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before we turn into a monster (with two heads)

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When Dan comes to, it’s to find that he’s trapped in a small, dark space, because of course.

“Once this case is over, I’m getting a new job. Maybe one where I just sit in my bedroom and make videos about my life. That would be nice,” Dan muses dreamily to himself—or rather, mumbles indistinctly to himself, because it’s a little hard to articulate when you’ve been shoved into the trunk of a moving car, bound, and gagged.

He stretches out his limbs, desperate to find something; anything that he can use to escape this predicament. But there’s nothing besides his cramped body and the lingering smell of mothballs in this trunk. The cold metal of his gun is not present at his ankle where it should be, and the familiar weight of his phone is missing from the pocket of his pants.

Overall, he’s pretty fucked. But he’s been in worse situations before. None of them are coming to mind at the moment, of course, but that probably has something to do with the fact that he’d been hit on the head pretty hard earlier. He hopes he’s not concussed, but the fact that every turn the car takes makes his stomach lurch and jolt queasily isn’t an encouraging sign.

As though the universe is reading Dan’s mind and is determined to fuck with him a little further, the car begins slowing to a stop, which is nice because, hey, no more nausea! But also, hey, imminent death!

He immediately folds his body as much as he can so that his legs are ready to kick out the second the trunk door is lifted open. He’s not going to go down complacently, that’s for sure.

But whoever it is that has kidnapped him is obviously prepared for the fact that Dan will not submit quietly, because a rough hand is reaching in through the side of the trunk and yanking him bodily out of the back of the car before he can do anything or react.

And Dan freezes and goes a little limp with dread for an instant, because as soon as he’s out of the dank, stale air of the trunk, the familiar scent of the Thames River, vaguely briny and musty, hits his nose.

The disposal of the corpse of a secret agent isn’t something to be done carelessly, because the entire English government is going to be out looking for him when he’s reported missing. Clearly his captor knows this if he’s brought him to the river to get rid of him.

Yeah, he’s pretty fucked. Phil’s never going to even know what happened to him.

(And if Dan dies, he’s 100% coming back to haunt Phil to his grave. Because Dan had known all along that they shouldn’t have accepted this fucking case.)

 5 days previous

Everything goes to shit on a Tuesday, as it always seems to. When he was eleven, Dan had gotten pantsed in front of the entire school on a Tuesday. His pet goldfish had died on a Tuesday. The first time he’d gotten shot had been on a Tuesday.

He gets shot again on this particular Tuesday, and it’s not even the worst part of his day, which just goes to show how fucked he really is.

It starts in the morning with a bust gone wrong.

“Christ, Phil,” Dan complains loudly as the petite lady from the med team helps him sit on a stretcher afterwards. Across the way, Felix is wrangling their criminal friend—a Frenchman by the name of Hugo Olivier; a particularly powerful linchpin in the London drug-dealing business—into handcuffs. “I’d rather have Louise as a partner in the field if this is how it’s going to go.”

He doesn’t mean it, of course—Louise, while excellent at her job in wardrobe/disguises at the agency, is a danger to everyone around her, including herself, in hostile situations. (Dan’s not even sure if she’s cleared for active duty anymore, because the last time the building had been attacked by an elite group of Ukrainian spies, she had accidentally pepper-sprayed Grimmy and then almost stabbed him through the heart with some sewing scissors when he’d come by to give the all-clear after the breach.)

Phil knows this all perfectly well—he is currently lounging on a spare stretcher across from Dan, rubbing his temples, and he spares a minute to grin at Dan, clearly unconcerned by his threats. “I’ll gladly switch places with Louise if it means I get to watch you two attempt to navigate an undercover mission together.”

Felix guffaws from across the way. “Remember the time that 009 came by the agency and Dan and Louise were stuffing their faces with sandwiches in the lobby?”

“Shut up, Felix,” Dan grumbles. It’s a delicate memory—Finn Harries (009) is MI6’s golden boy, and he’d come by MI5 for the first time a few months ago, only to encounter Dan and Louise spewing bits of bread and choking in the lobby in casual loungewear as his first impression of the agency. Needless to say, Grimmy hadn’t been happy—the MI6 people, who deal with foreign affairs, are already insufferable about the fact that MI5 only works on domestic crime. (Case in point: right after they’d apprehended Olivier, his first comment had been an offended: “Really? They didn’t even put MI6 on my tail? I got stuck with MI5? You know what; take me in. I don’t deserve to be a criminal anymore.” And he’d stopped fighting Felix and held his hands out to be cuffed.)

“Remember the time that you and Marzia from weapons were sleeping together and the whole agency knew about it?” Dan continues snarkily, wincing as the med team lady begins wiping down the wound on his arm with antiseptic. (Marzia is actually one of his good friends, and she’s an absolutely kickass weapons instructor and he secretly thinks that she and Felix are an adorable couple and he calls dibs on being the godfather to their first child, but he’s never going to admit any of that out loud—to Felix, anyway.)

Felix, who is definitely more a man of actions than words, picks up one of Olivier’s shoes, which had fallen off at some point in the struggle to get him handcuffed, and throws it at Dan’s head. It whizzes by his left ear, a narrow miss.

“Hey, fuck off; I’ve been shot!” Dan yelps indignantly.

“Hey, fuck off; those are genuine leather!” Olivier shouts in heavily-accented English. Or at least that’s what Dan thinks he says. French is a difficult language, which is what had landed him on this stretcher in the first place.

Phil groans. “Will everyone stop shouting? I didn’t get to drink my coffee because someone thought they’d start shooting up the room before brunch ended. My head is killing me.”

“It’s not my fault that your little friend decided to threaten my family in the middle of our meal—”

“First of all, I’m taller than him,” Dan interjects, because he hadn’t always been taller than Phil and it’s still one of the small victories that gets him through the work day. “And second of all, if you weren’t the leader of a drug trafficking ring—”

Allegedly the leader of a drug trafficking ring,” Olivier defends hastily.

“Oh, no, don’t worry. We got your confession on record,” Phil jumps in with a reassuring smile, although he genuinely looks a bit pained.

“We can stop for a McDonald’s on the way back; don’t worry, Phil,” Felix says kindly. “And I have some aspirin if you want it.”

“Seriously?” Dan says. “Like, I know caffeine headaches are a real thing, but—”

“Yes, yes, we know. You’ve been shot,” Felix cuts him off. “But you don’t need stitches and it barely grazed you. Forgive me for not weeping over your prone form.”

“Fuck you and your Scandinavian austerity,” Dan grumbles, because Felix has a mysterious Swedish accent that he refuses to discuss, and it’s Dan’s life goal to learn Felix’s complete backstory one day.

“Here, let me see your arm,” Phil says, clambering to his feet. He comes closer, bending a little so that he can examine the graze on Dan’s right forearm, his face intent. Dan has had much, much worse, but the bleeding, shredded skin still hurts like hell.

“Well, at least it doesn’t need stitches,” Phil comments, but his brow is wrinkled in sympathy and it makes Dan feel a little better. “And hey, we nailed Olivier after—what? 7 months of working on the case? Not a bad morning, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, well…you’re not the one who got shot,” Dan grumbles, but it lacks any real fire, because as the med lady comes back and begins wrapping his arm, Phil stays with him the entire time.

It’s a very weird ride back to the agency (no matter how many times Dan goes through the McDonald’s drive-thru with a handcuffed criminal in the backseat, it never ceases being strange).

“So,” Felix says conversationally, when Phil has his coffee and they are all happily munching on chips (minus Olivier, who has settled for completely ignoring them and periodically muttering darkly to himself in French as he steals longing glances at Dan’s food). “Who knew Dan’s French was so bad?”

“I think it’s quite good,” Phil says loyally. “Er—mostly.”

“I never claimed it was good to start with. And it’s Phil’s fault for being lactose intolerant,” Dan says, before realizing how odd this all sounds. “God, the paperwork for this is going to be a nightmare.”

Sure enough, when they get back to the agency, the receptionist immediately notifies Dan and Phil that Grimmy wants to see them.

Nick Grimshaw is in charge of all of MI5, and he is constantly vacillating between exasperation and reluctant admiration where Dan and Phil are concerned. Exasperation, because of all the paperwork the two of them cause, and admiration, because somehow—seriously, Dan doesn’t understand how it’s possible either—they have the highest case closure rate in the whole agency.

“So…let me get this straight,” he says, squinting at Dan and Phil from across his untidy desk. “You got Hugo Olivier—London’s most wanted dealer—to talk by eating brunch with him?”

“The man loves brunch,” Dan explains with a shrug. “What’s so confusing about that?”

Grimmy pinches the bridge of his nose and looks as though he is praying for strength. “What’s this I hear about you making threats against Olivier’s family, Howell?”

“It’s my fault, sir,” Phil interjects automatically, because he’s a really good partner, even when he’s been deprived of caffeine.

“Somehow I highly doubt that,” Grimmy says shrewdly, turning back to Dan. “Howell. Explain.”

“Well, we went over there for brunch and we were undercover as some contacts looking to expand his dealings up into the north—only because Phil is hilarious when he returns to his northern roots—”

Grimmy sighs and drums his fingers on the desk impatiently. He somehow terrifies Dan, even though Dan doesn’t think he’d have a full enough range of motion in his painted-on skinny jeans to actually physically harm anyone.

“Anyway, he was being really close-mouthed all throughout brunch—which was gross, by the way; he kept trying to serve us French delicacies, and there’s just something so wrong about eating snails for breakfast—”

“He kept trying to get me to eat really expensive French cheese and he was getting offended when I wouldn’t accept it,” Phil takes over smoothly, saving Dan from his nervous rambling. This is why they are such good partners; the fact that they can read one another without words—Phil can almost certainly tell that he’s jittery from the shock of being grazed by that bullet; that he’s achy and tired and grumpy from Felix being…well, Felix. And similarly, Dan knows that the caffeine from the McDonald’s coffee hasn’t kicked in yet for Phil, simply from the fact that Phil is clenching and unclenching the fingers on his right hand like he always does when he’s uncomfortable.

“And that somehow led to Howell threatening to blow up the entire house?” Grimmy asks flatly.

“No, see, I’m lactose intolerant, and I was trying to explain it in English, but he couldn’t understand me. So then Dan tried to explain in French—”

“And apparently I actually threatened to kill everyone in the house, rather than explain why Phil can’t eat cheese,” Dan shrugs in a what-can-you-do manner.

“Anyway, it turns out that his granddaughter was secretly staying with him for the time being, and he thought that we knew about her being there and that we were threatening her. So he pulled out a gun and shot Dan on the arm, and we told him we were MI5 and took out our guns. And then he panicked and started confessing all sorts of things and begging us to spare her, and Felix brought in the back-up and we nabbed him,” Phil concludes.

“So you threatened a civilian child,” Grimmy says flatly.

“I mean…yes? Technically? But not really,” Dan says meekly. “It was an accident.”

Grimmy sighs and puts his face in his hands. “Christ, the paperwork,” he mutters to himself before lifting his face.

“Well, it consoles me to know that I’m about to send you somewhere where you can’t cause me any more paperwork for a very long time,” Grimmy announces and Dan feels his stomach drop.

“Not—not to petty crime?” Dan asks nervously. Petty crime is where everyone gets sent when they’re coming off injured leave, and it basically means sitting at a desk and trying to bust businessmen for committing tax fraud. The last time Dan had been put on petty crime, he’d begged Phil to blow up an insurance building over the weekend so that Dan would at least have something interesting to do with his week.

“No, but only because I don’t want to punish the petty crime department by sending you there,” Grimmy shakes his head. “No, I’m sending you out on a special assignment with MI6. They asked for you a few days ago and I told them no, because I know that you’ll inevitably do something to make MI5 look bad. But apparently the situation they’re dealing with has escalated in severity, and frankly, I need a break from trying to justify your actions in my reports for a week or two.”

“What? No! I promise we won’t put a toe out of line for the next two weeks. Don’t send us over there!” Dan exclaims dramatically.

Grimmy narrows his eyes. “You got something against MI6, Howell? They are an agency of our government.” Which is absurd, because Grimmy hates MI6. He must really be sick of them to pawn them off to the enemy.

“Dan embarrassed himself in front of 009 a few months ago, and now he doesn’t want to see anyone from MI6,” Phil explains, and even though they are sitting down, Dan somehow accidentally trods on his partner’s foot, quite hard.

“Yes, I remember that well, thanks very much,” Grimmy says succinctly. “Anyway, they’re expecting you in two hours. Let me find the address.”

Dan resists the urge to thunk his forehead against the solid wood of the desk in front of him. “Can you at least tell us what kind of work we’ll be expected to do?” He asks as Grimmy fishes around through his papers, morosely fiddling with the bandage on his arm. He’d been imagining ducking out of the office early and going straight home to take painkillers and sleep for fourteen hours.

“Stop messing with that,” Phil chides, elbowing him. “Or I’ll call your mum and tell her you got shot and you’re not taking care of yourself.”

“I’m just adjusting the bandage—it’s not like I’m rubbing e. coli into an open flesh wound,” Dan snaps irritably.

Grimmy passes Phil a file with the pertinent information, looking oddly delighted by their back-and-forth. “It’s classified until you get to MI6 headquarters, but let me tell you, you two are going to be perfect for the job.” He chortles merrily, which doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm in Dan. Whatever MI6 has in store for them must be particularly humiliating for Grimmy to display so much open amusement at their expense.

Dan tries his best not to storm as he leaves the office, but he’s glad Phil, who is more level-headed and diplomatic, is the one to quietly close the door behind them. He’s pretty sure he would have slammed it nice and hard if it had been him.

“Fuck,” he groans, grabbing his wallet and keys from his desk. “MI6 is so laddy.”

“Well, it might be a nice opportunity to make some new friends,” says Phil, the tireless optimist. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile Phil—who wears jumpers emblazoned with foxes and other woodland creatures; who somehow befriends everyone he meets, even most of their criminal targets; who breaks dishes at least twice a week—with a dangerous, highly-trained agent working in top government security.

Dan rolls his eyes. “We don’t socialize, Phil. Remember?”

“We socialize with each other! And Louise and Felix sometimes. And Chris and PJ down in tech. And we got drunk at Grimmy’s that one time, remember?”

“We don’t talk about that night,” Dan reproves with a shudder. “And the two of us socializing doesn’t count—we’re—it’s different.”

“Yeah?” Phil says, an odd expression on his face, like he is trying to be casual but not quite succeeding.

“’Course. We’re partners. Us hanging out is like when you go home and talk to your parents about your day or tell your brother about the new video game you’re playing. It’s not like making an effort to see someone; it’s just—different.”

“Oh,” Phil says, “Right.” He seems to shake himself a little bit. “Anyway, traffic is going to be horrible so we should go grab a cab.”

Dan groans. “Couldn’t you just like—”

“No, I’m not tripping you or accidentally pushing you down the stairs or any other thing you want me to do to get you out of this. Come on, you can sleep in the cab,” Phil says briskly, gently shoving Dan towards the elevator.

“I’m twenty-four; I don’t need a nap,” Dan says grumpily.

Of course, he has to eat his words an hour later when their cab is pulling up in front of the MI6 building and Dan is wiping drool from his mouth and rubbing sleep from his eyes and lifting his head off Phil’s shoulder.

“Wha’s goin’ on,” he mumbles groggily when Phil pokes him awake.

“You’re drooling on my jumper,” Phil says sedately. “And we’re supposed to be in a meeting with the head of national security in ten minutes.”

“Fuck!” Dan is suddenly wide awake, sorting out his fringe and rummaging in his pockets for a breath mint. “Phil! Why didn’t you wake me up?”

Phil rolls his eyes as he climbs out of the cab. “You clearly needed the rest. I don’t think you lasted two blocks before you were out like a light.”

“It’s just the adrenaline crash,” Dan says defensively.

“I know,” Phil says, and his eyes soften slightly. “That’s why I let you sleep. You’ll be fine; it was the perfect length for a power nap.”

“Shit,” Dan says, noticing the suspicious dark spot on Phil’s shoulder. “I really drooled on you.”

The thing about Dan is that he’s a horribly unattractive public sleeper. In a bed laying down, he’s fine. But in a car or on a train or plane, his head is bobbing all over the place and his mouth is wide open. The worst part is that he can always vaguely feel that he looks hideous, but he’s never awake enough to actually control his body.

“You really did,” Phil says. “I thought you were going to snap your neck; your head was bobbing all over the place.”

“Sorry,” Dan says, scratching the back of his neck. Even though Phil hadn’t been shot at, he’s had just as long of a day as Dan has, and having to watch Dan flop around all over the backseat for an hour probably hadn’t been his idea of a peaceful or visually pleasant commute.

“I don’t mind. It was kind of relaxing, actually,” Phil says, and for some reason a random image of himself and Phil cuddled together in a comfy bed instead of the back of a dirty cab pops into Dan’s mind. He mentally shakes himself, wondering where on earth the idea had come from.

“Really?” He asks. Phil seems genuinely seems unbothered, and Dan isn’t sure what to do with that information.

“Yeah, because you weren’t talking to me,” Phil smiles, elbowing him before grabbing the door to the building and ducking inside.

Dan rolls his eyes as he follows. “Of course,” he says to himself, because that reason makes a lot more sense than any strange explanation his sleep-deprived mind could conjure up.

“God, there are so many lads here,” Dan hisses in Phil’s ear as they sit in the lobby waiting to be called to the director’s office. He’d done a double-take and almost turned around and walked right back out the door when they got here, because Finn Harries had been standing in the lobby chatting with the receptionist. He hadn’t shown any recognition upon seeing Dan, however. (“I think that’s his twin brother, Jack,” Phil had murmured to him, and Dan had promptly tripped over his own feet on accident and smashed a potted plant, because if embarrassing himself in front of one Harries twin wasn’t enough, he had to go and do it in front of the other, too.)

“We don’t know any of these people, Dan; I’m sure they’re perfectly nice,” Phil says, but he looks a little uncertain as he glances through the glass wall of the game room (apparently Dan’s taxes had helped pay for MI6 to have an Xbox and a Wii) where a group of agents are hanging out. Dan recognizes some of them—Alfie Deyes, Joe Sugg, Caspar Lee—from various interdepartmental reports, but he’s never talked to any of them before.

“They’re playing FIFA during business hours,” Dan points out, but he waves back when the group of agents glance over and nod and wave at him and Phil in a friendly-enough manner.

They get called by the receptionist then, and he leads them back to the director’s office.

The MI6 director is not exactly who Dan had been expecting. Her name is Susan Wojcicki, according to the Oxford diploma on the wall, and at first glance she looks like she could be just an average middle-aged mum who goes to football games and shops at Tesco. She’d be hard to pick out in a crowd, actually, were it not for something flinty and strong in her gaze. Dan feels like she is looking right through him as she opens the door to her office to invite them in.

“Welcome, boys. Thanks for coming,” she says with a smile, shaking each of their hands in turn and ushering them to sit in front of her perfectly-organized desk. “I’m sorry to call you in so suddenly, but I’m afraid this can’t wait any longer.”

She takes a seat at her desk and flips open a file with both of their pictures and information inside.

“So, Agent Howell and Agent Lester. Your case record is impressive—beyond impressive, in fact. That is exactly what I need for this case. It’s a delicate situation and most of my agents work alone. I need people who can function as a cohesive unit, and you both come highly recommended from Grimshaw.”

And that’s just like Grimmy, to laugh in their faces and be kind behind their backs. Susan continues to flip idly through their information. “You’ve been partners for how long?”

“Six years,” Phil supplies. “I got recruited in 2006 and Dan joined in 2009.”

“You’re both very young to have such a long and successful career,” Susan remarks. “It’s a wonder Grimshaw let me borrow you.”

“Yeah, a real wonder,” Dan snorts. Phil shoots him a warning look and takes over.

“How can we help?” Phil asks in a way that would make Dan sound like a brown-nosing douche, but just makes him sound respectfully attentive. (Middle-age people love Phil—Dan’s mum is always asking him why he doesn’t “bring that polite young man round more often.”)

“I’m afraid that a very serious situation has developed over the past few months here in London. As of today, three couples who were planning to adopt children have been mysteriously found dead. All six of the deaths happened within just days of each of the couples being approved for their adoption.”

Dan feels his stomach sink. He and Phil have certainly faced murderers before, but usually it was gang violence or drug dealers killing off snitches or assassinations amongst the London elite. But for someone to be killing innocent couples; for children and families to be involved in this case, even indirectly…is bad. Very bad.

“These three couples don’t have much tying them together, other than the fact that they all were seeking to adopt. So far, the only real lead we have is the fact that all of the attempted adoptions were international adoptions.”

Dan suddenly has a horrible feeling about where this is all leading and why Grimmy had been so amused when he sent them over.

“So…are we going to be looking into the case? Investigating for links amongst the three couples?” Dan asks hopefully, even though he knows what the answer is going to be.

“Well, that will certainly be part of your work, yes. But the real mission is to send both of you undercover as a couple trying to adopt so that we can find out firsthand what’s really going on here.”

“Of course it is,” Dan mutters under his breath. It’s low enough that Susan can’t hear it across her desk, but Phil kicks his chair.

And Dan knows they’ll do it. Phil takes his role as a protector of the innocent with the ultimate seriousness, and it’s not even in an annoying, superior way like it would be if it were anyone else; like it is with half the agents at both MI5 and 6. It’s just that Phil is naturally such a good person who wants to keep everyone safe, and it’s one of the things Dan admires most about Phil—that after nine years of witnessing senseless horror and violence, he still cares just as much.

The other thing is that Phil is a little weird about murder—well, hopefully everyone Dan knows is a little weird about murder, but Phil in particular. There had been a case at some point in time, not long before Dan had come around…and it had ended badly. That’s all that Dan knows. Someone had been killed on a case Phil had been working, and Phil had taken it to heart and continues to take it to heart.

It’s always seemed like an incredibly private pain, however. Dan would gladly help Phil bear it, but he’s never been sure if he would be welcome to step in and shoulder some of the weight, or if that would cross some invisible line in their partnership.

“…hoping the two of you will be able to penetrate the adoption community and get to the heart of what is going on,” Susan is saying when Dan tunes back in, compiling files for them to read.

Dan catches Phil’s eye and mouths “not a good enough reason to use the word ‘penetrate’,” because Phil secretly loves Pitch Perfect.

Phil lets out a laugh that he quickly strangles into a cough.

“Yes, hopefully our penetration will have results,” Phil says respectfully, clearing his throat. He reprovingly kicks Dan in the ankle when Susan turns back around, but he is fighting a smile for the rest of their meeting.

Their mission is scheduled to begin promptly…tomorrow, which means that even after the day they’ve had, they still have to get fitted with clothes to match their new identities before they can leave MI6.

It’s nearing 9 PM as he and Phil slump down to the basement where the wardrobe department is. They haven’t eaten dinner, and they’ve spent the past three hours poring over computer screens and files to learn as much as they can about the details of the case and their new lives. Dan’s head throbs dully with every step he takes, and the painkillers he’d taken for his arm that morning had worn off hours ago.

The wardrobe lady, Zoe, is cheerful and efficient in spite of the hour, and they are out the door by 10:30, armed with suitcases of horrible clothing (Dan had only been allowed one casual t-shirt and one pair of standard-issue, boot cut jeans—which he shudders at and promptly vows to never actually allow within five feet of his body).

According to the new driver’s license and credit cards in his new (genuine leather) wallet, Dan is now Dan Striker, married to Phil Striker for the past two years (there had been an epic glaring battle over the last name earlier—Phil, who had always wanted that to be his superhero name, had suggested it during their planning session and Dan hadn’t wanted to argue about it out loud in front of the head of national security, so the two of them had just squinted furiously at each other until Susan asked if they were okay and if she needed to dim the office lights so they could see properly).

Dan Striker works as a paralegal but has taken time off to focus on adopting and building a family, and Phil Striker is a writer who works from their home in an upscale flat on the outskirts of London.

Basically they’re pretentious yuppies, which Dan finds hilarious, because in real life, his entire wardrobe consists mainly of ironic graphic t-shirts and the skinniest jeans he can fit his massive feet through, and Phil’s apartment is a colorful explosion of the most random and senseless décor Dan has ever seen.

In spite of how thoroughly exhausted he is, he can’t help restlessly drumming his fingers against the window of the darkened cab as they press their way through London traffic, the outside world a blur of neon lights.

Neither of them speak, even though there is probably a lot that they should be saying. There are still tiny details to be figured out—where their honeymoon was, who sleeps on which side of the bed, when they moved in together, etc. The cab stops at Dan’s place first, and he and Phil just nod at one another as Dan wearily clambers out.

There is an itch of discontentment beneath his skin as he drags himself up the stairs to his apartment unit. The whole idea of this mission has got him feeling unsettled; like it is breaking and pushing all the boundaries that he and Phil have carefully set up over the course of their friendship and partnership. In just twelve hours, he will be expected to act like Phil’s husband—to gaze adoringly at him; to touch him with the easy familiarity that people who spend their lives together do.

And something about that doesn’t sit quite right with him, for some reason. He and Phil have gone undercover countless times, playing countless different roles. But this feels…different, somehow.

His phone rings as he is fumbling with his keys, and he grabs it on the last possible ring before it goes to voicemail. It’s Louise on the other end, and it’s late, but he can imagine her sitting up with a glass of red wine, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she paints her toenails.

“I hear you were implying that I’d make a disastrous field partner today,” Louise says by way of greeting, and sure enough, he can hear the clink of a wine glass in the background.

“God, Felix is the worst,” Dan sighs, pulling a microwavable dinner out of his freezer.

“He is, isn’t he?” Louise laughs. “He had some interesting news for me, though. I hear you and Phil have a job starting tomorrow.”

Both of them know better than to talk about agency business over the phone in anything but the vaguest of terms, but Dan can hear the underlying layer of worry beneath Louise’s casual cheeriness.

“Yeah, we’re married; did I forget to tell you? Must have forgotten to send out your invite,” Dan says, figuring it’s best to keep things lighthearted.

“Dan,” Louise says, and her voice is surprisingly serious. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“No, not particularly,” Dan says, wondering what she is getting at. “But it’s our job, so we’re going to do it anyway.”

Louise hums thoughtfully over the line and falls silent for a long minute. “Have you and Phil set boundaries? Discussed limits?”

“Jesus, Louise, it’s not like we’re entering the BDSM scene. This is just a typical job…with a unique twist to it. A new flavor, if you will.”

“First of all, that still sounds incredibly dirty, Dan,” Louise says, and Dan replays his words and mentally cringes.

“It was a metaphor,” Dan groans. “I’m trying to be confidential.”

Louise ignores him. “And second, I don’t want to have to be counseling anyone over a broken heart when all is said and done here.”

“Why would there be any broken hearts?” Dan says, feeling like he is missing something.

“If you can’t figure that out on your own, then I’m not explaining it to you,” Louise sighs, and it’s the same sound Dan has heard her make when she is trying to convince her daughter to take a nap and she is being particularly resistant. “Actually, if you can’t figure it out on your own by this point, you’re probably fucked.”

“I’m confused,” Dan says, because it’s late and he was shot earlier today and he’s somehow just managed to burn a microwaveable meal.

“I’m so glad there’s people as smart as you out there protecting our country,” Louise sighs. There’s definitely an insult there, but Dan is too tired to work out what the hell she is trying to get at.

“Did you meet Zoe over at the other building today, by the way?” Louise continues as Dan pokes unenthusiastically at a charred piece of broccoli.

“Yeah, and she didn’t let me have any skinny jeans when she outfitted us. At all. I’m just going to have to walk around in my underwear the entire time Phil and I are on this job.”

The connection must cut out a little then, because Dan swears he can hear Louise mutter something about Phil not minding that at all.

“She’s just doing her job, Dan,” Louise says at normal volume. “And you be nice about her. We’re wardrobing buddies, you know, and we go for drinks every few weeks. We’re going to gossip about you if you’re not careful.”

“Tell her she can take her argyle sweaters and chinos and shove them—”

It’s probably best for Dan’s own health and safety that he is interrupted from finishing this statement by the sound of his door opening.

He is immediately reaching for the gun he keeps on top of the fridge (he’d kept it at the bottom of his cookie jar for ages, but one night when Phil was staying over and he’d gone looking for a midnight snack, he’d almost accidentally shot his own hand off). After six years of living in a world of thugs and criminals, the motion is scarily second nature.

“Your reaction time has gotten much faster,” Phil comments as he rounds the corner from the front hallway and enters the kitchen.

“I’m going to actually shoot you next time if you don’t knock,” Dan threatens, before remembering he still has Louise on the line.

“Sorry, Louise; I’ve got to go. Phil’s just walked in—oh, and he’s brought food. Never mind, Phil, you’re forgiven!” Dan begins rifling through the takeout bag, pulling out fried rice and egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken, shamelessly moaning at the delicious smell.

“Yeah, I could tell he was there from all the moaning,” Louise says with an oddly suggestive tone, and she sounds like she’s trying to hold back giggles.

“That was me, actually, not Phil,” Dan points out. “The food smells amazing.”

“Oh, Daniel,” Louise sighs as though he is being particularly dense. “Be safe out there, okay? And give Phil my love.”

“Will do,” Dan says, hanging up and turning to Phil. “Louise says hi. She was in a really weird mood.”

“Well, it’s been a weird day,” Phil shrugs.

“Not that I’m not grateful for the spontaneous food delivery, but why are you here?” Dan asks.

“Because I know how you get the night before we go undercover,” Phil says nonchalantly. “And I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with you all day tomorrow if you don’t chill out and get some sleep tonight.”

“I should probably be offended, but I’m mostly just excited for food,” Dan shrugs. It’s interesting to watch Phil confidently navigate through Dan’s kitchen, pulling out dishes and silverware and rummaging through his junk drawer purposefully. They had lived together once, back when Dan was first starting at the agency and they had first become partners. It had been a team-building thing and a way for Dan to save money.

Even now, five years later, he can still see vestiges of their time as roommates in the way that Phil confidently passes him a glass of water with four ice cubes (the exact amount Dan prefers), a carton of lo mein, and two aspirin tablets.

“For your arm,” Phil says, with a nod towards the injured limb.

“Well, gee, Phil, I didn’t know that rubbing lo mein on a gunshot wound was medically advisable, but thanks.”

Phil looks like he is contemplating taking the carton of lo mein and dumping it out over Dan’s head. Dan just flashes his most aggravating grin as he digs into the food, but internally he is thinking about how well Phil knows him; how Phil had known that Dan wouldn’t have eaten, that he wouldn’t have taken any pain meds, that he needed someone with him tonight to get him out of his own head before they’re due to start work tomorrow.

They eat in comfortable silence, but when the rice and egg rolls are all gone, there is nothing to do but confront the inevitable.

“So,” Dan says when the table is cleared and they’ve retired to his lounge. “This is a thing that’s happening.”

“Yes, it would appear that way,” Phil says.

“We can handle it, though, right? Because we’re—we’re seasoned professionals,” Dan says, even as about a thousand memories of the two of them being unprofessional surface in his mind.

“Right. Seasoned professionals,” Phil says, and Dan wonders if he is also thinking of the time that the two of them had abandoned a stakeout to go see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in theaters at midnight. (Of course, luck had been on their side that night, because the woman they had been investigating had actually shown up to the exact same theater and sat two rows in front of them. But then they’d had to explain to Grimmy why they’d made their arrest at a movie theater, and why all three of them—Dan, Phil, and their apprehended art thief—had been teary-eyed and reminiscing about ‘the end of an era’ when they showed back up at MI5 headquarters.)

“We should probably talk about boundaries and stuff though,” Dan says, carefully avoiding Phil’s gaze. “I mean, I’m assuming we’re going to have to share a bedroom and act couple-y and stuff. Is that—are you okay with that?”

“Yeah,” Phil says, his tone unreadable. “Although I’d prefer not to kiss unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable request, but for some reason it hits Dan like a punch to the stomach. “Right. Got it—no kissing unless we really have to. Anything else?” He’d like to think that he’s not that terrible of a person to kiss, but maybe not in Phil’s eyes.

“No, but we should figure out more of our backstory,” Phil says, settling further into his end of the couch—and since when had that pillow become Phil’s Cushion, anyway?

“Okay. How did we meet?”

“I was your favorite author, and you sent me loads of fanmail and tweeted me until I agreed to meet up with you,” Phil grins, and Dan chucks an icecube at him.

“Someone’s got a healthy self-esteem over there,” Dan says, but unfortunately that story is very much based in reality and true past events.

Dan’s uncle had worked for MI5 until retiring a few years ago, and growing up, Dan had always wanted to be an agent when he was older. So during Dan’s teenage years, when Uncle Jim had come to family parties telling stories about their newest recruit, Phil Lester, and all his amazing feats, Dan had been a little enamored.

He’d religiously followed all of Phil’s cases (using slightly-less-than-legal means, but it wasn’t his fault that Uncle Jim’s password to his MI5 files was something as obvious as password123), and right when he turned eighteen, he’d applied to the agency.

Unfortunately, it had been during a time when MI5 was trying to be tech-savvy and new age, so they’d required all applicants to submit a video about themselves, and Dan had submitted what he would later realize was literally the most embarrassing video possible about himself. (Felix, the asshole, had saved a copy and he still likes to play it at agency holiday parties—the grainy image of teenage Dan slowly poking his head onto the screen and saying, “Hi. So, my name is [Dan],” complete with an awkward hand gesture, seems determined to haunt him for the rest of his days.)

He’d been hired on a trial basis, however, as a tech assistant. (At the time, he’d been sure that it was of his own merit, but now he realizes that Uncle Jim had probably had to pull more than a few strings for him.) And he’d made it his life mission to become Phil’s partner, poring over Phil’s cases, following him around and trying to talk to him, leaving pieces of potential evidence on Phil’s desk.

Phil had definitely not been looking for a partner at the time, but he’s always been this nice, so he’d tolerated Dan’s hero worship with a sort of resigned amusement.

Until Dan had taken a bullet for Phil one cold Tuesday morning, and everything changed.

And now here they are, six years later, about to go undercover as a married couple.

“Are you okay with that backstory?” Phil asks.

Dan shrugs. “I guess so. It’s probably best to keep everything as close to the truth as possible, right?”

“Yeah. Who proposed?” Phil says, his tone businesslike.

“You. Where was our first date?”

“We probably just went for a coffee and chatted. How many children do we want?”

It feels wrong to Dan, this rapid-fire approach to building a marriage story. He knows this is all fake, but this is the kind of information that you’re supposed to slowly share with a significant other as you fall into each other’s lives and future plans bit by bit; each piece of your dreams and goals that you share a symbol of the increasingly complex web of threads tying you together.

“We want two or three children,” Dan says, and for him, that’s an honest answer.

Phil swallows and nods, his gaze on Dan suddenly a little uncertain.

“Who kissed who first?” Dan asks softly.

“You, Dan,” Phil says. “I think it would’ve been you.”

Dan nods, standing. “I think I’m going to go to bed,” he says, unable to meet Phil’s eyes. “You staying over?”

Phil glances at the clock, which reads 1:30 AM. “Yeah, might as well at this point. See you in the morning?”

“I call first shower,” Dan says, waving goodnight and ducking into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

Instead, he finds himself splashing cold water on his face and gripping the sink for a long minute, staring at his reflection and allowing himself to remember, for the first time in ages, the night that had led to him moving out of Phil’s apartment.

It had been towards the end of their trial period as partners, and even though it had been almost a year, Dan had still been just as enamored with the job; just as excited that he got to actually work with Phil after all those years of planning and hoping. It had helped that Phil had quickly become his best friend—his first actual best friend, to be honest—and somewhere along the line he’d gotten too comfortable; had started taking for granted that working partnerships have to have limits.

It had been an average night, really—they’d gone to meet some friends down at the pub, had a few pints too many, and stumbled home together. Dan had thrown a frozen pizza in the oven, and they’d collapsed on the couch to wait for it.

And there had been a moment where they’d both looked at each other through the moonlight, and Phil’s eyes had been practically opalescent, and Dan had leaned forward. Of that he’s certain. He’d been the one to lean in.

But Phil hadn’t backed up—until the very last second, that is. He’d looked right at Dan, worrying his lower lip slightly, watching intently as Dan moved closer and closer, and then—

“Sorry,” Phil had said, hastily jumping off the couch. “I think I’d better get going to bed.” And then he’d disappeared into his room for the rest of the night; a clear statement.

The frozen pizza had tasted like sawdust, and they’d never talked about it afterwards. Two weeks later, Dan completed his year of probationary training, and the two of them were officially partners.

“I think I’d better move out,” Dan had said quietly that night after they’d celebrated Dan’s initiation with cake and beer and friends.

And Phil had nodded and let him go.

He doesn’t go over to Phil’s place much anymore. Even after five years, it still feels a little bit like coming home each time he steps inside, and that scares him more than he’d like to admit.

“I don’t like this place,” Phil whispers to him as they stand in the middle of the living room of their new flat. It’s pretty much what Dan had expected—covered in minimalist designer furniture and pricey artwork, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a balcony, and a kitchen that’s bigger than Dan’s entire apartment. MI6 must get more funding than MI5, because usually when he and Phil are undercover they’re sleeping on couches or very questionable mattresses.

“Why—because the décor actually matches?” Dan returns in a stage whisper. The reason they are speaking in low voices is because Phil is still conducting a cautionary sweep for bugs and hidden cameras.

“No, asshole, because of all the nooks and crannies,” Phil grumbles, standing up and twisting his torso to stretch his back. To be fair, Phil has spent the past hour crawling around and squinting under couches and beds; in the backs of closets and behind bookshelves.

“Your mum has nooks and crannies,” Dan says automatically, and really, that joke stopped being funny back in 2012, but he and Phil are nothing if not creatures of habit where humor is concerned.

“Hey, watch what you say about your own mother-in-law,” Phil shoots right back, eyebrows darting up towards his fringe.

“Touché,” Dan shudders, because he’s met Mrs. Lester and she’s a lovely woman, but still. “We good?”

“All clean,” Phil says. “For now, at least. We have an interview at the adoption center tomorrow, and I’m guessing they might want to plant something after they meet us, if someone is really out for us. We’ll have to do a sweep whenever we leave and come back.”

“Fun,” Dan says. “What are we supposed to do today?” He flops dramatically onto the couch, which is actually incredibly comfortable and awesome in spite of its dull beige color and overly functional appearance. He loves his job, but sometimes the sitting-around-and-waiting part of a case is unbearable.

Phil pulls out a huge stack of files and slaps them down on the table. “We really need to see if we can find any connections between our three couples. We’ve got nothing to go on right now.”

“Right,” Dan says, feeling his mind already shift into hyper-focus mode. “Which countries were the couples adopting from?”

“One from Ethiopia, one from China, and one from Russia,” Phil recites. “So nothing there.”

“Ages of the children?”

There is a pause while Phil shuffles through papers at the couch. “4 years old, 1 year old, and a newborn,” Phil says, shaking his head.

“So the connection doesn’t seem like it’s between the individual children that were being adopted. Do our couples have anything in common that stands out?” Dan belatedly realizes that he is on his feet and pacing, even though he doesn’t remember standing.

“Two of the couples, the Davises and the Randalls, both went through the same adoption agency. They were the first two couples to be murdered. But our third couple, the Martins, was at a different agency—the one that we’re going to be working with starting tomorrow.”

“So that could be something,” Dan says. “Anything else tying the three families together?”

In response, Phil pushes half the files towards Dan. “Not so far. But we’d better find something soon.”

So they spend the afternoon flipping through pages and reports; learning every tiny detail they can about their victims. The Davises might have had marital issues, and the Martins took a lot of expensive vacations the Bahamas. The Randalls liked to frequent casinos and ritzy nightclubs.

But there is nothing overly scandalous and nothing incredibly obvious tying them together. They had all worked different jobs for different companies, run in different social circles, attended different universities, and gone on holiday to different places.

They were all human. They were all excited to adopt; to expand their families. They all had hopes and dreams for the future of their children. And now they’re all dead.

It’s a sobering reminder of why he and Phil are doing this.

But by the time dusk is falling, Dan is ready to tear his hair out. His shoulders are in knots from leaning over the table all afternoon, and his arm is still stinging and aching from yesterday’s bullet wound.

“I’m going to go take a long, hot shower,” he announces.

“Sounds good,” Phil says with a yawn, rubbing his eyes and wiping his glasses clean on the sleeve of his jumper. “You want something to eat?”

Dan freezes for a moment, because this is a scene straight out of the time they used to live together five years ago. It all feels so domestic; Phil with his dorky glasses and an empty coffee mug, poking through the cupboards to find them some pasta. Dan is suddenly struck by a sense of longing, but he doesn’t know exactly what for.

“God, apparently the Strikers eat like they dress,” Phil continues obliviously, opening cabinet after cabinet, his expression disgruntled.

Dan peers over his shoulder to see organic coffee beans and quinoa and gluten-free crackers. In the fridge they find kale and other unfamiliar-looking fruits and vegetables. Phil can be quite a picky eater, to be honest, but they finally dig a spinach pizza out from the freezer and settle on that for their meal.

Dan goes to shower while the pizza cooks, and finds that the Strikers—well, for lack of a better word—the Strikers strike again.

Because Dan doesn’t have a hair straightener here.

He can handle chinos and pull-over sweaters if he truly must for a week or two. But to deny him a method for taming his god-awful hobbit hair? Cruel and unusual.

“I can’t live like this!” Dan declares dramatically as he returns to the kitchen, hair already curling obnoxiously. Fortunately Phil has seen him with unstyled hair dozens of times over the past six years of stakeouts and undercover work, so he doesn’t feel embarrassed. He realizes belatedly that Phil is one of the only people in his entire life besides his family who ever consistently sees him like this.

“Says the man who told me ‘living here will be a good way to expand your palate and introduce you to new foods, Phil!’ fifteen minutes ago,” Phil says with a raise of his eyebrows, but he looks like he is fighting a smile as he cuts the pizza.

“We are buying a straightener when we go out for this meeting tomorrow; I don’t care what the agency has to say about my ‘character’ or whatever,” Dan storms, flinging himself into a chair. The motion just makes the curls bounce slightly, which only makes things worse. “Dan Striker might have awful fashion sense, but I refuse to let him—er, me—look like a complete tosser.”

“It’s not so bad,” Phil admits, carefully not looking at Dan as he fills two glasses with water. “It’s—I mean—it makes you look younger.”

“So you’re saying I look like an old man normally,” Dan says flatly.

Phil seems to realize he’s talked himself into a corner. “No, I just mean that—it makes you look more carefree, or something. Not like an agent. Reminds me of when we first met.” The tips of his ears go a bit pink.

(And this is something Dan understands perfectly well, because his mum had said the same thing the last time he’d gone home. “You look older,” she’d told softly to him one night as they sat in the garden. “It’s in your eyes. You’ve seen more than I would have ever wished for my little boy to have to see.”

“Well, Mum,” he’d replied. “I do it to help people.”

“I know,” she’d whispered, reaching out to take his hand. “But I still wish it wasn’t so hard on you. And I worry about you and just want to see you happy. That’s what mums do.”)

Maybe it’s what Phils do too.

“We’re still buying a straightener,” Dan says, shaking his head and grabbing a slice of pizza.

Dan doesn’t know why he hadn’t thought about the sleeping arrangements until he’s literally lying in bed next to Phil that night.

There had been the obligatory “no, no, really—I’ll take the couch; your back is bad—” argument between the two of them, but then Phil had shrugged and pointed out that they might have cameras watching them starting the next day, so it wouldn’t hurt to just get used to sharing a bed already.

Fortunately it’s a king bed, so space isn’t really an issue. And they’ve definitely shared a bed in the past; crashing together on the closest sofa or mattress after nights out at the pub and at random house parties that Kevin from forensics had invited them to over the years.

But this is the first time he and Phil have ever shared a bed while sober. And honestly, it’s the first time Dan has soberly shared a bed with anyone in years. He’s gone on casual dates, sure, but being a secret agent is fairly time-consuming and dangerous. Dan has people out there who want to kill him, so he’s reluctant to bring anyone home with him in case he’s being watched.

And besides, he hasn’t really been looking for a relationship. He has a lot of casual friends at MI5 and he already spends all his time with Phil anyway, so why would he need anything besides friendship with anyone?

“Dan?” Phil says softly. Even though he is a few feet away—the same distance apart they’d normally be if they were sitting on the couch chatting—conversation that takes place in a bed is different somehow.

“Yeah?” Dan says, absentmindedly tugging at the hem of his t-shirt. Normally he only sleeps in boxers, but he’d added a t-shirt and loose pair of pants tonight for—well, in the case of accidental sleep-touching.

“Don’t hog the blankets tonight.”

Dan responds by dramatically yanking all the blankets over him and purposefully digging his ice-cold toes into Phil’s warm ankle. Phil lets out a little yelp and shuffles further away with a laugh, tugging the blankets back with him as he goes.

Just like that, the spell of self-consciousness has been broken. After all, this is Phil—why should sharing a bed with him be weird?

“G’night, Dan,” Phil yawns, and his breathing evens out less than a minute later. Dan has always envied Phil’s ability to instantly fall asleep and stay asleep anywhere, curled in the same spot the whole night long. Dan, on the other hand, sleep-talks and steals blankets and flings his limbs around. Or so he’s been told. He’s never really been ashamed of his sleep habits—after all, he can’t really help what he does when he’s unconscious. But tonight he is hyperaware of his body, remembering that Phil doesn’t want to kiss him unless it’s absolutely necessary, thinking about how Phil had leaned away all those years ago when Dan had leaned in.

Perhaps this is why he is hardly able to sleep the whole night, in spite of his best efforts. He dozes off repeatedly, but it’s a light, fitful sleep, punctuated by spikes of fear that he’s migrated onto Phil’s side of the bed; that he’s encroached on Phil’s space. He isn’t used to someone breathing steadily next to him; to the faint smell of their new sheets mingled with the familiar scent of Phil’s body wash.

He lies there rigidly, feeling trapped on his side of the bed, unwilling and unable to breach the space between himself and Phil, which feels stifling and cavernous all at once.

“You look awful,” Phil says the next morning, doing a double-take when Dan emerges into the kitchen.

“Gee, thanks,” Dan mutters darkly, pouring himself a massive cup of coffee. He hates the stuff, but it’s going to be vital to make it through the day. He can’t afford to be off his game with so much at stake. “We can’t all be Harries Twins.”

“No, I mean—not like, appearance-wise. Did you sleep at all last night?”

Dan shrugs, sliding into a kitchen chair. He’d spent the past fifteen minutes choosing the least offensive outfit he could find out of the clothes Zoe had given him, and he’d settled for a black button-down and the slimmest-fitting pair of trousers he could find.

“I don’t like the mattress,” he offers blandly as an explanation.

“Well, we have to get going soon, so you’d better go use this,” Phil says casually, thrusting a box into Dan’s hands.

It’s a hair straightener. “How’d you get this?” Dan asks, perking up.

“I have my ways,” Phil says, clearly trying to emulate an air of mystery. “Okay, Louise actually dropped it off this morning. I texted her on my burner phone last night.”

“Wow, so you risked compromising the mission for the sake of my hair? I’m honored, Phil,” Dan says like a sanctimonious asshole, but he feels much more like himself by the time his hair is straightened and his cup of coffee is drained, and Phil seems pleased with himself.

When they get to the adoption center—Family Finds a Way—Dan tries to take in every single detail. They still haven't found any useful information to set them on the right track with this case, and letting even the tiniest lead slip could be disastrous.

They’re scheduled to meet with Tom Franklin, the same adoption counselor who had worked with their last victims, the Martins. Rumor had it that he’d also been seen making frequent visits to the London Adoption Center over the past few months—the same adoption agency that the first two couples, the Randalls and the Davises, had been working with when they’d been killed. He’s the only person who seems to have any sort of connection to both adoption centers and all three of the couples, making him their only real suspect.

The center itself is glitzy—a chandelier in the waiting room, as well as a sleek flat-screen television. There is a clear message that the people looking to adopt here had better be willing to lay down the money needed to do so.

“Apparently family only finds a way here if that family is loaded,” Dan mutters to Phil, who rolls his eyes at the attempted play on words, picks up a scientific journal, and pretends not to know him.

They have to wait nearly twenty minutes before they are called back to see Tom, and Dan guesses that it’s to put them in a position of less power right from the get-go; to make Tom seem busy and important.

Tom’s office is fairly standard-issue—nice view, dark wood desk, stiff picture of Tom with a woman that is presumably his wife and two young boys with slicked-back hair. Tom himself is in his mid-forties, balding, and tall. He shakes their hands enthusiastically and shows them to the chairs in front of his desk. Dan isn’t immediately getting any sort of guilty-murderer vibe off the guy—in fact, he seems pretty nice—but that certainly doesn’t mean anything definitive at this point.

“So, welcome to Family Finds a Way,” Tom says brightly. Perhaps a little too brightly? “You’re the Strikers, correct?”

“Yes, I’m Phil, and this is my husband, Dan,” Phil says smoothly, and even though Dan has been anticipating the label for the past two days, it’s still odd to hear himself referred to as Phil’s husband. It does something weird to his stomach.

“Excellent, excellent,” Tom booms. He shuffles through the papers that MI6 had apparently filled out on Dan and Phil’s behalf. “So I see that you’re apparently interested in adopting a newborn, is that correct?” Dan has a sudden mental image of Phil cradling a baby and humming softly in the moonlight, and he has to clear his throat before speaking.

“Yes,” he says, making an executive decision for the pair of them. “A baby girl.”

Phil is looking at him with an unfathomable expression, his eyes slightly wider than usual, and Dan wonders what he is thinking.

“Very good,” Tom says. “This is just a preliminary meeting to start figuring out when we can schedule interviews and home visits. Adoption is quite a long process, but we’re here to make sure our families find the best fit for them. I’m responsible for the international adoptions here at our agency—are you still thinking you’d want to adopt abroad?”

“Yes,” Phil says, turning back to look at Tom. “Definitely abroad.”

“Great! Let me just find you some pamphlets, so you can start exploring your options before our first interview.” He begins sliding brightly-colored brochure after brightly-colored brochure across the desk to them. “You know what, you’re come to us just in time, too!” He says as an afterthought. “Tomorrow evening we’re having our annual fundraising ball, if the two of you would like to come. You could meet some of our other staff and families, and it would be a great way for you to get to know our adoption center better.”

And a great way to snoop around and get a feel for our murderer, Dan mentally adds on. He knows Phil is thinking the exact same thing.

“You know, we had some dinner plans, but we could definitely reschedule them, don’t you think, Dan?” Phil asks.

“I definitely think that we could reschedule for this,” Dan says with a beatific smile at Tom.

“It’s all settled then! I’ll add you to our guest list and my secretary, Marina, will email you the information.” They spend the rest of the meeting scheduling a date for the preliminary interview (the afternoon after the ball) and the first home visit (three days after that).

When they head out into the lobby, Phil gives him a subtle nod as he accepts the clipboard of paperwork they’ve been asked to fill out.

“I’m going to use the bathroom while you work on that, Phil,” Dan announces just loud enough for the receptionist to hear. They’ve done this countless times before, and ‘use the bathroom’ is code for ‘find Tom’s personnel file and dig up all the dirt possible on him’. (Except there had been one time when Dan had actually needed to use the loo after his snooping, and Phil had panicked and called in back-up when he couldn’t find Dan anywhere. Felix had busted in on Dan zipping himself up and had almost shot him. Fun times.)

“Sounds good,” Phil says mildly.

The receptionist kindly points him in the right direction, and so naturally he veers off in the opposite direction once he’s out of sight. He’s learned from experience that personnel files tend to be kept at the back of offices in large filing cabinets, and sure enough, he finds a tall, intimidating grey cabinet waiting for him next to the water cooler.

It’s lunch hour, fortunately, so the room is quiet as Dan picks the lock to the first drawer. It’s got the files on all employees last name A-E, so he has to open the next one to get to F for ‘Franklin’. It’s a little harrying, as each lock takes a few minutes to pick and he probably only has ten minutes, tops, before his disappearance becomes suspicious or someone inevitably comes back from lunch.

But he’s a trained agent, so he gets the drawer open and finds Tom Franklin’s file. He doesn’t pause to read any of it; he just takes pictures of each page on his phone. He’s just snapped a shot of the last page when he hears the click of a woman’s heels approaching from down the hall, and he hastily shoves the file back in the drawing, praying that he’d slipped it somewhere in the vicinity of where it had been earlier, and slides the drawer shut as quietly as he can.

In a panic, he quickly fills a cup with water from the water cooler and takes a huge mouthful. He immediately wonders why he’d just done that, because now he’s not only in a place that he’s not meant to be, but he’s also in danger of choking. He is in the act of dumping his excess water onto a nearby desk plant when a petite woman with shiny dark hair rounds the corner. She stops short upon seeing him, an uncertain expression crossing her features.

“Sorry,” Dan says, and for once, his awkwardness is situationally appropriate. “I was trying to find my way back from the bathroom and I think I took a wrong turn. Noticed this succulent looked a little dry.” He laughs awkwardly and ends up dribbling water down his front. The woman’s eyebrows rise slightly, but she somehow maintains a professional smile. “Anyway, could you point me towards reception?”

“Of course,” the woman says kindly. “I’m new here and I sometimes still get a little turned around myself,” she laughs. “Are you one of the new clients? I’m Marina, Tom’s secretary.”

“Yes, I’m Dan Striker,” Dan says, shaking her hand and following her as she weaves her way back to reception.

“You’re back!” Phil remarks when Dan appears, his gaze darting between Dan and Marina, the slight raise of his eyebrows asking if everything had gone alright. Dan gives a tiny nod of his head before speaking.

“Yeah, I took a wrong turn, but Marina helped me out. She’s Tom’s secretary—the one who was going to email us the invite for the ball,” Dan explains, moving to stand next to Phil.

“Oh, you’re the two who have just been added to the invite list. I was just about to email you right when I got back from lunch,” Marina smiles.

“Yes, this is my husband, Phil,” Dan says.

“Nice to meet you,” Marina says, shaking Phil’s hand. “You two are a lovely couple.”

Dan tries not to jump as Phil’s arm loops across Dan’s lower back, his fingers lightly resting against Dan’s waist. It’s a small gesture, but there’s something intrinsically intimate and possessive about it, and Dan feels incredibly aware of his own body as he stands there, practically tucked against Phil’s side.

“Thanks,” Phil says. “We’re both very excited to be working with the center.”

“Well, we’re excited to have you! Let me get you that email, and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you both.”

“Definitely,” Dan says. “We’ll see you around.”

Marina waves goodbye and Phil lets go of him then, studiously not meeting Dan’s gaze as he pulls on his jacket and gathers up their pamphlets.

“I hope that was okay,” Phil says in a low voice once they’ve hailed a cab and are safely ensconced in the backseat. “The touching, I mean. I shouldn’t have just grabbed you, but it felt—it felt right. Like what a real couple would do, you know?”

“Yeah, no, totally fine,” Dan says, hoping his voice sounds more casual than he feels. “Here, I got Tom’s info,” he abruptly changes the subject, fumbling with his phone to bring up the photos.

When they get back, they do a quick sweep for bugs and cameras—still nothing—and spend the rest of the afternoon looking through Tom’s information. In the end, he comes up squeaky clean—almost a 100% success rate of placing children with families, not a single complaint ever filed against him, even won employee of the year in 2013.

“We can’t rule him out, though,” Phil says, sitting on the counter and idly swinging his legs as Dan chops vegetables for a stir fry dinner.

“I agree—we definitely need to keep an eye on him at the fundraiser,” Dan says. “I was expecting him to be more exciting, though, considering he’s a murder suspect. Did you read any of those adoption pamphlets he gave us? He’s the author of most of them, and they’re all about ‘finding the feng shui of your nursery’ and ‘growing a garden with your new family member.’ So boring. I mean, he had the opportunity to at least call the second pamphlet ‘Sprouting New Roots,’ you know? Never trust a man who wastes puns, that’s what I say…” he trails off on a yawn and sees that Phil is staring at him with raised eyebrows.

“You look like you’re about to fall asleep where you’re standing,” Phil comments.

"No, I’m—I’m good,” Dan says, swallowing another yawn and forcing himself to straighten up. It’s only 8 PM; he’s not going to fall asleep.

“Dan, you’ve been stirring the wrong pan for two minutes now,” Phil points out, gently poking him in the ribs with his foot.

Dan blinks, and sure enough, his spoon is not stirring their stir fry, but rather the empty pan he’d sautéed the meat in before adding it to the veggies.

“Oh,” he remarks. It had been a long time since the coffee this morning, to be fair.

Phil hops down from the counter and comes up from behind him, reaching around to grab the spoon from Dan’s hand. It’s something that Dan normally wouldn’t think twice about, but today he is hyperaware of the way Phil’s torso presses against his lightly, of the brush of Phil’s fingers against his own on the spoon, of the way Phil briefly rests a hand on Dan’s hip to stabilize himself as he leans in.

“Here,” Phil says, and his mouth is so close to Dan’s, less than a foot away, and Dan should look away, but he can’t for some reason.

But then he belatedly realizes that he had been meant to move away when Phil came over here, because Phil doesn’t want his mouth close to Dan’s, after all. So he quickly lurches back, putting a more appropriate distance between the two of them. “Let me do this. Why don’t you go…pour us some water or something?”

“‘Pour us some water’,” Dan imitates in a stupid high-pitched voice, because his stomach feels bottomless right now, but humor is what Phil is expecting from him right now. “Condescending asshole. I make a very good stir fry even when tired, thank you very much.”

But he pours the water and enjoys getting to just sit at the table and do nothing for the ten minutes that it takes Phil to finish the food.

They eat in front of the TV and lounge there for the rest of the evening—“good agents know when to take a break,” Phil had told him once on a mission a few years ago, and the advice had stuck. By 10, Dan is drowsing through whatever cooking show they have on, and by 11, he is stumbling off to bed.

He brushes his teeth and changes, still half-asleep, but something catches his attention when he returns to their bedroom.

“Phil,” he calls. “How did MI6 get this picture of us?” He hadn’t looked at Phil’s bedside table the night before, but sure enough, there is a selfie that the two of them had taken on Phil’s phone from the case they’d had in Japan last year (which had been epic, by the way—the best vacation Dan had ever been on, minus the part where Phil had been drugged and kidnapped for almost two days and the bit where Dan had cracked a rib jumping out of a speeding car; that had sucked).

“Oh,” Phil says from the doorway. “That was—I just had that lying around my apartment, actually, and MI6 said we’d need some pictures for authenticity—for the home visit, you know—” Phil waffles, tugging at his collar. For an agent, he certainly has a lot of tells.

“So what, you just keep this framed picture of us in your bedroom; look at it every now and again to make yourself feel better when you’re missing me?” Dan clutches the photo to his chest dramatically and mimes fluttering his eyelashes at it. Honestly, the idea is ridiculous.

“Of course not—why would I ever do that?” Phil snaps defensively. “It was—I just had it tucked away in my desk and found the frame for it before we came here.”

“Of course you did,” Dan says with a grin, flopping onto his half of the bed. He doesn’t know why Phil is so flustered—usually he doesn’t respond much to Dan’s teasing, but Dan is kind of enjoying it.

“I’m going back to the telly, if you’re quite finished,” Phil says, rolling his eyes.

“I’ll talk to your picture if I miss you while you’re gone!” Dan calls after him, and he is treated to Phil throwing a couch cushion into the room in the general direction of the bed.

Dan is much more relaxed tonight as he lies in bed and waits to fall asleep. Mainly because he is absolutely exhausted, but also because he doesn’t have to worry about accidentally crossing the invisible borderline between him and Phil as he drifts off. Throughout the past few years he’s occasionally thought that it would be nice to have someone to share a bed with, but now that he’s actually got someone, it’s a someone who doesn’t want to touch him.

Still, he doesn’t feel as alone as he usually does as he drifts off, the sound of the telly and Phil occasionally shifting on the couch the white noise that lures him to a deep sleep.

He is standing in the second bedroom of their flat, but it looks totally different. It’s no longer an empty room, waiting to be filled. Instead, the white walls have been painted a mellow purple color (Dan somehow intrinsically knows that past Dream Phil had approached him at some point with a soft, hopeful expression and said: “I know you don’t want to do the whole ‘gender roles’ thing, but it’s such a lovely shade,” and Dan had caved.). There is a crib made of pale wood and a matching rocking chair and dresser. The mobile over the bed is of different zoo animals, and Dan spies his favorite—a llama—and Phil’s—a lion.

On the dresser is a framed ultrasound picture and another framed picture of Dan and Phil smiling at each other, oblivious to the camera. There is a galaxy print above the dresser, a vast and infinite mix of blues and purples and blacks.

Phil is standing by the window, a small green bundle in his arms, and he looks up when Dan tentatively steps inside the room.

“I know I should put her down in her crib for her nap, but she’s just so beautiful,” Phil says, and his voice is so full of light and wonder that it makes Dan’s chest well up and expand, so that it’s not just himself in there anymore, but also Phil and their little girl.

Dan is padding across the room before he can stop himself, leaning down to peek at the sleeping baby.

"She’s perfect,” he says hoarsely.

"You’re not bad yourself, you know,” Phil says, and then he’s leaning in to kiss Dan and—

Dan jerks awake, gasping for breath, the sound of his phone alarm blaring in his ears. He fumbles for it and actually manages to fall out of the bed, narrowly missing clipping his forehead on the bedside table.

Well, at least he’d stayed on his own side of the bed last night. A little too far on his side, perhaps, but small victories.

He is still sitting there in a crumpled, undignified, disoriented heap when Phil comes bolting out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped loosely around his waist, his hair dripping on the carpet. And holding a gun.

“Are you okay—” Phil begins, stopping when he sees Dan on the floor, half-entangled with one of the blankets.

“Why do you take your gun into the shower?” Dan asks, his voice going high-pitched with incredulity. “Can you imagine them on the home visit next week? ‘Oh, yes, well, we keep at least two guns within arm’s reach at all times, please give us a small human being to take care of.’”

“Because I’m a government agent working a murder case and not actually a prospective adoptive father, Dan,” Phil says, and the reminder is like having a bucket of ice water dumped over his head.

“I know that,” Dan mumbles petulantly. “Just—we have to make sure we stash the guns when people from the adoption center come over.”

“Okay,” Phil agrees easily, and he’s looking at Dan as though he’s assessing something. “Anyway, I’m in a towel, so I’m going to go,” he says, and the muscles of his back ripple interestingly as he turns back to the bathroom. Dan blinks and forces his gaze elsewhere. “Shout for help if the bed tries to attack you again!” Phil calls over his shoulder.

Dan untangles himself and goes to put on a pot of coffee, but on his way, he gets sidetracked. He pushes open the door to the second bedroom hesitantly, hovering at the threshold for a minute before stepping inside.

It is just how it was yesterday—plain white walls, beige carpet—but if he squints he can perfectly imagine it with soft lavender walls and a rocking chair under the window, just as it had been in his dream.

He reaches out and brushes his fingertips against the smooth wall. He is beginning to understand what Louise had meant when she’d mentioned dealing with broken hearts when all this was said and done.

But he’s not quite ready to admit that to himself; to name the feeling that sometimes clutches at his stomach when he listens to Phil’s even breathing next to him at night, so he shuts the door behind him as he leaves.

The day is spent quietly; both of them passing the morning making a list of all the employees listed on the Family Finds a Way website and then cross-referencing the list with the MI6 database. Nobody comes up with any red flags—a couple of the employees have misdemeanors on their record, but it’s just petty crime—one had stolen from a department store at age 16, another had been arrested for public intoxication at some point during uni. Not the kind of criminal behavior that typically leads to becoming a serial killer.

Early in the afternoon, Phil gets a text from an MI6 number that simply says ‘come to the gym on Harper Street.’

“Further proof of the laddy-ness of MI6,” Dan points out as he zips his jacket and puts on his shoes. “If someone from MI5 wanted to get in contact with us, they’d just have us meet them at a coffee shop like normal people. But no, we have to actually go and work out so that if a murderer is really trailing us, it won’t seem suspicious!”

“It’s not ideal,” Phil says as they head out into the blustery November afternoon, and that’s probably the closest Phil has ever come to bad-mouthing a government agency. Technically, they’re both supposed to be in really good shape on account of being secret agents and all, but MI5 has never really enforced its fitness policy, and Dan has always been confident that in an emergency situation, he’d be fit enough to deal with whatever arose. That doesn’t mean either he or Phil enjoy physical activity, however.

When they get to the gym, it doesn’t take long for Dan to spot Alfie Deyes lifting weights in a skin-tight tank top.

“Right,” he says to Phil. “I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you shouldn’t go close to anything near the weights; God knows you’ll just trip and kill yourself and the paperwork will be a nightmare and Grimmy will actually murder me. Why don’t you go—swim laps or something? I can deal with this.”

Phil doesn’t even bother to deny that he’s a walking hazard in a gym. Dan watches him meander to the locker room, and then he heads over to Alfie and tries to look casual.

Of course, this means that he completely underestimates how heavy the forty pound weight he tries to nonchalantly pick up is, and he drops it with a tremendous clang on the floor. Everyone in the gym turns to look at him, except for Alfie himself, who is standing right next to Dan and headbanging to his blaring music and doing chin-ups.

Dan abandons any pretense of lifting weights and steps closer to Alfie, awkwardly waving to catch his attention. Alfie grins at him, finishes his set, and then pats Dan on the shoulder so hard he’s pretty sure he’s going to have a bruise later.

“Dave! How’s it going, mate?”

“Uh, it’s Dan, actually. But it’s alright, thanks.”

“How are you liking MI6? Loads of murder, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Loads,” Dan says, and he has to stop for a minute and examine his life priorities, because he’s not actually sure if they’re enthusing about murder or bemoaning it, and this is all becoming very reminiscent of his attempts to hang out with the cool kids in primary school.

"Alright, cool. Well, good to run into you, mate,” Alfie nods at him.

Dan is about to ask if that’s it; if he’d just been invited to the gym to exchange lifting tips with Alfie, when Alfie, so fast Dan almost misses it, flips a key through the air. It lands right in Dan’s open hand, and Dan has to wonder at how agile Alfie has to be, in spite of his bold, gym rat persona, to have perfectly timed the trajectory of that toss so that no one saw and so that it didn’t clang to the floor.

“You were followed here, but he didn’t stick around long once you came inside. I didn’t recognize him, but I’ll run his description through our database and see if anything comes up. Take care,” Alfie says in a low voice as he effortlessly benches three hundred pounds, his lips barely moving.

As Dan takes the key to the locker room—there is a small piece of tape on it that says Locker 316—he has to reassess his judgment of Alfie’s character. When he opens the locker, he finds two compressed suitbags and a gym bag to put them in, as well as a report detailing the attempted murder of Regina and Todd Newry, a fourth couple.

“The killer is escalating,” Phil says grimly, after they get home and conduct their usual sweep for bugs and cameras. Still nothing, but Dan can’t help but feel like they are being watched. He’d dragged Phil into the master bathroom for this conversation, where there is only one frosted window. “Todd and Regina were attacked yesterday, which marks only a week between this attempt and the Martins. The other two were each a month apart. And not to mention the fact that Alfie saw someone following us today. We need to watch our backs at the gala tonight.”

Feeling guilty won’t bring anyone back and it won’t help them do their job, but Dan can’t help it. “We must have missed something.” The Newrys, who are also client of Family Finds a Way, had reported that an unidentified man had broken into their house in the middle of the night, wearing a mask and dressed in all black, and had tried to shoot them. He hadn’t counted on their two bloodhounds, however, and the dogs had attacked before anyone was hurt. The assailant had managed to climb down the balcony and get away before the police arrived, however.

“Hey,” Phil says, and the business-like tone he has adopted ever since Dan shoved the report about the Newrys in his hand in the gym locker room melts away. “Hey, you can’t think like that, and you know it. The Newrys are fine, and we’re going to catch the person that’s doing this, just like we always do. The more he escalates, the more room he leaves for error.”

Dan shrugs, but his throat feels a little tight. Something about this case just gets to him. Maybe it’s the small details he’s learned after hours of pouring through files—the Randalls had been found with their hands outstretched towards one another when they died, for one. The Davises had kept a blog about their adoption story, and they’d just posted a video of themselves dancing and celebrating their adoption going through the night before they were killed. The Martins had already signed off on a new copy of their will, so a 4-year-old Russian boy had inherited all their belongings and savings and life insurance, even though he now had no parents to take him from his orphanage.

“I’m going to go change,” he says, suddenly needing to be away from Phil’s soft, concerned gaze.

Dan and Zoe may have very different taste in casual clothing, but as it turns out, the suit fits him like a glove, and he actually kind of likes it. He might have to steal it, in fact, although he’s pretty sure Zoe could kick his ass. Also, he’s heard that Zoe and Alfie are dating, and Alfie could definitely kick his ass. But it’s got such deep pockets, and it has a built in leg holster for his gun, and it’s his favorite shade of black (yes, that’s a real thing; black comes in lots of different varieties, so sue him for having a favorite).

Not to mention, Phil had completely lost his train of thought and trailed off on whatever he’d been saying when he’d wandered into their bedroom and seen Dan dressed for the evening.

So he’s feeling pretty good about himself as they arrive at the gala. Next to him, Phil looks almost too good to be real in his own suit, and Dan is bizarrely proud to be Phil’s fake husband; to get to tell people oh yeah, the tall one with the dark hair is mine, even if it’s just for tonight; even if it doesn’t mean anything.

They are offered champagne by a waiter and Dan grabs one for himself and one for Phil. Phil shoots him a mildly disapproving look as he accepts his, because Phil is secretly a huge lightweight and they’re not really supposed to drink on the job (especially after that one time when they were undercover working for a Russian smuggler who continuously filled their glasses with straight vodka, watched them drink it, and then poured them more. Dan had wound up being the one to make all the arrests that night, because Phil had been too busy singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and puking into the bushes.). But everyone else at the gala is drinking champagne, so they’re going to do it too.

Dan spots Tom Franklin over by a table with the woman from the photo on Tom’s desk, who must be his wife. Dan reaches out to grab Phil’s arm to alert him, but instead his hand brushes against Phil’s hand. He makes a split second decision and laces his fingers through Phil’s, because Phil looks incredibly attractive and surely Dan is allowed one night to innocently hold his hot pretend husband’s hand, right? A little hand-holding never killed nobody, and all that jazz?

He doesn’t bother looking back to see if Phil reacts at all to Dan grabbing his hand; he just begins making his way through the crowd, willing himself not to suddenly develop sweaty palms, because Phil’s hand is warm and soft and nice to hold, and he doesn’t want Phil to let go, for reasons that he’s not going to examine until he’s had at least five more glasses of champagne, thank you very much.

He very carefully avoids Phil’s gaze as they come to stand by Tom, who greets them enthusiastically and introduces them to his wife, Hannah, who seems like one of those cool, fun mums you always sort of wished would adopt you when you were seven and your mum was giving you a bowl cut the night before school pictures (Had that ever happened to anyone besides Dan? Probably not.).

“How are you liking the party, boys?” Hannah asks them as Tom drifts away to talk to another couple. “I’ve been to a million of these before, so I’ve got the hook-up if you want something harder than champagne.”

Phil looks a little green at the idea of hard liquor, perhaps remembering the Russian Smuggler Incident of 2014. “I think we’ll stick to the champagne, but thanks,” Dan laughs.

“Well, let me know if you change your mind when they start giving speeches,” Hannah says with a knowing wink. “Especially if Tom’s the one giving the speech. I mean, have you read any of his pamphlets?” She makes a face that pretty much mirrors Dan’s feelings on the pamphlets, further re-affirming how much Dan likes her. Then she notices their hands, which are still inexplicably linked together, and her face softens. Phil’s thumb had been slowly, almost unconsciously smoothing across Dan’s thumb, but he freezes and drops Dan’s grip when Hannah notices, and Dan suddenly misses the touch when it’s not there anymore.

“You two are like something out of a romance novel! Come on, let’s go find the hors d’oeuvres and you can tell me all about how the two of you met and got together.”

Dan is feeling a bit peckish, to be honest, and stuffing his face in the corner doesn’t really constitute investigating, but he figures following Hannah is justifiable because they can learn more about Tom through her.

“So,” Hannah says when they’re surrounded by the food. She snags new champagne flutes for all of them. “What’s the story? You’ve obviously known each other for a very long time.”

“What makes you think that?” Dan asks. Hannah gestures to both of them, and Dan realizes that he and Phil are perfectly mirroring one another—stood in the exact same stance, heads tilted at the same angle, arms held the same.

“Right,” Dan says, hastily adopting a new stance. “Anyway, we met—was it six years ago now, Phil?” Dan asks.

“Coming up on seven next October,” Phil says. “October 19th,” he reminisces casually, and Dan hadn’t even remembered that date, much less known that Phil did.

“So, was it love at first sight?” Hannah asks, smiling between the two of them.

“For Dan, maybe,” Phil laughs, and here comes the cringe-y story about Dan stalking Phil. Dan throws back most of his champagne in one gulp. “He was a fan of my books, see, so he’d come to all my readings and try to chat with me.”

“And did you just wonder why a giant man was following you around for five months?” Dan asks as though he is reading a script with fond exasperation, as though this is the story they frequently tell all their friends and family, both teasing the other about who asked for the other’s number first and who messed things up on the first date and who planned the anniversary camping trip but forgot to pack the tent. As though this is the story that had been told at their wedding reception, as though this is the story they’ll tell their grandchildren someday.

Not as though this is all an act. Because it feels wrong, but he’s an agent and this is how his job works, and those are the facts.

“Well, at first, yeah,” Phil says, and Dan notices that his second champagne flute is also almost empty. Perhaps he’s not the only one who had needed a little liquid courage to make it through this fake retelling. “But after the second or third time, I just thought he was cute and I didn’t actually mind when he kept showing up. And the rest is history.”

If Dan didn’t know any better, he’d say that the blush on Phil’s cheeks was genuine. This is fake, Dan, Dan sternly reminds himself. He’s acting—he never thought you were cute; you just followed him around until you literally almost died for him and then he kind of had to accept you as his partner.

Hannah sighs. “That’s beautiful. Tom and I met out at the pub in uni, and it’s not a very good story, to be honest. But we’ve been happily married for fifteen years now.”

“Has Tom always been in the adoption field?” Phil asks casually. Dan automatically scans the crowd and spots Tom chatting with Marina, his secretary, over by one of the banquet tables.

“Oh, yes. His younger brother was adopted, and we adopted both our boys. It’s always been Tom’s passion. As a matter of fact,” she beckons them a little closer and lowers her voice. Dan exchanges a quick look with Phil, wondering if this will be it; if this is the break they need. “This is still under-wraps right now, but we’re in the process of adopting again! A girl this time. We have to do it through a different adoption center of course, because it would be a conflict of interest if we went through Family Finds a Way, but the other center has some representatives here tonight, actually. It’s just so lovely to see the adoption community grow and expand.”

“Congratulations!” Dan says, but he feels more confused than ever, because this explains perfectly why Tom had been spending time at the adoption center the first two couples had been working with.

And why on earth would Tom adopt another child if he was out murdering people who adopt children? Wouldn’t he technically have a vendetta against himself, then?

Hannah tries to ask them about their sex life then, so they make their excuses and head to the bathroom.

“Something doesn’t add up here,” Dan mutters, pacing the empty bathroom as Phil washes his hands.

“Yes, the fact that we’ve been here for less than an hour and I’ve already drank three glasses of champagne,” Phil says reprovingly.

“Did you really want to be completely sober when Hannah was trying to ask us who tops?” Dan asks skeptically, and Phil goes so red even his neck flushes.

“Point taken,” he coughs as they head back out and find their seats for the dinner portion of the evening. They’re not seated by Tom or Hannah, which Dan supposes makes sense because Tom is so high up at the center and he and Phil are just new clients.

“Hi, Dan,” Marina says as she takes a seat next to him during dessert. “How’s your night going?”

“Pretty well, thanks,” Dan says, distractedly trying to kick Phil under the table to alert him to the fact that Tom and Hannah are getting up from their table.

“Um, look, Dan. You seem really nice and all, but I can’t lie, the footsie thing is a little weird,” Marina says.

“Oh, sorry!” Dan says. “I wasn’t trying to play footsie with you. I was aiming for Phil.” Then he realizes what he’d just said and he feels his cheeks heat up. Marina smirks knowingly between the two of them and Phil chokes on his tiramisu. Dan desperately looks for an escape and spots Tom and Hannah on the dance floor. “Oh, would you look at that! The dancing has started; I love dancing, let’s go, Phil,” he rambles, grabbing Phil’s hand and forcibly dragging him off his chair and towards the floor.

“Dan, you hate dancing,” Phil points out nervously. “Are we seriously going to do this?”

“You know what I hate more? Sitting with Marina after caressing her ankle,” Dan says as they momentarily fumble to find a good dancing position. In the end, Dan’s hand ends up on Phil’s shoulder and Phil’s hand is on Dan’s waist, and they establish a little shuffling rhythm.

“I need at least five more glasses of champagne before I’d feel even remotely comfortable with this,” Phil says as Dan aggressively leads them across the dance floor towards Hannah and Tom.

“What happened to not drinking on the job?” Dan asks with an eyebrow raise, opening his arms and forcing Phil into a dramatic spin just because it’s fun.

“You can sleep on the couch tonight,” Phil says when he swings back in, trodding on Dan’s toes in a move that is almost certainly intentional.

“Fine. That couch is awesome,” Dan shrugs, but internally he is a little thrown by how effortless their little act as a couple has suddenly become. This is like any other conversation he’d have with Phil on any other day of the year, but Phil’s hand is on his waist and he’s making jokes about the two of them sharing a bed.

Dan looks around at all the other couples dancing sedately and has to laugh a little. “We look absurd. They’re not going to let us adopt a child after this.”

“No, Hannah thinks it’s cute,” Phil says softly, motioning over his shoulder to where Hannah is smiling at them fondly as she sways gracefully with Tom.

“I really don’t think Tom is the killer,” Dan admits quietly. They’re standing a little closer now so that they can talk without being overheard by any of the couples around them, and Dan can see all three colors in Phil’s eyes.

“Me either. Maybe we need to start looking into the adoption center that the first two couples used. I know that everyone there checked out with a strong alibi, but I don’t know where else to look,” Phil says, and he suddenly sounds incredibly tired and defeated.

“We’ll figure it out,” Dan promises.

The music changes into something slow and easy then; something by Ed Sheeran that Dan has never really listened to but somehow recognizes all the same from its constant radio presence. All around them, couples shift position to hold each other closer, and Dan can feel Phil stiffen slightly.

Dan doesn’t say anything—as far as he’s concerned, the ball is in Phil’s court right now. Phil is the one who’d been less comfortable with the two of them acting like a couple, so he can decide if he wants to slow dance with Dan or not. It’s the perfect excuse to keep an eye on Tom and Hannah, but if Phil really doesn’t want to dance with Dan, then they can just as easily watch from the sidelines (and, hey, they can drink more champagne then!).

But after a few seconds, Dan feels Phil’s arms loop fully around his waist, and then Dan is wrapping his hands behind Phil’s neck in response, so that they end up embracing and swaying gently.

Every single fiber of Dan is dying to make a joke; to make light of the situation and say something stupid like ‘is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just excited to see me?’ (mostly because he knows that the honest answer would be, yes, Phil does have an actual gun in his pocket right now, and Phil would roll his eyes in exasperation and it would be hilarious. But also because humor is his number one coping mechanism when a situation starts feeling too real, and this situation is on a whole other level.)

Because—and he’s starting to be able to admit this to himself—this is uncharted territory and Phil’s got his head ducked a bit so that his face is almost tucked into Dan’s neck right now and Phil’s hair smells really good and the line of his body against Dan’s is somehow both comfortingly familiar and new and exciting all at once.

But he bites his tongue and wills his traitorous heart to stop pounding in his chest. There is no reason that what is essentially just an extended hug set to music with his best friend and partner should make his stomach swoop and his pulse race, and yet, here they are.

So Dan allows his eyes to drift shut as they sway, and he focuses on committing every single detail of this moment to memory, so that when this case is over and he’s alone in his own bed at night and back to the status quo of his friendship with Phil, he will still remember how Phil’s breath had periodically tickled his ear when they danced, and how he would’ve been able to kiss the corner of Phil’s mouth if he turned his head even just an inch or two to the side, and how Phil’s fingers had gripped the back of his jacket slightly; a warm, solid anchor as Ed Sheeran crooned about ‘finding love right where we are’.

As the song comes to a close, Dan draws away slightly. He’s not prepared for how close Phil’s face still is; for the way Phil’s nose drags along Dan’s jawline, feather-light, and for the way Phil’s dark, half-lidded gaze meets Dan’s, something new and assessing in the way he drinks Dan’s expression in, his eyes lingering on Dan’s eyes first, and then on his lips.

And Dan remembers what Phil had said about keeping kissing out of the equation here, and he remembers that Phil has had at least five glasses of champagne so far this evening, and that it’s probably normal to feel a little confused when working a mission like this; to forget what’s real and what’s not. Dan’s certainly been having a hard time with that the past few days himself.

So he’s the one to step fully away, to let go of Phil and put a few feet of distance between the two of them, because he respects Phil too much to encourage him to do something that he’d certainly regret later.

Phil’s face does something complicated that Dan can’t quite read, but then Phil is poking him on the arm and suddenly dragging him off the dance floor.

“Tom just ducked into the hall with Pete Harvey,” Phil hisses in his ear, suddenly all business.

“Who’s Pete Harvey?” Dan asks, trying to keep up both physically and mentally.

“He works at London Adoption Center—it’s the—”

“—adoption center that the Randalls and the Davises used! Phil, this could be our link between the three cases! If Tom and Pete know each other—”

“Why do you always get to be the one to dramatically connect all the dots?” Phil grumbles, but he seems energized by this new possible lead. Dan is too—he loves this part of his job; compiling facts and possibilities, weighing relationships and probabilities.

Phil grabs his arm. “They went out onto the balcony,” he says, pointing to the curtain that the two men had disappeared behind. “Reckon we risk eavesdropping? Tom and Hannah might just be working on their third adoption with Pete; this could be nothing.”

“Please. Of course we’re going to eavesdrop. This case has been boring as hell so far; we haven’t been in danger at all yet,” Dan rolls his eyes and motions for Phil to follow him. He tentatively parts the thick dark curtains, relieved to see that there is another set of curtains separating them from the actual balcony. Presumably the double-curtain system is to keep out the cold and the bugs, but it also perfectly provides them with a place to stand where they are away from the prying eyes of people in the hallway, and also out of Tom and Pete’s view.

It’s a narrow space between the two sets of curtains, only a few feet long and a few feet wide. He and Phil both press themselves carefully against the thick fabric of the outer curtain, straining to hear the two men talking on the balcony.

“—hardly feel safe anymore, after all that’s happened,” Pete is saying. “I feel absolutely horrible saying this, Tom—you must know that—but it was almost a tiny bit of a relief when the killings shifted to your adoption center. I mean—I knew these people. I worked with them for months, trying to help them build a family. And now they’re dead. It’s awful.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” comes Tom’s grave voice. “Two of my clients were attacked just yesterday, and now they need round-the-clock police supervision! I have two new clients, but I’m not allowed to say anything to them about the danger they’re in, because apparently there’s some big government investigation going on right now. Well, I’m sure as hell not seeing any government agents anywhere!”

“I’m not sure if that means that we’re really bad or really good at our job,” Phil muses in a whisper, and Dan elbows him sharply.

The two men on the balcony are silent for a long moment.

“It just doesn’t feel right standing in that ballroom, asking for money and pretending everything is fine when it really isn’t,” Tom says so softly that Dan has to strain to hear it. There is an unmistakable sincerity in his voice, and deep in Dan’s gut, with 100% certainty, he knows they can cross Tom off their suspect list.

He looks at Phil, whose face is illuminated by a sliver of moonlight filtering through the curtains, and he can tell that Phil is thinking the same thing.

He tries to work out whether this is a frustrating development or not—on one hand, he really likes Tom, so he’s glad that the older man doesn’t appear to be a serial killer, but on the other hand, they still have no clue who the killer could be. It’s like taking one step forward and one step backward, all at once.

(If Dan were the type of person to look for metaphors in his life, he might even say that that’s the way his relationship with Phil feels right now—one step forward, one step back. But that would just be reaching, of course, so he shoves that thought to the back of his mind and slams a door behind it.)

He’s still trying to work out what their next move is going to be when the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming towards them echoes across the balcony. And here they are, crouching down behind a curtain, obviously eavesdropping, with no way to subtly get away save for literally diving through the curtains behind them and back into the hallway and probably causing a scene amongst the people milling around out there.

Phil has always been better at split second decisions than Dan, and so when Phil grabs him by the wrist and tugs him to his feet, crowding him against the wall of their little between-curtains alcove, Dan doesn’t put up a fight.

Phil’s face is very close to his, and his entire body is pressed against Dan in a way that is distracting, to say the least. Dan blames this distraction for not anticipating what is coming when Phil takes a deep breath and quickly murmurs “trust me?” in Dan’s ear. His lips brush across Dan’s cheek as he speaks, and it sends a shiver down Dan’s spine.

“Of course,” Dan whispers, wrinkling his brow. “What—”

His question is cut off by the fact that Phil’s lips are suddenly against his own, pressing against Dan’s mouth almost shyly, as though he’s not sure what exactly he’s allowed to get away with. There is an instant where Dan is frozen, but then he’s enthusiastically responding, because Phil had initiated this, so Dan doesn’t have to feel guilty about enjoying it, right? And holy shit, Phil is a good kisser. It’s a little chaste for two people who are supposedly groping each other behind a curtain as a cover story, but Dan will take what he can get. It’s slow and exploratory and kind of sweet, but Dan is still breathless and flushed when the curtain draws back to reveal Tom and Pete heading back into the party.

“Oh,” Tom says, clearing his throat and averting his eyes. It’s completely obvious what they’ve been doing, and Dan wonders how wrecked he looks right now. “Hi, boys. Having a good night? Are you out here hiding from Hannah?”

“Um…something like that,” Dan says, scratching the side of his neck. Tom winks at them and claps Phil on the shoulder in a fatherly fashion, and Phil looks like he’s about to burst into flames and die of embarrassment on the spot.

“My wife and I actually conceived our first child in a back room at one of these fundraising galas,” Pete Harvey recollects fondly, and Dan really could’ve done without that information, especially considering that the man hasn’t even introduced himself to them.

“Nice to meet you too,” Dan mumbles as Tom and Pete wave goodbye and disappear back into the hallway.

Phil suddenly seems to realize that he still has Dan pressed up against the wall, because he backs off as though touching Dan is burning his skin. Dan has to consciously refrain from reaching up to touch his own slightly swollen lips. He wonders if this is going to become another one of those things that they both just agree to never talk about again.

And sure enough, he can see the exact moment that the regret sets into Phil’s expression. “Sorry, Dan,” Phil says, and his voice is oddly stiff as they duck back out into the hallway. The evening is over; the party beginning to break up. Guests are slowly flooding out into the street where taxis and valet parking await, and they allow themselves to be swept up in the tide of the crowd. “I shouldn’t have done that—I know we agreed we wouldn’t, but it just seemed like the quickest cover story—”

And suddenly Dan is both hurt and furious, because that kiss had been fucking amazing and it’s not fair that Phil can look so disgusted with himself over it; that he can just kiss Dan like that and then immediately declare his regret.

“Whatever, Phil,” Dan snaps tightly. “It was just a fucking kiss, okay? You don’t have to make a big deal over it.”

He immediately feels shitty at the way Phil’s eyes widen with hurt. They don’t fight with one another, as a rule. Sure, they bicker ceaselessly over little things, but that’s mostly just banter. Whenever a serious emotional or work-related issue crops up, however, they always discuss it frankly and rationally. In order to be good partners, they can’t take out their anger or frustration on each other, and that’s exactly what Dan has just done.

Phil opens his mouth to say something but then shuts it and looks away silently.

Dan scrubs a hand over his face wearily and hails a cab for them.

Unsurprisingly, the ride back to their flat is completely silent. Dan stares out the window and tries to decide if he’s angrier at Phil for kissing him or at himself for liking it. Across the cab, Phil seems sad, which doesn’t quite seem right. He’d been expecting frustration or irritation over Dan being an asshole. Instead, Phil is casting almost melancholy, longing glances at Dan every few minutes.

As they clamber up the stairs and into their unit, Dan is contemplating whether or not he should actually sleep on the couch. He’s expecting the silence between the two of them to continue for the rest of the night, so it’s oddly jarring when Phil suddenly speaks.

“You know, Dan, I think we should replace this TV before the adoption goes through,” he says, placing a slight emphasis on the word TV.

Dan looks over in befuddlement to see Phil motioning subtly to the bug that had been planted amongst a tangle of electrical wires by the TV.

Dan is on his feet in an instant, a surge of adrenaline spiking through his system. That bug hadn’t been there when they’d left earlier this evening which meant that someone had been in the apartment while they were gone.

“Maybe, yeah. I’m going to head to bed. You coming soon?” Dan says, forcing himself to sound casual. He doesn’t know if there’s a camera to accompany the bug somewhere, but he’s not taking any chances.

“I’m actually going to grab a bite to eat first,” Phil says meaningfully, which is code for ‘sweeping the kitchen’.

Dan checks the bedroom and master bathroom, but fortunately finds nothing in either room. He changes into his pajamas and hovers by the door until Phil enters, and then shuts it behind him.

“We can talk in here,” he says once they’re safely ensconced in the bedroom. “It’s clear. Fortunately, whoever wants to brutally murder us also doesn’t want to see my pale naked arse.” Dan sprawls out across his side of the bed, stretching out his arms and legs after a long night of standing on his feet.

Phil’s eyes sweep over the line of Dan’s body. “Yeah, who would want to see that?” He asks, and his voice sounds a little strangled. Then he seems to shake himself. “Anyway, the kitchen has a camera and a bug, and there’s a camera hidden by the entranceway as well.”

“Creepy,” Dan says with a shudder. “This guy is getting ready to make his move on us. And this means that whoever it is, they weren’t at the gala tonight. Either that, or they have a partner.”

“I want you to keep your gun on you at all times, Dan,” Phil says, his tone uncommonly grave. “I’m serious—I know you laugh at me for bringing my gun to the bathroom when I shower, but I don’t want you getting caught unawares. Whoever this guy is, he’s killed six people and he’s probably angry that his attempt on the Newrys didn’t work.”

“You don’t have to lecture me; I don’t actually want to die a very painful death, especially not in the shower. Although it would be hilarious if you had to become partners with Felix after I died,” Dan muses, pillowing his arms behind his head.

“You’re such a little shit,” Phil says with a grin, pulling off his bowtie and snapping it against Dan’s forehead.

“Yeah, well, Felix is even more of a little shit,” Dan shrugs, rubbing at his forehead absentmindedly.

“Point taken,” Phil says, beginning to unbutton his dress shirt, revealing an expanse of pale, smooth torso.

Dan decides that it would be more polite to stare at the wall than to ogle his partner’s chest, so he shifts into his usual sleeping position and allows his eyes to drift shut. They still haven’t talked about what had happened at the end of the gala, and they probably won’t. But they’ll pretend everything is normal and ignore it until this case has been taken care of, because that’s what they do best, and because this case is more important than any stupid feelings Dan may or may not have for his partner. It should have been his priority from the start, but from here on out, that’s all going to change. Starting from right now on, the case is going to be his only focus.

He chances a glance back to Phil’s side of the bed, wondering if Phil is going to turn the light off soon or if he should get up and do it himself, and he catches a glimpse of Phil in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs, bending down and fumbling through his drawer for his pajama pants.

Dan swallows and quickly shuts his eyes again, picturing the queen naked. They need to solve this case soon, both for the greater good of the United Kingdom and for the sake of Dan’s sanity.

(In spite of his resolution, this is the night when Dan awakes at 6 AM to find that he’s finally lost the battle to remain on his own side of the bed all night. Phil is lying on his back, still on his side of the bed, but closer to the middle than usual. Meanwhile, Dan had sidled completely across his side at some point, and he has his head pillowed on Phil’s shoulder and one arm carelessly thrown across Phil’s waist.

Phil’s arm is around him, loosely holding Dan to his side. His face is utterly relaxed, familiar features illuminated softly in the pre-dawn light filtering through the windows.

Dan never wants to move again.

But he forces himself to tear away from Phil’s grip and roll back to his own side, ignoring the sleepy sound of confusion and loss that Phil makes, because what Phil wants when he’s asleep and when he’s awake are clearly two separate things, and above all else, Dan respects Phil and won’t take advantage of him.

In the morning when Dan is properly awake, it’s only a dim, shadowy recollection—the kind of thing where he’s not sure if it had been real or just a hazy, wistful dream.

He chooses to believe it had been a dream, because it’s easier than facing reality.)

It happens the next day at their first adoption interview.

Marina comes by to say hi when they are sitting in the lobby and waiting to go back to see Tom. “Are you guys nervous?” She asks.

And here is where Dan makes his fatal mistake. “Nah, not really. Phil and I know everything about each other, and Phil’s a really good brown-noser and I’m really articulate, so we should be set.”

Marina laughs, but Dan really means it. Out of everything surrounding this case, this interview is the least of his worries.

“Well, if you do get nervous later, just remember that you’re doing a really good thing. Some baby will be lucky to have both of you in his or her life,” Marina says, and she suddenly looks a little misty-eyed. “My little brother and I were adopted when we were younger, but it—it was horrible. They couple kept us locked in our rooms and barely fed us and beat us any time we did something wrong. The state had to take us away eventually.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Phil says, patting her on the arm in his incredibly earnest, sincere way.

“Well, I’m just really glad there are people like you two out there who will provide a baby with a safe and loving home,” Marina says before she leaves, and that hits Dan like a punch to the gut, because his life with Phil is neither safe nor loving on account of all the murder and drug busts and stakeouts, and sometimes this whole little adoption scheme feels so real and easy, but it’s not.

He is still perfectly confident in their ability to ace this interview, however, and he doesn’t bat an eye when they’re called back to Tom’s office.

“You guys ready for this? Did you read any of my pamphlets about the interview process?” Tom asks excitedly, and Dan wonders how on earth they had ever considered him to be a murder suspect. “I just finished published a new one if you want to see it, actually. You know what, you can read the draft of my next pamphlet too, if you want! Normally I have Hannah read all of them for me, but lately she’s been so tired that sometimes she just falls asleep in the middle of the proofreading process.”

“Imagine that,” Dan says, and Phil kicks his chair. Dan forces himself to be serious. “No thanks, though. We already talked to Hannah about the pamphlets at the gala last night.”

Tom beams. “That’s what I like to hear! I have extra pamphlets that you can give your family and friends if they have questions about the process, by the way. There’s even one for same-sex couples.” He pulls out a stack of carefully-folded papers all emblazoned with the title ‘2 and a half men…and a baby’ and Dan gets that it’s a reference to a TV show, but really—

“That doesn’t even make sense,” he mutters.

“Just let it go, Dan,” Phil whispers back, shaking his head and accepting the stack.

“Now,” Tom says, sitting back in his chair and opening up his laptop to take notes. “This interview is just one of the many steps along the way in the process, so try not to worry too much. Just give your honest answers.”

And just as Dan had been predicting, they ace the interview. The two of them know each other too well not to. The answers come effortlessly; the weight of the conversation shifting easily between the two of them. The questions range from mundane (where do you see yourselves in ten years?) to more in-depth (what made you decide you were ready to have a child?). It’s actually kind of fun, weaving together a fake future and past with Phil.

And everything is fine. Until the very last two questions, however.

First it’s Phil’s turn.

“So, Phil. Tell me about a time when Dan helped your overcome a difficult situation,” Tom says, and it seems like a basic enough question. There are plenty of situations that Phil could take from their real life and translate into their fake life—they’ve saved each other’s asses too many times to count, after all, and have seen each other through the aftermath of some pretty tough cases.

Phil is silent for a long moment. When he speaks, it’s not what Dan had been expecting.

“When I first met Dan, I was in a really bad place. Someone in my life had recently died, and I was blaming myself, 100%. I was questioning everything when he came along.”

And holy shit, Phil has never once talked about That Case before. Dan watches with wide eyes as Phil swallows tightly, and all of a sudden his hand is reaching across the gap between their chairs and tangling with Phil’s in his lap, because it feels like the right thing to do.

Phil looks down at their conjoined hands and seems to steel himself to continue.

“But Dan believed in me—always, unconditionally believed in me, even at a time when I couldn’t believe in myself. Even when I was trying to push him away at the start, he stuck around and filled up all the empty spaces until I couldn’t even remember what life was like before him being there. Without Dan, I don’t think I’d still be—um, I don’t think I’d still be writing today.”

And Dan is utterly gobsmacked, because that whole thing—everything Phil had just said, minus the substitution of ‘writing’ for ‘secret agent-ing’—had been true and real. Or at least, it had felt that way to him.

“Very good,” Tom says blithely, totally unaware of the magnitude of the fact that Phil had just spoken about That Case for the first time in nearly seven years. “Final question: Dan, what would you say are Phil’s best qualities in your relationship?”

Dan is still off-balance from the previous question, and it takes him a minute to gather his thoughts. For once, he can't come up with anything light-hearted or joking to say.

“Phil is…Phil is my best friend. And he’s the first best friend I ever had, and hopefully he’ll be my last best friend.” Suddenly there are millions of things racing through his mind, because this is something he’s been thinking about a lot over the past few days of this case, and maybe he’s finally ready to acknowledge some of the thoughts he’s been having but forcibly ignoring.

“Phil always buys my favorite flavor of ice cream, even though he doesn’t like it himself. He doesn’t care if I drool on his shoulder when I take a nap. Sometimes he just texts me emojis—like a picture of wheat and a picture of an octopus, and I have no clue what it means, other than that he was thinking about me and wanted to send me a picture of wheat and an octopus. But I kind of like it.” These are things; tiny revelations; warning signs that he should have seen coming from miles away, but that are just occurring to him now, in this very moment.

“Sometimes I get so tired of the world and everyone in it, but I never get tired of being around Phil. And I—” love him. I love Phil. The thought falls out of nowhere, pressing down and crushing him so that he feels like his chest is going to burst with the intensity of it. Phil’s hand is still intertwined with his, and suddenly he can’t breathe, because he’s been blind to this—this thing building between the two of them for six years, and now that he’s finally seeing it, it’s like sensory overload. “I—I’m sorry. I need to get some fresh air.” Then he’s wrenching his hand from Phil’s and stumbling to the door.

“Are you okay?” Phil asks, rising uncertainly.

Dan waves him off. The last person he wants trying to comfort him or ask him what’s wrong right now is Phil. “I’m okay—just a little overheated,” he says, and his voice sounds strangled and far away, even to his own ears.

“Well, there’s still some paperwork to go over,” Tom says, looking concerned.

“I’ll be fine,” Dan says desperately, barely holding himself together. “Seriously, Phil—sign the paperwork and then come find me. I’m okay.”

Phil’s gaze is searching, and he doesn’t look happy as he glances back at the paperwork Tom is holding. “I’ll be quick,” he says, and Dan doesn’t know if that’s a promise or a warning, but he doesn’t stick around to find out anything further. He’s out the door and in the elevator and stumbling out into the back alleyway, pulling out his spare burner phone and punching in Louise’s number.

This is a risk, and he knows it. They’re being watched right now by a serial killer, but he can’t—he can’t believe how stupid he’s been.

That’s the first thing he says when Louise answers the phone.

“Dan? Are you alright?” He can hear the hum of sewing machines in the background, and picturing Louise sitting at her usual desk in the MI5 wardrobe department is calming.

“I’m so stupid, Louise,” he groans. “Fuck.”

“If you wanted someone to insult your intelligence, I think you should be calling Felix instead of me,” Louise says. “What’s wrong?” Her voice is so sympathetic that it makes his eyes burn.

“I’m in love with Phil!” He spits it out, like ripping off a band-aid.

“Ah,” Louise says calmly. “I was wondering if this would be the case to finally make you realize that.”

“I can’t do this, Louise!” He says, panic clawing at his throat. He can’t go back into that office and pretend like everything is normal; he’s not going to be able to move on to their next case and pretend everything is normal, not after he’s shared a bed with Phil and seen him with bedhead and planned an adoption and a life with him.

“Whoa, there. Take a deep breath, Dan, and tell me what’s going on. Start from the beginning.”

The beginning.

The beginning of this story should, for all intents and purposes, be a few days ago when Grimmy called them into his office to give them this assignment. But instead, as Dan stands in this dingy alley watching his breath appear in the freezing November air, the only thing he can think about is himself at age eighteen, heading into MI5 on his first day of work and catching a glimpse of Phil at the coffee machine. That was the day Dan had started drinking coffee, because Phil drank coffee and Dan wanted to be like Phil.

“I think I’ve always loved him,” Dan says faintly, and he feels sick to his stomach. “Since my very first day of work. I spent all that time idolizing him, and then I actually met him and he was even better in person than I’d imagined. But we worked together, so it was never worth risking it to do anything about it. And all these years and all the time we’ve spent together, and we still haven’t gotten sick of each other.”

He swears Louise is omniscient sometimes, and now she displays her eerie ability to always to know what to say about the topic at hand. “You know, you were the first person that he let in after that case that went wrong,” Louise remarks softly. “That means something, Dan.”

“Yeah, he let me in because I literally followed him around for five months straight,” Dan says hollowly.

“You weren’t around when it actually happened, Dan. Phil changed after that. He was so quiet—one time Felix and I dragged him to the zoo and he didn’t smile once. Not even at the baby gorilla.” And that’s an absurd point of comparison, but it’s impossible to imagine the Phil that Dan knows not smiling and cooing and taking a million pictures of any baby animal. “It wasn’t until you showed up that he started laughing again, Dan.”

“He doesn’t love me back, Louise,” Dan says quietly, and it’s like something inside him—something that had cracked a little bit each time Phil mentioned not wanting to kiss him, or each time Phil had touched him for show during this case but not because it had actually meant something—crumples and shatters into a million tiny pieces. He’s going to be picking splinters of Phil—fragments of thethings that could have been between the two of them—out of his skin for a very long time after this. They’re going to leave their current flat and move back to their own respective apartments, and the white walls of that second bedroom are always going to remain white. There will be no lavender nursery, no dancing to Ed Sheeran and kissing behind curtains in Dan and Phil’s future. Just an endless landscape of trying to fight the bad guys and survive another day; a return to meaningless banter and gaping silences stretching over the important things.

Louise is silent for a long minute. “Are we talking about the same Phil?”

And Dan explodes. “He doesn’t love me, Louise! Maybe like a brother or a best friend, sure, but—he said he didn’t want to kiss me during this case. And every time he’s touched me he’s apologized afterward and looked disgusted. It might have taken me a long time figure this out, Louise, but I’m not a fucking idiot. He doesn’t love me.”

It’s funny, because if Phil were there with him in the alleyway at this very moment, he probably would have shouted something like: “yes, you are a fucking idiot! Pay attention to your surroundings! Stop talking about cases and shouting about the person you’re supposedly married to not loving you!”

But Phil’s still inside signing adoption paperwork, and so when someone hits Dan over the back of the head with a heavy object there is nobody to shout a warning to him. The phone slips from his fingers first and he watches its descent as though in a dream. Then he falls.

And then there is nothing but blackness and silence.

Dan’s first memory of the Thames River comes from when he was about seven. He’d been on a trip to London with his parents, and—his mum still tells this story at family parties sometimes—his parents had turned around and realized they’d lost sight of Dan after crossing the river.

They’d found him still on the bridge a few minutes later, standing on his tiptoes and leaning over the guardrail, his eyes closed and his arms outstretched. He’d loved adventure even then, and he remembers that he had been imagining himself as a pirate captain. (Needless to say, his mother had held his hand very tightly for the rest of the day).

He hasn’t talked to his mum for a while.

That’s what he’s thinking about as he’s dragged from the trunk of the car and shoved towards the guardrail of the bridge. This is a different bridge than the one in the heart of London—they’re further out of the city now, where there’s not much traffic by car, and even less by foot on a cold November night.

The fall from the bridge isn’t high enough to kill him, though, which means that he’s probably going to be shot first. He calculates his odds of just shimmying his way off the bridge right now and taking his chances in the icy cold water, but his feet and arms are still bound, and it’s hard to breathe with his mouth gagged.

He gets his first good look at his captor, whose face is dimly illuminated by the streetlight. Dan doesn’t recognize him at all; not from any of the employee files he’s pored over, nor from any of his other criminal connections. There is something slightly familiar about his features; his dark eyes and the set of his mouth, but Dan can’t put a finger on it for the life of him (literally, since his life depends on this). He’s a huge man—probably the same height as Dan, but about fifty pounds of pure muscle heavier.

Dan mumbles something indistinct from behind his gag, and sure enough, Mr. Biceps takes the bait and roughly yanks the fabric out of his mouth. Something Dan has learned in situations like these is that it’s best to get the bad guy to start talking and then keep him talking. That’s the thing with criminals; they want to tell you about how they’ve bested you before they kill you and dispose of you. It’s the fatal mistake that Voldemort made about seventy times throughout the Harry Potter series, and Dan is counting on it buying him a little time right now, because he has no other option.

“What did you say?” Biceps grunts, and his accent is hard to place.

“I said,” Dan wildly invents. “Not that I don’t enjoy clandestine meetings on the outskirts of London as much as anyone else…but the weather could be a bit better, don’t you think?”

For that he receives a hard slap to the face, delivered right from the meaty fist of Biceps himself. That’s going to bruise, but Biceps wants to talk now. Dan can see it.

“So what brings us out here?” He asks, continuing to affect his most aggravatingly unconcerned tone. It’s the kind of attitude that had gotten him kicked out of lots of classes as a teenager.

“You’re a cop,” Biceps says, and there is a proud glint in his cold eyes. “Worked that out for myself. So you can probably work out for yourself why we’re out here.”

“Yes, that must have been very hard for you, as I was literally wearing a gun and talking about being undercover on the phone when you nabbed me,” Dan says blandly. “And nice try, but I’m not a cop. I’m a government agent with a partner who is going to notice that I am missing and probably show up here within a matter of minutes.”

“And I’ll shoot him if he does,” Biceps returns unflinchingly. “Besides, how the fuck’s he going to find you?”

Which…is a very valid point. “My watch…it has a tracking device,” he lies baldly.

So Biceps rips the watch off his wrist—literally rips through the metal itself—and stomps on it until the face shatters. It had been Dan’s grandfather’s watch, and now it’s probably the only thing they’ll ever find of him; shattered bits of metal on a quiet bridge over the Thames.

“That seems a little excessive,” Dan comments neutrally. “Speaking of things that are excessive, why are you doing this, anyway?”

“Fuck off,” Biceps growls. “I think I’ve heard enough from you.”

And with that, any time that Dan had bought is rapidly coming to a close, so he decides to act while Biceps is close enough to get his hands on—well, Dan’s hands are still bound together at the wrists, but that doesn’t make it any less effective when he suddenly brings both his fists up and smashes them against Biceps’ face.

He isn’t waiting to see how Biceps reacts, although the howl of pain is encouraging. No, he’s hobbling as best as he can with bound ankles over to the guardrail, where he uses the end of a metal railing to hastily saw through the duct tape around his wrists. With his hands free, he can yank at the tape around his ankles and loosen it enough to rip it off. It’s a skill that they were forced to practice constantly in basic training—so much so that a few Christmases ago when his little cousin was ripping strips of duct tape to hang up her new One Direction poster, he’d automatically taken all her pieces of tape and ripped them to shreds before he’d even realized what he’d been doing, and then all the adults had stared at him like a specimen in a glass jar the entirety of Christmas dinner.

But the practice has paid off now—of course, he rips several layers of skin off his ankles in the process, but now he can run and, hey, he’ll have nicely waxed ankles for the next week or so.

He hears the hitch of a gun trigger and dives behind Biceps’ car just as the sound of a shot rings out. The man might be crazy, but he’s probably not going to shoot at his own car.

In spite of the temporary protection provided by the car, however, Dan knows he can’t stay in the relatively small space too long before he becomes a sitting duck. So he ducks around the front of the car, hoping to catch Biceps by surprise.

Naturally, because Dan’s life is not an action-adventure movie, Biceps anticipates this move and is waiting for him with a bored smirk, gun already aimed right at Dan’s sternum when Dan emerges from the dark.

“Oh,” Dan says, before realizing that he really doesn’t want ‘oh’ to be his last word. “Shit,” he tacks on, but that’s not much better.

Biceps is slowly advancing towards him and Dan takes a few steps backward before realizing that every step he takes back brings him closer and closer to the railing of the bridge. He’s literally walking right into Biceps’ trap.

Which is just not going to do, to be honest. He’d resigned himself to the idea of dying in the line of duty ages ago, but this is not how he wants to go; back to the wall like a wild animal.

It’s begun snowing, light fluffy flakes drifting down silently, sticking to his eyelashes—the first snowfall of the season. It’s peaceful, almost, and as he prepares to make a last-ditch attempt at survival by lunging for Biceps’ knees—‘always go for the knees, Dan, it’s the best point of weakness’ Uncle Jim had told him at his retirement party from the agency when Dan was seventeen years old—he thinks of Phil.

It’s not even really a cohesive thought or an actual memory. It’s not a dramatic projection of declaring his new-found love and the two of them growing old together, or regret over the time they’d wasted already.

Just Phil, sitting on Dan’s couch and laughing at something stupid. Just the simple, reassuring fact that if this doesn’t end well and Dan doesn’t make it through these next few moments, his last thought will have been of his best friend.

And then he’s diving for Biceps’ knees and a lot of things happen at once:

  1.        The screech of tires and the slam of a car door,
  2.        Dan flinging himself through the air and rugby tackling a man with the approximate build of that one guy from The Green Mile (included in his mental list of things going on, because it’s not every day that this happens),
  3.        Dan getting mildly curb-stomped by Biceps (which, ouch, where the fuck did the man buy boots that heavy?),
  4.        Dan somehow kicking Biceps’ legs out from underneath him so that he slips on the snow-slick pavement and goes down hard on top of Dan (which, again, ouch, Dan only has 24 ribs and he’d like to keep them all relatively intact, thanks),
  5.        Phil shouting “get off him or I’ll shoot!” in an absurdly Northern accent,
  6.        Dan and Biceps’ pausing in their brawl to stare at the newly-arrived Phil,
  7.        Dan letting out a slightly hysterical giggle because Phil going full-Northern is always hysterical, regardless of the circumstances.

“Get off him,” Phil says, his voice deadly serious, his hand completely steady as he points the gun at Biceps.

(Here’s the thing, though, that both he and Phil know but that neither of them are going to say.

Phil doesn’t have the shot.)

And unfortunately, Biceps also seems to recognize that he and Dan are so tangled together right now that any shot Phil takes, he risks Biceps using Dan as a human shield. Naturally, this lends itself to a golden opportunity to make Dan’s night even worse, and Biceps drags Dan abruptly to his feet and shoves Dan in front of him, and then the metal of Biceps’ gun is cold against Dan’s forehead.

“You shoot me, and I shoot him automatically. My finger isn’t leaving this trigger,” Biceps declares staunchly, but Dan can literally feel the man’s heart pounding. Biceps is in panic mode, and that can only lead to recklessness and poor decision-making.

“Okay,” Phil says calmly, and Dan recognizes Phil’s negotiator mask coming on. “There’s no need to do anything hasty here. Let’s talk this through.”

“I’m done fucking talking!” Biceps shouts so loudly that his voice sounds raw. “I’ve been done with talking for years!”

“Why adoptive couples, though?” Phil asks, and he somehow manages to sound non-threatening, nonjudgmental, and genuinely interested.

“Because being adopted was the worst fucking thing that ever happened to me,” Biceps says, and he sounds so, so angry, but there is a hint of the scared child he must have once been somewhere in there, and the hand holding the gun to Dan’s head is shaking.

And then it all clicks in Dan’s head—the familiar facial features, the backstory, the timeline of the murders—

“Holy shit,” Dan is breathing. “I know you. You’re—”

“Marina’s little brother,” Phil finishes for him, his own eyes wide with surprise.

Because it all makes sense now—Marina telling Dan that she was new to Family Finds a Way, that she had been working at another adoption agency first, that she and her brother had been abused by their adoptive parents.

Dan remembers looking through her employee file and seeing her brother listed as the emergency contact—Samuel. Samuel King. The real connection between the murders hadn’t been Tom; hadn’t been that they were all international adoptions. No, it had been because Samuel was limited to whatever information he could get from Marina’s work to target people, and Marina had always worked with international adoptions.

“Marina didn’t have anything to do with this; you hear me?” Samuel’s voice is shaking now. “Don’t you fucking touch her.”

“We won’t,” Phil says much more calmly than Dan feels. “Marina is fine, Samuel. If you cooperate with us, we’ll let you call her.”

“I don’t want—she can’t know—she’ll hate me,” Samuel moans, and Dan senses that this is all about to spiral downhill very quickly. Samuel cocks the gun, and Phil’s eyes are frantic on Dan’s face.

“I can’t—the only way—get rid of them both—” Samuel is muttering feverishly to himself, and Dan has a very bad feeling about what Samuel has planned for him and Phil.

“Don’t do this, Samuel,” Phil says, and a hint of pleading seeps into his voice. His eyes never leave Dan’s.

“It’s the only way,” Samuel says, and then there is another explosion of activity. Dan, who isn’t going to stand around waiting to be shot, stomps quite hard on Samuel’s foot and elbows him in the stomach, automatically dropping to the ground as a gunshot rings out almost simultaneously.


It takes Dan several infinite seconds to determine that, no, he had not been shot. Instead someone had picked off Samuel from a side angle. Samuel drops his gun, staggers, and falls next to Dan, bleeding profusely from a thigh wound. He’ll live, Dan figures, which is more than can be said for the six people that he’d killed.

And then Finn Harries is melting out of the shadows, looking like a runway model as he twirls his gun casually around his finger and strolls over to Dan.

“Got here just in time,” he says with a friendly smile to Dan, slapping cuffs on Samuel and radioing for an ambulance.

“Was that you who made that shot?” Dan asks, still a bit numb with shock.

“Yeah, your partner called us in for back-up on his way over,” Finn says, nodding to Phil, who is frozen in place, staring at Dan as though he’s not sure if Dan really exists. “I’m just glad I was able to get a good angle on him, since Phil didn’t have it. Good work, Howell. You’d make a good MI6 agent.” Jack Harries is here too, pulling up a sleek black car, presumably so they can follow Samuel to the hospital and arrest him.

“Uh…thanks,” Dan says, starstruck. “Could you maybe mention that to Grimmy next time you run into him?”

Finn laughs and claps Dan on the shoulder. “See you around, mate.”

“Yeah, sure…mate,” Dan breathes in awe.

And then he’s clambering to his feet and hobbling over to Phil, who is still looking vaguely thunderstruck.

“You okay?” Dan asks, laying a hand on Phil’s arm.

It’s as though Dan’s touch has jolted Phil out of whatever shock he’d been in, because Phil’s hands are suddenly gripping Dan’s biceps tightly, his eyes blazing as they rake over Dan’s bruised face.

“I thought he’d shot you,” Phil says, his exhale a little shuddery. “Jesus, Dan, that was too close.”

One of Phil’s hands tentatively comes up to cup Dan’s bruised cheek, turning it into the light to inspect the damage. He winces. “Jesus, Dan,” he repeats, shaking his head.

“I’m okay. Really, look; I’ll even go get inspected by the medical people without complaining. No bullet holes here!” He says with forced cheer. He fucking hates medical attention, but if it will get Phil to stop staring at him with that scared light in his eyes, he’ll submit to any test they want to do on him.

Fortunately they quickly determine that no, he’s not concussed and no, he doesn’t need to be admitted to the hospital. They give him some painkillers and advise him to ice his bruises, and then he’s free.

The Harries Twins have already left with Samuel and there is definitely a shitload of paperwork to be filled out, but that can all wait til tomorrow morning. Right now, Dan just wants to go home and sleep for about a million years.

They hail a cab (Phil had apparently stolen a car to race here when he’d realized Dan had gone missing, but the agency had sent more people for clean-up—a bunch of junior agents eager to please— and they promise to return the car to its rightful owner).

“So, Phil Lester, guilty of grand theft auto,” Dan declares when he hears that, huffing out a laugh as he sprawls out onto the backseat of the cab. “Don’t tell your mum that you had to resort to that because of me, or she’ll probably kill me for ruining your virtue.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Phil says. “She’ll probably come to your flat and hug you and make you tea when she finds out. I think she likes you better than she likes me.”

“That’s because I always remember to send her a birthday card, unlike you,” Dan says, wincing as the cab goes over a pothole.

“You okay?” Phil asks, his expression nervous.

“Yeah, just sore,” Dan says, rubbing his ribs and waving off the concern. “Hey, how did you know where to find me, anyway?”

Phil rolls his eyes. “You really need to read the department memos,” he says. “All agency guns have had tracking devices on them as of last year…you seriously didn’t know that? Fortunately Samuel kept your gun after he took it off you, because all I had to do was call PJ and get him to track your gun when I realized you were missing. That’s why I told you to keep your gun on you at all times.”

“Oh my god, this explains so much. Remember when PJ kept teasing me for all the time I was spending at the strip club a few months ago, and I didn’t know how he’d figured out where I’d been going?” Phil’s face blanches, and Dan elbows him. “It was for a case, you idiot—you were on desk duty because you’d sprained your ankle and Felix and I were undercover in that nightclub. I was wearing that leather shirt that you hate, remember?”

“Yes, I remember hearing all about that case,” Phil says sourly.

“Oh my god, are you jealous?” Dan laughs, because he recognizes that tone of voice. “Jealous that Felix and I got paid to spend time in a strip club? Because you could just go there on your night off, you know.”

“That’s not why—” Phil lets out a heavy sigh and shuts his mouth, seeming to think better of what he’d been about to say. “Why are we talking about this again?”

“Because we’re both coming down off an adrenaline high,” Dan shrugs, pulling out money to pay the driver as he pulls up to the curb of the Strikers’ apartment. “Hey, why are we here?”

“Because it’s closest and all our stuff is here, and your teeth have been chattering this whole time and I don’t think you’ve even noticed,” Phil says rationally, his hand coming to rest on the small of Dan’s back to steer him gently towards the building. The gesture isn’t really necessary—although, come to think of it, Dan is awfully cold and shaky—but it’s kind of nice all the same, to slip back into the safe world of the Strikers, where Dan and Phil orbit around one another as easily as the earth and the moon.

Phil calling attention to the teeth chattering has made him hyperaware of how cold he actually is, and he’s shivering by the time they get upstairs. Phil gently guides him to the bathroom where he starts the hot water in the shower, turning away as Dan begins stripping and promising to go find him some warm clothes.

Dan stands under the spray of hot water until it runs cold, and he feels much better after as he pulls on sweats and a thermal-knit shirt that Phil had rustled up somewhere.

Phil is lounging in bed when Dan exits the bathroom, scrawling case notes into his notebook. He puts his pen down when he sees Dan, pulling back the covers on Dan’s side. It’s not that late—not even midnight—but it might as well be four in the morning for how tired Dan’s body is as he crawls onto the mattress.

His mind is still racing, however. “So,” he says, overwhelmed. “That happened.”

“Not my favorite way to end a case,” Phil says, putting his notebook aside and turning to face Dan. “But at least it’s over. Poor Marina.”

“Poor everyone involved,” Dan sighs. “That was a tough one. You’d think I’d get used to people holding guns to my head, but I never quite do.”

“I hope you never do,” Phil says, his expression grave, the look in his eyes reminding Dan of how shell-shocked he’d looked after Finn had shot Samuel; like he still couldn’t quite believe that Dan was really here.

“You sound like my mum,” Dan says, cracking a tired smile.

“That’s because I worry about you sometimes,” Phil says as he climbs under the covers on his side. His voice is light, but his eyes are serious as they study Dan’s face.

Dan sighs. “I know, I know, because I’m younger than you; I make impulsive decisions; I generate half of Grimmy’s paperwork each month.”

“No,” Phil says, shaking his head. “Because you’re Dan, and sometimes you get so wrapped up in trying to do the right thing that you forget about how important your own life is.”

Phil’s mouth is suddenly so, so close to Dan’s, and the way his dark gaze lingers on Dan’s face makes him feel flushed and jittery.

“Thanks for coming to save me,” Dan whispers, studying the long, pale line of Phil’s throat.

“That’s how this thing works, right? We save each other,” Phil murmurs in response, and Dan remembers the way Phil had talked about Dan helping him climb out of his sadness during their interview earlier this afternoon; and he thinks about the fact that he hadn’t had a best friend until he’d met Phil; how he’d felt desperately trapped by the idea of going to uni and getting a desk job, and he decides that Phil is talking about something deeper than just physically saving each other’s lives.

But then he’s not thinking about anything at all, because Phil’s lips are suddenly against his, and there’s nothing chaste or tentative about it; none of the exploratory innocence from the other night. It’s almost urgent; as though Phil is trying to make sure Dan is alive and not going anywhere; as though he is trying to give Dan a reason to stay alive in the only way he knows how.

Which, hey, Dan doesn’t need encouragement to live, but he’s definitely not going to complain about the way Phil’s teeth scrape lightly against his bottom lip, and the way that the hint of stubble on Phil’s jaw scratches against Dan’s cheek. There’s a rational little voice in the back of his brain that sounds a lot like Louise reminding him that oh, hey, yeah, he’s in love with Phil and the feelings aren’t reciprocated, and that this is probably a horrible adrenaline-fueled idea, but then Phil is rolling so that he is halfway on top of Dan, both his legs bracketing Dan’s thigh, and the little voice shuts up really quickly.

Dan tangles a hand through Phil’s hair and sucks gently on Phil’s lower lip, and Phil lets out a strangled sound and drops to trail kisses down Dan’s neck. Dan had been freezing just a few minutes ago, but now he feels like he is burning up inside his own skin.

Phil’s hands creep up Dan’s shirt to splay across his lower stomach, and Dan lets out a gasp as Phil sucks a mark into the skin of his neck. Phil freezes.

“Did I hurt you?” He asks, jerking his hands away from Dan’s stomach. Dan’s brain has gone a bit hazy—his current thought process something along the lines of bad, bad, talking is bad; talking means that we have to actually think about what we’re doing, Phil, we can’t think about this right now—and it takes him a minute to remember the bruising marring his torso.

“No,” he says, and his voice sounds embarrassingly low and breathless. “No, no, I’m fine, don’t stop, Phil, please,” he babbles.

Phil’s eyes darken, and it takes Dan a second to realize that it’s because of his voice; because of how wrecked he sounds that Phil looks like that. It makes his breath hitch in his chest when Phil pushes at the hem of Dan’s shirt.

“Off,” Dan demands, tugging at Phil’s shirt as he obligingly yanks his own over his head and tosses it somewhere; anywhere. The sock goblins can have it; he doesn’t care.

“Pushy,” Phil says, but he leans back and strips off his shirt with a grin, revealing an expanse of smooth, pale torso.

The grin fades into something else, though, as Phil sits perfectly still for a moment, just staring down at Dan. Dan’s sure he makes quite a picture, sprawled out beneath Phil, shirtless and bruised, with damp, curly hair and swollen lips.

They’ve been doing this—whatever this is—for less than five minutes, and Dan is already rock hard in his sweatpants. “I don’t—I don’t have condoms or lube,” Dan says, figuring one of them is going to have to broach the subject sooner or later. It's an intriguing thought; the idea of Phil opening him up slowly and then pushing into him, so that their two forms would become one. It's something he'll definitely be imagining a lot in the near future, but for now—

“Me either,” Phil shrugs. “But I think we can adapt.” And Dan had thought that he’d seen every single one of Phil’s facial expressions at some point in the past six years, but there is a brand new look on Phil’s face when his long fingers come to rest on the waistband of Dan’s sweats; a strange mixture of awe and nervousness.

“Is this okay?” Phil asks.

“More than okay,” Dan laughs, but his laugh cuts off into a strangled moan as Phil’s fingers delve into his pants and wrap around him.

Dan allows his eyes to lower to half-lid and his head to drop back against the pillows.

“You okay?” Phil murmurs, pushing Dan’s waistband down a few inches for better access and pressing a kiss to his bare hipbone.

And it’s a weird time for recollections of the past, but it almost reminds Dan of when he and Phil had become partners; when Dan had awoken to the beep of a heart monitor after his first-ever gunshot wound, and Phil had been sitting by his hospital bed and had said, in the exact same soft, affectionate tone of voice, “you okay?”

It doesn’t take long for Dan to come, and it takes even less for Phil to come, panting an open-mouthed kiss against Dan’s mouth as Dan finally gets his hand around Phil and strokes.

And really, as Dan smooths his thumb against the fluttering pulse point of Phil’s neck, he wonders how he hadn’t seen all of this coming from the moment he’d woken up in that hospital bed and seen Phil sitting beside him, having sneaked in McDonald's for both of them and sat for hours waiting patiently for Dan to wake up.

“Her name was Sara,” Phil says softly after they’ve cleaned themselves up and dropped in to bed together, sated and intertwined. Dan is currently the big spoon and he can’t see Phil’s face, but maybe that is what is giving Phil the courage to speak.

“Her name was Sara and she was only twelve,” Phil repeats, and Dan wonders for an instant where this is going before he remembers what Phil had said at the interview this afternoon, and Jesus Christ, how had that been only this afternoon? It feels like a lifetime ago that they were sitting in Tom’s office.

“What happened?” Dan prompts gently, tightening his arm around Phil’s waist slightly. Apparently he’s not the only one thinking about the past tonight.

“She was the daughter of a Member of Parliament, and somebody who didn’t like her father’s policies kidnapped her for ransom. I looked her mother straight in the eye and promised I’d get her back home safely.”

“Ransom cases usually don’t end in homicide,” Dan reasons softly. “That’s not a bad thing to reassure someone of, especially a worried parent.”

“Well, this one did,” Phil says quietly. “Everything went wrong—the back-up wasn’t there when I called for them; there was nowhere to take cover when the kidnappers started shooting. I had to tell her mum afterwards.”

There is really nothing to say to that, but Dan can’t just let this hang in the air between them.

“It wasn’t your fault. I know you already know that, but just in case you need to hear it out loud: it wasn’t your fault.”

“Sometimes I think I’ll never stop feeling bad about it,” Phil confesses.

“You don’t always have to be sad alone, though,” Dan says, because if there’s anything Phil has taught him, it’s this. Phil, who has sat with Dan after countless cases as he has existential crises over hurting other people in the line of work and the futility of fighting evil in modern society; Phil, who has borne this one single crisis alone for so many years.

As they fall asleep together, it’s as though the last barrier in their partnership has crumbled and fallen to dust at their feet after almost seven years. It leaves something that feels a lot like hope burgeoning tentatively in Dan’s chest.

Dan awakes slowly the next morning, allowing a stupidly happy smile to touch his lips for a minute as he think about the fact that he and Phil had had sex last night and that they’d fallen asleep spooning each other.

He’s feeling pretty optimistic about what that all means for their future until he opens his eyes and realizes that he’s alone in bed and the apartment is silent.

He firmly reminds himself that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, however, as he drags his aching body to the bathroom to brush his teeth and inspect his bruises. Phil could gone out to grab coffee; he could have left to take a phone call in the hall. Dan isn’t going to be that clingy one night stand (even though he’s slightly resentful that Phil hadn’t at least taken the time to poke him awake and tell him if he was going somewhere, but whatever).

So in spite of the dark bruises marring his cheek and his torso, he’s still feeling pretty good about himself and this day, until he realizes that all of Phil’s stuff from the case has been packed up and is missing from the closet and the dresser drawers.

By the time he makes it to the kitchen and sees the note taped to the coffee maker, his stomach has already sunk down to somewhere near his feet.

                Gone to debrief with Susan. If you have a minute, someone should debrief Tom Franklin, as he is no doubt wondering what is happening. Have a good rest of the weekend.


Dan vindictively rips the note into tiny shreds, pacing around and fuming.

“‘Have a good rest of the weekend’?” He mutters feverishly to himself. “What am I, his elderly penpal? I’m going to murder him.”

Because that note had been frigid. Impersonal. Not Phil-esque at all. And not the kind of note you would leave for someone you had slept with if you ever wanted to talk to them again, much less sleep with them again in the near future.

And Dan should have known that this was going to happen; that Phil was going to panic when he woke up and realized that he’d made a near-death-experience-fueled error of judgment and slept with Dan. That’s what Phil has done every single time he’s touched Dan throughout this case, so Dan doesn’t know why he’d dared to hope that this could be any different.

He goes to see Tom first, because it’s his job.

Tom is in a state of shock when he gets there, having already heard what had happened.

“Poor Marina,” he keeps saying. “She called me this morning and just kept apologizing on Samuel’s behalf. I can’t imagine how she’s feeling right now.”

“It’s a very tough situation for her,” Dan shakes his head sympathetically.

“She told me all about how she tried her best to raise him and how responsible she feels for all of this. But I think after a certain point, you can’t control what people are going to do or feel guilty over it. Samuel made his choices. People will do that, you know?”

“Yeah,” Dan says, his voice rough as he thinks about the choices he and Phil have made over the past five days. “Yeah, I know.”

“Anyway, it’s hard to believe that you two are actually government agents!”

“We get that a lot,” Dan says with a weary smile.

“Here,” Tom says, passes Dan his business card. “I told Hannah about everything that had happened, and she told me I should give this to the two of you in case you ever need my services in the future.” He waggles his eyebrows at Dan in a friendly manner, and Dan can perfectly imagine Tom and Hannah gossiping about the two of them, wondering if the two cute fake husbands would ever actually become real husbands.

Suddenly he can’t stand to be in this office any longer, surrounded by pictures and pamphlets of happy families. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Dan says quietly as he clambers to his feet. “But thanks all the same.”

The business card feels heavy in his pocket as he leaves.

“Open your fucking door, Phil!” Dan shouts, unabashedly banging on the entrance to Phil’s apartment. Phil’s neighbors have gotten used to Dan lurking around at odd hours of the night throughout the years, so surely they can deal with a midday shouting match.

He hears the sound of Phil fumbling quickly with his lock, probably not wanting Dan to make a scene. When he opens the door, his expression is guarded.

 “What’s up, Dan?” He says cautiously.

“What’s up?” Dan replies, voice rising. Phil looks both ways down the hallway and then gently grabs Dan’s arm and tugs him into the flat, shutting the door behind them, presumably so that the neighbors won’t be subjected to this. “Well, you know, Phil, my partner slept with me last night and then basically told me to fuck off and have a good weekend, but I’m finding that I can’t really do that right now; that is what’s up!” His chest is rising and falling rapidly by the time he finishes this little rant, and Phil looks slightly alarmed.

“Look, Dan, I know I’ve been giving off a lot of mixed signals, and I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry for all of this; I don’t know what you want me to say—”

“I want you to stop hiding behind our work and tell me the truth!” Dan demands. “Do you regret what happened last night?”

There is a long moment where time feels suspended between the two of them. “I—” Phil stammers. “I—yes. Look, Dan, you were hurt and exhausted and had just been through something traumatic. That’s not how I wanted this—”

But Dan isn’t listening anymore. He feels sick, thinking back to this morning when he’d woken up feeling so happy and optimistic. “I have to go,” he says numbly. “Have a good rest of your weekend, asshole,” he spits, ducking out before Phil can say anything else and slamming the door as hard as he can behind him. It should be satisfying to storm away like this, but really it kind of just makes Dan want to cry.

He and Phil don’t talk for two weeks.

Dan finally uses up some of the literal months of vacation time that he has accrued over the years but never used, and goes home for a week after his confrontation with Phil. It’s good to see his parents, and his childhood home is a good place to mope around, if only because he spent so much time moping around there during his angsty teenage years that it’s very familiar.

His mum worries about him, he can tell, but she doesn’t ask. She just accepts him with open arms and tries to feed him as much as possible and tucks blankets over him when he inevitably doses off on the couch every afternoon. His bruises heal slowly, but they heal all the same. By the fourth or fifth day of his visit, he is no longer sore, so he goes for a lot of long solitary walks around the neighborhood, desperate to clear his traitorous mind, which keeps drifting to wonder what Phil is doing and what Phil is thinking and what it had meant that Phil had touched him like that; gently and reverently, and then taken it all back immediately after.

When he gets back to London Sunday afternoon, he goes over to Louise’s and they get horribly wine-drunk together and he may or may not cry a little bit when he tells her about everything that’s transpired, but she’s not going to tell anyone (mostly because the two of them have had so many awkward moments over the years that Dan could easily blackmail her with one of the many embarrassing pictures he has of her, but that’s just how their friendship works). She plays with his hair and lets him sleep on her couch, and she walks into the agency with him on Monday morning so that he doesn’t have to face it alone.

He and Phil don’t talk the entire week beyond absolutely vital case information, like “pass that file” and “here’s the search warrant.” He catches Phil staring at him a lot from across his desk, but he refuses to stare back.

There is an awkward moment on Monday when Grimmy calls them into his office to congratulate them for redeeming MI5’s name.

“I can’t wait to rub it in Susan’s face at the agency convention this year,” Grimmy says dreamily. “Good work, boys.”

“Thanks,” Dan says hollowly, and Grimmy looks between the two of them, a crease appearing between his eyebrows.

“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say, Howell?”

“Yes, sir.”

Grimmy’s eyes go wide at the use of ‘sir’, because Dan has never been one to be overly respectful to his superiors. “You sure? You’re not going to try to demand a raise or a bonus or anything?”

“No, sir,” Dan shrugs.

Grimmy glances between the two of them again. Phil is determinedly studying the wood pattern of Grimmy’s desk, and Dan watches as Grimmy’s eyes widen even further with realization.

“Huh,” he says, almost to himself. “Who would have thought that this day would ever actually come?”

“Sir?” Dan says dully.

“Howell, would you send Kjellberg in to see me? I need to…speak to him about something,” Grimmy mysteriously dismisses them.

That weekend Dan goes out with Felix and Marzia and some of the MI6 people and gets absolutely hammered. It’s fun to be included and feel like part of the group, but when he grinds against a tall, dark-haired stranger on the dance floor, it doesn’t feel quite right, and by the time he makes it home from the club, he’s mostly just sad. Drunk and sad. He lets his phone battery run down to almost zero and makes Marzia confiscate his charger so that he won’t be tempted to call Phil.

It’s the longest he’s ever gone without properly speaking to Phil in almost seven years, so it’s inevitable that everything is going to come to a head eventually.

When it happens, it’s a Tuesday afternoon and they’re in the midst of a bust.

“Come on, man! I can’t believe you’d betray me like this!” Rocco, a prominent middleman in London’s amphetamine scene (“yes, Dan, we know that rhymes, now stop repeating it,” Felix had sighed earlier) shouts at Phil.

This is a case that they’ve been working on intermittently over the past six months or so—Phil has gone undercover as a fellow middleman a few times to make contact with Rocco, and now that they’ve nabbed him, he’ll make a useful informant and they’ll be able to get him off the streets. They’ll cut him a deal and he’ll probably spend a few months in jail, and then once he’s out the agency will pay him to serve as a source of information.

It’s actually a pretty great deal for Rocco, but he clearly views the fact that Phil has been deceiving him as an act of ultimate betrayal. They’ve got him cornered in the alleyway where Rocco usually sleeps, and Felix is waiting somewhere on the street with back-up. Dan is holding the handcuffs and now would be the time when he should step in and make the arrest, but something small and petty stops him.

“Don’t worry, Rocco, you’re not the first person he’s done that to,” Dan says frostily.

Phil sighs audibly, shaking his head. “Really, Dan? You want to do this now?”

Rocco lets out a low whistle as he looks between the two of them. “What’d he do to you, man?” He asks Dan.

“It’s a little personal,” Dan says, because he’s not petty enough to air their private issues to the neighborhood meth dealer. “But he knows exactly what he did to me. Some partner—”

“I wanted it to be real!” Phil exclaims suddenly. He claps a hand over his mouth, the color immediately draining from his face.

“Come again?” Dan asks coolly.

“The whole thing, the whole time,” Phil continues, still looking vaguely unable to believe he is actually saying this out loud. “I wanted it to be real. I know it was wrong, Dan, but I’ve had feelings for you for ages, and I was thinking that maybe going undercover as a couple would help to just—I don’t know, to get it out of my system or something—which was stupid, because it just made everything worse and more intense—”

“Um, guys?” Rocco interjects. “I’m still here, just so you know. Aren’t you going to like…arrest me or something?”

“No offense, Rocco,” Dan peevishly holds up a hand at the interruption. “But this is really none of your business.”

Rocco shrugs and sits down on his sleeping bag, apparently content to watch the proceedings.

Phil takes a deep breath. “I know you don’t feel the same, Dan, and that I was taking advantage of you and the situation every time I kissed you or touched you—”

Dan is suddenly breathless. “Wait,” he says slowly. “So just to clarify—you’ve been rejecting me because you’ve been assuming that I don’t return your feelings and that you’ve been taking advantage of the situation because of that?”

Phil nods, looking like he wants to sink into the concrete and never resurface.

Dan throws the handcuffs over his shoulder with a loud clatter and surges forward. “Well, it’s a good thing you were completely wrong about all of that, you martyring idiot,” he says before crowding Phil against a brick wall and enthusiastically sealing their mouths together. It’s warm and familiar, and he can feel that Phil is smiling disbelievingly against Dan’s lips, as though he can’t believe this is actually happening, and really, the feeling is quite mutual.

The metallic clang of the handcuffs landing must have alerted Felix, who comes around the corner and immediately cringes at the public display of affection.

“This has got to be the weirdest arrest that’s ever happened to me,” Rocco remarks, holding out his wrists cooperatively as Felix picks up the handcuffs.

“Believe it or not, this isn’t even the strangest thing I’ve seen the two of them do,” Felix commiserates. “Also, I just won 300 pounds in the office pool.”

“Wait a second,” Dan says when that registers, pulling away slightly from Phil. “You guys have been betting on us? Is that why Grimmy wanted to see you last week?”

Felix nods distractedly as he recites Rocco’s rights to him. “Yeah, he wanted to change his projected date, but I wouldn’t let him. He thought you two wouldn’t get together for at least another year. What a non-believer,” Felix shakes his head as he clicks the handcuffs into place. “Clearly he’s never seen you two play table tennis in the break room. You could cut the sexual tension with a knife and sell it for more profit than meth,” he sagely tells Rocco.

“We do not play sexually tense table tennis, Felix,” Dan squawks indignantly.

“Maybe you won’t anymore after this,” Felix says suggestively, and he and Rocco exchange superior, knowing glances with each other. “Anyway, we’ll just leave you two to it,” Felix comments as he leads Rocco away.

And there’s a lot that Dan wants to say to that—demanding at least half of the pool money, for one, and complaining to human resources about his coworkers betting on his relationship status—but he could just kiss Phil instead of doing any of that, so that’s what he does.

They kiss until they are both flushed and breathless, Phil’s fingers warm as they tangle in the hair at the nape of Dan’s neck. Dan rests his forehead against Phil’s contentedly, oddly immune to the cold.

“We are making Felix buy us so many rounds of drinks with that money,” Phil says, smiling his crinkly-eyed smile, which is Dan’s favorite Phil-smile, and he hadn’t even realized that that was a thing until just now; that he had a favorite Phil-smile.

“Oh, he’s paying for our post-arrest McDonald’s for the rest of the year,” Dan agrees, pressing a light kiss to Phil’s jaw before stepping back to give Phil a little space.

“So,” Phil says, chewing on his lower lip and vaguely motioning between the two of them. “This all seems like something we should talk about.”

“I think Louise will literally shove me down the stairs if I don’t stop showing up at her flat every night to drink all her wine and mope on her couch, so yeah, that’d be good.” Dan flashes a double thumbs-up because he’s suddenly nervous and doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

“Her apartment building does have a lot of stairs,” Phil says with a grin. “And far be it for me to condemn you to her wrath.”

“So,” Dan tries to sound more confident then he feels. “Thinking back to when we planned the history of our fake relationship the other week—that is, if this—if this is going to be a real relationship—” he says it hesitantly, but the way Phil’s face breaks into a huge smile, like the sun stretching across a cloudless sky, makes it much easier to go on. “I just kissed you first, like we said would’ve happened. So now, technically—”

As always, Phil knows exactly where Dan’s mind is going. “—we should be going on our first date, which is chatting over coffee,” he fills in. “Hey, there’s a Starbucks around the corner.”

“I don’t know,” Dan pretends to hesitate. “Starbucks? Isn’t that a bit…corporate?”

“No, it’s a place that sells hot beverages and has a heating system, unlike this alleyway,” Phil shivers, lacing his fingers through Dan’s and tugging him towards the street.

“Face it, Phil, you’re just a coffee plebe,” Dan shrugs, but he’s smiling stupidly at their joined hands, so the derision is somewhat lost.

“Am not!” Phil retorts, jostling Dan’s shoulder as they walk.

And if this were a rom-com, here’s where the story would fade out; with a final shot of the two of them happily bantering and walking off into the sunset, hand-in-hand as the background music reached its crescendo.

But if this past month has reminded Dan of anything, it’s that real life—his life—is far messier and stranger than any movie.

Because when Phil tries to explain to the barista that he’s lactose intolerant and can’t have milk in his drink, the barista just looks at him blankly and shrugs, disappearing to make the drink without acknowledging Phil’s request.

“Sorry about her,” another barista explains. “She’s just moved here from France and her English isn’t very good yet. Maybe try explaining about the lactose intolerance…in French?”

Dan laughs so hard he cries.

(And as it turns out in the end, maybe Tuesdays aren’t that bad, after all.

It’s a quiet Tuesday morning lazing in bed before work a few months later when they exchange their first ‘I-love-you’s’, and it’s a Tuesday night a few months after that when Phil gets down on one knee on their walk home from dinner and proposes.

They don’t get married on a Tuesday because “I know you have some weird preoccupation with Tuesdays, Dan, but I’d like for people to actually come to our wedding if we’re going to spend money on it,” Phil says. But it’s a Tuesday when they leave for their honeymoon to Japan, all the same.

And it’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon a year later as they leave Tom’s office holding their new baby girl, and Dan pauses at the curb, reaching into his pocket to brush his fingers across the soft, well-worn cardstock of Tom’s business card, which has sat in his wallet and rotated through the pockets of each pair of jeans he owns for two years now; has been rained on and snowed on and put through the wash countless times leading up to this day; through dates, through fights, through marriage, through home visits and interviews.

“Coming, Dan?” Phil asks. It looks so natural to see him holding a baby—their baby—and Dan’s heart skips in his chest.

“’Course,” he says with an easy grin, because he wouldn’t miss this for the world.)