Have you ever been in love?
“I’d say three times. Maybe once can’t count as real love.
Then the next was, but it wasn’t happy love.
Then the third time is the best time ever.
Real, true, requited love which is the best feeling in the world.”
- Dan Howell 2009
Dan doesn't know a whole lot, but he knows what he wants. He wants Phil, and he wants no spaces. He wants to be filled and claimed and owned, to be loved in the most physical sense of the word. And it's easy, he reckons, to separate emotion from sex when there's too much of the former and far too little of the latter. It's terrifyingly easy, that.
It's been a bad day. Dan gets home from school at seven, storms into his room and falls face-first onto his bed. There, breathing muffled by the pillow and thoughts stamped out by fatigue, he falls asleep.
He wakes up to his computer ringing with a Skype call. He stares at the blue screen dazedly, wondering if he'd even noticed the laptop on the bed before crashing. Probably not. How bloody reckless of him.
The call drops.
He reaches for his phone, primarily to check the time. But there are texts from Phil so he taps on those first.
(9:32PM) hi hullo how has your day been friend :3
(10:21PM) i don't like going to the mall bc it just reminds me of how poor i am
(10:21PM) do you know how poor i am, dan?
(10:22PM) very poor indeed
(10:24PM) are you asleep? :c
(11:53PM) if you're not, can we skype?
Dan looks at the time stamp on his phone - it reads 11:57. Pushing himself up into a sitting position, he pulls his laptop onto his lap and types out a Skype message to Phil.
danisverymuchonfire: requesting permission to call?
No sooner has he sent it that Phil types out a reply.
amazinglyterrifying-phil: permission granted.
Dan gives Phil a voice call, and Phil picks it up on the second ring. For a moment they just listen to each other breathe, then Phil breaks the silence.
Dan giggles. "Hi."
He thinks of the first time they did this. It might have been awkward for the first two seconds, after which Phil voiced a chemistry pick-up line that had Dan in stitches. Dan remembers how nervous he had been, and how stupid that was because Phil watched his videos and Dan watched Phil's videos, and it wasn't like they hadn't known how the other sounded.
Now, Phil says, "Did I wake you up?"
"Aye," answers Dan, reaching for the nearest pillow and stuffing it behind his back so that he can lean against the headboard comfortably. The lights in his room are off and with the glow of his laptop, he can barely see two inches in front of him.
"S'okay." Dan cracks a smile, even though Phil can't see it.
"Tell me about your day."
"Summarily, it was rather crap."
"Tell me about your day in detail," rejoins Phil, "Including words from your vocabulary list and diagrams where necessary."
"Fucking wanker." Dan laughs. "If it's any consolation, it's getting better by the minute."
"Awesome. Can I tell you about my trip to the mall now?"
Dan lets him, so Phil talks about the new skull candy earphones he's purchased and the seventy five pound cardigan he’d spotted and for which he must now pine for the rest of his life. Dan tries to imagine Phil's arms moving as he tells the story, his eyes alight, his tongue sticking out as he laughs at the funny bits. But it hurts too much, so he stops.
All they've done so far are voice calls and the occasional selfie swap. Little things to remind each other it’s real. Real people having real conversations from two separate areas of the same country. Real friends making real memories.
But sometimes, despite the reminders, Dan forgets.
“What are you doing right now?” he asks Phil.
“Lying on the couch.”
Dan laughs. “Why?”
“I dunno. Got my duvet and pillow with me, planning on sleeping here tonight.”
“Why, what’s wrong with your bed?”
“Nothing.” It comes out as a mumble, short and quiet.
Dan stretches out on his own bed and closes his fists around the sheets, tugging lightly. He wonders if Phil feels it too - too much space, too little of it filled. He wonders if that’s why Phil sleeps on the couch and Dan sleeps in darkness: to feel enveloped, enclosed. To avoid the loneliness.
“You there?” Phil asks.
“I’m here. Tell me what you’re thinking right now.”
“I’m thinking that college is really stupid. And the people here are so hateful, Dan, so hateful.”
Dan likes it when Phil gets worked up about things, but he’ll never tell him that. “Do you want to stay here your entire life?”
He can hear Phil think about his question. Then he asks, “What do you mean by ‘here’? Lancashire or, like, Britain?”
“Both, I guess.”
“I haven’t thought that far into the future,” admits Phil. “But… um. I’d like to live in Australia. India too, except I heard it’s bloody hot in the summers. Somewhere close to the beach. Or London. I could marry an Australian girl and settle down there. Or marry someone American and move to California, maybe. I dunno. Or London.”
“Or London,” echoes Dan, his head spinning.
“We could do a thing like that.” The smile in Phil’s voice is so obvious Dan can almost see it. “You and me, a flat of our own. London.”
Dan doesn’t answer.
“Don’t want to live in Lancashire all my life, though. Unless I get a good enough flat somewhere far enough from civilisation. Jesus, that would be fantastic. Why am I the only one talking? You’re not saying a thing.”
“London sounds nice,” Dan allows himself to breathe out, tipping his head back and staring at the ceiling helplessly.
“I’m fucking hungry,” Phil informs him.
“Then go eat something.”
“I just might. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.”
“Buh-bye,” Dan sing-songs.
“I said I’ll be right back, ye ol’ wanker.”
There comes the sound of Phil setting his earphones down, and then footsteps thudding away. Dan blinks slowly, trying to distinguish the black underneath his eyelids from the black that has settled down in every corner of his room. He has two assignments due tomorrow that he really should finish sometime soon. But he doesn’t want to move from here. He doesn’t want to budge.
Phil’s new earphones must be something of a miracle, Dan thinks, because he can hear miscellaneous sounds coming from his end of the line. He can hear the flow of water, probably from Phil tinkering around in his kitchen, and the roar of automobiles as he passes by. He can hear the telltale sound of raindrops hitting the pavement, and it isn’t raining in Wokingham so he knows that’s coming from Phil’s end as well.
If Dan keeps his eyes shut long enough, he can almost pretend he’s there right now with Phil.
The sound of loud breathing. “Aye, I’m back.”
“Hullo,” Dan answers. “What’d you cook?”
“I’m boiling water for the Ramen, currently looking for the hot chocolate mix.”
“You’re still in the kitchen?”
“Yep, just came out to fetch you.”
Dan lets his eyes fall shut. “I bought a new coffee mix the other day.”
“Yeah. It seemed pretty good but I haven’t tried it yet.”
“What kind is it?”
“A hundred percent Colombian, apparently.”
“Tell me if it’s good and I’ll get some too.”
It’s an offhandish comment. A casual reminder that this is a real conversation. Between real friends. Dan feels dizzy.
He hears Phil tear open a packet, presumably that of the Ramen. “Shit,” Phil swears loudly. “Bugger fuck.”
Dan bites back a surprised laugh. “What’s up?”
“There are ants in the bloody Ramen.”
“Oh, man. How’d that happen?”
“I swear to God the flat is crawling with ants, Dan.” Phil sighs in frustration. “It’s a bloody nuisance. What a waste of time - it was the last packet of Ramen, too.”
“Well,” Dan begins to giggle, “You could just eat the Ramen with the ants if you’re really desperate. I’ve heard ants are a good source of, um. Vitamins.”
“Dan, I will rip you limb from limb.”
“You’ll have to touch me first.”
Phil collapses into a sulky silence after this, and Dan can hear him walking about, and the sound of glasses clinking.
“At least you’ve got the hot chocolate,” Dan says finally, and that appears to alleviate Phil’s frustration.
Phil makes his hot chocolate and then takes the call back to his room, and as he settles in for the night Dan finds himself talking a little bit, about what’s he’s done during the day and all the stupid things about it that made it so bad. He hates saying the word school around Phil, because it makes him feel smaller than he really is, like an amateur blathering on about problems Phil’s dealt with and conquered already. He keeps expecting Phil to say come on, now, that’s not even a real problem, but Phil doesn’t. Phil just listens.
After a while, he falls silent.
“I’m sorry it’s so tough,” Phil says into the silence, voice thick from fatigue and coarse from the hot chocolate.
“Yeah,” Dan breathes out. “Me too.” He rolls into his pillow again, hugs it into his chest, careful not to tangle his fingers with the wires connecting his earbuds to his computer. He squeezes the pillow tight, burying his face in it. He can almost hear the dull thud of his heart in his chest. “I wish - ”
“I think - oh, sorry.” There’s a curious sort of tilt to Phil’s voice when he amends, “You first?”
“I wish you were here.” He says it quick, in a rush, and immediately his stomach floods with embarrassment. The sentiment spreads to his face when Phil stays quiet. “Phil,” he says, softly, unsure how to continue.
“Me too,” Phil responds, eventually. “Me too, Dan.”
Dan gulps, rolling onto his back once again and staring up at the ceiling. Tears prickle at the corners of his eyes, and he wills them away. “What were you going to say?”
“It’s okay, really,” Phil says quickly. “If you want to sleep, or something, you can. You’ve had a long day.”
“I’m okay, m’not tired.”
“Oh, alright.” Phil’s voice sounds hollow, a bit distance. Dan wonders if he thinks the words had escaped Dan out of fatigue, like he wouldn’t want Phil there if the day hadn’t been bad and he hadn’t had a seven hour nap before. I want you, Dan thinks at him, fiercely, and then mourns the sad nonexistence of long distance mind-reading. One day the scientists will get their crap together and focus on things that matter, Dan thinks, and then Phil will get it.
“You were saying?” Dan prompts again.
“Yeah, I. I don’t know if this is very appropriate?” There come the sounds of sheets ruffling, like Phil’s shifting around in his bed. “Tell me if I cross a line or something, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Dan says. “Hurry, you’re making me nervous.”
Phil laughs at that, short and familiar. “It’s not really - Okay, uh, have you ever been in love?”
“I have.” Dan blinks, before letting his eyes fall shut, his stomach twisting with nerves. “A few times, yeah.”
“Tell me about them?”
Memories flood his head, unbidden, unwelcome. His stomach squeezes into itself, and it hurts so much he thinks he might puke. He digs his nails into the soft skin of his thighs and tells himself to breathe, slow, in and out. In and out. “Why?” he manages to get out, after a few short moments of controlled breathing and telling himself firmly not to freak out.
“M’curious,” Phil says, casual enough that he might have coupled it with a shrug, were he here in person.
“Three times,” Dan hears himself saying, and immediately his body is pushed into a panic because he can only remember two. Only two. What is he doing?
“That’s quite a bit,” Phil says, and laughs.
“Well, how many times have you been in love, then?” Dan asks. He tries for cheeky but even he can hear his voice fall a few ways from the mark.
“Just the once.” Phil says it easily, like Phil says a lot of things. The laughter in his voice is gone.
“I fall easily, I guess,” Dan says, lamely. He’s never given it much thought before, but maybe he does fall easily. That might be why all he can think now is that the first time he’d ever felt in love, it had been with Marjorie Dixit in Year One, and he’d never spoken to her once; and the second time, it had been with Clara and it had been great, but it also hurt, it hurt so much; and the third time. The third time is with Phil. And they’ve only been talking for a month, now. He falls so easily.
“Tell me about them?” Phil asks again, gentle this time, like he’s coaxing secrets out of a little child. Dan feels a bit like that now, weak in the knees at Phil’s voice, deep and relaxing and so, so familiar. So, so real.
“Don’t think the first one counts,” Dan says. “I was in Year One and there was this Indian girl in my class? Her name was Marjorie and she had the greatest hair, and always wore these frocks to school that hung till her knees and kind of - swooshed - when she walked by. I never spoke to her once, but I’d come home every day and tell mum how much I loved her, and wanted to marry her, and stuff. It was very embarrassing.”
“It sounds it,” Phil comments, a very obvious grin in his voice.
“Shut up,” Dan admonishes. “And the second time - it was with Clara, you know Clara.”
“I know Clara,” Phil echoes, softer this time.
“It was nice, I guess. I loved her a lot, like, we’d been friends for a really long time? And it kind of - made sense, I think, when she kissed me, on New Year’s three years ago. She’s really fit, too, which helps.” He gives a surprised sort of laugh then, surprised because he hadn’t been expecting a twist in his chest area, like he misses Clara, when he really doesn’t. He just misses being in a relationship, he thinks. He misses the intimacy and safety of it. “It hurt a bit when we broke it off,” he continues, clearing his throat when his voice comes out thicker than intended. “I - uh, we’d been together for really long and for a while I, I didn’t know how to be without her.”
Phil stays quiet at that, breathing softly down the line. It’s strangely comforting.
“I figured it out eventually, though,” Dan finishes.
“I’m glad,” Phil says, and he sounds it. He genuinely sounds glad. And Phil is such a great friend, really. He never makes fun of him for getting pissed at petty things, and for being ridiculously shy and embarrassed sometimes, and embarrassing, too, and for being four years younger than him, even though it’s a thing Dan can’t help but be. “What about, uh, the third one?”
Dan bites into his fist, a habit that resurfaces sometimes when he panics too hard. He wills his heart to settle down, his breathing to come back to normal, because in the matter of a few seconds they both have soared to heights unimaginable. He’s a little bit gone, he thinks. He stays quiet, because. Because.
It’s not like Phil can’t know. It’s bloody obvious, is what it is.
He clears his throat, if only for want of something to do. The silence only gets thicker from there, until Dan feels smothered by it.
“Dan,” Phil says, simply, like it’s a sentence in itself. Dan hears himself make a choked sort of sound, and immediately his cheeks flush in embarrassment. “Dan,” Phil says again, but now there’s a lilt to it, like he’s smiling, maybe.
“Are you - “ Dan starts, but doesn’t know how to continue.
“Ask me about mine?” Phil asks almost kindly, and it’s so completely Phil, all of this, a bit of a set-up, really. Dan bites into his bottom lip, realising now that he’d been tricked into it, and that Phil’s probably smarter than Dan’s ever given him credit for. And, Christ, it’s only been a month.
“I don’t,” Dan says, trailing off to let himself collect his thoughts. “I don’t want to do this here,” he says eventually. “Not on - not on Skype? I’m a bit scared of confessing on the internet, actually, and - I want to be - sure?”
“I’m sure,” Phil says, quickly, breathlessly.
“Me too,” Dan voices, so quiet he’s scared for a moment that Phil can’t hear him. But Phil makes a soft sound, like a hum, that instantly calms Dan down, settles in the pit of his belly like a good hug. “Tell me in person, then,” he says, half-hopefully. “Like when we - if we - meet, like.”
“So I can kiss you after?” Phil asks. There’s a bit of a joke in his voice, like he’s teasing. But there’s also a bit of something else.
“Yeah,” Dan answers, mouth dry. “So you can kiss me after.”