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The Dolphin Paradox

Chapter Text

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This was only his fourth week, but he was already starting to get a feel for the ebb and flow of their customer base.

Mornings were busy. They opened at ten, which was about the time the herd descended from their warehouse-converted offices in search of morning coffee. Inevitably about a third of them found their way into the store. Hipsters, Todd had discovered, loved records.

Or rather, they loved the idea of records. They certainly didn't love them enough to leave their triple venti soy no foam lattes outside. Todd hated each and every one of them.

Eleven o'clock brought a lull, one that lasted until just after lunch. That was when the collectors showed up. Todd used the lull to unpack Alfredo's new finds. The collectors seemed to know this. They showed up in clusters almost as soon as the last milk crate was unpacked. By day three Todd had it figured out that it was easier to leave the new stock on the counter than it was to file it away in the bins. He saved that job for the afternoon. There wasn't usually much left.

Afternoons were positively dead. Not that Todd minded. He was used to sitting around, watching the clock. He spent a good deal of his time at the Perriman Grand watching the clock. At least here he could put his feet up. Alfredo didn't even mind if he listened to the records, so long as he was careful with them.

Things picked up again after six, but by then Mara or Amir had shown up so unless it was crazy he mostly got to go home. All things considered, this was probably the best job he'd ever had. Certainly it was the least stressful. Except for the part where it was minimum wage.

"Look, I know it's not the best neighbourhood, but it's not terrible and the rent's reasonable."

That last part was the important part. The developers who had bought the Ridgely planned on upping his rent nearly two-fold. He wouldn't have been able to afford it on his bellhop wage, let alone now. He'd fucking liked that apartment, too.

"The rent's reasonable because there are crack houses across the street," Amanda countered. He could hear her puttering in the background. Doing dishes, he thought. He didn't bother telling her about Dorian. As far as she was concerned, his late landlord had had a heart-attack in his sleep.

"There's only one crack house," Todd said. He paused briefly to transfer his phone from one ear to the other. At 3:00, the store was dead, which meant Todd was sitting behind the counter with his feet propped on an overturned milk crate. He had a copy of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane sitting on his lap. Alfredo wanted $60 for it. Todd didn't really have the money, but...

"One crack house is one crack house too many, Todd," Amanda said. She wasn't wrong.

"It'd just be temporary," Todd told her. "Until I can find a second job."

And a third, though his prospects were dwindling faster than he could pay his bills. Not that Amanda needed to know that. She also didn't need to know that he'd lived in worse.

"Can't you just like... Get a roommate or something?"

Todd thought about sharing his space with someone else. He thought about dishes left sitting in the sink. He thought about strange, badly cooked food occupying his fridge. He thought about someone else messing with his stuff. The inevitable broken lamp.

"I'm not sure I could..."

"Or you could move back here. I mean, there's obviously enough room."

He wasn't sure what was worse. The thought of getting a roommate, or the thought of moving back into his parents' house. Technically, he supposed, it was his and Amanda's house now, but that didn't mean he wanted to live in it. Not when Amanda hadn't bothered replacing the furniture, the living room couch the same one he'd lost his virginity on.

He thought again about asking her to sell the place. Together they'd have enough for a small condo. Something decent without a yard to maintain. Instead he said, "I'll think about it."

In the silence that followed, he could picture her rolling her eyes.

But it wasn't a conversation he wanted to have--not today--so when the front door chimed he uttered up silent, non-denominational thanks and told Amanda he had to go.

"I'll see you tonight," he said. "We can talk about it then."

Hopefully by then he'd have a better solution.

A flurry of yellow from the front of the store announced the customer, Todd setting his phone on the counter just as the smiling face of Dirk Gently appeared before him.

"Hiii," Dirk said, seeming just as happy to see Todd as he had the first day they met. Todd fought back the sudden urge to grin.

"I didn't see you yesterday," he said, rising from his chair. Dirk's eyes grew wide, halfway, Todd thought, between embarrassment and genuine surprise.

"You noticed," Dirk said, sounding oddly pleased.

"Well, yeah. You're practically one of our regulars."

He'd asked Alfredo about Dirk once, but Alfredo was more interested in scouring ebay for vintage vinyl than he was meeting any of his customers, so the best Todd got out of him was a lecture on the importance of making the customer feel important. Dirk seemed like the type who might like feeling important. He also had surprisingly good taste in music. Sometimes Todd swore they shared the same collection.

"Speaking of which," Todd said, setting Ellington down on the counter. "This came in today. I set it aside. I thought you might be interested."

That wasn't entirely true, but $60 was money Todd didn't have and the only other person he thought might appreciate it was Dirk, so...

"You... You set this aside for me?"

In hindsight, it was probably a pretty weird thing to do. After all, Dirk was hardly their only regular. But he was the only regular who seemed interested in talking about music, even if sometimes he sounded like he was repeating someone else's side of a long forgotten conversation.

Still, he was interesting, and he'd asked about Todd's Mexican Funeral t-shirt, seeming genuinely interested when Todd told him about the band. It helped that he was cute, in a overly polished, vaguely eccentric, British sort of way. A little weird, but cute.

Not that Todd had noticed.

"All the good stuff's gone by two, and we were just talking jazz, so I thought..."

They'd had the conversation three days ago. Dirk seemed surprised Todd remembered. He also seemed genuinely touched, like no one had ever done anything nice for him before. Join the club, Todd wanted to tell him.

"If you're not interested, I can just put it out with the rest, I..."

"No!" Dirk said, very emphatically. "I mean, of course I'm interested. I'm very interested. It was very thoughtful of you, Todd. What do I owe?"

For one brief, hysterical moment Todd considered telling Dirk not to worry about it. The moment lasted just until he pictured Alfredo walking him out the door. Getting fired from two jobs in less than two months wasn't exactly something he could put on his resume.

"Sixty," Todd said, "though if it's still around at the end of next week he usually marks them down."

He could, he supposed, hide it under the front counter. There was a chance Amir wouldn't see it. Mara on the other hand...

What the hell was he thinking? He honestly had no idea what he was doing anymore. This, apparently, was what happened when you lost your job and your apartment and your car and then somehow wound up selling vinyl to kids who wouldn't know an LP from a 45 if it bit them on the ass.

"Sixty sounds perfectly reasonable," Dirk said.

It struck Todd then that he'd never asked what Dirk did for a living. He'd sold the man eight records now, none of them particularly inexpensive, and every time Dirk pulled out a wad of cash and then stared at it with an expression of absolute perplexion, like he honestly had no idea where it had come from.

Today was no different.

Today he riffled through the stack as though confused by the logistics of American money. For reasons Todd couldn't explain, he found the entire display oddly endearing.

"Ah, here you are," he eventually said, handing across three of the crisper twenties. Todd rang him through.

There weren't a lot of people Todd cared to socialize with. Mara was alright, when she wasn't venting about her two-timing girlfriend. And Amir was pretty cool if you caught him when he wasn't stressing over exams. Alfredo terrified him, but his musical knowledged surpassed even Todd's so Todd took every available opportunity to pick his brain. Aside from that there was really only Amanda. Certainly he didn't socialize with Alfredo's customers. Not even the regulars. Just Dirk, who sometimes seemed more interested in talking to Todd than he did perusing the store.

Come to think of it, other than that first day, Todd wasn't sure he'd ever seen Dirk look through the bins.

He certainly didn't seem particularly interested in his newly acquired album, Dirk ignoring it in favour of staring at Todd like he was waiting for an answer to a question he'd forgotten to ask. Todd cleared his throat. It earned him an arched eyebrow.

"Um... My dad was a big jazz fan," Todd said, gesturing to Dirk's record. "Actually, he was kind of the one who got me into music. Bought me my first guitar and everything."

Todd was not, by any estimation, the kind of person who openly shared the personal details of his life with relative strangers. And yet he found himself constantly sharing little tidbits with Dirk. Talking to Dirk felt natural, easy in a way talking to other people wasn't. Dirk, for his part, offered an encouraging smile that Todd took as an invitation to continue.

"When I was a kid, he had this old Grundig console. It actually had an 8-track player in it. Anyway, he had all these records and on the weekends we'd listen to them for hours."

Later, if someone asked him, he'd have no idea why he thought to share any of that, though if Dirk's expression was any indication he hardly found it strange. Maybe that was just Dirk, Todd decided. Maybe he was just one of those people whose mere presence encouraged other people to share their life stories.

Or maybe it was just the way Dirk held himself so impossibly still, like doing so took every ounce of his effort: like if someone gave him permission he'd start rambling and probably never stop. Sometimes Todd started talking just to fill the void.

"Records weren't really big back then--everyone was busy transitioning over to CDs--so they were hard to find, but he used to take me and my sister flea market shopping and he'd always find something to bring home. I'm honestly surprised I didn't end up working in a shop sooner," Todd concluded, as though Dirk had asked him how he got here--as though that was the question he'd forgotten to ask.

"Are you still close with your father?" Dirk asked, Todd not at all prepared for the question.

Not that it wasn't a perfectly normal question, especially given the topic at hand, but talking about his parents in the abstract was one thing. What Dirk was asking was something else entirely, the answer too long, too complicated, and too painful by far.

The Grundig console now occupied space in the back of Amanda's garage. The last time he saw it it was covered in empty beer bottles.

"Anyway, I put a few other things out, if you wanted to look around," Todd said, clumsily avoiding the question. He watched Dirk's expression shift, confusion momentarily displaced by concern. After a minute, Dirk nodded.

"I think this is probably all for today. Until tomorrow, then?" he asked. Todd shook his head.

"I'm off tomorrow, but I'm back in on Monday."

Saying as much felt oddly like agreeing to a date. Dirk smiled broadly at him.

"Monday it is. Until then. And, um, thank you, Todd."

He seemed on the verge of saying something else, and then just as quickly seemed to think better of it. Todd watched him pivot, Dirk hovering in suspended uncertainty before he remembered the album and spun back around. Todd handed it over with a barely concealed smirk. Dirk offered a sheepish grin.

And then he was gone, Todd left staring at the vacant space he'd left behind and wondering why Monday felt so far away.

~*~

"Maybe he likes you," Amanda said. Todd refrained from rolling his eyes. It was a near thing.

"Yeah, cause I'm so likeable," he said, not bothering to check his sarcasm. Amanda shook her head.

"I admit, you are kind of an ass sometimes, but that doesn't exactly preclude someone from liking you."

She punctuated all of this by kicking her legs out and then letting them fall back so that her heels drummed against the base cabinet. Her hands, withered beneath her scars, were curled around the lip of the counter she sat on.

The same counter Todd had chipped a tooth on when he was six.

He hadn't meant to tell her about Dirk, but she'd asked about the job and one thing had led to another and now he was stuck dodging pointed questions he didn't want to think about let alone answer.

In hindsight, he probably shouldn't have used the word attractive.

"When was the last time you dated, anyway?" Amanda asked, like they didn't both already know the answer. Clearly she'd been cooped up too long. Maybe now was a good time to bring up selling the house.

"I don't know, a while," he said, starting in on the next zucchini. Roughly sliced cubes soon joined the pot. He could feel Amanda's gaze boring into the back of his skull.

Still, he wasn't about to say since the accident, since the entirety of his life came to a crashing halt in the form of two dead parents and a sister who deserved far better than a life of constant pain.

"I'm just saying, if a cute British guy kept showing up at my work to talk to me about something I was interested in...."

"Look, can we drop this? I'm not interested in the guy. And he's not interested in me. He's just weird and oddly familiar and... I don't want to talk about it, okay?"

She was making that face. The one she made when she was feigning annoyance but was actually hurt. Todd deflated.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." Amanda waved his apology aside.

"Like I said, you're only sometimes an ass."

It was forgiveness, but it was also permission to abandon the conversation. If he was halfway to a decent person he'd refuse the offer, let her point out the obvious because clearly Todd was incapable of doing so for himself. Instead he offered a weak smile in place of thanks.

"This needs like an hour." Todd, said, gesturing to the sauce now simmering on the stove. "You wanna jam?"

As consolations went, it wasn't his best, but it was obviously the right thing to say, Amanda's eyes lighting up the way they used to when they were kids. He swore sometimes she'd chosen the drums just to have an excuse to join Todd in the garage. But that was years ago, Amanda no longer the unwanted younger sibling trailing in Todd's wake.

He owed her, he realized, an apology for that. The first, he suspected, of many.

~*~

"You bought another record," Farah said, though how she knew with her back towards him Dirk couldn't begin to guess. He glanced briefly to the record in his hands, and then back to Farah, narrowing his gaze.

"A hunch?" he asked, coming fully into the room. His hunches were few and far between these days, the universe thrown entirely out of sorts.

"More like I know you," Farah said, turning to meet his gaze. Dirk offered a sheepish grin.

"Well, yes, but he'd set it aside for me so I could hardly..."

The look Farah shot him suggested she clearly didn't believe a word of it. He wasn't entirely sure he did either. It was hard to say no to Todd when Todd was looking at him like Dirk was maybe his favourite person, which, now that he thought about was decided odd given that this Todd had only met him three weeks prior...

Then again, their relationship had progressed fairly quickly the first time around, so...

Very carefully, Dirk set Todd's record down on the stack that occupied the chair they sometimes used to jimmy shut the door. He was beginning to amass a somewhat impressive collection. Todd would certainly be impressed, anyway. Well, his Todd. The one Dirk didn't buy the record from. Although technically his Todd and the other Todd were one in the same, which meant...

It didn't matter what it meant. Dirk was going to fix everything.

"Look," Farah said, rising from her side of the room's only desk. Without the bulletin boards, and the filing cabinets, and Dirk's thinking couch, the Agency office felt sterile and uninspired. "It's not my place to question your methods. This is your case, after all. But I fail to understand how stalking Todd is going to help us solve this."

"It's not stalking!" Dirk said, affronted. "It's surveillance. Plus, every time I talk to him I learn something new. If I can piece together the differences between this timeline and ours then I can fix it!"

He moved as he spoke, crossing to where Farah had taped bristol board to the far wall, a displaced alternative to the whiteboard Farah refused to let them purchase anew. On it were two columns:

Things that are the Same

And:

Things that are Not

Picking up a pen, Dirk wrote uncomfortable talking about parents under Things that are the Same. Farah came around to read it over his shoulder.

"There's something you should see," she said, Dirk piqued by the seriousness of her tone. He set the pen down on the desk and then followed her around to where her laptop sat open, countless tabs open in her browser.

"Is that a newspaper article," Dirk said, bending down to get a closer look and in doing so feeling rather like a real detective.

Sure enough, it was, though the article wasn't at all something he was expecting. Dirk read it through twice. And then a third time just to be sure. He glanced to Farah, half hoping for an explanation that would make this slightly less painful. Instead her expression only served to drive the point home.

The article was ten years old.

"Wasn't that around the time Todd's band fell apart?" Dirk asked. He vaguely remembered this Todd mentioning something to the effect, and certainly Dirk had heard the story from his Todd.

"And around the time Amanda first manifested symptoms," Farah said.

Dirk glanced again to the bristol board.

"And you still haven't found anything on pararibultis?"

"Nothing," Farah confirmed.

That, Dirk decided, was decidedly strange. If only he could figure out how it was all connected. Still, new information was good information so Dirk crossed to the bristol board and wrote:

Parents died in car accident, 2007, Amanda injured under Things that are Not.

"We're going to figure this out, Farah," he said. "We're going to get Todd and Amanda back." He turned then to face her, feeling certain for the first time in a very long time.

"We are going to fix everything."

Chapter Text

----------------

Five weeks prior

"It was one of my first cases," Dirk said, taking the stairs two at a time and trusting Todd to keep up. The thrill of solving yet another case--they were three for one now--lightening his steps, Dirk practically floated up the stairs. He'd always said the agency was a good idea. The place he was meant to be. That it had come with both friends and financial backing was simply the universe's way of reaffirming the fact. Well, that and he was fairly certain the universe owed him at this point.

"Mrs. Pennyworth," he continued, "had lost her grey tabby cat, which was strange because she was an outdoor cat who very rarely left her front garden. Immediately catnapping presented itself as a likely scenario. The idea cemented when I began to notice leaflets advertising rewards for other missing cats. Another tabby. This one orange. A calico. A siamese. Nothing to connect the cats, but they'd all disappeared under similar circumstances and..."

"Wait, how old were you?" Todd asked. Having reached the top of the stairs, they now stood outside the office door--their office door, his and Todd's! Todd was still wearing the ridiculous lei he'd picked up at the yacht club. The deep purple of the orchids rather brought out his eyes. Dirk contemplated telling him as much, and then thought better of it. Todd was embarrassed by the strangest things, not the least of which were compliments regarding his appearance.

"Nine or ten," Dirk answered, trying to work back that far. "It was before Blackwing, anyhow."

As he spoke, he used one hand to fish out a set of keys from his pocket and the other to straighten the frosted-glass window poster they'd affixed to the office's front door. He'd wanted another plaque--one to match the one they'd covertly affixed to the building's brick facade--but brass plaques were startlingly expensive, fake window posters surprisingly cheap. Amanda had written HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY across the window in what was arguably the neatest penmanship he'd ever seen. All things considered, it was a perfectly suitable alternative. He quite liked it.

"As it turned out," Dirk said, finally locating his key. "I didn't have one cat, but eight distinct cats all gone missing inside a three week window. I knew immediately the cases were connected."

He threw open the door as he spoke, or rather tried to, the door catching on what turned out to be a very thick manilla envelope someone had stuffed through the mailslot. Dirk's train of thought derailed. He bent to retrieve the envelope, its weight somewhat alarming.

"That's odd," he said, turning the envelope in his hand. "Perhaps someone's paid us."

"Who?" Todd asked. "I don't think our last case had a client. Actually, scratch that, our last two cases didn't have clients."

The Great Kitten Circus forgotten, Dirk lit upon a theory.

"Maybe it's new case! Maybe someone's paying us in advance!"

If that were the case, the Agency had truly arrived.

"You know," Todd said, sounding very Todd, "we could just open it and find out."

Todd's suggestion, of course, was absolutely the right one. Dirk had no idea how he'd ever survived without him. Shooting Todd a grin, Dirk handed over the envelope, allowing Todd the honours.

He knew now the difference between Todd's exasperated eyeroll and his slightly fond eyeroll. This eyeroll was decidedly fond. Dirk smiled, a little smug perhaps, but they'd just finished a case and it seemed they had a new one so he felt entitled. That was until Todd tore into the envelope.

He hated this feeling. It wasn't a bad feeling, per se, but it was an uncomfortable one. A sense that maybe he shouldn't have opened that door, or gone down that alley, or gotten into that car. Little signs the universe wanted him moving in the opposite direction. Whatever was inside the envelope the universe wanted no part in.

If Dirk had any sense, then neither did he.

"Okay, this is weird," Todd said, pulling out a bundle of elongated cards and flipping through them. Even from the back Dirk recognized them.

"Not a case," he said, snatching the cards from Todd's hand. Todd made a little sound of protest. Dirk ignored him, fully intent on tossing the cards in the bin and being done with them. This was obviously someone's idea of a sick joke.

"Seriously? Are you even going to tell me what they are?"

Damn Todd for sounding so utterly reasonable. Damn him too for sounding just a little bit hurt. Dirk staggered to a stop. He released a breath, his shoulders collapsing because damn himself for caring more about Todd's feelings than he did his own.

"They're zener cards," Dirk said, turning around. He plucked one of the cards from the pile and held it up for Todd to see. "Now I ask you, what do you see? And if you're... psychic, or something, you should be able to guess. Get enough right and you earn a reward. Get too many wrong and you lose a privilege."

He was shaking, he realized, nothing noticeable, just a fine tremor in his hand, the one not holding the card. Todd narrowed his gaze.

"I don't understand how that's a test. I mean, if they're all pictures of dolphins, doesn't that kind of defeat the point?"

Dirk liked Todd. He liked Todd a whole bunch. Todd was easily the best thing that had ever happened to him. He might go so far as to say he loved Todd--though he had enough sense to never, ever say so out loud. But there were times when Todd opened his mouth and things came out and Dirk had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. This was one of those times.

He glanced to the card in his hand, still perplexed, and sure enough, in place of a wavy set of lines or star or plus sign, there was a pictogram of a dolphin. A dolphin jumping through a floating hoop. Dirk flipped to the next card. And then the next. They were all the same. Not a single variation, just dolphin after dolphin after dolphin jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop. How strange.

How wonderful.

"Todd, do you know what this means?" Dirk asked. Todd shook his head. Dirk caught his eye.

"It means we have a case!"

---------

Back in the Present

Todd came awake with a start, struggling in his hypnopompic state to identify what had woken him.

The ceiling above him was familiar, though in an abstract, half forgotten kind of way. He knew if he turned his head to the right he'd find Billy Corgan staring back at him from the whimsy of his Mellon Collie era poster. To his left he'd find the window, blue and white checkered curtains pulled tight against the peeking sun.

That left the door, wide open, Todd letting his gaze drift into the hall. Faint light carried from somewhere near it's end. Amanda. Right.

Extracting himself from the twin-sized bed of his youth wasn't exactly an easy task. His feet hit the ground long before he expected them to, the result an intense jarring the travelled the length of his spine. Gritting his teeth, Todd stood. He followed a faint rustling into the hall and found the bathroom door partly ajar, light and shadow spilling from inside.

"Amanda?" he asked, nudging open the door.

He found her on hands and knees, a scattering of red pills strewn across the floor. Amanda was shaking as she scrambled to collect them all.

"Shit," Todd said, falling to the ground beside her.

"It's fine," Amanda said, though she spoke through clenched teeth. "I've got this."

Todd ignored her. This wasn't something they discussed--her choice, and he respected that--but whatever had happened--whatever was happening--she was clearly in pain and Todd wasn't about to leave her on her own.

He did that far, far too often as it was.

One by one the pills scattered across the ground were returned to their bottles. Only then did Amanda collapse against the far wall, her knees drawing automatically to her chest. Todd took the bottle she held and secured its cap. Tramadol.

"They lowered the dose," he said. "Is it getting better?"

The glare Amanda shot him should have been answer enough.

"They were worried about addiction," she said, giving him a pointed look. Todd instinctively drew back. He didn't quite flinch, but it was a near thing. It was also nothing less than he deserved.

"What about that experimental treatment we were reading about?" he asked. Money was an issue, but if they sold the house...

"You know what the doctors said."

Her eyes, glassy now from the pills, slid past him, Amanda staring out into the hall. She still had her knees drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped loose around them. In the harsh glare of the vanity lighting, her scars looked almost like gloves, endlessly twisted flesh, Todd acutely aware of where they'd grafted new skin onto old. He averted his gaze.

Psychosomatic hung in the air between them.

"Have you reconsidered..."

Amanda's gaze snapped back.

"I'm not crazy."

"I didn't say..."

"This isn't in my head, Todd. It's nerve damage, or something. I can feel it. I look down and my hands are on fire and I can smell my flesh cooking and I can feel it and it hurts. It hurts."

Todd was moving before he registered doing so. He knelt beside her, drawing her into his arms as she dissolved into tears.

"I'm sorry," he said into her hair, not quite loud enough for her to hear. He had no idea it was this bad. He had no idea about any of it. He'd woken in the hospital to learn his sister occupied a bed two floors above. They didn't tell him about his parents right away. They didn't tell him anything.

"You don't know," Amanda said, her words half drowned by her tears. "You weren't there."

There was nothing he could say to that. She was right. He wasn't. He wasn't and he should have been and now they were here and there wasn't a damned thing he could do to make it better.

~*~

The ceiling seemed so much further away when viewed from the floor. Dirk stared at it for several long seconds, waiting for the universe to give him some indication of its plans. An impulse. A hunch. A sudden craving. Anything. There was nothing.

It left him feeling rather adrift. Was this how the rest of the population navigated the world? Aimless floating without ever catching on a current? He couldn't imagine. Or rather, he could now, he just wished he couldn't. Knowing this was how Todd or Farah or Amanda faced their day was, frankly, horrifying.

Across the room, he heard the door open and close.

"I know I said we shouldn't bother because I was going to fix everything, and I'm still going to fix everything, but in the interim I think perhaps you may be right," he said.

"Okay," came Farah's response. He heard her moving across the room, Dirk turning his head in time to catch her setting a white paper bag down on the desk.

"Can you be more specific?" she asked when she turned around.

"Furniture. Even a mattress would do. Something that isn't the floor," Dirk informed her. He had his jacket balled under his head, though he would have rather liked to have used it as a blanket. Blankets too, then. Possibly a pillow. Or maybe they could just get a double room somewhere, give up on the whole squatting inside what should have been the Dirk Gently Holistic Detective Agency offices. This version of the agency looked about as derelict as it had the day they'd found it. The original it. Their it. The one they'd taken time and energy and money to polish into something worthy of seeing clients.

"I... certainly wouldn't object to something softer than the floor," Farah told him. Dirk forced himself to sit.

Doing so highlighted the dozen or so aches that came with sleeping on a hardwood floor. It wasn't even nice hardwood. More like floor planks. A plankwood floor? There were knots in the wood he swore were larger than boulders. Dirk rubbed at the kinks in his neck.

"Oooh, are those danishes?" he asked, only then making the connection between the white paper bag and the hour. There was a delightful bakery just down the road--one that didn't exist in their timeline... Universe? Something, anyway. It was probably a good thing Farah thought to carry such an abundance of cash. Between the danishes and the records Dirk was sure to burn through a good deal of it.

"And tea, three sugars, one milk," Farah said. Dirk perked up considerably.

By the time he'd settled in on his side of the desk--which was actually a piece of plywood propped up on two saw horses--Farah had her laptop open--and he still didn't know where she'd found it, never mind where she'd plugged in the extension cord that ran out the window and up the side of the building before disappearing somewhere over the roof. He did know she was stealing wifi from the one of the apartments across the street. Honesty, of all the people he could have found himself stranded with... well, Todd would have been better, but Farah was definitely a close second.

"Have you found anything on us yet?" he asked. Without glancing up, Farah shook her head.

"Does this mean we don't exist in this... wherever we are?" she asked. Dirk considered.

"I suppose it's possible, though Todd and Amanda exist so I would say it's not very probable. Oh. Maybe we replaced ourselves!"

Farah shot him a look. It wasn't particularly encouraging.

"Okay, but if we replaced ourselves, wouldn't there still be some record of us..."

Record of her, yes, Dirk wanted to say, but the CIA had gone to great lengths to ensure Dirk didn't exist so the odds of them finding anything, even back in their... whatever... were relatively slim. That was not, however, information Farah needed to know.

"It's entirely possible us being at the epicentre of the..." What was the word he wanted? Explosion? Implosion? Thing with the lights and the screaming and the vaguely sticky substance...

Whatever it was, Farah seemed to understand. She was nodding, anyway, which was a good sign if Dirk had ever seen one.

"No, that makes sense," she said. "So if we're the only constants..."

"Then we're the only ones who can fix it," Dirk finished.

The universe might not be talking to him, but that didn't mean it wasn't all connected. In fact, until the universe suggested otherwise, he would proceed as though that were the case. Everything was connected. Nothing was also connected. So until they had firmer answers, he would assume that everything and nothing pertained to them solving the case.

Besides, it couldn't be that hard. Just because the universe wasn't talking to him, and he didn't have Todd, and they were sure to run out of money at some point, and eventually someone would think to ask why they were living inside a condemned building...

Nuts. This wasn't going to work at all, was it?"

~*~

"Are you sure...?"

"I told you, I'm fine," Amanda said.

She probably wasn't. He knew that, and he suspected she knew that he knew, but after ten years of exchanged platitudes, what was one more?

"I..." What was there for him to say?

"Seriously, Todd, don't worry about it." She offered him a cheeky grin, one he'd fallen for more times than he could count. He knew his part in this. Smile and ruffle the top of her head. Call her a brat. Tell her to call him if she needed anything. And she would call. She'd call all the time. But neither of them would ever say anything meaningful, platitudes piled upon platitudes.

"Here," Todd said, handing over the last of his cash. Amanda accepted it without a glance, the money disappearing into her pocket without a word of thanks. Todd drew her into a hug.

"Call me if you need anything," he said as they broke apart. Amanda, dark circles smeared beneath her eyes, offered a curt nod. Juggling his duffle and his guitar, Todd started for the road.

"Todd," Amanda called after him, the first time he could remember her doing so. He glanced over his shoulder to find her smiling, looking nothing like the girl he'd found crawling on the bathroom floor only hours before.

"You should ask out the British guy," she said, Todd momentarily too stunned to answer. Of all the things he'd expected her to say...

"I think I can manage my own love life, thank you very much," he told her. The look she shot him was blatantly incredulous.

It was also, he thought, an opening, a chance to make things right, to fix everything. Repositioning his guitar on his back, Todd crossed back to where she stood waiting.

"I can't move back here," he said, a continuation of their earlier conversation, the one he'd promised her they'd discuss on his visit. The one they'd both steadily ignored during the time he was here.

"I know," Amanda said, like she'd never really expected him to.

"I just... I don't think you should stay here either," he said, his words coming out in a rush. Amanda's eyes grew wide.

"You want me to leave the house?"

She hadn't. He knew that. Not in a long time. But he was beginning to think that was part of the problem.

"You said I should find a roommate," he said, well aware he was reaching. "I'm just saying, if, conceivably, we were to sell the house, we would probably have enough money to find some kind of specialist. Someone who dealt with nerve disorders. And then we could keep my place at the Ridgely. It's not big, but we could make it work. Plus then I'd know you were safe and..."

She was still staring at him, her eyes wide like he'd grown a second head. This was clearly the wrong way to go about this. He should have waited. He should have slowly introduced her to the idea because now she was going to bolt and he'd never find the nerve to bring this up again and...

"You want me to sell the house and move into the city with you?"

Todd managed a brief nod.

"Look, you don't have to decide right away, just promise me you'll think about it."

He was expecting her to refuse, the abject terror he saw reflected in her gaze enough to suggest she intended to. To his surprise, she nodded. It wasn't a promise, but it was consideration, and that was more than he'd ever expected to get. Todd offered her a bright smile.

"I'll call you when I get home," he said.

Amanda nodded, like she was turning over his words, like she hadn't considered the possibility before. Like there was a chance, however slim, she might not say no.

Chapter Text

-------------------

Sixteen years prior

Dr. Lorna Coleridge glanced up from the clipboard currently balanced on her forearm. She stared at the boy who sat before her, his eyes downcast, his gaze locked on the table between them. He wasn't being particularly difficult, but it had been a long day and she rather wanted to go home.

"Try again, Emershan," she said. The boy didn't glance up. Lorna made a vexed sound, somewhere between a click of her tongue and an audible hiss. This time the boy met her gaze. His eyes were wet. Lorna sighed.

"You asked for paper. You asked for pencils. You said drawing this," here she paused to slide the boy's drawing into his field of vision, "would help you focus. We're not asking for anything more than what you've done already."

She'd met Col. Riggins exactly once. The vast majority of his Blackwing subjects were utterly useless from a tactical standpoint. Emershan was the exception. If only she could convince the boy to cooperate.

He was crying again, overly sensitive given his age. Lorna pinched the bridge of her nose, the onslaught of a headache forming behind her eyes.

"This is very simple, Emershan," she said. "Either you concentrate or you eat your fish."

She let her gaze slip past him as she spoke, to the tray he'd pushed to the far side of the table, as far from Emershan as it was possible to get. It had arrived an hour ago. The fish would be cold now.

"I don't like fish," Emershan said in a voice far too small for the lanky eleven year old who sat before her.

"Then focus," Dr. Coleridge told him. "Change it."

On her clipboard she wrote, External Distraction. May require sensory deprivation. Emershan continued to stare at the table top. The fish continued to grow cold. Lorna's headache now bordered on a migraine. Perhaps, she thought, she'd give this one back, see if Riggins had managed to bring in anyone new.

~*~

Back in the Present

There was a trick to this, one that Dirk had yet to master. Farah seemed to have no difficulty with it. At least, he'd never once heard her scream. Or screech. Or curse madly from behind the closed door, all of which Dirk was ashamed to admit he'd done on occasion. And by occasion he meant routinely. And by routinely he meant every single time. Usually consecutively.

"You've experienced worse," he told himself, which, while true, did absolutely nothing to harden his resolve.

Did he even really need a shower? It had only been three days. Surely another day wouldn't hurt. Oh, who was he kidding. He hated the feeling of grit in his hair. Besides, he ought to be grateful the office even had running water, let alone a properly draining mop sink--in their timeline Farah had converted the utility closet into a water closet, complete with working toilet and vanity lighting above the sink. She was, as it turned out, an incredibly handy person to have around.

Of course, she'd utterly refused to do the same here, which meant they used the toilets at the bus terminal around the corner and showered using the garden hose they'd connected to the mop sink taps, which Farah had then run up the wall and suspended from the ceiling. This timeline, of course, did not include a working hot water heater, which meant...

"Oh, bloody hell," Dirk said, stepping beneath the utterly freezing spray.

Water pressure was also an issue, which meant showering took twice as long as it might have otherwise, and that was with Dirk doing the bare minimum to get clean. The trick was to keep moving, though it was hard to keep moving when his body wanted instinctively to curl in on itself, violent shivering often the best he could manage.

He emitted a series of high-pitched squeals throughout the entire process, tremendously relieved when he was finally able to rinse the last of the shampoo from his hair. Never mind conditioner. He'd fix his hair's manageability once things were back to normal. For now he felt clean and undoubtedly smelled better and that was more than enough for any man. Dirk climbed from the sink and reached for his towel.

He just had the one, and not even an absorbent one at that--Farah was frugal to a fault--but it did the job, Dirk drying off and then slipping into his last set of clean undergarments. Farah was still working at the desk when he came into the room.

"I'm running out of clothes," he told her, crossing to where he'd hung his trousers over the back of the record holder slash door jamming chair.

"We can take a load over to the laundromat later today if you want," Farah said without glancing up. Dirk scowled at the two shirts in his hands. Neither were in particularly good condition, and considering one was new that was saying something.

"We may need to allocate funds for a much needed wardrobe expansion," he told her. He had in his possession a total of two ties, and only one jacket. The yellow one, which, while his favourite, was also the one prone to showing the dirt.

"We can't," Farah said, though he could tell she was still thoroughly distracted by whatever was on her screen. "You spent our clothing allowance on records."

It was a low blow, though perhaps not an undeserved one. Dirk glanced to the record storage chair and then back again.

"If I promise not to buy anymore records, can I have a new tie?" he asked.

This time Farah shot him a look. That was a no, then. Dirk rehung the dress shirts, opting instead to pull his Mexican Funeral t-shirt from the pile. For obvious reasons, he hadn't worn it since they'd arrived in this... wherever this was. Between that and their last trip to the laundromat it was clean. Dirk turned it inside out and then pulled it over his head. He was, if not entirely respectable, at least somewhat presentable.

"Have you reconsidered?" Dirk asked, climbing across their newly acquired camping mats and sleeping bags to reach his side of the desk. His jacket hung over the back of the chair. Farah glanced up, startled.

"I... I don't know if that's a good... I mean, it's bad enough you're interacting with Todd. I don't think I should..."

"How are we supposed to solve this if we don't take advantage of the two leads we have?" Dirk interjected. "I'm not asking you to take her to lunch. Just routine surveillance."

He meant for all of that to sound just a bit authoritative, as though this were a hunch and not just him grasping at straws. Farah, he suspected, wasn't buying any of it. In lieu of a better argument, Dirk offered her his most pleading expression. Farah deflated.

"Fine, on one condition," she said.

"Anything," Dirk agreed.

"No more records."

She punctuated the point by rising from her chair and reaching for her jacket--the black one, a much better colour for extended stays in alternate universes. Still, she had a point. Their funds were somewhat limited. He supposed he could refrain from making additional purchases. Surely he could still look. Window shop, as it were, and if said window shopping happened to involve illuminating and sometimes instructive conversation, well then, so be it.

"Deal," Dirk said, sticking out his hand. Farah rolled her eyes, but she shook his hand, Farah's handshake as good as her word.

~*~

Monday's sucked.

He hated how cliche that sounded, but it was true. Mondays sucked when he was a freshman in college. They sucked when he was touring with his band. They sucked when he was working at the hotel. And they sucked now. The universe, it seemed, was determined to make Mondays suck regardless of what he did.

Mondays were also the day Alfredo came in. Sometimes he puttered around the office. Sometimes he reorganized the bins. But mostly he stood behind the counter, watching Todd work. If Alfredo was ever going to fire him, it would be on a Monday.

It wasn't all bad. The store was quiet, their customer base too caught up in their own Mondays for things like record shopping or leisurely coffee breaks. It often meant Todd got to take a real lunch instead of just hanging the back in five sign before darting over to the bodega across the street. Sometimes, if Alfredo was still around, he got a whole hour, which was more than he ever got at the Perriman Grand. On those days he'd find somewhere quiet to eat so that he could call Amanda and try to work up the courage to apologize. He hadn't yet managed it, but if he ever did, it would be on a Monday.

"Want me to grab you anything?" Todd asked as he slipped into his jacket. Alfredo, his nose buried inside one of his catalogues, gave a curt shake of his head.

"I'm good. Go, take your time. Eat something green," he said. Todd chuckled and then started for the door.

He got it halfway open before something obstructed his progress, Todd glancing up sharply to find a grimacing Dirk Gently on the other side of the glass. Dirk staggered back a step, his hand drawing instinctively to his chest. Todd understood immediately what had happened.

"Shit, sorry. I'm so sorry," he said, coming out onto the sidewalk, the door falling shut behind him. Dirk seemed somewhat surprised to see him.

"Todd," he said, as though Todd hadn't almost broken his hand, as though he wasn't still cradling it to his chest.

"I swear, I didn't see you," Todd said, though he wasn't entirely sure how. Dirk's jacket alone was enough to make him stand out in a crowd, though today he looked particularly noticeable. Todd needed several seconds to process why. In place of the shirt and ties Dirk usually wore, today he had on a faded black t-shirt, the fabric surprisingly worn. It was a good look on him, Todd decided.

"It's quite alright," Dirk was saying, as though people hit him with doors all the time. Todd shook his head.

"No, it's not. Here, let me see," he said, reaching for Dirk's injured hand. Dirk hesitated only briefly before handing it over.

Todd turned it over in his hand, thumb gently prodding along Dirk's knuckles. Nothing felt broken. There was no indication of swelling, either, just a fine tremor that suggested Dirk was probably experiencing some pain.

"There's a place across the street that sells ice, we should..."

The rest of what he was going to say evaporated, Todd glancing up to find Dirk watching him, his expression bordering on fond. Todd couldn't remember the last time someone had looked at him like that. He wasn't sure anyone ever had. For one brief, hysterical second he considered taking Amanda's advice. Instead he offered Dirk back his hand.

"Thank you, Todd, but I'm sure it won't be necessary," Dirk said. He made a show of wiggling his fingers. "It doesn't even hurt."

His gaze narrowed as he spoke, Dirk glancing once between Todd and the store, as though only just then realizing Todd wasn't inside.

"Are you leaving?" he asked. Todd was fairly certain he was imagining the alarm in Dirk's tone.

"No," Todd said, far too quickly for what was supposed to be a casual conversation between not-quite acquaintances. "I was just going to grab some lunch."

This was the part where he should excuse himself. Verify that Dirk's hand really was fine and then send Dirk into the store to deal with Angelo because it wasn't as if he had a monopoly on serving Dirk. For all he knew Amir and Mara served Dirk when he wasn't around. Maybe that was just Dirk. Maybe he was just an excessively friendly person who liked interacting with people. Maybe the way he looked at Todd was the way he looked at everyone and Todd was reading too much into the situation. Maybe Amanda was right, and it had been too long, Todd lonely and disconnected and missing something he'd never actually had.

Or maybe he was just a coward. And asshole and a coward who didn't deserve to have a cute British guy with great taste in music notice him, not when Todd had spent the vast majority of his life going entirely unnoticed.

Or maybe Amanda was right. Maybe the highlight of his week wasn't just decent conversation. Screw it, he thought. What was the worst that could happen?

"Are you... hungry? Do you maybe want..."

Apparently the worst that could happen was Dirk's eyes growing wide, like Todd asking was completely out of left field, like Dirk was just being friendly, like Todd had misread him completely.

"Sorry, never mind," Todd said, fully intending to slip past Dirk and head across the street, because now he didn't even feel like having lunch; now he just wanted ten minutes alone to get over his stupidity.

"No, wait," Dirk said, just a bit too loud given their proximity. Todd froze, nervous in a way he shouldn't have been given how short a time they'd known each other. Very slowly he glanced up. He found Dirk staring at him, looking vaguely terrified.

"I.... uh... I... accept your invitation."

There were times, too many to count and this was one of them, when Todd couldn't tell if Dirk was eccentric or merely British. Some combination of the two, he thought. Dirk still looked vaguely terrified, but his expression had grown soft again, as though Todd inviting him to get something to eat had somehow made his day; as though Todd was a person he genuinely wanted to spend time with. Todd wasn't sure who was more surprised: him or Dirk.

"You don't have to, it's fine, I just..." Todd tried, because the last thing he needed was pity.

Dirk's expression had gone all soft again, and Todd swore the bottom of his lip trembled slightly. He thought for a second Dirk was going to politely decline, relieved perhaps that Todd had offered him the opportunity. Instead he shook his head.

"I wasn't expecting... But yes, I would like to have lunch with you, that is provided you'd still like to have lunch with me."

At 2:30 in the afternoon, it probably wasn't lunch anymore--and for all Todd knew Dirk had already eaten--but Dirk had said yes, and Dirk was looking at him just a little bit hopeful, like Todd's invitation had taken him by surprise, but the good kind, the kind that made Todd wonder if maybe he had read this right after all.

Amanda, he thought, was never going to let him live this down.

"There's this amazing diner around the corner," Todd said. It was the kind of place that sold all day breakfast and real milkshakes complete with cherries and whipped cream. It was also the kind of place you'd find people wearing yellow leather jackets; the kind of place he suspected Dirk would fit right in.

Dirk, who still looked oddly shellshocked, offered a brief nod and then a somewhat blinding smile. Todd took it as agreement. Before he could lose his nerve, Todd started them down the street.

~*~

Clearly, this was a bad idea.

She'd known it was a bad idea even before Dirk suggested it. Amanda wasn't interested in seeing her. Amanda, in this timeline, or whatever it was Dirk wanted to call it, didn't even know she existed. Farah wasn't exactly about to show up at her door and...

And what? Say hi, you don't know me but I know you, or at least some version of you and I just wanted to stop in to see if you were okay and also to ask you a series of somewhat invasive questions in hopes of figuring out exactly what's different so that we can maybe pinpoint cause from effect and then restore the timeline which will ultimately result in you not existing but rather another you, the you I know, taking your place because I miss you and we were just getting to know each other and it sucks that I don't have that anymore.

Well, she definitely wasn't going to say any of that.

"Ma'am," the cab driver said, drawing Farah from her thoughts.

"Sorry?" She had, she realized, missed the entirety of his question.

"I asked if you were going in?" he asked again, this time gesturing out the front window, to where Amanda's house sat, yard slightly overgrown, siding in need of a paint job. Farah shook her head.

"No. No, I'm not. You can take me back," she said, ignoring the way his eyes grew wide, like he now thought she was a crazy person. And maybe she was. She'd spent the last hour sitting in a cab outside Amanda's house, after all. In that case, she ought to use it to her advantage.

"Can I ask you something," she asked as they pulled from the curb. The driver caught her eye in the rearview mirror. "Who was the first man to walk on the moon?"

There was a long pause, the driver still watching her. He was probably contemplating driving her to the nearest psychiatric hospital. Farah waited.

"Um... Pretty sure it was that Russian guy. Something Leonov. I don't really remember. I was just a kid."

Alexei Leonov, Farah didn't say, the same name she'd read this morning and not at all the person she remembered from history class. Whatever they'd done, it wasn't just Todd and Amanda who'd been effected.

Somehow, without ever meaning to, they'd messed up everything.

~*~

"You know, I don't think you've ever mentioned what you do for a living," Todd said while they waited for their orders. Chatting to Todd across a countertop in a record store was one thing. Sitting across from him on a lunch date was something else entirely. Dirk had no idea what to do with himself. Farah, he suspected, would not be at all pleased.

Except, this wasn't date, more like a casual, friendly sharing of food because Dirk knew Todd--well, his Todd anyway--well enough to know that Todd wasn't interested in dating men. He certainly wasn't interested in dating Dirk, because while Dirk hadn't outright asked he'd certainly given enough signals to convey his interest and Todd had never--not once--acknowledged them, let alone offered any signals in return.

Besides, he could hardly imagine an alteration to the timeline that would result in Todd's sudden interest. Ergo, this wasn't a date. Either that or he'd misread his Todd completely...

But that was not a road Dirk intended to go down. That way led madness, so instead he took a sip from his milkshake and considered Todd's question.

"I'm a hol... a private investigator, actually," Dirk said. Across the table, Todd's eyes lit up.

"Seriously? That's actually pretty cool."

It was hard to tell if Todd's response to his overtures--of friendship, purely friendship--were different this time around because Dirk had arrived at a time when Todd's life was a bit more stable, or if there was some fundamental difference in Todd himself. This Todd, for example, had never once thrown a shoe at him. Then again, he hadn't broken into this Todd's apartment. Conversely, this Todd didn't seem like the type to yell at him in the middle of the street, but then this Todd had also never met the Rowdy 3.

"Wait, are you on a case right now? Is that why you keep coming into the store?" Todd asked.

He sounded vaguely suspicious, but mostly just excited, like he had that time he'd asked Dirk to guess the cowboy drawing. That probably wasn't the best example, and it certainly wasn't something Dirk intended to get into, not when Todd had asked a very reasonable question that had, no doubt, a very reasonable answer.

Or would have, had Dirk thought answering truthfully would prove in anyway advantageous. He hated lying to Todd, but given the alternative...

"I'm... between cases at the moment, and enjoying some much earned downtime," Dirk said.

It wasn't entirely true, but it wasn't an outright lie, either. Technically he was between cases. The unsolved one that had brought him here, and the one he needed to solve to get them home. Granted, he was fairly certain those two cases would end up one in the same, but Todd didn't need to know that and therefore Dirk wasn't technically lying.

Across the table, Todd's gaze grew speculative. Dirk tried very hard not to squirm. In sight of hind, agreeing to lunch was perhaps not his best laid plans.

Somewhere in all of that, their food arrived.

"So what are your cases normally like, or can you even tell me?" Todd asked after their waitress had left again.

This was the Todd Dirk knew. The one curious to know everything. The one who sat up nights with him asking about his previous cases, about his time in Blackwing, about all the things Dirk wanted to talk about and didn't. This was the Todd he called his best friend, the one who was genuinely interested in him. The one who seemed to genuinely like him, even here, even completely removed from their original meeting.

Dirk couldn't help but wonder how different this might have been had they met here under similar circumstances.

But that was unlikely. For one thing he'd found no record of Patrick Spring in this universe. Zachariah Webb, it seemed, had never sent a time machine forward; had never followed after it; had never become Patrick Spring; had never sired Lydia; had never died in a hotel room by kitten-shark explosion; and so had never needed to hire Dirk. It amazed him sometimes how one little change could carry so far through the timeline.

"To be honest," he said, answering Todd's question. "It's mostly mundane stuff. Missing dogs, that sort of thing."

He would have given anything to share one of his actual cases with Todd, one of the ones he hadn't already shared. But this Todd still wasn't his Todd. More importantly, this Todd knew nothing about the interconnectedness of the universe. Truth be told, more and more Dirk was beginning to think he didn't either.

Not here, at least.

This Todd was also still watching him, his eyebrow raised like he didn't believe a word of it.

"Missing dogs, really?" he said.

"Well, there are of course confidentiality issues," Dirk explained. "Though I did once have a case that featured a horse..."

Later, he'd probably regret his candidness. It was hard, however, to remember to keep his distance when Todd's laughter was something he had sorely missed.

Chapter Text

--------------

Five weeks prior

"Tell me again why we're here?" Todd asked after they'd purchased their tickets. He sounded annoyed, but a quick glance in his direction showed only confusion. Dirk had rather thought the answer obvious.

"Dolphins, Todd," he said as they navigated the small crowd. There was always a bottleneck. No one ever did these things out of sequence, and yet what did it matter if you saw the octopus or the pelicans first? Dirk wasn't interested in either.

A step behind and still negotiating the crowd, Todd shot him a look. Dirk recognized it instantly. It was his I'm not following because you're not making any sense so slow down and start from the beginning look. Todd had a lot of looks. Dirk was slowly memorizing all of them.

"Dolphins are important," Dirk said in an attempt to clarify his point. Todd narrowed his gaze. Now he was wearing his you're not making it better look.

Or at least, Dirk thought it was his you're not making it better look. It might have been his I have no idea why I put up with you look. Inside the darkened aquarium, with only the faint blue glow of the tanks for light, it was hard to tell. Was that to benefit the fish, Dirk wondered. Were they averse to adequate lighting? Was it like that first sunny day after a month or so of rain? Everyone sneezing and blinking, their eyes locked upon the ground?

"You've gone somewhere else again, haven't you?" Todd asked, Dirk somewhat startled to find he'd caught up and was now keeping pace at Dirk's side.

"No, I am very much in the present," Dirk replied, not at all chagrined. Todd, if his undignified snort was any indication, didn't believe him. Dirk choose to ignore this, and instead navigated them around an entwined couple held captive by the salmon display.

Come to think of it, now that the crowd had dispersed, there were a lot of couples. Lots of people holding hands. Lots of people walking with their shoulders pressed together. Dirk glanced to where Todd's shoulder brushed against his own and wondered if this was a thing couples did. Fish didn't seem particularly romantic, but then what did he know? He supposed he could ask Todd, but asking Todd would inevitably lead to an awkward conversation he didn't particularly want to have.

"I fail," Todd said, distracting Dirk from the thought, "to understand what dolphins have to do with you dragging me to the aquarium."

Dirk made a face. He was sure he made a face, though it did nothing to smooth the furrow from Todd's brow.

"This is where they keep them, isn't it?" he asked. He seemed to remember as much. Where else were they going to find a dolphin?

The look Todd shot him wasn't one he recognized, though Dirk could hazard a guess.

"This isn't Seaworld," he said. "You can't just keep a dolphin in an aquarium."

He came to an abrupt stop as he spoke, as though horrified by the idea. Dirk kept moving, overshooting him by at least half a tank before he noticed. He backtracked to where Todd was now standing, framed from behind by a fluted column filled with dozens of floating jellyfish. Against the blue light, they glowed a vibrant pink.

"Why not?" Dirk asked. This seemed a perfectly reasonable place to house a dolphin. Wasn't that rather the point of aquariums?

Todd looked decidedly unimpressed.

"Well, to begin with, dolphins are highly intelligent mammals who live in complex social groups and can travel upwards of a hundred miles per day. You can't replicate that inside an aquarium," he said, Dirk momentarily lost for words.

"You do have a lot of secret scientific knowledge!" he eventually managed.

If Todd had limits, Dirk had yet to find them. Not a single day went by where he failed to astound. Dirk couldn't begin to fathom what he'd done to get this lucky. The universe was not his friend. In fact, the universe rather hated him. Which meant Todd was either an anomaly or the most sincere apology he'd ever received.

"I just like nature documentaries, okay," Todd said, ducking his head. Dirk filed the information away for later.

"So if the dolphins aren't here, where are they?" he asked. Todd's head shot up. His expression grew somewhat incredulous.

"Um... The ocean?"

As answers went, it was a perfectly reasonable one, but Dirk still couldn't shake the intuition that this was it, the Seattle Aquarium somehow important. But if there were no dolphins, what possible connection could a dozen dolphin-faced zener cards have with a room full of exceedingly large fish tanks?

"We should still look around," Dirk said, earning one of Todd's eyerolls. Fortunately it was the fond one, so instead of feeling dejected Dirk patted him on the shoulder and then spun them back around.

He took his time this time, trying to see beyond his initial dolphin quest. He took in the tanks; the multitudes of colourful fish; the slow, steady progression of the patrons; the soft blue light of the tanks; the way the light refracted off the water, casting shimmering bands against the far wall. Nothing seemed out of place, and yet he was sure they were missing something. He was missing something.

"What am I missing?" he said aloud.

Todd brushed against his shoulder.

"Whatever it is, we've got about an hour before they start letting in families with screaming kids, so..."

Dirk glanced curiously in his direction.

"That's a strange thing to say. Why an hour?"

Todd shot him another look--there were a lot of them today. This was definitely his why do I put up with you look. He gestured around the room.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but it's date hour. No kids. They dim the lights..."

He was staring intently at Dirk now, as though Dirk were a puzzle he intended to solve. Dirk wasn't particularly fond of people associating him with puzzles, but Todd was Todd, so...

"I... ah, hadn't noticed," he said. "Although that does explain a lot."

For one brief, impossible moment, Dirk swore Todd looked disappointed. It was gone a second later, Todd back to looking somewhere between put-out and annoyed. Another trick of the light, Dirk supposed.

"Well, like I said, we've got an hour, so let's find whatever it is you're looking for and then get out of here," Todd said, starting them towards the octopus tank. Dirk scrambled to catch up, still not entirely sure what he'd missed.

Still not entirely sure if the thing he'd missed had anything to do with the case after all.

~*~

Back in the Present

"It wasn't a date," Todd said, more emphatically than perhaps he'd intended. He padded barefoot into the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge. Silence echoed from the other side of the line. Amanda, he suspected, was probably already in bed.

"You had lunch with him," Amanda said, as though that somehow meant something. Beer in hand, Todd headed back into the living room and threw himself onto the couch. He had no intentions of getting up again unless it was to fall into bed.

"It was just lunch. He caught me on my way out the door. Besides, it was the least I could do after I almost broke his hand."

He wasn't entirely sure who he was trying to convince: himself or Amanda. He wasn't in complete denial. He knew he maybe liked this guy. Probably more than he was willing to admit. Definitely more than he'd conveyed to Amanda. That she'd picked up on that was just Amanda being Amanda.

"Okay, let me ask you a question," Amanda said. Todd braced himself. "You said you ran into him outside the store."

"And?"

"So, after you guys had lunch together, did he come back with you to the store? Did he buy anything?"

Todd knew immediately what Amanda was driving at. He also knew it didn't mean what she thought it meant. Dirk was just... eccentric. Or absent minded. Or he had other plans. Just because he'd walked Todd back to the store and then said his goodbyes without setting foot inside didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't mean he was only there to see Todd.

"I think you're reading too much into this. Trust me, this guy is way out of my league," Todd said.

Light years out of his league. Dirk was... polished. Put together. He had money and a cool job and, if his recent purchases were any indication, an amazing record collection. Guys like that weren't interested in barely employed, friendless losers who still bought their clothes second hand. Hell, Dirk's jacket probably cost more than Todd's entire wardrobe.

Besides, Todd was only interested because Dirk was the first person to notice him in he couldn't remember how long. The first person who'd looked at Todd and seen something other than a half-invisible obstacle occupying space on the sidewalk. It had nothing to do with the sincerity of his smile. Or the way his eyes light up whenever he saw Todd. Or the way he talked with his hands, overly animated as he shared what was quite possibly the funniest story Todd had ever heard, even if it was blatantly untrue.

God, he was pathetic.

"Okay, let's make a deal," Amanda said, meddlesome as ever. "The next time he shows up, don't try to sell him anything. If he ends up buying something, I will never bother you about this again. If he doesn't, you have to ask him out, properly this time."

"Amanda..."

"I'm serious. You're interested in someone for the first time in forever and you're just going to let him get away?"

"I'm not interested," Todd tried, but Amanda was having none of it.

"Bullshit. You called him cute twice."

"Can we just..."

"Don't make me come up there, Todd."

He could picture her expression, the one that brooked no argument. Todd shook his head. And then registered exactly what she'd said. He pitched forward, sitting bolt upright on the couch, the beer in his hand forgotten.

"Does that mean you've thought about it?"

He hadn't wanted to ask, but he'd already lost the other apartment, the one Amanda hadn't wanted him to take. If he didn't come up with a solution soon, he was going to end up living in his battered, no longer functioning car.

"Look, you still don't have to decide right away. But if you wanted to come up, maybe just for a weekend or something, you could see if it worked for you. Like a trial or something."

He could take her out, show her the city, figure out a way to convince her this was in her best interest. Here he could look after her. Here they might have enough money to see a specialist. Here he wouldn't have to worry about moving apartments. Here he might have a chance to make amends for everything he'd done, up to and including the accident. Here he might earn forgiveness.

"On one condition," Amanda said, Todd momentarily too surprised by her agreement to respond. She cleared her throat. "I'll come up Saturday night, provided I get to meet him. I want to see this boy who's got you all out of sorts. Also, our earlier deal still stands. If he doesn't buy anything, you have to ask him out."

He should have known she'd make this difficult. Still, it was more than he'd expected, Todd perfectly willing to face rejection if it meant getting Amanda to agree to come.

"Fine," he said. "Saturday. But we're going out, and if I invite him it qualifies as me asking him out."

It was a technicality, but one he thought she could live with. He could almost picture her triumphant grin.

"Deal," she said.

Todd still wasn't sure what he'd gotten himself into, but Amanda was coming here, and that had never happened, so he wasn't going to risk overthinking this. Besides, if he played this right, it would solve both of their problems. And even if it all went to hell, at least he'd have a direction. At thirty-three, he was getting a little tired of drifting aimlessly.

~*~

"The optimal way to do this," Farah said, sounding a little like she regretted letting Dirk tag along. "Is to separate the lights from the darks. That way colours don't run and your white shirts don't turn pink."

It was sage advice. Dirk had a closet full of unwearable pink shirts back home. If only he'd gotten trapped in alternative timeline with Farah sooner.

"Whatever keeps you sane," Dirk said, tossing his red jeans into a similarly coloured load. Farah moved them to a third, less coordinated load. Dirk narrowed his gaze. Clearly there was a connection here he was missing. The nuances of laundry sorting, however, failed to keep his attention. Not while the universe continued to hand them much bigger problems.

"As I was saying, the cases are definitely connected," Dirk said, a continuation of their earlier conversation. Dolphin zener cards. Mysterious tanks. Sticky explosions. Alternate timelines. Definitely connected. If they could piece together the how Dirk was certain he could set things right.

"Not that I disagree," Farah said, securing the lightest load inside one of the washers. "But is this a hunch, or...?"

She sounded genuinely hopeful, Dirk oddly touched by her show of faith. He hated to disappoint.

"No, not a hunch," Dirk said. He hadn't had one of those in a very long time. "But I was talking to Todd at lunch and..."

"Wait, what?"

Farah was staring at him now, the cup of laundry soap in her hand seemingly forgotten. Dirk frowned at her puzzlement.

"Lunch with Todd, and while we were talking I realized that in order to solve our current case we needed to go back and solve the original case."

Farah's expression didn't change.

"The dolphin cards," Dirk said, surprised she needed the reminder.

Farah shook her head. "Can we go back to the part where you had lunch with Todd. When was this?"

"Oh, this afternoon," Dirk said. Farah's mouth pressed into a thin line. Dirk knew the look. It wasn't a good look. In fact, it was her less than impressed was probably going to lecture him look.

"O....kay. Can I ask why you had lunch with Todd?"

Dirk had never been very good at conversation. Oh, it wasn't the talking--the talking he had down to an art--but conversations rarely tended to move in directions that made any sense to him. He had no idea why Farah was so caught up on the lunch thing, especially not when the case was beginning to unravel.

"He... invited me?" Dirk said, not entirely sure it was what she wanted to hear. Farah's eyes grew unnaturally wide. Dirk drew back a step.

"He invited you?"

Dirk narrowed his gaze. "Yes... Is that... bad?"

Was it? He knew Farah unlikely to approve, but he had lunch with Todd all the time, back in their timeline at least. In fact, he did most things with Todd. Aside from the fact that he returned to his apartment each night they practically lived together. Why should that be any different here? Just because they didn't technically know each other. Just because Dirk was a perfect stranger who...

"Dirk," Farah said in her most serious tone. Dirk gave her his immediate attention.

"I know this isn't my place, but until we can figure this out, I think it would be best if you... refrained from dating Todd."

It took several seconds for her words to filter through. Dirk turned them over in his mind. That she hadn't wanted him revealing too much to Todd she'd made clear, but this he suspected was something else entirely.

"I... That's not... I wouldn't..."

Wouldn't he? Dirk tried to think. In their timeline, maybe. Granted, in their timeline Todd hadn't shown a third of the interest he'd show here. Not that this Todd was interested. At least, not in the way Farah had implied. This Todd was different, certainly, though in understandable, easily traceable ways. A bit more open. A bit more friendly. Though hardly anything that would warrant calling their lunch a date.

"I don't think that's what happened," Dirk said, more forcefully than perhaps he'd intended. Farah's mouth pressed into a thin line.

"My point," Dirk continued, "is that whoever sent us those cards wanted us to find that tank, and whatever was in that tank is pivotal to us solving this case."

"So how do we do that?" Farah asked, Todd seemingly forgotten. Dirk pushed aside a swell of unexpected relief.

"We start at the beginning," he said.

Farah didn't look convinced, but then, she didn't look unconvinced either. Dirk took that as agreement. He smiled. This was going to work. All they had to do was restart the original case, preferably from scratch.

First, though, they were going to finish laundry.

~*~

Todd needed new strings.

Actually, at this point he needed a new guitar, the one in his hands having seen better days. He'd bought it second hand at the tail end of highschool, the best he could afford, though given that he'd scrimped allowance money to pay for it, that wasn't saying much.

Steve Voss, drummer for The Mexican Funeral, once said it looked like something Todd's mom had found at a garage sale. Todd had hit him for it. Not hard, but they'd never really mended the rift between them. Todd wondered sometimes if Steve was part of the reason he'd sold the band's equipment without a second thought, starting with Steve's drum kit. Then again, that might have been Sarah, who'd slept her way through the band and then laughed at Todd for being the worst among them. Come to think of it, he was surprised the band had lasted as long as it did. In hindsight, it was probably doomed from the start. Certainly it shouldn't have taken a drug overdose to make that clear.

And yet here he was hanging on to the stupid thing, carrying it around in its protective case, placing it onto its stand each night, like it was something worthy of reverence, like any day now Todd was going to pick it up and start chasing a dream that had, realistically, died a decade ago.

God, he really was pathetic. Why Amanda thought he'd ever stand a chance with a guy like Dirk...

She'd almost convinced him, he realized. Had almost convinced him to put himself out there on the off chance their connection was something more than just acquaintanceship. But just because seeing Dirk felt like finding something he hadn't realized he'd lost didn't mean there was anything there. At least, nothing that wasn't one-sided.

He was tempted to call her back, renege on their earlier conversation, his earlier promise. But that would mean her reneging on hers, and more than anything he wanted her here. For her sake he'd try, even knowing how it was likely to end. In another universe, things might have been different. In another universe Dirk might have agreed. In another universe Todd might have brought him home; stood on his toes and...

Except, Todd very much doubted a universe existed where Dirk might reciprocate. It was hard to imagine any Todd being so lucky. Amanda was wrong, and if Todd had to embarrass himself to prove that, well, at least he'd still have her. That was, provided she forgave him for all the shitty things he'd done.

First things first, he had to get her here. After that, he could work on starting to make things right.