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A Picture Lasts Longer

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Dan rounded the corner with a smirk on his face and juggled his knife in his left hand, but the smirk fell from his face and the knife dropped beside his feet. His features instantly melted into anger and his fists clenched, causing his knuckles to go white as he looked at the dickhead who’d already been killed. Fresh blood trailed out his mouth and the tears in his shirt, staining the cobblestone alleys floor momentarily, as light rain was already working to clean it away.
Dan kicked the knife and growled, “NO!”
He could picture the simper expression on that asshole’s face as he made his way back home, no doubt getting his paycheck right as Dan stood there, looking at his kill.
There was a piece of paper tucked into the guy’s pocket and Dan leaned over him to retrieve it, already knowing it was going to be from a gloating Phil.

*Looks like you were a bit late, oh well. Better luck next time xox*

The fire in Dan’s stomach only grew and he tore the piece of paper into little pieces before stomping on it.
He pulled out his phone and punched in his friend’s number, sighing agitatedly as it rung.
“Is it done?” his friend Louise asked.
“That fucking asshole got here first,” Dan said, his voice icy.
“You’ve taken his past two kills, to be fair,” she said. Dan could hear the clicking of a computer keyboard in the background but it stopped after Dan didn’t reply.
“Just take a picture and send it through. You’ll still get paid,” she said.
Dan shook his head. “That’s not the point. He *stole* my kill again. And now I need to clean it up… he knew I’d have to.”
“I’m sure you’ll steal his kill next time, and cleaning takes you five minutes. Can I get back to studying?”
“Alright,” Dan grumbled and said bye before hanging up.
He took off the belt that was around his stomach and tied it around the now-deceased man’s ankles then pulled him to his van, throwing him in the back on top of a stack of towels before slamming the doors shut and getting into the driver’s seat, driving back to town as he quietly seethed.

The next morning, Dan was going through Netflix movies to watch while feeling sorry for himself when his phone dinged from beside him. He checked to see it was a message from Louise, who’d forwarded him a picture of Philip Lester’s next target. As always, she’d added details about who it was and why she was a menace to society plus when and where Phil was going to go for him.
*Don’t do anything dangerous️*, Louise had added beneath it all.
*It’s my job to*, Dan sent back, his mood slightly better now that he could get back at Phil.
The woman in the picture was meant to be attending some sort of masquerade party tonight, and Phil was going to corner her at around 10pm if everything worked out well (which it usually did; if Dan didn’t interfere of course).
A mischievous grin found its way to Dan’s face as he saw Louise send another picture of the woman’s schedule for today.
She was running plenty of errands so Dan had plenty of time and opportunities before Phil would eventually come to do his job. However, Dan wanted to rub it in Phil’s face that he got there first, so he only planned to attack a few minutes before, making sure Phil would be the one to have to clean up the body and be as resentful as Dan was the night before.
Dan got up from his couch and shuffled through his cupboard, looking for the masquerade mask he’d worn to a different party a few years ago. After only a couple minutes of looking he found it and held it up. The black velvet material, jewels and feathers that decorated the mask were still good quality even after sitting at the back of a closet for three or four years. He pulled out his fully black suit, shoes and tie as well, remembering how well presented he looked in it and knew it was perfect.
Parties at this side of town were barely ever strict on lists as it was such a reserved area, but thankfully Dan knew a corrupt cop who’d let him slip past for a hundred quid or so, so getting in would be easy.
He set out the outfit on his bed and printed off the woman’s timetable and stuffing it into his suit jacket pocket, along with a pen to scribble down notes if he had to.
Now all he had to do was wait; something that didn’t come easily when Dan was eager for something.

“Here’s fifty,” Dan said into the bouncer’s ear and slipped a 50 pound note into his jacket pocket as he walked past. The bouncer paid him no attention but gave the slightest nod for confirmation he’d be safe. If the bouncers knew why Dan was there, they’d most definitely have a different view on it if they weren’t so money hungry.
Dan walked in through the open club doors and down some stairs that led to a large, open-spaced room. He scanned the room — that was already full of people wearing all sorts of colours, suits, dresses and masks even though the party started at 8 and it was only 7:30 — and saw an emergency exit to the far left that was at the end of the toilet hall; perfect for his plans.
He decided to enjoy himself as food and drinks were free for all guests, the owners assuming it was close friends with plus ones at most.
The bar was the least crowded place in the room and was to the far right, so Dan had to cross the large dance floor that took up a large area of the centre of the room with tables around it. He took his seat and readjusted his mask as he waited for the bartender to come serve him.
Although he was completely out of place in these environments, Dan felt peace at every event he went to. Maybe it was because he knew exactly who the crooks were and who to avoid (until it was time) or maybe it was just because he was going to get revenge over that twat Phil.
The thing is that although Dan and Phil might have passed each other and accidentally knocked elbows or went to pick up the same dropped spoon, they would have apologised politely as they had no idea what the other looked like. They both decided it was for the best, as one: in their line of work you need to be completely anonymous, and two: it was just safer to not know what the other looked like as it would most likely cause huge problems.
The bartender finally came and served Dan who ordered a simple martini, letting the alcohol ease his mind more than it needed to.
He glanced at more of the faces and his eyes fell on a slim woman with curly blonde hair and a red dress that hugged her perfect curves well and also complimented her red and black lace mask.
The target.
He watched as she laughed and her friends wrapped a black feather boa around her neck. For someone with such a history you’d think she’d have a worse conscious. But then again, here was Dan.
His thoughts were shaken from his head as someone took the bar stool beside him and tapped the bar loudly, signalling for the bartender. Dan turned with a frown but it washed away as he took in the handsome stranger’s features.
He had a light mocha quiff and was wearing a light blue suit. The blue and green mask he was wearing looked as if layers of glitter had been glued on and it almost looked like fish scales. The deep blue feathers took away from that though but made the mask even more flashy.
While Dan had been checking him out, he’d had enough time to order his own drink and then recognise the stare he was getting.
“A picture lasts longer,” the stranger said softly and smiled.
Dan’s face flushed red (the blush thankfully being masked by the lighting and his mask) and smiled nervously back.
The stranger stuck out his hand, “I’m Michael.”
Dan swallowed then took the stranger’s hand, “James.”
Louise had told him time and time again not to go by his middle name because it could still be traced back to his easily, but there were thousands of Jameses in existence, which is exactly what he told her.
“What someone like you doing alone at the bar?” Michael asked.
Dan was taken aback by his confidence, as he met mostly shy or snotty people that went to cheese-tasting expos or some shit like that.
But he shrugged in response. “I don’t really know anybody too well.”
“Let’s fix that,” Michael said warmly and Dan couldn’t help but smile. “What brings you here?”
“People I work with mostly.”
“Me too.”
They both paused to take a sip of their drinks and Dan used this to look back over the dance floor to make sure he had eyes on the woman. He tried to bite his lip to mask a cocky smile that had risen but Michael saw him smiling and followed my gaze to the woman.
“Do you have your eye on her?” Michael asked and Dan swore he could hear a hint of sorrow in his voice so he was quick to reply.
“No, she’s a good friend of mine and just… proves to be a bit of trouble sometimes.” He might have said it too fast but Michael looked back to him with the hint of a sorrowful expression.
Dan shook it off and took a large gulp of his martini — definitely a bad idea but he really couldn’t bother thinking about the consequences of that right now.
“Do you have your eye on anyone at all?” Michael asked and Dan looked over to him but he was staring intently at his drink.
“Yes,” Dan smirked.
Michael looked at Dan and rolled his eyes exaggeratedly but offered a hand. “In that case, care for a dance?”
Dan nodded and slipped his hand into Michaels. He couldn’t help but notice how soft his hands were and how gentle he was as he pulled Dan to the dance floor where people were swaying to the music.
It was nothing like a loud and energetic nightclub. Yes the music was still loud and drowned out conversations that were happening five feet away but if you were close to the person you could both talk clearly and not have repeat yourself. It smelt like all sorts of alcoholic drinks and perfumes and it was slightly dark, apart from the dance floor that had a slow pattern of squares lighting up different colours each time someone stood on them and glowed for a while.
Dan and ‘Michael’ didn’t bother swaying or dancing to the music but they still made small-talk.
Dan didn’t realise how long they were talking for until the music started getting slower and people around them became a bit more tipsy and were dancing with partners or friends, giving into the temptations and liquid courage. Talking with Michael was enjoyable to Dan and the two found out they had a lot in common but Dan looked at the time (which read 9:48pm) and told Michael he had to go.
Michael’s face fell and asked why.
“I promised my friend I’d take her back home before she got too drunk,” Dan fibbed.
“Can I have your number at least?” Michael asked and Dan chuckled.
“Smooth,” he said but passed Michael his phone which was still in his hand.
Dan’s leg started bouncing as Michael put his number in Dan’s phone but the anxiety subsided just a tad when he got his phone back.
“I’ll see you later?” Michael asked, hopeful.
Dan never really met up with people he’d met but he felt like he owed something to himself, especially since they were so homogeneous.
“Yeah,” Dan smiled confidently and waved before disappearing into the sea of other bodies that had surrounded them.
The smile fell from Dan’s face as soon as he had turned around and work was the linchpin in his mind.
He looked down at his phone and saw the time was 9:51 — a bit late but Dan could do it.
It wasn’t easy to find the woman in the red dress who, fortunately for Dan, was sat at the bar by herself. He tapped her on the shoulder and she spun around and as she did, Dan could smell the alcohol radiating off her.
“Hey,” she slurred, her eyes full of lust as she looked Dan up and down.
*Too easy*, Dan thought and put on a charming smile.
“I have a surprise for you out back,” Dan whispered into her ear and her eyes lit up like a child’s.
“I love surprises!” she burst and stood up, teetering back and forth. “I’ll close my eyes!”
Dan looped her arm with his, hung his head slightly so people wouldn’t notice him and took her past the bathrooms and through the door that led into a compact space with a large dumpster and they were surrounded by high fences. The door shut behind them and she jumped slightly but kept her eyes closed and giggled.
“Hold still,” Dan said into her ear and came up behind her.
Dan felt her melt like jelly almost into his arms and he tilted her head back slightly. The rush of adrenaline he usually got from satisfaction in a kill was flooding his veins and he felt positively elated.
He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket that Louise had installed for him and pulled out the knife, feeling addicted to glint of the blade as it shone under the moon. He planted a soft kiss to her neck and pulled away enough so he wouldn’t get caught by the blade as he pulled it across her throat and blood gushed from the wound immediately.
Her eyes flew open with surprise and there was a low gurgled, choked sound that came from her mouth as Dan lay her down.
A simple slash to the right of her neck, below the chin, was an efficient tactic and Dan pulled out the timetable and pen he placed in his pocket, quickly scrawling a note (being careful not to the paper with his fingers).

*Bold of you to assume I wouldn’t get you back. Hopefully this will teach you from being a prick but I’m not too hopeful :) xx*

He folded the note in half with the sides of his hands and placed it in the now deceased’s hand. He didn’t get any blood on him but that would change if he stepped in the growing puddle that was leaking from her neck and so Dan made a quick escape out the door.
As he turned out of the bathroom hall, he bumped into someone and saw it was Michael.
His blood turned to ice but he made sure he didn’t give away his nervous state, so he asked with fake hope in his voice, “Have you seen my friend? I can’t seem to find her anywhere. I’ve waited outside the ladies’ bathroom but she didn’t come out and no one else has seen her.”
“Oh James! No, sorry,” he replied and there was something in his eye that Dan couldn’t quite place.
“Okay, thank you anyway,” Dan said and started to walk off. “I’ll text you later!”

Phil nodded and turned back to the bathroom hall with determination as James walked off. Phil was getting worried as well as he couldn’t find her either. It was three past ten and minutes were years in this job, so he had to find her fast. He looked down the bathroom hall without much faith but then saw there was an emergency exit door at the end of the hall. Phil stepped forward quickly, not wanting to miss her if she had planned to get home earlier than he and Pj had expected.
Phil almost threw the door open and realised he was in an area completely cornered off wit the door he just came through being the only entry and exit. He was about to step forward when he looked down slightly and stopped in his tracks.
His target was laid down on her side with a glassy look in her eye. There was a large gash in her neck and Phil noticed a piece of paper in her hand. He leant over the blood puddle and plucked the note out of her hand and read it over.

*Bold of you to assume I wouldn’t get you back. Hopefully this will teach you from being a prick but I’m not too hopeful :) xx*

Phil’s blood boiled.
He’d been here first.
*How in the fuck did he know where I was going?*
Phil wanted to throw a tantrum but doing that would only attract attention — the final thing he needed when he had a body to clean up — so instead he threw his mask on the ground and stomped on it before working on getting rid of the body while he grumbled.

Dan was still smug when he arrived back at his flat.
He hung up his suit and put his mask back in his closet before he pulled on pyjama pants.
He decided to treat himself and have cereal for dinner; something that wasn’t really actually much of a treat as he cereal for dinner most nights but it was the most he could treat himself before his paycheck came in.
He’d already spent the last one on a bunch of overpriced Topman items but he enjoyed getting new clothes for himself and modelling them for himself or Louise.
As he got into bed with his bowl of cereal he wondered how Michael was doing. Did people find out about the body and did Michael see it?
Dan felt a bit guilty thinking about Michael having to see a dead body, but he couldn’t really help it. Besides, it wouldn’t exactly have been easy to find.
How did Phil clean it up, anyway? As much as Phil was clumsy with his kills, he always cleaned up unless he stole one of Dan’s targets.
Dan shook the thought of Phil out of his head and grabbed his phone, scrolling through before tapping Michael’s contact and sending a quick message.

James: hey, how was the rest of the party?
James: (It’s James)

He grabbed his computer and was surprised to get a reply faster than he’d opened Netflix.

Michael: Bad after you left. Someone I clash with stuffed up something.
James: oh, sorry. can it be fixed?
Michael: Yeah. I fixed it. Just annoying is all.

Michael: Did you find your friend?
James: i couldn’t find her in the end

At least Michael hadn’t seen the body. Dan’s shoulders eased up and he took a deep breath in. Within seconds, Dan had forgotten about his bowl of cereal and the home screen of Netflix in front of him as he texted Michael. He had no reason to get up early the next day and neither did Michael, so they spent the night and early morning texting, only leaving because Michael was telling Dan to sleep. With a bit more teasing Dan finally turned off his phone and fell asleep, dreaming well.

The next morning, Dan woke with his phone beeping. He rubbed his eyes and yawned before grabbing his phone. He smiled as he saw the notifications from Louise buzzing about her kids and Michael saying good morning.
Dan replied to Louise first (as always) and then to Michael before getting a coffee.
The cereal bowl on his bedside table was soggy and room temperature, so Dan dumped it and realised that was the last of his cereal. He cursed himself in his mind but decided he needed to go out shopping anyway. He was nearly out of milk too.
He swapped his pj pants for a pair of ripped skinny jeans and he pulled on a black hoodie, not bothering with a shirt. Although London streets are dirty and the sky was a dark grey hue, he put on his white sneakers. Sainsburys was only a couple minutes walk.
When he got onto the street, the cold winter air hit him like a stack of bricks. It wasn’t mind-numbing but the air still bit harshly at the tip of his nose and fingers. The path wasn’t too busy so Dan pulled out his phone.

Michael: I have to get coffee and that includes going outside :(

Dan smiled, not bothering to acknowledge the looks he got, and replied quickly.

James: are you asking me out on a date, Michael?
Michael: Sadly not, I look like a sack of potatoes.
Michael: And I’ve run out of instant coffee, otherwise I wouldn’t be getting up on a Sunday morning.

Dan had to refrain from snorting.

James: you drink that shit??
Michael: Oi, it isn’t that bad.
James: you’re only fooling yourself
Michael: I grew up on it. Stop being mean :( lol
Michael: Starbucks is still better though.
James: Amen.

Dan didn’t realise he was stood right outside of Sainsburys and was actually walking past until he looked up. He stopped abruptly, causing someone behind him to bump into him and give him another dirty look of which he ignored and pushed through the foot traffic to go into Sainsburys.
He grabbed a basket and swung it around his hand as he walked through the store and picked out what was on his mental shopping list while answering Michael’s texts.

Michael: I can’t believe they’ve run out of coffee. This is illegal.

Dan chuckled and for once there wasn’t anyone around him.
Or so he thought, because he heard his fake name from a couple metres away. “James?”
He looked up from his phone and browsing the shelves to meet Michael’s eyes, who were shining brightly.
He wore black track pants with three blue stripes up the side and a white adidas hoodie. A pair of thick, black rimmed glasses sat atop his nose (that hid the purple rings under his eyes; a result from staying up until 3am watching YouTube or browsing the internet endlessly).
“Michael!” Dan replied and pushed his phone into his pocket, Michael doing the same.
Michael approached and pulled Dan into a hug, something Dan wasn’t expecting. His hands were in midair for a second before he finally registered what to do and crossed his arms around Phil’s back. Michael was a tight hugger and almost squeezed the life out of Dan, but when he pulled away Dan couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment.
He shook it off easily and instead focused on the conversation Phil had already launched into about an anime he was currently watching and usually live-ranted to Dan over text too. Dan matched his enthusiasm and they talked nonstop the whole time they shopped.
Michael spoke a bit about how he was going up North to visit his family during the holidays and how his brother and sister-in-law were coming too. Dan didn’t talk much about his own family and he was extremely thankful to whatever power was out there that Michael didn’t ask about them too much.
“I’ll just stay home over the holidays, I don’t see my family much,” Dan said when Michael asked what his plans were.
Michael frowned. “Are you sure you want to stay home? You could come up with me, I’m sure my mum and dad would say yes.”
Dan smiled and shook his head. Of course Michael’s parents were as polite as Michael himself. If Dan knew Michael for longer and wasn’t crushing hard on him, he’d say yes. He knew a lot about Michael but still, Michael could be a murderer (not that Dan would be too scared, considering).
“I can’t do that. I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me,” Dan said and even though Michael still seemed a bit weary he nodded. “Because we’re already out, want to go to coffee?”
Michael’s face stretched into a smile and nodded quickly.

It had been a week off work for Dan and so any time he wasn’t moping around and Michael was free, they hung out. They usually grabbed coffee but about halfway through the week, Michael was boasting about his MarioKart skill and Dan (having the competitive soul he does) challenged Michael. The next day Michael invited Dan around for pizza and a couple games of MarioKart to see who was the better player.
As soon as Dan stepped into Michael’s place, the scent of three different holiday candles hit his nose at once but they strangely blended together to create a nice scent. Michael’s flat was fully decked out in Christmas decorations, with snowman bunting adorned on every door frame and window and above the small fireplace that was burning and left a soft glow in Phil’s colourful lounge. There was a big Christmas tree with more rainbow baubles on each branch than the tree could handle, but the silver tinsel choking the tree held it up.
There was a black backpack on the white sofa which Phil moved to the floor next to the door and sat down on the couch with Dan to his right. Phil propped his feet up on the coffee table and handed Dan one of the Nintendo Switch remotes while he tucked his feet under his butt (after taking off his shoes, of course).
“I’ve always wondered how you’re supposed to use these-” Dan paused and held up the small remote, “-when you have *ginormous* hands.”
Michael chuckled as he sorted out the console. “No idea but you must know how to use them.”
“My hands?” Dan asked, a smirk on his face and Michael shoved him as he flushed red.
“No! The controllers!”
Dan cackled loudly and Michael sulked, jutting his bottom lip out slightly, but a smile was creeping on to his face. “I hate you.”
“Mhm, sure,” Dan giggled as Michael rolled his eyes.
The game started up and Michael immediately got into a local round.
“You are *so* not ready,” Michael said while the race counted down and started.
Ten seconds later, Dan was in first place and Michael was in seventh, a red shell messing up the whole game for him.
Another minute and a half went past and Michael was sighing into his hands while Dan threw his hands up in victory, cheering.
“I call a rematch! That was so unfair!” Michael insisted.
“I dunno, that seemed pretty fair to me,” Dan’s smile was too big to even attempt hiding.
The fact he had a new, good friend he could hang out with without worrying about other shit in his life just made him so happy he could cry (which he would — later though, in the safety of his own bed).
“You’re such a sore winner,” Michael huffed but he was smiling too, finding it hard not to when Dan did.
“I’m competitive, and I doubt you’re as modest as I am if you win.”
“*When* I win,” Michael corrected sternly.
Dan sat down next to Michael again and they got into another race… or twenty. Michael kept saying he’d gotten hit too early or it was his “unlucky game”, and who was Dan to not play another round, especially if he secretly loved watching Michael’s reaction every time he was defeated and was on the brink of saying fifty million swear words every second of a race or yelling all or nothing so much it lost meaning?
“Fine! You’re the king! I give up!” Michael shouted after he crossed the finish line in third place.
“I told you so,” Dan said with glee.
“You’re the worst.”
“Am not.”
“Are too.”
“Am not.”
“Are too!”
They could have kept going for another five minutes but Michael’s phone rang in his jeans pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the name then frowned.
“I’ve gotta take this, I’ll be right back though,” he said and stood up, heading to the kitchen.
Dan stretched and yawned then checked the time on his own phone while Michael’s voice was faintly carried through all around the small apartment. It was already 10:30, which surprised Dan. Time had gone by so fast that Dan thought his clock was wrong. The problem was he knew that time always traveled when he played video games and hung out in good company. He’d have to go by 11:30 tops.
Even 11:30 was a bit later than Dan liked, as he hated going out without some sort of protection. He decided he’d call a cab before he left.
Dan’s thoughts were interrupted by Michael coming back in and smiling with a glass of red in his hand.
“Do you drink wine?” Michael asked, but set down both wine glasses even before he got Dan’s nod of confirmation.
“I’ll only have one glass,” Dan said.
Michael poured a bit into both glasses (more than Dan would drink, not wanting to show his tipsy, clingy and flirty side just yet).
They fell into easy conversation with the MarioKart soundtrack repeating over and over in the background.
“You’re such an idiot,” Dan said fondly once Michael finished his story of how he broke his wrist while he was at University.
“You must have an embarrassing uni story,” Michael said.
Dan blushed — though it was hard to tell with the natural blush that usually fell on his cheeks plus the alcohol’s effects. Dan had so many embarrassing uni stories he wouldn’t begin to admit happened, but he shook his head fast.
“Not really, I did drop out of uni though.” Dan was always embarrassed to admit that, so he wasn’t sure why he told Michael. It might have been the liquid courage.
Michael hummed and sipped his wine, “What did you study?”
“Ah, that makes sense.”
Usually people gave Dan shit and so Michael’s response was enough to seem like the Diwali was being held in his stomach.
“Are you okay?”
Michael’s voice was soft but Dan still frowned. “Yeah, why?”
“You keep looking down and smiling at your legs, weirdo, that’s why,” Michael smiled, proud of himself for the light insult.
“I’m fine,” Dan said and pulled out his phone to check the time.
Quarter past eleven, not too bad.
“I’ve gotta call a cab,” Dan said.
Michael felt a bit disappointed but hid it as soon as Dan looked back up. “Okay. Want a drink of water or something to eat before you go?”
Dan shook his head. “You’ve already been too hospitable, you’ve done plenty.”
“I’ll call a cab then.”
“James, I’m getting you a cab. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Dan couldn’t help but feel bittersweet at the fact Michael still knew him as James. He couldn’t exactly go back now, could he? He couldn’t just say ‘oh hey, my name’s Dan, the one you hate, just so ya know’.
Dan didn’t even realise Michael had called a cab via text and was now staring with glinting eyes at Dan as he had a battle in his own mind.
Michael’s eyes ran over every feature of Dan’s face, starting with the one rebellious curl that never seemed to behave when Dan pushed it back to the sad face dimple that formed whenever Dan smiled his winning smile or laughed like a hundred beacons glowed inside of him.
Dan had so much more behind the uni drop-out and the gaming nerd he was, and Phil was determined to figure it out.

“Dan, get out of bed. It’s 12 in the afternoon,” Louise tutted.
Dan groaned. He’d been woken by his phone ringing and blindly answered, hoping it wasn’t a salesperson or someone who’d tried to come back into contact with him (which had only happened once or twice, thank god).
“You have a job tonight,” she told him.
“Mm?” Dan mumbled, not able to form sentences just yet.
“He goes by the name of Mason Miller, a real treat,” she added the last bit with sarcasm. “I’ll text you the rest of the details.”
“Mkay,” Dan said. “Bye.”
“Talk to you later.”
He hung up and dropped his phone beside himself before rubbing his eyes. He felt like his brain was the weight of a brick and hoped cereal and coffee would cure the problem.
As his coffee brewed, Dan shot a quick good morning text to Phil, still feeling light and fluttery from last night.
A response came almost immediately. Phil was always a quick response and so Dan abandoned any chill he had and responded fast to him too, feeling it was okay.

Michael: Good afternoon* XD
Michael: Did you seriously just wake up?
James: yes
James: sleep is the best thing since sliced bread
Michael: I’m pretty sure sleep was before sliced bread, but sure.
James: oh shush
James: i’ve still got sleepy brain

Dan cringed at himself after he realised what he sent but Michael sent in a flood of laughing emojis, healing the wound slightly. He poured his coffee and took his cereal over to his couch where he resumed the browsing position and continued texting back and forth with Michael while he waited for Louise to message details. Once she did, he skimmed the info quickly and jotted down a few key parts in notes that he’d go over later while eating and drinking.
Once he did that he checked Michael’s message.

Michael: Up for another MarioKart duel tonight?
James: I’ve got work, sorry :(

On that note, Dan left his nearly empty coffee and half-eaten cereal on the table beside his phone to go take a quick shower. A quick shower for Dan is at least ten to fifteen minutes, though he’d deny if he was asked… which was yet to happen, for logical reasons.
As soon as Dan was out of the shower, he tied a towel around his waist and made his way into his bedroom. He picked out his black skinny jeans and a striped black and white shirt with matching black and white jumper (which might as well have been his whole wardrobe at this point, as he wore them so much).
He dried his hair and got ready for tonight's events: a nightclub and another prick who made too many mistakes.

The rest of the week was a busy for Dan, making up for last weeks slack. He and Phil were quite neutral at the minute and if Dan wasn’t hanging out with Michael for most of his time off, Dan would have picked a fight with Phil out of boredom. Phil would have done the same thing but he must have been busy too, considering Dan didn’t hear so much as a peep out of him.
Instead of worrying about it, Dan enjoyed it. He liked he didn’t have a mean bone in his body while he hung out with Michael, and he even got to catch up with Louise for a lunch they spent doubled over with their hands clutching their stomachs and tears in their eyes.
By Friday, Dan was feeling more than alright. He was relishing in the positivity instead of the negativity and felt 100%. He still took his depression medication though, knowing the repercussions after forgetting once and vowing to himself never again.
He was laying down on his bed just scrolling through Twitter and Tumblr, liking random shit posts and whatnot, when he got a text from Michael.
Michael mentioned he’d be busy on Friday night, but apparently not. Dan’s past relaxed state was abandoned as he sat upright hastily, reading the message.

Michael: Hey, want to go out for dinner?
Michael: Like as a date?

Dan felt as though he could beat John Cena in a fistfight with the amount of adrenaline flooding his veins at that second. He typed out a quick response.

James: I thought you were busy?
Michael: No. Plans were canceled.

Dan could feel his heart hammering in his chest and he ran his sweaty palm through his curls, no doubt messing them up.

James: sure :)
James: let me get ready tho, I’m a mess Rn
Michael: lol me too. Pick you up in half an hour?
James: yea
Michael: :)

Dan slipped off the bed and kicked off his slippers. He threw open his cupboard and looked at the variety of outfits before him and then remembered he didn’t have a dress code.

Michael: Whatever suits you.

Dan tossed his phone back onto his bed and he knew his bottom lip would bleed by how harshly he was biting it to keep a stupid grin from emerging on his face. He pushed an assortment of clothes to the side to study what somewhat fancy clothes he owned.
After a couple minutes of just standing in front of his wardrobe and staring, he grabbed a couple of button-ups and a pair of jeans.

Twenty valuable minutes of changing outfit and ten messing with his curls, Dan was still a ball of mess and nerves. He was going to turn and go back to his closet to change into a different sweater when his phone buzzed.

Michael: Just realised… I don’t have your address lol.
Michael: Want to meet at the Christmas market?
James: Sure.

Dan looked back to his mirror one last time and studied the outfit. He wore his black jeans (then ones without rip this time) and a black shirt beneath a black jacket with half white-half black sleeves. His shoes were also black of course and zipped up the side.
He sucked in a deep breath, trying not to think about how this was the first time they’d called it a date. Dan could consider the times he hung out a Michael’s eating pizza and watching movies or playing MarioKart as dates, but they weren’t as final as this.
He switched off everything in his flat (double checking) and made his way down to get a taxi.

Dan looked up from his phone’s home page to see Michael waving with a big smile. He didn’t even have the chance to message Michael asking where he was while the taxi drove away from the kerb.
“Michael,” Dan grinned back.
Michael came over and squeezed Dan into a tight hug and pulling away far too quickly for Dan’s liking. However, when he saw Michael’s lit up eyes and excited expression, he was fine with it.
“Thanks for coming. It was all last minute and I wasn’t sure you’d come at all, but here you are!” Michael babbled.
“I didn’t have anywhere important to be. Why’d you choose the market?”
“We’re going mince pie and mulled wine tasting!”
“I knew Bake Off was preparing me for something,” Dan said, earning a chuckled from Michael before he was pulled into the hustle and bustle of the crowded and cramped streets.
They visited various stalls that sold mulled wine and mince pies and rated the taste and texture on a scale of 1 to 10 while they nonsensically maundered in both ways.
More than a few mulled wines and ten million different mince pies later, Dan’s face felt hot and his stomach rumbled in an unappreciative way.
Michael laughed, poking fun at Dan’s pout and the grumbling from his stomach, but they did decide to walk out of the market and as soon as they were in a much less crowded space, Michael subtly held out his hand for Dan. Dan took it with a dimpled grin and directed his eyes to the ground in front of them.
“It’s nice out tonight,” Michael said, breaking the silence and redirecting Dan’s attention away from the chatter coming from the market.
Dan hummed in response and looked up to the sky too. The stars seemed brighter tonight — not that would know, he barely looked outside his window let alone went outside at night, but the stars were still beautiful and stood out distinctly from the dark blue and black sky.
They were passing the Southbank river and sat at one of the seats that was under a street lamp and had a good view of the city lights dancing in the ripple of the water.
Dan knew his nose would be red and he could see his breath fog up in front of him every time he exhaled.
Their hands were still intertwined and Dan couldn’t have thought of anything more peaceful. This beat MarioKart and take-out by a long shot.
Michael’s thumb began stroking the back of Dan’s palm and Dan felt as an electric shock was passing through him.
He was a little more than buzzed from the wines the two had shared (not wanting to spend any more than they had to and both of them also secretly enjoying passing the drink to the other and the warm feeling that sprang through them at the slightest touch of the other’s fingers).
“Hey James?”
“I want to tell you something.”
Dan tore his gaze away from the lights and studied Michael’s anxious expression. He was biting his lip and averting his eyes, not looking at Dan directly, so Dan was just a bit nervous but tried his hardest not to show that in his voice.
“What’s up?”
“I guess… I’ve lied to you a little?”
Dan knew Michael’s stomach was churning and so he squeezed his hand to reassure him, which worked but just a little.
“It’s okay, you can tell me. As long as you haven’t killed anyone,” Dan joked and Michael chuckled nervously.
“I uh, when I met you at that party ball thing, I was doing something for a friend and had to be completely undercover, and that included having a fake name.”
Dan frowned. Why was he ‘undercover’? Who was this friend and what was he doing for them? Why did it take Michael so long to say this?
I mean, I shouldn’t be one to judge, Dan decided.
“Why are you telling me now?”
“I… I don’t know. It never seemed like the right time before.”
“Oh, okay,” Dan was still a bit confused but shook it off best he could. “What do I call you then?”
“Phil. My name’s Phil Lester.”
Dan’s blood ran cold and he froze, all warm thoughts about Michael… or Phil rushing from his brain.
Dan sucked in a sharp breath and he felt as if someone had taken an icicle and driven it right through his heart. His body rattled with every new breath and he suddenly stood, dropping Phil’s hand as he did.
“I… I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have lied, please don’t go,” Phil sounded completely *broken*, and that didn’t help. At all.
Dan was utterly speechless. This couldn’t be the same person he was rivals with. He can’t have *possibly* had this much fun with *Phil Lester*.
Dan’s stare was icy as he looked back at Phil, who’s eyes looked wet. “I-I’ve got t- I’ve got to go.”
Dan was shaking as he walked away, his once warm hand being held by Michael now cold and he couldn’t help but feel alone as his eyes started to burn. He had one person he could call about this, and he called her right away.
Louise sounded as if Dan had woken her and he felt even worse. His voice was raspy and dry as he replied and tears spilled over his cheeks. “I’ll call you back later.”
“Dan? What’s wrong? I’m awake.”
She did sound wide awake now and he muffled a sob into his hand as he rushed past the market, making a beeline for his apartment.
“I can come over. I’ll call a babysitter or something-”
“No,” Dan choked out, his voice breaking. “You don’t have to come. I’m at Southbank anyway.”
“What’s happened?”
Lou’s mother-voice was on and Dan had already told her about Michael and how he felt about him. Lou was just as enthusiastic as Dan about the relationship he’d formed, but she didn’t show any sadness or hopelessness when Dan explained what happened.
Dan’s mind was still foggy from the mulled wines and his face and stomach felt too hot.
“Get home, okay?”
“Mkay,” Dan sniffled.
“Eat what you can and go to sleep. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, it’s too late right now.”
Dan had turned onto his street and let Louise know so she didn’t worry about him getting home.

Back in bed, Dan felt like a light had been switched off inside of him and a dementor had come so suck away his joy. He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling.
Michael was always making him smile and laugh and now he didn’t have that. The one person who would be awake right now and the person Dan wanted to talk to about this was *Michael*, but he couldn’t.
Dan rolled over and blinked the tears out of his eyes, checking the time on his phone. 12:38am. He’d been crying for over two and a half hours. Wow.
He saw he had an iMessages notification and rubbed his sore eyes so they’d adjust more to the light but he wishes he hadn’t.
Expecting a message from his mum, there was a message from Phil instead. Dan didn’t have the time to block him before — this thoughts were too preoccupied — and Dan felt like bursting into tears again when he tapped on the string of texts.

Michael: I’m really really sorry James.
Michael: Please come back, I never wanted to hurt you. I just wanted to tell you.
Michael: I’m sorry.

Meanwhile at Phil’s apartment, he felt absolutely heartbroken and like someone had dumped an ice bucket over him.
He felt more than a little pathetic sending the texts but his heart overrode his mind and he was clicking send before he even thought to give James some space. After the third message he turned off his phone completely and left it in the kitchen so he wouldn’t be tempted to see if James ever replied to him.
Phil went to bed and tried to fall asleep right away but it was a couple hours before he did.

Dan woke up with the sun glaring down on him. He’d forgotten to close his curtains last night and Dan would have enjoyed the warm day if not for his smashing headache and feeling like his brain was fried.
The memories of last hit him all at once but he felt numb and had to force himself to roll over and check his phone. It was one in the afternoon and Louise had messaged to check up on him. Dan cleared the messages from Phil and rubbed his temple.
As much as he wanted to stay in bed for the rest of eternity to see if that would help un-shatter his heart, Dan knew he had to get up and do something.
After a couple more minutes of laying in bed, he pulled himself up and showered and brushed his teeth. After he dried his hair, he felt a bit better, and texting Louise asking if she wanted to go out for a late lunch. It was a Saturday though and she had to look after her kids so she called for a rain check instead.
He spent the rest of the day in his lounge switching between YouTube and Netflix until Louise had put her kids to bed.

Lou: hey dan, sorry I couldn’t talk all day xx
Dan: it’s cool
Lou: tell me what happened last night?

Dan spent a couple minutes drafting a text and sent it then resumed his show as he waited for a response.

Lou: I know you two have a long, long history and i’m not saying you’re in the wrong but why did you leave him there last night?
Dan: because it’s phil lester
Lou: your rivalry started with nothing and I can tell you liked Michael, his ‘alter ego’ you could say. they’re basically the same person

Louise wanted the relationship to work out between Phil and Dan, as she knew Dan had been happier since he met ‘Michael’, and she knew the nemesis thing they had was just based on pride and they were contesting like two peacocks.

Lou: have you told him who you are yet?
Lou: did you want it to work out with Michael?
Dan: yes
Lou: I’m sure you can put away the enemy thing then, if you liked Michael that much then you like Phil that much

Dan couldn’t help but dislike that Louise was a genius at the best of times. He felt like her kid sometimes and she did joke that he was sometimes training for when she was looking after Darcy and Pearl.

Lou: go text him you big oaf

Dan smiled half heartedly and clicked into his and Phil’s messages. He rubbed his eyes and groaned as he thought of what to say and how to start it. He stared at his phone screen for twenty minutes, having to tap it a few times so it wouldn’t turn off, and finally sent something. The start of something, anyway.

James: hey

Phil was minding his own business rereading a Stephen King novel with his glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose when he heard his phone beep. He expected it to be a reply from his mum so he frowned and almost lost the page in his book when he saw it was from James. He felt his heart pounding in his chest as he typed back.

Phil: Hey
James: sorry for leaving you last night, it just shocked me
Phil: I’m sorry for lying. I didn’t want to ruin what we had.

Dan smiled. Leave it up to Micha- *Phil* to lie about himself so he didn’t ruin a relationship.

James: you haven’t. i’ve just been an idiot

Phil smiled.

James: i’ve also lied. there’s a reason to why i got so freaked out yesterday
Phil: You can’t do any worse than me.
James: wanna bet?
Phil: ?
James: i also lied about who i am
Phil: Why’d you get upset about who I am then?
James: because my real name’s Dan
James: Dan Howell

Dan bit his lip nervously as soon as he saw the ‘Read’ notification.
Meanwhile, Phil was not so lowkey freaking out. His sleepy brain was trying to function but Phil was finding it difficult to process what he’d judge read and couldn’t put his thoughts into words. This explained why Dan had left so abruptly, but… for real?

Phil: No fucking way.
Dan: yeah…

Phil said the one thing that he could.

Phil: Can’t believe you stole my hit after flirting with me. :(

Dan snorted before he could stop himself and bit the inside of his cheeks. He was unbelievably thankful Phil wasn’t as dramatic about it, and he felt the familiar warmth flood through him as he and Phil bickered about who started their grudge against the other.
Dan quickly informed Louise what had happened and she was just as happy for him as he was for himself.

Dan: can’t help but feel like this is a really shitty and cheesy book
Lou: don’t be ridiculous. meet him ASAP and spare me the dirty details
Lou: or don’t. up to you ;)
Dan: stop being a perv and go to sleep. i’ll text you tomorrow
Lou: fine. Love you, be safe xx
Dan: you too xx

Dan was going to text Phil asking if he wanted to meet up but decided against it and wanting to surprise Phil instead, so he sprang out of his bed and changed into track pants and an oversized black hoodie, not bothering to change out of his band shirt. He pulled on shoes and called an Uber. He heard his phone dinging and put it on silent, knowing he would spoil the surprise if he looked at the texts Phil was sending.

Phil: You’re such an idiot.
Phil: This feels so surreal, honestly.
Phil: …Where’d you go?

Phil thought Dan was just getting tea or dinner or something, so he waited (not so) patiently for Dan to reply. A couple minutes later, he got a text.

Dan: you have pants on?
Phil: That’s third date material, Dan. XD
Dan: i’m serious
Phil: What? Why?

Phil heard his intercom buzz from the kitchen and he shook his head.

Phil: You didn’t…

He didn’t get a reply so he got out of bed and went to his intercom, clicking the button.
“I did,” Dan sang into the speaker and Phil shook his head again, buzzing Dan in.
“You’re ridiculous.”
“You like it.”
Phil pushed his quiff off his forehead and readjusted his glasses, thankful he’d put on a hoodie and a pair of emoji pyjama pants Dan had already teased him mercilessly about.
He heard a rhythmic knock at his apartment door and opened it, seeing Dan with a massive dimpled grin plastered on his face and tears in his eyes. Dan stepped forward and engulfed Phil in a hug, which Phil promptly returned.
“Have you been crying?” Phil asked, slightly worried and squeezing Dan hard.
“A little,” Dan said and enjoyed the hug for another few seconds before pulling away. “I just… can’t believe you’re so forgiving.”
“Thank god that I am,” Phil smiled, his heart warm from seeing Dan’s messy hair and poor choice of outfit. Dan always took time in his appearance so the fact that he didn’t give a shit at the minute made Phil feel important.
“I feel like this is where you kiss me, Phil,” Dan smirked.
“You- you want to?” Phil blushed, feeling stupid.
Dan nodded and Phil grinned. He didn’t lean in, so Dan did and immediately felt addicted to it. It didn’t feel like any other kisses he’d had; this one felt so much more special. Phil’s lips felt soft against his own and they both felt a surge of heat and comfort overtake them. Phil’s hands fell to wrap around Dan’s waist and squeeze him impossibly closer and tighter.
They both pulled away from the kiss with a toothy smile and Dan kicked the door closed with his foot.
“MarioKart and wine?” Phil asked.
“Of course, who do you take me for?” Dan scoffed.
They set about different ways, with Dan setting up the Switch and Phil getting the wine bottle and glasses.
The wine made them giggly and warm while they played, and Dan fell asleep in Phil’s arms while Phil tangled his fingers in Dan’s curls and planted a kiss to the top of Dan’s head, falling asleep too.