't know what the fuck this is a picture of."

"You are so - Phil. Hey, Phil? Hello?"

Long fingers snap in front of Phil's nose and he startles a bit, almost upending his hot chocolate all over the table. He gives PJ a reproachful sort of look, embarrassed about being caught zoning out.

"Hi, what," says Phil.

PJ glowers at him. "You can get his number later. Pay attention, you lump, this is your job."

"I wasn't," Phil starts to protest, but there's no real use in lying to PJ. He sighs and takes PJ's phone from Chris. "What are we arguing about? You got some photos?"

"Yes," PJ says. In his exasperation, he looks and sounds uncannily like a substitute teacher dealing with a group of kids that are being difficult on purpose. It's a little funny, but - PJ drove them here. Phil isn't going to risk getting abandoned for laughing at him.

Phil squints at the screen. He tilts his head to the side. He tilts the phone to the other side.

"I don't know what I'm looking at," he admits. "It just looks like graffiti to me, Peej, and that's not exactly unusual."

"Graffiti of what?" PJ presses.

"Geometry homework?"

Before PJ can scold him for not taking this seriously enough, Phil gets distracted by Winnie's sudden cackle. His head turns in the direction of the noise like a dog hearing a whistle, and PJ kicks him.

"I swear," PJ starts.

"Sorry," Phil says quickly, "it's just that - that's the person who sent us the essay on this place."

He doesn't expect subtlety from his friends, because he knows better, but he does have some hope in the back of his mind that immediately gets dashed when Chris claps his hands together excitedly, Sophie almost leans right off her chair trying to get a look at Winnie, and PJ stands up.

"What are you doing?" Sophie asks, but PJ is already taking his phone out of Phil's hand and walking to the counter.

Phil buries his face in his hands and watches through his fingers as PJ slides his phone over the counter and says, "Hey, uh - it’s Dan, right? Will you take a look at this for me?"

Winnie glances up from where they're wiping down the espresso machine and makes eye contact with Phil before they look at PJ. They smile, a little bemused, and pick up PJ's offered phone. They tilt it a couple of different angles with a frown. Phil can't help but notice how their hand covers the large phone with ease.

"See, Peej," Chris calls over. Their table isn’t far enough from the counter to justify the way he practically shouts it, but Phil has already given up on looking normal in front of Winnie. "None of us know what the bloody hell it is, just tell us!"

"They look like," Winnie says slowly, "sigils."

"That's exactly what they are," says PJ. He shoots a triumphant sort of look over his shoulder. Phil rolls his eyes. He doesn't understand why PJ had to make a whole production out of something that he could have texted them when they were still in the house.

With another little smile, Winnie hands PJ's phone back over. "Guessing that was in the Wilkins place?"

"It was," PJ says, sounding a bit distracted all of a sudden. "Sidebar, I really like your nails."

PJ wiggles the fingers on his left hand to show off his own gaudy, bright blue polish, and Winnie's smile widens. They've got such soft cheeks, indented with dimples that Phil wants to poke at.

As if they can hear Phil's thoughts, Winnie's eyes flicker over to him again.

They’re talking to PJ, and the conversation is loud enough for Phil to hear - in theory. The problem, of course, is that he keeps zoning out completely when the soft lighting catches the glitter high on Winnie’s cheeks or they gesture with their big, distracting hands. Phil could honestly not figure out if PJ and Winnie are talking about nail polish or the Wilkins house or some other topic entirely, because he’s too busy watching Winnie laugh.

This is definitely going to be a problem. Winnie isn’t a pretty boy, and Phil knows that, whatever his stupid gay monkey brain says when he looks at them. He can unpack whatever this pull of attraction means when he isn’t, technically, working.

“Why would there be sigils on the attic floor?” Phil asks, more to get his own brain on track than to interrupt whatever’s going on at the counter. He turns to Chris and Sophie, who shrug in eerie unison. “That’s weird, right? Maybe people are just bored and trying to scare the locals.”

“Or people are summoning spooky, scary things,” Chris suggests. He’s grinning wide and wiggling his fingers, so Phil has no idea if he’s being serious. Chris is always like that, riding the edge of sarcasm so far that Phil has known him for two years and yet doesn’t know for sure if the guy believes in ghosts or not.

PJ does. He doesn’t even pretend to be down to earth at the best of times, and listening to weird noises on Phil’s computer always gets him in peak conspiracy form.

“I think the better question is why did we have to leave right away?” Sophie hums, stirring her drink. She’s long since shucked off her jacket and curled up on the chair like she’s at home, firelight reflecting off her eyes and earrings. “Did he recognise them?”

“Bet he just freaked,” says Chris.

“Peej doesn’t freak.”

“Bet he did this time. Bet he went up into the attic and it was all spider-y and creepy and he freaked at the first sign of prior human life.”

“Sigils mean things,” Phil says, pulling out his laptop. “They’re not just random shapes.”

“They do, but they also are.”

Phil’s head jerks up at the sound of Winnie’s voice, suddenly so much closer. Winnie is standing awkwardly beside their table, in the process of taking Chris’ empty mug away, and their cheeks flush a soft rosy colour when they make eye contact with Phil.

“What do you know about them?” Chris asks, leaning forward in clear interest.

It takes a beat for Winnie’s eyes to leave Phil’s. “A bit,” they say.

PJ sets a new drink in front of Chris and ruffles Sophie’s curls as he sits down, and Phil wonders what they look like to a complete outsider. He’ll have to message Winnie later and ask what they think is going on here.

Maybe it’s easier if you don’t know them, actually. Maybe there’s a very simple answer that Phil is unable to see past all the strange noises he’s heard through the thin walls of the Brighton house and the cuddle piles he’s walked in on and the way Chris openly flirts with him at any given opportunity.

Phil doesn’t understand the look that passes between Chris and PJ. That’s nothing new, really, but something about this one unsettles him. He wants to know what they’re thinking, because if it’s something to do with Winnie, it feels like Phil has the right to know.

“Right,” says Chris. He’s got the sort of dubious expression that he usually reserves for when he’s asking if Phil ate the rest of the biscuits.

“What?” Phil asks.

“Nothing,” Chris says convincingly, giving Phil a winning smile. It’s always a little disconcerting to watch Chris pull up and discard personas as easily as if he were changing scarves. Something about it feels different to the way Phil gets when he retreats into himself and puts up his walls, because all Phil is ever trying to do is deflect, deflect, deflect, but Chris is more of an actor, and a good one at that. Phil doesn’t think he’s ever seen a side of Chris that wasn’t intentionally put there.

Sometimes he wonders how well he knows these people that he shares so much of his life with. He wonders how well they know him.

Phil turns back to Winnie to see if anything about the exchange made them uncomfortable, but they’ve gotten sufficiently distracted by Phil’s laptop screen. They snort and give Phil a sideways sort of glance.

“I don’t think that’ll get you very far, mate,” they say.

The Google search in front of Phil simply says ‘what sigils’.

“I wasn’t finished,” Phil huffs. He backspaces the question entirely and taps his fingers on the edge of his keyboard.

“Hi, I’m Sophie,” Sophie says in that soft, soothing voice of hers. She smiles up at Winnie. “The drink is delicious, thank you.”

“Oh, er,” Winnie says, clearly caught off-guard by the unexpected politeness. They bite their lower lip and shift from one foot to the other, still holding an empty mug to their chest. “You’re welcome. Had a lot of practice. You can call me Dan, if you like.”

They look to Phil when they say that, and Phil has to look away before those brown eyes draw him in again.

“Dan,” Phil says, because he can’t help himself. He wants to know how the name feels in his mouth and it’s a little strange, actually, how well it seems to fit there. He gestures across the table before he can start to overthink in public again. “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum over here are Chris and PJ. And you know my name.”

“You’re Tweedle-Dum,” Chris informs PJ solemnly.

“Hi,” Dan says, giving them an awkward little salute.

“You seem to know more about this than we do,” Sophie says, gesturing at the empty chair at the head of the table. “Care to talk us through it? If you’re not too busy, that is.”

Dan raises their eyebrows and pointedly looks around the quiet, empty coffee shop. Their coworker has her headphones in and looks like she’s in danger of falling asleep against the cash register.

“I think I’ve got some time,” they say, dry, and set the empty mug down as they sit.

--

Twenty minutes later, and Phil is no closer to understanding the symbols scratched into the Wilkins attic floorboards. He learns several other things, like the theory behind chaos magic, the etymology of the word ‘sigil’, and, inexplicably, Dan’s opinion on impressionist art, but he doesn’t follow half of the paths that Dan’s rambling wanders down.

It’s cute to watch, at least. They get so worked up and gesticulate wildly, and it makes Phil wonder if they have any idea what they look like when they do that. He has to hold onto his mug to stop himself from mirroring the gestures.

Phil glances around at his friends to see if anyone is following this ‘explanation.’ Sophie’s got a little crease between her eyebrows and Chris is just looking at Dan, a little slack-jawed, but PJ is nodding along.

“Exactly,” PJ says when Dan pauses to take a breath.

“Fucking what?” Chris asks. Phil is unreasonably glad that he doesn’t have to be the one to say something. He’s just as lost as Chris is. “Sorry, but what the fuck? What did any of that even mean? Did I have a stroke halfway through that?”

Dan looks sheepish, the rosy patch on their cheek deepening and spreading until their whole face is pink. Phil finds himself fascinated by it, but he really doesn’t want Dan to feel like they’re being annoying or anything when they’re just being kind of helpful and very cute. Their teeth dig into their lower lip again, and Phil idly wonders if Dan has ever heard of chapstick. The shiny lip product they’re wearing doesn’t seem to be helping with the dryness the way Phil would have expected it to.

“Sorry,” they say, suddenly much quieter. They link their fingers together like they’re stopping themself from talking with them again. “So, it’s like… you can’t really look up what these mean, because that’s not how sigils work. They’re not runes or, like, Gallifreyan, there’s no dictionary out there telling you what every sigil ever means. The person who creates them is the one who makes them up, like…”

They pull a small notebook out of their apron and Phil hands over a pen from his bag without thinking twice. Dan gives him a small smile, still seeming embarrassed now that they’ve been confronted with Chris’ blunt confusion.

The notebook is full of small doodles and indecipherable bullet points when Dan flips through it to find an empty page. Phil is surprised by how much he wants to look closer, but he’s got this pull in his stomach that he’s pretty sure has been there since he first heard Dan laugh. He wants to know Dan better. It’s been a long time since he wanted to know anyone at all, because, well, Phil and new people are very un-mixy things.

Phil and his friends all lean closer to watch as Dan taps the pen against the page thoughtfully. “Okay,” they say, “one of you, tell me something you want in your own life.”

“I want a dog,” Sophie says immediately.

“Me too,” Dan grins, their dimples on full display. “What kind of dog?”

“Small. Definitely fluffy. I don’t really mind about different breeds or anything.”

“Okay,” says Dan. They write SOPHIE HAS A SMALL FLUFFY DOG THAT SHE LOVES at the top of the page in block letters. “You don’t say you want something, you say you have it already. I’m guessing you guys have heard about speaking things into existence? It’s kind of like that.”

This whole system is foreign to Phil, but having a visual is helping a lot. “How does that become what PJ found in the attic?” Phil asks, curious.

“First, you take out the vowels,” PJ is the one to say. Dan gives PJ a bright smile that has Phil feeling a pang of something he doesn’t have a name for. “Then all the double letters. It breaks the sentence down into just a few consonants, right? That way you can use them as a kind of base, I think.”

“That’s exactly right,” says Dan. “At least, as far as I know? Like, I don’t know every type of sigil and method of creating them that’s ever existed or anything, I just get lost in Wikipedia sometimes.”

Underneath the first sentence, they write SPH HS SMLL FLFFY DG THT SH LVS, and then S P H M L F Y D G T V under that. The breakdown is a lot easier for Phil to follow than just listening to Dan ramble, as long as he doesn’t get too distracted by Dan’s long fingers around the pen.

“‘Y’ is a vowel,” says Chris.

Dan shrugs. “This is just an example, anyway. So then you’re supposed to make the sigil out of the base letters, like -”

They sketch out a couple of messy attempts, their tongue poking between their teeth in concentration, and Phil is fascinated by watching the letters get more and more abstract until they resemble something like a single image.

It doesn’t look exactly like the ones on the floorboards, but Phil thinks that’s probably some combination of artistic liberty and individual thought patterns on how letters can fit together into a single symbol. PJ holds his hand out for the pen and draws his own take on the same sigil, and the rounded preciseness of his lettering next to Dan’s spiky, symmetrical finished product is really interesting to look at.

“Then you’re supposed to forget it and activate it,” PJ informs the table. “Although that order doesn’t make much sense to me.”

“That’s really cool,” Sophie says softly, reaching out to press her fingers against PJ’s sigil.

“It is cool,” Dan agrees. “But that’s what I mean - they are random, in a way. You’re never going to be able to look at those sigils and, like, reverse-engineer them until they have a meaning.”

“Which is exactly why I needed to get out of there,” PJ says, more triumphantly than Phil thinks he has any right to. Yeah, this is interesting and everything, but Phil doesn’t think it proves anything at all. “Because who knows what someone summoned into that place!”

Dan snorts. They look up at PJ through those long, dark eyelashes and give him such a skeptical look that Phil has to hold back laughter. “Nobody summoned anything, mate,” they say. “This is a load of rubbish, same as any other type of ‘magic’. I just think it’s fun to read about when I can’t sleep.”

The look of absolute betrayal on PJ’s face sends Phil over the edge, and he’s laughing before he can stop himself.

“Okay, okay,” Phil says between giggles. “This isn’t a debate forum. You two can argue about this later. So we kind of know what the symbols are but also we don’t, and they’re more or less a dead lead. What I am hearing is that PJ did, in fact, get freaked.”

“Ha!” Chris crows. He sticks his palm out towards Sophie, leaning into PJ’s personal space to do so. “Pay up, Newts.”

“I didn’t make a bet. You did.”

“Still! I won!”

PJ smacks at Chris’ hand and scowls around the table. “I didn’t freak. I don’t freak. I just think we should be on alert in a place that is covered in creepy sigils that could do anything at all to us and our environment.”

“There’s nothing they could do,” Dan says, seemingly unable to help themself. “They’re doodles.”

“We shouldn’t be there without some kind of protection,” PJ insists.

“What d’you suggest?” Phil hums, already typing up some notes for future Phil to look at later. He knows he’ll forget something core if he doesn’t do it now. “Holy water? I don’t know any priests.”

He’s teasing, just a little bit, because PJ’s steadfast determination to live on a planet where impossible things happen every day is very funny.

“No, that’s for demons,” Chris pipes up, cheerful and half-sarcastic as always. “These are witches!”

“You’re the demons,” PJ says flatly.

Phil reaches across the table and pats PJ’s hand without looking away from his screen. “If it’ll make you feel better, you can Sharpie some protection sigils on us before we go in next time. I need to see the attic for myself, but I definitely got a weird vibe just being in that place.”

“Dan,” the girl behind the counter calls over. She’s long given up on pretending to work at all, and has been watching something on her phone the entire time that Dan’s been talking to them, but Dan still startles like they’ve been caught out doing something they shouldn’t. “Sorry, but it’s quarter to. We gotta start closing up.”

“Right, yeah,” Dan says, sounding a little flustered. They stand up and start collecting all the empty mugs on the table. When they reach Phil’s mostly-full hot chocolate, they raise an eyebrow.

“I don’t really like hot chocolate,” Phil admits. He gives Dan a little grin. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and try the coffee?”

He can only imagine what his friends’ expressions look like right now. He doesn’t bother checking, even when Dan’s pretty eyes flick over to them momentarily.

“Okay,” says Dan. Their shiny, chapped lips stretch into a wide smile. “I won’t be working, actually, but… I can stop by if you guys - I dunno. Want another set of eyes? Ones that don’t jump immediately to ghosts and witches, perhaps?”

“Sure,” Phil agrees before his friends can give their input on the matter. “I’ll message you.”

Dan ducks their head in a surprisingly shy gesture for a person who takes up so much physical space. Their eyelids glitter like their cheeks, their nails, their lovely eyes, and Phil might be a little screwed, here.

Chapter Text

Hope my friends and I didn't make things weird for you yesterday. We're heading to the city around noon if you're still up for helping us with the boring part.

noon?? fucking alright i guess i gotta put pants on

lmao yeah, sorry. My parents woke us up at EIGHT like that's a normal time to be awake????

desgostang

What?

ill send u the link later and also no i didnt feel weird yesterday you guys are nice

That's good! And hey I wanted to ask. You were kind of put on the spot with introducing yourself, would you rather we called you Dan or Winnie? I just wanna make sure we aren't making you uncomfortable at all lmao

no its all fine you can call me dan idc and actually its best if you do call me dan when youre in my work lmao

Are you totally sure?

why would i lie abt this. dont be an idiot it isnt a good look on you

haha okay. I’ll see you around noon.

--

“Christopher is a nice boy,” Phil’s mum is telling him as she helps him with their fancy new coffeemaker. There are so many buttons and Phil is so, so tired. “And Sophie is lovely, such a soft-spoken thing. Why haven’t we met them before, dear?”

“Dunno,” Phil says instead of the truth, which is that he’d had no idea how he was supposed to introduce them. “You have now, though.”

His mum laughs and reaches up to pat his cheek. “True enough. I’m so happy that you’ve got good people around you, Philip. I’ve gotten quite worried about you down there by yourself, you know.”

“I’m not by myself,” says Phil. “I live with, like, thirty people.”

“Bunch of strangers, I’ll bet,” she says, because she knows him. “Aside from those three.”

The thing is, she’s not wrong. Phil’s obviously exaggerating about the number of people under the roof of the creaky Brighton house, but the truth is that he can’t keep track half the time. A lot of the rooms get sublet out randomly, or a significant other will start spending so much time around the place that they might as well pay rent, and Phil really isn’t good with new people. He gets along fine with Holly and Dave, but they’ve been there as long as he has and the closest they’ve ever come to a heart-to-heart was comparing anxiety meds over burned pancakes.

Chris and Sophie were there when Phil moved in, and they’d taken one look at him and decided to just keep shoving into his space until he liked having them there, like they were on a mission to adopt PJ’s sad, ghost-obsessed friend from the internet.

“You might be right,” Phil says, feeling a smile tug at his lips for the first time all morning. He’s already had a coffee - and a half, when PJ declared that not even Kath could make coffee taste good and shoved the rest of his Phil’s way - but he still doesn’t feel fully awake. “I’m only really friends with Chris and Soph because of PJ.”

“PJ is a good friend to you, isn’t he?” his mum hums. That slightly pointed tone doesn’t get to Phil the way it usually does, because he knows that she’s just trying to understand him.

It doesn’t escape Phil’s notice that he’s looking into a mirror whenever he sees his parents watching him carefully, waiting for him to tell them something he hasn’t explicitly said, because he’s been doing the exact same thing to his housemates for nearly two years.

Maybe he’ll tell his parents when he’s got someone serious or even, like, semi-serious. Longer than two dates would be a record at this point. But right now he already feels like he’s been one misstep away from disappointing them, and he doesn’t want to take the gamble that his sexuality will be that misstep.

He’s not up for this conversation, though, isn’t sure he’ll ever be, so he just says, “Yeah, he is.”

--

Dan is late. They’re so late, actually, that Phil’s wheel of worst case scenarios has been spinning silently and getting faster and faster the more caffeine he chugs. They roll in with flushed cheeks and a jacket that looks too thin, apologies on their shiny lips that Phil doesn’t even hear for a couple of seconds because he’s too busy staring at them.

“No worries,” Sophie says, interrupting their rambling before they lose another half hour to it. “You want something? I’m getting a refill.”

“No, no, let me,” says Dan. They shrug off their jacket and hang it on one of the empty chairs. Phil and his friends have co-opted the largest table in the place so they can spread out with their laptops and notebooks, and it doesn’t escape Phil’s notice that Dan has decided to sit next to him when they've got a couple of options. “I get free drinks if Gabe’s in a good mood. Anyone else need a refill?”

“Me,” Chris says, not looking up from his screen. “Not Phil. He’s cut off.”

“Hey,” Phil protests weakly. His heart rate really has picked up since they sat down, so he knows Chris has a point.

Dan grins, their soft cheeks giving way to the dimples that Phil is very quickly growing obsessed with. He just wants to make Dan smile and laugh constantly, to hear them cackle and see all the lines in their round face deepen with happiness.

Right. Phil watched a horror movie with PJ instead of unpacking this fluttering start of a crush last night, and now he’s just got to deal with it for the rest of the day.

As if it’s a compulsion, Dan clears the empty mugs from their table before heading up to the counter. Phil focuses on the EMF readings so he doesn’t get caught up on Dan holding four mugs by the handles with total ease.

PJ has got headphones on and his eyes closed, so he might not even have noticed that Dan is there. He’s been going through Sophie’s footage and his own audio recordings to try and find some anomalies while Chris looks for the weird visual stuff - they’re a great team at that, and it makes Phil feel like he’s not doing enough. Sure, he could find those things on his own, but not as quickly as they can when it’s a team effort, and they’re on a bit of a tight schedule here. Well, his housemates are. They’ve got actual jobs to get back to once the weekend is over.

Allegedly, Sophie is doing research on sigils, but it looks to Phil like she’s just doodling. Not that he really blames her if she is. He’s barely been paying attention to the chart he’s making of spikes in electromagnetism because he’s been so busy watching the door for Dan.

And Dan looks… good. They’re wearing chunky boots and a shirt that falls to their thighs - a dress, maybe, but it looks like a regular black t-shirt that got extended at the hem - with tight white jeans. The only colour on them is the plaid shirt around their waist and the shiny red product on their lips to match it. Phil watches them lean against the counter and grin at the older barista, and he’s so distracted by looking at their profile that he startles when a foot connects with his under the table.

“Stop staring,” Sophie says, quiet and smiling. “He’s going to notice.”

Phil considers correcting her, but then he remembers that he probably doesn’t have to. Dan had said any pronouns, that they didn’t care how they were referred to, so it would definitely be weirder to act like he knows better than Sophie.

He knows he won’t be able to use masculine terms for Dan. Not because they aren’t true, because he’s pretty sure they’re no less accurate than neutral or feminine would be, but because thinking of Dan as a maculine person is only going to allow Phil’s brain to fall into the familiar traps of gender in ways he doesn’t want to allow.

Gay monkey brain doesn’t need any more leeway in finding Dan attractive, that’s for damn sure.

“So, what are we doing?” Dan asks, interrupting Phil’s thoughts, and, wow, four mugs is a lot more impressive when they’re full of hot liquid. Phil marvels at Dan’s ability not to trip and spill it all as they dole out the coffee and teas.

“I’m doing the boring part,” says Phil. He turns his screen so Dan can see the Excel spreadsheet and laughs at the face they make. “Yeah. It's not glamorous, but it's the easiest way to find patterns in the EMF readings. Honestly, most of my job is just staring at things and finding patterns in them. Like, uh, what's that guy? With the butterfly splotches?"

"Worcestershire," Chris suggests.

"Rorschach," Dan corrects him, lips twitching like they aren't sure if they're allowed to laugh in Chris' face or not.

“That’s exactly what I said,” says Chris.

“You know EMF meters don’t have anything to do with ghosts, right?” Dan asks, ignoring Chris completely and leaning a bit closer to Phil to get a better look at his laptop. “I mean, none of this has anything to do with ghosts, really, but you’re more or less just measuring electricity.”

Phil is aware of that. He wonders if Dan thinks he just stumbles into haunted houses with equipment he hasn’t researched and waits to be spooked. He’s too distracted by how close Dan is and how good they smell to work up to proper offense, though. “Yeah,” he says simply. “But don’t you think it’s weird that the place still has electricity to begin with? Who’s paying for that?”

“A Wilkins, I’d imagine.”

“But why? If they’ve forgotten about the property or abandoned it on purpose, surely they wouldn’t still pay the bills.”

“Maybe they don’t handle their own finances,” Dan suggests. “How rich were these assholes?”

“I honestly don’t know,” says Phil. He taps his fingers in an erratic pattern on the edge of his laptop, trying to spark something in his mind.

It’s almost disappointing when Dan pulls away to dig out their own sleek Macbook out of their messenger bag, but Phil is also glad for it. He can think a lot easier when the warm scent of spice and mint isn’t clogging his brain.

Dan slots into the work as easily as if a space was left for them. They’ve got dozens of tabs open already and they start to go through them, cross-referencing magic things with Sophie in quiet tones and digging deeper into the Wilkins family than Phil ever would have thought to. Every so often they tap Phil on the arm and drag him into whatever rabbithole they’ve fallen down, chatting animatedly.

Phil knows, objectively, that Dan is a fan of his and that Dan is weird about research. It’s another thing entirely to watch it happen in real time, to see Dan pull up local census PDFs from the eighties and explain why chaos magic is bullshit in the same breath.

An hour or so goes by like that, all of them working on their own things with minimal words exchanged by everybody but Dan, and then Chris shouts loud enough to make the barista jump. Nobody else is in the coffee shop right now, which is lucky, because Dan’s got a hand over their chest and Sophie has slopped tea down her front. PJ, with his headphones on, simply cracks an eye open.

“What the fuck was that about?” Phil asks, putting his own palm against his chest to feel his heart race. Dan raises their eyebrows and looks at Phil, seemingly distracted from the startling, wordless exclamation.

They don’t get a chance to say whatever they’re thinking, though, because Chris is turning his laptop to the rest of the table and grinning wide like the Cheshire Cat. “I found something.”

Everybody gathers round, PJ getting up to lean over the back of Phil’s chair and Sophie getting so far into Dan’s personal space that Phil is certain they’re uncomfortable with it, and then Chris presses play upside down. It’s part of Sophie’s footage, Phil standing in the dim foyer and looking frustrated. Even without sound, Phil can tell that this is when he was arguing with Sophie about going upstairs. He squints, but he can’t see whatever it is that’s got Chris being so loud.

“What am I looking at?” PJ asks when the short clip ends, and Dan hums an agreement. Chris makes a frustrated noise like they’re being obtuse on purpose and rewinds to the beginning.

"There," Chris says, excited like he hasn't been since they got to Manchester. He taps his finger against the laptop screen. "D'you see it? D'you see the shadow?"

Now that Chris has pointed it out, Phil does see something. He moves his own laptop and notebook out of the way to pull Chris’ closer with a frown. Chris lets him do that, bouncing in his seat a little bit.

“That’s straight up a person,” Phil says slowly, tracing the outline of the shadow with the mouse. It’s behind him, in the entry to the kitchen, and it looks tall. Quite a bit taller than Phil, anyway, if he’s remembering that doorframe correctly. He decides to measure it next time they go so he isn’t going off memory. “I knew we weren’t alone in there. Like. I’m not crazy, that’s a human being.”

“That’s what I thought,” says Chris. “But press play.”

So Phil presses play. He watches the shadow stay perfectly still in the kitchen doorway until, suddenly, it’s not there anymore. He blinks, rewinds, and watches it disappear again.

Phil’s caffeinated brain is firing on all cylinders now. He grins and shoves his sleeves up to his elbows before he starts fiddling with the clip. The lighting gets played with until the shadow is more obvious and then he slows it down to 0.25 times speed to see if the shadow really just vanishes.

He presses play again. This time, with a very slow-motion Phil talking in the foreground, he sees the shadow move. It runs sideways, further into the house.

“What the fuck?” Dan breathes.

“We are not going back there without some serious protection,” PJ says, even firmer on the topic now.

“What, like sigils?” Dan asks, their pretty eyes wide even as they scoff. “You’d be better off with a fucking, like, baseball bat, mate. That doesn’t look like something that wants to be your friend.”

“I’ve got a crowbar in PJ’s trunk,” Phil says, absent-minded as he plays with the clip some more.

“Excuse me? When did you put that in my car?”

“Couple months ago.”

“Huh. How have I not noticed?”

“You’re not the most observant person I’ve ever met,” says Phil. He looks up at Chris, who’s got the same exhilarated look that Phil is sure he’s mirroring. They don’t get evidence like this very often, something so clearly there that it’s even got a skeptic’s mind racing. Phil exports the edited clip and then the original, putting them both into the Cloud and emailing them to himself. “Was this the only time you saw it?”

Chris nods, accepting his laptop back when Phil is done with it. “I’ll look through everything again, now that I know what I’m looking for and all, but I think that’s it.”

“Okay, cool.” Phil looks around at his friends and Dan, beaming. “Something weird is happening. I love it when something weird is happening.”

“I hate it when something weird is happening,” PJ says, which is a blatant lie.

“Well, we can’t go snooping around until it’s darker out, anyhow,” Sophie reminds them.

“Wait, we’re snooping?” Dan asks, their voice going up an entire octave in disbelief. “Like… you just saw that someone is there and probably not happy about people sneaking around, right? Don’t you have enough for a video already?”

“We’re spending the night,” says Phil. “It’s what we do.”

“It’s what you do,” PJ corrects him.

“Okay, yeah, you guys don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“No, I’m coming,” says PJ.

As if she can’t hear them bickering, Sophie turns to Dan with a sweet smile, her eyes twinkling with the same excitement in Chris’. They love this, just like Phil does. “What about you, Dan?” she asks. “Are you going to have a ghost sleepover with us?”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Dan says, their eyes still glued to the back of Chris’ laptop like they can see the shadow through it.

“Guess you don’t have anything to be afraid of, then,” says Chris.

“Uh, axe murderers, maybe?”

“We know what we’re doing, Dan,” Phil reassures them. He reaches a hand out to pat at their arm, feeling a bit awkward about it. “But you don’t have to come with us if you’re scared.”

That makes Dan’s gaze shift. Suddenly, those brown eyes are staring right into Phil’s soul, defiant and beautiful and impossible to look away from.

“Who said I was fucking scared?”

Chapter Text

“Why don't we just use the door?” Dan hisses, arms wrapped around themself to make up for their thin denim jacket. “It's unlocked.”

“This is the way Mar and I always did it,” Phil hums, watching Sophie move the loose boards away from the window. She's perched on PJ's shoulders like a little bird.

“It's more fun,” Chris offers.

“Plus, entering houses by the door is the quickest way to alert ghouls and neighbours to your arrival,” says PJ.

“I think Martyn just liked showing off. Don't think it was that deep.”

“Done,” says Sophie, patting the top of PJ's head. “You can put me down now.”

With much more care and grace than Phil knows he would have been able to manage, PJ helps Sophie off his shoulders. Phil has dropped all of his friends at least once, so he isn't allowed to be the boost anymore.

Phil hands his bags over to Chris while they're figuring that out. They'd left their laptop bags in the car so they had less to carry - except Dan, whose messenger bag is across their chest like they're prepared to make a quick getaway. Phil can't really blame them, since it's not like they signed up for this the way the rest of them have.

“Wait,” says PJ. He digs around in his jacket pockets until he comes out with a Sharpie marker that he probably stole from Martyn's bedroom. “Give me your arm.”

“You know I was joking about the protection sigils,” Phil says, but he rolls up his sleeve for PJ anyway.

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t,” says PJ. He looks at something on his phone before he takes Phil by the elbow and starts drawing something bubbly and almost cute. Phil figures that he’s planned these out, or at the very least had some letters picked out, so he watches the design bloom in fascination.

“What does this one mean?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t work,” says PJ, pressing one last dot right above the circular shape before he moves on and grabs at Chris’ arm without warning. Chris doesn’t seem to mind, he just lets PJ shove his sleeve up while he looks up at the boarded windows of the townhouse.

“That tickles,” Chris says, but he doesn’t try to take his arm back.

“Shut up, you big baby,” PJ murmurs.

It’s a different symbol that’s coming together on Chris’ skin, and Phil wonders why. Did PJ really make them unique protection sigils? That’s kind of cute and kind of hilarious. He watches Dan out of the corner of his eye as PJ finishes Chris’ sigil and moves on to Sophie’s. Dan’s brows are furrowed and they’re gripping at their own elbows from some combination of cool air and nervousness.

“Dan,” Phil says, shifting closer so they don’t get the whole peanut gallery involved. “You don’t have to be here. It’s okay to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Dan says with much less conviction than they’d had in the coffee shop.

Phil pretends to believe them. “But it’s okay if you are.”

The way Dan’s eyes fix on Phil’s makes him feel frozen in place, like Dan can somehow see into his soul. Their eyes are so warm and their lashes are so, so long that Phil feels certain that he won’t be the one to look away first.

“Are you scared?” Dan asks quietly.

Phil is terrified, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the house they’re breaking into. He shrugs, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets and twisting them anxiously.

“This is a pretty normal day for me,” he says. “But I don’t always have a Scooby gang with me.”

The lines around Dan’s mouth deepen before their lips actually curve up, like a tell. Phil is fully prepared to wrestle with the instinct he’s got to stare at Dan’s lips some more, but he doesn’t have to.

“Are you fucking talking about Buffy again?” PJ hisses, bumping his elbow against Phil’s as he joins them. He reaches like he’s going to grab at Dan the same way he’s grabbed at the rest of them, but he hesitates with his hand outstretched. “Er, Dan, can I draw on you, too? I know you don’t believe in this stuff, but it’ll make me feel a lot better.”

“Go nuts,” Dan says, holding out their hand like PJ is a lord who ought to kiss it. PJ, of course, just starts drawing a new shape on the back of it, because that’s the logical conclusion. They watch the lines form shapes with a sort of vague interest.

“I wasn’t talking about Buffy,” Phil feels the need to clarify. “I’m not always talking about Buffy.”

“That’s news to me,” says PJ.

Dan grins, looking a lot more at ease now that the atmosphere is all banter and no ghost stories. “He wasn’t, I can vouch for him. Think he was making a classic Scoob refer-ino.”

“Ah, the ancient texts,” PJ says, his own shoulders going loose as he grins back at Dan. “Wait ‘til he has to take his contacts out later. It’s not as funny hearing someone shout that they can’t see without their glasses when that person is the one in charge.”

“I’m right here,” Phil reminds them. “And Velma was in charge.”

“All set,” PJ says like Phil hasn’t spoken, adding a flourishing tail to the edge of Dan’s sigil.

“Great,” Dan says, dry. “Glad I have my protection from things that are definitely not real. Now what’s keeping me safe from the very real possibility of a human being attacking us?”

“Phil’s crowbar.”

“Oh, sure, that makes me feel loads better.”

“Are you lot coming or what?” Chris hisses, hefting one of the sleeping bags over his shoulder.

Phil breaks away from the conversation with a strange fluttering in his gut that’s completely unrelated to the rush of adrenaline he still gets when he lets Chris and PJ boost him to an unlocked window. He’s not very graceful at the best of times, so he’s glad that he doesn’t do anything stupid like fall flat on his face in front of Dan. He sits on the windowsill and lets the weird vibes from the Wilkins house wash over him again, raising goosebumps down his arms even under his thick jacket. He frowns into the dim kitchen, looking for any sign of life.

“Pass me the bar,” he murmurs, letting a hand dangle without looking back at his friends. It feels like something was waiting for them; there’s an air of anticipation in the very real sensation of being watched.

The cold metal placed in his palm makes Phil feel better, even if he can’t actually do anything with it. He murmurs a thanks and slips into the kitchen, eyes roving over all the shadows and nooks in the old house. He hears Sophie clamber in behind him but he doesn’t turn to look. It feels like turning his back on the darkness will end badly for him.

“Oh, don’t like that,” Sophie whispers. Phil feels her brush against his arm and hears the camera click on as Chris and PJ start the familiar train of passing bags through the window.

“Feels weird, right?” Phil agrees, matching her volume.

He moves further into the house, knowing that his friends will catch up. Sophie stays at his side, pointing the camera into every corner like she, too, is trying to find the source of the invisible eyes that feel glued to them. They’ve done this together fairly often, and Phil has done this by himself even more often, but something about this place, tonight, makes him feel like they’re green again.

Phil tenses when he feels something grip at the back of his jacket, but then the something speaks with Dan’s voice.

“Okay, why don’t we turn on the lights?” Dan whispers, right in Phil’s ear. Phil shivers. Some new goosebumps might rise, as well, but there’s no real way to know for sure. He isn’t about to roll up his sleeves and check.

“Why would we do that?” Phil asks. He doesn’t tell Dan to let go of him, and they don’t. Dan keeps hold of the back of his jacket even as he leads the way to the lounge, and Phil spares a moment to consider how weird this is going to look if Sophie is getting it on camera. Like he’s Dan’s guide dog or something.

“Oh, I don’t know,” says Dan, “so we can see?”

“It’s not really that dark in here,” Phil says with a little huff of a laugh. “And we’ve got torches.”

The noise Dan makes is unhappy, but they don’t protest. Phil shakes his head, directing his smile at the unlit fireplace so Sophie can’t pick it up.

“Fuck this,” Chris’ voice comes from the hallway, much too loudly.

Phil and Sophie sigh in harmony.

“What’s he doing?” Dan hisses, and Phil turns to give them a longsuffering sort of look.

“Chris doesn’t like this part,” says Phil. He doesn’t bother whispering, because Chris is already knocking things against walls and shouting nonsense. “Being sneaky doesn’t come naturally to him, so he prefers to just announce that we’re here and ruin my shots. I usually edit this out.”

As ridiculous as Chris’ methods are, Phil feels the weight of invisible eyes on them lift. He should probably be annoyed at Chris for scaring the presence away or antagonizing it, but it feels like he can breathe again, like they truly are alone in this room, and he’s got to give Chris the credit for that.

When Chris joins them, an irritated PJ at his shoulder, he looks altogether too proud of himself. Both of them glance at Dan’s hand, still gripping onto Phil.

“Thanks for that,” Phil says dryly, stopping any commentary before it starts.

“Welcome,” says Chris, bright. “Shall we upstairs?”

The Wilkins place isn’t all that scary now that the weird vibes are gone, it’s just creaky and dark and dusty. Phil is fine with that - the place he lives is all of those things, too - but every small noise under their feet makes Dan twitch. They’ve shifted to tugging on Phil’s sleeve instead, sticking so close to Phil’s side that he can feel their body heat.

PJ leads the way to the attic, talking a mile a minute to the camera about the way he’d felt the first time he was here, and Phil pulls Dan to a stop a few feet from the rest of the group.

“You seem a little stressed,” Phil says, trying to hide a grin. He doesn’t want Dan to think he’s mocking them, but it’s just a little cute.

Dan’s eyes are wide and their bottom lip is extra chapped from how many times they’ve dug their teeth into it, but they still manage to scoff. “I’m not stressed,” they insist. “And I’m not scared. I’ve been here before, y’know.”

“You’ve been here for parties,” says Phil. “It’s a bit of a different vibe.”

“Little bit,” Dan admits.

“I’m not making fun of you,” says Phil. He pats Dan’s arm with his crowbar-less hand. “It’s okay to be scared.”

“You’re not scared.”

“I’ve been doing this a really long time,” Phil reminds them. It’s the sort of thing that Dan must objectively know, but they look a little sheepish like maybe they’d forgotten.

“It’s not that I’m scared of, like, ghosts or something stupid like that,” Dan says, letting go of Phil’s sleeve and scratching the back of their neck. He feels a bit bereft for it. “I just don’t really like the dark, y’know, and maybe I get freaked out sometimes just watching your videos, and I kind of expected it to be less scary IRL but it’s actually way worse so I don’t really know what to do with that.”

The number of words they can fit into one breath is truly incredible to Phil. He smiles at them and watches redness blossom in patches across their cheeks as they realise how much they’re talking without saying anything at all.

“That’s cute,” Phil blurts out.

Dan bites their lip again, smiling a bit. Before they can say anything, though, there’s a sort of crashing noise from the general direction of PJ and Chris. Phil is very used to this.

“Fuck,” Dan breathes, gripping onto the strap of their messenger bag and flinching when a follow-up bang echoes through the hall. “Why are they like this?”

“I ask myself that question every day,” Phil sighs.

“Boys,” Sophie calls over in her soft, amused voice. “The idiots have got the ladder down. You coming?”

Dan laughs and nods, but Phil takes hold of their arm before they can go too far.

“Hey,” he says. “I can tell her not to call you that.”

The soft look he gets for it, laughter still scrunching Dan’s eyes and showing off their dimples, makes Phil’s chest kind of cave in on itself. They shrug, pulling Phil along the way Phil guided them earlier. “I don’t mind. It’s not inaccurate.”

Phil swallows hard. “It’s not?”

“It’s also not accurate,” Dan says, that softness still all over their face. “We’ll talk about it later if you want to. Just trust me that I’ll say something if one of you makes me uncomfortable, okay?”

“Okay,” Phil agrees, letting himself be dragged instead of letting go.

--

The floorboards in the attic are dirty and covered in marker, but Sophie finds a nice warm corner to set their sleeping bags up in. Chris is dealing with the camera and voice recorder, checking batteries on all their gadgets while PJ interrogates Dan on where they got their boots.

Phil tunes them all out and starts looking at the different sigils, taking photos and trying to figure out what somebody would possibly need from doing magic in a house that’s been empty for decades. Surely there are better places to open a veil like that. Phil doesn’t know a lot about magic, if it’s even a real thing, but he has a whole heap of assumptions and absolutely none of those point to a townhouse in Rusholme with working electricity.

When his eyes start to feel dry, Phil grabs his rucksack. “Be back in a sec,” he says, dropping the ladder down.

“What?” Dan asks, their voice pitching a little higher. “Where are you going?”

“Bathroom,” says Phil. He hands his crowbar to Dan, because he feels somewhat certain that he won’t need it. “Can’t take my contacts out without washing my hands. I won’t be long, okay? Just hang onto this and don’t listen to anything Chris tells you.”

“I resent that,” Chris chimes in, stretching out on one of the sleeping bags. “See if I let you crawl into bed with me later.”

“When have I ever wanted that?” Phil sighs. He never knows how to react to Chris flirting with him, but it’s so much more awkward when Dan is blinking between them like they’re wondering if they’ve missed something. Whatever Dan is missing, Phil is pretty sure he’s missing it, too. “Like I said, don’t listen to Chris.”

Dan still looks nervous and a little confused, but all Phil can do is give them a reassuring smile before heading back downstairs.

The house is quiet and dim, streetlights streaming through the boarded windows and giving Phil enough vision to find a bathroom. It’s pretty gross, but the tap works and that’s all Phil really needs. He’s got anti-bacterial wipes and a travel-sized hand sanitizer, so that’ll have to substitute for the lack of soap.

Phil never feels more vulnerable than he does when his sight is impaired and no matter how much he blinks, his reflection doesn’t come into focus. In this moment, trying to get his contacts in their pot without incident because he does not trust this countertop, the lights above the mirror turn on. Phil freezes. Blinks. The lights go back off.

Slowly, he reaches for his glasses case. He can’t hear the click of a lightswitch when the lights keep flickering, which rules out his first suspicion of his friends messing with him.

As soon as Phil has his glasses on his nose, it stops. He blinks at himself in the mirror and waits for the lights to turn back off on their own, but they don’t. His hands are shaking a bit as he digs for his pills. With a deep breath, Phil runs the tap again to drink out of his cupped hands.

“If you’re toying with me,” Phil says to the empty bathroom, “then stop, but if you’re trying to communicate with me... do it again.”

Nothing happens. Phil isn’t sure if he should be relieved or not.

Everything gets shoved back into his rucksack with no ceremony, because Phil needs to be out of this small room as soon as possible. He slings it over his shoulder and heads back to the attic with careful steps, his heart pounding in his ears.

--

Phil doesn’t tell his friends what happened with the lights. It’s such a small thing, could have even been a coincidence, so it doesn’t make much sense to tell them now instead of when they’re all comfortable at the coffee shop again. There’s no point in freaking PJ and Dan out further when they both look like they’re about to crash. They and Sophie are all yawning where they’re curled up on the sleeping bags, in any case, and Phil meets Chris’ eye.

Neither of them are good at sleeping in the best of situations. They always take first watch, and sometimes they don’t end up sleeping at all.

Chris winks and passes Phil a flask. When Phil takes a cautious sip, warm coffee hits his tongue and he hums, wondering when Chris filled this up. It’s good coffee and isn’t making Phil’s heart race, so it’s most likely decaf.

They don’t talk, because PJ is already snoring lightly and Sophie’s head is pillowed on Chris’ thigh. Phil’s friends can fall asleep anywhere. It’s something he’s always been a bit jealous of. He looks down at Dan and feels his heart jump when Dan’s eyes are open and already looking back at him. The red patch on Dan’s cheek appears again, and Phil watches it in fascination.

Dan is pretty. There’s no real denying that one. They give Phil a sheepish little smile at being caught staring and close their eyes, curling close enough that Phil could reach down and smooth the curls off their forehead if he was stupid enough to do so.

He’s not that stupid. He hands Chris’ flask back to him and pulls out his phone instead. It’s looking like it’s going to be a quiet night after all, he can probably get a few more levels of Candy Crush out of the way. As much as Sophie makes fun of him for still playing it in 2019, it’s Phil’s favourite time-waster.

When he looks at Dan again, six levels later, Dan’s eyes are open. They aren’t looking up at Phil anymore, though, they’re just staring blankly at the attic wall and breathing shakily.

“Dan?” Phil murmurs, putting his hand on Dan’s shoulder. Dan doesn’t react. “Er, Dan?”

Dan’s body is so tense and their eyes are so wide, but they don’t say anything. They don’t even twitch. Phil looks over at Chris, who frowns and checks on Sophie in his lap. She’s stiff as a board, Phil suddenly notices - and so is PJ, whose unblinking stare is fixed on the ceiling.

“What the fuck?” Chris asks, tapping Sophie’s face lightly.

“I think this is the sleep paralysis,” says Phil. He gives into the urge to brush Dan’s curls out of their eyes, giving them a small comfort from whatever they’re seeing right now.

“How do we fix it?”

Chris doesn’t panic, because he doesn’t do that, but he looks unsettled in a way that Phil hasn’t seen him before. Phil finds himself wondering, not for the first or the last time, what these people mean to each other for this to rattle Chris so visibly.

“I don’t think we can,” Phil says, pulling his knees to his chest and continuing to run his fingers through Dan’s hair. He’ll apologise if he has to, but he likes to think that he’s helping in some small way. “When Dan told me about this happening, they said that nobody was able to wake the others up. I think we just have to wait it out.”

“I hate that,” says Chris. He laughs humourlessly and cups Sophie’s chin, tilting her face from side to side. “Fuck. It’s like she isn’t even home.”

Phil looks at Dan’s eyes again. They’re the same colour and shape as they’ve been all night, but the warmth and sparkle are completely gone. A shiver runs through Phil at the sight, and he bites his own lip. “Yeah. Yeah, I hate it, too.”

Chapter Text

It's a very long night. The quiet in the space between Phil and Chris where three people should be sleeping peacefully is making Phil's nerves feel stretched thin, like he can't settle. The wheel of worst case scenarios is off its axis completely; there is just one thing, one scenario, blaring in Phil's mind like an air raid siren.

What if they don't wake up? What if they're stuck like this, eyes wide and bodies stiff like boards? Phil never got the rest of that sleep paralysis story from Dan. He has no idea how it ended.

He's not usually afraid anymore, not about things that he deals with regularly in his line of work, but this is shaking him in a way few things ever have. He feels clammy, and he laments how his palm must feel against Dan's warm forehead.

“How long has it been?” Phil asks, his voice creaking like the floorboards.

“Few hours,” says Chris. There's no mask in place, just wariness and worry and a little bit of anger. Phil hopes that isn't directed at him - technically, he didn't even invite Chris or Sophie up here. It's probably a good thing that they are here, though, because he'd be so certain that he'd reached a breaking point of sanity if he were alone up here with a catatonic PJ. Instead, the tension between them is kickstarting Phil's anxiety over and over, revving it up like an engine that won't start.

It's not long after that exchange that PJ gasps, sitting up and scrabbling at his chest like he's trying to get something off of it. Phil could almost cry with relief.

Chris crawls over and takes PJ's hands in his, resting their foreheads together and attempting a shaky smile. It's so intimate that Phil has to look away, rove his gaze over Dan's pretty face and wait for them to wake, too.

“Fuck,” PJ is saying, his voice so shaky that Phil can almost feel it. “Fuck, fuck, that was - Chris, we can't stay here.”

“Shh, we'll leave soon,” Chris promises. “You okay?”

“Obviously I'm not fucking okay, am I?”

“No need to be a dick about it,” Chris says sharply. Now Phil really doesn't want to be present for this. “What the hell happened? You looked - you looked so frozen, Peej, it was awful.”

Another loud gasp, this one softer. Phil listens to Sophie try to get lungfuls of air and Chris torn between arguing with PJ and checking that she's okay. He trails his fingers down the side of Dan's face and presses them to their pulse point, because he's paranoid like that.

Dan's hand comes up to engulf Phil's, holding tight as they squeeze their eyes shut and turn their face into the floor.

“Hey,” Phil murmurs, turning his hand over so he can properly grip Dan's hand. “Hey, you alright in there? Not gonna throw up on me or anything, are you?”

Dan laughs weakly. “No. Fuck, that... that sucked.”

“Were you awake?” Phil asks, resisting the urge to keep running his fingers through Dan's hair now that they're conscious. They roll onto their back, holding Phil's hand to their chest, and take deep breaths.

“I was,” they say, quiet.

That sounds horrible. Phil has never experienced regular sleep paralysis, let alone one instigated by ghost stories and shared with practical strangers, but he's looked into it a little bit. He glances up to see how Sophie and PJ are handling things. They're murmuring amongst themselves while Chris starts to pack up their things, a furrow between his brows.

“Let's get out of here,” says Phil. He squeezes Dan's hand and Dan squeezes back, their chest heaving like they can't get enough air. “You guys okay to move yet?”

“Yeah,” Dan breathes. They sit up slowly, still gripping Phil’s hand. Phil gets both of them to their feet with only minor stumbling, steadying Dan with his hands on their waist. Dan doesn’t even seem to notice, let alone mind. “Fuck. Jesus. My head hurts so fucking bad, Phil.”

“Shh, I know,” Phil says, trying to emulate the tone his mum uses when he’s feeling poorly. Dan inhales shakily and leans into his touch like maybe it’s helping. Phil resists the urge to push their curls off their forehead again. “Let’s go.”

--

They’re piling things back into PJ’s car - after using the door to get out this time, because there’s no way Chris can manage getting three people out of the window, and Phil would drop someone - when Phil realises that Dan is just sort of standing on the pavement with their arms wrapped around themself again, chewing their lip.

“Hey,” says Phil. “Do you work today?”

Dan jolts like they’re surprised to be addressed. They have to think about it for a moment, but then they shake their head.

Before Phil can be the one to offer, PJ gestures at his car. “You’re coming with us, then. We’re gonna recuperate and compare experiences and all that junk.” He pauses. “Well, first, I want a nap. Are you okay to drive, Chris?”

“I can drive,” says Phil. PJ doesn’t dignify that with a response.

“I’m fine to drive,” Chris says, his voice still grim and a bit more genuine than Phil is used to hearing. He takes the keys from PJ, squeezing his hand in the same motion.

Sophie crawls into the backseat and puts her head between her knees. Phil can’t tell if she’s feeling sick still or if she’s napping in the most uncomfortable way possible, but he decides not to bother her. He watches Chris help PJ into the front seat and doesn’t bother protesting that Dan ought to sit in the front when their legs are the longest.

“You okay, love?” Chris asks Sophie. She gives him a thumbs up without raising her head.

Phil looks around for Dan, who hasn’t moved any closer to the car. They look hesitant and so young, suddenly, on the dark Rusholme street. Dawn hasn’t even broken yet. There’s no way in hell that Phil is leaving them here.

“Get in the car, Dan,” Phil says, quiet. “We can take you home if you don’t want to come back to mine, but I need you to get in.”

After another moment where Dan’s teeth dig into their lower lip, they finally nod and come forward. Phil holds the door open and waits for them to get in, messenger bag slung into their lap and knees comically high from how tall they are in the somewhat cramped backseat. Sophie is so small, but that doesn’t stop Phil’s thigh from pressing completely against Dan’s once he settles himself in as well.

They don’t even know each other, really, so Phil expects Dan to be put off by it. Instead, they sigh and lean a bit further into Phil’s space. By the time Chris has gotten them out of the city proper, their head is resting on Phil’s shoulder and their eyes are closed.

Phil can’t imagine that his bony shoulder is very comfortable, but considering Sophie’s snoring a bit in her ball of limbs and PJ has contorted into a weird position with his mouth wide open, maybe any pillow at all will do. Chris meets Phil’s eyes in the rearview and Phil grimaces at him. This is almost as concerning as the hours of waiting, as much as Phil tries to logic away the anxiety swirling inside him. Of course they’re tired - Phil is tired, too, and the bags under Chris’ eyes are even more prominent than usual.

He can’t help the worry, though. The same worry he’s been fighting all night: what if they don’t wake up?

Careful not to jostle Dan, Phil reaches down to press the tips of his fingers against the pulse point in their wrist. Just to make himself feel a bit better about it.

--

The weak sun has started to rise by the time they all clamber out of PJ’s car, and Phil is grateful for that. His dad, at least, should be awake in case the house is locked tight. His friends don’t look any less tired, but Chris has a mask back in place like it never wavered. Phil tries to do that, too, just in case his anxiety is burrowing through his skin and making his parents worry. He sees Dan looking around in vague bewilderment and makes a mental note to tell them where they’ve been kidnapped to.

Luckily, the doorknob turns when Phil tries it. He holds it open and lets everyone file in. Part of him wants to look them all over for signs of wear and tear and possible possession, but most of him just wants a shield between himself and his parents’ disappointed faces.

Sure enough, his dad comes out of the kitchen as they’re all taking off their shoes, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Morning, sir,” Chris says, the charm in his voice alarmingly good considering Phil knows he’s freaking out at least a little bit.

“Good morning, Christopher,” Phil’s dad says. His expression doesn’t change when he looks over the group, but Phil knows in his gut that he’s noticing Dan’s shirt-dress and makeup. He has no idea what his dad thinks about it. He also realises, to some degree of detached surprise, that he doesn’t particularly care. “You’ve multiplied.”

Dan flushes. It seems like they don’t know what to say, but Chris is on the ball.

“Just adopted a stray,” he laughs quietly. He takes Sophie by the wrist and pulls her gently along, past Phil’s dad. “Been up all night, though, Nige, so I hope you don’t mind us copping a snooze.”

“By all means,” Phil’s dad says, this time with a small smile that Phil is pretty sure everybody else thinks is genuine.

PJ follows with a sheepish little wave and Dan hesitates, clearly unsure what they should do now. Phil smiles at them and hopes it looks more sincere than his dad’s does. “Just go upstairs,” he murmurs, gesturing at his friends’ backs. “You can sleep in my room at the end of the hall - or with Chris in the guest, if you’d like.”

He doesn’t mention that he’s pretty sure Chris won’t be in the guest room, because he has enough to explain to his father already.

“Okay,” says Dan, quiet. They bite their lip and duck their head as they pass Phil’s dad.

As soon as the entry is empty of Phil’s little gaggle of awkward adults, the silence feels so much worse. Phil bends over to untie his boots and try to settle his heart, which isn’t at all working normally.

There’s a very pointed pause where they both wait for the other to say something first, but Phil breaks first. He always does.

“Look, we’re fine,” he starts.

“You don’t seem fine, Philip,” his dad says, and oh, god, if the full name is getting pulled out this early then he’s in for quite the talking-to. “You all look like you’ve been on some kind of drug binge, stumbling ‘round like that. I knew you would be trespassing last night and you already know I wasn’t very happy with that, but I figured you’d at least come home all pleased with yourself.”

“We had a bit of a scare is all,” says Phil. He kicks off his shoes and stands up. His stomach is rolling with that familiar stress of letting the people down who love him most, but it’s backed by the steel stubbornness he inherited from them. “It’s my job, dad.”

“Is it,” his dad says, flatly.

Phil sighs and hangs his jacket up on the coat hook that his friends had smartly bypassed to get to safety. “Yes. It is. I make decent money doing this, you know that.”

“I do.” Great, now his dad has resorted to short, dry responses. It’s designed to get Phil to start rambling, trying to fill that godawful pressurizing silence, and sometimes that works. Phil has had this conversation so many times that he knows there isn’t anything new he or his dad could say to each other on the topic, though, and he’s so tired and so worried that he just shrugs.

“So, there you have it,” says Phil. “May I be excused?”

When his dad sighs, Phil has the thought that it sounds just like Martyn. Irritated but still that unbreakable affection underneath it, that solid bedrock that Phil relies on. Even when he and his family don’t see eye to eye on things, there’s never any doubt in that love.

“Get some rest, Phil,” his dad says, quiet and on that edge of disappointment that Phil tries so hard to avoid.

Phil nods and shoves his hands in his pockets so he doesn’t reach out for a hug on his way to the stairs. The last thing he needs right now is to have a complete breakdown in his dad’s arms. If anything is going to get his parents to start actively campaigning for him to leave Brighton instead of just hinting at it every few months, it would be that.

Neither of them really love what he does. They love him, and always will, but they’re nervous about the laws that Phil breaks and the supernatural things that Phil actively invites into his life. He wonders if it would be easier or more difficult if they were skeptics.

Phil is so lost in thought that he forgets someone is waiting in his room until he closes the door behind him.

“Oh,” he says, blinking.

“Sorry,” Dan says immediately. They’re sitting on the edge of Phil’s old bed with muscles so tense that it looks like they’re about to jump up and run at the first sign of trouble. “I just - I don’t know, I feel so stupid, I just didn’t want to be alone, and -”

“It’s okay,” Phil tells them, holding up his hands like he’s trying to calm a scared animal. “I don’t want to be alone, either. That was pretty fucking scary.”

The stiff position of Dan’s shoulders relax forward and they nod, picking at a loose thread in their flannel. “Yeah it, uh. Kind of was.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” says Dan.

“Do you want to borrow something to sleep in?”

Dan blinks up at Phil, looking more surprised than Phil thinks is warranted. He’s been an alright host, all things considered, and he isn’t about to make Dan sleep in jeans and a face full of product. “Um. Okay.”

“We’re about the same size,” Phil says, well aware that he’s rambling to fill the silence in a way he didn’t let himself be baited into downstairs. He grabs his bag from the corner he’d kicked it into earlier and grabs a couple of t-shirts, a pair of joggers, and his bright flannel pyjama pants. He always overpacks when he plans to be spending a night or two in allegedly haunted places, because he’s had the unfortunate experience of getting mud on his clothes in a leaky basement and then just having to live with that.

He tosses the options to Dan and tells them to choose as he searches for a notebook. He wants to get his experience down on paper before he sleeps and the sharp edges of it start to fade.

“Bathroom’s next door,” he thinks to say as he digs. “Mum probably has some makeup, er, wipes? In the medicine cabinet.”

“Thank you,” Dan says softly.

Their footsteps are quiet and so is the door that closes behind them. Phil finds something to scrawl in and tries to ignore the way his fingers are shaking.

He manages to get everything on paper, from the feeling of hundreds of eyes to the bathroom lights flickering to how awful it was to watch his friends stare, unseeing, into the middle distance for hours on end.

Phil doesn't completely believe in ghosts, not the way his parents or PJ do, but this… yeah, he's going to give this one to the Manchester students.

Dan still hasn't come back when Phil puts the notebook away, so he changes at lightspeed into his ugly flannel pants and spends a few minutes considering whether or not he should move his pillow to the wall side of the bed or leave it where it is. He's overthinking this, he knows he is. He shares bed space with his friends often enough that this isn't a totally foreign thing for him, but Dan is such a new friend - with unreasonably pretty eyes and unreasonably big hands - that it's making Phil's stomach flutter with nerves.

He's finally given up on the whole thinking thing and gotten into bed when the door opens and Dan tiptoes in with a bundle of clothes under their arm.

“Oh,” they say, stopping in their tracks, and Phil almost laughs at the reaction mirroring his own when he came in. “Sorry, I didn't expect you to still be up. Er, I ran into your mum. She's really nice.”

Phil groans. He should have expected his mum to be prowling around to corner his friends. “God, sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, she’s lovely,” says Dan. They look around the room, a bit awkward, before setting their clothes on top of the dresser. “Your room is nice.”

“It’s not really mine anymore,” Phil says, doing his level best to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He knows it isn’t the healthiest thing, to be so bothered by the beige carpet and white walls and neutral furnishings, but he can’t help himself. He’s never been comfortable with big changes.

He looks at Dan while Dan is distracted by a family photo on the wall. Their bare face looks so young that, if Phil didn’t already know how old they were, he’d think they were in sixth form or something. Phil’s clothes fit them well, just a bit tighter around the shoulders and stomach than they are on him. They look - cute, is the thing, and Phil stamps down on his sleep-deprived crushing nonsense.

“Coming to bed?” Phil asks, immediately making a face. The phrasing is accidental but, really, more Freudian than he cares to admit.

Dan laughs, so maybe it’s okay.

They dimple and climb over him instead of asking him to move, which has Phil holding his breath. They smell like mint and spice and Phil’s own laundry detergent and as they flop onto their back, their arm overlaps with Phil’s a bit. The bed isn’t small, and even though they’re both quite large humans, Phil is pretty sure they don’t have to be touching.

“You okay?” Dan asks, quiet. Phil doesn’t turn to look at them, because he doesn’t trust himself to have those hypnotizing brown eyes so close while they’re horizontal.

“I will be,” Phil tells the ceiling. “Are you?”

“Kinda. Is it always like that?”

Phil huffs a laugh and lets his pinky and ring fingers curl around Dan’s hand, doing his best to ignore the way his heart races at the action. “It’s never like that,” he murmurs. “That was terrifying and I’m going to have nightmares and, also, the video is going to be buckwild.”

“I forgot we were even filming one,” Dan laughs. “Is that weird?”

“This whole thing is a little weird, Dan,” says Phil. He feels his lips curving up and he lets go of Dan’s hand to take his glasses off. “Do you want the light off?”

It takes a moment, but Dan does respond with a soft, sheepish, “No. Do you mind?”

“I don’t mind,” Phil says honestly. He curls up on his side and tries to even out his breathing. His anxiety and crush and sleep deprivation are all coordinating to make his mind race, but he’s so very, very tired. He feels Dan’s warmth, just behind him, and that helps. After only a little inner turmoil, Phil is able to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The sleep Phil has is restless and patchy. He wakes up so many times, spikes of panic cutting through the calm as he tries to remember where he is and who's breathing next to him. Dan is either a very heavy sleeper or very good at pretending to sleep, because Phil jerking awake never makes them stir.

It's a comfort, to look at Dan and see their blurry face slack with a peacefulness that wasn't there all night, but Phil doesn't do it for too long. Watching someone sleep is the pinnacle of creepiness. He just looks for a couple of seconds until his heart rate slows back down and he can roll onto his side. He faces away from Dan so he isn't tempted to keep looking at them, staring at the boring wall instead and waiting for sleep to momentarily take him again.

He's still tired when he wakes up properly to Dan tossing and turning, but he decides that's his cue to be awake.

"Hey," he murmurs, reaching for Dan's hand. He squints, but he can't tell if Dan is having a nightmare or if they're awake without getting even closer to their face. "It's okay. You're okay."

Dan takes a deep, shuddering sort of breath and cradles Phil's hand in both of their own. It's like they're afraid he's going to let go. "Sorry, fuck."

"You've got nothing to be sorry for," says Phil. His stomach is doing a weird twisty thing at the sound of Dan's voice all husky with sleep. As long as he acts normal, it's fine, right? It's hard to convince himself of that when Dan's hands are pressed to his own and making him feel impossibly small. "How did you sleep?"

"I mostly slept fine," Dan says, and Phil nods like he didn't already know that.

"Good. You needed it."

For a moment, Dan is quiet. Then, they shuffle onto their side so they can properly face Phil, who has to fight the urge to hide away from their gaze. It's a good thing that he can't see the depth and warmth and sparkle of Dan's eyes without his glasses on.

"You didn't sleep very well," they say like it's a fact. Phil doesn't bother trying to deny it, he just shrugs. "You could have woken me up."

"Why would I do that?" Phil asks, puzzled by the offer.

Dan smiles, and Phil reaches for his glasses. He feels so vulnerable without them, and the sensation of not being able to see the way Dan is smiling while Dan can probably read every tiny emotion on his face is anxiety-inducing.

He leaves his other hand in Dan's. Maybe it would be easier if he just let go, but he finds that he doesn't want to.

The world comes into focus, and Phil blinks over at Dan like it's his first time seeing them. They look so different with their lashes clumped together and lines creased into their soft cheeks by the pillow. Curls are in complete disarray, and Phil presses his fingers into his palm so he doesn't try to brush the frizzy, unruly mess off Dan's forehead. Their smile doesn't fade when Phil just kind of stares - if anything, it gets even wider.

"You stayed with me all night," says Dan. Their tone is dry, but Phil imagines there's not a small amount of sincerity behind it. "You didn't have to, like, be alone."

Alone isn't something Phil had felt at all. Dan's steady breathing and the warmth of them emanating from their core even when they weren't touching were the only things keeping Phil grounded every time he woke with a start. He doesn't know how to say that to this person he barely knows, though, wouldn't know how to say something so open to most of the people in his life, so he just chuckles.

"No use in neither of us getting any sleep," he points out.

Dan is very warm, and Phil can feel his palm starting to get sweaty where it's trapped between both of theirs. He makes an apologetic face and pulls his hand back, patting it on his flannel pyjamas. Dan doesn't seem bothered by the lack of contact, but they also don't seem relieved - Phil can't tell what they're thinking at all, if he's honest.

"So," says Dan. "Where do we go from here?"

Before Phil can even think about it, he echoes the question in falsetto. It's louder and more obnoxious than he intends it to be. He swings his legs out of bed and reaches for his phone on the nightstand to try and hide a blush. "Uh, we go eat breakfast. Lunch, I guess."

"You lied," Dan says to his back. "You are always thinking about Buffy."

"Not always," Phil says weakly.

"Often enough."

"Once More With Feeling bypasses my brain entirely. It's just a primal call and response to anyone as obsessed with the show as teenage me was."

"I've never seen the show the whole way through," says Dan. "But Buffy is a style icon of mine."

Phil's tired brain offers him a half dozen mental images of Dan in various Buffy outfits before he shakes his head to try and clear it. He's never been particularly interested in boys wearing girls' clothes, but the concepts of gender identity and presentation are so blurry when it comes to Dan that he's going to have to rethink that position. They're not 'girls' clothes' on Dan. Maybe there's no such thing as 'girls' clothes' at all.

It's too early in the day for a deep dive on his own perceptions of gender, though. He thinks that sort of existentialism can wait until after his second or third coffee.

--

Phil's parents eat lunch with them and do their best to make small talk, but only Chris is On enough to properly converse with them. At Phil's umpteenth 'huh' of the early afternoon, they give up entirely and migrate to the lounge to watch tv.

For a long few seconds, the kitchen table is quiet. Then, Dan stands and starts to clear everyone's plates.

"You don't have to do that," Phil says, feeling a bit embarrassed.

"I need to do something with my hands or I'll lose the plot," says Dan. They dump the dishes carefully in the sink and start running water. Having their back to the group seems to give them the courage to add, "I don't have all my meds with me. I didn't exactly expect to be out all night."

"What d'you take?" Chris asks.

"Little fucking nosy of you," says PJ.

"Well, one of us might have what he needs, love. I'm not just asking for the hell of it."

Phil feels a bit like his mum has possessed him when he clicks his tongue disapprovingly. "You really shouldn't share medication," he says when Chris gives him a look.

It makes Dan laugh, anyway, so Phil feels like he's done something right. They still don't turn around, just washing everybody's dishes and looking so weirdly at home in Phil's clothes, Phil's old kitchen. Phil doesn't realise he's staring at their back until someone kicks him under the table.

"Earth to Phil," Chris murmurs. He's resting his chin on a hand and smirking, but his eyes are too sharp for how little sleep he must have gotten. Phil feels heat rise to his cheeks and pulls his coffee closer to use the steam as an excuse.

"I don't need anything, really," Dan hums. "Thanks for asking. My brain just struggles a bit."

"A big mood, as the kids say," Chris says sagely.

Dan laughs again. It isn't as loud as Phil knows it can get, but it still fills the room and makes everything seem a bit brighter. "Do the kids say that?" they ask. "Is that what they say?"

"I believe it is," says Chris.

There is another stretch of silence. Phil watches his friends' faces as the elephant in the room weighs on them all. He's making a bet in his own mind about who will be the first to break when Dan turns around and bluntly says, "I still don't think that was a ghost, but I really fucking hated it."

"Sorry," says PJ, "but what else could it have possibly been?"

"I dunno," says Dan. They cross their arms over their waist, holding onto their own elbows. Phil is beginning to recognise the position as a protective one for them. "But I'm sure there's an explanation. Sleep paralysis is normal."

"The way it happened was not normal."

"What do you think it was, Dan?" Sophie asks. Her tone is much kinder than PJ's, but she seems just as skeptical.

Dan's dimple is pulling downwards in unhappiness or discomfort, so Phil waves a hand to get everyone's attention on himself instead.

"Why don't you guys tell us what exactly happened to you," he suggests, meeting Dan's eyes almost apologetically. He knows that none of them want to relive it, but it's easier if they're all on the same page here. "And we can toss around theories later."

--

PJ says, "It was a demon. I could see it. It was tall and humanoid-ish and had a Cheshire Cat smile and it kept going closer to Chris and Soph just to watch me panic. Then it would laugh and sharpen its claws on the wall. It felt like hatred and fear in a physical being. I really don't think our protection sigils did fuck all, but it didn't actually touch any of us, so maybe they helped a bit?"

Dan says, "It was nothing of the sort. I saw the same shit you did, Peej, but that doesn't mean anything. Haven't you ever heard of mass hysteria? Folie à deux - not the album - isn't unheard of. Maybe there's a high level of carbon monoxide. Maybe the asbestos got to us. I don't fucking know, but there's a hundred explanations before you hit demon. But, yeah. It looked like what PJ says. It felt like I was frozen for a fucking week, not just a few hours, it was awful. Zero out of ten, would not do again."

Sophie says, "It smiled at me and I felt cold."

--

They pile into the basement to recuperate so they aren't bothering Phil's parents. Or, more accurately, so Phil's parents aren't bothering them. Most of the games are packed up, but Phil finds the Wii and its small collection of disks in a box under the stairs. He sets it up, hands his friends the controllers, and sits back to zone out while they tear each other apart at Mario Kart.

Phil doesn't consider himself a skeptic. He knows that his threshold of belief is a lot lower than he makes it appear to be in his videos, but he'd never call himself a Scully. He always thinks about the supernatural aspects of any case he's looking into, even if he doesn't commit a hundred percent to the mentality that it must be something weird. He usually just prefers the weird option to the more common and boring reality of things.

So this thing with the Wilkins place is downright terrifying. Not only is it in Phil's proverbial backyard, too close for comfort in a lot of ways, but he hasn't had an experience quite so chilling since he was sixteen and dipping his toe into this hobby at Martyn's side.

He and Martyn still aren't sure what exactly left those finger-shaped bruises on Phil's ankles, but it's become a funny story in the years since.

Maybe this will be something to laugh at in a few years, too. Phil hopes so.

"You sure you don't want to play?" Dan asks, breaking into Phil's reverie. They're in first place and not even looking at the screen, their concerned brown eyes focused on Phil. Phil gives them a small smile and shakes his head.

"No, I'm alright."

"Phil, please take the controller from him," says Chris. He seems annoyed, but Phil can never tell how much of that is a show. It's possible that Chris isn't actually competitive at all and just likes to work Phil and PJ up by acting like he, too, would rather eat a whole head of lettuce than lose. It's also possible that Chris genuinely feels that way. "He's not even fucking trying and he's kicking our asses."

"Maybe you deserve to have your ass kicked a bit," Phil says, watching the screen to see how easily Dan ducks around various obstacles.

It still jolts a bit, hearing the people around him make an assumption - however logical it is - about how Dan wants to be addressed. Phil knows it isn't his place to correct them, especially since it seems like they're not using any less correct terms than he is, but it still rankles a bit.

"Fuck's sake!" PJ exclaims, looking like he's a hair away from throwing the Wiimote at something. He's never actually hit that level of gamer rage, but getting lapped by someone who keeps checking their phone during a race seems to be getting on his nerves. Phil reaches out and pats at PJ's mess of curls.

"You'll be okay," he says, dry. "They're just better than you, you'll live."

Maybe the pronoun use is a little more pointed than it needs to be, but Dan gives him such an exasperatedly fond grin that Phil can't bring himself to regret it. There is a brief beat of quiet, and then PJ groans again.

"It's not fair," says PJ, gesturing dramatically with the Wiimote. Sophie leans out of the line of fire. "This is unacceptable. We have to play a game they're bad at, now."

"I don't care what you call me," says Dan. They sound more amused than anything else. "As long as you know I'm winning anything we play."

"That's why they call him Winnie," Chris says in that very mild voice he uses for absolute nonsense. He puts his own controller aside and flops onto his back on the basement floor, stretching. "I can't do it, I can't play another round of this farce. I'm going upstairs to let my future mum-in-law dote on me."

Phil sighs. He can feel Dan's eyes on him again, and he shrugs helplessly in their general direction. He does not control the Chris. "Please stop saying things like that. Dan is going to think I'm mixed up in… this."

He gestures vaguely at the three of them, and Chris' eyes sharpen like he's spotted prey.

"Oh, so you want Dan to know you're horrendously single, then?" Chris gives Dan a wide, conspiratorial sort of grin. "He's useless at this, you know."

"Me rejecting you doesn't make me useless," Phil huffs. He can feel a flush creeping up his neck, because Chris is more right than he wants to admit, and Dan is smiling back at Chris like they're in on the joke.

"I think it demonstrates a lack of taste," Chris sniffs.

"You know what I think?" Sophie asks, stretching her arms above her head. "I think I need a shower."

"Me too," Dan says with an unnecessary little sigh. Phil pinches his own thigh to circumvent the mental images before they start. It's annoying to have such a good imagination, sometimes. "And I need to take my meds. Is there a bus that runs around here or something?"

"Don't worry about taking the bus," says PJ. "I'll drive you."

"I don't mind," says Dan.

"I mind," says PJ, more firmly. He stands like he's planning on dragging Dan to the car himself if Dan tries to say no again.

Dan's shoulders relax forward. Phil knows the anxiety of riding unfamiliar public transit all too well, and he definitely wouldn't make Dan do something so harrowing after they got roped into ghosthunting. He's glad that PJ is on the same page again, keeping Dan in that sense of protection that being a team gives them.

It's only been a weekend, but Phil is already reluctant to let Dan go home and leave the team bubble. He wants to insist on coming along, but he knows PJ probably wants solitude on the drive back.

Still. Phil chews his lip and looks down at his phone so he doesn't have to see the looks on his friends' faces when he says, "You can keep the pyjamas. If you want them."

"Okay," Dan says softly. "I will, thanks."

He knows that he should look up, should smile at Dan or stand and hug them before they leave his life, but that all feels so big at this moment. Phil's anxiety lets him wave and murmur a goodbye before he's left alone in the basement. At least, he thinks he's alone, until he sighs heavily and Chris responds from the floor. "Oh, you're fucking mooning over him, aren't you? This is awful. I preferred the ghost."

--

Phil takes a shower after his friends have, to be polite, and it feels incredible to wash off the dirt and dust from the attic. It feels less incredible when the door opens.

He hadn't bothered locking it, because his parents' shower is loud and it should be obvious that he's in there. At least the curtain isn't see-through. He takes a moment to just stand under the spray, bewildered, before it occurs to him that he can ask what's going on. It probably isn't a serial killer. "Er, hello?"

"Hi," Chris' voice comes, tense. "We've got a problem."

"I'm a little busy," Phil says pointedly.

"Well, get your hand off your knob and get out here," says Chris. "We need to figure this out before Peej gets back."

Phil rolls his eyes, but doesn't bother arguing about why exactly he's busy. He rinses the last of his mum's conditioner out of his hair and squints at the unfocused, opaque shower curtain like he'll be able to see Chris if he just tries hard enough. "Figure what out, mate?"

"All of the footage is fucked," Chris says, blunt. "It's corrupted to high hell. Every single second. There's no evidence we were even there at all."