Chapter 1: In a Sentimental Mood
Artwork included in the chapter by the incredible kyokosayuki. Words do not exist to adequately express my gratitude. I am unworthy of such beauty. Thank you again, a million times over. Please stop by her tumblr to tell her how amazing she is. And while you're there, reblog or like the original image because it truly is a masterpiece.
Aspacenerd has also done artwork for this fic, which can be found here. Thank you so much for these gorgeous pieces. I'm flattered beyond words.
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 four 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
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 2: Take The Coltrane
"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.
"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 3: Big Nick
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.
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 4: Stevie
"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."
"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."
"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..."
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.
Chapter 5: My Little Brown Book
Farah stared at the police report on her screen. It wasn't easy to come by, but now that she had it, she couldn't tell if it clarified things or complicated them. Dirk's assurances aside, Farah didn't have his knack for this. She didn't even have Todd's knack for this. Her skillset, though useful in its own right, did not extend to complex puzzles that made little to no sense even when they were written, in sequence, on a white board.
Or in this case the bristol boards she'd taped to the wall.
The first board held their lists, Things that are the Same decidedly sparse. Picking up a pen, Farah wrote, Cause of accident: drunk driver. Lux Dejour charged at scene under the heading, Things that are Not.
What did it mean? She'd managed to wrap her head around time machines and shark explosions and Lydia being a dog, but this? This was too much, even for Dirk.
The new board, the one she'd taped to the wall yesterday morning, now held a chronological timeline of the original case. Each step Dirk had taken was written down in sequence. Farah could find no connection between the original case and anything they'd written under Things that are Not. From her vantage point, their list was a series of random, seemingly disconnected events. Only Dirk's presence suggested otherwise.
"Your next step," Dirk said, drawing Farah from the thought. He'd emerged from the utility closet, damp hair perfectly styled, as though he'd somehow found the time and money for a trip to the barber shop. His cheeks were far too smooth for someone who showered inside a utility sink. He was also wearing only an undershirt and briefs.
Farah waited, but after a minute it became clear Dirk had no intentions of finishing his thought. He did that sometimes. Started a conversation and then let it drift, Farah left to work out the details on her own.
"You need to see something," she told him. Whatever wisdom Dirk intended to impart could wait.
"Oh?" Dirk asked. He crossed to where she stood, her back now facing the boards. Dirk read them over her shoulder. His eyes widened dramatically.
"Lux Dejour?" he said, somewhat incredulously.
"I'm going to guess that's not a coincidence," Farah said. Dirk made the strangest face. Farah interpreted it as him not having an answer.
"I managed to get my hands on a copy of the police report," she told him. "Amanda and her parents were hit by a drunk driver. Their car flipped. Amanda's parents were killed on impact, but Amanda was trapped in the backseat. The gas tank blew. The driver who hit them was Lux Dejour. He'd run a red light and had a blood alcohol content of point one two. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter and served three out of a five year sentence."
She'd wandered back over to her laptop as she spoke, leaving Dirk staring at the boards, still in his underwear.
"I pulled everything I could on Dejour. I... I never followed his music, but it doesn't look like he ever went missing."
"Of course," Dirk said, like it all made considerable sense. He turned to face her. Several seconds passed before he seemed to work out what he was going to say. Farah waited.
"We already know there isn't a Patrick Spring, which means Zachariah Webb either didn't build a time machine or didn't accidentally send one back. In that case, the Men of the Machine didn't find a soul swapper and hence didn't steal the body of Lux Dejour. Which means Gordon Rimmer, who was Lux Dejour, who was whoever he started as, didn't jump into Gordon Rimmer, which meant Lux Dejour was never buried under that house and hence had the disadvantage of growing old and joining the seemingly endless legion of washed-out rock stars who inevitably end up battling drug or alcohol dependency."
To her surprise, Farah followed his line of reasoning exactly.
"So... Patrick... Or Zachariah Webb is where this all starts?" Farah asked. Again, Dirk made a face.
"I'm not entirely sure. But obviously Zachariah Webb had to send his time machine back in order for Todd and I to have met. Apparently he also needed to send his time machine back in order to prevent Todd's parents death. But why him? And that still doesn't explain half the other changes we've documented."
Farah followed his gaze back to the boards, to where Alexei Leonov, first man on moon was written under Things that are Not, right under, no information on pararibulitis.
"Either way," Dirk said, "we still need to start from the beginning."
"You're going to need to be more specific," Farah said, still not following. Dirk gestured vaguely.
"Todd and I went to the aquarium. You conducted preliminary field research. You need to replicate that research, otherwise we won't spot what we've missed."
He moved as he spoke, crossing to where his shirts, now clean, hung on the back of a chair.
"O... Okay." Farah failed to understand how this was meant to help. The first time around she'd hit nothing but dead ends. A search for the dolphin icon had turned up nothing. She'd pulled surveillance from around the neighbourhood, hoping to spot the person who'd delivered the cards. Nothing. She'd even tried tracing the cards to their manufacturer. Again, nothing.
"Dirk," she said as Dirk began buttoning his shirt. "I don't mean to question your... methodology. It's just... I'm just not sure... I mean, I question if this is the best... approach."
Nothing about any of this seemed even remotely efficient.
"The aquarium is important," Dirk said. Farah tried very hard not to roll her eyes. A lot of things were important in Dirk's world.
"Okay, but... The first time you went, did you find anything?"
Finishing the last of his buttons, Dirk now turned his attention to selecting a tie. He settled on the dark blue one, patterned with tiny yellow pineapples. Farah meditated on the importance of patience.
"Well, no, not the first time."
"So... why..." Farah gestured. Words were hard sometimes. She didn't want to hurt Dirk's feelings, but she also didn't want to end up trapped here any longer than necessary.
They were already midway through their fifth week.
"I have to recreate the steps. If I don't do it exactly like we did it before I'll miss the changes. There's something I'm missing. Something big. Something important."
She'd known him almost a year at this point, long enough to trust his intuitions, but this was the first time she'd ever seen him uncertain. It was... mildly disconcerting.
"So the plan is to go back to the aquarium with the intention of not finding anything?"
Dirk's eyes lit up. A wide smile spread across his face.
"Exactly," he said.
Farah wasn't entirely sure why she was surprised.
"Should I... come with you?"
"No," Dirk said, quite emphatically. He met her gaze. "I have to go with Todd."
Farah's eyebrows shot skyward. Dirk appeared momentarily taken aback.
"Todd was with me the first time. He has to be there now."
She had... objections. They were many and varied, and while Farah was certain any she brought up would be dismissed, she would be remiss if she didn't voice them.
"I'm not sure dragging Todd into the middle of a case is the best idea."
Contrary to looking concerned, Dirk brightened considerably. If anything, he looked a little smug.
"Oh, don't worry," he said. "I have no intentions of telling him it's for a case."
Having once been charged with the care and keeping of a teenager, one would think she would have been prepared for dealing with the eccentricities that came with the care and keeping of Dirk. This, however, was not the case. Whereas Lydia's motives were always clear and easily countered, Dirk's motives seemed entirely lacking, his actions as random and chaotic as the universe itself.
"So... When I told you you should refrain from dating Todd, you interpreted that as permission to start... dating Todd?"
Now, at least, Dirk looked startled. His mouth opened and closed several times before he found his words.
"That's not what I... I didn't mean..."
Farah forced herself to take deep, steadying breaths.
"Look, Dirk... I trust you. I do. But I haven't seen Amanda in almost five weeks, because she doesn't know who I am, so you can forgive me for being a little confused. I'm having a... difficult time understanding how you spending time with Todd is going to help us get home."
She could count on one hand the number of times she'd rendered him speechless. This was one of them. He looked positively stricken. Farah felt a little like she'd just kicked someone's puppy.
"I'm sorry," she said, because she really, really was. "You didn't deserve that. I'm just... tired and frustrated, and a general mess because we've been here for weeks and I miss Amanda and my guns and... showering. But it's fine. It's fine."
"No it's alright," Dirk said. "You have every right to be upset. And I'm sorry this is taking so long, but I promise you, I will figure this out. We're going to get Amanda and Todd back, and we are going to get home."
He said it with such conviction it was hard to remember his hunches didn't seem to work here. Regardless, she believed him.
"Okay," she said, because at least it was a plan. "You go to the aquarium. I'll see if I can't figure out what we missed the first time around."
The answer, she suspected, was nothing, but Dirk didn't need to hear that. Shooting him what she hoped was a confident smile, Farah turned back to the boards. At the very least she could rule out the same things she'd ruled out before. It might not get them anywhere, but it would at least give her something to add to their first list, Things that are the Same in dire need of a new entry.
Every so often someone came into the store who knew what they were doing. Todd liked these customers best. These were the customers who handled the records with care, reverence even. They were the ones who breathed deep the moment they stepped into the store. They cared as much about the cover art as they did the condition of the vinyl. That was something Todd could appreciate. It was what made him think maybe this was a place he belonged.
But then there was everyone else. These people were only here because collecting records was trendy. They chose cover art based on how it would look splashed across their Instagram page. They cared less about the music and more about the condition of the cellophane wrapper. Todd hated these people.
Unfortunately, the ratio was an uneven 10-90 split. Most days Todd was half convinced this job was going to end in homicide.
His bad mood had nothing to do with Dirk Gently.
It had nothing to do with the absence of Dirk Gently either.
It was just... What kind of person had lunch with someone and then just disappeared. There were weeks Dirk didn't miss a single day. Weeks Todd could set his watch to Dirk's arrival. And now here he was, two days later and no Dirk. The asshole probably had better things to do. Things that weren't Todd because lunch was probably horribly awkward, only Todd hadn't realized it and now Dirk wasn't going to come back because why would he?
He shouldn't have listened to Amanda. He definitely shouldn't have let her convince him that he stood a chance. He should have just lied and told her he'd asked and Dirk had said no and that would have been that. God, he was an idiot.
Across the room, the door chimed. If it was another hipster, Todd swore he was going to strangle someone.
The shock of spotting Dirk's familiar jacket jarred him from the thought. Todd practically fell off his stool in his scramble to get to his feet. By the time he'd righted himself Dirk was peering over the counter, looking as bemused as he did concerned. Todd offered a somewhat sheepish smile.
"Hey," he managed.
"Todd. Hi," Dirk said, smiling. He was back in a shirt and tie today, his yellow jacket looking a little worse for wear. For some reason Todd found it oddly reassuring, Dirk maybe not as put together as he'd first assumed.
"You weren't here yesterday," Todd said, and then immediately wished he hadn't. He scrambled for an explanation. "I mean, we had a good haul come in. There was some stuff you might have liked. I think there might be a few things left. If you want I can pull them out."
So much for the promise he'd made Amanda. If ever the floor was going to open up and swallow him, now would be the ideal time.
"Actually, that's not why I'm here," Dirk said, Todd too taken aback to notice the nervous edge of his smile. By the time his lungs started working again, Dirk was staring at him expectantly.
His brain scrambled for a way to interpret Dirk's words in a way that didn't involve wishful thinking. Maybe Todd had short changed him. Maybe Dirk was here to ask for Todd's share of the tip they'd left their waitress. Maybe there was something wrong with one of the records he'd bought. Maybe he'd lost his wallet and was hoping Todd had it in the lost and found.
"Um... okay," Todd said, feigning a casualness he didn't feel. Dirk cleared his throat. He shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot. Todd's breath caught at the sight.
"I was wondering," Dirk said, Todd's heart now racing in his chest. "I haven't yet seen the Seattle Aquarium, and I've heard it's... informative. I thought perhaps you might like to accompany me."
It took Todd several seconds to process what Dirk was asking, and then several more to process the implications. Because it sounded a lot like Dirk was asking him out, and that was impossible.
Except, Dirk was still staring at him, looking nowhere near as sure of himself as he had a moment before. Todd blinked.
This was where he should probably answer. Where he should accept Dirk's invitation because holy shit Dirk was asking him out. Amanda was right, unless Todd was dreaming, which was entirely possible because stuff like this didn't happen to him in the real world. Except that apparently it had, and it was probably important that he give Dirk an answer because Dirk was looking increasingly awkward like he had no idea Todd was interested and was maybe even worried Todd might reject him and...
Todd still couldn't get his mouth to work.
"Clearly, if you're busy, that's fine. I don't want to impose. But they have some nice salmon, and, oh, and jellyfish. No dolphins, though, obviously. I've heard American aquariums are moving away from keeping captive dolphins, which I suppose is wise. After all, 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 gave a little laugh as he spoke, Todd momentarily caught by a sense of deja vu. It was jarring enough for his mouth to finally catch up with his brain.
"Yeah. Okay. I'd like that," he said, feeling utterly pathetic. The widening of Dirk's smile suggested he didn't agree.
"Oh, excellent," he said, sounding thoroughly pleased. Todd's heart began doing strange things in his chest. He felt a little lightheaded.
"Um..." Todd tried, still at a loss for words. "I'm done at six," he finally managed. Dirk's gaze grew narrow. He glanced from Todd to the door and then back again, as though he'd fully intended for them to go immediately; as though it hadn't occurred to him that Todd still had to work.
Were it not for Amanda, Todd might have considered quitting his job.
"Oh, right. Yes," Dirk finally said. "Shall we say seven?" I can meet you here, or there, or I could come to your apartment. I mean, assuming you have an apartment. Obviously I don't know where you live."
He gave another laugh, this one decidedly nervous. Todd wouldn't admit it to anyone, but he found the entire display somewhat charming. It felt strangely natural, too, as thought Dirk rambling aimlessly was what he was meant to be doing, as though all the times Todd had felt the need to fill the silence Dirk should have been talking. Todd smiled.
"Seven's good, and I can meet you there. My place is kind of out of the way."
It wasn't, but Todd wasn't entirely sure he trusted himself to have Dirk in his apartment. Not yet, anyway, though he was probably getting ahead of himself--and really, what the hell was wrong with him? It also highlighted a potential flaw in his plan to have Amanda come live with him. Clearly they'd need something bigger. Something with two bedrooms, possibly a long corridor between.
"Seven it is," Dirk said, still standing in the middle of the store. He held Todd's gaze for a long minute after, his expression unreadable. Todd was tempted to ask, but by the time he'd convinced his mouth to start working again, Dirk had pivoted on his heel and was heading towards there door. There he paused only long enough to turn and give a brief wave. Todd returned it. The fluttering in his chest moved to his stomach. He waited until Dirk was safely out of sight before permitting himself a small smile. Amanda would probably make fun of him for it, but Todd couldn't find it in him to care. He had a date.
Her parents' bedroom was an empty, hollow space. All of their belongings, save the actual furniture, had been cleared out. That wasn't Amanda's decision. All of that had happened while she was still in hospital, Amanda coming home to an empty house; to the skeletal remains of a once vibrant life.
Only her and Todd's rooms were untouched. Amanda remembered coming home that first night, her arms still wrapped in bandages. She'd stood in the middle of her room and stared at the posters on her walls, girlish posters, boybands and actors and too many shades of pink. She'd screamed as she ripped them down, yelling until her voice grew hoarse and Todd appeared inside her doorway, dark circles cut beneath his eyes.
He'd stayed with her a year. She'd told him she would be fine when he left. She'd meant it.
Most of the time, she kept the door to her parents' room closed. Today it was open. Today she stood inside the threshold, staring at the four poster bed that occupied the centre of the room. Its mattress was bare. The thought of never seeing it again no longer filled her with dread.
How long had it been since she'd last left the house? She couldn't remember. Months maybe. She might even be tipping into a year. Not since the last time she'd walked down to the pharmacy, Todd at work and Amanda in desperate need of pills. Even wearing her long sleeves, everyone had stared.
And Todd wanted her to move to the city. He wanted her to come and stay with him. To walk past the corner where it happened. To have people stop her in the street and ask what had happened to her hands. To be out in public when the pain stole her breath and knocked her to her knees, her entire world lost to remembered flames.
"It's just a night," she told herself. She could do this. She'd been to Todd's apartment before. She was fine then and she would be fine now. Besides, she couldn't remember the last time Todd had been interested in anyone, Amanda beyond curious to see this Dirk Gently guy for herself.
Pulling her phone from her pocket, Amanda dialed Todd's number. He picked up after the third ring.
Ten years prior
The room they'd left him in was meant to be soundproof. Acoustic tiles adorned the walls; thick carpeting covered the ceiling and floor. The absence of white noise, however, only amplified the blood rushing in his head. It pulsed in time to his heartbeat, the steady thrumming worse than the metronome they'd moved into his room.
"Emershan," Dr. Coleridge's voice came over the intercom. Emershan stared stubbornly at the blue tile set before him. His hands gripped the edges of the table, not fear, but anger, Emershan no longer a frightened child.
He didn't answer.
"Emershan," Dr. Coleridge said again. "We've already been through this. I know you can change the tile. I'm not asking you to do anything you haven't already done."
Of course she wasn't. That wasn't the point. Even at seventeen he knew this. She wanted repeatable results. The experiment was worthless if she couldn't replicate it. Emershan ought to know. He'd spent the last six years her subject.
"If this is too difficult, we can take a break," Dr. Coleridge continued, not bothering to hide her disapproval. Emershan heard what she wasn't saying. He knew what waited for him if he failed.
"You should be careful," he said, well aware they were all listening. Every one of them, the cameras in his booth feeding into the observation room. "Instead of changing the tile, I might get rid of you."
How far back would he need to go? The universe was chaos, but it was synchronized. Things doubled up, endless mirrors hung with endless strings. Plucking those strings was easy, but the further back he went the more tangled they became. Too far back and he might unravel the whole. Changing a tile was easy. A single step. Removing Coleridge from existence...
Emershan focused on the tile before him. Blue became red. Someday, he thought. Someday.
Chapter 6: Angelica
The author has taken tremendous liberties with respect to the hours of operations at the Seattle Aquarium. Reality be damned.
Todd cradled his phone between his shoulder and his ear as he fumbled for his keys. The lock was tricky. He doubted anyone had replaced it in years. For all he knew, it was the original.
"Sorry, what?" he asked, finally getting inside. He threw his keys onto the bookshelf next to the door and let his bag slide to the floor. A quick glance into the kitchen showed the time. 6:03. He had, at best, fifteen minutes before he was due to catch his bus.
"I guess I was just thinking about what you said, and, I don't know. Maybe you're right."
It was hard to focus on what Amanda was saying when he was still trying to work out what he should wear. God, when the last time he did laundry? He had on ripped jeans and a flannel shirt. Was that aquarium appropriate? Would Dirk expect him to change?
"Wait, go back. What do you mean get for the place?" Todd asked, only then registering Amanda's initial words.
"Would it be enough?" Amanda said. "If we sold the house, would we have enough for me to... I don't know, see someone?"
Of all the things he'd expected Amanda to say. Of all the reasons he'd expected her to call. Todd stood, frozen midway between the door and the kitchen, his phone pressed to his ear. He really didn't have time for this, and yet...
"Yeah, yeah, I think so," he said. "I mean, I think we could get a lot for it. It's in a decent neighbourhood, and real estate values have gone up considerably since mom and dad bought the place."
He had no idea of that was actually true, but it sounded good. More importantly it sounded like something someone would say to convince someone to sell their house.
"I don't know... It's just..."
Todd glanced again to the clock. If he took a cab he could push back his leave time, maybe gain an extra fifteen minutes. It still wasn't long enough for the conversation he suspected Amanda needed to have. That left him with two options. Putting her off, or standing up Dirk.
"Look, Amanda. I really want to talk about this. But I think this is a conversation we should have in person, you know, when you're here."
God, he was such an asshole.
"Wait," Amanda said. He had no idea where in the house she was, but he could picture her straightening, attention piqued. "You don't want to talk about this now?"
Todd sighed. This was so stupid. What was he doing? He barely even knew Dirk.
"I just... I don't really have a lot of time right now," he admitted. There was a long pause from Amanda's side of the line.
"Since when do you not have time?" she asked. As much as Todd hated it, she had a point.
"I just... I have plans tonight."
Her finding out was inevitable, he just wished it had happened later rather than sooner.
"You have plans?" she said, incredulous. Todd grit his teeth.
"I can have plans," he said, trying and failing to keep from sounding defensive.
"Dude." Amanda sounded far too excited. Todd braced himself. "You asked him out, didn't you? And he said yes, didn't he?"
He could almost picture the bouncing. He stole another glance at the clock.
"Actually, he asked me out," Todd said, and was then promptly forced to pull the phone away from his ear to avoid Amanda's screeching. It went on for a good thirty seconds, during which he carried her into the bathroom.
"Shit, dude, I told you. I fucking told you. Oh, I so have to meet this guy."
Now standing in front of the mirror, Todd stared at the dry watermarked outline of his reflection. He brought his hand up to rub absently at his scruff.
"Look," he said. "Can we talk about this later? I have to meet him in like an hour and it's forty-five minutes by bus."
"Yeah, dude, of course," Amanda said. "Call me the second you get home. Unless he comes home with you, in which case call me tomorrow."
Todd didn't roll his eyes, but it was a near thing.
"Also," Amanda continued. "Wear the jean jacket. It looks good on you."
This time Todd didn't bother suppressing an eye roll, though she did have a point. It was a cool jacket, and he did look good in it. In fact, he probably had a clean t-shirt laying around. Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. That was aquarium appropriate.
"Thanks. I'll call you later," he told her before disconnecting the call. It left him with precious little time, but at least now he had a plan.
A plan and a date, Todd still not entirely sure what to do with that, and yet, for the first time since Dirk had asked, his excitement was beginning to outpace his nervousness. He was starting to think this might end up being a lot of fun.
Feeling optimistic for perhaps the first time in years, Todd offered his reflection a faint smile, and then went in search of a new shirt.
The clock on the microwave read 6:13.
He wasn't entirely sure why he was nervous. He'd been out with Todd before. He'd been to the aquarium with Todd before. Maybe it was the almost five weeks he'd spent not seeing Todd every day. Certainly that was the hardest part of all of this, though Farah did have a point. Keeping in contact with Todd was important, and had proved useful. Stalking Todd, however, was an act of self indulgence.
Dirk clasped and then unclasped his hands. He tried stuffing them into his pockets. Eventually he let them settle at his sides. 7:08. Still no Todd.
Would Todd stand him up?
Not his Todd, he didn't think, his Todd very respectful of other people's time. Then again his Todd didn't really have any other obligations outside of the detective agency, so Dirk really didn't spend a lot of time waiting for him. There was, he supposed, that one time he spent three weeks waiting for Todd to show up and break him out of CIA custody, but it was hardly Todd's fault it had taken so long and, besides, Dirk was still relatively surprised Todd had come at all. Most people wouldn't have. Then again, Todd did a lot of things most people wouldn't, his sense of self preservation, whatever he might say, about on par with Dirk's.
It was honestly a surprise either of them had survived this long.
7:09. Still no Todd.
Dirk glanced back towards the aquarium doors. Should he go in by himself? Would this even work without Todd here? He honestly didn't know. At this point he was more or less flying by the seat of his trousers.
Granted, that wasn't too different from what he did most days, except that here there were no telltale hunches to point him in the right direction. In his timeline, something would undoubtedly happen, the universe providing some sort of sign, something that would point him towards his next course of action. Here there was only the chaotic swirl of everyday existence. It wasn't at all helpful.
"Dirk, hey," someone shouted from behind him. Dirk turned to find Todd sprinting towards him. Well, perhaps not sprinting. Jogging was maybe the better word. Either way, it had left him a bit flustered and a lot out of breath, both considerably good looks on him. Dirk found himself smiling widely, his stomach fluttering somewhat incomprehensibly at the sight.
"Todd, you made it. I wasn't sure," he admitted. Todd, who was still struggling to catch his breath, averted his gaze.
"Sorry I'm a bit late. I missed the first bus and had to wait for the second."
He fiddled nervously with his jacket as he spoke, Dirk only then realizing it was the Mexican Funeral one, the one destroyed by Patrick Spring's electric ghost rhino. Dirk smiled at the sight.
"That's quite alright, you're here now. Shall we?" Dirk said, and for one brief moment the universe aligned, Dirk struck by his first sense of rightness since all of this began.
It was so shocking he came dangerously close to tripping over his own feet. Todd, who was now following him towards the doors, glanced over, a brief flicker of concern lighting his features. Dirk offered a reassuring smile.
At this hour, the aquarium was quite dead. The woman behind the counter sold him two tickets with the barest minimum of glances. Dirk pulled the last of Farah's cash from his pocket, the once thick stack of American twenties now dangerously thin.
Todd appeared at his shoulder.
"I can get my own ticket," he said, still avoiding Dirk's gaze. He fumbled for his wallet.
"Nonsense," Dirk said. He'd paid the last time, which meant he had to pay this time as well. The universe demanded it. Granted, the last time had qualified as a business expense, though he supposed this might as well. Dirk frowned. Should he be saving receipts? Did receipts generated in another dimension qualify as tax deductible? Either way, it was important that he paid, so Dirk removed two twenties from his dwindling stack and placed them on the counter.
So far everything was going according to plan.
Well, for as much as there was a plan, anyway. He supposed he ought to have one. Especially given that most of his plans consisted of following impulse and instinct until it led him to where he needed to go and that wasn't going to happen here. Except, he was still feeling that sense of rightness, so maybe it was. Maybe he'd only needed to bring Todd back to the aquarium to find it. Maybe the universe had been waiting for him to make this connection. Maybe...
"This is so weird," Todd said as they moved past the ticket counter and into the aquarium proper. Without a crowd to navigate, he kept pace easily at Dirk's side.
"Weird how?" Dirk asked. He scanned ahead as he spoke, though as far as he could tell the aquarium was an exact replica of the one back in their world.
"I don't know... I just... I feel like I've been here before, except I'm pretty sure I haven't."
That gave Dirk pause, so much so that he stopped in front of the salmon display and turned to stare in Todd's direction. When Todd glanced over, he was frowning.
"What about when you were a kid?" Dirk asked. Todd shook his head.
"I don't think so, but I guess I must have..."
A growing sense of excitement built in Dirk's chest. This was something new. Possibly something important. Dirk was tempted to ask if the sense of familiarity extended to him.
"Anyway, sorry. It's just weird, like deja vu I guess."
Dirk let that churn in his head for a bit, so long in fact that Todd's expression eventually grew concerned.
"You know," he said, without really thinking, "they say deja vu is a glimpse of another life."
Of all the idiotic things that had come out of his mouth. Honestly, he could kick himself.
"What, like past lives?" Todd asked, sounding amused. "You don't believe in that crap, do you?"
Dirk gave a nervous laugh of relief.
"Of course not," he said, smiling. Parallel universes, on the other hand...
Todd shot him a look, one that suggested he thought Dirk might be full of it. Dirk started them walking again. The first time around they'd done much the same, Dirk still hoping for something to chart his course. He wasn't expecting anything this time around, which meant he was free to catalogue the changes, searching not for something that might constitute a clue, but rather for something that seemed out of place. Todd kept a quiet pace at his side.
"You know," Todd said, as they left the first building and headed out into the seabird exhibit. "I don't think I ever would have thought to come here, but it is kind of cool."
The statement gave Dirk pause, though not because it was a profoundly un-Todd-like thing to say. Todd could be incredibly open about such things when he wanted to be. But the first time around Todd had grumbled and maybe looked a little annoyed, if not outright upset, and to this day Dirk wasn't entirely sure why. This Todd looked like he was actually having fun. This Todd looked strangely happy.
Somewhere in all of that he realized he was staring at Todd, not out of the corner of his eye, but quite openly. Framed by the soft blue light that Dirk would now forever associate with aquariums, Todd looked decidedly content. A tad nervous, perhaps, possibly a little excited, but content in a way Dirk wasn't sure he'd ever seen him. It was somewhat breathtaking.
It struck him then that Farah might have had a point. That his motives for this weren't entirely altruistic.
And yet, it was so easy to imagine. To pretend for a moment that he and Todd had met under different circumstances. To imagine, for reasons Dirk couldn't begin to fathom, that Todd actually liked him. That he wanted to spend time with him, to accompany him to aquariums and lunch and places that didn't involve cases or the agency. That Todd actually saw something in him no one else ever had. Something Dirk wasn't even entirely sure was there.
To imagine how easy it would be to reach down and take Todd's hand.
"I don't exactly go out much," Todd was saying. Dirk balled his hands into fists to keep from doing something stupid.
"Me either," he offered instead.
Todd glanced over then, a bright smile lighting up his features. Dirk tried to remember what it was they were supposed to be doing.
Whatever it was, he was certain it didn't involve smiling stupidly in Todd's general direction--Dirk was usually fairly good at suppressing that impulse--though it still took him several seconds to remember where they were, and, more importantly, what they should be doing. Tearing his gaze from Todd's, Dirk glanced ahead, only then realizing they'd reached the stairs that led into the underground level.
They'd made it this far the first time around: had stood under the glass dome and stared up at hundreds upon hundreds of fish. That wasn't what held his attention now. What held his attention now was the service door at the bottom of the stairs, the one Farah and him had found, the one that had led them to finding the strangely marked tank; the tank that had brought them here.
The door that was currently opening.
A man appeared from inside, his jumpsuit clearly marking him as an aquarium employee. Having been through the door, Dirk knew it led behind the scenes, to where pumps and filters and plumbing jumbled together in seemingly chaotic ways. Any other day he might have dismissed the door as coincidence, but there was something about the man, something...
Not familiar, but... Oh. Oh, it was hunch. It had been so long he'd almost forgotten. Whoever that man was, wherever he'd come from, Dirk was meant to spot him. He was meant to see this connection. He knew that without a doubt, so much so that a high pitched noise escaped his throat, both Todd and the man glancing in his direction.
The man met his gaze, dark eyes growing impossible wide. A brief flicker of recognition passed over his features. And then, to Dirk's complete and utter bafflement, he bolted. Without thinking, Dirk reached down and took hold of Todd's loose hand.
"Come on," he said on impulse.
The man had retreated back the way he'd come, the service door falling closed behind him. Sprinting down a set of stairs while dragging Todd by the hand was somewhat difficult, though to Todd's credit neither of them fell. They reached the door mere seconds before it latched shut, Dirk shooting Todd a triumphant grin as he caught it in time. Todd's wide eyed stare vaguely resembled that of a blinking owl. Dirk pulled them through the door.
The corridor beyond was exactly as he remembered it, lined on one side by dozens of blue and yellow pipes. There was no sign of the man, but Dirk remembered this well enough to know where it led. Dropping Todd's hand, he started them down the corridor.
"Um, Dirk," Todd said, Dirk turning to find Todd still standing against the now closed door, his expression somewhat dumbfounded. "I don't think we're supposed to be back here," he finished.
There were a few ways Dirk could answer that, though his brain was only just catching up with the situation. Strange how easy it was to fall into previous patterns, Dirk so used to dragging Todd along--and Todd always came willingly--that it was hard to remember that this Todd wasn't his Todd.
"This is going to sound a bit strange," Dirk said, well aware he was short on time. "But that man we saw... I need to follow him."
It shouldn't have been impossible, but Todd's eyes grew wider still.
"Why?" he asked. Frustrated, Dirk glanced over his shoulder. The man was nowhere in sight.
"Hunch?" he tried. Todd's expression didn't change.
"Wait, is this... Are you working a case?"
He still seemed taken aback, though perhaps not as confused as he was before. Dirk wasn't above seizing the opportunity. Anything to get them moving, this the first break he'd had... well, since arriving.
"Yes, sorry. I really wasn't expecting... But we need to follow that man, and I can't really explain why."
Todd still looked conflicted--and possibly a little suspicious. He glanced to the door, and then back to Dirk, gaze narrow like he was trying to work something out. Eventually he gave a half-hearted nod. Good enough, Dirk thought, and started them off again. This time he could hear Todd scrambling to keep up.
Not that there was any point in it, the corridor ahead remaining stubbornly empty. Every room they came across was the same, and the further they went the more disconnected he became, until the hunch that had led to him grabbing Todd's hand faded away entirely. The entire time, Todd trailed in his wake, not quite keeping up, but not falling behind either. Dirk could feel the weight of his gaze boring into the back of his head. He did his best to ignore a growing sense of unease.
Eventually the corridor led them to the one place Dirk wasn't particularly ready to go, though here the strange room with the tank was now a veterinary surgery, the space where the tank had once sat now occupied by an examination table. Dirk searched the room, acutely aware of Todd's scrutiny; of the thin press of Todd's lips. After the third drawer of sterile bandages, Dirk gave up and returned them to the hall.
Everything beyond the surgery was new to him. He followed the corridor until it opened into a large room filled with what he suspected were probably pumps. At the far end of the room there was a single door, this with an exit sign lit above it. Dirk started towards it. Todd was still keeping pace, though his steps had slowed considerably and when Dirk glanced over he found Todd's features had darkened. This, at least, was familiar, Todd wearing a similar expression the first time around. Upon reaching the door, Dirk opened it slowly, half expecting an alarm, but there was only the slight chill of the rapidly cooling evening air. Dirk stepped out onto the pier that ran behind the building. Todd followed after.
"What the hell, Dirk?" Todd said, speaking for the first time since all of this began. He was staring at Dirk like he didn't quite know who Dirk was anymore. The familiar set of his jaw suggested he was angry.
"Sorry about that," Dirk said, by now used to Todd's anger. He turned in a slow circle as he spoke, still half hoping to catch sight of the man, but aside from a handful of tourists, the pier was empty.
"No, that's not..." Dirk knew Todd better than anyone he'd ever known, and yet there was something in his tone Dirk hadn't heard before. The man forgotten, Dirk turned to meet Todd's eye, his breath catching at the hurt he saw reflected in Todd's gaze. "What was that? You're here on a case? Was that why you brought me here?"
Dirk honestly had no idea how to answer that. More importantly, he had no idea how Todd wanted him to answer that.
"I..." was as far as he got before Todd threw up a hand.
"You know what, I don't want to know. I can't believe I thought... It doesn't matter. You... Good luck with your case."
Dirk had never been particularly good at reading people, but most of the time he could at least trace effect back to its cause. This wasn't one of those times. As Todd pivoted on his heel and started back towards the street, Dirk was momentarily too stunned to do anything but stare. Was he mad about them entering a restricted area? Was he upset the man got away? Was he hurt Dirk had dropped his hand. It was hard to say, Todd confusing at the best of times.
"Todd, wait," he tried, scrambling to catch up. But Todd was apparently determined, and he had a head-start, which meant short of breaking into a run Dirk had no hope of catching him.
Dirk broke into a run.
"Just... wait," he said, cutting Todd off just as they reached the street. Todd shot him an angry glare. Dirk was somewhat surprised to note his eyes were shining.
"No, you know what. I don't want to hear it. You... Go find whoever it was you were chasing. I'm going home."
He didn't give Dirk a chance to get a word in edgewise, Todd exceedingly fast when he wanted to be. He started across the street, Dirk torn between chasing after and letting him go. In the end it didn't matter, Todd reaching the other side just as a bus arrived. Todd boarded it, though Dirk couldn't help but note the route went nowhere near his apartment.
For a long, endless minute, Dirk stared at the space where Todd had been, still not entirely sure what had happened. Still not entirely sure what he'd done.
Five, almost six weeks prior
"Are you... mad at me?" Dirk asked.
Todd, who'd been staring out the bus window at the passing landscape, glanced over.
"What? No. I'm just... Look, can we not talk about. Can we just... I don't know. Sit here quietly?"
What he needed, Dirk realized, was a Todd to English dictionary. Then, on occasions such as these, Dirk could flip to the entry in question and know exactly what Todd meant. Todd wasn't mad, which was good, but he was sullen and silent and had been since they left the aquarium last night, and since nothing of interest had happened in the interim, Dirk was at a complete loss to understand Todd's mood.
Also, they'd done all of this before, and Dirk wasn't about to go there again, not after the last time.
"If I've done something to upset you, I think we ought to talk about it," Dirk said.
The look Todd shot him was somewhat terrifying, though only because Todd looked thoroughly terrified. Dirk couldn't for the life of him divine its source. He didn't get a chance to ask, Todd's gaze slipping past him, his eyes growing impossibly wide.
"Look, I'm just saying..." Dirk tried, though he was cut off quite abruptly when Todd lept from his chair, an expletive falling from his lips. Dirk watched, too stunned to do anything but stare, as Todd darted towards the exit and then began pounding on the bus door.
"Stop the bus, stop the bus!" he shouted. The bus came to an abrupt and lurching stop. Todd disappeared through the door.
It was only the driver's confusion that allowed Dirk the time to scramble after, though he was breathless by the time he caught up with Todd, who'd left the bus running and was half a block away before Dirk fully understood what had happened.
"I'm sorry," Dirk said. "But you didn't have to flee the bus. If you don't want to talk about it, we won't talk about it."
"What?" Todd asked, Dirk suddenly aware that they'd stopped, that they were standing on the street corner, directly across from a small cafe that sold imported British tea and was hence one of Dirk's favourites. Dirk made a face. Todd made a different one. He gestured pointedly at the building they were standing in front of. Dirk glanced over, momentarily confused.
And then his confusion vanished.
The storefront was empty, the windows covered in paper, the facade in dire need of paint, and yet very distinctly, stenciled in black paint upon the peeling white of the doorframe, was the familiar image of a dolphin, jumping through a hoop.
"Todd," Dirk said, somewhat transfixed.
"What the hell does this mean?" Todd asked. Dirk shook his head. He honestly had no idea.
His first impulse was to check the door, but was locked, and a peek in through the peeled edges of the paper suggested only an empty storefront, certainly nothing of particular interest, although...
"Shit, actually, you know what? I think this might be one of those rave logo things," Todd said, drawing Dirk from the thought.
"A rave logo thing?" Dirk asked.
"Yeah. Did you guys have raves in England? I don't even know if they have them here anymore. I went to a few when I was younger. I mean, it wasn't really my kind of music, but..."
"Like an electric dance party," Dirk said, remembering now. Todd shot him a funny look.
"I guess you could say that... Anyway, they tend to attract a lot of underage drinking, drugs, that sort of thing, so to avoid the cops, they moved around a lot. Abandoned warehouses, that sort of thing. Invitations would go out with scare details, and then they'd tag the location with these symbol thingies."
Dirk would never not be astounded by the breadth of Todd's knowledge.
"So... would that make the dolphin cards invitations?"
Todd offered a shrug. "Maybe," he said.
Dirk considered. The answer didn't feel right.
"No, that doesn't make sense. I'm sure the zener cards were specific. They were meant for me."
The admission earned him Todd's full attention, Todd now staring at him with open curiosity. Dirk ducked his head.
"Besides," he continued. "This isn't an abandoned warehouse. It's a...."
Dirk stepped back. He gave the storefront a once over and then pivoted on his heel to stare across the street.
"Actually, wasn't this a laundromat?"
He was fairly certain. In fact, he'd done laundry here during his first week in Seattle. He remembered that distinctly because that was the day he'd discovered the imported tea.
"Pretty sure you're confused," Todd said. "It used to be an old shoe repair place. They shut down about a year ago, around the time we met. There were articles in the paper and everything. I guess it was one of the oldest mom and pop stores in Seattle. End of an era, or something."
That... didn't seem right. In fact, it felt distinctly wrong, but instead of saying as much, Dirk held his tongue, watching as Todd took out his phone and began taking pictures of first the storefront and then the stencil by the door.
Something, he thought, was missing. If only he could put his finger on what.
Chapter 7: The Feeling of Jazz
God, he was pathetic.
His thumb hovered over Amanda's name.
She'd told him to call, but what exactly was he supposed to tell her? Hey, Amanda. Turns out that wasn't a date. Turns out Dirk was working a case. He's a private detective, did I mention that? Anyway, you'll be glad to know I made a complete fool of myself. Guess you were wrong.
In hindsight, he should have known. The second they set foot in the door Dirk was scoping the place. He'd probably only brought Todd along for cover. After all, Todd was conveniently there, conveniently bleeding interest all over the place, so why not take advantage? Todd wasn't sure what was worse: that he'd let himself believe Dirk genuinely interested, or that he'd let his guard down enough to get hurt.
Amanda would tell him he was being overly dramatic, which was reason enough to set aside his phone. He didn't need to hear that now. What he needed to do was move on with his life. Forget about annoyingly attractive British detectives with their ridiculous jackets, and focus on getting Amanda here.
What he needed to do was get his life together.
He should probably start with his phone. Todd retrieved it from where it was now sitting, balanced precariously on the edge of the couch. He started with his old boss, deleting the number with only a slim sense of satisfaction. His dead landlord came next, the relief of no longer carrying Dorian's name around somewhat staggering. Finally, he removed the fake number, Todd offering up a silent apology to the girl he'd followed across a crowded bar. After a moment's consideration, he deleted the pizza place, too, so that in the end only Amanda and Alfredo's numbers remained. Again Todd's thumb hovered over Amanda's number.
A sharp knock at the door startled him before he could place the call. Todd jumped, his phone falling into his lap. He glanced over sharply, his brow knitting together as he tried to figure out who it could possibly be.
He didn't know any of his neighbours, Dorian was still dead, and Amanda would have called first. It left only a delivery mistake, something that rarely happened. Still, Todd's stomach rumbled at the thought. Setting his phone on the coffee table, he pulled himself from the couch and made his way to the door.
A quick glance through the peephole rendered him somewhat speechless. Todd withdrew, and then immediately pressed his face back to the door. Dirk Gently was standing in his hall.
Incredulity won out over alarm. Todd threw open the door.
"What the hell?" he said.
"Todd, hii," Dirk said, smile far too bright for the circumstances. Todd stared, uncomprehending.
"How... What... What the hell?" he managed a second time.
"If you'll just give me a minute, I can explain everything," Dirk said, no longer looking quite so sure of himself. Todd blinked.
"Why are you here? No, wait, how do you even know where I live?"
That second question seemed a bit more pressing. Dirk shot him a look. It wasn't a particularly nice one. More like Dirk thought Todd a little slow on the uptake. Todd grit his teeth.
"I'm a private detective, Todd. This is kind of what I do."
That gave Todd pause. Across the hall, his neighbour's door opened. Mrs. Jin, the elderly woman who once accused him of stealing her Saturday paper, stuck her head out into the hall. Dirk offered her a bright smile. Without thinking, Todd reached out and, grabbing the front of his jacket, dragged him into the apartment.
"Is that what this is?" Todd asked, letting go of Dirk and putting some much needed space between them. "Are you... investigating me?"
Dirk's expression grew somewhat perplexed. "Why would I be investigating you?" he asked. Todd thought very seriously about throttling him.
"Oh, I don't know. You show up at my work on my third shift, spend the next month hanging around, and then ask me out, only for it to turn out to be some kind of case?"
"Oh, no. That's not..."
Todd sighed. As if the night wasn't bad enough. "What are you doing here, Dirk?"
"I came to see you," Dirk said, sounding perfectly sincere. Todd brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "You were upset," Dirk continued, though now he sounded like he was asking a question, like he didn't honestly know. "And I wasn't sure what had happened, and I thought perhaps you were mad at me, and I..."
Todd couldn't help but laugh. He didn't mean to, but he had exactly two contacts on his phone and Dirk was worried Todd was mad at him.
"I'm not... I don't know what I am," Todd said, hating the open hurt he saw reflected in Dirk's gaze. "I'm mad at myself, maybe. I don't know. I guess I just thought... But you know what, it doesn't matter. It's fine."
"It's not fine," Dirk said, somewhat emphatically, Todd rather taken aback by his tone.
It struck him then they were standing in the middle of Todd's living room, and that Todd still had no idea how Dirk knew where he lived. He didn't know why Dirk was here, or even why Dirk had invited him to the aquarium in the first place.
"Did you ever... find that guy?" he asked, not knowing what else to say.
Dirk didn't answer right away. Instead he cocked his head to the side, his gaze narrowing. Todd squirmed a little under the scrutiny.
"No, and for the record, I didn't know he was going to be there. I didn't plan any of that."
Todd wasn't sure if that was meant to make him feel better or worse.
"Who was he?" he asked, a reasonable question.
Dirk offered a shrug. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
And now he was mad again, Dirk an impossible person who made absolutely no sense.
"No clue," Dirk confirmed. "But did you see the way he bolted? Very suspicious. It has to be connected."
Dirk, Todd knew from previous conversations, was a somewhat eccentric person. Or maybe he was a crazy person. Possibly he was just stupid. Most of the time Todd found it somewhat endearing. At the moment he was back to wanting to throttle the man.
"Connected? To what?" he asked, not entirely sure he wanted an answer.
"To everything. Everything's connected, Todd."
This was clearly not a conversation he was having, Todd decided. He'd probably fallen asleep and was dreaming all of this, wishful thinking after what was easily the most mortifying night of his life. He really didn't want to ask, and yet...
"What are you even talking about?"
Dirk flailed a little. He gestured about the room. Todd wasn't sure he'd ever seen him so... desperate was the word that sprang to mind. It was somewhat alarming.
"This is what I do, Todd. I follow connections. It's how I solve my cases. I didn't plan on us running into that man, whoever he was, but as soon as I saw him I knew I had to follow him. I'm very sorry I dragged you into all of that, but you did help me unravel a very important clue."
Following Dirk's train of thought was a lot like trying to watch a foreign film without the subtitles. He could follow a few of the plot points, but for the most part he was entirely lost.
"I still don't... What clue?"
"Nothing!" Dirk said, as though that should have made everything clear. Todd wondered if this was what insanity felt like.
"Nothing?" he still asked.
"Everything's connected, Todd," Dirk said again. "Nothing is also connected."
It was official, Todd thought. Dirk was crazy. Somehow, in the span of a month, he'd gone and fallen for a crazy person.
"Are you just saying stuff for the sake of saying stuff? I... What do you even want?"
It was getting late, Todd realized, not perhaps as late as he'd thought their date might have gone, but then again this wasn't exactly how he pictured their date ending either. Dirk was staring at him, expression somewhat pleading. It was probably the only reason Todd hadn't thrown him back out into the hall.
"I want... I wanted us to..."
Dirk's expression fell, his earlier desperation replaced almost entirely by confusion. Todd deflated.
"So you're saying us running into that guy was a coincidence. That I wasn't some... decoy, for a case you were working on."
"Yes," Dirk said, "and definitely not."
Todd wanted to believe him. Really he did. Mostly, though, he wanted to pretend the night hadn't happened, to skip ahead to the part where he invited Dirk out for food, because that had been his original plan.
"Do you..." Todd exhaled. Dirk was still standing in the middle of his living room, staring at him intently. It felt far more normal than Todd knew it should.
"Do you want to order a pizza?" he asked, still hungry. More importantly, he needed a sense of normalcy.
The smile that lit Dirk's features was somewhat blinding. Too late Todd realized he'd deleted the number for the pizza place.
"So does stuff like this happen to you often?" Todd asked. Dirk considered the question.
Yes seemed a bit too obvious, nevermind that he still wasn't quite sure how much to tell this Todd. He wasn't even entirely sure he should be sitting here with this Todd, the protocols for this sort of thing non existent. Except, he and Todd ate pizza together all the time. The vast majority of his free time was spent exactly like this, Todd curled on one end of the couch with him curled on the other, a box of pizza on the coffee table between them, two beers--horrible American stuff--sitting within arm's reach. These moments were honestly some of the best of his life. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed them until now.
"It's an... occupational hazard," Dirk settled on.
Todd laughed at that, the sound warm and rich. It filled the space between them, Dirk momentarily transfixed. He knew he ought to be working on the case: at the very least he ought to relay what had happened to Farah, the man at the aquarium obviously connected somehow, and yet he couldn't bring himself to move, Todd's apartment warm, his couch comfortable, the pizza surprisingly good. It was easy to pretend this was normal, that this Todd was his Todd, that Dirk didn't have to solve anything to get him back.
"Honestly, I feel stupid in hindsight," Todd said, shaking his head. His side of the coffee table held an empty beer bottle. He had a second bottle, half full, in hand. He'd relaxed considerably since the food arrived. "Not that it's that far a stretch. I'm kind of an idiot most of the time."
"You're definitely not an idiot," Dirk said before he could stop himself. "I think you're quite brilliant," his mouth added before his brain finally caught up with him. Across the couch, Todd's eyes grew wide.
He stared at Dirk for close to thirty seconds before ducking his head, Dirk somewhat startled by the slight flush that spread across his cheeks. It was a reminder, however faint, that this was not his Todd. His Todd didn't blush, at least, not for Dirk.
Dirk reached for another slice.
Doing so brought Todd's window into view, several framed photographs lining the sill. Dirk caught a glimpse of one he didn't recognize. It was Amanda on her own, staring into the distance, as though the photographer had caught her at a candid moment. What ought to have been a joyful photograph of a young woman was marred by her haunted expression, Amanda's eyes bright with pain.
Todd, who'd obviously tracked his gaze, gave a brief laugh.
"That's my sister," he said, as though worried Dirk might think it someone else. Dirk glanced over sharply.
"Oh?" he asked.
These were the conversations he loved. Here because they gave him something to work with, but back in his timeline, too, because he'd never had anyone to confide in, and certainly no one ever confided in him. Sharing that with Todd was a wonderful reminder that he'd finally found a friend.
"Amanda," Todd said. "She's great. I'm trying to convince her to move here, actually, into the city, I mean."
"Where is she now?" Dirk asked, even knowing the answer.
"Shoreline," Todd said. "It's just north of the city, but there's not much up there and she doesn't get out much, so..."
Todd trailed off, Dirk well aware he'd leaned forward intently, hoping for some insight into what made this Todd so different. He knew Todd well enough now to know when he was about to share something personal. He got quiet, withdrawing in on himself in a way that, contrary to his intentions, immediately drew attention. Dirk remained perfectly still, waiting and watching. Todd didn't disappoint.
"A few years back... Actually, no, longer than that. Amanda was in a car accident. There was a fire. Anyway, by the time they got her out she had third degree burns over about 14% of her body, mostly her arms. They were able to do skin grafts, but she still has scars, and maybe some nerve damage. We're still..."
Todd made an abortive gesture, Dirk left to fill in the details on his own. Between the press clippings and the police report, he already knew most of this, but hearing it from Todd made it feel real somehow. It also confirmed the absence of pararibulitis.
"She's very lucky to have a brother like you," Dirk managed.
There was something in the look Todd shot him. Something grateful, but something soft, too, like no one had ever told Todd he was a good brother. Like no one had ever said anything nice to him before. It was pretty obvious there were things he wasn't sharing--though Dirk would have probably missed that had he not known Todd as well as he did--but Dirk got the impression this was the most this Todd had shared with anyone in a very long time.
"I don't have siblings," Dirk admitted, feeling the need to reciprocate. His Todd knew this. This Todd didn't. "Only child. Bit lonely, especially after my parents... well."
He didn't particularly want to talk about his parents--not even with his Todd--but bringing them up was obviously the right thing to do, Todd inching perceptibly forward.
"How old were you?" he asked.
"Eleven," Dirk answered, not entirely sure how much he was willing to share. He couldn't be certain, but Blackwing didn't appear to exist in this universe.
"I'm sorry. I mean, I know what it's like, and it sucks, so I'm sorry."
Dirk hadn't met Todd's parents. It wasn't surprising, given the circumstances, but he wondered about them sometimes. It would have been nice, he thought, meeting someone's family, having someone in his life who wanted to introduce him to their family.
"How old were you?" he asked, an echo of Todd's earlier question. Todd's expression grew soft.
"Twenty-three," he answered. "They... They were in the car with Amanda."
There was so much he wanted to ask. So many things he wanted to know. But having known Todd--his Todd--almost a year at this point, Dirk knew that some lines were not meant to be crossed. Instead he gave Todd a soft smile, watching as Todd set aside his beer, a brief flicker of indecision passing over his features. It was followed almost immediately by resolve, Todd shifting a little closer on the couch.
It was nothing his Todd would have done, Dirk momentarily confused until a spark of intuition made everything clear.
God, he was an idiot.
He was also, possibly, a horrible person, because clearly he had missed several things with this Todd--though did they extend to his Todd? Because that was probably important. Dirk scrambled to think, but came up empty. Either way, it left him with a choice. He could stay, let this Todd drift closer still, allow whatever was going to happen to happen because if Dirk was honest with himself he wanted this more than anything in the world. Or he could withdraw, risk hurting this Todd because he suspected staying might hurt his Todd even more.
Stupid Dirk, always falling for Todd Brotzmans.
"Todd," Dirk said, somewhat seriously. Todd froze. There was still a couple of feet of space between them, but the distance felt easily surmountable. Dirk's whole body was thrumming with unused energy.
"I... I was going to grab another beer. Do you want one?" Todd asked, his earlier tension returning. He stood so quickly Dirk could almost convince himself he'd misread the situation entirely. Todd refusing to meet his gaze suggested he hadn't.
"I would, but I probably shouldn't," Dirk said, opting for a semblance of honesty. He didn't want the beer, but he did want to stay.
Standing now at the foot of the couch, Todd glanced into the kitchen, to where Dirk knew a clock hung on the wall.
"Yeah. I guess it's getting late," he said.
It wasn't, not really, though Dirk had never been very good at keeping track of time. Still, it was an out, and one he knew he needed to take, if only to keep from talking himself into something he really wanted to talk himself into.
He still wasn't entirely sure his intuition was correct, but it was dangerous enough he couldn't risk it.
Dirk pushed himself off the couch. Todd was watching him now, looking slightly uncomfortable, as though he wasn't entirely sure what to do with himself. Dirk would have given anything for experience in this matter, if only to know how to put Todd at ease.
His Todd was easy. His Todd would simply tell him to stop talking and go to bed. His Todd would fall asleep mid-conversation, leaving Dirk to cover him with a blanket and then slip quietly from the apartment. His Todd would kick him out with a bemused smirk and a promise to pick up where they'd left off in the morning.
His Todd wouldn't have resolved to kiss him.
"We should do this again sometime," Dirk said, aware that it was a thing people said.
It was also, apparently, the exact right thing to say, Todd relaxing considerably. A soft smile appeared on his face.
"Actually," he said, looking almost as nervous as he had on his way across the couch. Dirk steeled himself, scarcely breathing as he waited for Todd to continue. Caught inside the moment, it was so easy to imagine this was his Todd. That they were one in the same.
"Amanda... My sister's coming down on Saturday. I was going to take her out. If you wanted to come, that would be cool."
"I'd love to," Dirk said before he could stop himself. In hindsight it was probably a terrible idea--and Farah was right, he really, really needed to refrain from dating Todd--but the prospect of seeing Amanda, of understanding how she fit into equation... It wasn't a hunch, but all his instincts were telling him to go.
"Okay, cool. That's cool," Todd said, Dirk not entirely sure his next step.
He needed to leave. He knew that much. Stay and he'd end up doing something stupid, like telling Todd everything and then offering him the opportunity to stay in this universe, to live out this narrative because at least here Todd didn't have pararibuiltis; at least here Dirk stood a chance.
"Saturday, then," Dirk said, starting for the door. Todd stopped him halfway.
"I don't even have your number," he said, far closer now than he was a moment before. It took Dirk several seconds to process what he meant.
"Oh, I don't..." How to explain his phone not working here, transdimensional data plans not exactly something the Agency had considered. "I still have my UK number," he settled on. "I haven't gotten around to changing it."
Todd deflated. "Right, no, that's..."
"You can have it," Dirk said, a little concerned about who Todd would get if he tried calling it. "But I never keep it on. Roaming charges and all. I can meet you, though. If you know where and when. Or I could come here? Say seven again?"
Somewhere in his desperation to reassure Todd, he realized he was doing exactly what Farah had told him not to--exactly what he'd just promised himself he wouldn't do. At some point, he realized, he was going to have to explain all of this to the other Todd--to his Todd--Dirk more than a little concerned about how that conversation was going to end.
For now, however, this Todd was smiling at him, so close Dirk could easily lean forward end...
Stammering something that might have been a goodbye--or possibly a date-filled promise--Dirk forced himself through the door. Out in the hall, he was tempted to collapse against the wall, take a moment to catch his breath. The only thing that stopped him was the a prickling certainty that Todd was likely doing the same.
What the hell had he gotten himself into? And did he really want to get himself out? This Todd had a chance to be happy. A life without pararibulitis. A life that included his sister. What right did Dirk have to take that from him?
"Nuts," he said, starting down the hall. Farah, he thought, was possibly going to kill him.
Five, almost six weeks prior, plus two days
Dirk scanned the driver side street front, confident that Todd was doing the same on the passenger side. He wasn't particularly fond of their car choice--he'd wanted something sporty, possibly a convertible in bright yellow. Todd had convinced him to go with the economy model, the Kia Rio they'd chosen a boring red.
"Seriously, Dirk, Farah's gonna kills us," Todd said, still droning on about the car.
"The stream of creation isn't accessible via bus," Dirk told him, the car a valid business expense.
And it was. They'd charge it to their client, whoever that was. And Dirk was sure they'd find out just as soon as they figured out what it was they were meant to be investigating.
"Out of curiosity," Todd asked, "how many rental cars have you lost?"
Dirk shot Todd a mock glare.
"It was only the one, and it wasn't really lost. I gave it to that chef, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember. I also remember you losing his jeep. The CIA's not going to bail you out if something happens to this one."
Feeling an inexplicable tug, Dirk made a right, taking them around the corner before he answered.
"Isn't that why we got that insurance thingie?"
He felt rather than saw Todd glance in his direction.
"Yeah. That only works if you don't violate the terms and conditions. In the past," he glanced at his watch, "three hours, you've violated like twelve of them."
Dirk considered. It was entirely possible Todd had a point.
"You've very practical, you know that?" he said, this time taking a sharp left. Todd's hands shot out, landing on the dashboard and door panel as he braced himself against the turn. Dirk immediately made another right.
"One of us has to be," Todd said, half under his breath. Dirk couldn't help but smile.
"You're absolutely right," he said. "It makes me rather glad we met, though I suppose I was already glad we met. You're an incredible person to know, Todd Brotzman."
Had he not been turning right again, he might not have noticed the way Todd ducked his head against the compliment, the tip of his nose an unusual red. Dirk committed the sight to memory, and then brought them to an abrupt halt. Whenever they were, this was it.
Todd followed him from the car, into a tight narrow lane sandwiched between the back ends of squat, industrial style buildings. Dirk had no idea where they were. He'd lived in Seattle long enough to have a feel for the place, but most of his cases were navigated purely on instinct, spatial awareness not exactly needed for the task. Dirk doubted a bus even came out this way.
"Seriously," Todd said. Dirk followed him to where a line of cars was parked against a roughly painted wall. Together they stared at the hoop jumping dolphin stencilled onto the stucco.
"How did you..."
"Honestly, Todd, don't look at me. I was only following the navigation system."
Still standing at his shoulder, Todd shot him a look. Fond annoyance mingled with disbelief.
"You typed thingie into it. It gave you an error, and then led you here. I... You know what. Never mind. I don't want to know."
He drew out his phone as he spoke, so that by time Dirk might have gotten a word in edgewise, Todd was already taking pictures of the logo. Dirk expected him to take pictures of the building as well, this the fourth dolphin they'd found. Instead he let his phone fall to his side, his head tilting as he examined the stencil.
"Something wrong?" Dirk asked. Todd darted out a hand. He ran a thumb against the bottom edge of the hoop, the paint smearing. His thumb came away black.
"Oh," Dirk said, pivoting around.
Ten things seems to happen at once. At his side, Todd dropped his phone, the hand that had been holding it coming up to hover midair. Across and down the street, a white van pealed out of an adjacent lot. It came around the corner just as a Fedex truck appeared, the Fedex driver too busy staring at something in his lap to notice the van. They collided. The van's back door flew open, seemingly at random. A man in a blue jumpsuit, his hands bound together and a hood over his head, emerged from inside.
He hit the ground hard, and then glanced around frantically, his gaze--or what Dirk presumed must be his gaze--momentarily catching on Dirk and Todd. Todd fell to his knees. He let out a somewhat anguished scream. A second van appeared from further down the street. Without taking his eyes from the scene, Dirk drew Todd's pills from inside his jacket's breast pocket.
"Todd," he said, kneeling at Todd's side. He'd seen enough of Todd's attacks by now to know precisely what to do. Saying Todd's name a second time, Dirk took careful hold of the hand not shaking uncontrollably in the air. The second van had swung around, penning the man in the jumpsuit between the Fedex truck, the first van and the second. A second man emerged from the back of the first van. He raised what looked suspiciously like a gun, and trained it on the man in the jumpsuit. Dirk's breath caught in his throat. He placed a single pill into the palm of the hand he was holding and helped guide it to Todd's mouth. Todd crunched it between his teeth.
"You're alright, Todd," he said, over and over again as a third man climbed from the second van, this one approaching the man in the jumpsuit from behind. The man in the jumpsuit deflated. He set his hands on the top of his head and sank to his knees. The third man still thrust something into his side. The absence of blood suggested it was a syringe rather than a knife. The man in the jumpsuit crumbled to the ground. The second man, the one with the gun, flashed what looked like a badge at the Fedex driver, and gestured for him to stay in his truck, while the third man half dragged, half carried the jumpsuit-wearing man back into the second van.
Todd's breathing levelled out. His hand was no longer shaking. The back of the first van slammed shut, and then together the vans tore away from the scene, leaving only the Fedex truck behind.
"Electrical burn?" Dirk asked. Todd's hallucinations seemed to favour them. Todd gave a brief nod.
"At least it was only the one hand this time."
"Does it still hurt?" The initial attack was always the worse, but the pills were slow to work, the pain receding gradually, Todd sometimes needing upwards of an hour.
"It's fine," Todd said, though Dirk knew he was lying. Still hovering at Todd's side, Dirk glanced back to where the Fedex driver was now examining his truck. He very much doubted Todd had noticed any of it. It rather left him wondering if he'd imagined the whole thing.
"Come on, then, let's get you back to the car."
There were very few occasions when Todd would allow Dirk to help him to his feet. This was one of those times. He leaned heavily into Dirk's side, Todd startlingly warm. It took considerable effort not to react, Dirk somewhat dizzy by the time they reached the car. The Fedex driver had pulled out a phone. He was gesturing somewhat violently as he talked. Dirk helped Todd into the car.
Only after Todd was secured did Dirk return to the building to retrieve Todd's phone. The screen was miraculously intact, but the casing was scratched, the edge of it slightly dented. Keying in Todd's passcode, Dirk finished taking the necessary pictures and then returned to the car.
Todd was more or less normal by the time he got inside.
"Here," Dirk said, handing over the phone. Todd looked at it like he was afraid it might explode at any moment. Dirk slid it into the front console instead.
"Rowdies or home?" he asked. Todd sank back into his seat.
"Home," he said.
Punching Todd's address into the navigation system, Dirk started them home.
Chapter 8: Down on the Street
Today he sat behind the counter, phone pressed to his ear, content to ignore the sea of plaid currently invading the store. Today he was actually smiling.
"Nothing happened," he said, Amanda easily the nosiest person in existence. He could tell from her huffed laugh that she didn't believe him.
"You're calling me this morning," she reminded him.
"It was... late when he left," Todd said, cursing himself the second the words left his mouth. If Amanda's high-pitched squeal was any indication, she'd interpreted them exactly the way Todd had hoped she wouldn't.
"That's not what I meant," he told her.
"But he did come home with you."
Todd considered. That wasn't precisely what had happened, but explaining the rest seemed overly complicated. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to talk about the disaster that was the first half of the evening. Better for Amanda to think the date had gone well from the get-go.
"We ordered pizza and talked. That's it."
"Uhuh," Amanda said, like she didn't believe him.
"It was a first date," Todd tried, and then winced, because when had he ever needed anything beyond a first date. Or a date at all for that matter.
"You're so ridiculous," Amanda said, which was probably true. He could practically hear her smiling. Todd shook his head, and then transferred his phone to his other ear.
"Look, he just seems like the type to take things slow," he said, which, when he thought about it, actually seemed likely. He hadn't exactly... made a move last night, but he'd certainly telegraphed his intentions, Dirk's reaction either outright rejection or a bid to slow things down. That he'd agreed to come out on Saturday suggested the latter. At least, Todd hoped it suggested the latter, otherwise he was going to end up making a complete fool of himself. Well, more so than he already had, anyway.
"So he's a three date kind of guy," Amanda said, refusing to let it go. Todd was well aware she was now making fun. In the background, he heard the unmistakable sound of the garage door opening and closing, followed shortly by a set of sticks rolling across her snare drum.
"I don't know, maybe," Todd answered, though it did beg the question. Did their lunch count as a date? Was last night their first or second? Did that mean Saturday would count as their third?
He was probably getting ahead of himself.
"How about you worry less about my love life and more about Saturday. Have you decided what you want to do?"
He had some ideas. There was a club around the corner from the store, the kind of place that booked volume over talent and served water-downed beer. It was nothing Todd would enjoy, but it was exactly the kind of place he could picture Amanda. There was also a cool coffee shop a short bus ride away, not exactly Amanda's scene, but it seemed the kind of place Dirk might like. If it were up to him he'd take them to a bar he liked not too far from his apartment. Sure, it was the place he'd harassed a girl into giving him a fake number, but it was also relatively mellow with good bands and quiet tables in the back where they could talk without having to shout over the music.
He was probably stressing about this a bit too much.
"Is Dirk coming?" Amanda asked, sounding entirely too smug.
"Yes," he told her, failing to suppress his smile.
"Give me your options."
He could tell she intended to think about this strategically. Todd relayed his ideas.
"The bar," she said after he was done. "The club's too loud, the coffee shop is too intimate."
She was right, of course, though Todd was just happy he wouldn't be forced to sit through her somewhat obnoxious taste in music. Dirk, he suspected, would be equally as appreciative.
"He's coming over at seven, so I figured I'd cab out to get you at three. Does that work?"
He stood as he spoke, cradling the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he rang through the first of three people in line. Morning break was quickly coming to a close, a swarm of customers now hurrying to purchase their finds. Todd traded plastic for vinyl without comment, listening as Amanda lectured him on how she was perfectly capable of getting there on her own.
"I don't mind coming to get you," Todd said as he rang in the next person. "Besides, I'm probably going to need something to distract me."
He wasn't lying, but Amanda still snorted like she didn't quite believe him. Todd refrained from commenting, unexpectedly relieved when she finally agreed.
"I'll see you Saturday," he said, ending the call, in part because he was afraid she'd change her mind, but mostly because Alfredo had arrived, two record crates balanced precariously in his arms.
Setting his phone on the counter, Todd jogged over to meet him.
"You're early," he said, taking the top crate and earning a grateful smile.
"This is only the start of it," Alfredo said. "There's at least another ten crates, but only if we head over today. I called Mara. She's gonna come in, watch the store. I need you to come with me."
In the short time he'd been here, Alfredo had taken him out on two purchase runs. The first was an estate auction, Todd waiting in the car until Alfredo was done bidding. He'd then helped load a turntable into the trunk. The second was a liquidation sale, ten other records stores vying for merchandise. Todd had taken the bus back to give Alfredo extra room.
That made this trip number three. Todd glanced briefly to his watch, trying to calculate how long this would take. He wasn't expecting Dirk, he just didn't want to miss him if he decided to show.
God, Amanda was right, he was ridiculous.
Ten minutes later, Mara was settled in behind the counter and Todd was following Alfredo out to his car. Alfredo drove a 1967 Fiat Spider, kelly green and meticulously detailed. The only thing Alfredo liked more than vinyl were cars. This particular car was nowhere near big enough to haul ten crates of records, which meant they'd need multiple trips. Climbing into the passenger seat, Todd resigned himself to his fate.
"The estate's letting us take his collection on consignment," Alfredo explained as he drove. "The condition being we've got to haul it on our own. Fair warning, guy was a bit of a hoarder. Place is an absolute sty."
He navigated them swiftly through the city, eventually bringing them into a quiet neighbourhood not too far from the waterfront. He found a parking spot alongside a row of two-story buildings, the kind with storefronts on street level, apartments and offices above. Across the street was a gas station and a cafe, this with a line running out the door.
Alfredo cut the engine and climbed from the car.
Their destination was apparently one of the storefront apartments. Alfredo handed him a couple of empty crates and then led him over to a narrow door tucked alongside a laundromat. In his quest for something to replace the Ridgely, he'd looked at a couple of places like this. They were always too small, too loud, and in desperate need of repair. He couldn't imagine living above the constant humidity of a laundromat. Half the guy's albums were probably already lost to mold.
The narrow door led into an even narrower hallway, stale cigarette smoke reaching his nose the second they stepped inside. He followed Alfredo up the stairs, crates turned sideways to keep them from scraping against the walls. The further they climbed, the worst the smell got, until at last he was standing inside a dingy storefront apartment, the only thing worse than the smell the absolute chaos of the apartment itself. Piles upon piles of... garbage, for the most part, occupied the floor, every available inch of space filled to capacity. Todd let his gaze drift across the room. Buried within the mess were hundreds upon hundreds of records.
Alfredo set down his crates. From the top one he pulled two dust masks and a package of latex gloves. He handed Todd a pair.
At what point, Todd wondered, was he entitled to ask for hazard pay. His only hope was that someone had found and removed the body. He didn't particularly want to think about what would happen if they hadn't.
"Farah," Dirk said as they waited for their bus. "Have you considered..."
He honestly had no idea how to phrase the question, not in a way that wouldn't upset her, anyway. And she was upset enough as it was, the hour long lecture she'd given him last night proof enough of that--though really, he hadn't come in that late, and it wasn't as if anything had happened. Well, aside from the part where he'd apparently been out on a date. With Todd. Who wasn't his Todd, although Dirk still wasn't convinced any Todd was a bad Todd, especially not a Todd who smiled at Dirk like Dirk was...
Well, certainly more than just a best friend.
"Dirk," Farah said, scanning like street like she half expected enemy combatants to pop out of the sewers. "Unless this is about the case, I think we should focus on the task at hand."
Right, Dirk thought. The task at hand. They were looking for stencils. Or rather, they were retracing Todd and his steps from the original timeline because that was the next step in the case.
The first time around they'd found seven stencils in total, all scattered about the city, with absolutely nothing to connect them. Well, nothing Dirk could find, anyway. They obviously had to be connected. They were all clearly dolphins. And made with the same inky black spray paint. Which, actually, was rather a lot to go on. Not, perhaps, enough to solve the case, but it certainly warranted a second look.
He'd told Farah about the aquarium, of course, about the man and the tank room turned veterinary surgery. Not that any of it had proved particularly useful, but for the first time in a long time it rather felt like they were getting somewhere.
The question was, was it somewhere he wanted to go?
"It's just I was thinking," Dirk said, backtracking a bit. "What if, for argument's sake, we didn't fix the timeline."
It wasn't something he'd considered before, not seriously of course. He'd thought a lot about what would happen if they couldn't fix the timeline, but intentionally leaving it as it was was something else. Farah, he realized, was staring at him in abject terror.
"Did something happen at the aquarium to suggest we won't be able to?" she asked.
"No, not precisely," Dirk admitted.
"Then can I ask... why we would even consider... I mean, it doesn't make sense for us to..."
She froze mid-sentence, a look of horrified comprehension dawning on her face. Dirk averted his gaze.
"Dirk..." she began.
"I was merely speculating," he tried. Farah shook her head.
"Look, Dirk, I... I know how you feel about..."
"This has nothing to do with Todd," Dirk said, a bit too quickly. A quick glance in Farah's direction suggested she didn't believe a word of it. Dirk relented.
"All right, it does, but it's not what you think. He just... he seems happy. And he doesn't have pararibulitis, which means Amanda doesn't have it, and what right do we have to take that from them? They have lives here, and we're... what? Just going to take that away from them?"
He wasn't entirely sure who he was trying to convince. This had all sounded so much better in his head.
"Dirk," Farah said again. Dirk recognized the tone. It was the one she reserved for lectures on the merits of fiscal responsibility; that and the pitfalls of dating interdimensional Todds. Dirk deflated.
"No, you're right. We need to fix this, and that means solving this case."
He could tell she didn't quite believe him, that she was on the verge of calling him out, but the universe chose that exact moment to send them their bus, Dirk taking it as a sign.
Besides, she wasn't... wrong. Of course she wasn't. He knew that. He'd known that sitting on Todd's couch. And it wasn't as if he was going to lose Todd. He would, in fact, be getting his Todd back. To ask for anything more was pure selfishness on his part.
Not that it made this any easier.
Still, he could pretend it did, Dirk leading Farah onto the bus, choosing the exact seats he and Todd had occupied the first time around. Farah was still watching him, cautious like she was in the weeks following his release from Blackwing. Dirk offered her a smile.
"Dirk," she said, speaking softly, Dirk already dreading what she was going to say. "I know you don't want to hear this, but I think it might be a good idea if, until we figure this out, you maybe stopped seeing Todd."
Dread, Dirk realized, was nowhere near a strong enough word.
"Why?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"Do I really need to explain this?" Farah said. "Dirk... You're dating him. He thinks you're dating him. I'm pretty sure you think you're dating him. And given your feelings for him..."
"That's not... I don't..."
Oh, who was he kidding. Of course he had feelings for Todd. He was honestly surprised no one had said anything before now. Trust Farah to handle the situation tactfully.
"I am perfectly capable of maintaining a friendship with Todd without letting my feelings for him get in the way," he said. He'd managed it just fine up until now. Surely having Todd reciprocate didn't mean anything had to change. Farah shot him a look.
"Oh, look," Dirk said. "It's our stop."
It was, in fact, their stop, though the stop itself was about a half a block away from where the driver had originally let them off. Dirk could still picture Todd banging on the doors, Dirk terrified he'd finally tipped Todd over the edge, that Todd might leave and never come back.
It wasn't something he liked to think about, so he didn't, concentrating instead on finding the abandoned storefront where they'd first spotted the dolphin stencil. Farah followed at his side, blessedly silent.
"Is this it?" Farah asked when he finally stopped in front of a familiar set of white doors. She'd seen the pictures, but like Dirk she'd seen the pictures from their timeline, the building in this timeline decidedly different.
For one thing, there was no stencil, but also the white paint around the entranceway was no longer peeling. The windows weren't papered over, either, this an active business. Dirk peered in through the open windows, taking in the rows upon rows of washing machines. He frowned, and then glanced briefly over his shoulder to where the cafe with the imported tea sat completely unchanged.
"Dirk?" Farah was watching him with open curiosity.
"It's a laundromat," he said. That seemed significant somehow.
"Why is it a laundromat?" he asked.
He let his gaze drift up and down the street, the line of two story buildings virtually unchanged from before, everything except for the laundromat that was. Which meant...
"Oh," Dirk said, the business with Todd forgotten. He turned so that he and Farah were standing face to face, the pieces beginning to fall into place.
"Do you know what this means?" he asked. Farah shook her head. "In our timeline, this was an abandoned storefront, but Todd was certain it used to be a shoe store. He found articles chronicling its closure and everything."
"O...kay," Farah said. "So in our timeline it was a... shoe store? And here it's a laundromat?"
Dirk shook his head.
"The thing is, I distinctly remember doing laundry here when I first came to Seattle."
He gestured across the street.
"I bought tea right over there."
Farah's frown deepened. It was obvious she wasn't following.
"Don't you see? It was a laundromat, and then it was a shoe store, and then it was an abandoned storefront with a dolphin stencil, and now it's a laundromat again."
Farah narrowed her gaze. She was looking at him like she was a bit worried he'd finally gone over the deep end. It was a look Dirk was painfully familiar with. A look he wanted desperately to erase.
"It changed," he tried. "Before, in our universe. It was one thing, and then it was something else. It's not just here, Farah."
He saw then the connection that had led them here, Dirk tracing it back, the universe opening before him and allowing him a glimpse. It wasn't a hunch. It had nothing to do with his... whatever it was. This, he thought, was the certainty of detective work.
Farah, too, was now staring at him with new eyes, as though she too saw the connection, however vague, as though events were beginning to grow confluent.
"I think I know what we're looking for," Dirk said. "Or rather, I have an idea of what we're looking for. Whatever it is... it changes things."
"Changes things?" Farah asked.
"Laundromats into shoe stores. Or time travellers into... not time travellers. Or, for that matter, pararibulitis into a made-up disease."
He'd lost her again, Dirk well aware the details were a bit hazy, and yet, despite that he knew with absolute certainty he was on the right track, his excitement now barely contained.
"Like rewriting history, but without the accompanying time loop," he tried, testing the idea.
"That seems... broad given the specifics," Farah said, gesturing around them.
"Not really," Dirk assured her. "The connections between cause and effect are much more subtle than we'd otherwise realize. Any change to the timeline would likely ripple across the whole."
"Okay... Okay. So we're looking for a time machine. That's good. That means that if we can find it, we can change everything back, right? You can do a thing?"
He didn't want to promise her something he couldn't deliver, and he wasn't sure time machine was the thing they were looking for--he wasn't even entirely sure he'd worked out the specifics of what they were looking for, his theory still too newly formed for that. And yet, for the first time in weeks he was starting to feel like they might pull this off.
"I think," he said, speaking low and leaning towards her, "I can do... something, yes."
Todd had never wanted to shower more in his life than he did just then. An hour inside the apartment and it's filth had permeated down to a cellular level. He could feel it sticking to his lungs, and that with the dust mask. For as much as he was grateful to Alfredo for the gloves, he rather wished the man had thought to pack full biohazard suits.
Alfredo had left twenty minutes ago, taking the first load back to the store, leaving Todd to pack the second. Hundreds of records was apparently a gross underestimation. They were going to be here all day.
He waited until he was in the hall to pull his dust mask down around his chin, the stale smoke smell of the narrow staircase far preferable to the unidentified stink of the apartment. Todd was still half expecting to find a body. Balancing two crates, one on top of the other, he started down the stairs.
The first breath of fresh air was such an expectedly pleasant surprise that Todd stumbled getting through the door, the topmost crate pitching forward. He had visions of vinyl scattering across the street, half of them shattering upon the sidewalk, Todd left to pick up the pieces while explaining what had happened to Alfredo.
It didn't happen, a pair of hands appearing seemingly out of nowhere, catching the crate mid fall. Todd staggered back a step, getting his balance before seeking out his savour.
Familiar blue eyes and an even more familiar yellow jacket blinked at him from above a precariously held crate.
"Oh my god, Dirk," Todd said, too stunned to do anything but stare. Dirk seemed equally as surprised.
"Todd," Dirk eventually said. Despite his surprise, he seemed genuinely happy to see Todd, Todd taking that as a good sign. It lasted just until he realized what he must look like, covered in filth and sweat, a battered dust mask hanging around his chin.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. He set the crate he was holding down on the sidewalk and took the one now held in Dirk's hands.
"What are you doing here?" Dirk countered. He pointed an accusatory finger, though his tone was light, playful even, Todd smiling as he set Dirk's crate on top of the one now sitting on the ground.
"I'm helping my boss pick up some records," Todd said, gesturing.
"Ah, of course." Dirk glanced over his shoulder. Todd only then noticed the woman standing behind him. She was staring at Todd with wide eyes, as though she recognized him somehow, though Todd was certain they'd never met. He glanced from her to Dirk and then back again, before finally catching Dirk's eye.
"We're working a case," Dirk explained. He still hadn't introduced the woman. Was she an employee? A partner? A friend? Todd wasn't sure he wanted to know. She was certainly pretty, and she was staring between Todd and Dirk like she didn't particularly approve of their meeting.
"Oh," Todd said, thinking back to the aquarium, to chasing Dirk through an endless maze of halls, suspicion tempered only by his confusion.
"And we should be going," the woman said, Todd somewhat startled to hear her speak. She was glaring at Dirk now, Dirk's expression growing somewhat sheepish beneath her stare.
"Yes, of course," he said, shooting Todd an apologetic smile. He gestured vaguely over his shoulder. "We really need to..."
"Yeah, no that's... I mean, it was good to see you," Todd said, still not entirely sure what was happening.
Dirk's smile grew soft. "I'll see you Saturday," he said, sounding oddly uncertain, as though he thought Todd might have changed his mind. Todd let his smile stretch into grin.
"Definitely," he said, Dirk's companion now openly glaring.
For a moment Dirk seemed on the verge of saying something else. Todd waited, breath held, but then the woman cleared her throat, Dirk straightening beneath the weight of her gaze. He offered Todd a tight-lipped smile, and then he was leaving, vanishing down the street, Todd tracking his yellow jacket until Dirk disappeared entirely. It left Todd standing in the middle of the sidewalk, waiting for Alfredo, still not entirely sure what had happened.
Not entirely sure he wanted to know.
Chapter 9: Loose
Three years later, while Lydia was dreaming of her Hogwarts letter, Farah was dreaming about Quantico, her every free moment devoted to the study of tactics, combat skills, weapons, intelligence... anything and everything that might help her achieve her goals.
Taking over for her father was never the plan, but she was honoured Patrick had chosen her for the job. Even knowing it was a time-loop, she wasn't sure she'd ever forgive herself for not being there the day he died. Her only consolation was that they'd saved Lydia.
Lydia, who didn't exist anymore.
She had thought, when she'd offered to fund Dirk's detective agency, that she was honouring Lydia's wishes. As it turned out, she was, in fact, trying to make amends for the spectacular failure that was her inability to keep Patrick Spring safe.
Patrick Spring, who was Zachariah Webb, who'd died in 1903 without ever having jumped forward through time.
Thinking about it made her head hurt.
She wasn't lying when she told Dirk she hadn't found herself. As far as this universe was concerned, Farah Black didn't exist, her purpose non existent. She would be lying, then, if she said being trapped here wasn't starting to get to her.
"Are you sure you don't recognize any of these people?" Farah asked.
Dirk peered over her shoulder, the Seattle Aquarium considerate enough to maintain a photo-directory of all their employees online.
"I don't think he worked there," Dirk said. He straightened as he spoke, reaching across the desk to where his jacket was hung on the back of his chair. Farah glanced sharply over her shoulder.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
Dirk froze, his hand hovering mid-air. "Nowhere?" he said. He was a terrible liar.
Closing her laptop, Farah pivoted in her chair, leaning back so that they were face to face, her arms now crossed over her chest. She arched a pointed eyebrow. Dirk deflated.
"I wasn't going to see Todd," he said, sounding like he actually believed it. Farah knew him well enough to know there was a technicality involved. The record store probably wasn't his primary objective, but if he found himself in the neighbourhood....
"Dirk," she said, her tone a warning. "We've been over this."
Dirk, at least, had the grace to appear suitably chagrined. Farah maintained eye contact for another minute before she turned back to her laptop, the aquarium directory once again filling her screen.
"I know we're not at that point yet," Farah said, gesturing to the bristol boards taped to the wall. "But I think tomorrow we should go back to the aquarium. Even if he doesn't work there, he's still our best lead."
"Tomorrow? No, I can't. I have plans with..." Dirk trailed off, Farah once again turning to face him. The conversation was starting to make her dizzy.
"I have to go," Dirk said, Farah taken aback by the desperation in his tone. "Besides, Amanda's going to be there. This is the perfect opportunity to gather additional data. And it's not a date. It's more like... an outing."
She wanted to argue. To tell him in no uncertain terms that he couldn't go, but she was still stuck on Amanda's name, Farah well aware the blood had drained from her face. Dirk, who'd been gesturing wildly, grew impossibly still. He cocked his head to the side, open concern appearing in his eyes.
"Farah, are you..."
"I'm fine," Farah said, though she doubted either of them believed it. Dirk took a step towards her, hesitant and uncertain.
"You know," he said, speaking so softly Farah had to strain to hear. "You could come with me. This could be the break we're looking for, and you know Amanda far better than I do. What if she's the source? What if she's the key to fixing everything?"
She knew what he was doing, but his manipulation tactics were amateur at best. And yet, she'd be lying if she said she didn't want to see Amanda--if she hadn't wanted to see Amanda since that day she'd spent parked in the cab outside Amanda's house. So she wanted to believe him. She wanted desperately to believe him.
"Dirk... That's not... I don't think... I mean, the odds of this backfiring... And you're already walking a dangerous line. I don't think we should... I mean, I think we should just focus on..."
"On what?" Dirk said, the first time she could remember him ever voicing his frustration.
"Sorry," he said a second later. "It's just we spent all day yesterday traipsing around the city and what do we have to show for it? Seven locations with variational changes we didn't notice the first time around? Actually, that's probably significant, but we're still no closer to fixing this.
"Look, I'm not saying this will be easy. And I can't even guarantee it'll help. But as nothing else has helped either, what do we have to lose? Maybe you're right. Maybe I am blinded by my feelings for Todd. But what if this is the thing that gets us home? What if not doing this traps us here forever. What then?"
He caught her eye as he spoke, silent pleading shining alongside unshed tears.
"Come with me or don't, but I have to do this," he said.
She knew the minute her resolve failed. He was going to do this, with or without her. He'd told her once the universe took him where he needed to go, and she'd seen it enough times to know it was true. For as much as he claimed his powers didn't work here, she had to trust, even now, that he knew what he was doing. Mostly, though, she wanted him to be right.
"Fine, I will come with you, but if this is a bust you have to promise me you will cut off all contact with him."
"Of course," Dirk said, a wide smile spreading across his face. She didn't believe him--she wasn't sure he believed himself--but she'd take it for now, anything better than nothing.
"How dark is this place?" Amanda asked from behind the closed bedroom door. Todd stood with his shoulders pressed against the wall, one knee bent, his foot resting on the wall, the other supporting his weight.
"It's... medium dark," he decided on. The bedroom door flew open. Amanda stood inside its frame, the twisted mess of her scars visible beneath the cuffs of her sleeves. They sat just above her wrist bones.
"Dark enough for this, or should I wear longer sleeves?" she asked. Something ugly caught in Todd's throat.
"I think you look fine regardless. Good even," he said. Amanda shot him a glare. She stepped back into her room, the door closing behind her.
Todd shifted from his right foot to his left, and waited.
Amanda reemerged a full ten minutes later, this time wearing a semi-sheer black top with sleeves that ran past the tips of her fingers. She stepped out into the hall, offered a faux pirouette, and then shot him a quizzical look. Todd couldn't help it. He snorted.
"Thanks," Amanda said without a trace of hurt.
"No, you look good. I mean, not that I'm one to judge, but you look very bar-y."
"Bar-y?" Amanda said, arching an eyebrow. Todd offered a shrug. It earned him a laugh. "Yeah, well, don't worry, as soon as we get to your place I'll help you pick out something date-y."
Todd couldn't help but smile at that, the slight flutter of nervousness he'd woken to this morning now tentative excitement. Offering Amanda another grin, he took her bag and started them down the hall.
Getting on coats and shoes was easy, but Amanda balked the second he opened the front door. There was a cab waiting for them in the driveway, its engine still idling. Todd dreaded the final fare.
"You can do this," Todd told her. Amanda glanced between him and the cab, still frozen in indecision. Todd reached down to take her arm. He offered her a reassuring smile.
"Seriously, it'll be fine. You've taken your anti-anxiety meds. You've got your painkillers. It's just a short walk to the car and then a quick ride to my apartment and then you're done."
Despite her reassurances--her insistence that she wanted to meet Dirk--he'd known this wasn't going to be easy. Still, he prodded her gently forward, not pushing, merely guiding her past her resistance. She took a staggering step forward, and then another, until they were standing on the front porch, Amanda breathing a sigh of relief.
"See," Todd told her.
"Just a short ride," she said, though Todd couldn't tell if she was reassuring herself or seeking reassurance from him.
"A short ride," he still answered.
Short, of course, was a relative term, his apartment about thirty minutes away on a good day. He climbed into the backseat with Amanda, the cab driver glancing at them curiously through the rear view mirror. He waited until they'd fastened seatbelts before backing them out of the driveway. Amanda watched the house disappear through the passenger-side window.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd ridden with her in a car. Not like this, Todd trapped in the backseat, Amanda beside him. When they were kids, she'd pestered him endlessly with questions and games, sticky hands ruining his stuff. Now she was perfectly still beside him, her hands curled around the seat base, her knuckles white with tension. As soon as the house vanished from sight she turned her gaze forward, staring at the seatback in front of her as though doing so might unlock the secrets of the universe. Todd cleared his throat.
"I'm torn between the blue and black plaid or just a t-shirt. Or maybe I should wear the blue and black plaid over the t-shirt," he said, trying to distract her. Amanda glanced over sharply.
"Huh?" she asked.
"To wear, tonight," he clarified. Amanda blinked.
It had the intended effect, some of her tension visibly draining. The hands currently gripping the seat base relaxed, Amanda eventually setting them in her lap.
"You absolutely cannot wear a Mexican Funeral t-shirt," she told him. Todd frowned. Given that half his wardrobe consisted of Mexican Funeral t-shirts, he wasn't entirely sure what was wrong with it.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because you already wore your Mexican Funeral jacket, duh."
It was Amanda logic, and given that, of the two of them, he was the only one who'd actually been on a date, he was tempted to dismiss the suggestion. Her smile stopped him, Amanda relaxed in a way she never was.
"What about the blue button down?" she asked.
"I was wearing it Thursday when I ran into him outside a dead guy's apartment," he said.
This time Amanda's head swivelled towards him, her eyes wide.
"There wasn't actually a dead guy in the apartment," Todd clarified. "I was helping Alfredo clear out some records for this estate consignment thingy. I ran into Dirk outside."
"Seriously? That's weird. You just ran into him outside some guy's apartment? Like coincidentally?"
Todd shrugged. "I guess." He'd been too pleasantly surprised to give it much thought. "He was working, though, and with someone. I don't know, an employee or partner or... something."
Whoever she was, she didn't seem particularly happy to have run into Todd, Todd still not entirely sure he wanted to know.
"Anyway, I spent all of yesterday in the backroom sorting the dead guy's records, so I guess I could re-wear the green and yellow plaid I wore then."
They'd come into the city proper now, the cab inching ever closer to their destination. Todd tore his gaze from Amanda long enough to check the fare box. Sure enough, the number was exorbitant.
"Wait, can we go back to the part where you just happened to run into the British guy you've been mooning over for weeks outside some random guy's apartment?"
Todd wasn't quite sure how to answer that. He hadn't found it particularly strange. A little weird, maybe, but coincidences happened all the time. That didn't mean they were connected. It certainly didn't mean Dirk was there because of him. It was just... random chance.
He told her as much, ignoring her look of incredulity in favour of fishing out his wallet, the cab having pulled to a stop in front of his building.
Between rent, the groceries he'd bought in preparation for Amanda's visit, the cab ride and the money he'd set aside for tonight, Todd was back to being officially broke. He tried not to wince as he handed over the last of his unreserved cash, the driver rolling his eyes at the size of the tip. Todd ignored him, focusing instead on ushering Amanda from the car.
"Whoa, you cleaned," Amanda said when they finally reached the apartment, Todd momentarily affronted until he remembered what the place had looked like the last time she'd visited.
"I even changed the sheets for you," Todd said, gesturing to the bed. An extra pillow and blanket sat folded on the end of the couch.
"Tell me again why you want me to move here?" Amanda asked. She came fully into the apartment as she spoke, hand coming up to trail along the back of Todd's couch.
"Okay, it's... a bit small, but if we sell the house we could probably afford a two bedroom."
Amanda was in the kitchen now, running fingertips over the countertops. They must have met with her approval, because she glanced at the pads of her fingers and then nodded to herself. Propping her elbows on the counter, she stared at him through the galley window cut into the wall.
"Dirk has an apartment, right?" she asked, seemingly out of the blue. Todd frowned.
"I... would assume so, though I fail to see how that's relevant."
Amanda shot him a look. Subtlety wasn't her strong suit.
"I think you're getting ahead of yourself," Todd told her, though now that she'd mentioned it it was pretty much the only thing he was going to spend the night thinking about. What kind of apartment would Dirk even have? It was probably something classy, nicer than Todd's place, anyway, with a bed with a proper headboard and furniture that didn't come out of a second hand store.
And yet, Dirk had seemed perfectly comfortable here. Hadn't commented once on Todd's apartment, moving through it like it was utterly familiar, like he'd been here before. In hindsight, that was probably stranger than him showing up outside some dead guy's apartment.
Amanda, who'd raided his fridge and was coming into the living room with two beers, gave him a somewhat patronizing look.
"I'm just saying," she said, handing him one of the beers. "If things go well tonight... Don't feel like you have to... skip out on any invitation he might extend."
It struck him then that she was really here. That she was standing in his living room, teasing him like she used to when they were kids. Todd shook his head, but he cracked the beer, offering her a silent toast before taking his first sip. They had three hours before Dirk showed. Three hours to get Amanda comfortable with the idea of staying here. Three hours for her to decide what she wanted him to wear.
"I can't do this," Farah said, frozen in place at the foot of the Ridgely's stairs. Dirk, who had already reached the door, turned to face her.
"I promise you, you can," he said. Abandoning the door, he descended the stairs to meet her, waiting until he'd reached the bottom to extend his hand.
"There are nine steps, and then a door, and then a very short staircase, and then you've done it," he said, forcibly taking her hand when it became apparent she had no intention of taking his. The look she shot him was borderline pleading.
"Maybe we should just..."
"Nonsense," Dirk said. They hadn't come clear across town only to turn back now. Besides, Todd was waiting for him.
"You said it yourself, Farah," he said, nudging her a little. "We don't exist in this universe, which means the odds are fairly good we replaced ourselves. What if it's the same for everyone? What if Amanda and Todd are our Amanda and Todd, and they just don't remember."
He had no idea if that was true, but in the quiet of the night when his conscious nagged at him he told himself it was. It seemed to reassure Farah, too, some of her hesitation vanishing as she started up the stairs.
"She's Amanda," Farah said, speaking low and under her breath, Dirk well aware he wasn't meant to hear.
"She is," he still said, coaxing up her another step.
And another and another and another until they were standing inside the Ridgely's front hall.
Getting Farah up the staircase was somewhat easier, Dirk guiding more than prodding, Farah's confidence mounting with each step. And then they were standing outside Todd's door, Dirk's hand poised to knock, Farah looking less and less like she intended to bolt and more and more like she was actually looking forward to this.
Dirk rapped his knuckles against the door. Todd answered almost immediately.
"Dirk, hey," he said, a wide smile lighting up his face. Dirk returned it, only then noticing the tailored grey shirt Todd was wearing, its buttons fastened all the way to the top. His hair was parted, too, Todd polished in a way Dirk wasn't sure he'd ever seen him. His breath caught at the sight, Dirk thoroughly transfixed.
And then Todd's smile vanished. Dirk followed his gaze, and found Farah standing just over his right shoulder, her jaw clenched as she peered past Todd and into the apartment.
"Um..." Todd said.
"Right, sorry. I don't believe I introduced you. Todd, this is Farah, Farah, this is Todd."
"Uh, okay. Hi," Todd said, sounding both thoroughly confused and strangely shaken. Dirk frowned. Had he misinterpreted the evening? Had he violated some kind of American social norm?
"Is it alright that I..."
"What? Um, yeah, sure. It's fine," Todd said. He drew aside, letting Dirk slide past him into the apartment. Farah followed a second later, until they were standing in the threshold, Todd closing the door behind them.
"Amanda's just..." he said when he turned back to face them, his arm sweeping in the general direction of the bathroom. His cast a quizzical glance in Farah's direction before meeting Dirk's eye, his expression, in many ways, very reminiscent of the one he wore in the first few days of their acquaintanceship.
"Can I get either of you a drink?" he asked.
"Just water," Farah said before Dirk could answer. Todd's gaze once again swivelled in her direction. He offered a brief nod and then turned back to Dirk.
"I'll give you a hand," Dirk said, earning twin blank stares. Dirk gestured to the kitchen. Todd blinked. His gaze shot back to Farah before he finally nodded. The weight of Farah's gaze followed them from the room.
Hindsight being twenty-twenty, it was entirely possible bringing Farah was a mistake.
"Are you... alright?" Dirk asked as Todd drew a bottle of water from the fridge. He moved to the cupboard to retrieve a glass.
'What? Oh, fine. Fine. What about you?"
He filled the glass as he spoke, not quite meeting Dirk's gaze. Dirk frowned. He would have thought, especially after their night on the couch, this would have been easier.
"Did I... do something wrong?" Dirk tried. Todd set the now full glass down on the counter and then returned to the fridge.
"What? No, of course not, I..."
He reemerged a second later, two beers in hand.
"Should I not have invited Farah?"
Todd froze at that, a fairly good indication Dirk had hit upon something. He watched, willing himself to stillness as Todd turned and handed him a beer. Dirk set it on the counter beside the glass.
"No, it's fine. I just... I'm a bit unclear on who she is exactly."
Dirk relaxed. That, at least, he could answer.
"She's my... Actually, that's a good question. I don't think we ever worked out a title. Body guard? Security personnel? Oh! Strike force!"
At some point during his speech Todd's gaze had narrowed. He was staring at Dirk now like he no longer knew who Dirk was. Twice his mouth opened, and twice it closed, until eventually he asked:
"You... need a bodyguard?"
Dirk realized immediately the assumption Todd had made.
"Oh, no, not for this." If his laugh was a bit forced, he'd blame it on the unopened beer. "I just thought... Well, I thought her and your sister might get on, you know, make it a foursome rather than a third wheel."
Todd's transformation was somewhat astonishing to behold. It was as though someone had cut his strings, all the tension draining from his body. His eyes grew soft, the same expression he'd worn on the couch appearing on his face. Dirk's heart leapt in his throat. The wide smile Todd had worn upon answering the door was back, Dirk struck with the sudden blinding realization that he was in love with this Todd. That he was in love with all Todds. That despite what he'd told Farah, Amanda's presence had absolutely nothing to do with why he was here.
That probably should have bothered him more than it currently did.
"I..." was as far as he got before a shrill scream from the other room drew their attention. Todd sprang into action immediately, Farah's water forgotten as he dashed back into the living room.
Dirk followed on his heels, arriving midway through Amanda's stammered apology. Farah was staring at her with wide eyes, though Amanda's gaze was no less open. She stared at Farah like she was seeing a ghost. Farah stared back like she was in tremendous pain.
"Amanda, are you alright?" Todd asked. Amanda's gaze swivelled to Todd.
"Sorry, I didn't mean. I just..." She glanced at Farah again. "You probably don't even remember me. I... I think we shared a hospital room. You... You'd broken your leg."
If possible, Farah's eyes grew wider still. "I did... when I was seventeen. I broke it in three places. They had to put pins in it, but..."
"Oh, crap, this is so cool. You probably don't even recognize me. I was wearing a lot of bandages. It's... I'm Amanda."
Todd was staring at Farah now too, Dirk not entirely sure what to do with this information. He could tell Farah had no idea what Amanda was talking about, just as he could tell she was going to lie and say she did. It occurred to him, as Amanda continued to fill Farah in on the details, that he might have been right after all.
It was entirely possible Amanda held a very important key.
Five years prior
He'd met a man once. A man who'd made Dr. Coleridge gnash her teeth and bite her tongue. If he'd learned the man's name, he'd since forgotten it.
The man's name wasn't important, but he'd told Emershan something Emershan had never forgotten. Something he carried with him even now. "Most people," he'd said, "are pebbles, sunk deep into the mud of the riverbed. The stream of creation flows over them, but they barely notice it. Some people, however, are leaves. They float on the water's surface, letting the stream take them where they need to be."
He'd then looked Emershan in the eye and asked if Emershan thought he was a leaf or a pebble. At nearly seventeen, Emershan hadn't answered. But he'd thought, quite blithely, "I'm a dam. The water goes where I tell it to."
The wasn't entirely true. A stream was never just a stream. It belonged to an entire watershed. Branches upon branches converging together, endless streams flowing from countless sources into a single drain. Mapping the whole was incredibly difficult. At seventeen, he could map a single branch. At twenty-two he could do considerably more.
At twenty-two he could redirect a stream.
But redirecting a single stream did little to impact the whole. Certainly it did nothing to remove Dr. Coleridge from existence, and, more than anything, he wanted her gone.
He hated Coleridge almost as much as he did metaphors.
She was staring at him now, two of her henchmen standing at her side.
"You'd think you'd be eager for a chance to get away from all of this," she said, gesturing to his somewhat spartan rooms. They were an upgrade from what he was used to, but that didn't change what they were.
"I don't want to wear the hood," Emershan told her. She held it in her outstretched hand, its silvery lining glinting beneath the overhead lights. The same material lined the walls of his room. Dampening, Emershan knew. Neither side had reason to trust.
"Where are we going?" Emershan asked when it became clear Dr. Coleridge wasn't going to budge. He couldn't remember ever leaving the compound. If a world existed beyond these walls, he didn't know it.
"A field trip," Dr. Coleridge said, her smile entirely feigned. At eleven the sight would have terrified him. At twenty-two Emershan mirrored it with one of his own.
At twenty-two, he took the hood.
Chapter 10: White Light/White Heat
Dirk took the stairs to Todd's apartment two at a time, his phone out in case Todd wasn't home and he needed to leave yet another message. Not that Todd ever answered his messages, or his phone for that matter, but Dirk still liked to make a point.
He didn't bother knocking, Todd and him well past that point in their relationship. The door was unlocked, which meant Todd was undoubtedly home, so Dirk let himself in, and then immediately froze.
Because there was Todd, seated at the piano, wearing one of his many faded t-shirts and a pair of rather worn boxer shorts. Dirk caught the tail end of a particularly melancholy melody before the playing stopped, Todd glancing over his shoulder, as though he'd sensed rather than heard Dirk's arrival. Dirk offered a cheery wave. Todd shook his head and turned back to the keys.
He fiddled with some papers, yellow pencil jotting down notes. Dirk waited. Eventually Todd set the pencil aside and stood, pausing only to stretch before he started for the kitchen. Given the state of his hair, Dirk doubted he'd been awake long.
"You want coffee?" Todd asked. Dirk closed the door behind him and crossed to the galley window to lean across the counter. Sleep rumbled Todd was a sight to behold. Dirk found it far more endearing than he probably should.
"I'm fine," Dirk said, watching Todd fiddle with the Keurig Dirk had bought him for his birthday. He'd seemed enamoured with the one Farah had bought for the office, so Dirk had had a hunch he might appreciate one for home, and he was obviously right, something akin to pride swelling in his chest.
He also knew Todd well enough to know that no matter how exciting his news--no matter how profound his revelation--Todd wouldn't absorb it until after he'd had a coffee, so Dirk waited, content to watch Todd go through the motions, the grace of his movements something Dirk normally tried not to notice. Today he gave himself permission.
"Okay," Todd said once his coffee was made. He came to stand on the other side of the galley window, so that they were staring across the counter at each other. Todd glanced briefly to where his phone sat plugged into the wall, message notifications filling its screen. He shot Dirk a pointed eyebrow.
"Yes, well, it was important," Dirk said, pulling out his own phone.
He scrolled through his photo album--these mostly pictures of Todd, and those mostly of Todd scowling, Todd having a tendency to do so whenever Dirk asked him to smile. The fourth most recent was the photograph he was looking for. Dirk selected it and then set the phone down on the counter, upside down, and slid it across.
Todd narrowed his gaze.
"What am I looking at?" he asked, squinting at the screen.
"The police report from the Fedex truck," Dirk told him. The information did little to clear Todd's obvious confusion.
"The Fedex truck that got hit by that white van while I was..."
"Yes," Dirk said, respecting Todd's need to avoid mention of the obvious. "There were two vans, though only the one was involved in the accident."
Todd, of course, hadn't seen any of it. Not that Dirk could blame him, but until this morning he had absolutely no proof he hadn't simple hallucinated the entire thing.
"Okay, so why is half of it blacked out?" Todd asked. Together they glanced down at the screen, the document in question heavily edited, black lines obscuring entire paragraphs of text.
"It's been redacted. Officially," Dirk said.
That drew Todd up short. Dirk had shared enough of his own files for Todd to know what redacted meant, most if not all of Dirk's existence lost to similar black lines.
"There is," Dirk continued. "No mention of a white van. No mention of a collision, in fact." He reached down and scrolled to the next photograph in the set. "And the insurance claim lists act of god as the cause."
Todd was awake now, his eyes wide, an underlying tremor of excitement reflected in his gaze. For as much as Todd liked to grumble, he loved the thrill of discovery almost as much as Dirk. It was what made them good partners. It was what made them better friends. It was, in all likelihood, the reason Todd filled his every waking moment, Dirk having never known his like.
"This is connected, isn't it?" Todd asked, eager in a way only Todd ever was. Dirk grinned.
"I think we'll find that it is, yes. And I think our next step should be finding those vans."
Dirk watched, somewhat alarmed though not entirely surprised, as Todd drained his coffee in a single gulp. He set the cup down on the counter, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and said:
"Give me five minutes to shower."
Dirk was somewhat glad he was still distracted by recent developments, otherwise he might have processed Todd's words sooner. As it was, Todd was halfway to the bathroom before Dirk realized what he'd said, twin spots of colour staining his cheeks. Todd had showered with Dirk inside the apartment precisely once before. It was not an experience Dirk wanted to repeat. The doors inside the Ridgely were terribly thin. They may have blocked Todd from sight, but they certainly did nothing to block the sound, Dirk acutely aware of Todd moving beneath the running water. And given that he was trying desperately not to think of Todd in intimate terms, listening to the man shower seemed somewhat counterproductive.
"Actually, when you're done, come to the office. I'm going to see if I can get Farah to pull surveillance from the area," Dirk said just as Todd reached the bathroom door.
Todd glanced over his shoulder, Dirk momentarily taken aback by what he swore was a look of disappointment. It vanished almost as soon as Dirk registered it, Todd offering a nod before disappearing behind the door. A minute later, the sound of running water filled the apartment.
Not quite sure what to think, Dirk started for the door.
Back in the present
Dirk was fairly certain he knew where they were going. There was a bar within walking distance of Todd's apartment, a quiet place with music and curved booths lining the back wall. Todd had taken him there after their second case. The booths, which would have sat four perfectly, were entirely too intimate for two.
"Explain this again," Dirk said, keeping a slow pace at Farah's side. Todd and Amanda were several paces ahead, Amanda saying something to Todd in just as hushed a tone.
"I was seventeen," Farah whispered. Her eyes were locked on the back of Amanda's head, though, to be fair, she'd been staring at Amanda pretty much from the moment they re-met.
"It happened in one of my martial arts classes. My foot got caught on the mat and I twisted the wrong way. It was stupid. I ended up fracturing my tibia bone in two places and my fibula in one. I was in hospital... two weeks? Maybe longer. But I had a private room. And I certainly don't remember meeting Amanda... And I..."
Dirk nodded. It all made perfect sense, though possibly not to Farah so he opted to explain.
"Do you remember when I told you I'd thought we'd replaced ourselves?" he asked.
"Of course. You said it was because we were at the epicentre of the... whatever happened."
"Precisely. We still remember our timeline, but we don't remember this one. We know, however, there are differences. We know, for example, that Zachariah Webb never travelled forward through time, which means Patrick Spring didn't exist, which means I never came to Seattle and your father never worked for him. Would I be right if I were to assume Patrick Spring covered your private hospital stay?"
"Of course," Farah said, sounding like she was beginning to follow.
"Everything's connected," Dirk told her. "Zachariah Webb. Patrick Spring. Lux Dejour. Amanda getting hurt. You no longer having a private hospital room. You and Amanda meeting before your time! It's all connected."
He paused then, momentarily overwhelmed by the universe's stream.
"Farah," he said, voice rising in his excitement. "I'm beginning to think there's a single connection. I'm beginning to think this isn't as complicated as I thought."
In lieu of answering, Farah hissed. Dirk glanced up sharply, only to find that they'd arrived at their destination. Todd and Amanda were watching them curiously.
"Sorry," he said, letting out a somewhat self-deprecating laugh. "I sometimes take my work home with me."
He wasn't entirely sure how much they'd heard, but neither looked particularly upset. Todd looked... well, slightly embarrassed, his cheeks spotted with colour. Amanda, on the other hand, appeared somewhat smug.
"This is the place," Todd said, gesturing over his shoulder.
He seemed unaccountably nervous, as though he half expected Dirk to announce he hated it. Come to think of it, Todd had been nervous the first time, too, though Dirk had chalked it up to Todd not yet being comfortable with their newly cemented friendship. Clearly that wasn't what was happening here.
"Shall we," Dirk said, gesturing Todd towards the door.
It left Farah on her own, though he could hear Amanda already engaging her, asking after Farah's leg as though the decade that had passed was mere months instead. Farah's stammered response was lost to the din of the crowd.
Like last time, Todd led them to the back of the bar, away from the crowds, to where six curved booths lined an open brick wall. The booths were exact replicas of the ones he'd sat in with his Todd, the same burgundy, leather-covered benches, the same wide mahogany tables; the same pendant lights suspended above each.
They were early enough three of the six booths were empty. Todd chose the one furthest from the stage, this with a single acoustic guitar occupying its centre. Dirk remembered this from before, too, how Todd had gone strangely quiet when the guitarist had begun to play.
He--the other Todd, this Todd--glanced at Dirk now, a brief flicker of uncertainty reflected in his gaze. It lingered only a moment, and then Todd was ushering Amanda into the booth, Todd following after, the two of them settling side by side at the back.
It left Dirk and Farah to claim spots on either side, Dirk immediately choosing the spot next to Todd. Farah hesitated only briefly, and then slid in next to Amanda, her gaze locked on the tabletop.
Had he thought the booths would be perfect for four? Apparently he was wrong. They weren't perfect for four. They were, in fact, decidedly small for four, the result being that he ended up practically sitting on Todd's lap, Todd's warmth bleeding into his side. It took considerable effort not to lean into that warmth. It took considerably more to remember why doing so might get him into trouble.
He probably should have seen this coming. He'd certainly spent enough of their previous visit distracted by Todd and the shiny wet of Todd's whiskey stained lips; by the way Todd's hands had moved as he spoke, nothing at all like the Todd who had protested nearly every minute of their first case together.
That night was an important milestone in their friendship. They'd bonded outside of a case. Todd had talked about music. He'd talked about Amanda. He'd talked about dropping out of university and quitting his band. Dirk had told him about Riggins. He'd talked about St. Cedds. If Dirk had to pinpoint the moment he'd fallen in love, he was certain that night would feature near the top of his list. Todd was sitting right beside him, and yet he missed his Todd so much it physically hurt.
"You okay?" Todd asked, some of Dirk's turmoil undoubtedly showing on his face. Forcing a smile, Dirk glanced over, only to find Todd staring at him intently, looking every bit as vulnerable as his Todd had the first time he'd admitted to faking pararibulitis.
Dirk's heart seized in his chest.
"I think I mentioned this already, but... I don't really get out much," Dirk said, earning a snort from Amanda that drew everyone's attention.
She was watching him, he realized, her gaze scrutinizing, as though she hadn't yet decided if she thought him worthy of her brother's time. Todd had introduced them back at the apartment, but aside from sidelong glance, Amanda had mostly been preoccupied with Farah.
"Todd tells me you're a private detective," she said now.
"That's right," Dirk told her, well aware he was now being watched by three sets of eyes.
"You don't look like a private detective."
The universe, Dirk had discovered, was inherently lazy. It took shortcuts where it could, duplicated previous successes where possible. It shouldn't have surprised him then to find himself trapped in a fog of deja vu, Amanda's words ringing in his eyes. Of course, he already knew his line.
"No private detective looks like a private detective. It's one of the first rules of private detection."
Unlike last time, the comment earned a brief chuckle from Todd. Dirk let his gaze slip momentarily from Amanda, taking in the slightly fond smile spread across Todd's face. Amanda answered right on cue.
"Well if no private detective looks like a private detective, how does a private detective know what it is that he shouldn't look like?"
Very interesting. Dirk made a suitable face.
"Todd also tells me you're into music," Amanda continued, apparently having decided now was a good a time as any for an interrogation. Dirk considered.
Had she searched the playlist on his phone, she might have thought otherwise. Had she known the records Todd had sold him were stacked on a chair, she definitely wouldn't have asked. But then he remembered the nights he'd spent curled on Todd's couch, music spilling between them, Todd animated as they discussed his collection.
"I like records," Dirk decided on. "They evoke... nice memories for me. And your brother, of course, has amazing taste in music. He's been very helpful."
This time he let his gaze drift intentionally to Todd and found Todd watching him, his expression soft, the edges of it laced with something Dirk thought might be affection. Warmth pooled in his chest at the sight. Across the table, Farah cleared her throat. Dirk forced himself to look away.
"Shall I get the first round?" he asked, needing to do something that wasn't staring longingly at Todd.
"I'll come with you," Todd said, clearly oblivious to Dirk's struggle. Dirk shot him a smile, or intended to, realizing only then that Todd was already sliding his way out of the booth so that it was either move or end up with Todd in his lap. There was a lot of lap sitting going on. A lot of plans going awry. Dirk couldn't quite remember why that was a bad thing.
Oh, right. Farah.
He could feel her eyes on them as they started for the bar, though Dirk opted against looking back. He caught a drift of something Amanda was saying, but Dirk ignored even that, concentrating instead on navigating the growing throng.
"I don't think we even asked them what they wanted," Todd said when they reached the bar. He glanced back over his shoulder, Dirk following his gaze. Amanda was gesturing somewhat excitedly, her sleeves still drawn over her hands. Farah sat, stiff and awkward, listening intently.
"Farah will want water," Dirk said. Todd shot him a smile.
"And Amanda beer. That simplifies things."
There was a bit of a crowd gathering now, the place beginning to pick up. It made Dirk glad they'd arrived when they had, the last of the booths now occupied, not a single table remaining. It also meant they had to wait in a short queue for a bartender. Todd planted himself on an empty stool, Dirk opting to lean his hip against the rail, body turned so they were face to face.
"I think my sister likes you," Todd said.
"Well, I am a likeable guy," Dirk quipped. The idea was, of course, laughable, but Amanda had liked him in their timeline, before even Todd so he hadn't truly been worried about making an impression.
"I can see that," Todd said, taking Dirk's barb at face value.
"Said no one, ever," Dirk countered.
He meant the comment to be light, but either he'd failed on his delivery or Todd had misinterpreted. Either way, his expression grew serious, Dirk half afraid Todd intended to hug him--not that he'd object to Todd hugging him, but it wasn't at all something his Todd would do, the idea vaguely ludicrous.
"I find that hard to believe," Todd eventually answered, Dirk both relieved and oddly disappointed.
"I find you hard to believe," Dirk said before he could stop himself. Todd arched an eyebrow, clearly taken aback. Dirk scrambled to explain.
"I very rarely meet anyone who can tolerate my company. You seem to be the exception. And given that I find your company exceptional, the whole thing is rather, well, exceptional."
He'd meant it to be an explanation, not a confession, and yet Todd ducked his head like it was, bright pink staining his cheeks. Dirk stared, transfixed. Over their shoulder, someone cleared their throat.
It was the bartender, Dirk stammering slightly as he ordered their drinks. It wasn't until they were back at their table that he realized he'd ordered Todd and him the same thing, both drinks electric blue; both in possession of tiny pink umbrellas.
Todd lost count after the fourth round. He distinctly remembered someone coming around to clear away their empty glasses, and yet the table was full again, Todd counting at least seven pink umbrellas floating in now melted ice. Whatever Dirk was ordering, it had the intended effect.
That being that he was comfortably drunk, a necessary condition for him to relax given the circumstances. Not that the circumstances were bad. If anything the night was going better than he'd anticipated. Amanda was having a good time, her smile faltering only once, and that because her sleeve had caught in a condensation puddle.
Even Farah seemed to be having good time, though Todd still couldn't quite get a read on her. She was quiet, and seemed to disapprove of the way Dirk kept leaning into Todd's space, Dirk apparently a handsy drunk. And yet Dirk was right about her and Amanda. If Todd didn't know any better, he'd think Amanda smitten.
"I can't believe you don't remember me," Amanda was saying, smile just a bit too bright.
"Well, to be fair, the whole experience was... it was kind of a blur," Farah answered, her words a bit jumbled, and this despite having consumed only water.
"Yeah, and it was like ten years ago," Amanda said. She gestured with her half empty bottle. "Plus, I was there for like months and you were the only roommate I had the entire time, so obviously I'd remember you."
Todd narrowed his gaze. It wasn't like Amanda to talk about the accident. He couldn't tell if it was the alcohol or something else. Both Farah and Dirk were listening intently. Todd straightened a little, only then realizing just how far into Dirk's space he'd drifted. Dirk's pinky finger was brushing against his thigh. Todd wasn't entirely sure he was aware. Amanda was still talking.
"Not that it was terrible. By the time you left Todd was better, so he started visiting me."
Her head swivelled towards him as she spoke, Todd taking in the slight glaze of her eyes. Without thinking he reached out and plucked the bottle from her hand; replaced it with Farah's newly acquired and as of yet untouched glass of water. Amanda didn't appear to notice. Farah nodded her approval.
"God, do you remember that?" she asked him.
"I try not to," Todd said, well aware the table had fallen strangely silent. It was Dirk who broke it.
"Was Todd... sick?" he asked.
Dirk was still pressed against him, so close Todd could smell the slight salt of his skin. He wanted to taste it. He wanted to bury his face in Dirk's neck and run his tongue along the underside of his jaw. He wanted to feel Dirk's hands fisted in his hair. He did not, under any circumstances, want to discuss the accident or the events that had led up to it, or why Todd only learned about it a week later, his sister alone in a hospital bed somewhere above his head.
"You know, maybe we should all get a round of water," he said, effectively ending the conversation. Amanda shot him a look, but it was the look of someone only half following along so he let it go. Instead he turned to Dirk.
And found Dirk watching him openly, curiosity playing over his features. Todd offered an apologetic smile. He trusted Dirk, he did, but there were things he'd done that he wasn't proud of, and that included pretty much everything leading up to Amanda's hospital stay. He wasn't quite ready for Dirk to know the worst of him. Not and risk losing the way Dirk was staring at him, his eyes almost as glazed as Amanda's, his cheeks flushed with colour.
Todd cleared his throat. Across the table, Farah did the same.
"You're going to have to move if you want me to get water," Todd said. Dirk blinked.
He glanced from Todd to Farah to the tabletop and then back again. Todd waited, faintly amused.
"Right, I'll just..."
He gestured as he stood, surprisingly graceful for someone who'd consumed at least half of the glasses littering their table. Todd wasn't quite so lucky, his knees buckling the second he stood. The only thing that saved him from falling unceremoniously onto his face was the arm Dirk somehow managed to snake around his waist.
It put him in an interesting position, his hand having come up to catch himself on Dirk's chest. Neither of them moved, Todd not entirely sure he could, Dirk seeming perfectly content to hold Todd against him. Across the table, Farah stood.
"I'll give Todd a hand," she announced, which seemed to jolt Dirk from his reverie. He blinked, and then caught Todd's eye, waiting for Todd's nod before stepping back, the arm around Todd's waist falling away. Todd immediately missed its warmth.
They'd been here... five hours or so, he thought, and in all that time he and Farah had maybe exchanged ten words. It wasn't that he didn't like her--if anything spending three hours in her company had firmly eliminated her as potential competition, which made him like her far more--he just couldn't wrap his head around her. Couldn't piece together who she was to Dirk and why Dirk had ever thought to bring her along. He was also fairly certain she didn't like him. Either that or she didn't like that Dirk liked him, and given that she'd spent half the night staring at his sister he couldn't figure out why.
"How long have you worked for Dirk?" he asked when they reached the bar. Farah glanced over, clearly surprised he'd asked.
"About a year," she said. "Before that I was in private security."
She turned to face him then, their water seemingly forgotten. Todd had the distinct impression he was being weighed and measured. That she'd found him wanting.
"Dirk can be a bit... naive," she said. "He's also had quite a lot to drink. I trust you won't take advantage of that."
For the first time since they met, she caught his eye, Todd momentarily taken aback by the intensity he saw reflected in her gaze. This, he thought, was someone who could kill him. Someone who had possibly killed other people. In that moment she was terrifying.
In that moment she was also an older sister, her warning one he might have given on Amanda's behalf. Suddenly her connection to Dirk made considerable sense.
"I really like him," Todd said, about as open and honest as he ever was. Something in Farah's expression softened. She let her gaze drift back to the table, to where Amanda and Dirk now sat side by side, conversation passing between them.
When she glanced back, it was to offer him a single nod, not, he thought, permission, but a promise to not intervene. Todd wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that, so instead of asking, he stepped up to the bar and ordered their drinks.
"You're totally smitten with my brother, aren't you?"
It took Dirk's slightly fogged brain several seconds to process Amanda's words. Another second to figure out how he was going to respond. What was the expression? In vino veritas? Dirk had seen enough of the phenomena at St. Cedd's to know it was true. He'd also had enough to drink to not really care.
"Like you wouldn't believe," he admitted, forgetting for a moment that this wasn't the Amanda he knew; that the Todd at the bar wasn't the Todd he knew either.
Amanda's response was a wide grin. She leaned across the table, somewhat conspiratorially.
"I've never seen him like this before," she said.
"Never?" Dirk heard himself ask.
This probably wasn't a conversation he should be having. It was definitely not a conversation Farah would approve of. And yet, he wanted to know. To understand what made this Todd so different from his Todd. What made this Todd smile at him and press against him and chew his bottom lip whenever Dirk so much as glanced in his direction. His Todd had spent the entire night they were here apologizing every time their legs brushed under the table.
"To be fair," Amanda said, her expression turning serious. "After our parents..." She gestured vaguely, Dirk left to fill in the blanks. "I don't think he really dated much. And before that, he wasn't exactly out, you know?"
"Out?" Dirk asked, too late realizing what she meant.
"Our parents were... ultra conservative. I think that kind of screwed him up."
The way she said it suggested he wasn't the only one. Todd--his Todd--didn't talk about his parents much, for obvious reasons, this the first anyone had made mention of their... political affiliations. Dirk wondered if it was related, and if so, what exactly that meant.
"You," Amanda continued, pointing her half empty water glass in his general direction. "Might be the most serious he's been about anyone, ever."
That gave Dirk pause. He hadn't the foggiest notion how to respond. It simultaneously set his heart racing and his stomach plummeting, Dirk torn between giddy excitement and abject misery.
"I..." was as far as he got before two glasses of water appeared before him. Dirk glanced up sharply, and found Todd watching him, tentative uncertainty reflected in his gaze. Without really meaning to, Dirk broke into a grin. Todd returned it.
"Do I want to ask what kind of things she's been telling you," he said, gesturing for Dirk to remain seated as he slid into the booth.
"I was just ascertaining his intentions," Amanda said, Dirk's head swivelling back towards her. Across the table, Farah set the remaining two glasses down with a bit too much force. Water sloshed onto the table.
"Actually," Dirk said, catching Farah's eye briefly on his way back to Todd. "We were discussing politics."
That earned him a raised eyebrow.
"You follow politics?" Todd asked.
"Not at all. I don't know what's happening anywhere, ever. It's really quite relaxing," Dirk admitted.
That earned him a laugh, this from Amanda's end of the table. She'd finished her first water and had started in on the second, getting a few sips in before her eyes went wide and she began tapping frantically at Farah's shoulder. Farah, halfway into the booth, froze at the contact.
"Gotta pee," Amanda announced, sending Farah back the way she'd come.
Amanda climbed out after, a little unsteady on her feet but better certainly than Todd had been.
"Are you sure you can manage?" Todd still asked, sounding as overprotective as he did concerned. Amanda flipped him the American bird. Dirk glanced pointedly in Farah's direction.
He got an exasperated eye-roll for his trouble, but she still took Amanda by the elbow, half walking her, half guiding her to the back of the bar, where twin neon signs marked their destination. Dirk turned his attention back to Todd, and found him smiling again.
"I should probably get Amanda home," he said, sounding both amused and vaguely regretful.
"It is getting late," Dirk agreed. Neither of them moved. Across the room, the man playing guitar switched to something soft and folksy, the sound perfectly suited to the hour.
They had the whole booth to themselves, and yet they were still sitting side by side, Todd's hip pressed against his own, their shoulders brushing together.
"This was a lot of fun," Todd said. He twisted a little as he spoke, Dirk doing the same so that although it created a pocket of air between them, they were now sitting leaned slightly towards one another, their knees knocking under the table.
"We should do this again," Todd continued, his eyes growing impossibly large.
It took Dirk several seconds to work out that was because Todd was drifting towards him, Dirk struck with the sudden, blinding realization that Todd was going to kiss him. Dirk wasn't entirely sure what to do with that.
"Do you ever..." Todd froze, though he made no move to put additional space between them, Dirk lost to the colour of his eyes. "If you knew you could have an entirely different life, one you really, really wanted, but having it would mean giving up something that was really important to you... what would you do?"
Perhaps it was the seriousness of the question. Perhaps it was the tone. Whatever it was, Todd drew back, not enough to put any real space between them, but enough that Dirk no longer felt quite so much like he was drowning.
"I don't know. I guess I'd weigh my options, decided what was important to me," Todd told him.
"And what if you wanted both?"
Todd laughed at that. It wasn't a pleasant sound.
"You know what they say about having your cake."
He'd had enough to drink to slow his thought process, and yet even then Dirk couldn't begin to interpret Todd's answer. He frowned, existential crisis forgotten as he leaned back into Todd's space.
"What do they say about having cake?"
Todd shot him a quizzical look. "That you can't have it and eat it too?"
Dirk drew back again, entirely perplexed.
"Why would they say that? That doesn't make any sense. Why would you have cake if you weren't going to eat it?"
Todd was openly staring now, like he was back to thinking Dirk was not entirely there. Dirk was beginning to think this was like the knife thing, one of those American idioms he'd never been able to parse. Eventually Todd took pity on him.
"It's an expression. It means you can't have incompatible things. If you eat the cake, you don't have the cake anymore, so by eating the cake you... You know what, nevermind." He paused then, openly staring at Dirk like doing so might answer the question he obviously wanted to ask. Dirk waited.
"Is there... Is there someone else?"
"Of course not," Dirk answered without hesitation. Of all the things he'd expected Todd to ask, that wasn't one of them, and yet it was easy now to see the faint glimmer of hurt in Todd's eyes, Dirk somewhat horrified to realize that Todd thought... That Todd would ever think...
"There's only you. There's only ever you."
It was, perhaps, a more honest answer than he'd intended, but it was also apparently the right thing to say, Todd's uncertainty vanishing, in its place a genuine smile, this one more than just a little shy.
The sight of it was captivating, so much so that Dirk didn't register Todd moving again, not until Dirk's vision began to blur. Instinct rather than conscious decision closed his eyes, Dirk's breath catching, his entire world narrowing to the single point of warmth before him.
And then Farah was clearing her throat, Dirk's eyes snapping open, his heart racing for all the wrong reasons. He drew back, blinking until Todd came back into focus, an apology already forming on his tongue.
Except, Todd was laughing, seeming entirely too amused. Amanda, too, he realized, was laughing, as though an aborted near kiss was the funniest thing in the world. The only person not laughing was Farah. Standing at Amanda's side, she looked ready to commit murder.
"Amanda," Farah said, "has had enough, and would like to call it a night."
Farah's gaze swivelled from Dirk to Todd as she spoke, the effect somewhat dramatic. Todd straightened, his laughter subsiding. He glanced from Farah to Amanda, his expression now somewhat alarmed.
"Are you okay?" he asked. Amanda nodded.
"Dude, I'm fine. I'm just tired, but you know what, I can get myself back. Or Farah can take me, if you want..." She nodded somewhat conspicuously in Dirk's direction, Dirk well aware that if he'd asked, this Todd would come home with him.
If he had a home, that was.
"Don't be ridiculous," Todd said. "Of course I'll take you home."
He glanced to Dirk as he spoke, open apology reflected in his gaze. If things were different, it said, if Amanda hadn't come, Todd would have invited Dirk back to his apartment. Dirk knew without a doubt he would have gone.
That probably ought to have concerned him more than it did.
The decision made, they didn't linger, Todd helping Amanda into her coat, Farah glaring every time Dirk so much as glanced in Todd's direction. It was a wonder they made it outside without her saying something. Dirk wasn't entirely sure he didn't deserve it. Certainly he didn't deserve to have her step aside, allowing him a brief moment of privacy to say goodbye. It took every ounce of his willpower not to grab Todd by the lapels and pull him in for a kiss.
"I had a good time," he said, utterly sincere. Over his shoulder, he caught a wisp of Farah and Amanda's conversation, Dirk apparently not the only one flustered and confused.
"Me too," Todd said, his bottom lip catching between his teeth. Dirk couldn't help but stare.
It was probably fortunate Farah chose that moment to appear at his shoulder, otherwise Dirk might have done something stupid. He was still thinking about doing something stupid, timelines blurring until he could no longer tell where one ended and the other began.
"There's a bus stop up the street," Farah said. She glanced to Todd. "Are you okay getting her home?"
Amanda had joined them, looking far more sober than she had in the bar. Dirk could feel it too, the brisk air clearing his head. Todd offered Farah a nod. Amanda rolled her eyes. She turned her attention to Dirk.
"It was really cool to met you," she said, smile just a shade too knowing.
"Likewise," Dirk told her. She turned back to Farah.
"You," she said, "are so fucking cool."
In lieu of a response, Farah stammered something that might have involved protest. Amanda was already moving on.
"I did it," she said to her brother, sounding strangely proud. "I came to the city, I went out, I met your boyfriend. I am awesome."
She didn't wait for a response, already starting back for Todd's apartment. Todd stared helplessly after her before turning back to Dirk. He offered an apologetic shrug, though Dirk couldn't tell if it was for the abrupt departure or her assumption regarding their relationship status. Dirk felt absolutely no need to correct her. Not until Todd had jogged after her, Dirk left standing in front of the bar, Farah staring at him like she fully intended to lecture him the second the Brotzmans were out of sight.
"I think we might have a problem," Dirk said, beating her to it. Farah's eyes bulged.
"Definitely?" Dirk tried. Farah shook her head. Without saying a word she started them towards the bus stop. Dirk bit his lip to keep from telling her they probably weren't running at this hour.
Chapter 11: The Gift
The author has chosen not to use archive warnings. That said, mature themes carry throughout. In this particular chapter there is a non-explicit allusion to a past suicide attempt.
Voices carried from somewhere near the vicinity of his feet. No, wait, that wasn't right. Was it? Todd assessed. He was definitely horizontal. A bed, maybe? Certainly his limbs felt heavy, moving them an insurmountable task. He tried wiggling his toes. They barely twitched. The voices continued.
A conversation, he realized, though only fragments filtered through. It was like going through a series of short tunnels while trying to listen to the radio, the station cutting in and out. Upstairs, he heard someone say, followed swiftly by, a week ago. The station cut out, replaced by the steady beating of his heart, this amplified from somewhere above his head.
Not a common name, someone said when the station picked up again. Todd tried in vain to open his eyes. The same night? the other voice asked, incredulous. Too white light appeared behind his lashes. Todd groaned.
Or tried to, a gurgled hiss escaping from around whatever was in his throat. Todd hadn't noticed it before. It was all he could focus on now. He desperately wanted it out. He tried whimpering. The sound came out more like a petulant whine.
"Oh, good, he's coming around again."
Someone lifted his hand. They set it back against the mattress. Todd instinctively reached for the connection. His fingers barely twitched.
"Page Dr. Patel if he wakes up," the voice said, clearer this time. The presence at his side drifted away, hollow emptiness left behind. A heavy blanket covered his limbs. With it came greying fog, Todd struggling against a wave of growing darkness. Again he tried moving, but again his body refused to cooperate. Awareness receded, and with it his tentative grasp on consciousness.
When he woke again, he found he could open his eyes.
He was also, he noted, in a hospital bed, his arms secured at his sides. The light was still too bright, though it took him a moment to realize that was because someone was shining it in his eyes. Todd blinked, his arm flexing against its restraint.
"Good morning," said the woman with the light. "Can you tell me your name?"
Todd opened his mouth to speak, to tell whoever this was that of course he remembered his name, he wasn't an idiot. What came out was a low hiss, Todd's throat like sandpaper, his vocal cords shrivelled to dust. A straw appeared at the side of his mouth.
The straw held water, cold bliss running down his throat. Too soon it was pulled away. A face appeared above his, kind eyes regarding him with clinical curiosity.
"I..." he tried, stopping once to clear his throat.
"Let's start again," the woman said. "I'm Dr. Patel. You're at Harborview Medical Center. And I need you to answer a few questions, can you do that?"
Todd nodded. Doing so felt like a revelation. Everything hurt.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Todd Brotzman," he said, half whispered in a voice that sounded nothing like his own.
The questions continued. He was asked the date--August 15, 2007, off by more than a week. He was asked the President's name--Bush. He was asked what city they were in--Seattle. He was asked if he remembered what happened. Todd drew a blank.
He found out later, of course. Or rather, pieced it together, the counsellor they sent him a dead give away. She appeared three days into his stay, a bright point amidst constant tests and questioning. He knew now he'd woken from a coma, the word brain damage hovering uncertainly in the air, the question as of yet unanswered.
"Can you tell me what happened?" the woman asked. Unlike the nurses who wore scrubs, she wore a pale yellow cardigan drawn over a turquoise green blouse. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun, wisps of grey framing her face. The name on her ID badge read Lyn Lee. Any other circumstance, Todd might have found her presence comforting.
"I don't remember," he told her, not strictly a lie.
He remembered the fight. The sound of his mother crying over the phone. He remember his father asking him where the money they'd sent him for school had gone. He remembered Mike and Steve showing up, Mike eerily calm, Steve near shaking with rage. Our equipment turned up at a pawn shop across town, Mike had said. Anything you want to tell us?
Of course they'd known. Todd wasn't entirely sure why it had come as a surprise. He wasn't lying, though, when he said he didn't remember anything that came after. That didn't mean he couldn't piece it together. It wasn't as if he hadn't considered it before.
"Do you have a history of drug use?" Lyn asked.
Todd shook his head. "Just recreational," he answered honestly. Lyn held his gaze.
"And what about depression?"
"Look," Todd told her. "It was just an accident. A mistake. It won't happen again. I'm done with all that."
Lyn's expression didn't change. Todd couldn't quite tell if she believed him. Probably not. She held his gaze for several seconds before letting her attention drop to the clipboard in her lap. When she glanced up again, her expression was pinched.
"Do you know an Amanda Brotzman?" she asked. Todd sat bolt upright in the bed.
"She's my sister, why, is she here?"
If Amanda was here, that meant his parents were here, Todd terrified by the prospect. He wondered if someone had called them, or if their names were still listed in his files, next of kin something a person carried with them from year to year. Harborview Medical Center. He'd had his tonsils out here when he was a kid.
"There's someone here who needs to speak with you. Are you up for having a visitor?" Lyn asked, ignoring the question. Todd gave a brief nod, his hands sweaty, his heart beating frantically in his chest.
Lyn stood gracefully. She tucked her clipboard under her arm and then disappeared through the door, Todd left with nothing but the steady droning of machines for company. She returned a few minutes later, though not with his parents--not with Amanda. Instead a uniformed officer followed on her heels. Todd panicked at the thought of being placed under arrest, the words false police report and insurance fraud ringing in his ears.
Reality, it seemed, was far, far worse than his fears.
Back in the present
Todd woke with a pounding headache and the taste of fermented sugar on his tongue.
That would be whatever it was Dirk had them drinking last night. Todd honestly didn't know. Whatever it was, he was now having a hard time opening his eyes. There was too much sun filtering into his apartment, for one. Not quite ready to jostle his hangover, Todd turned slowly towards the couch back, shying away from the light as he opened his eyes.
God, even the back of his couch hurt to look at.
And yet, despite all of that, Todd permitted himself a smile. The night had... gone well. Better than. Amanda was happy, and Dirk had seemed... He still didn't want to get too far ahead of himself, but for the first time since Dirk blew into his life he was starting think he might have a solid chance. More than that. He thought maybe this had the potential to go somewhere. That alone was reason enough to smile.
A groan from the bed drew his attention. Todd's smile grew to a grin. His jaw was beginning to ache from smiling this much.
"I hate you," Amanda's voice drifted across the room. Todd rolled slowly onto his back, wincing as a particularly inconvenient beam of sunlight hit him in the face.
"You had fun," Todd said, remembering the way she'd skipped home, the smile she'd carried with her into sleep.
"That was before the hangover," Amanda informed him. "Why did you let me drink so much?"
It was a reasonable question. Todd couldn't remember the last time either of them had drank this much. It was no wonder they were feeling the aftereffects. Not that he was complaining. It was a good night. A better night than he'd had in a really long time. He could still feel Dirk pressed against him; still feel Dirk's breath ghosting against his lips. The thought of it made him shiver.
The thought of it made him wish he had his own room.
"I'll make us coffee," Todd said to the air above the couch, needing a distraction. The last thing he needed to do lie on his couch imagining Dirk's hand on his thigh while Amanda lay sprawled in his bed, still grumbling about her headache.
Sitting proved more challenging than he'd anticipating, the entire room spinning as he struggled into an upright position. Todd closed his eyes, but it only made the spinning worse so he opened them again, focusing this time on the outline of his television until the room came back into focus. Coffee and Advil, he decided. And after that, possibly eggs.
Amanda was a lump in the middle of his bed, Todd's duvet covering her completely. Todd chuckled at that, needing another moment as he got his legs under him before he felt confident enough to start into the kitchen. The coffee maker sat on the counter, plugged in next to the stove. Todd opted to make a full pot.
While he waited for it to brew, he poured himself a glass of water, and then, after a moment, poured a second for Amanda. This he carried into the main room and set beside the bed, Amanda having yet to emerge from her cocoon. His steps felt lighter as he made his way back into the kitchen.
He chased a couple of Advil with his second glass of water, and by then the coffee was ready so he poured himself a cup. Snuffling from the other room suggested Amanda was on the verge of getting up. He poured her a cup as well.
"Think you can eat?" he asked, setting her coffee down beside her as of yet untouched water. Amanda grumbled something that may have been confirmation. Todd headed back into the kitchen.
This was something he was good at. It was always him who made breakfast. For Amanda when they were kids. For his roommates back in college. For his bandmates after a gig. He'd even made breakfast once or twice for a one night stand. He let himself briefly imagine making breakfast for Dirk, and then forced himself to stop. Thinking about making breakfast for Dirk quickly became thinking about Dirk sprawled in his bed, which quickly became thinking about the things he and Dirk might have done in his bed, none of which he should be thinking about this early in the game.
Instead he focused on laying strips of bacon in a pan and beating eggs because Amanda liked hers scrambled. Twenty minutes later he and Amanda were sitting at the table, Amanda still nursing her first cup of coffee, Todd well into his second. Two plates sat before them. Amanda was staring at hers like this was the first time she'd ever seen food.
"You okay?" Todd asked. Between the coffee and the Advil he was starting to feel almost normal. Amanda blinked.
"Is this what living with you is going to be like? Because I'm not sure I can handle it," she eventually said. Todd felt the bottom of his stomach drop out from beneath him.
"No. No, of course not. I don't normally... I mean it's not like I..."
"Relax. I'm just teasing you. I actually had a lot of fun last night."
Even knowing it was true, it was nice to hear her say it. Todd shoved a strip of bacon into his mouth to keep from answering. Amanda took a tentative bite of her scrambled eggs.
"Dirk's awesome, by the way," she said around her second mouthful, having apparently decided the eggs were a good idea after all. Todd tried desperately not to blush. Given the way Amanda's eyes lit up, he suspected he'd failed utterly.
"He's... cool," Todd tried. Amanda snorted.
"He's gorgeous. And interesting. And completely smitten with you."
Todd had no idea how to respond to that, so he took another sip of his coffee, waiting until his throat was clear before saying, "I'm not sure if I'd use the word smitten."
"Oh, that wasn't my word. That was his."
It took Todd a second to work out what she meant. Another to decide he'd heard her right. Todd cleared his throat.
"He... He said he was smitten?"
Amanda gestured with her butter knife. "His exact words were: like you wouldn't believe.
Warmth flooded Todd's chest. He didn't think he could wipe the smile from his face if he tried. Instead he sat there grinning, Amanda grinning back. He felt like they were kids again, sharing secrets between them. It reminded him faintly of that time Amanda smuggled home a kitten, Todd helping her keep it hidden for an entire week before their parents found out, the scent of unchanged litter giving them away. He'd missed this, he realized, far too many years having passed since they'd had this; an easy camaraderie without the baggage of guilt. Todd's smile began to waver. Amanda, fortunately, was too busy sweeping her gaze across the room to notice.
"Seriously, though, I can't move here," she said, Todd's good mood evaporating into thin air.
"What? But I thought..."
Amanda's gaze swivelled back towards him, her brow furrowed in confusion. She took in his expression, her eyes growing wide with comprehension.
"I meant we need a bigger place," she said, gesturing towards the bed. "I'm pretty sure at some point you're going to want to have Dirk over, and I'm not going to hide in the bathroom every time he's here. Trust me, you don't want your kid sister cockblocking you."
Todd couldn't help but laugh at that, even as his cheeks flooded with colour.
"Does that mean you're cool with selling the house?" he asked.
For a long minute Amanda didn't answer. She glanced from him to the bed to the window and back again, open conflict playing over her features.
"Yeah, we can sell it," she eventually said, "but I'm going to stay in it until it's sold."
That was fair, Todd thought, more than. And once they knew what they were getting for the place they could start apartment shopping, find something that offered a little more privacy.
"I'll come up on the weekends to help you pack," Todd told her, earning a grin.
"You just want that old Grundig console in the garage," Amanda accused. She wasn't exactly wrong, but they were both smiling when the returned to their eggs.
There was a note sitting on the desk when he woke, beside it a styrofoam cup full of still steaming tea. Dirk blinked, his brain not yet processing the morning. Farah was nowhere to be seen.
Do not leave the office, the note said, which sounded rather foreboding, except that it was written in Farah's efficient scrawl so Dirk suspected it was meant more as a warning.
It was entirely possible he'd promised her things he couldn't deliver.
The tea, when he took a sip of it, was the perfect temperature. Earl Grey, the bag already out, with just a splash of milk and a hint of sugar. It did wonders to chase the cotton from his mouth, Dirk not entirely used to a night of drinking.
Thinking about Todd was probably not the safest course of action, especially when Dirk was tempted to abandon the office in favour of making his way to Todd's apartment, Farah's note be damned. More than anything he wanted to grab Todd by the lapels, draw him in and finish the kiss Farah had interrupted last night. He'd spent half the night thinking about it, his fingers pressed to his lips, his mind spinning scenario after scenario until it was all he could do not to climb from of his sleeping bag and show up at Todd's door.
Todd had told him to weigh his options, and weighing them now he wanted to stay.
But that was the problem with following fate. The universe charted his course, no decision he made ever really his. Without his... ability, Dirk was aimless, completely without direction. He'd have given almost anything to have that back.
The irony wasn't lost on him.
Farah's note gave no indication of when she'd be back, so Dirk finished his tea and then threw on yesterday's trousers and his Mexican Funeral t-shirt. He still thought of it as Todd's, the faded fabric something Todd had once worn against his skin. Dirk smoothed down the front and tried not to imagine Todd doing something similar. Farah was right about one thing: this was getting out of hand.
She returned just as Dirk was starting to get angsty, Farah carrying a white paper bag Dirk immediately recognized as danishes, that and the same stack of newspapers she bought every day. Dirk snagged the danishes and carried them to the desk.
"I'm surprised you're still here," Farah said, crossing the room to join him. She set the papers down beside the danishes. Dirk glanced pointedly to her note.
"You were rather clear about my not leaving," he said. Farah shrugged. Under her breath she muttered something that Dirk was fairly certain translated to, that's never stopped you before.
"I'm also surprised you're not more hungover," she said, this time with a slightly disapproving glare. Dirk offered a shrug.
"High metabolism, I think. Physiology. Biology. Something like that."
Farah was one of only a handful of constants in his life. The only person he knew better was Todd, and that only because Todd was Todd and Dirk was, well, smitten was the word Amanda used. Still, he knew Farah well enough to know she was gearing up for a speech, open conflict playing over her features.
"I already know," Dirk told her. Farah relaxed.
"Then you know you can't see him again," she said.
"I didn't say that," Dirk said. Farah's expression grew cold. Dirk raised a hand, staving her off. "Can you honestly tell me seeing Amanda didn't affect you? Look, I know this is all wrong," he gestured around the room, "and it needs to be fixed, but they're still Todd and Amanda."
"Dirk," Farah said, sounding far calmer than she looked. Dirk drew back a little, marginally alarmed by the brief flash of grief he saw reflected in her gaze. It vanished almost as soon as it appeared, Farah mastering herself alarmingly quick.
"I admit... seeing Amanda again was... nice. And I miss her, I do. But she's not my Amanda."
This time it was Farah who raised a hand, Dirk biting his tongue.
"We're the sum of our experiences, Dirk. She's not my Amanda. And he's not your Todd. You have memories of him he doesn't share. Amanda doesn't even know who I am. She thinks I'm someone she met briefly in a hospital. Those are memories I don't have. I..."
She paused then, drawing a ragged breath that belied her otherwise poised composure. Dirk's chest constricted painfully.
"I know you miss him..."
Dirk shook his head, somewhat violently, Farah nowhere near understanding.
"You're thinking about this wrong," he said. "There aren't two Todds. There aren't two Amandas. Are they different here? Yes. But they're still the same people. I..."
"Dirk," Farah said, patient this time. Dirk deflated. He'd lost track of how many times they'd had this conversation. He knew precisely how it would end. He knew, too, that half his hesitancy lay in knowing his Todd didn't reciprocate.
"Have you considered," he began, catching and holding her gaze, "that the choice isn't ours?"
Todd had told him to weigh his options, but the option wasn't really his to weigh.
"Are you seriously suggesting we..."
"I'm suggestion," Dirk said, rising now, his fingers still sticky with danish, his mouth once again full of cotton, "that I no longer have the universe guiding my hand. You're asking me to make a decision that isn't mine to make. They deserve a say. Todd, at least, deserves a say."
"Dirk... I don't think that's a good idea. I think..." Here she paused, her gaze moving to the bristol boards on the wall. A third had joined the others, this one listing the seven stencil locations along with location variations in each timeline.
"I think we should focus on our next step. The vans were what led us to the aquarium. Maybe we'll find them here, too."
Dirk doubted it, but he also knew this was Farah's way of changing the topic, anything more he might have said on Todd and Amanda liable to be ignored. He didn't like it--hated it in fact--but they still had time. Three days, in fact, if they replicated their previous investigation exactly. Ample time to convince her he was right. Ample time for her to discover an easy solution wasn't just going to fall into their laps.
The cab was leaving before they'd even reached the front door. Todd glanced over his shoulder in time to watch it pull out of the driveway and start back down the street. Amanda's bag hung heavy from his shoulder.
"You're going to have to wait forever for another one," Amanda said, though she'd said nothing while he was paying the fare and following her from the car. Todd gave a minute shrug.
"The last guy charged me an extra twenty just to idle in the driveway for fifteen minutes. Besides, it's only three. I can stay for a bit."
Fiddling with her keys, Amanda shot him a sidelong glance.
"What about Dirk?" she asked. Todd frowned.
"What about him?"
"Oh come on. You've got an empty apartment. An empty bed. Tell me you're not at least thinking about inviting him over."
He'd be lying if he said he hadn't considered it, that if he had some way of getting a hold of Dirk that wasn't exactly what he would have done. Amanda, however, didn't need to know that, so instead of answering he rolled his eyes and shot her a grin. Amanda laughed as she got the door unlocked and let them inside.
She paused just inside the threshold, Todd taking a moment to set her bag on the ground. He closed the door behind them and then came to stand at her side. Her early amusement was gone, Amanda now staring numbly into the house.
"You okay?" Todd asked.
"Yeah, just... We've lived here all our lives, you know?"
Todd couldn't remember the last time he'd thought of this place as home. Wasn't sure he ever had. It was always his parents house, a place he'd wanted desperately to get away from. After that it was Amanda's house, a self-styled prison he helped his sister maintain. There was nothing here that held any meaning for him, save perhaps the Grundig in the garage.
"We'll find something nice," he told her, reaching instinctively for her arm. He led her gently into the living room where he deposited her onto the couch. Amanda tipped her head back and closed her eyes.
He left her there and went into the kitchen to grab them both bottles of water from the fridge. By the time he got back she was so still he thought maybe she'd fallen asleep. Unbidden, he caught a glimpse of her ten years younger, Amanda having occupied the exact same spot the morning she'd come home from the hospital. Like now, the house had been strangely quiet. Unlike now, their parents passing was still a gaping wound, their presence lingering in every corner.
Amanda opened her eyes.
"You sure you're alright?" Todd asked. He set her water bottle down next to her before claiming a spot on the far end of the couch.
"I think last night is catching up with me," she said, punctuating the point with a yawn. Todd chuckled.
"Yeah, I know what you mean." He was getting too old for this, most if not all of Todd's nights ending with him in bed before eleven.
"I guess sometimes I just feel like I missed something, you know?" Amanda said. She curled herself into corner as she spoke, so that they were now sitting more or less face to face. Her knees came automatically to her chest, Amanda wrapping her arms around them. The sleeves of her hoodie covered her scars.
"No, you've just..."
Amanda stopped him with a pointed eyebrow.
"Dude, I'm twenty-five. I don't know if you noticed, but I kind of missed my wild and carefree teens."
A stab of guilt left him floundering for a response. It must have shown on his face, because Amanda immediately backtracked, her colour draining as she held up her hands.
"Shit, sorry, I didn't mean..."
"No, it's fine," Todd said. "I mean, you have every right. I..."
"Look," Amanda said, leaning forward. Todd had a flash of their mother, Amanda her spitting image. "You don't have anything to feel bad about. You were struggling and we weren't there for you and..."
Todd struggled desperately to breathe.
Because she didn't know. Not the full story. She knew the story that made him look good. The one that ended at twenty-three, the one that hadn't followed him into his thirties. The one that ended the second she got hurt.
"And you know, look at you now, right? You've got a job you like, and a guy you're interested in who's crazy about you. So maybe you're right. Maybe I haven't missed out. Maybe I still have all of that to look forward to."
"You do," Todd said. "And you'll have that. I promise."
She nodded, not as if she believed him, but as if she thought sheer optimism might make it true. Todd remained rooted in his spot, feeling like ten different kinds of asshole for everything he'd done to land them here. Before him, a fifteen year old girl became a twenty-five year old woman. She deserved better than this. She deserved, he realized, the truth. As much as he hated it, she deserved the right to hate him for what he'd done.
Coward that he was, Todd couldn't bring himself to say a word.
Chapter 12: Movin' On Up
As a child, Emershan was petulant and moody, Lorna's every request met with complaint. Over the years, that acrimony had become full out defiance, so much so that she would have had him classified as dangerous even without his ability.
A shame. He showed so much potential.
But a lifetime of corrective measures hadn't sullied his disobedience, Emershan having transitioned from a challenging child to a defiant teen to a belligerent adult. She'd wasted half her life on him, and for what?
Certainly not results.
"You have everything you need, Emershan," she said through the intercom, watching him through the monitors. He sat in his soundproof room and stared at the tabletop, the photographs she'd given him pushed out of reach, the water he'd requested set at his side.
She wasn't asking for much. The naming of a street. All he had to do was change the outcome of a single vote. It was well within his ability. Even as a child he might have accomplished it. She'd seen him change the menu offering with little more than a scowl at his plate. She'd seen him change the shift roster to favour a preferred orderly. It wasn't as if she was asking him to topple a regime. Not yet, in any case.
"Emershan," she warned. His gaze left the tabletop, eyes fixing on the camera instead. Even knowing she was safe inside the observation room, Lorna drew back a step.
"Sorry, Dr. Coleridge," he said, speaking directly into the camera. "It's too far away. I can't... reach that far."
He was lying, of course. Oh, she knew quite well there was a limit to his... gift, but if he could change things here he could change them out there. Despite his insistence that he needed to see his target, she knew a manipulative tactic when she saw one.
"You're not leaving the facility, Emershan," she told him. His gaze didn't waver.
"What are you afraid of?" he asked. Lorna grit her teeth.
"If you cannot do as asked, we will have you transported back to your room." There was no need to mention his punishment. He knew as well as she the privileges this would cost.
On screen, Emershan appeared unperturbed.
"I'd like a glass of water," he said.
"You have one," Lorna reminded him. Emershan smiled.
Slowly, and with the malicious intent of a bored housecat, he brought his hand up to brush the rim of the glass. Still staring into the camera, he gave it a push, the glass tipping over, water spilling onto the table's surface. The photographs she'd given him drifted lazily, as though caught in a stream.
Lorna exhaled sharply through her nose, and then took a deep, steadying breath.
"I'd like a glass of water," Emershan said again, still staring into the camera.
As he spoke, he set his hands, palms down, onto the table. Water seeped into the ends of his sleeves. The video feed began to waver, lines of static appearing on screen. Lorna pressed the red button on the wall. The door to Emershan's room opened immediately. Two men in silver-lined faraday suits stepped into the room. The pulled a similarly lined hood over Emershan's head. His smile never wavered. The video feed returned to normal.
In the file that sat open on her lap, Lorna wrote, water and then underlined it twice for emphasis. Those above her were pushing for field trips, but perhaps there was another way. One that didn't require his compliance.
Back in the present
"Why are you making this so difficult?"
She was teasing. He knew she was teasing, and yet Todd couldn't help the flush that spread over his cheeks. It didn't stop there. He could feel it creeping down his neck, disappearing under the collar of the Nirvana t-shirt he'd only started wearing again because Dirk had mentioned liking the band.
God. Amanda was right.
"It's stupid, I know," he said, understatement of the year. Stupid was yesterday, Todd having spent the entire day watching the front door because for all intents and purposes Saturday had gone well so he'd honestly expected Dirk to show. Stupid was being horribly disappointed when he didn't. Stupid was going home and sulking on his couch because Todd was just that kind of pathetic.
He'd moved well beyond stupid today.
Dirk was probably just busy. He was probably working on a case. And even if he wasn't it wasn't like he owed Todd anything. He'd show up when he showed up. Or Todd would run into him again, probably in some unlikely place and then Dirk would smile and Todd would invite him over and Dirk would agree and it would be fine. Absolutely fine.
"Have you tried calling him?" Amanda asked. "He could be waiting for you to make the first move, you know."
"I don't have his number," Todd admitted, which, when he thought about it, was kind of the crux of the problem. Aside from Dirk wandering into the store, or Dirk showing up at his apartment, or Todd running into him on the street, Todd had absolutely no way of getting in touch. It made their relationship feel rather one-sided.
"Wait, seriously? You didn't ask for his number?" Amanda said. She sounded more than a little incredulous.
"I did, but he said something about still having his UK number and..."
Saying it out loud sounded like an excuse. Saying it out loud made him sound like a naive idiot. Amanda hummed.
"You think it was a line?" Todd asked, hating that he needed to; still not entirely sure when his baby sister had become his go-to for relationship advice.
"I guess that depends," Amanda said after a moment's consideration, during which Todd drummed his fingers against the counter and stared hopefully at the door.
"On?" Todd prompted.
"On whether you guys have... you know?"
"Slept together. People don't usually ghost before the sex, so..."
Todd couldn't help but roll his eyes. He'd had people ghost on him before the first date. He'd had people take-off mid-date. That Dirk had stuck around this long was kind of an anomaly. Dirk changing his mind wouldn't have surprised him in the least.
"Wait... you didn't!" Amanda said, clearly mistaking his silence for affirmation. She sounded suitably shocked.
"Of course not. I haven't even kissed the guy."
He needed more friends, he realized. Scratch that, he needed one friend. Someone he wasn't directly related to, someone he could talk to about this shit without the endless teasing.
Come to think of it, what he probably needed was a therapist.
"He might just be busy," Amanda said. "Or, maybe he's doing the whole three days thing. You used to do that. Remember Amber Benington?"
Todd winced. "I try not to," he admitted, eternally embarrassed by his fifteen year old self. And yet, for all that, him keeping track of when he was allowed to say hello to his ninth grade crush on the family calendar was probably one of his better memories. Certainly if Amanda's laughter was any indication, she remembered it fondly.
That probably said more than either of them were willing to admit.
"Seriously, Todd. Dude was into you. Like crazy into you. He's gonna show."
"Yeah, I guess," Todd answered, wanting desperately to believe her. He was sure there was a connection there. One that went beyond a handful of dates. Dirk would show. Of course he would. And if he didn't... well, Todd would cross that bridge when he came to it.
"Not that I'm trying to change the topic," Todd said, remembering the original reason for his call. "But Alfredo gave me the name of one of his real estate friends. Said the guy was trustworthy. I thought maybe I'd swing by his office on my way home, check it out."
He wasn't expecting an enthusiastic reply, but he was expecting something. Instead silence bled through the line. He was just starting to get worried when Amanda cleared her throat. He could hear her moving, Todd easily imagining her pacing the short circle between the kitchen and the hall.
"It's okay if you've changed your mind," he said.
"It's not that," Amanda said. "I just... I didn't think it was going to happen so fast, you know?"
In hindsight, he probably should have given her more time, but he had maybe a month before he ran out of rent money, never mind that the new property management company had already started in on renos. If they were going to do this, they had to do it now, otherwise he was going to end up living in his broken car.
"If you need more time, we can wait," Todd said, mentally cataloguing everything in his apartment. He could sell the records. Maybe his guitar.
"No, it's not that... I guess I just need to get used to the idea. But you should go. Definitely you should go."
"Are you sure?" Todd asked, knowing she did this sometimes. For as much as he admired her ability to feign confidence, he didn't want to force her to do anything she wasn't ready for.
"Yeah. I think I just need to not think about it, you know? Like one step at a time."
He heard what she wasn't saying. She wanted him to take care of the details, the same way he paid the property taxes or made sure her lawn got mowed. Todd huffed a laugh.
"I'll keep you posted," he said. Amanda hummed something that might have been approval.
"Keep me posted on Dirk, too," she said, clearly more interested in his love life than she was her living situation. Todd shook his head.
"I'll call you tomorrow," he promised. Amanda grumbled her acknowledgement and then disconnected the call. Todd spent a long minute after staring at his screen, the hour getting late, Mara due to arrive in mere minutes. Like it or not, Dirk wasn't coming today. Hating himself more than he usually did, Todd opened a browser and typed: 3 day rule, England into the search bar.
God, he was pathetic.
Dirk watched Farah's hands fly over the keys with avid interest. He glanced from the screen to her face and then back again before finally seeking out her gaze.
"What are you doing?" Farah asked, her attention still riveted on the laptop.
"What are you doing?" Dirk countered. "And more importantly, why didn't I know you could do... this." He gestured broadly. Farah rolled her eyes.
"I do this all the time, Dirk. Where do you think our information comes from?"
He supposed that was a good question, and certainly he knew many of Farah's other virtues. He knew she was proficient with firearms. He knew she was adept at hand-to-hand combat. She excelled at surveillance. She had a reasonable hand for deduction. And she could give Todd a run for his money behind the wheel of a car. But this...
"To be honest," Dirk said, "I rather thought you just typed in a request and Google spat out an answer." That was rather the point of Google, wasn't it?
"Not quite that simple," Farah said. "And I don't know how to do this, which is why we're getting feed from the traffic cameras instead of the aquarium's CCTV."
Dirk glanced again to the screen. "But that is the aquarium," he said, pointing. "And that's the dock Todd and I followed that man onto."
"The dock is a weather camera. Between that and the traffic feeds, I'm hoping we can track this guy. But it's gonna take some time," Farah said, fingers still flying over the keys. Dirk straightened.
"That doesn't mean you have time to go see Todd," she said. Dirk deflated.
Three days. Three endless, agonizing days. They'd spent all of Sunday and most of Monday trying to track down non existence vans. He'd thought after that that maybe, maybe she might have relented, but no, now it was weather and traffic cameras, an endless sea of grainy video that seemed highly unlikely to yield anything useful. Dirk was beginning to think Farah was doing this on purpose.
Dirk glanced to his watch. Todd would just be leaving work.
"I thought I might pick us up some take-out from the place across the street," Dirk tried. Farah's fingers slowed. They paused in their typing, hovering just above the keys. Her head swivelled towards him.
"Dirk," she said, her eyes flicking briefly to the far wall. "You said we needed to recreate the case. You said we needed to repeat our previous steps. You said that if we got to the same point as last time you were sure you could solve the case. But there are no stencils. There are no vans. And that means that right now the closest lead we have is the guy you and Todd ran into. So we're going to find him. And until we do, you're not going to see Todd. Okay?"
It was entirely possible, had the universe not chosen that exact moment to intervene, her speech might have had a bigger impact. Perhaps Dirk might have complained. Perhaps he might have outright defied her and gone and seen Todd anyway, three days three days too many. Instead Dirk chose that exact moment to let his gaze drift over her shoulder, Farah's request perfectly acceptable given that the frame she'd left off on contained a blurry image of the exact man they were looking for.
Dirk nodded to the screen.
"Does this mean I can go see Todd?" he asked. Farah's head pivoted slowly back to the screen. Her gaze narrowed.
"That's the guy? You're sure?" she asked.
The man on screen was wearing an aquarium jumpsuit, the kind one would expect a maintenance technician to wear. He was perhaps Dirk's height, though exceptionally thin, the kind of thin that came with a high metabolism or, in Dirk's case, years of restricted eating. His dark hair sat in tight curls on the top of his head, though those were remembered rather than seen, the video feed too grainy to make out anything other than a mess of black. His complexion was far more sallow than Dirk remembered, though that too might have been the camera.
He was standing on the dock behind the aquarium, the same place he and Todd had emerged after finding the surgery.
"Can we see the whole thing?" Dirk asked. Farah shook her head.
"Camera captures still images. They're a minute apart." She scrolled back. Dirk stared at the empty nothingness of the first image, utterly transfixed. In the next image, the man was standing on the dock, looking straight ahead. The third image caught his profile, the man heading towards the street. Farah continued. Seven stills later Dirk and Todd appeared.
"You weren't far behind," she said. Dirk stared at the screen, the image too grainy to catch Todd's expression.
"Are you sure you didn't see..."
"There was no one. He was long gone before we came through. What about the other cameras? Can we trace him that way?" Dirk asked.
"Maybe," Farah said. She sounded doubtful. "But it might take a while."
In the excitement of discovery, he'd almost forgotten Todd. The thought returned, Dirk once again glancing to his watch. Todd would be catching a bus by now, on his way home. Dirk could meet him there. He could turn up and...
"The answer's still no, Dirk," Farah said.
His first impulse was to argue. His second to beg. The set of Farah's shoulders suggested neither would prove successful.
"I'm seeing him tomorrow," Dirk still said, feeling particularly petulant. Farah shook her head, but she didn't say no.
Alfredo's friend had offices in one of the less developed parts of the core. That probably wasn't the case thirty years ago, but in the intervening years, the neighbourhood had clearly fallen into disrepair. There were numerous empty buildings, some looking like they'd spent the better part of a decade abandoned. Most of the occupied buildings housed discounts stores, the kind of places that sold imported knock-offs and liquidation stock. A handful of restaurants spilled out into the streets, though most of these were the kind of places that offered only takeaway, long counters set against the windows for those who wanted to stay. There was a quaint looking bakery set aside a greyhound bus terminal. The bakery was closed. The bus terminal was not. Graffiti, bold and bright, covered every square inch of exposed brick.
There wasn't anything particularly sketchy about the neighbourhood, it was just strangely empty, the remnants of a once vibrant community. It was the kind of place Todd's band used to find gigs. The kind of place he could probably find a decent apartment at a reasonable rent.
None of the buildings looked like they might house a real estate agency. Todd pulled the battered and dented card Alfredo had given him from his pocket. A Coldwell Banker logo was emblazoned in the corner. He checked the address against the buildings on either side of him, Todd off by at least half a block.
The place he was looking for was somewhere behind him, so Todd pivoted on his heel. In doing so, he caught sight of a familiar yellow jacket disappearing into one of the buildings. Todd's heart seized in his chest.
What were the odds?
In all likelihood he was probably imagining things. Either that or the flash of yellow belonged to someone else entirely. And yet, he'd run into Dirk on the sidewalk outside a dead guy's apartment, the odds of that encounter equally as improbable. Either way, he couldn't just ignore the possibility, not when he had no idea when he might see Dirk again.
Todd was moving before he'd consciously registered having made the decision to do so.
He scanned the street as he walked, heading away from the bus terminal and towards a cluster of restaurants. He spotted the sign for the real estate agent, Todd ignoring it in favour of following Dirk.
The building he'd gone into was one of the abandoned ones, its storefront windows covered over with paper, the apartments above dark and curtainless. A heavily painted black door sat adjacent a set of windows. Todd glanced up, frowning at the sight of what appeared to be an extension cord running out one of the upstairs windows before snaking it way up the building and then disappearing over the roof.
Todd checked the door.
It caught a little, but it was unlocked, Todd using his hip to force it open. He ducked his head inside and found a narrow corridor, this decidedly empty. A set of stairs occupied its centre.
Something about it felt incredibly familiar.
It was like the aquarium all over again, Todd overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu. He'd lived in Seattle his entire adult life, knew the city like the back of his hand, and yet he was fairly certain this was his first trip into Georgetown. Shaking off the sensation, Todd stepped into the hall.
"Hello," he called, an echo his only reply.
It struck him then that he had no idea what he was doing here. He didn't even know if the jacket he'd seen belonged to Dirk. And if it did, would Dirk appreciate him showing up out of the blue like this? He didn't even know where this was, let alone what Dirk was doing here. It was entirely possible Dirk was on a case, in which case he probably wouldn't appreciate Todd showing up. None of that stopped him from starting up the stairs.
The interior of the building was surprisingly dark, though enough light filtered from somewhere above that Todd could just make out where he was going. There were two stories above the ground floor, the staircase emptying into a narrow hallway at the first before continuing up to the second. Todd peered curiously down the hall.
There was only one door, this slightly ajar. Voices carried from inside. Todd recognized Dirk's immediately. The second, he realized, belonged to Farah. A wide smile spread over his face.
Midway to the door it struck him again that Dirk might not want him here. Todd's steps slowed. He could just see into the room, Todd taking in the chaotic mess of crates and precariously stacked boxes; something that he thought might be a sleeping bag stretched out on the floor. Farah's voice carried out into the hall.
"I'm telling you, it looks like he doubled back around," she said. Todd cocked his head, listening intently.
"Don't be ridiculous. Todd and I were there. We would have seen him."
"Maybe he came around the other side. I think we need to go back to the aquarium," Farah continued, Todd's interest now thoroughly piqued. He took another step forward, the floor beneath him creaking ominously. Silence emanated from the room.
There was nothing else for it, Todd thought. He closed the remaining distance, the door swinging open as he brought his hand up to knock. Seated at a makeshift desk and bent over a glowing laptop, Dirk and Farah's heads were turned towards him, wide eyes blinking at the door. Todd took in their twin expressions of shock, an apology sitting on the tip of his tongue.
"Sorry, I..." he got out before his gaze drifted over Dirk's shoulder, to where three large pieces of bristol board were suspended from the wall.
Chapter 13: Stone My Soul
A huge thank you to everyone following along to date. I'm having so much fun writing this, but knowing people are enjoying it thrills me beyond measure. Thank you so much. On that note, I am away for the next week so the next update will be delayed. Chapter 14 should be up middle of next week. My apologies.
Todd arrived at the office not long after Dirk, the tightness of his jaw suggesting, not anger, but fond annoyance. It had taken Dirk months to identify the expression. Todd wore it often.
His hair was still damp from the shower and he'd replaced the faded t-shirt with a soft denim button down, the one that brought out his eyes. He was carrying a tray with three styrofoam cups from the coffee shop down the street. Dirk brightened considerably upon seeing him.
"Todd, you made it." Todd shot him a glare.
"You left the rental car out in front of my apartment with the engine running," he said. "And then you refused to answer your phone!"
Dirk patted his pocket, pulling out the phone in question. A message on the screen noted that Todd had left three messages. Dirk narrowed his gaze. He didn't usually miss these things.
"I didn't know if you were still around, or if you'd simply forgotten the car existed." Todd set the coffee tray down on the table with an audible thud. One of the cups had a tea string hanging from the side of it, Earl Grey Dirk was pleased to note.
"How did you even get here?" Todd asked.
"Oh, I took the bus," Dirk said, though he rather thought that would have been obvious. The sight of Todd's eyebrows shooting towards his hairline suggested it wasn't.
"You could have just waited, you know."
Dirk thought back to the quiet of Todd's apartment, the stillness broken only by the sound of running water from the shower. He shook his head.
"I had a hunch," he said, "and I was right. If I hadn't left you the car you wouldn't have stopped for coffee."
Todd narrowed his gaze, his eyebrows having returned to their original above-eye position.
"You know, you could have stopped for coffee. Or we could have stopped together."
Todd was no longer wearing his fond expression. He wasn't wearing his angry expression, either. If anything he looked... not hurt, but close enough to hurt that something ugly twisted in Dirk's chest. He hadn't meant to upset Todd. He'd simply wanted to get as far from the sound of Todd showering as he could because even a year into their friendship he was having a difficult time establishing boundaries.
"Fair enough," Dirk said, "but we're both here now and there's coffee and tea so I say we call it a success and get Farah to show us what she's found."
He turned towards her as he spoke, Dirk congratulating himself for having successfully diverted Todd's attention. Farah, perhaps sensing their gazes, turned slowly to look over her shoulder. Her fingers continued to move across the keys. Dirk raised an expectant eyebrow.
"I'm not sure why you think this is easy," Farah said. "This could take days."
Dirk had no real notion of what she was doing, but that it might take days was somewhat disappointing. As the police and insurance reports had made no mention of the vans, they had only Dirk's memory to go by. He'd been far too distracted by Todd to jot down license plate numbers. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure the vans had had license plate numbers.
"Very well," he said. "You keep looking. Todd and I will head out, see where the universe takes us."
When in doubt, offering himself wholly to the universe's whims always produced startling results. Todd, who was now watching him closely, shook his head.
"Oh, come on, it'll be fun," Dirk said.
The trick with Todd sometimes was not giving him a chance to overthink, which was why Dirk paused only long enough to retrieve his tea and then headed for the door. He trusted Todd to follow--Todd always followed--though still found himself tremendously relieved when Todd caught up to him on the stairs. Dirk shot him a genuine smile. Todd's grimace was only half sincere.
"We should take the car," Dirk said once they were outside. He was reasonably certain it was the right the right decision, though Todd's expression suggested he perhaps didn't agree. Dirk affected his best pout. Todd deflated.
"Fine, but I'm driving," he said, still wearing a scowl. It did nothing to hide the spark of excitement in his eyes. Dirk couldn't quite suppress a grin. In lieu of returning it, Todd rolled his eyes. In Todd-language, it amounted to the same thing.
Following the stream of the universe was easier behind the wheel, but Todd was a perfectly adequate driver, and he didn't seem to mind Dirk shouting out quick and random turns from the passenger seat. They left the neighbourhood in slow, winding circles. It was like looking for dolphin stencils all over again.
"You do realize this probably isn't going to work," Todd said as he brought them onto the viaduct.
"Why not?" Dirk asked, genuinely curious. It had worked in the past. In fact, Dirk's primary method of investigation usually involved meandering aimlessly until something drew his attention.
"Well, for one, there are probably dozens of white delivery vans inside the city, so the odds of us finding the ones we're looking for are pretty slim. For another, most of those vans operate Monday to Friday." He paused, expression expectant, like he honestly expected Dirk to catch on. When Dirk didn't, he shook his head. "It's Sunday."
"Ah," Dirk said, because he hadn't realized. Time was such an arbitrary concept.
"Well, we stumbled across them last time," Dirk said, gesturing for Todd to turn left, towards the city's centre. Todd made the turn without comment.
"We still don't even know if they were related to the case. It could just been coincidence."
There was no point rolling his eyes. Even Todd didn't believe that--Dirk could hear it in his voice. No, no, the things were connected. He was sure of it.
Just like he was sure they needed to go north. He still didn't know their final destination, but the direction was right, the universe aligning as it was meant to. Even Todd seemed to have relaxed, his left hand on the steering wheel, his coffee gripped in his right. Dirk held his tea in his lap, clenched between two hands.
"Here," Dirk said, pointing out a road. It took them onto the freeway that ran alongside the waterfront, the morning surprisingly bright. Dirk pulled down his sun visor to block the midmorning sun. With each quarter mile, the sense of rightness increased, until excitement began to build in his chest, Dirk flailing somewhat excitedly.
"Here, here," he said, gesturing to an offramp. Todd merged swiftly into the right lane and then brought them onto the ramp. Dirk recognized the area immediately. So, apparently, did Todd.
"You've brought us back to the aquarium," he said, no longer needing Dirk's directions to reach the building.
"Yes, well, obviously it's important. I told you that."
It was a mark of how well Todd now knew him--and Dirk would never not marvel at that, the thought of someone knowing him well enough to trust his intuitions as inconceivable as it was remarkable--that Todd didn't comment. He simply pulled into an empty parking spot across the street and cut the engine.
"I don't see any vans," he said, making no move to exit the car. Dirk frowned.
"Maybe we're not looking in the right place," he said. It seemed a simple enough explanation. They were looking for vans, and the universe brought them here, so here they would find vans. That was how it worked. Or rather, how it tended to work. Or possible how it was supposed to work? Either way, he was sure it would all work out in the end.
They started in the obvious place, the loading docks tucked around the back of building, but both docks were empty, not a single van in sight. Next they made a perimeter of the building, Dirk scanning for something, anything that might trigger a hunch. There was nothing.
"I think we need to go back inside," he said.
"It's Sunday," Todd reminded him. When Dirk didn't respond, he added, "they're closed."
Dirk frowned. He let his gaze drift, taking in the empty docks, the bright glare of the sun, the normalcy of everyday existence that didn't happen for people like him. The breeze coming off the water was cool, but it carried with it the sharp tang of salt. Dirk breathed it into his lungs. Todd stood resolute at his side, their elbows brushing together. Something was wrong.
"Should we wait?" he asked, not entirely sure what he was meant to do.
"For them to open tomorrow?" Todd asked. Dirk shook his head.
"No, for something to happen. I..."
"I don't think it's gonna do much good," Todd told him. "We've already been through the aquarium. There was nothing there."
"Yes but..." Dirk wasn't entirely sure how to explain the sensation. This feels right, he wanted to stay.
"Maybe we should head back. Maybe Farah's found something. And if not, we can always come back tomorrow."
The impulse to stay was strong enough he almost refused, but then Todd was touching him, just a hand on his arm but it unravelled all his thoughts. He nodded minutely, the warmth of Todd's hand lingering long after he drew away. Dirk glanced once to the aquarium doors, and then turned back to Todd, Todd's gaze soft as he waited for Dirk's reply. There was something off about this case. Something he was missing. Possibly a lot of things he was missing, but for the life of him he couldn't figure out what they were.
But Todd was still waiting, still watching Dirk expectantly, so even knowing he was missing something, Dirk gave a nod and followed Todd back to the car.
Back in the present
Dirk stared at the figure standing in the doorway, blinking rapidly as he tried to process what he was seeing. All at once it struck him. Todd. Todd was here.
A wave of near overwhelming relief threatened to buckle his knees. In fact, had he been standing, he likely would have collapsed in a heap. Missing Todd was one thing. Seeing Todd after a not-quite extended absence something else entirely. It reminded him faintly of the first time he walked into the record store, the sight of Todd, alive and well and existing, so overwhelming he'd run knees-first into one of the display bins. Only the will of the universe had kept it from falling over. Dirk's bruises, on the other hand, had taken weeks to heal.
"Todd, you're here," Dirk said.
Somewhere between registering Todd's presence and acknowledging his arrival, Dirk convinced his legs to start working again, so that by the time the words were out he was already halfway across the room. Todd, however, was no longer paying attention, his gaze flitting about the room, eyes widening slightly when he reached the sleeping bags; the shirts hung neatly on the back of the chair.
All at once Dirk realized they were standing on dangerous ground.
Todd's gaze continued to sweep the room, this time coming to rest on the records stacked haphazardly on the chair. Confusion marred his features.
"What.. What is this? Do you live here?"
He caught Dirk's eye then, tentative uncertainty reflected in his gaze. Dirk wanted desperately to kiss him. It wasn't a particularly helpful impulse.
"That's actually kind of a complicated story," Dirk said, covering his now rising panic with a wry laugh. Todd's gaze grew somewhat suspicion. Behind him, Dirk could hear Farah rising to her feet.
"Wait," Dirk said, realizing something, "how are you here?"
The odds of Todd having stumbled across this place were slim to none.
Todd, whose attention was now trained on the desk, undoubtedly taking in Farah's open laptop and the as of yet unopened bag of take-away, startled, his gaze swivelling back to Dirk. He seemed confused by the question.
"I... um, we're trying to sell my sister's house," he said, as though that should have explained everything. Dirk frowned. Todd gave a brief shake of his head and then thrust a hand into his pocket. It emerged a second later, battered business card caught between his fingers. He handed it over.
Dirk read the name and address on the card, his eyes growing wide.
"This is just up the street," he said, utterly surprised.
"Yeah, my boss recommended the guy, but then I saw you coming in here and I wasn't sure if I should follow, but I thought..."
His attention was gone again, once again sweeping over the room. He seemed particularly bothered by the sleeping bags. Farah, when Dirk checked, had moved across the room and was now standing against the far wall in a vain attempt to block the bristol boards. Right.
In hindsight, drawing attention to them was perhaps ill-advised, Dirk turning back to find Todd staring fixedly over his shoulder. His gaze grew narrow. Some of his confusion hardened, now laced with suspicion.
Suspicion was fast becoming seething anger, Dirk well aware this wasn't going to end well.
"I can explain," he said, entirely too fast. Todd's gaze remained stubbornly fixed on the boards. He started towards them.
Dirk would be lying if he said his first impulse wasn't to flail helplessly. His second was to tackle Todd to the ground.
"Don't overreact," he said when Todd was close enough to read them. Farah, perhaps sensing the futility of the situation, had stepped aside, and was now inching her way towards the desk.
"What is this?" Todd asked, his gaze locked on the first board, Things that are the Same and Things that are Not containing numerous references to his name. He brought a hand up to trace a single entry: Parents died in car accident, 2007, Amanda injured. The look he shot Dirk was decidedly betrayed.
"What is this?" he asked again, the tight clench of his jaw highlighting his anger. Dirk knew the expression. It was the one that tended to see Todd calling him all manner of things. Horrible things Dirk wasn't entirely sure he didn't deserve. It was the expression of a Todd determined to hate him; a Todd he'd rather hoped he'd never see again.
"I can explain," Dirk said again, not bothering to hide his desperation.
"You said you weren't investigating me," Todd said. Dirk remembered the conversation.
Mostly, he remember the way, after, Todd had sat across from him on the couch, his gaze warm and soft, the tension between them an entirely different kind of tension. He didn't want to lose that. God, how he didn't want to lose that.
"I'm not," Dirk assured. "But you do have some connection, however remote, to a case we are investigating."
The statement did nothing to appease Todd's anger. If anything, it made it worse, Todd's jaw clenching, his entire body going rigid. Dirk held up his hands, a placating gesture.
"I promise you, that's not why I..."
It was as far as he got, the look Todd shot him positively scathing. Without really meaning to, Dirk retreated, his hands coming to his chest as he tried to make himself appear small, a familiar defense mechanism.
Todd turned slowly back to the boards.
It was as though he was seeing them for the first time, Dirk well aware they didn't make a lot of sense, not without a frame of reference. The original lists were perhaps the most incriminating, Todd and Amanda's names littered throughout, but it was the middle board Todd focused on, this a timeline of the original case. Again Todd's name appeared throughout, things like Went to aquarium with Todd written in bold ink. Again Todd's hand came up, his fingers tracing over the final item on the list, the one Dirk had labelled simply as Event.
"What is this?" he asked again, sounding horribly lost. Dirk glanced helplessly in Farah's direction.
She was doing her best to stay out of it, her gaze once again trained on her laptop, though he knew she was listening: knew, too, she would intervene if she objected to his decision. That she hadn't said anything boded well for his intentions. Dirk cleared his throat.
"It's not you," he said, Todd's gaze whipping towards him. His expression was one of incredulity; that and barely suppressed rage.
"I mean, it is you, but it's not you. You're Todd, but you're also not Todd. It's..."
How to put this into words. How to explain this to someone removed from the situation.
"It's a different timeline. Or possibly a different universe. Dimension, maybe?" None of those sounded quite right. Certainly none were helping to clear up the matter, Todd still looking at him like he was thinking about giving Dirk a black eye. This time Dirk didn't bother suppressing the urge to flail.
"It's all connected, I just don't know how, but if you'll just calm down for a minute I can start at the beginning, I can explain everything."
Todd was still staring at him, like Dirk had done something truly horrible, like he was worthy of the moniker monster.
"Todd, I..." he tried, but Todd merely shook his head.
"No, you know what, I don't want to know," he said, the vein in his forehead throbbing somewhat incessantly. He shook his head, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. One of them shot up, Todd pointing an accusatory finger at the lists.
"You're investigating me. You're investigating my sister. This whole time, and I thought..." Again he shook his head.
"Todd," Dirk tried, but Todd held up a hand.
"No," he said.
All the colour had drained from his face, whatever assumption he'd made obviously distressing. Dirk flailed some more. He glanced to Farah for help, and found her studiously ignoring the conversation.
"That's not what's happening. That's not. I'm..."
"No," Todd said again. "I don't want to hear this from you. I..."
Something like resolve settled over his features, Todd's gaze hardening as he turned back to the boards. Dirk half expected another question. To his surprise, Todd reached up and tore the middle board down. Across the room, Farah glanced up sharply from her screen.
"You're going to stop investigating me, and you're going to leave my sister alone," Todd said as he turned back around. He didn't give Dirk a chance to respond, already heading for the door.
He was leaving, Dirk realized, tight swell of panic clenching in his chest.
"Todd," he called, hardly surprised when Todd ignored him. This, at least, was familiar, Todd constantly storming off. And people called him impulsive.
Gritting his teeth, Dirk started after him.
He made it only a step before something stopped him, Dirk glancing down to find Farah's hand wrapped around his forearm. He shot her a look.
"Dirk," she said, her expression suggesting she'd known this would happen; that none of this was even remotely a surprised. She was asking him to stay, to let Todd go, to focus on the case because solving it would mean none of this mattered. Dirk shook his head.
"I sorry, Farah. I have to go after him."
"You don't understand. I love him. I..." He gestured helplessly. It was the first time he'd allowed himself to say the words aloud, and yet now that they were out there he understood what he had to do.
The tight clench of Farah's jaw suggested she didn't approve, but her expression was more resigned than surprised. Shaking her head, she released his arm. Dirk shot her a smile, and then bolted for the door.
He caught up to Todd at the bus stop, Todd glancing up sharply at the sound of his name.
"Leave me alone," he said when Dirk reached his side.
"I can't," Dirk said, quite honestly. Todd shook his head.
"You lied to me," he said.
"I didn't lie. I just didn't tell you everything because, frankly, I didn't think you'd believe me if I did. Look, do you think I like this? Do you think this is easy for me?"
Todd, at least, was listening, though he still looked like he was thinking about resorting to violence. Dirk scrambled to explain.
"This is my life, Todd. Horrible, awful things happen. One minute things are good and the next I'm in some alternative timeline where my best friend doesn't know who I am and I'm somehow supposed to fix it when I don't even know if I can fix it let alone whether I should fix it and the universe isn't giving me a single clue as to the right answer and I just..."
He still had no idea how to put all of this into words. Dirk gestured wildly, the entire situation spinning well beyond his control.
Todd was now looking at him like he might be a little crazy.
"What are you even talking about?" he asked.
Dirk opened his mouth to respond, the words evaporating with the arrival of the bus. Without thinking, Dirk followed Todd through the doors.
"What are you doing?" Todd asked when he registered Dirk's intentions. "Leave me alone."
"I'm sorry," Dirk said. "I can't. You can't tell me you don't feel it. You came all the way across town to visit a real estate agent and just happened to stumble across our offices? No, this was meant to happen, which means you were meant to know."
"Know what?" Todd asked, all but shouting. "I still don't understand a word you're saying."
There weren't many people on the bus, but there were enough they were now getting strange looks. Even the driver was watching them through his rearview mirror, as though half expecting to have to stop the bus and escort them off. Pulling Todd into one of the side benches, Dirk lowered his voice.
"If you would just listen, I can explain everything," he said.
Todd, who no longer looked angry, but rather sad and defeated, offered a curt nod. He didn't look particularly happy about it.
"In the original timeline," Dirk said, starting somewhere around the beginning. Todd listened with rapidly widening eyes.
"Time machine?!" he said at some point, but Dirk pressed ahead.
"Something happened, but we don't know what. One minute Farah and I were at the aquarium, and the next we were here. We've been trying to figure out what happened and maybe how we can get back for weeks."
Todd was staring at him like he'd grown a second head, so lost in the story that he barely registered their stop. Dirk rang the bell on instinct, Todd starting when he realized where they were. He shook his head and stood, intent, Dirk could tell, on storming off. Dirk scrambled to keep up.
"Todd, stop, I..."
Midway to the Ridgely, Todd stopped. He spun around, so suddenly Dirk had to flail his arms to keep from bowling him over.
"You know, all this time I thought I'd met this really great guy. And then I thought shit, he's an asshole and a liar, but now it turns out you're actually a crazy person."
Dirk would be lying if he said he wasn't a little affronted.
"That's a bit ableist, don't you think?" he said without thinking, though Todd was hardly the first person to say as much. Dirk had an entire history of people dismissing him in such a manner. Coming from Todd, it stung.
"You just told me you were from another dimension and I'm not supposed to think you're delusional. God... I can't believe I... I mean, no wonder you were interested. I knew there had to be something. I..."
He paused then, his expression falling, resignation sweeping over his features.
"Look, I'm sorry. I hope you get some help or something, but I can't do this. Please leave me alone."
Again, he didn't wait for a reply, Todd halfway up the Ridgely's steps before Dirk had fully processed his words. Cursing under his breath, he sprinted to catch up.
This wouldn't be the first time he'd chased Todd into his building, Dirk fully intending to camp out outside his door if necessary. It was, however, the first time he'd reached the Ridgely's doors to find them locked, Dirk trying them twice before realizing what had happened. Beyond the glass, he could see Todd climbing the stairs, his shoulders square, posture tight with tension. Dirk glanced to the far wall, to the newly installed controlled entry panel set into the brick. He very much doubted Todd was going to buzz him in.
There was nothing else for it, then, Dirk left with only one alternative. He was going to have to go in through the window. History, it seemed, was bound to repeat itself. Or perhaps alternate timelines demanded the parallel. Either way, Dirk was pleased to note Todd had left his window open.
Chapter 14: The Song Remains the Same
With apologies for the delay. I'm back from all my travel, so this should pick back up to its regular schedule. Again, tremendous thanks to those following along. I appreciate the support more than I can adequately express.
Three days ago things were going well. Three days ago he could still feel the lingering warmth of Dirk's thigh pressed against his own. Three days ago Todd thought he was on the cusp of a new relationship.
God, he was an idiot.
He knew better than to trust people. People lied. They lied all the time. They lied and manipulated and took advantage. He should know. He was an expert in all three. Why he'd ever thought Dirk might be an exception was beyond him. People like Dirk were never exceptions.
He should have known. He should have known the second Dirk told him what he did for a living. The second Dirk expressed interest. People like Dirk weren't interested in people like Todd.
Despite recent evidence to the contrary, Todd wasn't a complete idiot. He had more than his fair share of skeletons, enough, certainly, to warrant someone hiring a private investigator. There was the lying. And the stealing. And that time he falsified police records. And the time he committed insurance fraud. Hell, not a week before the DEA raided Dorian's house Todd had broken in and stolen money from the man. In hindsight, whatever Dirk was investigating him for was probably long overdue.
Belatedly, it occurred to him that Dirk undoubtedly already knew all his past transgressions, Todd's stomach churning at the thought. Because in addition to being an idiot, he was also pathetic enough to still care what Dirk thought. Hating himself more than he usually did, Todd let his head tip back to rest against the back of his door.
He needed to call Amanda, to let her know what had happened. She'd been so certain. So certain she'd convinced him, almost from the beginning. And yet her name was written on those boards, which mean whatever this was about it involved her. Todd tried picturing the conversation, a bitter laugh escaping his throat.
So it turns out Dirk's not interested. He's investigating us, possibly because there's something to investigate, possibly because he's a crazy person who thinks he's from an alternative dimension. Either way, you remember that car accident that killed mom and dad and left you with third degree burns?
Rehearsing it in his head did nothing to highlight the humour of the situation. If anything it made it worse, Todd swallowing a half-hitched sob as he let his head fall forward, his gaze taking in the empty sterileness of his apartment.
He'd half expected Dirk to follow him up the stairs, Todd not entirely sure if he should be grateful to the Ridgely's new management for installing controlled entry, or disappointed that they'd installed it as early as they had. Not that he'd wanted Dirk to follow him, but there was still a part of him, however pitiable, that feverently wished this was all some colossal misunderstanding, a nightmare he'd wake from only to discover that Dirk was... Dirk was...
Climbing in through his god-damned fucking window.
Todd blinked, trying to process what he was seeing. He wondered if Dirk had tried the as of yet uninstalled buzzer before resorting to the fire escape. He wondered who in their right mind resorted to a fire escape. It seemed unthinkable, and yet oddly familiar in a way Todd's brain couldn't quite grasp. For a moment he was too stunned to do anything but stare.
And then Dirk toppled over the windowsill, Todd's vision going red at the sight of Dirk sprawled across his living room floor.
"What the hell?" he shouted, already moving across the room.
He reached Dirk just as Dirk got his feet under him, Todd taking advantage of his precarious balance to grab ahold of his shoulders, the worn leather of his jacket soft beneath his hands.
"Out," he said, as though shooing a stray cat. He tried pushing Dirk back out the window, but Dirk was apparently some sort of contortionist, because one minute Todd had him in hand and the next he was free, already retreating to the far side of the couch.
"You can't just break into someone's apartment," he said. Dirk gave an exasperated eyeroll.
"Clearly, I can. In fact, I just have. Now would you please listen to me?"
"Why, are you going to tell me why you're investigating me? Are you going to tell me who hired you? Because otherwise I don't want to hear it."
He was shaking, he realized, somewhat noticeably, the past few hours finally catching up with him. The sight of Dirk standing in his apartment--something straight out of Todd's fantasies--was too much. Todd wanted desperately to look away. He couldn't bring himself to break Dirk's gaze.
"I told you," Dirk said, "I'm not investigating you."
"Right," Todd said, forcing a laugh and then wincing at its hollowness. "You're an interdimensional traveller."
He'd thought the fight had gone out of him on the street, but it came flooding back now, Todd balling his hands into fists, his jaw tight with tension. He wanted to hit something. Hidden behind the couch, Dirk had the grace at least to look chagrined.
"Possibly that was the wrong approach," Dirk said.
"Possibly?" Todd managed, near livid now. "I find out you're investigating me, possibly my sister and you respond by telling me you're from an alternative dimension?"
"Timeline, I think," Dirk said, sounding surprisingly sheepish. Todd's nails dug half moons into his palms. He desperately wanted them to draw blood.
"There's a difference?" he asked, and then immediately regretted it. Fueling Dirk's delusion wasn't exactly helping.
"Dimension implies parallel universe. Timeline implies an alteration to our universe," Dirk said, as though the explanation made perfect sense. Todd brought two fingers up to pinch his brow.
"Do you even realize how crazy you sound?"
He wanted to hate Dirk. He wanted to take Dirk roughly by the arm and throw him out into the hall. He wanted to be done with the man and his stupid jacket and his ill-fitting t-shirt that was on inside out and triggered incomprehensible possessiveness. He wanted this conversation to be over. He wanted Dirk to stop making that face, the one that suggested he was hurt, that Todd was the one who'd hurt him.
"Of course I know how crazy this sounds. Why do you think I didn't tell you? It's not like I didn't want to, but I couldn't exactly show up and say, oh hey, by the way, you're my best friend from an alternative timeline and I'd really like your help figuring out how to get back to you."
"So you figured you'd date me instead?" Todd asked, too late realizing that probably wasn't the part he should be focusing on.
"Yes, well... In sight of hind, that was possibly not the best decision. But in my defence, you are very dateable in this timeline and not so dateable in my timeline and it was a bit confusing for me and..."
Todd held up a hand. He didn't want to hear this--couldn't hear this--not now. Not after everything.
"I need you to leave," he said, trying to ignore the violent pitching of his stomach. Dirk stepped out from behind the couch.
"Todd, please. I don't know what else to do. I've spent my whole life drifting aimlessly from place to place and all of that changed the second I met you. You changed my life. You made it better. You made it bearable."
Dirk was still moving forward, Todd realized, closing the distance between them until he was standing right inside Todd's space. Had Todd wanted to, he could have manhandled Dirk out the door. He could have hit him. Instead he glanced up, throat constricting around an ugly laugh.
"See, that right there is how I know you're lying. I've never made anyone's life bearable, let alone better," Todd said. Dirk shook his head.
"But you have. And you do."
Todd forced a smile. It came out more of a grimace. The point, he suspected, was still made.
"If you knew anything about me you'd know that isn't true," he said in a near whisper.
Dirk's eyes went hard, his jaw clenching with resolve. He took another step forward, Todd retreating back a step, overwhelmed by Dirk's presence.
"I do know you. I know when you were six you had an imaginary friend named Rocky. I know he was a racoon. I know you didn't actually believe in him, that you'd made him up because your friend down the street had an imaginary friend and you wanted one too. I know you modelled him after Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh because you felt sorry for Eeyore and thought he needed a friend. I know you named him after a song your father used to listen to."
Of all the things Todd had expected Dirk to say, that wasn't it. He drew back, momentarily startled. He'd never told anyone that story. Not even Amanda.
"How..." he tried, but Dirk wasn't finished.
"I also know you think music is the only thing you've ever been good at. That you're never happier than when you have a guitar in your hand. I know you're still pissed about the Mexican Funeral going sideways, even though you blame yourself for their breakup. I know your bandmates didn't take the band as seriously as you did, and it drove you crazy. I know to get back at them you sold all their equipment and then claimed it was stolen. I know you think that makes you an asshole, but you secretly feel vindicated by it because things were already falling apart."
Dirk continued his advance, Todd retreating, his eyes growing impossibly wide. There was no possible way Dirk could know any of this. Todd had never told anyone. He'd barely let himself think it. No investigation could uncover this.
"I don't know where the similarities end and where they begin, but I know in the original timeline you lied to your parents about having pararibulitis so that they would send you money so that you didn't have to work. I know you beat yourself up for that every single day, so much so that you won't let me call the Rowdies even when it's bad because you think suffering is some form of attrition."
He'd stopped moving and was now practically looming over Todd, looking desperate and somewhat afraid. Todd shook his head.
"No that doesn't... What the fuck is pararibulitis and who the fuck are the Rowdies?"
Of all the things to focus on, those seemed the most relevant. He'd seen both listed on the boards. They were also the only things Dirk had gotten wrong, Todd desperate to believe Dirk was making all this up, that there was some other explanation for why he seemed to know Todd's inner most secrets.
"Pararibulitis is a genetic nerve disorder. In our timeline both you and your sister share the disease, but it doesn't appear to exist in this timeline, and I don't know why."
"That doesn't make any sense. You're saying I have a fake disease I lied about having?"
Dirk gave a somewhat exasperated sigh, as though frustrated by Todd's inability to follow along. I'm not the one who thinks there's an alternative timeline, Todd wanted to tell him.
"It's complicated. Pararibulitis runs in your family. You lied about having it, but then your sister ended up contracting it, and since your parents were out of money, you said you got better and..."
"My parents are dead," Todd interrupted.
"In this timeline, yes. Not in mine," Dirk said, a hint of sorrow in his tone. Todd narrowed his gaze. Dirk sighed.
"In our timeline, a man named Zachariah Webb built a time machine," he explained, the same story he'd told on the bus. Todd stared, not entirely sure how any of this was connected--not entirely sure he wanted to know.
"When Webb's time machine travelled forward in time, it was found by the Men of the Machine. They started cult and used a broken aspect of the machine to swap souls. One of the souls they swapped belonged to Lux Dujour."
Dirk paused on the name, as though waiting for Todd to make the connection. Todd got it immediately.
"Lux Dujour? The guy who..."
"Yes," Dirk said. "Except, in our timeline, he wasn't a washed-out rock star with a drinking problem. He was a soul-swapping cultist who never got behind the wheel of that car.
"It's all connected, Todd. Everything is connected."
Todd was shaking his head, unwilling to hear what Dirk was saying. He'd lost the impulse to throw Dirk out of the apartment, but that didn't mean this was a conversation he wanted to have. Oblivious, Dirk forged ahead.
"In your timeline Webb never built a time machine, or if he did it never got sent back. And since it never got sent back, Lux Dujour never got soul-swapped, which unfortunately meant he was behind the wheel of the car that killed your parents."
"You're wrong," Todd said. "That's not what happened."
It occurred to him then there was something wrong with him. Anyone else would have thrown Dirk out onto the street, and yet here he was, not only listening but seriously entertaining the possibility that Dirk was telling the truth. Dirk, who was still staring at Todd, his expression somewhat pleading, took a tentative step forward. Todd fought the impulse to withdraw. He'd already backtracked the length of his couch, the kitchen and the front door now his only lines of escape.
"I've seen the police report, Todd," Dirk said.
Todd shook his head, somewhat desperately, because Dirk didn't understand. He was standing in the middle of Todd's apartment, trying to convince Todd there was an alternate timeline, one in which his parents weren't dead--one in which Amanda wasn't hurt--and he didn't understand.
"Lux Dujour didn't kill my parents," Todd told him. "I did."
It marked the first time he'd said it out loud, the weight of it crushing. It was like having all the oxygen removed from the room, Todd's entire body going limp. Sheer will kept him standing, though Todd wanted desperately to throw himself onto the couch, to sink so far into the cushions he disappeared. Dirk was watching him intently, a confused frown marring his brow. Todd wanted to laugh. He thought he might cry. More than anything he wanted to not have to explain.
"We were going to be big," Todd told him. "We were going to revitalize the Seattle music scene. Except, it was all talk, and the guys... They just wanted to smoke weed and dick around at gigs. And when that wasn't enough, they started getting into other stuff, harder stuff, and the next thing I know I'm trying to keep together this band full of fucking junkies so I thought, fuck them, and I sold all our equipment and reported it stolen. I figured they were so cracked out they wouldn't notice.
"I was going to ditch. Go to L.A., start over, except they found out I'd stolen their shit and they were going to report me to the police and my parents had just found out I'd dropped out of school and everything was crashing down around me and I needed an out. So I stole some of their heroin, not enough to OD, but enough to make it look like I had because I figured if they thought I was just another junky they'd cut me some slack. Except I miscalculated and the next thing I know I'm in the hospital and my parents are dead because the hospital called them and they got into that car. They put Amanda in that car."
"Do you have any idea what it was like? The hospital? They thought it was a suicide attempt. And I don't know. Maybe it was. Because I'm not entirely sure I hadn't considered it. But either way, they kept me under suicide watch for weeks afterwards. Amanda was in a room upstairs getting skin grafts and I couldn't see her. Our parents were dead, and I couldn't bury them. And Amanda? Amanda still thinks I was a junky. She thinks I was some strung out drug addict who couldn't handle the pressures of school. She thinks the band led me astray. She thinks I'm a victim in all of this and I've never once corrected her because that's just the kind of asshole I am."
"No, no. You keep saying you're not investigating me. That you're from an alternative timeline. And maybe you believe that. But you don't get to come in here and tell me we're friends, that you know all this stuff about me and still think I'm worth knowing, because I'm not. I'm not."
He was expecting Dirk to leave. Even crazy, there had to be a limit to his tolerance. And yet, Dirk continued to stare at him, looking less like he thought Todd was some kind of monster and more like he thought Todd probably just needed a hug. It was somewhat infuriating. Todd wanted to to sink fists into the front of Dirk's shirt, to shake him until he got this through his obviously thick skull.
Instead Dirk crowded a little firmer against him.
"I don't think you're an asshole," he said, strangely quiet. "I think you're the bravest person I've ever met, and the only friend I've ever had, and that there aren't limits to the things I want from you, regardless of timeline."
If there was a response to that, Todd couldn't find it. He was too busy blinking; too busy processing Dirk's words, a strange flutter taking up residence in his chest. This was it, the worst of him, and instead of looking repulsed, instead of storming from the room and never looking back, Dirk merely looked sad, as though it bothered him greatly that Todd didn't know his worth.
"I don't have to fix it," Dirk said, speaking all in a rush. Todd blinked, only then realizing how close they were standing. From this distance, he could make out each of Dirk's individual eyelashes. "I mean, I don't even know if I can, but I don't have to try. Nothing needs to change, I..."
"You really believe this, don't you?" Todd asked. "You believe there's another timeline where you and I are friends, where my parents aren't dead, where my sister was never hurt."
"Yes," Dirk said.
"You know I don't, right? I don't believe you. I'm sorry, but I..."
"I can prove it to you, Todd, but I'm not sure I need to. You feel it, don't you? A connection you can't explain. I know you feel it."
Something lodged in the back of his throat, Todd flashing back to the day they met, to the odd sense of deja vu he now permanently associated with Dirk. But it couldn't mean what Dirk said it meant. Timelines didn't change. People didn't die when they were supposed to live. People didn't get hurt when they were supposed to stay safe.
"Here," Dirk said, Todd realizing he was holding out his phone. The UK phone that apparently didn't work. The screen glowed faintly blue against the dimness of the room.
"What am I looking at?" Todd asked.
"The sim card doesn't work, but everything else still does."
It took Todd a second to realize Dirk had opened up his photo album, that Todd was staring at a picture of himself and Dirk, Dirk smiling widely for the camera, Todd scowling somewhat dramatically. It wasn't a picture Todd remembered taking. Plucking the phone from Dirk's hand, he started scrolling through the album.
There were dozens of pictures of him. Pictures of Amanda, too, looking bright and happy and wearing a ridiculously oversized jacket. There were picture of him with Farah, of Amanda with Farah. There were pictures of four men he didn't know. There were pictures of Dirk in different coloured jackets. Todd stared, dumbstruck.
He glanced up at Dirk, the phone caught on a picture of them. Dirk was staring into the camera, but Todd was looking at Dirk, the soft cast of his eyes betraying the deliberate press of his lips.
"I told you. That's the other timeline," Dirk said, gesturing to the phone.
"But I don't... I don't remember any of this."
"And you don't have to. If you want to stay here, we'll stay here."
Todd glanced again to the phone, recognizing immediately the look on his face. He was practically gazing at Dirk, staring at Dirk like Dirk was the centre of his universe and he didn't remember. He didn't...
Todd shook his head, overwhelmed. He pushed the photograph from the screen.
The next picture showed Dirk on his own, a selfie, Dirk grinning into the camera, though that wasn't what drew Todd's gaze. Instead his attention was riveted on the shirt Dirk was wearing, the band's logo instantly familiar. He glanced up sharply, his gaze drawn immediately to the t-shirt Dirk wore under his jacket. Now that he knew what he was looking for, the shirt was easily recognizable.
"I think I need to sit down," he managed, his hand shaking somewhat violently.
It was as if he'd given Dirk permission to touch him, Dirk's hand coming immediately to Todd's elbow. Shock kept him from protesting, that and the growing unease that came with acknowledging the possibility that Dirk wasn't crazy.
Dirk deposited him onto the couch, the same spot he'd sat that first night, after the aquarium when Dirk had sat across from him, Todd warm with affection and desire. This time Dirk opted to perch on the coffee table, their knees hovering mere inches apart. For one brief, hysterical moment, Todd thought Dirk might reach for his hands. Instead he set his hands gingerly on his knees, Todd left gripping Dirk's now dark phone.
"You really are what you say you are," he said, looking up. Dirk caught his eye.
"I am," he affirmed.
"But I..." He gestured with the phone. "I mean, this isn't me. This is some other me... I..."
"You're thinking about this wrong," Dirk said. "There aren't two Todds. You're both you. The timeline changed, and because I was at the epicentre I retained my memories of the original timeline. You weren't, so you didn't, but you're still the same Todd. He's you and you're him and while I hate that you don't remember me, it doesn't change anything. You're still my best friend."
Todd shook his head. "How does someone change a timeline? That doesn't make sense, it..."
Thinking about this was starting to give him a headache.
"I don't know," Dirk said. "That's what Farah and I are trying to figure out."
His words trailed off into awkward silence, Todd aware of the chasm between them. He missed Dirk's warmth. He missed the way Dirk had crowded against him, his physical presence reassuring in a way his words were not. All of his previous anger had vanished, in its place numb confusion. Something ugly twisted in his stomach.
"You said we were friends," Todd said, speaking at a whisper. Against the silence of his apartment, the words were still startlingly loud.
"Best friends," Dirk answered, surprisingly sombre.
"So we're not..." Todd gestured between them. Dirk averted his gaze, twin spots of colour staining his cheek. He gave a brief shake of his head.
"You're not..." He gestured briefly with his hand. "Gay."
Todd couldn't help but frown at that. Of all the things Dirk had told him, this made the least sense. He thought back to the pictures on Dirk's phone, to the one where he was looking up at Dirk, staring at him with utter devotion. He shook his head.
"I'm bi, actually, but that still doesn't make sense. You can't change someone's sexual orientation."
None of this, he realized, made any sense. In the space of an hour his carefully constructed understanding of the universe had vanished, in its place an unpredictable mess where he was apparently two people, the guy he was interested in straddling two worlds.
"It's entirely possible you just weren't interested. I mean, most people aren't, so..." Dirk gave a brief laugh, the sound of it utterly strained. Todd was flooded with sudden understanding.
He'd never been good at expressing interest. He was always waiting for someone else to make the first move. Shaking his head, Todd reopened Dirk's phone. He scrolled back to the picture of him and Dirk, and then turned the phone so that Dirk could see.
"Pretty sure I was interested," he said.
Some version of him, anyway, Todd still not entirely sure he understood the nuances of what all of this meant. Dirk, who was staring at his phone with wide eyes, swallowed audibly.
"You said you were trying to figure out what happened," Todd said. Without glancing up from the phone, Dirk nodded. "If you can do that, can you put it back? I mean, make it so that it's your original timeline again?"
Only then did Dirk's gaze leave the phone, his expression soft as he glanced up to meet Todd's eye. Todd held his breath, waiting.
"I don't have to. I meant what I said. I can stay here. I..."
Todd nodded to the phone, Dirk momentarily following his gaze.
"Don't you miss him?"
"I miss you," Dirk said without hesitation. "And if I fixed things, I'd miss you even more."
It was probably the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him. Certainly it was enough to set his heart fluttering, Todd's stomach churning with nerves. For the first time since he walked into that abandoned building, saw his name on those boards, he wanted to kiss Dirk, to reach across and draw Dirk forward, to press their mouths together and kiss Dirk like he'd been thinking about doing for days.
"But in your... timeline, my parents... they're alive? And Amanda's not hurt?"
Dirk gave a brief nod, though his mouth was pressed into a thin line, his expression conveying abject sorrow.
"But you both have pararibulitis, and it's not... very pleasant."
Even without asking, Todd suspected that was an understatement. He glanced again to Dirk's phone.
"Amanda looks happy in these. She's..."
"She is," Dirk confirmed. "She has the Rowdy 3, and they look after her. And she has Farah... They're..."
Todd's eyes grew large at that. He thought of the woman he'd met, her stiff demeanor and the way she'd seemed utterly unhappy with his and Dirk's display.
It was all a little too much.
"I think I need you to start at the beginning," he said, still torn between wanting to drag Dirk onto his lap and a fleeting hope that maybe he might be able to undo the mistakes of his past.
Dirk seemed reluctant, but he didn't refuse. Instead he started where he had started on the bus, Todd listening intently, the story far more plausible the second time around, Todd piecing together previously missed connections.
Seven weeks prior
He was used to the hood now. It dampened everything, his connection to the universe vanishing beneath it, and yet it no longer terrified him like it used to. The hood meant they were taking him to the van. The van meant he got to go outside. When they got where they were going, they'd take it off, grant him the proximity he needed to do their bidding. Change the colour of the paint. Change the name on the sign. Make this a bakery. Little things. Tiny threads he could have found from the observation room with the cameras and the wobbly chair. Not that they needed to know that, Emershan's world filled with little victories.
And defeats. He was somewhat surprised they were allowing him out again after the last time. Such a simple thing. A misplaced turn. A superficial collision. Had he been a second faster, had he prevented them from placing the hood over his head, he might have walked free. He wondered what new contingencies they had in place; how long it would be before he found a way to circumvent them.
"Aren't you going to take it off?" he asked once they'd secured him in the van. To his surprise, Dr. Coleridge answered. She didn't usually accompany him on these trips.
"Not today," she said as the engines roared to life. The van gave a lurching jolt, telling him they were on their way.
He would have given anything to know the route they were taking, the city they occupied. Had he even seen a city? He was so young when they brought him to her, his memories of a time before having faded. Yet another thing Coleridge needed to pay for.
And yet, until they arrived at their destination, he was helpless, his hands bound behind him, the hood over his head blocking the universe from sight. It grated, and yet it was a familiar frustration, this his punishment for not doing as they asked.
As there was nothing else for it, he fell into a trance, the dull beating of his heart a perfect metronome, each steady beat carrying him forward through time. When they finally stopped, it was with no more ceremony than any other exercise, Emershan waiting patiently for his instructions.
And yet they didn't come. The van's back doors were flung open, Emershan grabbed roughly by the arms and herded out onto firm asphalt, the hood still securely in place. Outside, he could feel the heat of the sun, directly above him. Emershan stretched instinctively towards its warmth. Twin sets of hands prodded him forward, leading him blind.
He was brought indoors, sour, unfamiliar stench seeping past the hood. There was nothing to indicate his location. Nothing to suggest what they wanted of him. This was new, and new things made him tense, Emershan struggling briefly with his minders.
"We'll not be trying that again," Coleridge said from somewhere behind him. This was unusual too, Coleridge not someone who liked to get her hands dirty. He briefly considered knocking her down, fleeing until he could get his hands free and the hood off. Only knowing he wouldn't make it past the first minder stopped him. The sedatives had unpleasant side effects.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked, his voice echoing.
Wherever they were leading him, the path took a series of twists and turns, Emershan descending a set of stairs, and then coming into what felt like a narrow corridor. His breathing began to grow ragged.
"Ah, here we are," Coleridge said. The tiny echo of her voice suggested they'd entered a larger room. To his surprise, she reached over and withdrew his hood.
He immediately searched for her thread, but wherever they were--whatever this room was--everything was hazy, his reach scattering in the same way it did under the hood. His first impulse was to scowl, his second to bolt, but then he got a good look at his surroundings, the room relatively small, and yet oddly empty. The walls he saw now were covered in the same silver of his hood, but it was the strange contraption in the middle of the room that interested him.
A rectangular tube, with a single door, whatever it was looked more suited to NASA than whoever it was Coleridge worked for. Emershan frowned. Coleridge shot him a smile. And then opened the tube. It's interior, he was terrified to note, was filled with thick, incandescent liquid. Emershan's breath caught in his throat, a surge of panic seizing in his chest.
"No," he said, trying and failing to retreat back a step, his minders having appeared behind him. He shook his head again. He didn't want to go in there.
"Please," he tried. "I'll do anything you say. You don't need to do this, I can..."
"A bit late for that," Coleridge said, gesturing to his minders. As it was when he was a child, Emershan's screams fell on deaf ears.
Chapter 15: Over the Hills and Far Away
A couple of days, Farah had said. They were now going on three. Dirk, sprawled across the agency couch, stared up at the ceiling. He let his gaze trace a line of exposed plumbing to where it intersected with the building's ductwork. Faint water stains surrounded this junction, though Dirk had no idea of they had come from the pipes or a leaking roof. The building they'd chosen to house their offices in was old, not quite dilapidated, though nowhere near as polished as he'd first envisioned. He wondered if Farah would let them hire someone to paint.
At this point he would have picked up a brush if it meant having something to do. He hated waiting.
He could still feel the universe's pull, a vague sense of something that made sitting idle all the more difficult. His gut was telling him to get out there, to follow the web of the universe until it led him to where he needed to go. If only Todd would...
"Dirk, come look at this," Todd said from across the room, interrupting the thought. Dirk sat up quickly, his gaze drawn to where Todd was currently bent over Farah's shoulder, the two of them staring at her laptop. Something ugly twisted in his gut.
Even knowing Farah's interest lay elsewhere--and that Todd would never hurt his sister--the sight of them together brought a lump to the back of his throat. It was stupid and irrational and nothing he was entitled to, but he remembered Todd's crush, seemingly gone now, though fresh enough in Dirk's mind to warrant misplaced jealousy. Dirk beat it back as best he could, his tone unaffected as he made a polite sound of inquiry.
"Looks like your hunch was right," Todd said, speaking over his shoulder, a wide smile now spread across his face. Dirk frowned.
His hunches usually were, but that didn't narrow down the specifics. As Todd didn't seem particularly inclined to elaborate, it meant seeing for himself, so Dirk levered himself off the couch and moved across the room to stand at Todd's side.
Their shoulders brushed, not unusual, but Dirk couldn't help but feel a bit smug at that. Smug and possessive, things he didn't usually let himself feel because Todd was Todd and he was... well, himself. Also, he was usually better at controlling himself.
Todd, oblivious to Dirk's inner turmoil, shot him another smile. Caught in his gaze, Dirk couldn't help but think this was all going to backfire spectacularly some day. Not quite ready for that to happen, he turned his attention to the screen. And blinked.
"Wait, are those..."
"Those are your vans, yes," Farah said.
"Ha!" Dirk said, thrusting a triumphant finger towards the screen. "See, I knew the aquarium was important!"
The image on Farah's screen was grainy and monochrome, but he could still make out the distinctive weatherboarding of the aquarium's exterior. The vans were stacked one alongside the other, pulled tight against the building, exact replicas of the one that had hit the Fedex truck. It couldn't have been coincidence.
Todd, he realized, was staring at him openly now, looking as fond as he did amused. Dirk's stomach flipped at the sight. Farah's gaze flitted between them.
"As near as I can tell," she said, "they turned up sometime this morning. It's a red-light camera so it only goes off when someone runs the light. They weren't there 7:30 this morning, but they're there after 10:45."
That was good enough for Dirk, Farah simply confirming what he already suspected. He hazarded a brief glance in Todd's direction, but Todd was no longer smiling. Instead he looked vaguely resolved, as though he, too, shared Dirk's impatience.
"Come along, Todd," Dirk said, taking the opportunity to reach up and pat Todd's shoulder. Todd shot him a grin, Dirk momentarily distracted by it until he remembered what they were supposed to be doing.
They made it outside before Dirk registered the fluttering in his stomach as belonging to something other than his proximity to Todd. The closer they got to the car the worse it got, growing in intensity until it became a dull nausea. Dirk slowed his steps. A distant ringing echoed in his head.
"You okay?" Todd asked, sounding entirely too concern. He was staring openly, Dirk only then realizing he'd stopped moving, that Todd was now several paces ahead of him. The ringing grew obnoxiously loud.
"Shit, sorry," Todd said, reaching for his phone. He tapped the screen. The ringing stopped. Growing nausea became sinking uncertainty, Dirk's mood evaporating. Something was happening. Something was wrong.
"Amanda?" Todd said into the receiver. Dirk cocked his head, listening intently.
"Slow down," was followed by a long pause, Todd's voice incredulous when he asked, "wait, what happened?" Out on the street, a car drove past, kicking up spray. The rain had stopped an hour ago, but the streets were still damp with it.
"Amanda, Amanda, slow down," Todd said. He was practically shouting. Over the line, Dirk could hear the muffled sound of Amanda's voice, too loud for normal conversation.
"What do you mean the Rowdies disappeared? All of them? Are you sure they didn't just..."
Whatever Amanda was saying, Todd looked increasingly worried, his brow furrowing as she spoke. He glanced once in Dirk's direction, panic and apology reflected in his gaze. Dirk offered him a faint, sympathetic smile.
"Look, I'm sure they're fine. People don't just disappear."
Todd winced, Amanda's voice impossibly loud. Dirk caught bits of it, the words vanished and right in front of my eyes coming across as clear as day.
"Okay, okay, calm down," Todd said. "Just tell me where you are and I'll come and get you."
A glance to the second story windows showed Farah staring down at them, obviously drawn by the sound of Todd's shouts.
"Okay, okay," Todd was saying. "I'll be there in ten. Just stay put, okay."
He disconnected the call and caught Dirk's eye, his expression somewhat apologetic.
"Change of plans?" Dirk asked.
"Yes. Actually, no." Todd shook his head. "Amanda's freaking out. I think it might be some kind of attack. Or maybe it's something else, I don't know. But I need to go get her."
"Alright, let's go," Dirk said without hesitation. Again, Todd shook his head.
"No, you need to check out those vans. We don't know how much longer they'll be there."
He did, Dirk realized, have a point, though the suggestion did nothing to ease his growing anxiety. Whatever was happening, it wasn't limited to Todd's phone call, the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach lingering, Dirk half tempted to force them both back upstairs.
"Take Farah," Todd was saying. "And make sure she's armed. And don't do anything stupid until I get there. Once I get Amanda, I'll meet you."
"You take the rental. We'll take Farah's car," Dirk said, the sinking feeling in his stomach now distinct foreboding. Worse still, he couldn't pinpoint it, the sensation giving him nothing in the way of context. Should he stop Todd leaving? Should he go with Todd? Should he skip out on the aquarium? Bring Farah? Not bring Farah. Nothing felt right, the ordered-chaos of the universe now utterly overturned.
"Yeah, okay," Todd said, patting his pockets in a search for keys. He found them a second later, the look he shot Dirk decidedly worried.
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Dirk lied.
"Just, be careful, okay," Todd said. He glanced once over his shoulder, to where the car was still parked down the street, before once again meeting Dirk's eye. "And I'm serious about not doing anything stupid. You're not allowed to get yourself shot while I'm not around."
There was something in the way that he said it that overroad Dirk's unease, warmth spreading through his chest as he gave Todd his word. Todd nodded once and then, with a slight wave, turned and started for the car, Amanda now his priority. Dirk waited until Todd was secure behind the steering wheel before he headed back inside, his discomfort returning, nothing about this even remotely okay.
Back in the present
It felt strange leading Todd back to the office. Strange and yet entirely natural, as though the universe had righted itself, this where Todd was meant to be. It was entirely possible Dirk was romanticizing the situation, but for the first time since finding himself here, Dirk was beginning to feel like he might be able to consider this home.
Not that it was the same. The other Todd would have charged up the stairs, intent on whatever case they were working on. This Todd shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, as though not quite sure what to do with himself. Dirk offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Todd returned it.
It was all Dirk could do not to break into a grin. Todd was here. Todd was here and he believed Dirk and he seemed willing to get involved, possibly only to appease his curiosity, but at this point Dirk would take what he could get and either way it didn't matter because Todd was here.
He was also still shooting Dirk sidelong glances, like he wasn't quite sure where things stood between them but maybe wasn't opposed to continuing on as before. It left Dirk with a decided flutter, one that kept him standing at the bottom of the stairs, staring dumbly at Todd like Todd hadn't asked to go to the offices, like Dirk had invited him instead, like this was the end of a very unusual date, one that would maybe even lead to...
Todd cleared his throat. Dirk shook off the thought.
"Sorry, we should..." Dirk started them up the stairs.
Todd followed a step behind, not the purposeful march Dirk tended to associate with their cases, but rather a slow amble, Dirk forced to rein himself in, his entire body taut as he progressed from one stair to the next. Twice he glanced back, once to try and catch Todd's eye and once to ensure Todd was still following. Knuckles white against the rail, Todd climbed, his gaze locked on the darkness above.
"She's really my sister's girlfriend?" he asked when they reached the first landing, his hesitation suddenly making sense. Dirk considered how best to answer.
"I'm not entirely sure of their title, but I know Amanda spends a lot of time sleeping at Farah's flat," he eventually said. He glanced back as they started the next set of stairs, not missing the slight narrowing of Todd's gaze. He seemed utterly flummoxed by the idea.
He was also, Dirk realized, extremely nervous, Dirk momentarily taken aback. Todd didn't tend to get nervous. Or rather, he didn't tend to show it, Dirk not lying when he said Todd was easily the bravest person he knew. Pausing at the top landing, Dirk took a leap of faith. He slid his hand back and let his fingers slip neatly over Todd's, offering what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze.
He half expected Todd to pull away, but to his surprise Todd flipped his hand, their fingers threading together until they stood, face to face on the darkened landing, holding hands. Todd offered a faint smile. Dirk returned it.
"You know," Todd said without relinquishing Dirk's hand, "this feels weirdly familiar."
Dirk glanced once to their interlocked hands before turning his gaze back to Todd.
"Well, we have held hands before. I mean, not like this, obviously, but..." Todd narrowed his gaze.
"No, it's more than that. When I first met you, you felt familiar. And then when we were at the aquarium, it was like... I don't know... deja vu? Same thing the first time I came here, and again when you climbed through my window..."
"Oh," Dirk said, excited now. "That's how we met."
"Sorry?" Todd asked, sounding outright bewildered. Dirk felt his cheeks go red.
"I mean... in the other timeline. Well, sort of. There was a bit of a time loop, so I'd already met you, but the first time you met me I was breaking into your apartment."
"You were breaking into my apartment?" Todd asked.
"For case related reasons! Also, you attacked me."
He could tell Todd wanted to ask, his curiosity obviously piqued, but then a second later his expression shifted, growing contemplative as he shook his head.
"You think I'm remembering things from the other timeline?"
That wasn't at all what he'd been suggesting, though now that Todd had mentioned it...
"It is possible," Dirk said. "I'm quite convinced you're the same Todd. And if your memories have been altered, it's entirely possible you've retained memories of the other timeline, even if only subconsciously."
Todd didn't exactly look convinced. Then again, he didn't exactly look unconvinced either.
"That's... a lot to take in," he said. Dirk couldn't help but agree.
It occurred to him then that they were still standing on the landing, holding hands, close enough that had Dirk wanted to he could have closed the distance between them and...
Somewhere down the hall a door opened. Dirk flinched back at the sound. It struck him then Todd was doing the same, that they had been drifting slowly towards one another; that they were still holding hands.
Releasing his grip, Dirk let his hand slide back on the rail. Todd withdrew his entirely, his posture tense as he placed his arm stiffly against his side. Together they peered down the hall.
Sure enough, there was Farah, frozen inside the doorway, her eyes wide as she glanced between them.
"Todd," she eventually said, her gaze sliding immediately back to Dirk. "Dirk, why is Todd here?" she asked.
"He knows," Dirk said simply. Farah's eyes grew wider still, though she didn't seem particularly surprised. Dirk was acutely aware of Todd, still tense behind him on the landing, Dirk half afraid he might bolt.
"O...kay," Farah managed. "I'm just gonna..." she pointed down the stairs... "Go to the washroom."
She slid past them then, mumbling just under her breath as she descended the stairs. Dirk waited until she'd reached the first landing before gesturing towards the door. Farah had left it open. Faint light from the sinking sun had bathed the room in red.
"So this is where I live," Dirk said, aiming for levity and failing, he suspected, somewhat spectacularly. Todd, to his credit, huffed an appreciative laugh. He followed Dirk into the room.
And then immediately froze, his gaze darting first to the sleeping bags and then to the records stacked upon the chair.
"Do you even have anything to play them on?" Todd asked. It wasn't an accusation, Todd's tone carrying only mild curiosity, that and the same underlying uncertainty he'd adopted after their conversation on the couch. Dirk still shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot.
"Um... no?" he tried.
"Then why did you buy them?" Todd asked.
He was staring now, still curious but also maybe a little amused, like he still had no idea what to make of any of this but was determined not to let it offend. Dirk appreciated that. He really, really did. He also had no idea how to answer the question.
"To be honest?" Dirk said, because at this point honestly seemed the best policy. "Mostly as an excuse to see you."
That evoked a somewhat profound reaction, Todd's eyes growing wide while his features softened completely, a shy smile appearing on his face. He averted his gaze, though Dirk couldn't help but note he looked rather pleased.
"I do know some stuff about music," Dirk still felt the need to explain. "I mean, you're the one teaching me about it, so maybe that doesn't count, but..."
Dirk trailed off, Todd now shaking his head. He still didn't look upset. If anything he looked touched, as though surprised Dirk had gone to such lengths. Dirk didn't bother trying to hide his relief.
He also realized they were still standing in the threshold, Dirk motioning Todd fully into the room, Todd following him until they stood, side by side in front of the bristol boards, these what Todd had asked to see.
Farah had returned the one Todd had torn down to the wall, the surface of it wrinkled, a long tear cutting it in two. It was held together now with tape, a near seamless repair. Todd ran a hand over his name, Went to aquarium with Todd close to the top of the list.
"So what exactly are these?" Todd asked. Gone was his earlier anger, in its place open curiosity.
"I guess you could say it's the case. I'm not big on writing things down, but Farah likes to and..."
The look Todd shot him suggested that was not at all what he'd asked. Dirk swallowed and moved to the board closest the door.
"This one is a list of the locations where we found dolphin stencils," he said.
"Like the ones on the zener cards," Todd said, clearly remembering Dirk's words from the couch.
"Yes. We think they might mark test sites."
Todd gave a brief nod, though he looked no less confused.
"So whatever caused this... timeline change. You think they were testing it before hand? And then marking the locations? Why? Why mark the locations? And why use dolphins?"
They were all very good questions. Questions Dirk had considered. Questions Farah had asked. Questions they still didn't have answers for. Dirk shrugged.
"Well, whoever designed this machine..."
"Machine?" Todd interrupted.
"Presuming it's a machine. It's usually a machine. Lots of machines in our cases," Dirk told him. Todd nodded. Dirk pressed on. "Whoever designed it, I would imagine they'd want to test it first."
"That still doesn't explain why they'd mark the test sites. I mean, it kind of gives them away, doesn't it?"
Dirk considered. Todd raised a good point. "Well, I suppose someone else could have marked the locations..."
Dirk froze, something clicking into place. He paused then, staring intently at the stencil list. It was as if he was seeing it for the first time.
"Oh, Todd," he said, suddenly excited. He spun, turning so that he stared at Todd's profile. A second later Todd turned towards him, Dirk bouncing a little now that they were face to face.
"Why would someone send us cards with the exact same logo as the stencils unless they wanted us to find them?"
"Um... they wouldn't?" Todd said.
"Precisely. So whoever sent us the cards was also marking locations. Which means the stencils have nothing to do with whoever and whatever did this, and everything to do with whoever or whatever wanted us to investigate this."
"Okay..." Todd said, clearly confused.
"Don't you see? There's not one mystery. There's two."
He was so excited he didn't hear Farah's return, not until she cleared her throat, Dirk spinning towards her, a wide smile spread across his face.
"Farah," he said, "Todd's solved the mystery!"
"Um, no, no I didn't," Todd said beside him, Dirk waving off his protest as a technicality. He gestured for Farah to join them at the boards. She did so reluctantly. Todd shot her a nervous half smile.
"We already theorized the stencils were marking test locations around town," Dirk reminded her. Farah nodded.
"Okay," she said. She cast a sidelong glance at Todd. Todd didn't meet her gaze.
"Todd," Dirk continued, "has figured out that the person marking the locations is the same person who sent us the zener cards. Aka our client. Aka not the bad guys who caused all of this. It's two mysteries, Farah!"
He watched Farah process the information, her eyes lighting up as comprehension dawned.
"That actually makes this a lot easier," she said. "Dirk, your first instinct, when you received the cards..."
"Was to go to the aquarium."
"And that's where..."
Dirk was acutely aware of Todd staring between them, Dirk shooting him a brief smile before turning his attention back to Farah.
"So whoever sent those cards," Farah continued.
"Obviously knows me very, very well," Dirk finished.
He was flailing a little, but then, so was Farah, as much as she ever flailed, anyway. Todd still stood on the periphery, his gaze darting between them. Giving Farah a final smile, Dirk swung around to face him.
"Sorry, this was a bit of a breakthrough," he said. He let his smile grow wide. "See, I told you you were a very good assistant."
Todd smiled at that. It was the same soft smile he'd worn out in the hall, Dirk struck again by the desire to kiss him. Not that it was a new sensation. Wanting to kiss Todd was pretty much par for the course. Dirk couldn't actually remember a time when he didn't want to kiss Todd. It struck him then that he could. That this Todd might not actually mind. Only Farah's presence kept him from doing so. That and the underlying uncertainty still marring Todd's features. Standing as a point between them, Farah once again cleared her throat.
"Um, so what exactly does this machine do?" Todd asked, gesturing now to the board that listed Things that are the Same and Things that are Not.
"Ah, well..." Dirk glanced briefly to Farah. That was a bit trickier question. "It um... changes things?" he tried.
"Right," Todd said, as though he hadn't actually expected a different answer. Dirk glanced helplessly to Farah, and found she'd crossed to the desk and was now bent over it, pen and paper in hand. She returned a second later.
"We're guessing it's similar to a time machine," she said, handing Todd the piece of paper. "Whatever it is, this is what we found in the aquarium. It kind of... exploded. We think that's why we ended up here."
Todd took the paper, Dirk glancing at it over his shoulder. Sure enough it was a relatively accurate reproduction of the device.
Whatever it was, it was large, nothing like Zachariah Webb's time machine. Rectangular, it stretched out into a long tube, the surface of it grey, various dials and switches stretched along its length. Cables protruded from it, these falling to floor where, at the aquarium, they had gathered before disappearing into a grate. Todd traced a finger along the drawing's length.
"This looks like an isolation tank," he said.
"A what?" Dirk asked.
"Like a sensory deprivation tank," Todd clarified. "They're filled with salt water, or something... I don't know, you float in them. They had one at the hospital. It was in the same room as the hyperbaric chamber. They had Amanda in the hyperbaric chamber while her skin grafts healed."
Dirk stared. He didn't mean to, but sometimes Todd said things and Dirk's brain refused to believe his luck. The universe wasn't this kind to him. It certainly didn't give him perfect assistants with endless knowledge and the rare ability to piece together the connections Dirk happened to miss.
He wanted then to hug Todd. To kiss him. To sweep him off his feet and twirl him around. Instead he bounced steadily on the balls of his feat, a wide smile cutting into his cheeks.
"Oh," he said, feeling utterly breathless. "Solved it. I solved it."
He sensed rather than saw Farah's head swivel towards him; registered the slight widening of Todd's eyes. And yet he was far too busy flailing to answer their obvious questions. It was all coming together. And all it had taken was Todd, Dirk's smile growing a little wider as the rest of it clicked into place.
Now that he had all the pieces, it all made perfect sense.
Chapter 16: The Headmaster Ritual
"It's not a machine," he said, gesturing to the paper still clutched in Todd's hand. The pronouncement did little to clear their confusion. Dirk tried not to let his exasperation show.
Not that it was a surprise. However obvious the connection, no one ever saw it but him. Todd had once summed it up rather succinctly. They were living it. Dirk was reading it in a book. He had the advantage of narration.
"It's not a machine," he said again, this time plucking the page from Todd's hand. He pointed to the tube-like structure, drawing attention to its length.
"It's whoever's inside."
Farah, at least, had caught on, though Todd still looked hopelessly confused. Dirk realized that was probably because he was missing some information, information Dirk wasn't entirely sure he was ready to provide. He hadn't exactly lied to Todd, but he hadn't exactly volunteered anything either. It was so much easier to gloss over the whole not-quite psychic thing. Clearly the universe hated him. Drawing a breath, Dirk struggled to explain.
"In the original timeline there were people... special people who could do... stuff," Dirk said, well aware it was probably the wrong place to start. If Todd's expression was any indication, he tended to agree. Biting the inside of his cheek, Dirk tried again.
"I want to start by saying I didn't lie," he said, which, if the widening of Todd's eyes was any indication was also the wrong place to start. A quick glance in Farah's direction suggested he was on his own, so Dirk pressed on.
"I have... powers. But not really. And they don't work here. I don't know why. But in the original timeline, ever since I was little I'd get these little hunches about how the universe worked. And then, when I was a little older, I got recruited into this program... And there were... other people. People like me. Psychics. Except, I'm not psychic. I'm... something, but it's not..."
Todd was staring openly now, like he thought maybe Dirk had fallen off the deep end, like he was back to believing Dirk was a crazy; like he was beginning to doubt all over again. Terrified he'd just made everything worse, Dirk flailed, somewhat helplessly.
"He's telling the truth," Farah said, coming to his rescue. Todd's gaze swivelled towards her. Dirk sagged with relief.
"The organization is called Blackwing," Farah continued. "And we think they were tracking dozens of psychics." She shot Dirk a smile as she spoke, silent apology for use of the term.
"We've met people who can dreamwalk. People who can't get hurt. People who survive by draining psychic energy from other psychics. It's how Dirk works. He gets hunches about how the universe is connected. We follow those connections to solve cases."
"Yes," Dirk said, grateful beyond measure. "But it doesn't work here. Whatever happened, everything's kind of scrambled, my..."
Most days, he appreciated seeing the bigger picture. It meant solving a case. Today however, with Todd still staring at him, Dirk could have cursed his brain. And yet...
"That's what changed," he said, directing the epiphany at Farah. "My powers don't work here. And Todd and Amanda don't have pararibulitis. And before we went to the aquarium, Amanda called and said the Rowdy 3 had disappeared."
Standing across from him, Farah's eyes had gone wide.
"We already theorized pararibultis is a kind of displaced psychic energy. That's why the Rowdies can feed off it."
Dirk nodded. "Precisely. And that would mean Zachariah Webb was special too. Oh! His connection to electricity!"
"Okay, good," Farah said, sounding entirely too excited. Dirk wished he could echo the sentiment, but with Todd still staring at him Dirk couldn't see past the vague and unsettling threat of impending dread.
"I would also wager NASA had people like me working for them," he said, almost as an afterthought.
"Obviously," Farah said, like she was surprised they hadn't considered it sooner.
"Sorry," Todd said, speaking for the first time. "What's happening here?" Dirk turned slowly towards him.
"I don't have to figure out how to fix it. I just need to find the person responsible..."
He fluttered the paper in his hand for emphasis, as though doing so ought to have filled in the remaining blanks. Given Todd's expression, it obviously hadn't.
"Sorry, I really don't know how else to explain this."
"No, it's fine. I just... I don't understand any of it," Todd admitted.
It struck Dirk then that Todd didn't just look confused. He looked scared. Scared and worried and maybe a little upset, as if this was all moving a bit too fast for him, as though he knew he was running head first towards a cliff but couldn't bring himself to slow down. Dirk's stomach sank at the sight.
Farah, too, seemed to realize what was happening. She offered Dirk a single nod and then retreated, heading to the window, where faint, artificial light from the street below heralded the arrival of night. Only then did Dirk realize how late it was.
"It still doesn't matter," Dirk told him. "This doesn't have to change anything."
"That's not..." Todd paused, his gaze narrowing as he met Dirk's eye, all of his earlier uncertainty having returned. "You're psychic?" he asked. Dirk's stomach flipped.
"Not psychic," he said, rather emphatically. "I'm... something." Explaining this had been difficult enough the first time around, Todd having spent enough time with him by that point to have a feel for what Dirk did. Things were different here. Everything was different here.
"I see... connections. The universe gives me pieces of a pattern and I can put them together to get the whole. It's like putting together a puzzle. But I don't know what to do with any of the pieces until I have enough of them, and I don't know what the pieces are going to look like, and I definitely don't know what the bigger picture is until I have the pieces. I also don't get a choice in what pieces I get or what order I get them in. The universe kind of just drags me along and gives me what I need as I need it. It's... complicated."
"And you were part of some organization that... what, studied people like you?" Dirk nodded. Somewhat reluctantly.
"They're called Blackwing. They're a branch of the CIA. And when I was a kid I lived at one of their facilities for a while. It..."
"That sounds awful," Todd interrupted, his expression now decidedly angry. Dirk recognized it immediately. It was the same expression Todd was wearing the day he broke Dirk out of Blackwing custody.
"It was... occasionally unpleasant, yes," Dirk said, understatement of the year. Todd, however, didn't need to know that. "Anyway, it really doesn't matter. We don't have to fix it. We can stay here. I can..."
He trailed off, watching as Todd ran a hand through his hair, looking as confused as he did distressed. Dirk flailed a little, not quite sure what to say; not quite sure how to make any of this better. Unbidden, it occurred to him that the man they'd seen at the aquarium was undoubtedly involved. Dirk very carefully kept the thought to himself.
"It's okay. I'm fine, really. I just... I think I need a minute to process this."
"Of course," Dirk said, willing to give Todd an eternity if that was what he needed.
Todd nodded, though he made no move to leave. Instead he turned back to stare at the boards. They were no longer visible in the dim light, but Todd, Dirk suspected, already knew what each of them said. Dirk waited patiently, not sure if he was meant to leave, to step aside and give Todd some space, or if Todd wanted him to stay. He wanted desperately to stay. Eventually Todd turned back to face him.
"God, this is so..."
"Crazy?" Dirk offered. He hated the word. Hated the way people looked at him when they said it. But he'd accept it gladly from Todd if it was what Todd needed. To his surprise, Todd shook his head.
"Unbelievable. I feel like I'm the protagonist in some bizarre novel."
Dirk couldn't help but smile at that, "I think you'd make a brilliant protagonist," falling out of his mouth before he had the chance to filter it. Todd glanced up sharply. Dirk fumbled to explain.
"I'm not... good when things get... intense," he said. "People are always pulling guns on us or shooting me in the shoulder with crossbows, or..." he gave a nervous chuckle, "building death mazes that try to kill us, and I'm rubbish in those situations. But you, you're brilliant. I meant what I told you. You're the bravest person I've ever met."
Todd was staring openly now, like he still thought this was a little... far-fetched; like he couldn't bring himself to believe he was anything Dirk said he was, this despite the fact Dirk had already explained all this back at the apartment. Not that Dirk didn't understand. It had taken the other Todd a while to see it too. Fortunately Dirk was nothing if not persistent.
"I... don't know what to say to that," Todd eventually said, looking as bewildered as he did incredulous.
Dirk wondered if that meant he ought to say something, to expand upon Todd's virtues or once again offer for them to stay. He didn't get the chance, Todd's phone binging, Todd startling somewhat violently. He rolled his eyes as soon as he realized what it was, Dirk watching as he fished the phone from his pocket. Reading the screen upside down, Dirk couldn't help but note that Amanda had apparently called and left three separate messages.
"Shit," Todd said, frowning at the screen.
"Do you need to...?" Dirk asked. He gestured vaguely, allowing Todd to assign the required meaning. Todd gave a brief nod.
"I should call her back. I'm just going to..."
He pointed towards the door. Something akin to panic seized in Dirk's chest.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to tell her about... any of this," Todd said, obviously misinterpreting.
"Of course," Dirk replied, though every fibre of his being was telling him not to let Todd leave. It took considerable effort to keep his hands pressed against his sides. Todd arched an eyebrow.
"I'm also not leaving," he said, finally making the connection. Dirk forced himself to relax, though doing so took considerable effort. Todd, obviously not fooled, offered him a somewhat dramatic eyeroll, Dirk oddly comforted by the gesture. He stepped aside to let Todd pass, Todd hesitating only briefly before he headed out into the hall, phone cradled in his hand. Dirk waited a full thirty seconds before turning to Farah.
"How long should I give him?" he asked. In lieu of answering, Farah rolled her eyes.
"How did it go?" Amanda asked, Todd so startled by the question he almost dropped his phone.
It took him almost a full minute to realize she meant the real estate agent and not whatever it was he was doing with Dirk. God, was it really the same day? It felt like a lifetime ago. Todd couldn't remember the last time someone had so thoroughly disrupted his worldview. For the first time since Dirk had climbed in through his window--and god, had that really happened?--Todd thought he might succumb to hysteria.
"Um, about that," Todd said, not entirely sure how to put the last few hours into words. Not without explaining things he couldn't actually explain, anyway.
"Did something happen?" Amanda asked, obviously realizing something was off. He could picture her sitting up in bed, phone pressed tight against her ear as she waited for his reply.
"No... Kind of. I..." Todd released a breath. He considered telling her anyway, despite what he'd told Dirk--would it even matter if he did?--and then shook his head. Bizarre, life-altering circumstances aside, Amanda didn't need to know.
"I ran into Dirk," he admitted instead, this at least oddly familiar.
"You ran into Dirk?" she parroted. Todd rolled his eyes.
"He... lives across the street from the real estate agent."
Saying it out loud, he could see how that might sound improbable. About as far-fetched as running into Dirk outside a dead guy's apartment. Maybe Dirk was right. Maybe the universe was connected. Maybe they were meant to know each other.
"Wait. Seriously?" Amanda was saying. "Dude, that can't be coincidence." Todd swallowed a wave of near hysterical laughter.
"People need to live somewhere," he said instead.
He shifted his phone between his right and left ear as he spoke so that he could glance up at the dark row of windows lining the second floor. Across the street, the neon sign of take-out sushi place lit the glass in blue and red. Neither Dirk nor Farah were visible from the street. The dull roar of a passing car forced his attention back to Amanda.
"Where are you?" Amanda asked, having obviously heard the car. Todd cleared his throat, dreading her reaction.
"I'm outside Dirk's... apartment," he admitted.
"What?!" Amanda said, Todd forced to pull the phone from his ear to keep her from bursting his eardrum. He waited for the high-pitched noises coming over the line to fade before pressing the phone back to his ear.
"Why are you calling me?" Amanda was saying, still sounding slightly shrill.
"Um, because you called me? Three times. I was worried, okay," Todd said, the explanation mostly true. He was worried. And he hated missing her calls. But she knew him well enough to know to text if something urgent came up. Mostly he'd just needed some air, a chance to step outside and talk to Amanda and process all of this because he honestly wasn't sure if he was making the right choice.
Was it even his to make, he wondered, glancing back up at the neon splashed windows. Dirk had told him it was, but letting Dirk fix things meant the Amanda he was talking to would cease to exist. For that matter so would he. Maybe? Did it even work that way? Was he supposed to explain everything to Amanda and let her decide? He knew what she'd say. She'd jump at a chance to have their parents back. To have her life back. Todd swallowed, shaking his head. A small part of him wished he didn't know any of this.
Amanda was apologizing again, as though her calling had interrupted a date--if only it was that simple--Todd forced to speak over her just to get her to listen.
"Amanda, it's fine. It's fine."
"What are you still doing on the phone with me?" Amanda asked, Todd still not entirely sure how to explain. Across the street, a moped appeared from inside an alleyway, take-out bags secured to its rear spoiler rack. The sound of its engines drowned out whatever else Amanda was saying.
"Look, I'm going to hang up now," Todd said. He still wasn't sure he was ready to head back inside, but he'd told Dirk he wasn't leaving and, if he was honest with himself, he didn't want to leave. He wanted...
The things he wanted were complicated. Everything about this was complicated.
"I'll call you tomorrow, okay," Todd continued, wondering if he was making a promise he couldn't keep. It was one thing to theorize on timelines and alternate... hims, another entirely to hear Amanda's voice and realize she might never exist. Or if she did she'd be someone different. Someone... Happy, Dirk had said, and that was all that mattered. Amanda was happy and their parents were still alive and he and Dirk were... Probably not the part he should be focusing on.
In hindsight, calling Amanda may have been a mistake. Todd's hand shook as he disconnected the call.
He spent a long minute standing with his phone cradled in his hand, staring at the screen as though Amanda's fading contact information might provide a clearer answer. It wasn't until a throat cleared behind him that Todd realized he wasn't alone.
He knew immediately who it was--it couldn't have been anyone else--and yet he still startled, Todd cursing himself as he turned to find Dirk standing awkwardly just outside the building's door.
"No, it's fine," Todd said. He gestured with his phone. "Amanda's fine. She just wanted to know about the real estate guy."
Dirk nodded, his gaze drifting down the street, to where the Coldwell Banker sign stood illuminated under a street light.
"Did you tell her...?" Dirk's attention drifted back as he spoke, Todd momentarily taken aback by the worry he saw reflected in Dirk's gaze.
"No... I mean, I told her I was here. That I ran into you, but..."
Dirk nodded. He was still standing in the building's shadow, looking more awkward than Todd could ever remember seeing him. Something seized in his chest at the sight.
"I was coming back, you know," he said before he could stop himself. Dirk's gaze, which had fallen to the sidewalk between them, snapped back so fast Todd took an involuntary step back.
"I didn't mean. That's not why I... I knew you were coming back," Dirk said, sounding utterly uncertain. "Well, I mean, I didn't know, but I hoped. Actually, I was a bit worried you wouldn't, because this is all very... And I'm sure it must be difficult for you, and I..."
Todd watched as he trailed off, his expression of embarrassment becoming one of confusion. He was staring at Todd like he was seeing him for the first time, as though completely confounded by why Todd might be smiling.
Todd couldn't help it. His grin grew wider. He had no idea what he was so happy about. He shouldn't have been. By all logic he should have been confused and scared and maybe even a little sad and yet Dirk had followed him downstairs. Dirk was standing before him, babbling incoherently because he was worried Todd might leave and he wanted Todd to stay.
"I... um..." Dirk said, Todd chuckling a little at the startled look on his face.
"Sorry, it's just... I like you."
Saying it out loud he realized it was true. He wasn't just interested. He genuinely liked Dirk. If he was entirely honest, he might even admit that he was falling for Dirk. It rather made all of this remarkably simple.
"Oh," Dirk said, Todd not missing the bright spots of crimson that appeared on his cheeks.
It was also obviously the right thing to say, because Dirk came away from the door, crossing the sidewalk slowly until he was standing just outside Todd's space. Todd thrust his phone back into his pocket and closed the distance between them. Dirk looked both startled and pleased.
"You know, I meant what I said. I don't have to fix this. We can stay. I know I keep saying that, but..."
"And I keep telling you we should fix it," Todd finished, watching Dirk deflate.
"Is that what you want?" he asked, hesitant and uncertain. Todd wasn't entirely sure how he'd missed it before. He carefully considered his words.
"I think my sister is sitting alone in a house with intensive scarring from third degree burns and nerve damage that makes her feel like she's still on fire. I think my parents are dead because I overdosed on a drug I'd never touched before. I think I'm a thirty-three year old nobody with a job that doesn't pay the bills and an apartment I can't afford. I think you're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and you're telling me we're friends, that we run a detective agency together, that my sister has a girlfriend... friends..."
Todd released a breath, this time looking deep into Dirk's eyes.
"I also think you're squatting in an abandoned building. And I think Farah would probably kill us if we didn't at least... test your theory."
Dirk had somehow managed to school his expression to blankness, so that Todd honestly couldn't tell what he thought of any of this. And that was important, Todd realized, none of this his choice to make.
"What do you want?" he asked.
To his surprise, Dirk startled, as though no one had ever asked him before, as though Dirk honestly believed his opinion didn't matter. Like it wasn't his choice to make. Todd's stomach dropped out beneath him.
"I... I'm not sure it matters," Dirk said, Todd's jaw clenching. Dirk immediately raised his hands.
"I mean, I don't usually get a choice in... well, anything, really. The universe sort of takes me where I need to go. I learned a long time ago to accept the will of fate. To sort of... not question it.
"And the thing is, maybe this isn't something I can fix. Maybe it's not up to either of us. Maybe the universe will decide. Because the thing is, I think maybe I want to stay here, with you, but I don't think that's necessarily the right choice. Because you're right. Amanda is happier in the other timeline. And so is Farah. And so, I imagine, are your parents. Also, I don't exactly have a job here, or a way of making a living, or identification, for that matter, so it's probably best that we fix it. If it can be fixed, that is."
He sounded breathless when he was done, Todd near overwhelmed by the speech. It struck him then that his other self was probably desperately in love with this man. Not that he could blame him, Todd well on his way. It was just that he'd never met anyone like Dirk. He'd never known anyone so open. Anyone to so thoroughly wear his heart on his sleeve. It made him want to do impossible things. Reckless things. Things he realized he could do because this situation was nowhere near as complicated as either of them were making it out to be.
So he took a step forward, closing what little space remained between them, and then stretched up onto his tiptoes, Dirk's eyes going just a little bit wide before they disappeared behind Todd's lashes, Todd kissing Dirk like he'd been thinking about doing for what seemed an eternity now.
The second their lips made contact Dirk froze, Todd gripped by a wave of self-doubt that lasted just until Dirk pressed back, minutely at first, his arms flailing wildly at his sides as he melted into the kiss. Todd could only imagine what they looked like, the two of them standing in front of Dirk's darkened building, highlighted by the glow of the sushi sign across the street, Todd still stretched up onto his toes, Dirk still flailing somewhat dramatically.
It was still the best kiss of his life, better still when Dirk finally got on board, his arms winding their way around Todd's waist to pull him close. It left him sort of dangling, half lifted in the air, so that had Dirk let go Todd might have crumpled to the ground. He couldn't find it in him to complain, though, because a second later Dirk angled his head to deepen the kiss, their lips sliding together, Dirk whimpering into his mouth.
It struck him then that his hands had somehow found their way to Dirk's chest and were fisted in Dirk's shirt, not the yellow jacket, but the inside-out Mexican Funeral t-shirt he wore underneath. The thought of Dirk wearing it--all this time--struck him then as the funniest thing in the world, Todd unable to suppress a laugh. It bubbled out of his chest, rising up his throat to spill over his lips in a puff of air that made Dirk frown against him.
It was by far the nicest way to end a kiss, Todd drawing back as he fell to giggling, his smile widening into a grin as he took in Dirk's somewhat gobsmacked expression. His eyes were still closed, his lips swollen, his cheeks painted pink. Todd wanted to kiss him all over again.
"Sorry," Todd said, smiling fondly now. Dirk slowly opened his eyes. He looked thoroughly stunned.
"What?" Dirk asked, looking as though he couldn't figure out why they weren't still kissing. Todd crowded a little closer. He forced himself to relinquish his grip on Dirk's shirt, using his hands to smooth out the wrinkles. Dirk's arms were still twined around him, his hands now resting in the small of Todd's back.
"I can't believe you're wearing a Mexican Funeral t-shirt and I only just noticed," Todd said, remembering the countless times he'd seen Dirk in the same faded back tee.
"Oh," Dirk said, sounding surprised. "You gave it to me. Are we going to kiss again?"
He asked as though kissing was the important part of the conversation, and maybe it was--certainly Todd wouldn't object to them kissing again, except for the part where Dirk really didn't seem to understand the shirt's significance.
"I think you're missing something," Todd said, hands still spread across Dirk's chest, soaking up Dirk's warmth, Dirk's heart beating a furious tattoo against Todd's palm. "I only give these shirts to people I like. People I'm... interested in."
He saw the second Dirk got it, his eyes growing wide. Todd had told him as much back at the apartment, handing over Dirk's phone and pointing out the picture like it was worth a thousand words. Dirk had stared at it for a long time, but Todd could tell he hadn't quite believed it. Letting a hand trail down to settle on Dirk's hip, Todd wondered if he believed it now.
"If I was in his position, I think I'd maybe be mad about this," Todd said, using the hand still sitting on Dirk's chest to gesture between them. Dirk looked somewhat pained by the suggestion. He tightened his grip.
"You're sure you want to fix this?" he asked. "We could just go back to your place..."
As tempting as the suggestion was--and it was tempting--Todd forced himself to remove his hands. The second he did Dirk followed suit, Todd stepping back, putting some space between them. The air felt much colder than it had when he was talking to Amanda.
"So now what?" Dirk asked.
"Aren't you supposed to know?" Todd retorted, because if Dirk was looking to him for instructions they were in big trouble.
"I guess we could go back to the aquarium. The man we saw when we were there, Farah found some security footage. She was able to track his progress, but it looked like he might have doubled back. I'd say finding him is probably our first priority."
"You think he's involved?" Todd asked, chastising himself almost as soon as he'd said it. Obviously he was involved. Why else would he have ran?
"I think he's... something," Dirk said. He paused then, his gaze narrowing as though something new had just occurred to him.
"What?" Todd asked.
"I still think you're thinking about this all wrong. You're thinking about yourself as two people, but there's only ever been one of you. I'm certain of it. And if this doesn't work out, and we can't fix it, I'm going to kiss you. And if it does work out, and we do fix it, I'm also going to kiss you. Either way, at some point in the future you are going to get kissed and I just wanted you to be forewarned."
He nodded then, half, Todd suspected, to himself, though half because he seemed to be waiting for Todd's agreement. Todd couldn't quite help but smile.
"I think I can live with that," he said, wanting desperately to kiss Dirk again right then and there. He didn't get the chance, Dirk nodding a second time, this time entirely to himself, before he turned and started back for the door. Realizing he was now grinning widely, Todd shook his head and followed after.
Seven weeks prior
Panic rarely served anyone. Certainly it didn't tend to make a bad situation any better. Lorna Coleridge believed this without exception, and yet, for perhaps the first time in her life, she was tempted to do precisely that.
"What's happening?" she asked the technician, the readings on his screen beyond her comprehension.
"I don't know," he told her. He sounded utterly terrified.
Beyond the control room's shielded window, the room that housed Emershan's deprivation tank flickered into and out of existence. She'd seen first hand the things that he could do; knew the breadth of his power. This was beyond anything she knew. Her mind swam with confusion.
And not just over what was happening. Things were missing. Things were... hazy. Where were they again? A glance to her right show the technician staring at his hand as though seeing it for the first time. She realized abrupted it had grown transparent.
"Stop him, shut him down!" she shouted, though there was no one to comply. A perimeter alarm sounded, Lorna glancing sharply to the surveillance feeds on the bank of monitors above them. A man and a woman, the woman armed, crept warily down the corridor. What on earth was happening? What was he doing? This wasn't right. This wasn't meant to happen. This wasn't...
From an across an over-green lawn, a young girl gave a cry. Sofia, Lorna remembered, holding out her arms so that the girl could climb into them. Fat tears streamed down the girl's face, her knee stained green with grass.
"It's not even bleeding, sweetie," Lorna heard herself say.
"But it hurts, mummy," Sofia told her, overly precocious even at four. Lorna smiled, feeling then a slight flutter of pride.
"I know, sweetie, I know," she said, kissing the girl's head.
Chapter 17: Rusholme Ruffians
The sinking feeling didn't go away.
It followed Dirk up the stairs and then back down again, lingering as he climbed into Farah's car. It rode silent passenger as Farah navigated them through the city, the churning of his stomach near constant by the time they reached the aquarium.
Any other case he might have abandoned. He knew this feeling well enough to know that nothing ever good came of it. It was the same feeling that led him out into the alley behind the diner. The same feeling that saw him thrown roughly into a Blackwing van. In hindsight, he probably should have gone with Todd.
"They're still here," Farah said, pointing out the white vans as she parked. Dirk twisted the hem of his Mexican Funeral t-shirt between his index fingers and his thumbs. He was beginning to feel vaguely nauseous.
"Maybe we should..." Dirk began, but it was too late, Farah already climbing from the car. Gritting his teeth, Dirk reluctantly followed.
Someone had backed the vans into the service lane, one after the other so that their doors opened perpendicular to the the loading dock. There was nothing to indicate they were anything other than ordinary delivery vans, and yet Dirk knew without a doubt these were the vans they were looking for. He still took the time to point out the damage along the first van's front grill, the same damage he remembered from its collision with the Fedex truck. The hard set of Farah's jaw suggested she'd made the connection as well.
He watched her scope the back of the aquarium, taking in the loading bay doors and a second service entrance, this opening onto the pier. He had no doubt she knew the perimeter by heart, and yet she seemed to be debating something, her gaze flicking now between the cameras, two positioned above each of the doors.
"Should we... wait for Todd?" Dirk asked. That seemed the reasonable thing to do. Certainly it was what he wanted to do. That he hadn't heard from Todd yet wasn't exactly surprising, but he'd still rather hoped Todd would sort out whatever he needed to sort out with Amanda and arrive before... well, before anything happened. Possibly it was already too late for that.
Don't do anything stupid, Todd had said. Dirk wondered what exactly qualified. He was fairly certain the list was extensive.
Farah was still scoping the area, all while mumbling under her breath, words Dirk knew he wasn't meant to hear.
"I don't think we should risk it," she eventually said, double checking her sidearm. Dirk found the sight oddly comforting. He his pocket for his phone, and then, as an afterthought, switched it to silent mode.
"Alright..." Dirk said, feigning confidence he didn't feel. "Should we..." He gestured to the loading bay doors. Again Farah shook her head.
"Too many cameras. We're going to have to go in through the main doors, see if we can't find an alternate way in."
He expecting finally having a direction to lessen his discomfort, but if anything having a plan made it worse. Dirk swallowed, not entirely sure how to put what he was feeling into words. He followed Farah around to the front of the building, feeling then like he ought to call the whole thing off; that they ought to climb back into Farah's car and get as far from the aquarium as it was possible to get. For reasons he couldn't explain, his feet kept him moving steadily forward, Dirk's tongue utterly tied.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," he said as they came into the building. Farah shot him a concerned glance, but as Dirk couldn't find the words to explain, she eventually shook her head and stepped up to the ticket counter. Dirk's hands began to shake, fine tremors he remember from those first few weeks post-Blackwing, Dirk sleeping on Todd's couch, the silence of his vacant apartment too much for him to bear.
"What is it?" Farah asked as they moved past the ticket counter. It brought them into the main entrance hall, where a large tank occupied what should have been a wall, the rippling water casting patterns on the tile floor.
"I... don't know." Dirk shook his head. He hated this feeling more than anything in the world. "Nothing," he decided. "I'm sure it's nothing."
His instincts were never wrong, and yet they were never fully right either. His gut was telling him to run, and yet running wouldn't get them answers and he was certain--utterly convinced--there were answers to be had. He wished Todd were here. Todd was good at the rushing in bit, but he was also good at getting them out and Dirk suspected they were going to need a little of both.
"Let's just take a look around," Farah said, as though it was a perfectly reasonable suggestion.
It probably was. Certainly there was nothing here that could hurt anyone. Well, provided everything here stayed in their tanks, anyway. A quick sweep of the aquarium showed mostly parents with kids in tow, these running in every direction, high pitched squeals punctuating their excitement. Dirk forced himself to relax.
Farah didn't move like someone enjoying the exhibits. She moved like someone looking for a suspect, her hand hovering near her concealed holster, her eyes darting about the room. If she was going for inconspicuous she was failing utterly, and yet Dirk couldn't find it in him to mind. Farah's presence--her vigilance--was oddly reassuring. He followed her from tank to tank, the two of them winding their way through the aquarium until they reached a set of stairs that ran down to the underwater viewing area. On the top step, Dirk hesitated.
There, standing slightly ajar at the bottom of the stairs, was a service door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Dirk didn't recall it from his visit with Todd. And yet, this he suspected was what they were looking for. A glance in Farah's direction suggested she agreed.
This his surprise, the stairwell was deserted, Dirk and Farah the only patrons on their way down. It made it surprisingly easy to pry the door open and slip inside.
The second it closed behind them Farah drew her sidearm, Dirk somewhat startled by the sight. He glanced down the narrow corridor expecting something, but there was only more corridor, this seemingly endless. Blue and yellow pipes ran along its interior wall. Wherever they were, this was it, the place they would find answers; the last place Dirk wanted to be.
It was Farah who led them forward, each step catching in Dirk's chest until he could scarcely breathe, their proximity to... something, physically painful now.
They passed rooms, though none where the ones they were looking for, Dirk dismissing each in turn. For the briefest of moments he thought he saw someone in the corridor ahead, a man decked in a glinting metallic suit, but almost as soon as he appear the man vanished, Dirk left blinking, Farah's raised weapon the only indication he was ever there.
"What's going on?" she asked him, sounding equally confused. Dirk shook his head before realizing she couldn't see him, her eyes still trained on the corridor ahead.
"I don't know... Something's wrong. Something's happening... I..."
Why were they even here? He couldn't...
The spot where they'd seen the metallic suited man was in fact a doorway that led into another room, this with a strange contraption that occupied its centre. The contraption looked like a tank, like the kind of thing they might use to transport animals. Dirk ran a hand across the top of it, taking it the strange dials and readouts he suspected were instrumental to the contraptions function. A valve-like thing rested on the top of the tank, Dirk tracing a line of hinges that suggested the contraption might open.
"What is it?" Farah asked.
She was watching him intently, Dirk realized, her weapon still drawn, staring at the contraption like she was half terrified it might explode.
"It's warm," Dirk said, his hand resting on its surface. After a moment's hesitation, Farah came to stand alongside him, her free hand reaching out to touch.
"Okay, but what is it?" she asked again.
"I don't know. It's... a thing. A machine, maybe."
Still touching the machine, he let his gaze take in the empty room. Someone had covered the walls in shiny metallic foil, the same material as the disappearing man's suit. The machine had numerous cables running from it. They disappeared under the grated floor, though Dirk could still trace their progress. The ran into an adjacent room, this with a wide bank of windows connecting the two rooms. Dirk could just make out a bank of monitors, but aside from that the room appeared entirely empty.
"What do you think it does? More importantly, what does this have to do with..." Farah gestured with her gun, Dirk now utterly certain she didn't need it.
"I..." Dirk began, pausing to swallow. "I'm not sure. But I have a bad feeling about it," he eventually got out, hand trembling almost violently now.
Too late he realized that was because the tank was growing increasingly hot, Dirk's vision beginning to blur. Instinct and instinct alone kept him rooted to the machine. Whatever was happening, it wasn't good.
"Farah!" Dirk got out before the world was lost to light and sticky dampness. When next he opened his eyes, they were lying in a puddle outside the aquarium doors, Farah without her gun, fat drops of rain falling from a nearly cloudless sky. Dirk blinked, and tried to process what had happened. For the longest time, he drew a blank.
Back in the present
Farah stepped carefully over Dirk and Todd's sleeping forms on her way to the door. Despite the fact that they'd started the night several feet apart, Dirk was now curled somewhat peacefully against Todd's chest, his arm draped casually over Todd's stomach. The sight of it caught in her throat, her stomach twisting painfully until she forced herself to look away.
She quickened her steps until she was out in the hall, the door shut carefully behind her. She had no idea what to make of this new development. She liked Todd--she did--but this Todd wasn't their Todd, and he certainly wasn't someone she could count on to help them solve the case.
And yet, for obvious reasons that were probably distracting him from the task at hand, Dirk wanted him here. She'd known, of course. She doubted there was anyone who didn't, the pair of them dancing around each other almost from the get-go. She remembered the first time she caught Dirk staring across the room, Farah following his gaze, finding Todd deep in conversation with his sister. She'd assumed at first it was Amanda who held Dirk's interest, but then Amanda had left and Dirk's gaze had lingered...
After that it was impossible to ignore.
Todd was trickier. Subtle in a way Dirk wasn't. Farah probably wouldn't have noticed had Amanda not pointed it out. It still wasn't her business--wasn't her place to say anything--and yet if she had maybe they wouldn't be here, stuck in an alternative timeline with Dirk latching on to the closest proximity he could find.
She supposed there was a chance, however slim, that Dirk was right, that this Todd and his Todd were one in the same, in which case Farah was worrying for nothing. But even if they weren't, it didn't change anything. Regardless of what had passed between them last night, they were still on the same page, fixing the timeline everyone's priority. Todd having spent the night didn't change that. Finding them curled together this morning didn't change that. They were still going back. They were still going home.
The thought was reassuring, almost as reassuring as the steady predictability of her morning routine. She started at the bus terminal, where the bathrooms were, if not entirely clean, at least serviceable. She gave a nod to the man behind the ticket counter on her way out, Farah not the only homeless person using the facilities. She was, she suspected, the only one who continued down the street, to the bakery on the corner that sold strong coffee and those danishes that Dirk apparently liked. Coming now into their eighth week, and given their continued need to eat, she doubted what was left of their cash would last more than a few days. Whatever Dirk was going to do he needed to do it soon.
Despite that, she bought two coffees and Dirk's mandatory tea, along with an assortment of pastries before returning to the offices. To her surprise, Dirk's sleeping bag was empty, Dirk nowhere to be seen. She found Todd perched on the window ledge, his gaze locked on the street below. Farah let the door fall audibly shut behind her. Todd glanced over his shoulder.
"I saw you come up the street," he said, turning then so that he sat with his back against the glass, his gaze openly curious. Farah crossed the room to set their breakfast down on the desk.
"Black coffee... I assume that's still right," she said. Todd looked surprised, but he nodded.
"You really know me, I mean, in the other timeline," he said.
Farah hesitated briefly, and then gave a curt nod. She glanced again to the empty sleeping bag. Unzipped, it occupied as much space as a double bed. She couldn't help but wonder if Dirk had offered Todd the mat.
"He's... showering I think," Todd said when she glanced back, clearly mistaking her curiosity for confusion. Farah didn't miss the disbelief colouring his eyes. "You guys really live here?"
"I..." Farah wasn't entirely sure how to answer that. "Dirk thinks we've replaced ourselves, so for all I know I have a really nice apartment somewhere. It's just not in the same place as my original apartment."
"That sounds confusing."
"That would be one way of putting it."
She'd been dreading this, she realized, terrified of what it would mean to interact with Todd--with this version of Todd--without Dirk around. And yet she was beginning to understand what Dirk meant when he said there was only one Todd, this Todd so much like his counterpart Farah felt herself instinctively relax.
"I don't know where Dirk was before he came to Seattle. London, I think. But in the original timeline he had apartment just below yours at the Ridgely," she continued, watching Todd's eyes grow comically wide. After a minute, Todd gave a self-deprecating laugh.
"Sorry, I'm having a bit of trouble processing all this. I mean... does this mean you didn't share a hospital room with Amanda?"
The question brought her back to the night at the bar, to the way Amanda had leaned on her during their trip to the bathroom; to the way after, on their way back to the table, Amanda had smiled up at her and said, when people ask me about my time in the hospital, I tell them it wasn't all bad, that at least I had a cute roommate.
"I... I did break my leg, and I did stay in hospital for a few weeks, but... I had a private room. I didn't meet either of you until Dirk introduced us during the Patrick Spring case. He, Patrick Spring, was my boss."
Todd was still sitting on the window ledge, looking like he had no intentions of moving, so Farah brought him his coffee, handing it over without ceremony. Todd nodded his thanks, his head cocking to the side as he continued to eye her curiously. Farah fought the urge to squirm beneath his gaze.
"So you and my sister..." he said, sounding positively amused. Not expecting it, Farah came dangerously close to dropping her own coffee, this sweetened with sugar and two milks.
"I... She..." She could feel herself blushing now, heat spreading across his cheeks. Todd smiled.
"I'll take that as a yes. It's okay. Good, even. I mean..." He paused then, something she thought might be sadness passing over his features. It was gone as soon as she recognized it, replaced by careful indifference. Farah waited, coffee rapidly cooling in her hand.
"I guess I just... I like the idea of there being a universe... timeline... whatever it is Dirk wants to call it... where Amanda has someone. She deserves that, you know?"
"She does," Farah said without hesitation, more forcefully than perhaps she'd intended. Again Todd's eyes grew wide, though this time he looked relatively pleased. "You do too, you know. Dirk he... The two of you are close."
She was expecting surprise, but instead Todd ducked his head, a faint blush spreading across his cheeks as though he already knew, as though Dirk had already told him all of this; as though maybe that had as much to do with his decision to help them as anything Amanda did or didn't deserve. Farah couldn't quite help but smile.
She wanted to say something else, to thank him because had he chosen differently they might not be here, but she didn't get the chance, Dirk emerging from the utility closet wearing yesterday's jeans and Todd's t-shirt, turned the right-side around this time. His hair was damp, half plastered against his head. At the sight of him, Todd mouth fell open. A second later he hastily averted his gaze. Farah stared between them.
She'd been gone maybe twenty minutes at best. Whatever had happened, whatever had sent Dirk into the utility closet, she was seeing the after-effects now, Farah not entirely sure she wanted to know. Clearing her throat, she waited for Dirk to meet her gaze before nodding towards the desk.
"Tea and danishes," she said. "Eat fast. The aquarium opens at ten. We should probably get there before then."
Well before then if they wanted to have a look around before anyone showed. Dirk, who seemed to understand the urgency, gave a curt nod. He crossed to the desk to retrieve his tea. Todd stood slowly from the window ledge.
"I need to call work," he said, gesturing to the door. Dirk glanced up sharply at that, but Todd shot him a soft smile, one that put Dirk instantly at ease. He offered Todd a sincere, open smile that Farah suspected she wasn't meant to witness, and then stuffed a danish into his mouth. Todd grinned, shook his head, and headed for the door.
"Do I want to know?" Farah asked after he'd left the room. Dirk adopted his most innocent expression. It took considerable effort to keep from rolling her eyes.
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he told her, stuffing more danish into his mouth, as though doing so might absolve him of the conversation. Farah opted to let it slide.
Todd had yet to call in sick to work. Not once in the almost two months he'd been working at the record store. Calling in sick to the Perriman Grand had been a bi-weekly tradition. No wonder they'd fired him.
He wasn't particularly nervous, but he was worried Alfredo would tell him to come in anyway, that Todd would have to choose between his job and a potential future where his job didn't matter anyway. Were Todd the impulsive type--well, the more impulsive type--he might have preemptively quit and saved himself the trouble.
Fortunately it didn't come to that, Alfredo more than understanding. He offered to cover the shift himself, mentioning that he'd wanted to stock the consignment records anyway. Todd thanked him, and then thanked him again, feigning a final cough before disconnecting the call. He was stuffing his phone back into his pocket when Dirk and Farah appeared.
God, the sight of Dirk wearing his yellow jacket over Todd's t-shirt... Todd had absolutely no right to the surge of possessive want that passed through him, and yet, much like this morning, Todd's body opted to act without his brain's permission, fire surging in his belly.
He could still feel where Dirk was pressed against him, Todd waking, sore and uncomfortable after a night on a floor, the only thing keeping him in place the startling warmth of Dirk's weight against him. He'd wanted so badly to burrow into that warmth; to press in close and maybe kiss Dirk awake because last night's kiss had done nothing to satisfy the urge. Lying there, Dirk's breath ghosting across his collarbone, Todd had very seriously considered changing his mind. Had Dirk not woken, had Dirk not bolted upright, refusing to meet Todd's gaze as he disappeared into what Todd assumed was the bathroom, he might have done exactly that. Instead he stared up at the ceiling until his heart rate returned to normal, his head clearing long enough to remember why they were doing this; why the things he wanted--the things he suspected Dirk wanted--ranked far, far down his list.
"Everything alright?" Dirk asked, holding Todd's gaze for the first time that morning. Todd offered him a slightly apologetic smile.
"Yeah. We're good," he said.
Dirk nodded, but he didn't look precisely happy. His jaw was set, his mouth pressed into a thin line. Todd did his best to ignore it, concentrating instead on following Farah to the bus stop down the street.
They didn't have long to wait, though the ride itself gave him ample time to reconsider their plan. Or rather, their absence of a plan, Todd still not entirely sure what they were doing. Dirk seemed convinced the man they'd seen on their first trip--what Todd still thought of as their first date--was somehow involved. Farah seemed convinced they'd find this man back at the aquarium. How they were supposed to find him, or perhaps, more importantly, what they were supposed to do when they did find him, no one had thought to address. Todd wondered if all Dirk's cases worked like this.
He couldn't deny it was exciting. It was probably the most exciting thing he'd ever done, and so far all they'd done was ride the bus across town. That didn't stop his stomach from twisting nervously, his heart racing like it had this morning. At one point he glanced over to find Dirk watching him, Todd offering a grin and getting one in return, Dirk's eyes alight with surprise.
By the time they reached the aquarium, Todd was thrumming with energy, his entire body alive with electricity. It was like being on stage. He felt nineteen again, back before the band fell apart, back when he still thought they were going to make it big, that their next song would be the one that did it, every riff he played carrying potential magic. They were going to do this, he realized. They were going to find whoever it was they needed to find. They were going to fix Dirk's timeline. Amanda was going to lose her scars and gain a girlfriend and Todd was going to have this. He was going to have this and Dirk and a life worthy of existence.
For the first time in a long time, Todd felt the faint stirring of hope.
"This is the point he backtracked," Farah said, leading them away from the aquarium and into the waterfront park, where a large ferris wheel hung over their heads. The park was empty, the rides still this early in the morning. It made it relatively easy to scope the area. Todd spotted the weather camera that corresponded with the images Farah had shown him last night.
"And you're sure he wasn't just diverting around the park?" Todd asked.
He directed the question at Farah, but couldn't help but glance in Dirk's direction. Dirk was unusually quiet, withdrawn in a way Todd wasn't sure he'd ever seen. He found Dirk listening intently, though his expression seemed unnaturally neutral, as though he'd purposely schooled it to blankness. Todd swallowed, his throat suddenly thick.
"Several cameras show him moving this way, and then that one..." Farah pointed to the weather camera. "Shows him moving away, heading back towards the aquarium. After that he disappears."
Back when Todd was younger--young and stupid and probably already set on a path that would end with his sister in a hospital bed--he and his friends used to play a similar game. In any given store there were a number of security cameras. Know where they were and you could avoid them. It made lifting a much easier score. But it was a piece of his past he didn't particularly want to share, even knowing it might help them trace their guy. Avoiding Dirk's gaze, Todd offered it as a vague suggestion instead.
"I considered as much," Farah said, though the look she shot him suggested she knew precisely where he'd gained his knowledge. "From here you can make it all the way back to the aquarium without being seen."
She gestured as she spoke, Todd offering a nod, that seeming to be all Farah needed to set them off again. He let her get a little ahead, falling back a step until he was keeping pace at Dirk's side, Dirk still seeming strangely withdrawn.
"You okay?" Todd asked. His earlier excitement had ebbed, in its place trepidation he suspected had nothing to do with the case.
"I... I'd forgotten what this was like. Working together," Dirk answered after a moment's hesitation. He sounded very much like he was confessing something quite serious. Todd needed a minute to make the connection.
"You miss it," he said.
"I do. You're really very good at this. We made... we make a good team."
Had he not been listening for it, Todd might have missed the underlying uncertainty in Dirk's tone. Coming around so that he blocked Dirk's path, Todd brought them to a stop.
"We do. And we will." He paused, not entirely sure how to put what he needed to say into words. "Look, I can't say for sure how I felt, but if I felt anything close to what I feel now, then I'm pretty sure nothing's going to change. This is already the coolest thing I've ever done, and you're the most amazing person I've ever met, and I probably would have kissed you had you not fled into the bathroom this morning, so..."
It was somewhat comical, watching Dirk's eyes grow wide, Todd torn between laughing at the sight and kissing away Dirk's surprise. He didn't get the chance, Farah shouting from down the pier.
He and Dirk turned in unison to find Farah twenty or so yards away, standing next to a set of double doors that led into a small concrete structure, this too far removed to be a part of the aquarium. They were, however, out of sight of the cameras, the doors leading into what Todd would have assumed was a maintenance shed. A chain and padlock secured the doors, though when they got closer Todd could see that someone had cut the chain with bolt cutters. Farah shot Dirk a curious look.
"I think those were intact when Todd and I were here," Dirk said, attracting Todd's attention.
He struggled to recall their previous trip to the aquarium, too late realizing Dirk was probably talking about the other Todd. Farah, who'd obviously made the connection, gave a nod.
"So... someone's living in there?" Todd asked. He was still a bit confused, but it was quickly being replaced by nervous excitement. Farah's expression grew hard. Dirk narrowed his gaze.
"I'm not armed," Farah said, as though that was somehow important. The look Dirk shot her suggested it was. It struck Todd then that Farah seemed like the type to carry a firearm. More to the point, she seemed like the type who knew how to use one.
God, no wonder his sister was dating her. She was probably utterly smitten.
"Should we knock?" Todd suggested, somewhat taken aback by twin expressions of bewilderment. Todd found himself frowning. Wasn't that what they were here for? To find the guy they'd seen at the aquarium. To figure out what he knew.
"I think..." Dirk began, though whatever else he was going to say evaporated, Dirk's eyes growing impossibly wide, his mouth falling open as he stared at a point just beyond Todd's shoulder. Slowly, Todd turned, somewhat startled when he spotted the exact man they were looking for.
The man had frozen halfway up the pier and was now staring at the three of them as though seeing a ghost. He was wearing the same blue aquarium jumpsuit as the last time, though it now looked a bit worse for wear. His hair, jet black, sat in tight curls around his head, framing a slightly ashen complexion. A styrofoam cup dangled loosely from his hand. He looked very much like a man getting ready to bolt. Todd was moving before he'd fully registered the intention to do so.
Somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard Dirk calling his name.
But it was a distant buzzing, Todd too keyed up on adrenalin to give it much thought. He'd covered about half the distance before the man realized what was happening, the coffee he was carrying dropping onto the pier deck as he turned, intent, Todd suspected, on running away.
But it was too late, Todd too fast for that--and who'd have thought years of running from his problems would finally pay off--the man getting in maybe half a dozen steps before Todd was on him, tackling him unceremoniously to the ground.
Later, when the adrenaline wore off, when he was able to fully process the situation, he might have questioned what exactly he thought he was doing. In the moment, his only thought was to secure the guy so that Dirk could interrogate him, Todd bending the guy's arm behind his back even as he settled his weight over the man's hips. The guy gave up fighting relatively quickly after that, so that by the time Dirk and Farah reached his side the man was utterly limp. Todd glanced over and found Farah wearing an expression that bordered on impressed. Dirk, on the other hand, was staring at Todd like he'd never seen him before. Todd licked self-consciously at his lips.
"Is this not something I usually do?" he asked.
Dirk shook his head.
"We usually leave that to Farah."
Todd glanced from Dirk to Farah, and then back down at the man before him. He was still holding the guy's arm behind his back, though it was fairly obvious the man had no intentions of struggling. Upon closer inspection, Todd realized the guy was sobbing, mumbling something over and over again that Todd had to cock his head to hear.
"Please don't give me back to her," he was saying. Over and over and over again. Todd loosened his grip, and then relinquished it entirely. He waited a full minute before letting Dirk help him to his feet, leaving Farah to haul the guy up after, the guy having gone almost completely limp.
"Hii," Dirk said to the man, not exactly the most appropriate thing given the circumstances. "I'm not sure who... she is... but I promise you we won't give you back to her. We just want to ask you some questions about... well, timelines actually..."
Any doubts Todd might have had about this whole situation vanished upon seeing the man's reaction. His eyes grew wide, his mouth falling open as though Dirk had just offered up his most precious secret. He glanced between Dirk and Farah as though half expecting them to perform some sort of conjuring trick. At least his crying had stopped.
"How do you..."
"Ah, good," Dirk interrupted. "I knew you were important." The look he shot Farah bordered on triumphant. Todd couldn't quite help but notice the way she rolled her eyes. The man continued to stare between them.
"My name is Dirk Gently," Dirk eventually said, turning his attention back to the man. "I'm a holistic detective, and we're investigating... Well, I'm not sure what we're investigating, except that I think you might be at the centre of it and..."
Whatever Todd was expecting, this wasn't it. The man, who until now had seemed both dejected and afraid, tipped back his head and started to laugh, the sound almost maniacal. Had Farah not been holding him by the arm, he might have easily used their distraction to slip away. That didn't seem to be his intention, however, the man laughing until his voice grew hoarse, fat tears rolling down his cheeks.
"You want me to fix it," he said once his laughter had subsided. Dirk and Farah exchanged a glance.
"Can you?" Farah asked. The man shook his head.
"I have no idea," he answered, his tone having taken on a somewhat hysterical edge. Dirk and Farah exchanged another glance. Todd stood motionless, not yet ready to name the emotions swirling in his chest. Across the pier, a young family turned and led their children in the opposite direction.
Chapter 18: Blister in the Sun
Of course, this was back when he still thought his... ability... was something everyone shared. Learning to read the universe, he'd reasoned, took time. It was, he'd imagined, a lot like learning another language. By the time he'd figured out he was alone in his... perception, his mother was gone and Blackwing was doing their very worst to fill the space she'd left behind. Stuck inside a windowless room with only the occasional researcher for company, Dirk would have given anything to have been rid of his ability. This marked the first time he'd gone without it, and, if he was honest with himself, he rather missed it.
Oh, he didn't miss the universe dragging him into increasingly chaotic and frankly horrifying situations. Rather, he missed the certainty that came with knowing he'd made the right decision, that whatever came next would somehow work out because the universe was, if not considerate, then at least consistent enough to point him in the right direction.
It would have, for example, come in quite handy in the present moment, Dirk standing at the top of a very steep, very dark set of stairs, the concrete structure their... suspect called home actually an exterior access point into the aquarium.
He knew the aquarium was important.
"Um," Dirk said, still undecided.
"Come on," Todd urged, taking the lead.
He started them down the stairs, Farah following with her charge. It left Dirk to take up the rear, Dirk doing so reluctantly, though not before pulling out his phone and switching on its flashlight. The structure's doors fell shut behind them.
The stairs led down into what looked like a short service tunnel, this lined with more yellow and blue pipes. After twenty or so paces, it opened into a large room, Dirk's flashlight too weak to find its end. Their host led Farah to a panel along the wall. He flipped a lever. Glaring light flooded the room. Dirk blinked against it, the gentle hum of fluorescent tubes an unpleasantly familiar sound.
The room, as it turned out, was filled with pumps and various storage tanks, all of these connected to a network of pipes. Red valves of varying sizes complicated the system, this undoubtedly where most of the aquarium's water was brought in.
It was also surprisingly vacant, as though the only reason anyone would ever come here was if something went wrong. Dirk spotted a long table pressed against one of the far walls, beneath it a nest made entirely of newsprint. He'd been homeless enough to know this was where their suspect slept. It seemed as good a location as any to begin their conversation.
"So... this is nice," Dirk said when they reached the table. Three heads turned to stare in his direction.
"Or not," he amended.
"Maybe we should skip the small talk," Todd said, gesturing for Farah to sit their guest in one of the chairs. Farah did so, the man cooperating, though with the same reluctance Todd had shown in the early days of their acquaintance. Dirk offered him a bright smile. The man blinked. Todd narrowed his gaze.
"You got a name?" Todd asked.
For a moment, Dirk didn't think the man was going to answer. His gaze flit between them, his jaw thrust out in what Dirk imagined was a display of defiance. Only the hard press of his mouth betrayed his tension. Dirk was beginning to worry this had all been for nothing.
"Mine's Todd," Todd said, rolling his eyes somewhat dramatically. "Dirk you've already met, and this is Farah." He gestured between them. "They remember the original timeline."
The man, who still didn't have a name, cocked his head. He seemed somewhat surprised by the news. Todd gave an exasperated sigh, the sound of it at once familiar. Dirk couldn't quite suppress a smile.
"Emershan," the man eventually said. His gaze slid slowly to Farah. "Were you touching me?"
"Excuse me?" Farah said, sounding affronted. Dirk cleared his throat.
"I think he means when it happened. And no. Or possibly yes. We were touching this tank-like-thingy. I'm assuming you were inside?"
"My... handler always remembered. Everything I changed. He remembered. Dr... She thought it was a proximity thing."
"She?" Dirk asked. It was the second time Emershan had mentioned a she, Dirk immensely curious. To his surprise, Emershan's jaw clenched upon hearing the pronoun, his gaze growing distant. Dirk wished he could say he didn't recognize the expression.
"Obviously, you don't have to talk about her if you don't want. Although you should perhaps know that we're not a part of Blackwing. I'm..."
If Emershan's reaction to hearing a pronoun was profound, his reaction to hearing the name Blackwing bordered on dramatic. He stood abruptly, so fast the chair he'd been sitting on toppled to the floor with a deafening clatter. He'd lost his far-away look, his expression now that of a caged animal, desperate and ready to fight. Dirk drew back a step. So did Farah. Todd merely narrowed his gaze.
"Okay, obviously that's a touchy subject," Dirk said. "But as I said, we don't work for them."
He'd watched Todd take down and subdue Emershan with barely any effort outside, so he didn't think the three of them would have much trouble now. Emershan was about Dirk's height, but maybe half Dirk's weight, the kind of emaciated that came with selective eating on an already restricted diet. Still, he braced himself, Emershan looking like he might go feral at any moment.
"How do you know that name?" Emershan asked, his attention now fully trained on Dirk. He wasn't the only one.
"I..." Dirk glanced to Todd and found Todd listening intently. He swallowed nervously. "I was in their custody for a while. I'm... I'm like you. Well, not like you. I'm something different."
It was like watching someone let the air out of a tire. Very slowly, Emershan deflated, his gaze now considering.
"Did they keep you in small room without windows?" he asked. Dirk tried very hard not to picture the room. Still acutely aware of Todd's presence, he balled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking.
"Yes," he answered. Emershan cocked his head.
"Did they experiment on you?"
Another glance in Todd's direction showed Todd was now visibly upset. He looked as though he wanted to reach into Dirk's memories and tear Blackwing to pieces. Dirk appreciated the sentiment.
"Yes," he said again, this time without inflection.
"Then you'll understand why I don't want to go back."
Dirk was shaking his head before he registered doing so. He bit his lip, this too now trembling.
"We won't make you go back. I promise."
The look Emershan shot him was scathing.
"And yet you want me to fix this. If I do that, they'll find me. They'll make me go back."
Dirk was shaking his head again, not entirely sure what to say to convince Emershan that that wasn't going to happen. Because the truth was it probably would. Dirk still half expected Blackwing to show up at his apartment--it wasn't like they didn't know where he lived--like any day now they were going to turn up and drag him off in the middle of the night, no one the wiser. That they hadn't come after him after Todd's somewhat daring rescue was frankly unbelievable, Dirk half convinced it was all a ruse, that as soon as he let his guard down...
Farah, who seemed to know exactly what was going on inside his head, stepped forward. It brought her to the edge of the desk, Emershan's attention shifting towards her. Dirk felt himself sag with relief.
"We have resources. Funds. We can get you out of the country," she said.
It struck Dirk then that this was what whoever had sent him the dolphin cards wanted. He'd wanted Dirk to find this man. He'd wanted Dirk to get him away from Blackwing. New dread settled in the pit of Dirk's stomach. He wasn't particularly fond of not knowing all the players. He definitely didn't like not having all the answers.
"What's the alternative?" Farah was asking. "You're going to live here forever?" She gestured around the room as she spoke. Emershan followed her gaze. He shook his head.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," he said, sounding impossibly small. "I just wanted to get away from her."
He collapsed as he spoke, his shoulders rounding, his chin bowing towards his chest. Dirk recognized this, too, the hopeless uncertainty that came with wanting to be free of the only thing you'd ever known. He remembered distinctly those first few months post Blackwing, Dirk entirely without resources, living in very similar circumstances, all while constantly looking over his shoulder, terrified they'd come back for him. It wasn't a fear that went away. At least here...
"Farah's right," Dirk heard himself say. "We have resources. We can help you get away." Emershan's head shot up.
"You're assuming I can fix this, but I'm not sure it works here. Everything is connected, but I can't feel those connections anymore. It's like they don't exist."
That, at least, was something Dirk understood. He couldn't see the connections either, and Todd and Amanda didn't have pararibulitis, and Zachariah Webb hadn't built a time machine. That ought to have been the end of it, and yet, despite all of that, everything was still connected. Everything they'd done had still led them to here. They might not be able to see it, but the connections were still there. The universe hadn't changed.
"I told you we were the same, but that I was something different," Dirk began. "I can't change the way the universe works, but I can see how it works. I get hunches, and sometimes, if I get enough of them, I can see how all the little pieces fit together into a bigger pattern. And you're right, it doesn't work here. Except, sometimes I get little glimpses of it. Like echoes, but the actual intuition is just beyond my reach.
"I think... whatever you did... it's like you pulled a veil over the universe. But I don't think you got rid of it completely. I don't think that's even possible. And I think, if you were to concentrate, maybe it might come back to you. It's worth a try, isn't it?"
Emershan, who'd been standing up until now, took a moment to right his chair. He perched on its end. His expression, though still apprehensive, now carried a faint underlay of hope. Dirk pressed his advantage.
"Do you remember what you did last time?"
Emershan shook his head. "I wasn't thinking. I was... panicking. She'd locked me inside a tank. I..."
"It's alright," Dirk said, though it did complicate things. It also raised a very important question.
"Why a tank, exactly?" he asked.
"I get... distracted," Emershan explained. "They use to just put me in this sound-proof room, but then at some point they figured out water amplified it. It's... it's hard to explain."
"That's alright," Dirk said, "I know the feeling."
How many times in his life had he tried to explain? Todd was the first person who hadn't run screaming in the other direction.
"But if we could recreate that... Do you think you could..."
Emershan was already shaking his head.
"The tank's gone. When I came to I was on the floor and the room was different. I can't without..."
Up until now Todd had seemed content to stay out of it, to stand on the periphery and simply listen. He huffed impatiently now, Dirk and Farah both turning towards him. After a minute, Emershan did too. Todd rolled his eyes.
"I'm not sure if any of you have noticed, but we are at an aquarium. There are lots of tanks. Lots of water, too. Hell, there's an ocean just over there," he said, pointing in its general direction. It wasn't a half bad suggestion.
"What if we put you in scuba gear?" Dirk asked.
"I'm not going in the ocean," Emershan said, blanching. Dirk wasn't entirely sure he blamed him.
"What about one of the display tanks?" Todd asked, Dirk somewhat startled by the urgency in his tone. For the first time since arriving, he made himself look, really look, Dirk taken aback by the resolve he saw reflected in Todd's gaze.
"You want to stick me in scuba gear and then put me in a fish tank on the off chance I might be able to change everything back," Emershan said, sounding more than a little incredulous.
"Well, when you put it like that," Dirk said, though as plans went it certainly wasn't his worst.
Emershan shook his head. He let his gaze drift around the room. Dirk gave him a moment.
"Can you really get me away from them?" Emershan eventually asked.
"We can," Dirk said, hoping it was true.
"Fine. We can try. Although, where are we going to find scuba gear, and how are you getting me into a tank?"
Those, Dirk thought, were both very good questions. Ones he fully intended to answer, just as soon as he figured out how.
"Think he's going to bail?" Todd asked as they came out of the record store. Not Alfredo's, this a low-end competitor that didn't really deserve the records he'd sold Dirk. Unfortunately renting scuba gear cost money and money was something they didn't have. What they did have was about $300 worth of albums and a pressing need to get this done before nightfall.
For reasons Todd still couldn't put his finger on, all of this felt decidedly familiar. Strange how much his life had changed, seemingly overnight, and yet Todd couldn't find it in him to complain. This was where he belonged, the life Dirk was offering him the one he should have had all along.
"Would you be upset if he did?" Dirk asked, sounding oddly concerned. Todd glanced sharply in his direction and found Dirk watching him, looking both hesitant and worried, like either way he wasn't going to like Todd's answer.
How to explain? This morning they'd gone to the aquarium on a hunch and within minutes they'd found their guy. Not only had they found him, but they'd somehow convinced him to undo whatever it was he'd done. The odds of any of that happening were staggeringly low. The odds of those things happening in conjecture were non-existent.
Between that and the certainty that he was giving Amanda a better life... that he got to go from being a barely employed, friendless loser who couldn't afford to keep his apartment let alone rent scuba gear to someone who was apparently competent enough to help run a detective agency and... Yeah, he'd be a little upset if Emershan bailed.
"Not that you should worry about it. Farah's with him. I have the utmost faith in her."
God, this was really happening, Todd thought. They were really doing this. And okay, granted, they still had to get the gear, and wait for the aquarium to close, and he should probably call Amanda and...
And what? Say goodbye? Was that how this worked? Todd hazarded a glance in Dirk's direction, surprised when he found Dirk staring forlornly at his feet. He slowed his steps, eventually bringing them to a stop. They didn't exactly have time for this, and yet...
"You hungry?" Todd asked. Dirk glanced up sharply.
"Shouldn't we get back to Farah?" he asked.
"It won't take long. We can grab them something on the way out," Todd said, gesturing to a noodle place across the street. Dirk took a minute to consider.
Eventually he nodded. Todd lead them across the street and then into the restaurant where a woman behind the counter gestured for them to find their own seats. It was early enough in the day over half the tables were empty, Todd choosing one by the front window. Dirk sank onto the bench across from him, his expression still vaguely forlorn.
"Everything okay?" Todd asked.
"I feel like I should be asking you that," Dirk said.
They'd discussed all this last night, and Todd had made his decision--and Dirk had agreed--but despite that Todd understood Dirk's apprehension. Everything was happening extremely fast. Faster, perhaps, than Todd was ready for. He wasn't an idiot. He hadn't missed Dirk's scrutiny, the way Dirk's gaze kept sliding in his direction, like he was still expecting Todd to change his mind; like he maybe wouldn't have minded if Todd did. And Todd would lying if he said he wasn't nervous. Terrified even, but he still hadn't changed his mind.
"You heard what Emershan said, about proximity. As long as I'm touching him... or I guess whatever tank he's in... I should remember all of this, right?"
It was like watching the clouds part after a particularly violent storm, Todd momentarily taken aback by the joy he saw reflected in Dirk's gaze. He stared across the table, mouth opening and closing, as though he couldn't quite figure out how to respond.
"Is that okay?" Todd asked. "I mean, if you'd rather I remembered the other timeline..."
"No," Dirk said, sounding decidedly flustered. "I mean..." He trailed off, a brief flicker of anguish passing over his features. It was gone just as quick, replaced by a somewhat sheepish smile. Todd waved aside their approaching server, and waited.
"I don't want you to forget this, but I also want you to remember..."
"You've been through alot with him," Todd said, understanding. Dirk nodded. A beat passed between then, Todd not entirely sure what to say. This time, when he caught their server hovering on the periphery, he waved her over.
They ordered soup, neither of them speaking until the girl reached the low-slung counter that separated the kitchen. Beyond, a man in white was stretching lines of dough into thick, irregular shaped noodles.
"Farah thinks we're the sum of our memories," Dirk said. "I'm not sure I believe that. Actually, I'm fairly certain I don't. I think the choice is yours, and either way you're still you, but if the choice were mine, I'd want you to remember this, in part because you're the one making the decision and I don't think it's fair to ask you to potentially give up... well, you. But if I'm being honest, then I have to tell you that my reasons for wanting you to remember this are not entirely altruistic."
He paused then, their server having returned with their drinks. She set them down on the table between and walked away. The second she was gone, Dirk started speaking again.
"Also, if I'm being honest, then I should also tell you that I'm beginning to think this isn't going to work. Before... when I thought this was a machine... Changing everything back would have been easy. I'm not sure that's true anymore."
It wasn't that Todd hadn't considered the possibility--of course he had--but he was also fairly certain Dirk was wrong. Too many things had come together for them to fail now. He couldn't quite tell if that was faith, or simply blind arrogance, but either way Todd shook his head, a soft smile tugging at his lips.
He let it stretch into something more genuine, Dirk appearing startled before he too began to smile. Without really meaning to, Todd sank down into his seat, his knees sliding forward to brush against Dirk's Again Dirk looked startled, but just as quick he settled, his smile now accompanied by a faint blush.
"Let's just... take this one step at a time," Todd said. Dirk's eyes widened slightly, but he nodded, whatever he might have added forgotten with the arrival of their food.
Dirk's plans had a tendency to... well, sort of work out, even if they didn't go off exactly as intended. What was it he'd told Farah? Arguable efficiency. That was still a fair assessment. In hindsight, he really should have made her put that on the sign.
There was still, of course, a chance this was all going to fail spectacularly. They still had to get into the aquarium proper. Avoid security--if the aquarium had security that was, Dirk not entirely sure who would try to steal a tank full of fish. There were definitely closed circuit television cameras to avoid, and if they managed all that they still needed to get Emershan into scuba gear and then into a tank and...
Well, he wasn't entirely sure what came after that. Of course, now that he'd plotted it all out he also wasn't entirely sure what he'd been thinking. The odds of this working were astronomically against them.
"So this leads..."
"Maintenance tunnels," Emershan said. That he was still here was impressive. That he hadn't even tried to leave moreso. Not that Farah couldn't handle herself, but Dirk had honestly expected to return to find Emershan subdued and Farah... well, more annoyed that she usually was. The noodles had certainly helped the situation. Not so much the extended wait for the aquarium to close.
"And, um, security?"
"From what I can tell the aquarium uses an outside firm. They show up every couple of hours, do a perimeter check and then leave. There are cameras on all the access points outside the building, but aside from that the only one's inside are the one above the front counter and the one on the stairs."
Emershan shrugged, as though all of this ought to have been common knowledge. Dirk very carefully didn't point out that he wasn't the one who'd been living in what amounted to the aquarium's basement for the past seven weeks.
"So we should be able to get inside without being seen?" Dirk still confirmed. Emershan nodded.
"I've been coming and going for a while now. I'm pretty sure at this point anyone who's seen me thinks I work here."
He gestured to the overalls as he spoke, Seattle Aquarium emblazoned just above his breast pocket. Dirk didn't bother asking where he'd found them, or even why he'd decided to stay here of all places when he could have gone anywhere.
The route Emershan took them led to a second staircase, this emerging inside Emershan's promised maintenance tunnels. Dirk suspected they ran adjacent to the room where Dirk and Farah had first found Emershan's tank. Like that corridor, these channelled to a single door. Emershan pried it open and they came out into the hall that led to the underwater viewing area. Emershan took them in the opposite direction.
"Do we know where we're going?" Dirk asked. Emershan was leading them now, Todd keeping pace at Dirk's side, the rented scuba gear in his hand. Farah had opted to take up the rear. Aside from the four of them, the aquarium seemed deserted.
The overhead lights were off, but there was enough ambient light to see. Emershan led them up the hall and then through another set of doors, these leading to yet another staircase. Up the climbed.
Eventually, they ended up on a series of causeways that circled the tops of several of the larger tanks, these well out of everyone's view. Dirk glanced curiously in Emershan's direction.
"You really have been coming and going," he said. Emershan shrugged.
"I've been bored," he replied.
Dirk wondered if this was why he was doing this. If the grass wasn't greener on the other side, whatever that meant. If he'd spent the past seven weeks regretting his decision. Dirk wouldn't have been surprised.
"This one's tropical," Emershan said, stopping alongside the top of one of the tanks. It was open to the ceiling above, another gangway circling its top. Against the tank's lights, the water was startlingly blue. Dirk caught sight of several fish, these painted in vibrant colours that remained highly visible despite the water's depth.
"It's also where they do the dive show, so I'm pretty sure there's nothing in there that can kill me," Emershan continued. He chuckled as he said it, as though he wouldn't have particularly minded if something had. Dirk narrowed his gaze. Todd slid past him to thrust the scuba gear into Emershan's arms.
"Here," he said. "Do you want us to stay? Would it be better if we were watching from below?"
"You need to stay," Emershan said, reaching for the wetsuit. "If this works, I'm going to need you to pull me out. We're going to need to run."
His expression suggested he didn't think that would be necessary. That he didn't think this was going to work. Instead of looking put out, Dirk thought he seemed faintly amused.
"How will we know if it works?" Todd asked. Emershan shot him a smirk.
"You won't. I will. He..." he pointed towards Dirk. "He might."
"Before," Todd said, "you said they remembered the other timeline because they were touching the tank. Will that work again? Will we remember this if we're touching the water?"
Emershan shrugged. "Sure, I guess," he said, Todd's gaze growing narrow. Emershan didn't appear to notice.
He was too busy shucking his overalls in favour of the wetsuit Todd had provided. He took his time putting it on, Todd waiting until he had everything else in place before helping him secure the oxygen tank. And then he was suited, Dirk not entirely sure what came next. Without a telltale hunch, Dirk honestly couldn't tell if they were moving in even remotely the right direction.
Not that it mattered, because apparently this was happening, Emershan already climbing into the tank, like this had been the plan all along, like he hadn't just met them twelve hours prior. Was this the universe, Dirk wondered, or something else. He could find no other explanation for Emershan's cooperation; for his willingness to return them to the place he'd fled.
Dirk watched, feeling somewhat detached, as Emershan slipped into the tank, disappearing into the water below. Dirk glanced over, seeking Todd's gaze. Todd offered a somewhat reassuring nod.
"We should..." Dirk gestured to the tank. He wasn't quite sure what they should be doing, but Todd's suggestion to touch the water seemed a reasonable idea. The gangway was low enough that if he crouched on his belly he could reach a hand over its edge and skim the top of the surface of the water with his hand. It was startlingly warm. The scent of salt reached his nose.
On his right, Farah did the same, ripples trailing out from the tips of her fingers. Dirk turned his head to the left.
And found Todd on his belly, his hand skirting the top of the water. His expression was one of quiet contemplation. Whatever was going on in his head, Dirk didn't think it was particularly pleasant.
"Now what?" Todd asked.
"Now we... wait?" Dirk suggested.
He had no idea how they'd know if this worked. Before, there was a blinding flash of light, intuition telling him something was wrong long before whatever had happened happened. Now there was only awkward discomfort, as though the universe was trying to tell him something, only this time it wasn't in a language he didn't understand, this time he wasn't even paying attention, Dirk utterly oblivious to the universe's will. For the first time in his life, he would have given anything for a hunch.
Time moved forward.
He began to worry they would be forced to pull Emershan from the tank, either because his oxygen ran out, or because the aquarium was set to open again. From this angle it was impossible to see what Emershan was doing, Dirk only vaguely aware of his location--though mostly he appeared as a dark and indistinct blob, streaks of colour swirling above his head. As far as Dirk could tell, he was simply floating, suspended in water, waiting for....
The lights in the tank flickered.
Oh, Dirk thought, feeling it then. Something was happening. Whatever Emershan was doing it was working. Dirk glanced to Todd, intent on shooting him a triumphant grin, but to his surprise, he found Todd staring into the tank, wearing a faint scowl as though whatever he was seeing had upset him greatly. Dirk double checked, but Emershan remained an indistinct blob.
Too late Dirk realized Todd's hand no longer skimmed the water's surface.
Instead it hung several inches above, fingers straining while being held entirely at bay. Dirk opened his mouth, intent on asking, on reminding Todd the importance of contact, but the words were lost, a wave of nausea taking their place. Dirk's head began to swim. Whatever was happening. Whatever Emershan was doing. It was happening now. They were officially out of time.
No, Dirk thought, followed swiftly by please, but it was too late, the universe shifting around them, Dirk now acutely aware of its song.