Spoiler alert: It's on a beach in Lundu that Dan agrees to marry him. Phil slides an odd, beautiful shell through his ring finger and Dan curls his toes into the wet sand, tests the word fiancé wonderingly out on his tongue.
Of course that comes later.
But this is the beginning. Or rather: this is a town somewhere in the middle.
In their Sydney hotel room, a man on television was informing them, with much gravitas: "The Prime Minister assured reporters today that if there is to be a plebiscite-," but Phil wasn't listening. He was watching Dan slather moisturiser over his arms, watching a creamy white blob of it fall onto their sheets.
"It's awful," Dan was saying, over the sound of the television. "My skin is going to look so flaky in the pictures. Phil, Australia is so dry, they never warned us about this in the travel guide. Phil, the Internet has failed us."
He started on his stomach for the second time. Phil stretched out under the covers, caught the tail end of the Prime Minister saying And of course, as we have promised the Australian people- "I'm sure you don't need this much," he suggested.
Dan paused in his ministrations to glare at him. "I don't understand why your skin, which as we both know is much more fragile and sensitive than mine, is perfect and glowing in this dehydrated climate."
"Perhaps drink more water."
"Perhaps be quiet and do my back," Dan said. He handed Phil the tube of Johnson's, moved to flop himself over Phil's lap, stomach against Phil's dick, two needless barriers of boxers and blanket. They'd been lazily making out when Dan had broken it off and leapt over to their suitcases to pull out the moisturiser and moan, "Phil, my elbows are peeling!"
Phil squeezed some of the lotion onto Dan's shoulder blades, started working it in. Dan made a small, satisfied sound, a purring feline allowing its human to fuss over it. His eyes were on the television, and Phil heard for the country to vote on same-sex marriage-
"I'm glad Britain did something right for once," Dan said, yawning. "I'm glad we could do it whenever."
He twisted around to look at Phil, after a while. "Are you falling asleep?"
"No," Phil said, eyes unseeing, his fingers starting up again. He didn't know - perhaps it was the casual way Dan had said it, perhaps it was the whenever. But it kept replaying itself in his head.
We could do it whenever. That wasn't Dan's voice, really. It had started to sound strangely like the voice inside his own head.
“‘Cause if you are it's fine, we should probably sleep,” Dan said. “Checking out the venue tomorrow, bright and early.” He twisted up, pressed a quick kiss to Phil's lips. Easy, casual. Like the way he'd said we, and the way he'd said whenever.
“Dan?” Phil said, after Dan had turned off the lamp and dug himself into Phil's side, curling up like he usually did: like he wanted to make himself smaller, wanted to be able to fold himself into any space inside Phil that he was allowed.
Phil wasn't sure what he wanted to say, either.
“We should take a holiday after we get back,” he said eventually, instead of the strange, unexpected We could do it after we get back that had, for a wild, fleeting second, rested on the tip of his tongue.
“Good idea,” Dan agreed, words muffled against soft cotton, against Phil's ribs. “Japan again?”
“Maybe somewhere we've never been.”
“We could do that,” Dan said, already sleepy-sounding. “We'll look it up after.”
He meant after tonight. He meant after Australia, after the tour. He was asleep in the space between the last word and his next breath, and Phil carefully wrapped his arm around him just a bit tighter, and pushed his nose into his hair, and inhaled.
After came faster than expected.
The rest of the Australian tour Phil remembered mostly in memory-flashes brighter than the rest: Hyde Park in the slight drizzle, taking pictures of Dan in a beanie beside a statue of Captain Cook, the Archibald fountain, sitting on a bench with overarching trees framing him, hanging onto a lamp post to riffle through their backpack. The solemnity and age of St Mary’s Cathedral, Phil thinking would he want a church wedding and very firmly telling his inner self to be quiet. The Harbour Bridge, a pigeon with a terrifying squawk swooping low enough over their heads to make Dan screech slightly and clutch at him, enough dusk for Phil to laugh and touch the fingers gripping him and for it not to matter. And then Brisbane, the Performing Arts Centre lit up in purple and gold just for them and the light glinting off the sheen of sweat on Dan's cheekbone - or were those tears? Backstage, either way, Phil wiping them off with his thumb and drawing him in. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art which Dan insisted on, paintings and sculptures and works of art in turns confusing and utterly gorgeous. Still incomparable to the crease of Dan's dimple when asking a lady about his mother's age, brown hair, kind smile, do you mind taking a picture of us?, in front of St John's Cathedral - the dimple in response to her Sure, her passing the phone back: you're adorable together. Incomparable to his glance at Phil and his thanks, because maybe it didn't have to matter as much as it did.
This single unimportant moment, quick-flash-burned into his brain: Dan hauling their bags off the carousel at Heathrow. Looking up at him and asking: you ready? Let's go home. A long, low symphony building up inside Phil, and maybe whenever could mean sooner than he'd thought.
After was this: a week of Dan rising late only to slump onto the sofa in early afternoon, Phil looking up real estate late into the night and determinedly refraining from opening Tiffany’s online catalogue. Finishing up the book and last minute changes to the documentary. Jetlagged handjobs and souvenir unpacking and movie night with Bry and Wirrow. Lazy grocery shopping and lazier video planning.
On Sunday night, Phil looked up from his laptop; eight people had proposed to him and two had asked about a reprisal of Japhan. He'd said yes I'll marry you to each one and ignored the questions. To quell the symphony in his head, he said: “Hey, remember the holiday we said we'd take?”
Dan was absorbed in whatever new and problematic thing Kanye had managed to do this time, so when he looked up from his phone he asked, “Huh?” and then, “Oh. Oh, yeah! Have you - have you looked anything up?”
“No,” Phil said. “But you want to go?”
“Um, duh,” Dan said. “A proper holiday, yeah. We deserve it. Sandy beaches and spa massages and pretty sunsets, the whole nine yards.”
“Sunsets and sandy beaches,” Phil repeated, smiling. “Very romantic getaway.”
“I think we deserve it,” Dan said. He pushed his toes into Phil's leg, inquiringly. “Don't you think we deserve it?”
Phil wrapped his fingers around Dan's calf. “I think we do, yeah.”
“You start looking while I check if Kanye's tweeted back,” Dan said, and didn't see Phil's fondly exasperated headshake, and didn't hear the hopeful French horns playing in his head, either, music Phil shushed at once.
Eventually they narrowed it down to Kuta, Ko Samui and Lundu.
“I think Kuta’s a bit crowded,” Phil said. “I'd like, I don't know. Something quieter.”
“Ko Samui looks pretty and tourist attraction-y,” Dan said, scrolling down through the pictures. “It says Lundu is a sleepy, backwater town which is quite hard to reach.”
Phil had found it while looking through beaches related to Langkawi, which he'd been considering for a time before casting off as a bit too touristy.
They looked at each other.
"Want an adventure?" Dan asked.
Phil brushed a shoulder against his, all the answer they needed, and reached over to type Lundu, Sarawak into Google.
Bryony gestured over to the good sandwich place, and Phil said, "Sure," and then "Hold on," when he noticed the display of jewellery in the window beside it. Bryony came over to his side curiously, watched his glance pass over the necklaces and settle on the few silver rings, glinting in the sun. Phil didn't say anything, so neither did she.
She did ask, when they were ensconced in a corner of the bistro a bit later, "So when are you guys leaving?"
"Next Friday evening," Phil told her. "That's the first flight. Then we have another one to Kuching on Saturday morning, that’s the city next to Lundu, we'll text you guys so you'll be the first to know when we're horrifically lost."
"I appreciate that," she said. She pondered her sub for a while, then said: "Phil?"
Phil waited. They'd been friends a long time. She'd had these conversations with him before, conversations that began with Phil? Do you want to tell me how serious this is-, or Phil? Is everything alright between-, and so he steeled himself because he knew this was coming, and if he hadn't wanted it to, he wouldn't have lingered over the way the rings caught the late afternoon light.
Eventually, she decided upon, “Do you have something you want to talk to me about?”
"Don't, like, scream till we're out on the street," Phil said, "but yes. I think I do."
To her credit, she only let out a small squeak and covered her mouth with her fingers to muffle the rest. "Have you talked about it?"
"Yeah, we've talked," Phil said. "Of course we've talked. But it's different from actually asking and knowing he'll say yes."
"Will he say yes?"
Phil thought about it. "I think so," he said. He looked at her, and couldn't quite stop the smile that took control of his mouth at this. Dan saying yes. Dan actually saying yes.
Bryony grinned back, even wider than him. "Oh, Phil." She reached across the table to take his hand. "Oh, Phil. Is this happening soon? Is this what this trip's about?"
"I don't know," Phil said, "I don't know yet, really. It was just supposed to be a holiday. But-"
This was how they'd talked about it: in throwaway comments and pre-decided agreement. When they'd started working on them after that rocky, too-silent patch of time when things were unsure and doors were too-closed, they'd had to sit down and work at and talk about this, however hard it had been at the time, and they'd agreed, unanimously: they wanted each other. They wanted a house. They wanted kids. They wanted to grow old together. They hadn't mentioned the word marriage, because they hadn't needed to, but-
Sometimes they'd watch a ceremony on TV, and Dan would say, I think roses would be nice, and Phil would agree, that's classic, isn't it?. Or faced with a rude cashier, a throwaway well she isn't invited to the wedding. Or the way Phil had tipped his glass of champagne at Dan at Andy's reception, silently, and Dan had met his eyes and drank to them, a silent promise.
This was how they talked about it. And this was all they needed, usually. But-
It was different from actually asking.
Before leaving for the trip, Phil was going up to visit his family for the weekend; his mum had asked for Dan but one of them had to meet with the publishers on Saturday, so he was regretfully declining. Even on the other side of the room Phil could hear his mum's enquiry over whether he could possibly skip it, and did these publishers know that Skype existed, and Dan's answering laugh and promise to make it up north soon.
Dan hung up. "It appears I'm tagging along around Christmas, if not the actual day itself," he said. "Your mum made me promise." It had been seven years, and Phil's mum, dad, and grandparents clearly adored him, but he still sounded like he was asking permission. Phil's heart clenched quick in his chest, but he only said, "Yeah, I figured she'd insist. I mean, we are doing the weekend before with your family."
Dan made a face at that. "C'mere," he said, instead, and Phil crossed the lounge and took his face in his hands. "All packed."
"Okay," Dan said, "alright," and kissed him once, hard and thorough, because he'd never grown out of hating this part, and honestly, neither had Phil. "Go on, then. You're going to miss your train, knowing you." His thumb lingered on the line of Phil's jaw, a direct counterpoint to what he was saying.
"I'll text you on the train," Phil said needlessly.
"Go on," Dan said. "Go. Late." He took Phil's chin, two fingers and thumb, and shook, gentle. Phil realised he would have to tear himself away, and he didn't particularly want to anymore, which was getting a bit silly, really. They'd done this before, many times. And yet there were cellos, low and thumping and already pining. Something had changed, slightly. A subtle paradigm shift.
"I'll be back soon," he said, "and then we can get hopelessly lost in South East Asia."
This made Dan smile, and finally let him go. Phil got until the door before he dropped his bag to turn back and kiss him again, and they hadn't been this ridiculous even in the early days, really.
His mum said, "Darling," and hugged him in that enveloping way she had, the way that had never changed, be it toddler or six foot and towering over her. "Your dad's out back. Put your stuff in your room and come down for dinner, you must be starving."
Phil kind of wanted to tell her, right then. He kind of wanted to say, Mum, I want to marry him. It was something he'd always known, but it was building up to a deafening crescendo now, and she'd always listened to his crescendos with a sort of unflappable calm.
It could wait.
He had a nice dinner with them, his dad talking about his carrots and his mum asking about their clothing for the winter, Facetimed Dan before he slept, spent Saturday morning on a walk with his grandparents who were depressingly more fit than him and the afternoon playing Monopoly with everyone, texted Dan a picture of the Angel Islington which Dan responded to with a you're losing, aren't you, texted back Just a bit, and looked up to see everyone grinning indulgently at him.
"What," he said, and everybody proceeded to shake their heads and busy themselves with either their money or their property cards or their tokens. "I'm turning thirty next year," he informed them, and they just sent him looks that meant he could be sixty for all they cared, he'd always be the baby of the family.
He held out until Sunday evening. He'd spent some time talking to Dan about what they'd discussed during the meeting, and some more time about whether Loki needed more watering (Dan held that he'd be fine and Phil said it wouldn't hurt to help him out a bit more and Dan insisted that babying the houseplants did them no good), and then he headed down to watch his mum ready dessert for the night.
It was a comfortable sort of silence. Phil propped his elbows up on the counter and watched her measure butter, hum as she checked their vanilla flavoring; easy, efficient, familiar. She said nothing, but smiled at him and passed him the tin of butter to keep back into the fridge, and after a while, Phil realised it was also a waiting sort of silence. She was waiting for him; Phil had no idea how she knew, but she was waiting.
"Mum," he said, "Mum," and she dusted the flour off, said, "Yes, darling."
Phil didn't know how to say this. He tried to collect his thoughts. In the end he said, "You remember Dan, don't you," and watched his mother shake her head and smile.
"Vaguely, I think," she said, and Phil remembered the promise she'd extracted from Dan last week, the way she'd enveloped Dan in her arms when he'd come up last, and the way, years ago, he'd first told her about the boy he'd met, stomach rolling, and how she'd known to say, deceptively placid about it, Oh, Phil, he sounds wonderful.
"Mum," he said, "I - I want to marry him," and watched his mum press her fist to her mouth, tears already bright in her eyes.
But she only said, calm: "Make sure we're not sat next to Uncle Kevin, dear," joy suffusing every syllable.
Stepping out of the taxi and onto the well-worn curb, the driver said, "Have a good night, man," and Phil, because he liked to test himself like this sometimes, replied: "I will, my boyfriend's cooking dinner. You have a good one too!" and closed the door and turned to face home before the driver could answer.
He rode the stairs on that strange rush of exhilaration and fumbled with the key, and then he tripped over his own shoes and nearly sprawled himself out onto the floor when it opened.
Dan surveyed him as he steadied himself on the doorframe. "Are you drunk, or being your usual catastrophic self?"
"I'm not answering that," Phil said. "Mum and Dad say hi and see you soon. I hope dinner's ready, I'm starving. Also I missed you more than I should have for only the weekend away."
It was building up again, a jazzy little accelerando, because Phil was looking at his boy and feeling the weight of the tiny circle heavy in his pocket. Dan shut the door behind him.
"We're having fish and tofu," he said. "I've finished packing for Lundu because it's hard to procrastinate when you don't have anyone to whine at about it. Also I want to ride you senseless tonight because I've probably missed you more, so let's try to hurry with the meal, shall we?"
The last three days at home were a rush of packing and phone calls to their editors (both book and doco), in between much Googling of what to look out for in Sarawak (both good and bad), and a visit to inspect their friends' new German shepherd (Dan sitting adamantly on the carpet, intent on making friends with it, was rather too much for Phil's orchestra to handle; he found himself having to look away before he got on one knee right there on Tanya's carpet), and before they quite knew it they were at their gate in Heathrow, about twenty minutes to boarding.
"I should've had that second crumpet," Dan said contemplatively, looking up from his phone.
"Well, I mean," Phil said.
"Do not say it, Lester. Acting like you know my own stomach better than I do."
Phil grinned. "There's always food on the plane, we'll order you the muffin you like."
"Didn't that feel much better than 'I told you so?'"
"I did tell you so," Phil said, getting up and yawn-stretching slightly, and dodging Dan's poke at his waist. "Last toilet break, you coming?"
"I'll mind the bags," Dan said, so Phil passed him his phone for safekeeping and wandered off. The toilets were a little ways off, and he took his time looking at the shops, at the golden-lit night bustle of airport tarmac outside the floor-to-ceiling windows; on his way back he paused at the deli and bought Dan a crumpet because airplane food would be at least an hour away.
Dan had Phil's phone in his lap, was staring at it absently, when Phil waved the paper bag in front of his face. "Crumpet. Warmed-up."
"Thanks," said Dan, after a pause. "Bry texted."
"Yeah?" said Phil, pulling his backpack onto his own lap and riffling through its contents, quick check of passport and boarding pass: they were starting to call for priority-seat passengers already. "Anything important?"
"Nothing much," Dan said. "Just a Thought you'd like this, and a link to an article. I didn't mean to click, but it did say Questions To Ask Before You Get Married."
Phil looked up at him.
"So if you're not planning on getting yourself hitched to Bry, or someone else I'd quite like to meet," Dan continued, still very casually, "I figured I'd read through it just in case my boyfriend was thinking of proposing on our trip to Asia."
Phil stared at him, still frozen.
Dan's nonchalance cracked. "Phil," he said. "Oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck." A grandmother walking a baby up and down the aisles shot them a dirty look. Dan ignored it. "Were you? Phil. Were - are you going to propose? In Lundu?"
"I don't know," Phil said, weakly.
Dan looked at him.
"I don't know," Phil repeated. "I was thinking about it. I was - thinking about it very strongly. I told Bry. I'm going to kill her, by the way. I told my mum I wanted to marry you."
"What did she say?" Dan said, sidetracked.
"She cried," Phil said, smiling at the memory. "And she said not to sit her with Uncle Kevin."
"I wouldn't do that to her." Dan got up. They'd started calling for boarding when Phil hadn't been paying attention. Dan slung his bag over his shoulder and waited for Phil to start moving. "Your Uncle Kevin's athlete's foot problem explained in detail is not something I'd wish upon my worst enemy."
"Have a good flight!" the attendant chirped, flourishing their boarding passes with a loopy initial.
"I'm sure it'll be interesting," Dan told her, and Phil followed him onto the jet bridge with a slight kettledrum twisting in his stomach. But Dan was quiet as they stowed their backpacks into the overhead compartment, and as he watched the rest of the passengers file in, and as Phil watched airport staff give thumbs ups and speak efficiently into earpieces out the window, and as the plane started making its rumbling, heavy way across the tarmac.
Phil darted a look at Dan as they started their ascent, but he appeared to be fixated on the safety features on the screen in front of him.
"Dan," he said, "I don't know what you're thinking."
"Shush," Dan said. "Neither do I. Hold on while I figure it out."
"Are you - upset?" Phil said, carefully. There were reasons why Dan might be; the not-discussing with him first, but other people, the sudden-springing of something like this when everything was sort of perfect as it was. And there was always the possibility that them not saying marriage outright might have meant something deeper than: not saying marriage outright.
But Dan turned to him, and Phil was gifted with a small and utterly genuine smile. "I'm not upset, Phil," he said, and Phil believed him. "Um, you want to marry me. That's not exactly something to be upset about."
He lapsed into the silence of his own thoughts again, having relieved Phil of that particular niggling doubt. Phil started flicking idly through the choices on the screen before him. Star Trek, a Melissa McCarthy movie, Angry Birds. The flight was twelve hours long, but the trip to Australia had been longer, and they were used to travelling by now; Phil might even catch some sleep on this flight. Thirty minutes in, Dan got his vanilla muffin and orange juice, and exchanged it for Phil's mango.
Phil was playing Hangman on the kids' section of his inflight entertainment options when Dan swallowed the second bite of his muffin and said, "So. You want to marry me."
"Yes," Phil said, because he did; there was no point anymore in trying to say otherwise.
He didn't miss the way Dan ducked his head slightly at that, trying to suppress some expression on his face; more optimistically, Phil would have called it delight.
"Any particular reason why now?" Dan asked.
"I don't know," Phil said again. Onscreen, the little stick man ran out of time, went cross-eyed. "I just - I don't know. Age. Marriage fever. Financial and abroad benefits. I know we agreed that marriage in itself is just a title, a piece of paper; I know we've worked out everything else we need to in our long-term, and this was something that we figured we‘d do a bit later - but I'd really, really like to marry you, really soon."
Dan took another too-slow bite of his muffin. "Was that a proposal?"
"No," Phil said. "No. Not yet. Just a - just a proposition. If you're amenable."
The earth was nothing more than pinpricks of light outside Dan's window. It was eleven, but in the silent unearthliness of the cabin, in this small capsule of space and time where they were heading to a land they didn't know, it didn't feel like time truly existed. Not when Dan said: "When you ask, I'll say yes."
They wouldn't kiss on the plane, but Phil's mouth remembered Dan's, and they would, in the hotel later. Because they would have all the time in the world.
"Oh," Phil said. It was very hard to speak when a joyful chorale had started up in his head.
"Oh," Dan mimicked, the way he tended to tease when he was nervous, or felt terribly much about something, and didn’t want to show it. "Shall we look at the article, then? See if we pass the fifteen-question test?"
"Okay," Phil agreed. At this point, if Dan had asked for the moon, he'd probably have vaulted out of the emergency door to try and grab it. He dug out his phone, got it set up to the inflight wifi. Dan's shoulder was a warm constant press against his as he peered over at the screen.
"'You found your other half. Congrats! You may be basking in the love glow and thinking about making it legal. After all, there's nothing like waking up next to your best friend every morning.’" Dan made a little humming noise. "I mean, it doesn't suck, Vogue.
"'But it's important to quiet the outside voices and look within. Is this something you really want? To reach your hashtag marriage goals-’ did they really type hashtag marriage goals- ‘Dr Eris recommends asking yourself these crucial questions to determine whether it is the right time to take your partner to the altar.’ That's ominous-sounding. Phil, you sure you're up for it?"
His tone was light. Phil heard the question behind it. "Hit me, pard’ner," he said complete with terrible Old West accent, and was rewarded with another smile, that hint of dimple.
"'One: Do you want the same things?’ I feel like we've done this. Unless your answers have changed."
In the end, after months of that long, tense, kind of terrible stand-off, they'd sat down, and they'd had to talk. Because Phil had said, I could probably live without you; I just don't want to, and Dan had replied, simply, I think I need you. So there was nothing to it but to talk.
They wanted the same things. They wanted the house, the dog, the kids, the rocking chairs together out on the patio. They'd sketched out a rough plan for it, a future together. And that was how they had started to mend.
Phil said, now, "No, they haven't," and Dan nodded in silent agreement. He continued to read. "'How about five or ten years down the road? Are you flexible about uprooting your life if their job takes them to the other side of the country?’"
"Five or ten, I'll still want that rickety rocking chair next to you," Phil said. "If anything else changes, I'll be sure to inform you."
"Good," Dan said. "I'll be sure to return the favour. As for uprooting my life if your job takes you across Britain, I feel like that's kind of-"
"Irrelevant?" Phil guessed. "Same job?"
"Obvious," Dan said, eyes bright in the shadowy stillness of the cabin, brighter, in fact, than the stars just out of reach outside Phil's window. "You know I'd follow you anywhere."
The crew had dimmed the lights for the passengers to sleep. They'd paid for the privacy of first class. It still felt like a big thing when Dan kissed him, once, corner of his mouth, when it was a given that they could not risk such a reckless endeavour, that they would wait until the privacy of a hotel room, the locked-doorness of a washroom at a party, the lived-in familiarity of their own flat. And then he switched Phil's phone off and rested his head on his shoulder, pressed New Game so they could save the stick man together.
Later, he would sleep; Phil would miraculously catch three and a half hours of rest as well. They would wake up, blinking in the morning light of a new adventure, an unfamiliar continent. Now they played eight rounds of Hangman and Phil beat Dan in four out of six games of checkers, and then they settled in to watch the new Jason Bourne, trying and failing at synchronizing their screens to the exact millisecond, and ending up watching it on Dan's instead because he would always be that millisecond faster than Phil.
The airport was busy and loud, Hong Kong International Airport but slightly less crowded, as they cleared immigration - less security than they were used to - and baggage claim. They didn’t have enough time to go into the city for sightseeing before the flight to Sarawak, Phil had checked. He shifted his backpack to the other shoulder and asked, “Lunch?”
“Please. I’m starving.”
“There’s this restaurant called Eden that’s supposed to be on the fifth floor,” Phil said, reading off of his phone, “it’s supposed to be fairly good, we could-” he made a sharp right as Dan pulled him out of the way of a line of trolleys just in time- “enjoy the view and have some dim sum, what do you think?”
Dan was staring at him, bemused-seeming, when Phil looked up at him expectantly.
“What?” Phil asked.
“Do you do it on purpose?” Dan said. “Like, you managed to survive up until I came along, and you do when I’m not around, so do you just like, get a kick from me saving you from near-death experiences?”
Phil considered this. “I suppose I know you’re looking out for me,” he said. “So I don’t bother as much. It’s kind of, you know, nice.”
“It’s dangerous is what it is,” Dan corrected. He drummed his fingers on the escalator’s handrail. “Not to mention the pressure on me. What would I tell your mum if you died on my watch getting hit by a trolley?”
“Tell her you tried,” Phil said. “But the trolley arrived with premeditated murder on its mind.”
“You’re so weird, did you know that?” Dan asked, in that tone of his that sounded an awful lot like something much sweeter.
Overlooking the tarmac, five stories up, Phil read out: “'Do your values align? What about culture and religion? How will you celebrate holidays?’”
Dan was flipping the pages of the plastic catalogue on their table back and forth. Phil watched a brightly illustrated ad for cod fish dumpling until he said: “I think we’re pretty much on the same page there for the values thing-” he looked up at Phil, who nodded- “culture, we’re so white, so that’s easily settled, religion, you know my ongoing issues with reconciling it and your lack of them, and we’re set for Christmas this year, aren’t we?”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Phil said, honestly.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Dan said, reflexively, and sighed as he considered it. “That’s - I mean, they love you, they’ll be on their best behaviour, and it won’t be as bad as I’m making it out to be. Just don’t expect too much, Mr Loving Devoted and Forever Supportive Family.”
“I know it won't,” Phil said. Their first Christmas with Dan’s family: their fourteenth time having this exact conversation. He glanced at the kitchen, where no king siu mai or lobster dumplings appeared to be making their way out, and decided to read out the next question.
“You know you’ve seen me at my worst,” Dan replied, laughing a bit. “And you’re still here. Poor taste, Lester, should’ve gotten out while you still could.” He peered at the second half of the question again. “So what will you do if your pet peeves outweigh your admiration of me?”
“I think if they were going to they would’ve done so a long time ago,” Phil decided. “What are you going to do?”
Dan dimpled at him over their steaming dumplings, freshly served. “Invest in a safety deposit box for the cereal,” he said.
Their second flight to Sarawak, a two-hour one across the ocean separating the two halves of the country, was an especially noisy one; a baby was red-faced and screaming about the altitude; her harried mother was frantically shushing her as the man dressed in a business suit opposite the aisle glared and made huffy, annoyed noises.
Dan frowned at him where he couldn’t see. When the baby was lifted and bounced on her mother’s lap in a desperate attempt to calm her down, she peered between the seats at them, and Dan pulled a truly terrible face at her, eyes crossed and tongue lolling, which gave her pause between one red-faced eyes-screwed-up wail and the next.
Dan covered his face with his hands. When he uncovered them again, it was an open-mouthed, exaggerated grin, and she stared at him curiously, until he peek’n’booed and pulled another one, and she smiled. He smiled back. When she started giggling, her mum looked over her shoulder at what had calmed her down and grimaced thankfully at him.
“Do you want to hold her?” she asked, which didn’t sound as much a favour to Dan than a would you hold her please I just need five minutes to gather myself.
“Oh,” Dan said, “I don’t know if she’ll-”
But he was already being offered an armful of squirming child, which he adjusted on his lap as naturally as he’d been doing it all his life. Her mother headed gratefully in the direction of the toilets, and Dan was saying, “Hello. Hello, baby. Hi, hello,” and goldfishing his mouth at her to make her laugh. Phil’s heart clenched; a prelude in c major of a future tantalizingly on the horizon, one he just needed to wait for, really, except now, with Dan waving a little fist at him, and this is my Phil say hello Phil, he was getting entirely too impatient for it.
One of the questions on the list was Will you have children? and it was on the tip of his tongue, now. But it would wait; it was not the time yet. It was the time now to wave at the baby and clutch at her wriggling foot and coo at her. Dan grinned adoringly at her, clearly captivated and rather too attached already, and from the way she peaceably kicked back at Phil but kept her attention on Dan’s face, he’d won her over.
Phil understood how, with Dan, this could happen before you realised it. And in fact the baby was staring very seriously but rather confusedly at Dan as he directed a stream of conversation towards her, one that went something like, “and don’t you worry about that mean man glaring at you and probably scaring you and making you cry. He just hates everything good and pure in life, I mean that’s obvious, how could anyone look at this little nose and not have their heart melted- Phil, look at this little nose, it is too-” and he looked at Phil, and kept looking as Phil bopped her gently on her tiny nose and she let out a sudden, surprised shriek of laughter. He looked like he’d had rather enough of the prelude as well.
After, as they were served steaming coffee and Yin was slumbering abandonedly in the child seat next to her mother, Phil read out: “’Do you like each other’s parents?’”
“I love your parents,” Dan said instantly. “They are too good for this world.”
Mum, making Dan promise to come over as he assured her he didn’t want to be any trouble. Dad, handing Dan the tongs as the meat on the barbecue sizzled cheerily. Mum, eyes shining in the wintery sunlight drizzling through the kitchen window, embracing him, happy.
“They’re alright,” Phil agreed. “I like yours, too.”
“You don’t have to say that,” said Dan.
“No, I do,” Phil said, and fully meant it. “They’re nice to me, and I know you’ve got your own - things with them, but they’ve been nice to me a long time. So you don’t have to worry about me holding a grudge because they may not always have been this nice about me that I don’t know about, or whatever.”
Dan said: “Okay.”
“Does that make sense?” Phil asked.
“Not really,” Dan said. “But I get it.”
“Either way,” Phil said, “I’m on your side.”
Dan didn’t say anything. But his arm was warm against Phil’s in answer as he peered down and said: “'Are you financially compatible? Would you be willing to carry their debt? How much would you be willing to spend on a house, a car-’”
“Don’t leave out that last bit, Danny,” Phil said cheerfully.
“'A pair of shoes,’” Dan said, glaring a bit. “I’ll have you know-”
Phil was joking. Dan mostly knew Phil was joking. Every time it was brought up, though, Dan would hurriedly start defending the few times he’d really splurged on himself, mostly in the interests of fashion. Phil didn’t mind; they could afford it, and there was an extremely satisfying sort of contentment in knowing that because of what they’d created together, Dan could spend on unnecessary overpriced things like those Yeezy shoes and that awful top.
“-and I used it again at the Brits afterparty thing,” Dan was finishing up. Phil tuned back in to nod understandingly at all the right parts. “So it really, it was really worth the money, if you think about it, given how much use I got out of it and-”
“I would, in fact, be willing to carry your debt,” Phil said quickly, being learned in the ways of herding Dan off before he built up steam - he was especially good at this particular rant, having heard it rehashed multiple times before. “Even if you bought a thousand Yeezys and cost us our house.”
Dan was immediately distracted. He looked disarmed, the way he still did at all of Phil’s declarations of affection, even though he’d had almost a decade to get used to them. “Really?” and that was as familiar as the rants, too.
“I might write a strongly worded letter to Mr West wondering why a thousand pairs were even in circulation, and you wouldn’t be allowed to criticise my sock-leaving habits ever again, but yes, really,” Phil said. “Of course I would. You know that.”
“For the record, I’d be broke and homeless with you as well,” Dan told him.
Yin stuck her tiny face between the two seats in front and a little excitable hand at Dan. When her mother tried to adjust her she let out a wavering, sharp wail; Dan said, “It’s - I can hold her, if you want.”
“You’re so good with her,” she said, relinquishing the satisfied-looking baby. She quietened down again in Dan’s arms; Phil knew the feeling. “I’m just going to catch fifteen winks, if she’s any trouble, just - I know I’ve seen you on the internet so this is not bad parenting, I’ll know where to look if you make off with her. I’m just so-” she stifled a large yawn. She stifled a second, and her eyelids drooped.
“I want one,” Dan whispered, like a secret, like Phil didn’t already know. He jiggled his leg so Yin laughed; he pressed a large palm to her small cheek.
“So do I,” Phil confided, like a secret, like Dan didn’t already know. They would have time to talk about the rest later.
6. Do you like them? This might seem like a no-brainer when you are this infatuated, but it is something to consider.
Kuching International Airport, in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, was laid back in the way few airports in Phil’s life had been laid back. There were people, but mostly sat back and chattering, or strolling outside for a cigarette break. In the middle of the airport sat an exhibit with a floor mural declaring it National Day soon. Huge stuffed black-yellow hornbills sat on a huge plastic tree. Dan was already taking about a hundred pictures.
“Right,” Phil said, “so we need a taxi to the bus station-”
“Phil, come stand near this particularly fierce looking one,” Dan ordered.
“Do you know where the bus station is?” Phil asked, but went to stand next to it, played at backing away from its long, curved beak.
“Taxi to the bus station,” he insisted, after, “before we miss it,” and Dan went, waving goodbye at the hornbills.
“Wait,” Phil said, beckoning Dan back over. He took about a hundred more before they left.
Can you deal with their corny dad jokes for the rest of your life?
“You do enjoy my brilliant puns, right?” Phil asked, somewhere during the two-hour bus ride. It was air-conditioned, but Phil could still feel the oppressive humidity pressing in from outside. He watched buildings, shop fronts, a statue of huge cats tumbling over each other flash by.
Dan turned to him from the window. “I loathe your puns with a burning intensity that consumes me,” he said. He fixed Phil with a deadpan stare.
“Just so we’re clear,” Phil said, and Dan laughed, sudden and too-loud in the lethargic mid-afternoon atmosphere. A few people looked over.
Can you sit quietly in a room with them and feel completely content?
“Isn’t this,” Dan asked in answer, “all we do?”
Can you go on a grueling backpacking trip with them, get lost in a foreign country, and yet be able to feel completely safe and protected in their presence?
The heat assaulted them the moment they stepped off the bus; almost immediately everything felt sort of sticky, and there was already a dampness curling into the soles of Phil’s feet.
“Oh,” said Dan, rather defeatedly. He hooked his thumbs into the straps of his backpack. “Phil, where’s he supposed to be? Because, like, not to be dramatic but I think I’m going to die.”
“Um, they said main entrance.”
The Lundu bus station, it appeared, had two main entrances, on opposing ends of the extremely non-air-conditioned building. There wasn’t a sign of anyone from the centre that owned the chalets at either entrance.
“Well,” Dan said. But he’d always been able to deal with heat better than Phil; Phil felt like he was melting. He called the number he’d saved into his phone; it rang out. Dan sort of giggled. Phil was warm, stomach vaguely unsettled from the flight still, and didn’t.
Dan studied the expression on his face. “I’m sure he’s just a bit late. We’re getting you a coffee and then we’re trying again.”
“But,” Phil said, staring rather irritatedly down at his screen.
“Coffee,” Dan repeated, tugging at his sleeve. Phil followed.
They found a small coffeeshop, fans whirring wildly overhead, and ordered iced coffees - “Kopi peng” in Sarawakian, the amused waitress taught them, smiling at their fumbling attempts to get it right - and chicken rice balls, which looked tiny and interesting. They were very tasty, and the coffees they were served were very cooling, and Dan was poking at his rice balls happily and making terrible innuendos about them in a see-through attempt to lighten Phil’s mood. It was working.
The next time they checked out the first entrance, a man in an olive uniform was holding up a sign with their names on it, tripping over himself in his haste to apologise.
“It’s fine,” Dan assured him. “We hardly noticed, isn’t that right, Phil?” He helped load their bags into the car and clambered into the back. Aiman, moustached, white-teethed, and still apologising, checked the mirror and pulled away, into a town with poor roadwork and rows of shophouses scattered every few hundred metres like afterthoughts and chickens which crossed the street unhurriedly even after Aiman honked at them.
Dan was taking pictures of the chickens from the window. He waved back at the brown, gangly kids playing on the roadside who waved at the car. He asked Aiman about the wet market and the best times of the day to visit the beach. Phil couldn’t imagine not liking the person he was going to marry.
The chalet was built in the way of traditional, pre-colonial, Malay kampong houses: as it was on stilts, it had wooden ladder-like stairs to get up to the front door, and a curved roof. Everything was fine, sturdy wood and open windows for good ventilation. Dan bid Aiman goodbye and waved away his twentieth apology, threw himself, face first, onto the king bed with a contented sigh. Phil searched around for the remote for the air-conditioning and switched it on. He lay down next to him.
“Tired?” he asked. It was a nonsensical question. Dan’s breathing was already evening out, steady and deep. The only way Phil could catch the little murmured yeah was because Dan’s face was turned towards him, very close to Phil’s.
“You haven’t even taken off your socks,” Phil told him quietly. Aiman had informed them that the custom was to go about barefoot around here; in any case, it was too hot for socks.
Dan didn’t respond. Phil straightened back up. He gently tugged off Dan’s - technically his - Hulk socks, then dug around for Dan’s wallet and phone so he could sleep more comfortably, and placed them on his bedside table. Then he settled back down beside him. He reached out to touch, careful, fingers pushing back Dan’s wavy mess of hair, easier for the sweat on his damp brow to dry out. An adagio in his ears, easy and restful.
They slept until seven, at which point the faint strains of the Muslim call for prayer woke them - it came from the mosque they’d passed up the road earlier on, probably - and they realised they were sort of starving. Evening meant the temperature had dropped to a more survivable 25 degrees, and Dan wore his nice plaid shirt and Phil trotted out his fox jumper, and they walked the hundred or so metres to the seafood restaurant at the beach.
Dan ordered crabs cooked with salted eggs. Phil ordered clams in black soy sauce. They tried out a wild fern-vegetable called midin, fish lip soup, and blanketed it all with white rice. Dan was languid and heavy-lidded from his nap, twirling midin around his fork and wondering aloud at Phil how they could grow this as a houseplant at home.
They went back and changed into pyjamas and brushed their teeth and watched a sort of ridiculous Chinese dating show. It was two hours long. Phil fell asleep on Dan’s shoulder about halfway through.
The next time he woke up, his glasses had been removed. He blinked blearily at the digital clock next to his bed; it indicated that it was three am. The blankets were folded over them, because the open windows affixed with mosquito netting made it breezy, an almost-chill. Dan’s head was burrowed into his side.
So Phil went back to sleep.
The next morning, they went to visit the wet market.
Aiman, who had driven them over, led the way. He translated their requests in English into the quick, almost abrasive-sounding, vowel-sharp language that was the Sarawakian dialect of Malay. They bought some fish Aiman assured them was fresh and a local speciality. Phil trailed behind, inspecting some wriggling lobsters in a tank, claws tied together with raffia string. “Sorry,” he told them, making a face. The elderly lady manning the table looked at him enquiringly. “No, I was just-” Phil said, and helplessly laughed, as she did, when they realised there was no way for their languages to overlap, and in the end he bought a bag of a sort of sweet, deep-fried pastry snack, penyaram, from her. When he next looked up, Dan and Aiman had disappeared into the slippery-floored, bustling, noisy market crowd of harried women, men carrying tens of plastic bags on one arm, and wide-eyed children dragged along by the hand.
Phil started meandering through the winding paths made by the stalls; it was more like a maze than anything, really. He pulled out his phone, but there was no reception here. He wasn’t especially worried; they’d just meet up at the car, or something, so he took his time. He bought a t-shirt with a cartoon hornbill for his dad, got into a hand-gesturing discussion about which handwoven tote his mum would like. He wondered if Dan was buying them lunch; he was getting a bit hungry. He reached the car, and Dan said, “Phil.”
“Hey,” Phil said. “Hey, I tried to call, but there was-”
“-no reception,” Dan said. He reached out to hook his fingers round Phil’s elbow, the closest they got to affection in a public place jam-packed with people. “I know.”
“Are you alright?” Phil asked.
“Yes,” Dan said. “I just didn’t know when we’d left you behind, and then I turned around and there were so many people in a strange place and I couldn’t see you. I had an unreasonable moment of panic. And it has been almost an hour.”
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Phil said. He hadn’t even realised how long it’d been. He stepped a bit closer, very slightly into Dan’s space, and hoped Dan would know he meant it.
“I’m used to you wandering off and abandoning me, doofus. I’ve probably just been watching too many episodes of CSI: Beyond Borders.” Dan’s voice was rueful.
“Still shopping,” Dan said. “I said I’d wait in the car for you after you hadn’t caught up for a bit.”
“I’m sorry,” Phil said again.
“I’m not mad.”
“It’s not like I can’t survive without you for an hour,” Dan said, sort of smiling. He was probably referencing question seven: Can you deal with them doing things without you? Having their own interests, hobbies, and groups of friends that don’t include you? “Or not begrudge you your personal shopping spree.” He peered at the three tote bags Phil was holding. “Your mum would like that one, by the way.” Phil had thought so too. “I was just a bit worried for a second.”
Aiman materialised out of the crowd at this point. “Ah, good, you’re both here, alhamdulillah,” he said. “I got you both mi kolok for lunch. You must try it at least once.”
He drove them back to the chalet and honked a cheerful goodbye. Mi kolok was a sort of oily, probably extremely unhealthy type of dried noodles, deceptive in its simplicity. It was delicious.
“That,” Dan said, sighing in contentment, “I could eat three more bowls of that.”
“Bed?” Phil asked.
“I love being lazy as all heck,” Dan agreed. “Bed.”
Twitter was wondering where they’d been; Phil tweeted out a vague update on the delicious noodles he’d just had and Dan scrolled through his favourite Kanye reddit thread. It was four thirty before they knew it, and they collected their sunblock and sunglasses and towel and headed the short walk down to the beach.
They hadn’t realised at night, but the beach was absolutely lovely; white-open expanse of sand and the golden evening sunlight glinting off the water. It was rather empty, as well; a couple clambered over some rocks at the edge of the sand, and a family with an excitable toddler built sandcastles about fifty metres away, but when they spread out the towel and sat down it felt a bit like they were the only people there. It was perfect, really.
Dan plugged an earbud into Phil’s ear. Phil couldn’t quite recognise it; whoever it was, they sang, a hopeful lilt to the melancholy when it feels like a lion’s den, stand a little closer. Phil watched Dan wade out until he was knee deep, watch him splash around and beckon to Phil to join him like no time had passed and he was still barely nineteen and revelling in the untested, unfamiliar Jamaican waters.
“Hold on,” Phil said, indicating the sunblock he was lathering over his skin. Dan laughed.
“No amount of sunblock is going to take away from the fact that you’re a vampire,” he called back. “Look at you, you’re actually shimmering.”
“Shimmering is the new glitter,” Phil said, stepping out tentatively into the water.
“You’re so silly,” Dan said, teasing words laced with affection. He splashed at Phil. Phil grabbed onto an arm and tried to tackle him down. For a moment Dan’s shriek-laugh sounded exactly like it had, six years younger.
(what do you say, what do you say, we find a place)
The water was a wonderfully cool backdrop to the last rays of the just-setting sun, and after playing about like the children they really weren’t, they returned to their beach towel and split the big bottle of Sprite they’d brought along. There was a text from Bryony when Phil checked his phone; he’d checked in with her and now she just said have FUN :DDDDDDDD and tell Dan HEY.
He relayed the message. “That reminds me,” he said, a bit later, when the conversation had hit a sort of comfortable lull, “wanna hear question eight?”
“Go for it, honestly.”
“'Do you accept their baggage? Identify serious personality clashes and work through them right away. Will your experiences with exes help or hinder your relationship?’”
Dan squinted. Phil squinted back.
“That does sound very marriage-after-a-couple-of-months-of-dating,” Phil said.
“Not very relevant to us now,” Dan agreed.
“We were never really dramatic enough for serious personality clashes.”
“Thanks for accepting my baggage, I guess.” Dan paused, evidently decided this was getting a bit too soft for the public light of the day, and added, “bro.”
“Dan,” Phil said. He wanted to say, why would you thank me for that? He wanted to say, it’s been a pleasure. It’s been everything I could ever want. He didn’t particularly need to say it, though. Or maybe, sometimes, he was still the guy who’d waited to kiss the beautiful boy he’d just met as they rolled on, on, on, onto the top of the world. “You’re welcome,” he said instead. “No homo, bro.”
(as we climb steps, we can call it home, what do you say)
It was a bit worth it for the way Dan’s sudden giggle fizzled up out of him. “No homo,” he agreed.
In bed later Dan was the sort of sleepy that came with sun and much exercise, which he rarely was. He had one arm resting over Phil’s stomach, and he read out: “'Do you trust each other completely? How forgiving are you willing to be if that trust is betrayed?’”
He yawned, expansive. “If you, how did they put it, betrayed my trust, I’d probably, you know, die or something. I’m assuming they mean, cheating or cleaning out my bank account or killing my grandma or something.”
“Luckily,” Phil said, “I don’t plan on killing your grandma anytime soon.”
“What,” Dan said, patting Phil’s side, “a relief.” He hoisted himself up to kiss Phil. He did it leisurely, long, languid kisses, drawing back and leaning in again, slow and tired about it.
Phil said: “Wait.”
Dan dropped his head back onto his pillow and looked at him.
“I trust you more than - but you know all that,” Phil said. “I trust you not to betray that trust. But if there ever was a reason for you to rob me of all my money, or kill my grandmother, I’d - I’d find a way to forgive you. I know you. You-”
It had always been harder for him. Dan would say things like I need you in my life like it was nothing; he was just always openly affectionate, loud and honest about his feelings when it was just the two of them. But Phil, if he didn’t have to - well, it was just harder. His family had been loving but in a physical way, a way that didn’t need to be said. And what he felt for Dan had always been a bit too much for his heart to handle. It felt a bit much to be able to say, just like that. It was easier to say things like ‘course I’ll carry your debt, things like I’ll still want that rocking chair, maybe climb up on a stage one day and say that Dan deserved an award too, and hope Dan understood everything he meant. He had gotten better with it, but-
“You’re it for me,” Phil said again. Dan was staring at him. That expression on his face, the one he got at all of Phil’s declarations of affection, was back. Wide-eyed, almost bemused. Happy. “Trust is - it seems almost too small a word.”
(10: Are you able to communicate? How do you resolve disagreements? Can you talk to this person open, honestly, and intelligently, well into old age?)
“When you say things like that, Phil,” Dan said. He shook his head, wonderingly. He leaned in again, but Phil pressed a thumb to the corner of his mouth.
“And I’m sorry for making you worry,” he said. “I know I would’ve freaked out, just a bit of a whole lot, and not spoken to you for at least half a day. Thank you for being patient.”
He unfurled his fingers to cup them around Dan’s jaw, and pulled him in.
The next day, the second day, they didn’t ask each other any questions. They woke up early and Aiman took them to the Gunung Gading National Park. They took a short walk through the jungle to see the Rafflesia - the biggest flower in the world, and it didn’t bloom with any sort of regularity, and they were lucky enough to see it in its blood-red splendour, large and spotted white and quite extremely ugly.
“They call it bunga bangkai raksasa,” the guide told them. “Which literally translates into ‘monster corpse flower.’ Because of its size, and its smell, like rotting flesh.”
“It’s a strong one,” Dan agreed, pressing the knuckle of his thumb to his nose.
“Bless its heart,” Phil said. “It’s not its fault it kind of smells really horrible.”
Dan took about a thousand pictures of the flower, and Phil with the flower, and selfies of them with the flower. Then they started on the mountain trek - there were a few to choose from, and Dan had been looking interestedly at the seven-to-eight hour trek before Phil had said, “Dan,” and Dan had waved the pamphlet at him and said, “Try new things?”
“Try new things that won’t kill us,” Phil corrected, because Dan tended to get caught up in interesting-sounding new things and Phil would, of course, follow.
“We need the exercise,” Dan observed thoughtfully. “Listen, Phil, they have the remains of a British army camp here, a helicopter pad and everything from the communist insurgence of the sixties, tasty bit of history we can’t neglect,” and Phil said, “Listen, Dan,” and Dan looked up at him and grinned.
“God, I thought you meant it,” Phil said. “Shut up.”
“Would you have gone for a seven hour walk with me?”
“Yes, because you always get your way.”
“What a kind and considerate boyfriend,” Dan observed cheerfully, sliding out a vividly coloured pamphlet about a much more reasonable two-hours-there-and-back trek.
The Waterfall Trek took them past a series of waterfalls until the succinctly-named No. 7, the last one. Dan peered out over the water tumbling down from great heights, rushing relentlessly past the greenery, past all the proud old trees and inexorable ancient stone and said, “Phil, Phil. This is beautiful.”
“Does it make you feel utterly insignificant in the face of all this power and majesty?” Phil asked, because that would sound like something Dan would say, versions of which he had said, in fact, at Niagara Falls, and staring out at Mount Fuji’s silhouette.
Phil came closer to the edge and looked out as well. There was something about it that almost made you want to wrap your arms around your knees and crouch into a ball, but there was also something here that made you want to spread your arms out wide and inhale.
Phil breathed in deep.
He felt fingers wrap around a wrist and tug slightly. He opened his eyes.
“Too close to the edge,” Dan said. “Getting worried about your lack of balance.”
Phil took one step back to stand next to him.
“Yes, but also not really,” Dan said. Phil raised an eyebrow. “It’s just very beautiful,” he continued. “It’s sort of wild and and untouched and mesmerising, isn’t it? It’s okay to be insignificant if it’s this magical.” He hadn’t let go of Phil.
They looked out at the waterfall together. Dan was right, as he tended to be, about some of the most important things. Insignificance in the face of magic was fine, and it was even better when you had someone to share it with.
Apparently they could have food brought to them, sort of like room service, so they did; scallops with cheese and Chinese fried rice and prawns in salted egg, which sounded unhealthy and probably was, but which tasted so good neither of them cared much, really. And they managed to hook the television up and watch Korra.
“It’s like that thing,” Dan said, before he fell asleep on Phil’s arm, deadening it for the better part of an hour; before Phil finished the episode, gently dislodged it, took his glasses off, kissed his temple and went to sleep as well.
But now, Phil looked down at the top of his head, briefly nuzzled the soft freshly-washed curls, and asked: “What thing?”
“The thing where they ask you to describe the perfect day,” Dan said, a bit slurrily. He buried his face in Phil’s bicep. “And you can never decide, y’know? Because there are so many options. Infinite. How would you even start. But I imagine it would feel like this one did.”
And his breathing evened out, little puffs of air on Phil’s skin.
“So,” Phil said, as he set down his first coffee for the morning, “kids.”
Dan was washing his mug in the sink. He fumbled, a bit, but caught it. “Kids,” he repeated, in that very casual tone of voice which meant he wasn’t feeling very casual.
“Kids,” Phil agreed.
“Kiderinos,” Phil said, just to see him smile.
They’d discussed kids. Of course they had. It was sort of hard to be in a steady relationship with someone for years and never talk about it. They brought it up, sometimes, look I’m buying that squirtle onesie for our kid and you’re going to be one of those parents, aren’t you? And they both knew, they both knew. What they wanted; they just had to wait for it.
“So what do the Vogue marriage experts say about kiderinos?” Dan asked, turning around.
Phil shook his head to clear it. Just because they knew didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to wonder anew, sometimes, didn't mean they weren’t allowed to daydream about how the other would look like, four am with spit up his shirt and smiling tenderly at the proof of their love for each other, a tiny, living being of its own.
“Will you have children?”
“Yes.” But he still looked to Phil for reassurance.
“Yes,” Phil said. “Would you change their diapers?”
“I’ll take the late night shift.”
“Done. How many do you want?”
“Two? Three? More than one. You know that.”
“Two or three sounds pretty good,” Phil agreed, something they had both decided on before; it was just good to reaffirm things like this from time to time. “At what point do you want them?”
Dan hesitated for the first time. “I- when do you? I mean, I know we said after the- but if you-”
“After the house,” Phil said. “Yeah. We’ll talk. I’m getting old, you know, Dan. My biological clock’s ticking.”
“Shut up,” Dan said, but he was smiling. “Good. I thought it was just me who was getting desperately broody.”
“’How do you imagine your roles as parents?’ I think I’d spoil them.”
“You would,” Dan said. “You so would. To be fair, I’d splurge on the toddler haute couture.”
“So: terribly spoiled children, all in all,” Phil said.
“Terribly loved children,” Dan said, with surety.
Phil had to physically fight the urge to go over there and touch him, then. One more question. He could do it.
“What will you do if you can’t conceive in the natural way?” he read out.
“Phil.” Dan’s voice was amused. Phil looked up, and went to him; he couldn’t help but. Seven years, and he couldn’t help but. Dan was always a warm, living weight in his arms. Phil kissed his temple. Dan said, “I hate to be the one to break it to you, Phil, but-” and laughed at the kisses Phil was smothering all over his face, for no other reason that he was inexplicably relieved Dan was here and whole and his, his past and present and future.
“You’re going to be such a good dad,” Phil told him, and felt Dan’s mouth curve up under his lips.
How far should you take flirting with other people? Is jealousy a problem?
Dan smiled at Aiman as he held the car door open for him. They were back from the market again, done making their way through the haphazard little tents, now laden with woven bags filled with souvenirs for friends and family. Wood carvings, tacky t-shirts, key-chains, handwoven little baskets. The lot. They had both complained about the other’s purchases being too much to fit in their suitcases. Neither had stopped buying things. Aiman was patiently waiting by the car when they’d finished.
He was quite obviously enamoured with Dan. He was the epitome of polite professionalism to them both, but he laughed at Dan’s dumb jokes a little longer, and got them the snacks Dan casually mentioned he’d enjoyed. Phil could tell when somebody was into Dan; he’d caught the look on himself enough times on camera to recognise it.
Phil didn’t mind when someone was into Dan. Most times Dan didn’t even realise he was being casually flirted with, and when he did, he was socially awkward enough that they knew they were being clumsily let down. Phil didn’t mind; he was secure enough in what they had to not be worried. Dan had a much bigger and louder problem with jealousy; he’d sulk and glare in public and in private require Phil’s lavish attention for half a day. And Phil didn’t mind, really he didn’t, except how he kind of did, sometimes, that he couldn’t show that he was into Dan. And that Dan kind of, you know, reciprocated the feeling.
But Phil - Phil could be petty when he wanted to, so he took Dan’s bag and made sure to brush his thumb against Dan’s wrist as he did. Slow. Dan looked from Aiman to him, a bit puzzled at this sudden show of gentlemanliness, and Phil smiled at him, the one that meant, I love you, that’s all. Dan smiled back, quite brilliantly, his attention caught and held by Phil, always.
In the car, Dan put their bags on the seat behind the driver’s instead of the conventional middle seat, and his leg was pressed up against Phil’s, even if he was animatedly in conversation with Aiman about festivals the people of Lundu celebrated. Talk about their future together always made Dan sort of horny, a shared kink. He’d been sending Phil glances since morning. He’d been finding reasons to be closer to him than he really needed to be at all.
Phil, quite amused, had been ignoring his blatant flirting, because this was a game they sometimes played, as well. They got back to the chalet and Phil insisted on them starting to pack, because they were leaving the next day and he refused to worry about it for the rest of today.
Dan, being Dan, informed him that he’d pack the next morning, and it would be fine, Phil, stop worrying.
Phil considered nagging, and realised he didn’t really need to. He looked over to where Dan was hanging over the side of the bed, watching Phil fit his jeans into his luggage, and he reached out a palm to slowly curve it over Dan’s cheek.
“Please, babe,” he said, low, like a promise for later, and watched Dan’s eyes flutter closed.
“You’re cheating,” Dan told him. But he dragged himself off the bed, and looked at Phil, and shook his head, and went off to gather his dirty clothes.
It was a cloudy day, but there were people taking advantage of the last rain-less hours. Dan took pictures of the waves, took pictures of the sky, took pictures of Phil helping a family with their sandcastle. When Phil had finished with the turrets he bade them goodbye and went back over to their towel. Dan was on his back, staring at the sky.
Phil looked at the bare, beloved lines of his chest, and wondered how he could still want this much, after this long. There were children shrieking around them, a beach full of them, so he could do nothing more than pull at a tuft of Dan’s hair, and hand him the water bottle.
Dan’s fingers wrapped around his as he took it. They had made things like this more intimate than any kiss would be. They had learnt to.
They set off for dinner as the sun started to go down. The azan was hauntingly lovely, recognisable music now, the soundtrack to their walk. Dan looked sideways and down, smile shy and eyelashes lowered, when he saw Phil looking back; some things hadn’t changed since their first date, really.
He played casual footsie with Dan’s leg under the table. Dan glared at him, a flush creeping up his neck and cheeks, roses against cream, Phil’s absolute favourite colour palette. They ate their oysters and drank their wine and Dan laughed when Phil got crème brulee on his cheek, then bit his lip as Phil darted his tongue out to lick it off.
“Look at the stars,” Dan said, rather wistfully, on their way back. “I can’t believe it’s our last night here. Fuck. I wish we could stay-”
Phil caught his little finger. Plausible deniability enough, and besides they were almost home. “We’ll come back,” he promised.
They stood at the foot of the stairs. Dan smiled and used their linked fingers to tug him gently up. His eyes were soft, melting. There was starlight caught in them. “I normally don’t put out on the first date,” he said, very seriously, “but there’s something about you-”
How important is sex to you? It wasn’t importance rather than it was always necessity, the way Dan’s heels were pressed into his back, the way his head was thrown back as Phil pushed in.
Do you discuss it? Enough to know the way Dan liked his jaw licked, and how he whimpered as Phil curled his tongue against the shell of his ear.
Are you in tune with each other? Sighing, almost sobbing, sloppy kisses traded, storm raging outside, working in tandem, clinging onto each other, raw-open and messy and close, mine yours this. Phil’s symphony a crescendo, and Dan its only conductor.
The next morning their bags were already packed, so they swallowed down some coffee and chocolate buns quickly for a chance to go down to the beach before Aiman came to take them to the bus station.
Palm leaves were strewed across their path to the beach. The waters were serene, blue, still. The sand was damp under their shorts as they sat down, the last remnants of the thunderstorm of the night. They sat and watched the horizon, watched the sun creep steadily, sleepily up, blue pink orange in glowing, subdued hues.
And then Dan ruined it by turning to him and demanding: “Are you ever going to propose?”
Phil gave him a smile. “Ask me the last thing,” he said.
Dan picked the phone from Phil’s hand and said, “'Fourteen: ask your partner this. Why do you want to be married? And married to you?’ Simple. Because it’s you. I want everything with you. There. Done. Happy now?”
Violins, slow and swelling.
“I bought a ring for you when I was twenty-four, and you hadn’t even moved in,” Phil told him. “You’ve never seen it because I kept it safe with my mum for seven years. I knew even then. I knew even when it almost went to shit. I’d go back and I’d look at it and I knew. I took it with me when I went back last. Seven years, and, um, it’s a hundred metres away, in the chalet.”
Dan blinked, rather firmly. “Sounds exactly like you, tbh.”
“If you could just wait a bit-”
“No,” Dan said, laughing, even as his voice cracked on the word, even as he swiped impatiently at his eyes, “sorry. Can’t.”
“You’re a brat. I hope you know that.” Phil dug around in the sand for a bit, came up with a spiral-smooth approximation of a shell. “Will you-”
“Fuck yes,” Dan said, and the sun finished rising, bright and new in the sky.
Spoiler alert: it is on a beach in Lundu that Dan agrees to marry him. Phil slides an odd, beautiful shell through his ring finger and Dan curls his toes into the wet sand, tests the word fiancé wonderingly out on his tongue.
Or perhaps spoiler is the wrong word for it. Spoiler indicates a surprise ending, a twist at the end of the tale.
This is a foregone conclusion. This is your happily ever after, the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one, just the middle of a love story centuries old.
On the flight back to London, the captain was informing them, with much gravitas: “The estimated time of arrival will be 1400 hours-,” but Phil wasn’t listening. He was watching Dan try to sort his earphones out, watching him tangle them up into an ever more irredeemable knot.
“This is a disaster, Phil,” Dan said. “I’m going to ruin them. God. How do they even manage to get like this?”
“Perhaps don’t tug at them that hard.”
“Perhaps shut up and sort them out for me,” Dan ordered, dropping them into Phil’s cupped palms. The glint of his ring caught the overhead light. When they touched down at Heathrow, Dan would remove it so no one would see. No one would know, yet, but they would, in time, they all would. Right now Phil was a bit transfixed, and a whole lot happy. The crescendo in his head had settled down to its usual capriccio, quick and content.
There was one question they’d skipped in the list, because it was both easy and unanswerable. It was: Do you know all the ways they say I love you?
But for posterity’s sake, here is the answer:
Dan finishing Phil’s complimentary milk, and Phil eating Dan’s peanuts without Dan having to ask. The familiarity of Phil getting the trolley and Dan watching out for the bags on the carousel. Dan stumbling into the flat and making Phil a coffee, even dead on his feet, because he knew how flights unsettled Phil’s stomach. Phil exhaling a wordless huff of gratitude into Dan’s ear, leaning against him on the sofa until his innards settled back into place. Phil digging Dan’s phone out and charging it for him, because Dan would wake up in the morning and hate it if it was on its last legs. Dan not putting off unpacking the next day because Phil worked himself into all sorts of snits if he did, and Phil had enough to deal with upon their return. Phil catching Dan admiring the reflection of his ring finger in various surfaces throughout the house.
The soft, almost awed look on Dan’s face when Phil hands the phone over to him on Sunday, Phil’s mum tearing up with joy on the other end. The way Phil kisses his shoulder, a week later, before Dan presses call on a screen that reads Mum.
Editing the movie and having another window open to a wedding aesthetics blog. Impromptu back and foot massages on long nights of work. Quiet casual discussions about the guests and food at 3 am. Scrolling through the Lundu pictures of hornbills and waterfalls and seafood and smiling, smiling, smiling. Museum dates and baking days and tax paying. Going out for a walk when things, as they sometimes do, get tense and feathers get ruffled, instead of blurting out awful, heated words. Coming home and finding Dan on one knee.
“Philip Michael Lester,” he’s saying, before Phil’s even gotten through the door. A slim, silver band between his fingers catches the candlelight. There are candles. There is dinner, set on their own table. Music plays, something lilting and sweet, something precious and played with care. To A Wild Rose From Woodland Sketches, Phil remembers, because Dan’s told him the story. The composer had tossed the piece away, crumpled, and his wife had retrieved it, and played it on the piano, and when he’d come back, told him it was lovely. She had cared for him as he suffered from dementia. She had made sure the wild roses he’d loved adorned his grave.
Dan tells him now: “I’m just. Shit sometimes, I know that, but. You’re everything, and. Will you marry me anyway?”
“Yes,” Phil says. “But come take the ice cream and the Indian I got for you first, my hands are full. Yes. Yes. I love you too.”