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Bring The Colour To My Life

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Dimension: 1. Present Day.

Ken cuts the call with a satisfying bleep, and settles comfortably back into his chair. It’s been what he would term a thoughtful kind of day – long, quiet, and mildly intellectually interesting. On the surface, he’s been checking the accounts and ticking off his list of otherwise mundane administrative tasks. Behind the eyes, he’s been deep in thought.

Principal Wilson had seemed pleased with the progress being made in the release of the evidence for the existence of Wendimoor: meetings scheduled, statements written, the wheels set in motion for notifying the major sectors of Central and Federal Government. The lightbulb flickers erratically above his desk as he scribbles a final signature on what feels like the hundredth document, eyes lifting every few minutes to scan the screens displaying CCTV footage from across the facility.

When the knock on the door echoes through the room, it comes of little surprise, prompting only a slow turn of Ken’s head.

‘Yes?’

The heavy door is cranked open to reveal the thin, perpetually anxious face of Lieutenant Assistent.

‘Mr Priest for you, Director Adams.’

Ken gives a curt nod, and the door swings further open so that Priest can saunter into the room, hands clasped behind his back and a thin leer on his face. He’s head-to-toe in the uniform usually reserved for the most extreme of threats, but Ken has never seen him wear anything else. He swings a heavy, black bag almost lazily from his shoulder and deposits it on the desk in front of Ken.

‘One time machine for you, Ma’am.’

‘You got it,’ Ken unzips the bag in a fluid motion, and surveys the mess inside: shards of glass and metal, a vague approximation of a frame filled with untidy wires and broken computer parts. ‘Is this all of it?’

‘As much as we could find. Smashed to pieces, along with the rest of the Spring Mansion.’

‘All I need is the basics,’ Ken carefully extracts a sliver of metal and holds it between his fingers, examining it. ‘It can be copied.’

‘You’ve got yourself a rather sudden enthusiasm for re-building a time machine, Kenzo. What about gettin’ the truth out about magical fairyland? Thought you and Wilson were all over that.’

‘Oh, that’s just the beginning. Just another thing in the pipeline. I’ll have plenty of time for that.’

‘What’s your game, Ken?’

Ken can almost feel  the gleam in his eye betraying the excitement he’s been quietly nursing for the past three days.

‘We can use the materials from Wendimoor in more ways than just proving it all exists,’ he explains. ‘What if we had the support of the Projects, had them on our side? What if they wanted to help us? We could predict attacks, violence, war; we could kill terrorists, or tyrants, or prisoners. We could change everything.’

Ken isn’t a bad person – at least, he doesn’t think so. The world can’t be divided into good and bad; it all just depends on your perspective. If morality as a concept is subjective, then the boundaries must be entirely arbitrary. He wants to do right, after all; he fully intends to use the Projects for good, to make the world a better place. If the end justifies the means, well. It’s a small price to pay.

Priest raises his eyebrows at Ken, scrutinising, leonine. ‘What are you saying?’

‘What I’ve always been saying. Somebody dropped the ball. Somebody made it “us” against “them”, made the projects feel like we were the bad guys, but we need to persuade them we’re not, and that they can trust us. I made Bart trust me. Look.’ Ken gestures towards one of the CCTV displays, a small, square screen on which there is a girl, in a black and blue jumpsuit, sitting in semi-darkness. Her grizzled hair falls over her face, fingers tapping on the table in front of her. Ken studies her for a moment. ‘No walls could hold her if she didn’t want to be held. But here she is.’

‘And you wanna go back in time to when they were all brought in so you can make ‘em work for you.’

‘So I can show them they can trust me,’ Ken corrects him. ‘Think of what we could do if we had a good relationship with all of them.’ He straightens up, surveying the mess of parts on the table. ‘The time machine would need to be fixed up, or a new one made, but the new metals from Wendimoor, the new tools, they can help with that.’

‘I read the files on that machine. You can’t change the past. It can only create a time loop.’

‘The version Patrick Spring made, maybe. But I know how it works, and I can build on that. I’ve already fixed it once before. If we could alter it somehow, rectify it, we could change the past.’

Priest smirks, arms folded. ‘And you think you can do that, do you, Kenny Boy?’

Ken grins.

‘Yes. Yes, I think I can.’

***

Step, step, step, step, step.

A pause. A button pushed. A shiver; a curling cloud of cold breath, even though in the daytime it is still pretending to be August. The red man changes to green, glowing bright through the dark of the chilly evening. A hand grasps the handle of a small suitcase, and the woman hurries across the road with it trundling along behind her, ducking her head in gratitude to the cars that glare coldly back as they wait with impatience.

Stepstepstepstepstepstep-

She pauses, on the unchartered territory of a new pavement, and checks her phone again, frowning at the pulsing blue dot that marks her current place in the world, and the wind tangles at the blonde hair that falls around her face, getting in her eyes and pissing her off.

Step-

No. wrong way.

Step, step, step.

A disgruntled little yap from a darkened doorway compels her to lift her head, eyes searching out and resting upon the expectant face of a small dog: a corgi, tongue lolling dopily out of her mouth, brown eyes watching her curiously as she stands and stares back. Suddenly, the dog lets out a bark, and sets off at a run, little legs taking her past the woman on the pavement. She turns, whipping around to follow the dog, who has no owner in sight, but when she looks around, she finds that the dog is no longer there. She has simply… vanished.

Probably found another quiet hiding place in a shop doorway where she can shelter from the drizzle, or trotted off down a side street.

Strange.

The woman frowns again.

Step, step, step, step. Step.

Step.

The doorway that had produced the little dog is dark, hidden away, the red paint, though probably a brilliant crimson in daylight, barely visible under the sickly yellow streetlamp that flickers apathetically nearby. There is a brass plaque just to the right of the doorframe.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”.

Stevie Mander reaches out to twist the polished doorknob, and pushes inside.

***

Farah closes her eyes, and counts to ten. She can’t usually complain; not everyone is blessed with the opportunity to be a founding member and self-appointed patron of (probably) the world’s first Holistic Detective Agency. But, today, when the ugly Agency clock hands have lethargically dragged themselves past ten o’clock on a Friday evening and she’s still sitting in front of a computer, flanked by a gangling holistic detective who can’t last two minutes without dramatically announcing his impatience, and his long-suffering but newly-appointed business partner, she has decided she deserves a raise.

‘All I’m saying,’ she tries again, ‘is we need a way of explaining why we needed to be underground in the first place, in a way that doesn’t mention the Tsuliwaënsis.’

‘Okay.’ Dirk squints in thought. ‘How about this: we were accosted by a small but friendly gathering of… of aliens, who pushed us into a hole, and-’

‘Dirk, how is that more plausible than an ancient race of dirt-burrowing, underground dog people?’ Todd asks as he leans against Farah’s desk with his arms folded, and Dirk gives him a reproachful look.

‘You really need to stop calling them “dog people”, Todd, it’s highly offensive-’

‘It's not my fault they have an unpronounceable name!’

‘Tsuliwaënsis,’ Dirk repeats for him.

‘Tsoowee-’

Tsoo-

Tsoo-

Lee-

Lee-

Cali-’

‘Cali?’

‘Fragilistic-’

‘Wait-’

‘Expialidocious!’

Dirk is grinning cheekily, and Todd rolls his eyes despite clearly biting back a smile.

‘Asshole.’

‘Guys,’ Farah interjects. ‘The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can all go home.’

Dirk bristles. ‘Well, I still don’t know why I have to be here in the first place. We all know I’m awful at paperwork, and it’s already after ten o'clock, which is, quite frankly-’

‘We’re here because you didn’t show up to work until midday today,’ Farah cuts in flatly.

‘If I hadn’t been kept up all night by Todd’s evil juice-

‘Dirk, you drank my energy drink,’ Todd raises an amused eyebrow. ‘That’s not my fault.’

Dirk opens his mouth to respond, but Farah interrupts him before he can speak, pinching the bridge of her nose. ‘Guys. Please.’

‘Okay, okay,’ Todd sighs. ‘Any advance on aliens?’

‘Todd, I am not calling up the insurance company and telling them it was aliens!’

‘Fine. What about moles?’

Farah just stares at him.

‘“What about moles”?’

‘Aliens aren’t looking so bad now, are they?’

‘Todd, I swear to God-’

Something. Something is coming. Something is here.

Dirk feels the cool wash of the feeling trickling down his back, like cold fingers on his shoulder, a phantom in the corner of his eye, a flutter in his chest. A hunch.

Something.

He sits in silence while Todd and Farah bicker beside him, the feeling settling uncomfortably in his stomach, a sense of foreboding cold in his chest, something he doesn’t yet understand, but will in about three… two… one…

The bell on the reception desk lets out a single, shrill ding!

‘Hello?’ calls a tentative voice, a female voice, and Dirk is standing up before he even knows he’s pushed back his chair and leapt to his feet. The voice sets his heart hammering, memories clamouring for attention like ghosts of half-forgotten songs, swirling in his brain.

‘We’re closed!’ Todd yells, barely bothering to raise his head from the computer screen.

‘Er. I’m just visiting Dirk?’

It’s unmistakeable. Dirk is out of the office in a flash, tripping over an inconvenient rogue pot plant on the way, body almost unable to catch up with the speed of his feet. There’s a girl behind the reception desk, or a woman now, he supposes, hair cropped shorter than it was when she was a student, in a long coat and clutching the handle of a suitcase. She breaks into a smile when she sees him enter.

‘Hey, Dirk!’

Dirk feels all the colour drain from his face.

No. No, no, no… how…?

‘Dirk?’ Todd is at his shoulder, voice apprehensive, cautious, hand warm through Dirk's shirt sleeve as it suddenly grips his arm, and this might be what shocks Dirk out of his stunned silence. Farah comes slowly up behind them. Three detectives, staring stupidly at a young woman whose smile is rapidly faltering.

‘Is that you?’ Dirk whispers.

‘Erm.’ The woman chews her lip nervously. ‘I think so?’

And Dirk’s feet are moving of their own volition again, taking him numbly towards her before he lurches forwards and throws his arms around her shoulders, which tense up in surprise. She relaxes into his arms and brings up her own to rest at his back, chuckling softly as he holds her tight, face pressed into the crook of her neck to hide his frozen expression of panic-stricken shock, brain whirring at a mile a minute.

‘Wow,’ she teases. ‘You never usually miss me this much.’

Dirk pulls back, gripping her tightly by the upper arms and fixing her with an urgent stare. He’s vaguely aware of Todd and Farah exchanging a look of concern and bafflement over his shoulder.

‘Stevie. What are you doing here?’

‘What do you mean, what am I doing here?’ she laughs. ‘What are you doing here? So much for meeting me at the hotel!’

Dirk’s frown deepens, heart still hammering in his chest. Something is wrong, wrong, wrong… ‘Wh- what hotel?’

‘The Perryman Grand? You said you were staying there, but the concierge said no one under the name of “Gently” was in the current records, so I just assumed you were using an alias or something, you know? And you weren’t answering my calls or texts so I had to borrow the phonebook, and, lo and behold, apparently you’re running a detective agency now, which is pretty amazing and I’m really happy for you, even if it would have been nice if you’d maybe told me about it-’

‘Wait,’ Todd finally speaks, eyebrows confusedly creased in the middle in the way that would, were it not for the alarming nature of the situation, make Dirk’s stomach flip. ‘The Perryman Grand?’

‘Stevie,’ Dirk turns back to the woman, who is giving him a funny look, ‘I haven’t spoken to you in years. I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t say I’d meet you at the Perryman Grand.’

‘What are you talking about?’ she rolls her eyes. ‘You invited me to Seattle. You’d better not be fucking with me because that flight from Heathrow is an absolute bitch-’

Farah is stepping forward before Dirk can open his mouth to speak, addressing the woman like she might do a witness to a particularly brutal murder, or else a small child. ‘Okay. Stevie, is it? You’re saying Dirk invited you here?’

Stevie is rifling through her handbag, pulling out a wad of documents with a flourish and thrusting it towards Farah.

‘Yes. He paid half my airfare, look!’

Farah frowns at her, and carefully takes the documents, eyes flicking down to scan them as Dirk and Todd flutter to her shoulders to peer down at the first page, which is clearly a printed email confirmation of a flight booking.

From: Dirk Gently <dirk.gently@outlook.com>

Date: 12 August 2017 12:44:25 BST

To: Stevie Mander <slmander@gmail.com>

Subject: Fwd: Your e-ticket receipt ZIAM5Y: LHR-SEA 27 Aug 2017 14:30

Forwarded email: Your E-Ticket Receipt

Dear Mr Gently,

Thank you for Booking with American Airlines.

Passenger name: Stephanie Mander...

Farah glances to her right, to exchange a Look with Dirk, and then to her left, to exchange a Look with Todd. Dirk catches Todd’s eye so that they can also exchange a Look, to make it fair.

‘Uh.’ Farah gives Stevie her well-practised reassuring smile, and gestures to the plush sofa in front of the reception desk. ‘Stevie, why don’t you take a seat? We’ll be with you in just a minute.’ With that, she grabs both Dirk and Todd by the arm, and drags them roughly out of the room and into the office.

‘Ow,’ Dirk complains at the pressing of her thumb into his sinews as Todd silently closes the door between them and the bewildered woman standing dumbly in the adjacent room. He rounds on Dirk, an expression of concern gracing his furrowed brow. Despite his state of near-hysteria, Dirk feels very slightly comforted by Todd’s care, a pleasant warmth somewhere in his stomach.

‘What is it?’ Todd asks urgently. ‘You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.’

Ah, yes, there it is. The reason to panic.

‘Nope,’ Dirk shakes his head jerkily, feeling his chest tightening, ‘no, no, she is absolutely, definitely not a ghost, because that would imply something I very much do not want to unpack right now-’

‘Okay, take a breath,’ Todd instructs, and Farah cuts in to maintain whatever professionalism they manage to cling onto roughly twenty percent of the time.

‘Dirk, who is she?’

Dirk closes his eyes for a second. When he opens them, Farah and Todd are looking at him with rapt attention, brown eyes and blue, and he tentatively tries to take a deep breath. His chest begrudgingly allows it.

‘Steve, or Stevie, Mander,’ he explains. ‘She was my best friend and roommate when I was at Cambridge.’

‘You…’ Todd frowns, ‘you said you’d never had a friend before.’

Farah is quick to step in. ‘Todd, that is not the most important-’

‘Okay, okay. Uh, lots to unpack here, so back up a sec. You… you went to college?’

‘Yes, Todd, a sparkling natural intellect can only get one so far,’ Dirk replies impatiently.

‘And… she was your roommate? Like… you had mixed dorms?’

Farah glares. ‘Again, Todd-’

‘Well, not exactly,’ Dirk admits. ‘It wasn’t really a formal arrangement.’

Todd gives him an odd look. ‘What the hell does that mean?’

‘Jesus, Todd, does that really matter at the moment?’ Dirk cries out in frustration. ‘I’m trying to tell you that there is no way she can be here at this moment, in the Agency, in America, in this universe, in this anything.’

Why?

‘Because she died over a decade ago.’

There’s a moment of open-mouthed, staring silence while Todd and Farah digest this information. Dirk is breathing heavily, aware that his eyes are probably a little wild. Farah is beginning to look how he feels.

‘Right!’ she nods a little manically. ‘Okay! Okay, that’s new!’

‘Panicking a little bit here-’

‘Yeah, I see that-’

‘You know, because she’s dead-’

‘How dead are we talking, exactly?’ Todd interjects.

‘Very.’

‘And yet,’ Farah adds, ‘she’s walking, talking, breathing…’

Dirk flaps his hands. ‘I mean, she could be-’

‘-A ghost,’ Farah finishes, at the same time as Todd says, ‘a zombie’, and Dirk offers, ‘a clone’.

Dirk opens his mouth, and then abruptly closes it again. Todd gives him a look.

‘Dirk, did you just say, “a clone”?’

‘We have to be open to all possibilities, Todd!’ Dirk says defensively. ‘And it’s a much better guess than a zombie, honestly-’

‘Okay, focus,’ Farah interrupts. ‘We need to assess the level of threat. So, Dirk, as far as you know: malicious?’

‘Not in the slightest.’

‘On good terms?’

‘Excellent.’

‘Uh. Evidence of… delusions? Hallucinations? Thinking she’s talking to you when you’re not there?’

‘I’m pretty sure that’s all new,’ Dirk replies doubtfully.

‘Okay, so.’ Farah spreads her hands. ‘Threat level is relatively low.’

‘Literally any of that could have changed,’ Todd points out.

Farah nods. ‘Right. We should stay cautious. Agreed?’

Dirk and Todd mumble their approval.

‘So, what do we do next?’ Todd addresses Dirk, who falters uncomfortably.

‘Er. Well, as head of the Detective Agency, I strategically delegate the decision-making in this instance to our most competent member. So… Farah?’

Farah appraises the two expectant faces turned towards her like flowers to the sun, and sighs internally. A raise. A raise is definitely needed.

‘We should question her.’

‘Do we have any… evidence?’ Todd raises an eyebrow. ‘Of anything? Like. Can we actually question her?’

‘Not, like, officially,’ Farah clarifies. I just mean we should ask her some questions. An informal interview. Flash my badge. I am a Deputy.’

‘In Montana,’ Todd reminds her, and she glares at him.

‘Look, just because the optimal method in a situation isn’t a hundred percent legitimate doesn’t mean-‘

‘Let’s go and talk to her,’ Dirk suggests hastily, and Todd and Farah turn to fix him with matching irritated expressions.

‘Right,’ Farah folds her arms. ‘Just what I was saying.’

They troop back out of the office to find Stevie standing by the window, fidgeting agitatedly with a sliver of loose nail on her thumb. She whirls around to face them when they re-enter, fixing wide, pleading eyes on Dirk. She looks like a lost child.

‘Dirk, what’s going on?’

Dirk feels a pang of sympathy in his chest, and he moves across the room to give her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

‘I don’t know, Steve,’ he admits. ‘But we’re going to find out. Please sit down, I promise you we’re mostly good people.’

After slight hesitation, Stevie obediently takes a seat on the sofa, Dirk settling down beside her, and Farah perching precariously on the coffee table in front. Todd stays well back, arms folded, making no move to sit down or otherwise coax his features into something other than a distrustful scowl.

‘Okay,’ Dirk smiles slightly at Stevie, who looks worriedly back. ‘To start with, we’d just like to ask-’

‘Who the hell are you?’ Todd asks bluntly. Dirk shoots him a betrayed look.

‘Todd! Be nice!’

‘What he means,’ Farah interjects, ‘is that something weird is clearly going on here, and that’s kind of our specialty. The three of us make up the members of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: you’ve already met Dirk, my name’s Farah, and the little angry one is Todd.’

‘Hey!’

Farah calmly and steadfastly ignores him. ‘We use holistic methodology, based on the fundamental interconnectedness of the universe, to deal with cases that are usually unbelievable, often supernatural, and always weird. And we think, given the bizarre nature of this situation, that you might be part of a new case. We’re not accusing you of anything, but we’ve decided our next step should be to ask you a few questions in order to ascertain exactly what’s going on here.’

‘What?’ Stevie looks entirely at a loss. ‘“Holistic”? “Supernatural”? Are you just a group of… of…’ Stevie censors herself with little grace, and changes tack. ‘Dirk, I thought you worked for the government.’

‘I have literally never worked for the government.’

‘It was some kind of… thing,’ Stevie frowns. ‘Blackbird?’

‘Blackwing,’ Todd corrects quickly, and Dirk feels his pulse quicken. No. No, surely…

‘That’s the one,’ Stevie nods.

Dirk’s jaw is clenched tightly shut. He feels a little ill. ‘Well. That’s… new.’

‘Okay, let’s start at the beginning,’ Farah says. ‘All we know at this point is that Stevie says Dirk invited her here, or else somebody using Dirk’s name, and Dirk has no recollection of ever doing so.’

‘It wasn’t just the name,’ Stevie shakes her head. ‘We spoke on the phone multiple times; we always have. If it was someone pretending to be you, it was also someone willing to pay hundreds of pounds to get me here, and who can hold hour-long phone conversations using your voice without me suspecting anything.’

‘Well,’ Dirk says fairly, ‘it may not necessarily be a simple question of “me” or “not me”. You know what we were saying about the supernatural-’

‘Stevie,’ Farah tries again to bring them back to their chosen path. ‘Are you happy to answer some questions for us?’

‘Er. Okay.’

‘Okay. How do you know Dirk? How did you meet?’

Stevie sighs. ‘I met him at Cambridge when I knocked on his door and asked if I could sleep in his room. We became good friends after that.’

Farah glances over at Dirk, who nods once in confirmation. Todd glowers to himself sullenly.

‘Did you stay friends throughout university?’ Farah asks.

‘Yes.’

‘And after graduating?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Wait,’ Dirk holds up a finger suddenly. ‘That’s not right. I didn’t graduate.’

Todd is taken by such surprise that he entirely forgets to be grumpy. ‘What?’

Dirk sheepishly refuses to meet his gaze. ‘I was sent down during my second year for predicting the upcoming exam questions in an absolutely not psychic manner. For money. Um. And they were all correct, down to the last comma, so the University Board thought I’d stolen them. I was actually, er. Sent to prison, briefly.’

A silence falls that’s just on the wrong side of awkward, Farah raising a delicate eyebrow in Dirk’s direction as he stares determinedly at an unfortunate tea stain in the carpet.

Stevie clears her throat.

‘Well. In my experience, that never happened at all. We graduated together, and you went back to working for Blackwing in the States. Obviously, you never told me much about what that involved, so I can’t help much with that part. We’ve visited each other a few times, stayed in touch; we email, and talk on the phone, all that. And a couple of weeks ago, you said you’d just been stationed in Seattle, and asked if I wanted to come and visit for a holiday. And I agreed.’

Dirk can almost hear Farah’s brain clacking and whirring from where she sits on the table, listening to Stevie with rapt attention, but his own is startlingly quiet. All he can hear is the cold echo of something wrong in his head, like someone step, step, step-ping back and forth within the walls of his skull, the nauseous sense of foreboding setting every hair on end like his skin is crawling with an electric current. He can hear the cry, feel the metallic stinging of the scent of blood in his nostrils…

‘Is it possible,’ Stevie begins slowly, ‘that it’s got something to do with memory? You know, being tampered with? If we both remember things completely differently-’

‘No,’ Dirk says quietly, and feels three faces turn to look at him in anticipation. He swallows against the swirling sensation in his stomach, trying desperately to breathe evenly. ‘No, it’s not that. It’s not memory that’s been changed, it’s reality.’ He looks up, meeting Stevie’s wide eyes, barely able to raise his voice above a whisper. ‘I didn’t work for Blackwing. They kept me in a cell, against my will, from when I was a young child. I’ve been living in their shadow all my life. I was thrown out of university, and bailed out of prison by Riggins, the old Director of Blackwing. I lived in London, not America. And… and you died fifteen years ago.’

A mixture of emotions cloud Stevie’s face as she stares back at Dirk. Even Todd has the grace to look away.

‘No,’ she shakes her head quickly. ‘No, I didn’t, because I’m here-’

‘Look, don’t panic,’ Farah soothes. ‘We don’t know the facts yet. There are clearly two different stories happening here, and it’s obvious that you’re not dead, because you’re here and talking to us right now. But… but there are a million reasons why that could be, and another million why you might actually be dead, after all. We just… we just don’t know.’

Dirk watches Stevie carefully as she takes a deep, shuddering breath. She turns to face him.

‘How did I die?’

‘We were in a café when a bomb went off,’ Dirk replies softly. ‘Some attack against a man who worked there. You were killed instantly.’

Stevie blinks rapidly, nods, and visibly pulls herself back together, like a puppet’s strings being delicately pulled, bringing her to life.

‘Okay. Okay. But we’ll figure it out? That’s your thing?’

‘It is,’ Farah confirms.

‘So, you can fix it?’

‘We’ll try,’ Dirk smiles softly, and takes her hand in his own. Todd shifts a little where he stands, but remains silent.

Farah stands like the rising tide, and glances at the clock’s hands as they pass eleven, before looking around at them all. ‘It’s late. I vote we all go get some sleep, and come back to this in the morning.’

Todd lets out a grunt of assent, and Dirk nods in relief.

‘I’ll, er.’ Stevie glances up. ‘Come back here when you open tomorrow, then? Nine o’clock?’

‘Don’t be silly, Stevie,’ Dirk shakes his head. ‘You can sleep in my spare room.’

Todd’s wary, ‘What?’ is twisted with Stevie’s own flat reply of, ‘No.’

Dirk looks between them.

‘As far as you’re concerned, I just showed up out of nowhere after fifteen years,’ Stevie points out. ‘I’ll go back to the hotel.’

‘Absolutely not,’ Dirk stands up and holds his hand out to her, eyes sparkling as he allows himself to feel a grain of excitement at the prospect of a new case, enough to push his nagging sense of foreboding to one side for the time being. ‘If it helps, pretend I’m doing it so I can keep an eye on you.’

After a moment of hesitation, Stevie rolls her eyes in fond exasperation, and takes Dirk’s hand so that he can pull her up off the sofa.

‘Great,’ he grins. ‘Let me just fetch my jacket.’

When he flits into the office to retrieve his jacket from the peg, Todd is hot on his heels and looking decidedly glare-y.

‘You’re taking her back to the Ridgely?’ he demands.

‘She’s a friend, Todd, albeit one I haven’t seen in a long time. I wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise. Why should I?’

Todd stares at him in disbelief. ‘She’s literally a dead person.’

‘Well, apparently dead people need sleep, too!’ Dirk replies a little irritably. ‘Honestly, Todd, I didn’t have you down as someone prone to such close-minded prejudices.’

‘Prejudice? Seriously? She could be a Blackwing agent, or a ghost, or… okay, a clone! Or just… part of some plan to fuck with us. You have no idea who she is.’

Dirk feels defensive annoyance prickle under his skin as he narrows his eyes at Todd.

‘What on earth has got into you today? You’re even grumpier than usual – no, don’t deny it. You did this with Mona, too. Is it that hard for you to accept that I had a life before all this?’

‘Hey!’ Todd glares at him, raising an affronted finger, and that is the last straw. ‘You don’t have to be an asshole just because-’

‘Just because you are?’ Dirk finishes hotly.

Todd stares at him mouth hanging slightly open in indignance and confusion and… some other kind of emotion that Dirk isn’t quite able to decipher. Dirk’s heart is hammering in his chest, regretting the outburst almost as soon as it has left his mouth. He averts his gaze and tries to remain composed.

‘Do you want a lift home or not?’ he asks loftily.

‘Uh.’ Todd’s mouth twists in sheepish defeat. ‘Yeah.’

‘Right. Well. We need to get going.’

This time, when Dirk abruptly opens the door and disappears into the next room, Todd is several steps behind.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 4. One week ago.

The weather has no business being this cold in the middle of August.

Calloused fingers a little numb on the taught wires of his guitar strings, Todd Brotzman does his best to studiously ignore the slight chill beneath the summer breeze. He’s pondering a metaphor as he tunes the ‘E’, tongue poking out of his mouth a little: the wind is a cat, warm and soft and purring contentedly, but waiting for you to put a foot wrong, watching your hand moving to absent-mindedly pet its soft belly so that it has an excuse to give you a quick nip or snag its claw on your arm, reminding you reproachfully that it is a deadly and fearsome beast. See, Todd thinks to himself, this is the kind of thing he’d never get to spend his time considering if he had a real job, one that didn’t involve busking on the busy high street with nothing but his voice, guitar, and the clothes on his back. And a hat, obviously, to collect the measly nickels that passers-by sometimes flip in his direction.

The street is bustling, as it always is on a Friday, full of people out in the shops: families with young, screeching children, gaggles of teenage girls who have bunked off school, wearing near-identical outfits and clumpy mascara, couples draped nauseatingly together and making goo-goo eyes, something which Todd will only forgive on the occasions when one of them will drag the other into a clumsy dance to one of his songs, and they’ll giggle and sway and thank Todd in the way that he has to admit slightly thaws his icy heart. It’s probably one of only two things that has that effect on him. The other is, thankfully, one that he gets to experience much more often.

He’s forgotten his watch, so he has absolutely no idea what time it is, and, as such, no idea when this particular person will pass by, either. Probably not for a while yet.

Content with the ‘E’ string, which Todd is sure has been warped a little by the unfairly wintry bite of the wind, he pulls his worn, denim jacket a little tighter around himself before strumming a few chords and fiddling with his mic stand. He’s already done a little Radiohead this morning, some Maroon 5, and even begrudgingly sunk to some of the utter shit that’s meant to be popular on the radio at the moment. Anything to bring the punters in. However, there are no rules here, and if he wants to pepper an original song or two in with all the usual hits, he’ll be damned if anyone tries to tell him otherwise.

He strums absently as he considers what to play, running through the mental list of the songs he’s written recently, and finds his fingers settling into the chords of a relatively new one. It’s a simple sort of tune, not too loud or obnoxious, and is carefully gender-neutral, despite the source of his inspiration – perfect for the general American public, he thinks wryly to himself.

Todd closes his eyes and allows his guitar to drown out the ocean of chatter in the street around him, deciding to start off with a little of the chorus to see if it garners any kind of reaction from passers-by.

‘So bring the colour to my life

I’m tired of the grey

And I’ll kiss that smile that

Turns my nights to day...’

It’s mostly thankless, this job; Todd had known that when he’d started busking. But he doesn’t think he’d ever be cut out for many other kinds of job, in all honesty. With his eyes closed, singing out to the strangers in the crowd around him, this is where he feels safe.

‘You tell me you’re broken

But I promise you I’m broken too

We’ll fix each other

Let me share your light with-‘

‘Good morning, Todd!’ says a familiarly bright voice, and Todd startles, snapping his eyes open and stopping his strumming abruptly to see the man in the garish, yellow jacket in front of him, holding a large takeout coffee cup and beaming like the sun itself. Shit. It must be later than he’d thought.

The man’s smile falters a little, his expression sliding into one equal parts apologetic and disappointed at the sudden end to the music. ‘Oh, you don’t need to stop playing! I liked that one!’

‘‘S cool,’ Todd fumbles with his guitar strap as he lifts it over his head, hoping it might somewhat hide the flush he can feel blooming across his cheeks and travelling up to the tips of his ears.

Dirk uses his free hand to dig around in the pocket of his jeans. ‘Is that a new song? I haven’t heard it before.’

‘Uh. Yeah, kinda.’

‘Here we go!’ Dirk frees a handful of change and places it carefully in Todd’s upturned hat. Todd takes the momentary distraction to regain the composure that had been, predictably, entirely shattered by the act of being caught playing a song about his muse to the man himself.

‘Thanks, Dirk. What have you got today?’

‘A Grande soy gingerbread macchiato with extra cinnamon. He likes to keep me on my toes.’

Todd quirks a brow. ‘Your boss sounds like an asshole.’

‘He’s alright, really,’ Dirk shrugs. ‘Just a bit of a joker. Which is a good thing, I suppose, in some aspects of the job.’

A peculiar thought suddenly crosses Todd’s mind, and he gives Dirk what he knows is probably a rather odd look.

‘Are you, like… y’know…?’

‘What?’ Dirk, to Todd’s relief, looks aghast. ‘No, Todd! He’s like my grandfather! Goodness me, you should keep your mind out of the gutter.’

‘I was only asking,’ Todd tries to feign nonchalance. ‘Don’t want him taking advantage of his position.’

‘Well. Thank you for looking out for me, Todd. Do you know, I saw the sweetest dog today on my walk here? A little corgi. She licked my hand! So, naturally, I’m now thinking I should quit my job and become a… a dog… rescuer… man.’

Todd grins. ‘Dirk, you’re a PA.’

‘Yes, but I’m a bad PA, which means I’m probably better suited to something else.’

‘So, you’re gonna be a… “dog rescuer man”?’

‘I see your point,’ Dirk concedes. Maybe I should just come along and busk with you.’

Todd feels his treacherous face heating up again, and inwardly chastises himself for his total inability to play it cool.

‘Uh,’ he manages uselessly. Fuck!

‘Well, better hop to it,’ Dirk beams at him again, waving his coffee cup so carelessly that Todd can’t fathom how it hasn’t yet slopped all over him. ‘I hope you have a fruitful morning, Todd. See you tomorrow!’

‘See you.’

Todd manages a smile before Dirk turns on his heel and practically skips down the street. No one should be allowed to be so full of energy. Or that cute.

Todd closes his eyes and breathes a heavy sigh. Idiot. Why can’t you just stop being so lame and spineless for once in your goddamn life?

It’s become a part of both of their routines, this arrangement they have. Dirk picks up coffee for his boss, Patrick Spring or something, from the Starbucks on the corner every morning before work, and donates his spare change to Todd in return for a little music or light conversation. Since becoming estranged from his sister for being the world’s biggest asshole, Todd is finding it increasingly easy to admit to himself that catching up with Dirk is, without a doubt, the highlight of his days.

To himself. But not out loud.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1. Present day.

When Dirk stumbles blearily into his kitchen in the Ridgely the next morning, still wearing his flannel pyjamas and fully aware that his hair sticking up in all directions, it’s to find Stevie already dressed and spreading what looks like her flight and hotel booking documents across the table.

‘M-morning,’ he yawns, and Stevie pulls out a chair.

‘Hey. Glad to see some things haven’t changed – you’re still terrible at mornings.’

Dirk plops himself into the chair and gives her his best indignant frown. ‘I’m fantastic at mornings.’

‘You slept through half your prelims,’ she reminds him.

‘Well, you once fell asleep on the train to Sheffield and ended up in Edinburgh.’

‘At least I’ve never fallen asleep on a person. In a club. Whilst dancing.’

‘Touché,’ Dirk inclines his head in grudging acceptance. ‘Did we get any tamer in third year?’

‘A little bit. More working, less drinking, but otherwise the same.’

‘Did I get any better at not sleeping through things?’

‘No.’

‘Did I get any cooler?’

‘No.’

‘Did I fall in love with a gorgeous Adonis with startling blue eyes who asked me to marry him on a beach in Hawaii?’

‘You’ll be disappointed to know that you did not,’ Stevie grins. ‘Although, speaking of blue eyes…’

Dirk rubs at his eye with a knuckle and stifles another yawn. ‘Hmm?’

‘Todd.’

Dirk purses his lips, suddenly feeling a lot more awake.

‘What about Todd?’

‘You and Todd? Todd and you? Bickering like an old married couple?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Dirk sniffs, maintaining what he is absolutely sure is an air of total, supercilious indifference. Stevie raises her eyebrows in a manner that suggests she’s having absolutely none of it. Shit.

‘My spidey senses are tingling.’

‘You should get that checked. They might be able to give you some cream.’

Stevie snorts. ‘You’re full of shit.’

‘And you’re especially devious before breakfast. Do you still have an irrational phobia of eggs?’

‘They are squeezed out by chickens.’

‘You could have just said “yes”,’ Dirk rolls his eyes as he pushes his chair back and potters over to the kitchen cupboards. ‘Toast, then?’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Todd says I always ruin eggs anyway. Stop making that face.’

Stevie holds up her hands innocently, a smug grin printed all over her face. ‘I’m not saying a word.’

Dirk locates half a loaf of bread in one of the cupboards, and is heading hopefully over to the fridge, past the window, crossing his fingers that he still has the pot of jam he bought nearly six months ago, when something catches his eye. Something black. Something distinctly cat-like.

Dirk flits back to the window, staring out across to the other side of the road, where a small, black kitten is sitting and staring back at him.

He blinks. It blinks back.

Cat,’ Dirk breathes, and the kitten twitches its tail in response.

‘Erm,’ Stevie replies. ‘What?’

Dirk whips around to face here. ‘I’m going after that cat!’

Stevie frowns. ‘Okay?’

Before she can say another word, Dirk is crashing out of the apartment in his pyjamas and cascading down the corridor, taking the stairs two-at-a-time and leaving a bewildered Stevie far behind.

***

Farah flicks on the heating in her car as she pulls up at the traffic lights near the Agency, her brown leather jacket doing little to keep out the unexpected chill in the air. Then she flicks it off again, and on again, and off and on. And then off and on for good measure.

The light changes to green, and she releases the handbrake.

Doors locked, lights off, cooker off, TV off…

Where does a person who’s been dead for fifteen years come from? How does she not remember dying? How has she have lived a whole life during those fifteen years, lived through things that never happened?

Gas off, taps off, windows shut…

Unless they had happened. Unless it was Dirk who was wrong. Could Stevie have been right in suggesting his memories could have been altered somehow?

Garage door… shit, garage door down? Did I close the garage door?

Breathe, Farah. Breathe.

I wouldn’t have left the garage door open. It’s fine. It’s all fine.

She pulls up outside the Agency so that the two right-hand wheels come to rest on the curb, and turns off the ignition. She takes a deep breath, gripping the wheel to steady herself. She’ll need to write up a list of theories about what could have happened on the whiteboard. Maybe a diagram. Or a brainstorm.

When she opens the car door and steps outside, she notices two things in quick succession. First, the air around her is bitingly, bone-achingly cold, far, far too low a temperature for this time of year. Second, her foot has sunk up to the ankle in a layer of soft, thick snow.

There’s snow everywhere: across the ground, in the trees, atop buildings, falling from the sky. A group of three children run past her as she stands, dumbstruck and staring up at the sky, wearing their coats and hats and scarves and mittens, shouting and laughing as they go. One of them is dragging a bright, blue sled along behind him.

Farah’s heart slams in her chest. How did she not notice? Surely it hadn’t been snowing before she’d got out of her car, but now she’s stepped outside? And in mid-August?

Farah fumbles the phone out of her jacket pocket with shaking hands, and dials Dirk’s number.

***

Todd raises his fist to the door of Dirk’s apartment, and hesitates. Takes a breath.

He knocks.

After a brief moment punctuated by the sound of soft footsteps, the door swings open and Stevie is peering back out at him. She gives him an awkward half-smile as Todd feels disappointment rise in his throat like bad whisky the morning after a bender.

‘Oh,’ he scratches the back of his head. ‘Sorry. I was looking for Dirk. We sort of share his car.’

‘He, er… saw a cat. And ran after it.’

‘Sounds like Dirk.’

‘Do you want to come in and wait? The kettle’s just boiled.’

‘Uh.’ Todd falters, and shrugs a shoulder in half an apology. ‘No, that’s okay.’

Stevie chews at her bottom lip as she appraises him.

‘You don’t like me.’

It’s a statement more than a question demanding any kind of response, and Todd is momentarily taken aback by her directness.

‘I don’t… I don’t dislike you-’

‘It’s okay,’ Stevie shrugs. ‘I mean, you’re not obliged. I’d just like to know if it’s anything I’ve done, so I can, you know, not do it.’

‘It’s not…’ Todd sighs heavily. ‘You haven’t done anything, okay? It’s just I’m not sure whether we can trust you yet. Sure, you seem like the person Dirk remembers, but we’ve dealt with evil fairytale witches and shape-shifting stress toys, and, honestly? I’m kinda wary about the fact that you’re supposed to be dead.’

Stevie ponders this for a moment, before nodding.

‘Yeah, I suppose that’s fair.’

There’s an intriguing spark of humour in her eye that makes Todd hesitant to turn around and walk back down the stairs to his apartment. He fidgets for a moment through the silence.

He sighs again, this time in defeat.

‘You got any coffee?’

Stevie smiles and steps back, allowing him to step into Dirk’s apartment, familiar in the way it smells like Dirk and glows with warm light, like the second home that it practically is at this point, given the amount of time Todd spends here, eating Dirk’s cereal, on Dirk’s sofa, in front of Dirk’s TV. Just the thought prompts a blush of warmth somewhere in his chest. He feels more at home here than he does in his own apartment.

Stevie disappears into the kitchen behind the breakfast bar. ‘Milk? Sugar?’

‘No, and no,’ Todd replies, a framed photo propped on top of the bookshelf catching his eye: himself, Dirk and Farah on the day the Agency was officially opened, beaming with delight, arms around each other. Dirk is glowing with pride, lit up like a beacon from the inside, his black jacket doing nothing to stifle the amount of colour that he seems to radiate. Todd smiles faintly, before wandering into the kitchen to find Stevie pouring boiled water into a pair of mismatched mugs.

‘Does he often do things like this?’ she asks mildly, and Todd lets out a short laugh.

‘Most days, yeah. Can’t seem to keep him still. He’s just…’

‘Hyperactive?’ Stevie grins. ‘He hasn’t changed in that respect.’

Todd’s curiosity is piqued. He accepts the mug that Stevie offers him, and takes a sip. ‘What was he like? At Cambridge?’

‘Much the same,’ Stevie shrugs as she leans back against the kitchen counter. ‘Quite a lot shyer, though; more reserved. He seems more confident now, no doubt because of you and Farah.’

Todd’s chest swells a little at that.

He takes another sip of his coffee as fortification before breaching the topic he’s been thinking about all night with a burning, morbid curiosity, the information he really doesn’t want to hear, but can’t stop himself from asking for.

‘So, uh. How long did you guys date?’

Stevie frowns at him.

‘What?’

‘Or…’ he backtracks hastily. ‘You know. Not date, but-’

‘Wait. You think Dirk and I had a thing?’

It’s Todd’s turn to frown. ‘Didn’t you?’

‘No!’ Stevie cries incredulously. ‘God, no! Never in a million years!’

‘He… he said you were always staying in his room!’

‘Yeah, in bunk beds! Because our respective roommates were always shagging in mine!’

Todd stares at her, the feeling of giddy relief washing over him in great waves, until she snorts with laughter and he finds himself following, bursting into near-hysterical giggles.

‘Oh my god,’ he splutters, wiping his eyes. ‘I’m sorry! I just assumed-’

‘Todd, I am such a massive lesbian-’

‘Oh, man, I’m sorry,’ Todd grins stupidly as Stevie dissolves into laughter again.

It takes a good minute for them to pull themselves together, because they keep setting each other off again, but eventually the laughter tails off, leaving a rather less tense, more companionable, quiet.

‘Todd, there was nothing between us, okay? I’m surprised he hasn’t…’ Stevie trails off, shaking her head, before fixing him with an odd look. ‘Is that why you didn’t like me?’

‘What?’ Todd blinks at her, uncomprehending. Unless she means… no. He pushes it firmly to the back of his mind. He always does. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘Nothing.’

Todd opens his mouth to press her further, but is cut off by the ringing of his phone from the pocket of his jeans, and hurriedly fishes it out to answer it. Farah.

‘Hey, Farah. What’s up?’

‘Todd,’ her voice, tinny down the line, is tight with anxiety, ‘something weird is happening, and I can’t get hold of Dirk.’

‘He’s uh. Chasing a cat. What’s going on?’

‘It’s snowing.’

Todd peers out of the window.

‘No, it’s not.’

‘At the Agency, it is. Like, a lot. And there’s snow on the ground, really thick snow, and Todd-’

‘Okay, breath, Farah. I’ll be right there, okay?’

‘Okay.’ The sound of Farah taking a deep, shuddering breath echoes down the line before it goes dead.

Todd looks up at Stevie, still holding her coffee mug in both hands and fixing him with an inquisitive gaze.

‘It’s snowing at the Agency,’ he explains matter-of-factly. ‘Farah’s panicking. Shit’s going down. This is where it all starts getting weird. You coming?’

Stevie grins.

‘Absolutely.’

***

Dirk is sure he’s been jogging for at least four hours (which may be a very slight exaggeration, off by roughly three hours and forty-five minutes) by the time he catches up with the haughty madam trotting along in front of him, tail standing proudly straight up in the air and little feet padding deliberately along as if she is well aware of the fact that Dirk is following. Dirk is also well aware that Dirk is following, and Dirk has had just about enough of physical exercise for today, thank you very much, especially when he’s still in his pyjamas.

When the kitten comes to a halt on a rather busy street in central Seattle, a street where faint guitar music is humming pleasantly through the air, Dirk is hot on her heels, hair sticking to his sweaty forehead as he bends down and scoops her into his arms.

‘Ah ha!’ he addresses her. ‘I’ve got you now, you furry little terror.’

The music swells, a soft tune played on what sounds like an acoustic guitar, accompanied by a male voice that Dirk is sure he recognises. It’s a good voice: rich and tuneful, intertwining with the strumming of the guitar, and Dirk twists around, straining to find the source.

It’s Todd.

Todd is standing in the street, people swarming all around and obstructing Dirk’s view as they walk in front of him, playing a familiar, battered guitar and singing gently into a mic. There’s an upturned hat on the ground in front of him. Todd is… busking?

The cold fingers of a hunch are clutching at him, making it hard to breathe. His stomach lurches unpleasantly.

‘Todd!’ Dirk calls out, but Todd doesn’t seem to hear, too caught up in the music, or too far away, and Dirk is pushing through the crowd towards him, and there are too many people wandering aimlessly around in front of him to see, and Dirk can feel his chest tightening in panic before a particularly tall man walks in front of him. In the split second it takes for the man to pass, Todd has gone.

Dirk blinks, staring around him as he continues trying to push past to get to where Todd had been standing just moments ago. When he finally fights his way through, there’s no sign that he was ever there; there is no mic stand, no hat, no guitar, and definitely no Todd.

Dirk breathes heavily, trying to stop his mind from racing too fast for him to catch up. Todd was here. And then he wasn’t. But Todd wouldn’t have been here in the first place. Todd will either be at the Ridgely or the Agency, not busking in the middle of Seattle, and he definitely wouldn’t be busking in the middle of Seattle and then disappearing into thin air…

A dream? His overactive imagination? A ghost? No, because that would mean he’s dead, which he definitely isn’t. Or, maybe, it was just him. Maybe he’s decided he doesn’t want to be a partner in a detective agency anymore, and has decided to busk instead. Dirk thinks he could probably deal with that. He’d be rather upset, yes, but he’d be sure to support him, because, as he’s been told, that’s what friends do.

Dirk places his hands on his hips, and takes a deep breath. It’s going to be another one of those days.

***

Todd steps out of the car and slams the door behind him, with Stevie exiting from the passenger’s side and following hurriedly through the door of the narrow building and up the dark, poky stairs, floorboards groaning in protest under two sets of feet. Any trace of snow on the ground outside, if it was ever there, has entirely vanished.

Todd strides through the Agency’s reception area and into the office, where Farah is pacing in agitation, brow furrowed with anxiety. She looks up when Todd and Stevie enter.

‘What happened to the snow?’ Todd asks without hesitation, and Farah throws up her hands in frustration.

‘I don’t know, Todd! One second it was here, and then suddenly it was gone!’

‘Freak storm?’ Stevie offers. ‘Can’t be unheard of. Maybe it’s the next Ice Age.’

‘Where’s Dirk?’ Farah addresses Todd, paying no heed to the suggestion, and, as if summoned by the universe itself, the sound of stumbling footsteps can be heard tripping up the Agency stairs.

Dirk bursts through the door, clad in blue pyjamas and clutching a small, black kitten to his chest, eyes and hair a matching shade of wild.

‘Todd!’ he exclaims, and Todd fights the urge to take a startled step backwards. ‘Thank goodness. Humour me for one moment?’

‘Do I ever do anything else?’

Dirk ignores him. ‘Tell me you haven’t just been busking on the high street.’

‘I, uh. Haven’t just been busking on the high street.’

‘What are you talking about, Dirk?’ Farah demands. ‘Why aren’t you dressed?’

Dirk brandishes the tiny kitten precariously, and it mewls in protest.

Todd gapes at it.

‘Is that…?’

Dirk is practically vibrating with excitement. ‘I think it is.’

‘The shark?’ Farah breathes.

Stevie clears her throat. ‘I’m, er. Pretty sure that’s a cat.’

‘Only on the outside,’ Dirk replies, plopping the kitten gently onto the floor so she can wander over to sniff at the leg of Farah’s chair. ‘It’s complicated. Anyway, I was chasing her around for absolutely ages, and then of a sudden I looked up, and there you were, Todd! You were playing your guitar and singing, very nicely might I add, and then you just vanished into thin air!’

Todd frowns. ‘Are you sure it was me?’

‘Positive, Todd. I think I’d know my own detective partner.’

Todd takes a moment to silently process this sentence while his brain short-circuits.

‘Todd’s been with me the whole morning,’ Stevie vouches. ‘It can’t have been him.’

Dirk’s eyes widen almost comically. ‘What if it was your clone?!’

The stupidity of the suggestion is enough to kick-start Todd’s brain into regaining some semblance of mental facility.

‘It wasn’t a clone, Dirk. I’ve never been cloned.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t remember, would you, you silly thing, it happens before birth-’

‘It wasn’t a clone,’ Todd tells him flatly.

‘In that case, do you, or have you ever had, an identical twin brother?’

‘Uh. Not that I’m aware of, no.’

‘Dirk,’ Farah raises an unimpressed eyebrow, ‘are we really saying that Todd, Stevie, and the shark-kitten all have identical twins?’

‘Alright, fine. Cloning it is.’

Todd glowers. ‘Dirk, no-’

‘Dirk,’ Farah cuts in before the squabbling can go any further, abruptly and effectively centring them once again in the realm of useful contributions. ‘Have you ever read up on theories about parallel universes?’

Dirk closes his mouth. ‘Come again?’

‘The idea that there are infinite versions of reality, made different from each other by every tiny decision that we make, all existing alongside each other, but never meeting.’

Todd glances between Farah, lips pressed grimly together, and Dirk, eyes wide and distant as his brain whirs and buzzes behind them. Understanding begins to form.

Dirk raises a finger, speaking slowly. ‘But if they did meet… Farah, I think you might be onto something!’

‘You think things are coming across from another dimension?’ Todd frowns, understanding ebbing into place. ‘Like Wendimoor?’

‘Not like Wendimoor,’ Dirk corrects. ‘It feels different to Wendimoor.’

‘It would explain why you saw Todd down on the high street,’ Farah addresses Dirk seriously. ‘Maybe he’d come from another timeline where-’

‘Where he’s a busker!’ Dirk snaps his fingers with excitement.

‘And it would mean Stevie’s story is all true, but so is yours – she’s just come from a different dimension, where you do work for Blackwing!’

Reminded once again of her presence, Todd blinks over at Stevie at his right-hand side, who is staring open-mouthed between Dirk and Farah as they fire off from each other, bouncing off ideas as their theory starts to take shape.

Dirk is sporting a look so sickeningly smug it makes Todd want to hit him. ‘See, Todd? It was just another version of you. So, basically, I was kind of on the right track with the cloning thing.’

Todd glares. ‘No, Dirk, you weren’t. And, anyway, what about the snow? If you’re right and this is a case of parallel universes, shouldn’t they be, like, parallel? With things happening at exactly the same time? So, if it’s summer here, then it would be summer everywhere.’

‘Unless…’ Dirk replies slowly, ‘unless something was wrong. Unless the timelines are all getting tangled up together and that’s why everything is bleeding through. This wasn’t supposed to happen.’

Wide-eyed, Dirk turns his gaze to Farah, and then Todd, staring between them with a smile steadily blooming on his lips as things start to fall into place.

Then he looks around. Frowns.

‘Where’s Stevie?’

Todd turns to the spot where she’d been standing less than thirty seconds before, to find that she’s completely disappeared. He turns, looking around, and feels Dirk and Farah do the same, but there’s no sign of her.

Dirk’s rising panic is painfully visible.

‘No. No, no, no, she has to be somewhere-’

‘Dirk,’ Todd steps in hurriedly. ‘Dirk, breathe-’

‘-Because I watched her die and if I’ve lost her again I will never… This is my fault, it’s my fault-’

‘It’s not your fault.’

Dirk glares at him. ‘You never liked her anyway, Todd!’ he snaps.

It’s an improvement on the hyperventilating, at least. Todd raises an eyebrow challengingly at him, and Dirk falters sheepishly in response, slipping into silence.

‘We’ll find her,’ Todd promises.

‘She may have just gone back to her own dimension,’ Farah adds. ‘We need to focus on solving the case, okay?’

Dirk lets out a shuddering breath.

‘Okay.’

Farah’s finger twitches almost unconsciously to the gun in her holster, always snug against the line of her belt. ‘Right. Action stations. If people are appearing and disappearing all over the place, we should be prepared for getting split up. Todd, you still got the brass knuckles?’

‘Uh,’ Todd pats his jacket pocket, feeling the familiar, smooth metal through the fabric. ‘Yeah.’

‘And someone should take Mona.’

Dirk looks at Todd. ‘It’s your turn.’

‘No,’ Todd shakes his head flatly. ‘Look, I told you, it weirds me out-’

‘I nearly spent her last time!’ Dirk protests, and Todd makes a noise of frustrated defeat.

‘Alright, fine!’ He snatches up the dollar coin lying innocuously on Farah’s desk, jamming it into the pocket of his jeans, and, after a moment of thought, the sound gun from Wendimoor that sits next to it. He holds it out to Dirk. ‘You take this, then.’

Dirk stares at it, making no move to take it from Todd, a troubled sadness in his eyes.

‘We’ll figure it out, Dirk,’ Farah tells him gently. ‘We always do.’

Dirk takes a deep breath, and takes the gun, his eyes meeting Todd’s.

‘Right,’ Dirk nods, a brave smile painting his lips, and Todd feels his treacherous heart skip a beat. Dirk puffs out his chest in determination. ‘Let’s solve this case!’

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1. October 2001.

Dirk taps his pen absently against his desk and watches the words in front of him jump off the page, swirling and weaving and chasing each other through the air and up around past his ears. It’s chilly in his room, the little feet of October creeping, barely noticed, under the gap beneath the old, wooden door, lingering in the creaking of the badly-made pipes that are supposed to bring heat, and usually fail to do so. The room is poorly lit, a yellowy glow steeping the two perpendicular desks and bunk bed on the other side of the room in a sickly kind of stain. He has the sudden urge to wander into town, maybe stand a while on the bridge over the Cam in the dark and gaze out at the rustling trees as they paint themselves orange. But he probably shouldn’t.

He’s only been here a few weeks, and he’s already decided he almost definitely wasn’t cut out to be a Philosophy student.

It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy it; it’s not that he isn’t fond of the beautiful Cambridge spires, or doesn’t relish the romantic idea of living in a place steeped in English history after spending so long locked in a cell somewhere in America. It’s just that, well, he isn’t very good at actually concentrating on his work.

It’s already past eleven o’clock in the evening, and he’s just about decided to give up on trying to finish this week’s essay for Professor Standish, who he has begun mentally referring to as his ‘academic nemesis’, when there’s an unexpected knock at the door. He sighs, and pads over to open it, squinting out into the significantly brighter corridor, where a sheepish-looking girl is standing and nervously twiddling her fingers. She’s wearing furry, pink pyjama bottoms with elephants printed all over them. Dirk is instantly impressed.

‘Hi,’ she greets him, with visible discomfort and an accent that probably places her somewhere in the north of the country, but he isn’t sure. Dirk has never been very good at recognising accents. ‘This is Douglas’ room, right?’

Ah, the regularly absent owner of the lower bunk. ‘Yes,’ Dirk nods. ‘Er. He’s not here at the moment, though, I’m afraid.’

‘I know. He’s in my room. Shagging my roommate.’

‘Oh!’ Dirk blinks, unsure what to do with this new information and what exactly the girl’s purpose might be in offering it, and decides to react by assuring her of his approval. ‘Well. I’m sure that must be… nice for them?’

‘Yes, except that it means I can’t get into my room, and I’ve got early lectures tomorrow.’ She shifts from foot to foot. ‘So… since I knew there would be a spare bed in here, and… well, if you don’t mind-’

Oh!’ Dirk repeats, finally understanding. ‘Yes, of course!’

‘Are you sure?’ she asks doubtfully as Dirk moves to one side, cheerfully holding the door open so she can walk tentatively into the room, looking around her.

‘Absolutely. Wouldn’t leave you to sleep in the corridor, would I?’

‘Thanks,’ she smiles gratefully. ‘I’m Steve, by the way.’

Dirk grins and sticks out a hand. ‘Dirk. Dirk Gently.’

By the time he wakes up the next afternoon, she’s already long gone.

***

After the first few times Stevie sleeps in the bunk bed below Dirk, the times when her arrival is heralded by apologetic knocks on the door late at night, she and Douglas start to share ownership over the latter’s key. Dirk soon becomes used to hearing her sneak quietly in and settle into the creaky bed, sometimes sticking his head out over the top bunk to greet her with a smile and a pleasantry or two, and sometimes sleeping through it altogether. It takes two weeks of this before Stevie shows up several hours earlier than usual one Saturday evening, and Dirk opens the door to her smiling nervously and holding a bottle of red wine in each hand.

‘Thought it might be time we had an actual conversation,’ she says, and Dirk beams in response.

This is how, in the small hours of Sunday morning, Dirk finds himself lying contentedly on the floor of his room, head buzzing pleasantly with alcohol, with Stevie spread out beside him, both of them relaxed and floppy and extremely giggly. Dirk can’t say he’s often been drunk before, but he finds that he quite likes it; everything around him feels very slow and very fuzzy, and the yellowed ceiling looks particularly interesting from down where he’s lying on the carpet. His limbs are all loose, and his grin is lopsided and stupid. It feels nice.

‘I like the name “Gently”,’ Stevie slurs out of nowhere. ‘It sounds sort of… pleasant. Soft.’

Dirk nods solemnly. ‘That’s why I chose it.’

‘Chose it?’

‘Mm. when I started here. I thought it’d be nice to have control over something.’

Stevie is quiet for a moment before she responds, her frown audible in her voice. ‘Oh. That’s sad.’

Dirk closes his eyes and lets his mind drift. It’s strange hearing it this quiet, not clattering and clanking and spinning on and on and on like it usually does, dragged by the universe in this way and that, never stopping to take a breath. He likes it.

‘I wish I could have chosen my name,’ Stevie sighs. ‘I don’t like “Mander”. It’s too much… “man”.’

‘I like it. It sounds like “panda”.’

‘Oh.’ Stevie’s voice is suddenly a lot happier. ‘Yes, it does.’

A thought crosses Dirk’s mind that prompts him into giggles, laughter bubbling up inside him and spilling out of his mouth. He looks over at Stevie, and the act of it somehow makes him laugh even harder.

She’s already grinning. ‘What?’

‘What if…’ Dirk can barely choke it out, tears in his eyes, ‘what if your name was… Amanda Mander?’

Stevie snorts loudly, and, before Dirk knows it, the two of them have dissolved into giggles so hard and uncontrollable that they can barely breathe, setting each other off over and over again every time they look at each other. Eventually, Stevie’s giggles fade to hiccoughs, and Dirk has regained control over his lungs, sides aching and smile dopey. He isn’t even sure what was so funny.

‘Steve?’

‘Mm?’

‘Can we be friends?’

Stevie’s head turns towards him. ‘I thought we already were.’

‘Oh,’ Dirk says happily. ‘Well. That’s nice.’

‘Isn’t this something that friends do?’

Dirk considers this for a moment.

‘I’m not sure. I’ve never had one.’

Stevie stares at him, open-mouthed, and the sight of it makes her look funny, so Dirk grins.

‘You’ve never had a friend?’ she repeats.

‘I wasn’t allowed. I was in this… place. Hmm. Facility.’

‘Like… a young offender?’

‘No,’ Dirk feels his smile fade a little, sliding into a slight frown. ‘Like an experiment. It was a… government thing? In America. They made me do lots of tests all the time, but I wasn’t very good at them. Even when I was doing badly, though, no one never helped me. I think I’d like to be a detective once I’ve graduated, so I can help other people. That’s what I’ve been thinking, anyway. I’m rather good at finding things, you see.’

There’s a rather long pause, during which Dirk becomes acutely aware of Stevie still gaping at him in silence, wide eyes swimming suspiciously.

‘Dirk, that’s awful.’

‘Yes. I suppose it is.’ Dirk tries to pull his scattered thoughts together, brain catching up with his alcohol-loosened tongue. ‘Stevie?’

‘Yes?’

‘I’ve just remembered that I probably shouldn’t be telling people about that. I’m trying to fit in here, so it might be best if we keep it a secret.’

Stevie pats him clumsily on the top of the head. ‘Don’t worry. My lips are sealed. Friends are good at secrets. Did you know, for example, that you talk in your sleep? And I haven’t told a single soul.’

‘I do not talk in my sleep!’ Dirk tells her indignantly, and she grins.

‘Yes, you do! You were mumbling about Coleridge the other night.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘You were asking a lot of good questions about him. Sounded like an exam paper.’

A comfortable silence settles in around them like a blanket around Dirk’s shoulders, and he lets out a long, sleepy sigh, letting his eyes close again.

‘Y’know what you should do?’ he asks Stevie. ‘Start kicking your roommate out because you’re having sex with your boyfriend. Then she’d know what it’s like.’

Stevie hesitates, before rolling over to face him, expression suddenly troubled.

‘Um. Dirk? Can I tell you a secret?’

Dirk has never had somebody else’s secrets to keep before. Eyes wide and round, he nods fervently. ‘Yes.’

Stevie can’t quite meet his gaze.

‘I don’t think I’m interested in boys.’

‘Oh.’ Dirk blinks, surprised, and Stevie looks up at him with a vulnerability that’s almost painful. ‘Well. I think I am.’

A smile, hopeful, relieved, spreads steadily across Stevie’s face, and Dirk feels himself mirroring it, an expression of the kind that can only be shared by two people, still young for eighteen, finding a friend that they didn’t even know existed. There’s a warmth in his chest that he doesn’t remember ever feeling before, a sense of belonging, of having a home. Friend.

Stevie’s head comes to rest on Dirk’s shoulder, a warm and comforting weight, and it isn’t long before her breathing evens out into gentle snores that lull Dirk softly into sleep.

***

It’s a grey, windy day in April, spattered with drizzling showers, when Dirk wanders dejectedly out of another terrible tutorial with Professor Standish, and drags Stevie into Fitzbillies for the dual purposes of studying hard, and complaining harder. He also has a sudden and insatiable craving for a Chelsea bun.

The café is filled with a buzz of conversation and the sounds of cutlery clinking against china plates, the steady hum of sound doing little to quell the usual push and pull of the universe raging in Dirk’s head. Barely paying heed to Stevie as she sets their tray down on the coffee table and starts pouring the pot of tea into Dirk’s cup and then her own, he flops himself into a brown, leather armchair and lets out a histrionic sigh.

‘He said I’d never amount to anything,’ he mumbles miserably. Stevie splashes milk into their teacups before sitting down in the armchair opposite, fixing him with a sympathetic look.

‘That’s complete bullshit. You’ll make far more of your life than he ever could. You’re going to be a detective, remember? Standish is just a bitter, old dickhole who resents you because he’ll be stuck tutoring students who are cleverer than him for the rest of his life, and all he’s got to look forward to is his own gradual decay.’

‘I’m not clever.’

‘Dirk, you’re one of the most brilliant people I know. Cleverness just shouldn’t be measured by how good you are at sitting on your arse reading periodicals, that’s all.’

‘Alright,’ Dirk amends witheringly, ‘I’m no good at sitting on my arse reading periodicals.’

Stevie takes a thoughtful sip of tea. ‘Hmm. I’m having a harder time disputing that.’

Dirk groans in despair. ‘I’m never going to pass my prelims. I can’t concentrate for more than ten minutes at a time without getting distracted by the stupid universe. I’m a terrible student.’

‘You’ll be fine. Do you really think you’re the first student to pull a Third on a bad essay?’

‘How would you know?’ Dirk demands. ‘You’re a physicist!’

‘And you’ve dealt with enough similar crises from my perspective to know that it’ll work out fine,’ Stevie points out, pulling off a bit of her Chelsea bun to pop it in her mouth, and pushing Dirk’s own across the table towards him. ‘Reg gave you a First the other week. Standish can bugger off.’

Dirk grumbles indistinctly to himself, and stuffs half his bun into his mouth. Stevie is spreading sheets of paper across the coffee table: Dirk’s notes, that he’d almost forgotten he’d asked her to test him on.

‘Now,’ she speaks as she skims it, ‘talk to me about Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis.’

Dirk thinks for a moment.

‘Does it have anything to do with The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle?’

Stevie’s mouth quirks up at one corner. ‘Unfortunately not.’

‘Can I get you any more drinks?’

The voice makes Dirk look up, and into the warm, dark eyes of a waiter, wearing a black, button-down shirt and a rather beautiful smile. Dirk feels his mouth fall open slightly in an attempt to respond, but finds his tongue refusing to put in any effort at all. The man’s lips look soft. Dirk stares.

‘He’ll have another tea,’ Stevie replies impishly, filling the fractional beat of silence that Dirk has unwittingly left, and Dirk hurriedly shakes his head.

‘No, no, I’m fine,’ he stutters, eyes wide and round. The waiter smiles again, once, and turns away – not before sending a cheeky wink in Dirk’s direction.

Dirk thinks his heart might have stopped.

He watches the man retreat behind the counter, almost completely forgetting to admonish Stevie for her indiscretion.

‘Speaking of distractions,’ she raises an amused eyebrow, and Dirk tears his gaze away to glower at her. ‘Thought I’d answer on your behalf before your tongue started hanging out. You should have let me order you another drink.’

‘I can’t afford another drink,’ Dirk reminds her with no small amount of indignation. ‘I’m so destitute I shouldn’t even be here in the first place.’

‘It was your idea!’

‘It was a hunch. Anyway, speaking of money,’ Dirk spreads his hands out on the table in front of him, suddenly itching to share the half-baked scheme he had been thinking up the day before while he should have been doing his Philosophy of Law reading. ‘You know the… the sleep-talking thing? And how you keep saying it sounds like I’m rattling off exam questions? Well, I’m starting to think they might be predictions. For prelims.’

Dirk waits in excited anticipation for what he’s sure will be Stevie’s equally excited response. Maybe.

She frowns at him.

‘I thought you said you weren’t psychic.’

‘I’m not! At least, sort of not. Ish.’

‘Can you predict my Physics papers?’

‘I don’t know,’ he rolls his eyes impatiently. ‘Maybe. But listen: if they are predictions, imagine how many people would want to hear them. Imagine how much they’d pay.’

Stevie’s eyebrows almost reach her hairline. ‘Dirk, that is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. What if you got caught?’

‘What if I didn’t?’ Dirk counters smugly. Stevie stares at him. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Something at the back of Dirk’s mind is nagging at him, but he firmly ignores it, wrapped up in the brilliance of his idea, the excitement, the joy.

‘You’d need to test it out first, to make sure you were actually going to get them right,’ Stevie concedes. Dirk beams.

Wrong, wrong, wrong…

‘Can I borrow your tape recorder?’

Stevie rolls her eyes. ‘Fine. But don’t blame me if-’

And then the world explodes.

***

Ringing in his ears… he can’t hear a sound, the noise like a piercing shriek in his skull, vibrating, so loud that it hurts, so quiet that he can’t find the edges to hold onto… his head is exploding, the breath crushed from his body, smoke stinging his eyes and his throat and the acrid, metallic scent of blood hot on his skin, his own and others’, the pain shooting through his leg and he looks down, notices the glass and it hurts oh so much it hurts and he’s scared and people are screaming and bodies are sprawled like ragdolls and he is somehow alive but if the table hadn’t been in that exact spot… the screaming is so loud and god it hurts and he staggers to his feet and she has been thrown across the broken coffee table and there is blood on her hands and her chest and stomach and seeping into her shirt and her mouth is open and her eyes are open and they’re staring they’re staring they’re staring…

Dirk barely makes it to the toilet, falling to his knees and forcing the lid open barely a second before he empties his stomach into it, retching until it feels like there is nothing left inside him, until he can taste blood, blood from somewhere, inside him or outside, and he isn’t he’ll ever be able to get rid of the taste.

He’s shivering despite the sweat on his brow, hair sticking to his clammy forehead, and his legs are too weak for him to pull himself up from where he’s leaning against the toilet bowl, too cold and too hot, too bloody, too sore. He’s been checked over by the paramedics, his left leg carefully bandaged after they’d checked to make sure all the glass had been removed; he’s washed his face clean of grime and dirt and dried blood from the cuts on his face, but hasn’t yet felt stable enough to stumble into the shower. He’s changed his clothes, but he can still smell burning flesh.

A small, quiet café. A bomb detonated, its target the attractive waiter who Stevie had encouraged him to chat up, which is a kind of cruel irony in itself. A room full of bodies, in which only he had survived. That alone would be enough to give anyone a lifetime of trauma.

It had been him who had insisted on taking Stevie to Fitzbillies that afternoon, drawn in by something that might have been a hunch, or might have just been a craving for a particular kind of food, but most likely had been both. It had been him who had decided to ignore the warning whispers of the universe, the knowledge that something was wrong, wrong, wrong. It had been his fault.

A room full of bodies. One of them his best friend’s.

Her tape recorder sitting quietly on her desk in his room.

Dirk lets himself slide to the floor, and cries.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1. Present day.

Growling and snarling and thrumming with bass and sound, rumbling with vibrations beneath her palms, Amanda sometimes thinks that the van is speaking to her.

It feels like home more than four walls ever could, its music running through her veins and those of the rest of her ridiculous gang of crazy misfits as they laugh and dance and shout and break stuff together, and it fills a hole she didn’t even realise she had. It feels like belonging, like forging her confidence and self-esteem in fire; it’s family; it’s safe.

But it’s never normal.

When Martin summons her to the front of the van, where he’s smoking a cigarette out of the driver’s seat window, she pauses in the act of painting Gripps’ fingernails a violent shade of orange and makes her way towards him, stepping over Beastie’s legs where she’s slung out across the floor with Vogel plaiting her rainbow-coloured hair.

‘You might wanna take a look at this.’

Amanda follows the direction of Martin’s gesture with her eyes, out of the windscreen of the van, and feels the heavy, uncomfortable weight of something wrong settle into her chest. She furrows her brow, and stares up at the familiar skyline hurtling towards them, the huge, grey skyscrapers looming against an oppressive sky swollen with drizzle. After several months of road-tripping through Montana, this is the last place she’s expecting to see.

‘We’re back in Seattle,’ she glances at Martin, whose eyes remained steadfastly fixed on the road ahead. ‘How can we be here?’

He turns his head slowly to look at her. ‘I don’t know, Drummer Girl. But there’s something coming. And it ain’t good.’

‘What’s goin’ on, Boss?’ Vogel yells from the back of the van, and Amanda grimaces.

‘We’re in Seattle.’

‘Aww, man, we teleported!’ Gripps cries jubilantly, and elbows Cross in the ribs. ‘Told ya it was real!’

‘You were right! You were right!’

Amanda keeps her voice low as she addresses Martin over the Rowdies’ shouting and whooping. ‘What do we do?’

‘Your call, Drummer.’

Amanda nibbles at her lip and stares out at the road ahead, watching the people dawdling along the sidewalk going about their days, her mind whirling at a mile a minute. Teleporting doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea after time travel and fantasy lands. But, then again, nothing in their lives ever seems to be predictable.

Something catches her eye. Something yellow.

Amanda’s eyes widen.

‘Martin, stop the van.’

Martin pulls up on the sidewalk without questioning her judgement, tyres screeching as he brakes hard and Vogel lets out a yell of enthusiasm from the back. The awful, metallic clang that rings out alerts Amanda to the mailbox that had presumably been standing on the sidewalk moments before the van had taken its spot. She bites back a grin of delight as she kicks open the van door and jumps out with both feet, Vogel cheering her on.

‘Dirk!’ she hollers, cupping her hands around her mouth, but there are people in the way and Dirk is too far ahead to hear. She pushes her way down the road towards him, fighting through the passers-by, until she catches up with the tall figure, clad in an eye-wateringly yellow jacket and, for some reason, clutching the leads attached to roughly a dozen dogs.

‘Dirk!’ Amanda grins, tapping his shoulder. Dirk startles suddenly, twisting around to peer confusedly at her.

‘Who?’ he squeaks.

‘Uh.’ Amanda eyes a particularly yappy terrier. ‘What’s with all the dogs?’

Dirk looks, if possible, even more bewildered.

‘Well, someone’s got to walk them!’

Amanda feels a wet nose pushing against her hand, and glances down to see a corgi patiently gazing back at her, wagging its tail gently. It looks an awful lot like…

‘Wait, is that…? Okay, never mind. Dirk. Things are really weird. Me and the Rowdies were in Montana, like, literally five minutes ago.’

‘Okay, first of all, that sound’s highly improbable,’ Dirk frowns, rearranging a couple of the leads absently as one of the dogs pulls a little. ‘Though my American geography is admittedly not particularly advanced, I am fairly certain that Montana is more than five minutes away from here. Secondly, I have no idea who you, or indeed, “the Rowdies”, are. And thirdly, why on earth do you keep calling me “Dirk”?’

Amanda can’t say for sure that she isn’t having some kind of bizarre fever dream brought on by hallucinogenics. She gives Dirk an odd look.

‘Uh. Because that’s your name? Dirk Gently?’

‘It most certainly is not,’ Dirk scoffs. ‘My name is Svlad. Although, now you’ve said it, it does have a nice ring to it. Maybe I’ll reinvent myself.’

Amanda stares.

‘You don’t have any idea what’s going on, do you?’

‘Never,’ Dirk replies cheerfully. ‘I pride myself on it.’

Amanda sucks in a long breath and squeezes her eyes tightly shut. Whatever’s got into Dirk, it’s making him catastrophically unhelpful.

‘Okay,’ Amanda shoves a hand in the pocket of her jacket and digs around for her phone. ‘Svlad, I think we should go to the Agency so we can find Farah and Todd and figure out-’

She looks up, to find herself talking to empty air. She blinks.

‘Dirk?’

She turns around. The Rowdy Van is parked obnoxiously poorly several feet behind her, hanging half off the sidewalk. There is no sign of either Dirk or his posse of dogs.

‘Svlad? Shit.’

Amanda turns and heads for the van, feet slapping against the wet tarmac as she runs, and throws her arms out for Gripps and Cross to pull her back inside.

‘What’d the yellow guy say, Boss?’ Vogel asks excitedly, and Amanda shakes her head in confused concern.

‘He didn’t remember his own name.’

‘I can’t remember my name, either,’ Gripps grins, making Cross laugh loudly.

‘You’re Cross!’

‘No, you’re Cross!’

‘Ooo Gepps,’ the Beast tells him solemnly, and Gripps slaps his hand against this thigh with enthusiasm.

‘Oh, yeah! You’re right! I’m Gripps!’

Amanda turns to meet Martin’s stoic gaze as he leans over the back of the driver’s seat and watches her intently. An idea is taking shape in her mind, a plan that she isn’t sure would even be possible to carry out.

‘Martin, I think I need to talk to Wakti.’

He looks over his circular glasses at her.

‘You do what you gotta do.’

‘I don’t have powers here,’ Amanda laments, but Martin just shrugs.

‘You got powers everywhere, Drummer. They’re you, not the outside.’

There’s a tug at the bottom of Amanda’s jacket, and she turns to see a pair of wide eyes striped all the colours of the rainbow looking up at her curiously. She’s holding out an intricately carved, wooden wand towards her, and wearing an expression of mischief; she must have sneaked it from underneath Amanda’s seat in the back.

Amanda takes a deep breath and tries to slow her racing heartbeat as she stares down at the Beast, the nervousness and adrenaline she has come to associate with taking control and performing actual magic coursing through her system. It’s not as if she’s had a huge amount of practice.

I’m a badass witchakookoo. I can do this.

‘‘Manda make majee,’ the Beast suggests. Amanda slowly reaches out to take the wand from her, and glances around at the expectant faces gazing up at her in awe before letting the beginnings of a smile creep across her lips. She lifts her chin slightly.

‘Hell yeah, Beastie Girl. I sure do.’

To the backdrop of the Rowdies whooping and howling around her, Amanda steps out into the light drizzle, letting the rainwater cling to her bangs and eyelashes, and squeezes her eyes tightly shut as she grips the wand and paints the world around her a blinding, fiery blue.

***

Two hours after Stevie’s mysterious disappearance, Dirk is lying forlornly on his back in the middle of the office floor, and heaving a dramatic sigh.

‘So much for “action stations”.’

Todd doesn’t even look up from the laptop on his desk, on which he’s been looking through the news headlines for the past two days, but Farah glances over at him from the whiteboard with a grimace that falls somewhere between exasperation and pity.

‘Dirk, come and look at this,’ she gestures with her pen. ‘I need you to check it’s all correct.’

Dirk huffs, and pulls himself gracelessly to his feet so he can wander across the room to peer over Farah’s shoulder. He’s finally changed out of his pyjamas and into the spare change of clothes he keeps in the office cupboard, complete with his current favourite combination of jacket and tie: a purple jacket, and a tie with cacti all over it that Hobbs had bought him as a present after the Bergsberg case (he had laughed at it for a full ten minutes before choking out, ‘cac-tie!’ and descending back into giggles. Todd had smacked him). Unfortunately, getting dressed has been the most productive thing he’s found to do in the past two hours, and his increasing fidgetiness is starting to get on his colleagues’ nerves.

The whiteboard is half-full with Farah’s elegant handwriting: there are two neatly-drawn flowcharts, one above the other, as well as a list of all of their theories and ideas, despite having mostly settled on the parallel universe explanation, ‘just in case’.

‘This is our timeline,’ Farah points to the first diagram, ‘and this is Stevie’s.’

Dirk squints at them.

The first gives a rough approximation of Dirk’s history: held and experimented on by Blackwing; escaping Blackwing; starting at Cambridge and making friends with Stevie; Stevie dying; Dirk selling exam paper predictions and being thrown out and sent to prison; living in London for the next fifteen years; flying out to Seattle for the Patrick Spring case.

The second timeline is much more vague: working for Blackwing; starting at Cambridge and making friends with Stevie; graduating and going back to America to continue working for Blackwing.

He reads through the list of theories underneath, too:

Parallel universes (circled)

Ghosts

Zombies

Clones (rubbed out by Todd, and carefully written back on again by Dirk)

Twins

Magic

A smudge that used to read Aliens (rubbed out by Farah, and not re-added)

Dirk nods to himself absently.

‘Yes, that all looks about right.’

‘Why didn’t you do the money-making scheme thing in the other universe?’ Todd’s voice at Dirk’s shoulder makes him jump, alerting him to the fact that he’s been reading alongside him the whole time. He’s furrowing his brow in that way that makes Dirk’s stomach go all bubbly and flip-floppy.

Dirk quickly swallows that thought before it can become too disruptive, and cocks his head to the side as he considers this. ‘I suppose,’ he ponders, ‘if I was employed by Blackwing, I wouldn’t have needed the money in the first place.’ He shakes his head in mild disbelief. ‘I can’t believe I actually graduated in that dimension. I was a truly terrible student. Maybe I got better at blocking out the universe's distractions.’

‘D’you think that could have been Blackwing?’ Farah suggests. ‘You know, training you to ignore the universe?’

‘Not under Riggins, that's for sure,’ Dirk shakes his head firmly. ‘He understood it even less than I did.’

‘But if... if Blackwing was different...’ she frowns. ‘I mean, you did agree to work for them, so something must have changed.’

Dirk sighs heavily. ‘That does seem to be the thing about parallel dimensions, doesn’t it? Literally anything could be completely different. Todd, have you found anything in the news?’

‘Nothing,’ Todd half-shrugs one shoulder. ‘No mention of the snow, or people disappearing. Looks like it’s just happening to us. Or, versions of us from a million different dimensions, apparently.’

‘And the kitten,’ Dirk murmurs to himself. ‘The kitten shouldn’t be wandering around in any dimension. She should be long gone.’

‘I mean, she is a cat,’ Todd says dryly. ‘They tend to wander around close to where their home is.’

‘No. No, she knew something was wrong. She’s important, and she came to us. And if it’s only happening to us... It's the Patrick Spring case. It’s something to do with the Patrick Spring case, affecting the people – and the cats – who were involved.’

‘What about Stevie?’ Farah points out. ‘And the snow? They weren’t part of the case.’

The cogs in Dirk's head are turning, turning, turning, and the universe is loud and clamouring, threatening to overwhelm him. He tries to make sense of the cacophony in his head.

‘No. I suppose they weren’t. But there's a chance that happened because of the case.’ He squeezes his eyes tightly shut, troubled. ‘Something’s wrong. I can't put my finger on it.’

Todd and Farah gaze worriedly back at him, until the blaring marimbas of Farah's ringtone break the fraught silence. She fishes her phone out of her pocket and glances at the caller ID.

She gives Dirk an apologetic look.

‘It’s Tina.’

‘Don't worry,’ Dirk waves her away with false cheer that he's fairly sure she sees right through. ‘We’ll hold the fort.’

Farah looks unconvinced, but slips out of the room all the same, the sound of her footsteps echoing as she walks down the stairs, quietly pattering out of earshot and away from the silence of the office, a silence so loud in Dirk’s head that he thinks his skull might explode.

Todd is looking at him with concern glazing his eyes.

‘Are you okay?’

Dirk nods tightly, and the half-forgotten kitten gives a plaintive mew from alarmingly close to Todd’s leg.

Todd visibly startles, body rigid as he stares down at it cautiously, and the kitten stares back. After a moment, Todd squares his shoulders in an apparent display of dominance and bravado that may or may not make Dirk’s knees feel a little weak, before heading over to the mini fridge that resides under Dirk’s desk, rummaging around inside it and retrieving an opened packet of the ham slices Dirk likes in his sandwiches. Apparently deeming it shark-kitten-worthy, he peels off a slice and crouches down to place it on the floor. The kitten trots over and sniffs at it.

Todd turns his attention back to Dirk.

‘You sure? You know you can talk to me.’

Dirk hesitates before responding.

‘It just seems like, however bad I am at making friends, I'm even worse at keeping them.’

Todd looks like he’s just watched somebody kick a puppy, staring at him with an expression equal parts appalled and heartbroken. ‘Dirk. It's not your fault.’

‘I’ve lost her again, Todd. She was killed right in front of me, and she came back somehow, and then I lost her again.’

‘We'll find her.’

Dirk gives him a sad smile, and says nothing.

Todd shifts uncomfortably.

‘I, uh. Thought you dated,’ he admits.

Dirk stares at him in shock for a moment, before letting out a snort of derisive laughter.

‘Seriously? Me and Stevie? You’ve got to be joking.’

‘I mean, you did introduce her as your “roommate, but unofficially”,’ Todd reminds him. ‘That sounds an awful lot like code to me. And, anyway, you always told me you’d never had a friend before, so I don't think it’s that weird that I assumed she’d been... something else.’

‘Honestly, Todd, do you even know me at all?’ Dirk shakes his head fondly, but Todd just raises his eyebrows, looking entirely too serious for this particularly ludicrous line of conversation.

‘Apparently not.’

Dirk frowns, at a complete loss as to what exactly Todd is talking about. ‘What does that mean?’

‘I barely know anything about you,' Todd says, and he doesn’t look angry, or annoyed, but he does look... something. ‘You’re my best friend, but I didn’t even know you went to college. I don’t know where you grew up, or who your parents are. I don’t know anything about your past except for the bits involving Blackwing. I didn’t know if Stevie was an old girlfriend. I don’t know if you’ve ever even had a girlfriend. Hell, I don't even know if you’re straight.’

Dirk suddenly realises what the something is, that Todd is feeling. It’s hurt. It’s unhappiness that Dirk hasn’t told him things about himself and, though Dirk isn’t entirely sure he can be blamed for having very little practice in knowing what and what not to share with friends, it’s something that sort of makes sense.

He blinks, and then blinks a couple more times, just to make sure. There is a long pause.

‘Oh.’

Todd deflates.

‘I’m not, like, interrogating you,’ he shrugs awkwardly. ‘I’m not asking you to tell me stuff that you don’t wanna tell me, or talk about things you don’t wanna talk about. I just mean... I’m interested, because you’re my friend. You know everything there is to know about me. And it bothers me that I’ve never even asked you about your life. Which is my fault. I’d like to know stuff, I guess. If... if you’d like to tell me... y’know. Stuff.’

As Todd trails off from probably the most awkward monologue Dirk has ever heard, there is a small part of Dirk that can't help but feel a little moved. Todd wants to know stuff. About him. He wants to know the uncomfortable stuff, the sad stuff, the good and the happy and the dark and scary and terrible stuff. The rest of Dirk, on the other hand, just feels a bit silly, and a bit guilty, for never even thinking to share any of this with his best friend, for not letting him in. It’s not a thought he’d be willing to voice out loud, but it’s one that weighs on his mind as he frowns down at the carpet in front of him.

‘I'm not trying to guilt-trip you into telling me things you don’t want to share,’ Todd emphasises again, eyes earnest and concerned about Dirk in a way that makes his heart swell. Dirk shakes his head, and takes a deep breath.

‘I was born in Romania to an English mother,’ he begins, keeping his tone light and clipped, reciting the most basic details of his past that he can muster. ‘My father died when I was small. I don't even remember him. And then my mother died, too, when I was a little older, and I spent a couple of years in foster homes before I was picked up by Blackwing. Strange things kept happening, lost pets suddenly showing up when I was around, and such. My foster parents were afraid of me. I kept getting moved around. But anyhow. There was Blackwing, and then there was Cambridge, and then I made my way in the world in London, barely scraping enough money together to live, but eventually managing to set up a detective agency. Fast-forward ten years, and I get a phonecall from Patrick Spring asking me to come to America.’ Dirk pauses for a moment before continuing. ‘Stevie isn’t my ex. She was my best friend when I was at Cambridge, but thinking about her now is painful, so I don’t like to. It was my idea to go to that café, not realising it was the universe trying to send me there to stop it all happening – I understood the hunches even less than I do now. I led her there, and she was killed. That’s why I never mentioned her, and why I told you I’d never had a friend before. She was the first person who ever ended up dead because of me.’

Dirk has to avert his gaze when the shocked sympathy in Todd’s eyes by the time he pauses for breath becomes almost too much to bear.

‘Shit. Dirk, I-’

Dirk continues in his matter-of-fact tone, fixing his gaze on a particular square of carpet so he doesn't have to look Todd in the eye. ‘No, I’ve never had a girlfriend, and no, I’m not straight. I’m really quite extraordinarily gay. I didn’t think I’d ever done anything to dissuade you of that fact.’

'You never said,' Todd says softly.

It’s true, yes, that he hasn’t said it in so many words. But that doesn’t mean Dirk has ever taken pains to keep it from Todd, or anyone else, for that matter. Rather the opposite, in fact; he isn’t entirely sure how he could have been more obvious without explicitly stating it. Though he’s been somewhat rusty in the art of coming out since university, and, since it’s something he’s felt entirely comfortable expressing since his early twenties, he’s genuinely baffled at the fact that Todd even has to ask.

‘I made a point of commenting on the relative attractiveness of Thor on the very day we met.’

‘So?’

Dirk stares at him in exasperation.

‘And I told you Prince Panto had a nice bum!’

‘Well, he... he does!’ Todd splutters, and Dirk feels his face split into a grin.

‘You'd make a terrible detective.’

‘I mean, I did sort of wonder,' Todd returns the grin with a teasing glint in his eye. ‘Kinda hard not to after spending more than five minutes in your company.’

‘I don’t know what on earth you’re insinuating, Todd,’ Dirk sniffs with mock indignance that makes Todd snort. ‘I’d have said it’d take about thirty seconds. Anyway, I didn’t think it was the sort of thing that would particularly bother you.’

‘It’s not,’ Todd shakes his head hurriedly, ‘it’s not, Dirk, that’s not what I meant. It’s just like Farah and Tina, right? I just...’ He trails off. ‘Never mind.’

And Dirk almost tells him, he really does. He opens his mouth and everything. And then he closes it again. And closes it, and opens it, like a goldfish, but the words won’t come. He's too scared: scared of rejection, scared of ruining the friendship that he has come to utterly rely on, scared to lose the most important person in his life. Scared that Todd doesn’t feel the same. Scared that he does. Scared that he’s too much, and that he’s not enough.

He clears his throat awkwardly, and looks down at the floor again instead of at Todd’s face, his heart squeezing in his chest.

‘Well,’ he tries instead, because, even if he can’t bring himself to say what he actually wants to, it doesn’t mean he can’t do a little digging. ‘If it's the sort of thing friends should know about each other... what about you?’

‘What about me?’ Todd raises an eyebrow.

Dirk makes his best nonchalant face, keeping his voice entirely level and terrifically casual. ‘Are you... “straight”?’

When he finally looks up, Todd is staring at him with an odd expression on his face. To Dirk’s surprise, he lets out a strangled laugh.

‘I dunno, man,’ he shakes his head slowly. ‘I thought I was.’

Dirk’s heart hammers in his chest so loudly that he’s sure Todd must be able to hear it, so fast he’s worried he might actually have a heart attack and die on the Agency floor, but he doesn’t let his voice waver as he speaks, gazing at Todd with wide, hopeful eyes. ‘What changed?’

Maybe it’s a dangerous question, one somehow simultaneously too searching and too revealing, but Todd is staring back at him with his lips slightly parted and he isn’t looking away, and Dirk shouldn’t be hoping, he knows this, knows that the universe would laugh in his face if it could and ask him why he’d ever thought he deserved Todd even as a friend, let alone anything more, but he can’t help the flutter in his chest and butterflies in his stomach, Todd’s wide eyes the most beautiful electric blue as he looks back at him and...

And then Todd is taking an infinitesimal step back and looking away, and Dirk tries not to let the disappointment flood into his veins too painfully, tries to swallow his sadness and his defeated hope so that Todd doesn't see how much it hurts.

Todd clears his throat.

‘I'm, uh. I’m sorry about Stevie.’ Todd offers, and Dirk ducks his head in awkward acceptance. ‘Do you think it was really her?’

Right. Back to the case. Of course. Dirk heaves a steadying sigh, mentally shaking himself back into the more pressing matters at stake, and shoving all his complicated Todd-related feelings to one side.

‘She seems to be as “her” as “her” ever can be,’ he replies, and if his voice sounds a little hollow even to his own ears, Todd doesn't comment.

‘What about the Todd you saw today, then? Was he... me?’

Dirk pauses for a long moment to consider this. He’s acutely aware of Todd patiently waiting for him to reply.

‘I don't think it’s someone’s experiences that make up who they are,’ he answers slowly. ‘If you look at certain things that have happened in my own past, you might understand why I would rather reject that particular hypothesis. The things that happen to you, the environment you live in, they contribute, yes, and your experiences shape who you become. But you remain yourself no matter what happens. I think there's an intrinsic you that exists, instincts that will be there with every single version of yourself. So, yes, I’d like to believe it was you I saw today. It was still Todd. It just wasn’t my Todd.’

It’s out of his mouth before he can even think about the implications of what he’s said, and he’s just starting to compile a mental list of unkind names to beat himself up with when he notices that a rather fetching shade of rosy flush has spread across Todd’s cheeks.

He's blushing, quite intensely, and Dirk can’t tear his gaze away. Todd coughs.

‘I don't think you’ve ever called me that before,’ he mumbles, and, suddenly reassured enough to blurt out another revealing response before he can properly think it through, Dirk softly replies.

‘Would you want me to?’

Todd stares.

Dirk's heart slams against his ribcage.

And Todd steps forward.

‘Dirk-’ he murmurs, and his hand is reaching out to touch Dirk’s cheek, so close Dirk can feel the heat of his palm, and his eyes are wide and his breath coming far too fast.

He takes a deep breath, and his eyelids flutter shut.

And when he opens his eyes, barely a fraction of a second having passed, Todd is gone.

Dirk whirls around, heart racing, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Dirk starts to panic. Not Todd.

Not now.

‘No... No, Todd! Todd! Oh, fuck. Fuck and shit and, and arse, bugger, and bollocking wank in a bucket...’

He had been so close, so close to doing what he’d wanted to do since he and Todd had first met, and the moment had been snatched away. Of course the universe had chosen that exact second to take it from him.

He pauses for breath in the middle of his tirade of expletives, trying to keep the frantic panic under control, nausea churning in his stomach as he feels his world come crashing down around his ears, and at the top of his lungs, yells: ‘Farah!

***

Farah picks up Tina’s call on the narrow staircase down to the street below as she heads outside in pursuit of solitude, quiet, and much-needed fresh air. The stairs creak beneath her feet; it always bothers her a little that they’re not quite perfect.

‘Hey, Tina,’ she greets her, phone to her ear as she pushes out of the front door, little bell tinkling above her, and into the mild breeze. There's no trace of the snow that had ruined her boots earlier that morning.

‘Farah, Farah, Farah, Farah, Farah!’ Tina chants enthusiastically, voice tinny and crackling down the line, but it makes Farah smile anyway. ‘What’s up, girl?!’

‘Parallel universes and people coming back from the dead,’ Farah replies as she perches herself on the bottom step to the Agency door. ‘Just another day at the office.’

‘Dude, what?’ Tina says excitedly. ‘That is so dope.’

‘It might be dope once we've figured out what the hell’s going on, yeah. You okay? Did you just call to catch up?’

‘I called to hear the dulcet, angelic tones of my beautiful, badass girlfriend.’

Farah feels her cheeks heat up a little, and can’t help but bite back a bashful smile, heart fluttering in her chest at Tina’s words. It’s been several months since they’d solved the Bergsberg case and Tina had asked her out, after all. The hospital gown hadn’t made it any less endearing, or Farah any less flustered.

‘And...?’ she prompts, instinct suggesting that there may be more to Tina’s impromptu call.

‘And to check it’s still okay if me ‘n’ Hobbs come to stay next week.’

‘Of course, Tee. It’ll be great to have you.’

‘You bet your ass it will. Can we stay up all night watching movies and eating weird snacks and watch the sun come up?’

‘That... sounds amazing,’ Farah replies truthfully.

‘Sweet. Also, can we have sex while you’re wearing the Deputy uniform again, ‘cause that was... Oh, hey, Hobbs.’

‘Tina!’ Farah yelps, now sure that her cheeks are burning an alarming shade of mortified red.

Tina is cackling. ‘Oh, man, you totally peed your pants! I’m kidding. About Hobbs being here, not about the sex. Okay, he is actually here now. Hey, man. Yeah, it’s Farah. He says “hi”.’

Farah's voice comes out a little muffled from where her face is buried in her hands. ‘Say “hi” back.’

‘Hi, back!’

‘I shouldn't even have the uniform anymore. I need to return it.’

‘Aw, man,’ Tina complains. ‘Well, I guess we’ve still got my handcuffs.’ There's a short pause. ‘Hobbs is exiting swiftly. Anyway, tell me more about this parallel universe shit.’

Farah curses internally at what she’s sure has probably traumatised poor Hobbs for life, and tries to push her embarrassment to one side.

‘We think there are several different timelines converging in Seattle, and that it’s connected to our first case.’ Farah pauses, a question starting to form on her tongue. ‘Tee, has anything weird been happening in Bergsberg? Like, Dirk-level weird?’

‘Uh. I don’t think so. Oh, man, wait! I thought I saw Agrajag the other day – you know, Bob Boreton’s old dog that Suzie made him kill when he was, like, bewitched? I thought I was just going crazy, man, ‘cause I've been off the shit that does that to me for, like, two years now-’

‘You saw Bob Boreton's dead dog?’ Farah interrupts quickly, furrowing her brow.

‘Yeah, just, like, wandering around!’ Tina sounds enthralled enough that Farah feels warm inside despite her anxieties. ‘That Dirk-level weird enough for ya?’

Farah chews at her lip. ‘Yeah. I think that's Dirk-level weird. So... it's connected to the Bergsberg case, too?’

‘Well, hey. Everything’s connected, right?’

Farah smiles weakly. ‘Fair point. Anyway, Tee, I should probably get back to the guys before they manage to get themselves into mortal danger. I’ll call you tonight?’

‘Sure thing, girl. Don’t go getting lost in an alternate reality.’

‘I'll do my best. Don't go... terrifying Hobbs too much.’

‘Can't make any promises there,’ Tina replies, and Farah can practically hear her grinning down the phone. She lets out a huff of laughter, in spite of herself.

‘Talk soon,’ she promises softly, and then, after a moment of hesitation: ‘I love you.’

‘Love you, too.’

She’s barely ended the call, smiling stupidly to herself, when the sound of Dirk’s feet thundering down the stairs behind her starts ringing alarm bells in the back of her brain, and she pushes herself up off the step to stand abruptly. He’s looking even wilder than he usually gets mid-case.

‘Farah!’ he grabs at both of her shoulders for support, and Farah stares at him in slightly scared concern. ‘Farah, Todd’s gone, he’s vanished. We were just talking, and-’

‘Gone?’ Farah’s stomach drops. ‘To another dimension?’

‘Presumably!’ he throws up his hands with a flourish, and Farah notices for the first time that he has a black sportsbag slung across his chest. ‘Farah, this is the second Todd I've lost today, and, quite frankly-’

‘What’s in the bag?’ she interrupts, and Dirk pauses in his melodramatic frenzy to pat the top of it.

‘The kitten. If it’s to do with the Patrick Spring case, we should keep her with us.’

‘It’s the Bergsberg case, too,’ Farah adds. ‘Tina said she saw Suzie Boreton’s dog that died months ago.’

Dirk blinks at her, the familiar and slightly deranged glint of case-related mania back in his eye. ‘Okay! Right. Well, Bergsberg is a little far away for a day trip, so I’m proposing we start investigating at the place where our first case all started-’

‘The Ridgely,’ Farah nods, at the same time as Dirk dramatically finishes, ‘The Perryman Grand.’

They look at each other for a moment.

‘No,’ Dirk shakes his head, ‘no, you see, because Todd first met me at the Ridgely, but I first met Todd-‘

‘Okay, don’t explain again, let’s just go,’ Farah holds up her hand to silence him, and starts off towards her car, Dirk hurrying excitedly along behind her.

‘I'll drive.’

‘No.’

***

Dimension: 3. Present day.

‘Dirk?’

Todd’s hand is raised, reaching out into thin air for something that doesn’t exist in his reality anymore. Dirk has vanished entirely from the office, disappeared into nothing in the blink of an eye, like a flash of lightning or a switch turning off, just as Todd was reaching towards him. It can’t have been long enough for him to turn tail and run out of the room, which Todd would otherwise accept as a distinctly feasible possibility. He wouldn’t want to be on the other end of his own advances, either. He drops his arm.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. What the hell was he doing?

Todd scrunches up his fists and presses them to his eyes, the feeling of burning embarrassment mingling uncomfortably with regret and confusion and God knows what else prickling under his skin. He was reaching out… to what? To just… pat him on the face? Surely not. It’s as if his body had been moving of its own volition, before his rational brain could catch up and tell it to sit down and shut up.

He doesn’t have a thing for him, and he’s absolutely sure of that.

Definitely.

Probably?

Not Dirk. Not irritating, hyperactive, flamboyant, flighty Dirk, the technicolour disaster who gets under his skin in all the worst ways and usually makes him want to punch babies.

Dirk, who gave his life meaning and still continues to do so every single day, far beyond opening up his world to show him the universe above and within, making his days far brighter than they would have been by simply understanding how much more there is to the world than he’d used to think.

Dirk, who is so good, so much better than him. Dirk, who might still see fit to give Todd the time of day, but absolutely and unequivocally shouldn’t, because he deserves so much more than Todd can ever be: Todd Brotzman, always chasing after the things he shouldn’t, always lying and manipulating and making the wrong choices, and here he is doing it again, putting everything he has at risk, everything Dirk has at risk. He’s an awful, terrible, selfish piece of shit.

And, to top all of that, however much his brain is only just starting to catch up with his body’s apparently semi-repressed instincts, he’s probably pretty much just shown his hand before he even knew himself what cards he was holding.

What is it about Dirk that makes me so goddamn honest? Todd thinks to himself, scraping his hands over his face despairingly.

His fingertips start tingling in the way that signals an oncoming attack, and he snaps into gear instinctively, digging his pills out of his jacket pocket and quickly swallowing a couple dry as the tingles start to spread up his arms and through his body. He clenches his fists at his sides and rigidly waits for them to kick in. It takes a moment for the tingling to subside.

He needs to calm down; anxiety only makes it worse. He takes a deep breath. What would Farah do?

Farah would assess the situation, and then decide on the most logical course of action. Okay.

Todd looks around the room he’s standing in, his brain only just registering that it’s got dark: the sky outside is painted with the velvet brush of dusk, and the only light illuminating the ghostly office is a sickly, yellow glow emanating from a streetlight outside the window.

He decides to patently ignore the fact that it might say rather a lot about him that he’s been too busy having a Dirk-related crisis to worry about potentially being stuck in a parallel universe. It’s probably not an especially helpful realisation to be having at this moment in time.

Todd’s footsteps are soft on the carpet as he slowly explores, surveying the office and mentally cataloguing his surroundings. It’s the same room, he’s sure, but there are certain things that are different from how it had looked barely moments ago. It’s messier, for starters, smatterings of junk littering the carpet and a stack of pizza boxes leaning precariously against the dying pot plant in the corner. There’s also only one desk in here, rather than the collection of three that Todd is used to. The obnoxiously large sign proclaiming the Agency’s ‘arguable efficiency’ has vanished.

Walking over to the desk, Todd finds it piled with an untidy amalgamation of files and paperwork, held in place by objects that are clearly not supposed to be used as paperweights: a child’s shoe, a half-empty mug of brown sludge, a dog dish, and… is that a set of false teeth? Todd fumbles to switch on the desk lamp, finally brightening up the room, and wrinkles his nose in distaste as he looks back down at the mess. Yep, definitely teeth.

In the drawer beneath the desk, there are a number of pens that roll towards him as he pulls it out to peer inside, as well as a flower-patterned tie that makes him smile faintly, and a stack of business cards. He picks one up from the top of the pile, reading the words, Dirk Gently: Private Detective.

Todd slowly replaces the card, sucking a breath in through his teeth and worriedly chewing at his bottom lip. This has to be another dimension, which means that he has no way of getting back to his own timeline. Back to the Agency.

Back to Dirk.

Todd has to take a deep, calming breath as his mind starts poking at him with sharp little worries: that he won’t be able to get back, that Dirk might need his help and is panicking as much as he is, and the significantly crueller one that he doesn’t, and isn’t, that he’ll be totally fine without Todd. That he’ll forget why he ever kept him around in the first place. That Todd will be stuck here, and Dirk will forget about him altogether.

He grits his teeth and shakes the panic out of his head, because that’s not the Dirk he knows. Dirk will be fighting with everything he has to find Todd and get him back, even if Todd doesn’t think he deserves that kind of concern, and that means that Todd has to fight just as hard, too. It encourages him, the knowledge that there is someone, somewhere, who wants him home, and that that someone is Dirk.

Todd clenches his fists and sets his face into a determined grimace. He is going to… do something. Yes. Find Dirk. Fix the universe. Get home in time for dinner. Possibly.

He strides from the health hazard that is Other Dirk’s office, through the considerably cleaner reception area and down the stairs onto the street below.

The second he steps outside into the fresh air, he manages to collide head-first with a dark-haired girl who he realises with shock is none other than Amanda. She’s brandishing a set of drumsticks, and she is Not Happy.

‘You asshole!’ she fumes, and Todd takes a step back in alarm. ‘I fucking knew you’d be loitering around here. If we’re late playing because of you, I swear I’m going to destroy you.’

‘Amanda!’ Todd squeaks, embarrassed at how high his voice comes out. ‘What are you doing here? Late playing what?’

“Late playing what?”’ she repeats in dismay, and grabs his arm to start dragging him forcefully towards the badly-parked, battered-looking car on the curb. Against his better judgement, Todd struggles.

‘Hey, hey, hey!’ he yells as she pushes him into the passenger seat. ‘What are you doing?’

She glowers at him as she slams herself into the car beside him, thrusting her drumsticks into his lap, and it hits him like a tonne of bricks. She’s got streaks of blue in her hair, and her eyes are caked with black eye makeup and glitter. If he glances behind him… yep. His guitar is lying innocently across the back seat.

‘Buckle up, dickbag,’ she orders in a low voice. ‘We’ve got a gig to play.’

Before Todd can open his mouth to protest, Amanda’s foot is on the accelerator and they’re lurching backwards as she swings off the curb, and takes them speeding along the road towards what Todd assumes will be his own funeral.

***

Dimension: unknown. Time: not applicable.

He’s standing, watching, staring, eyes wide and glowing and there is no breath in his lungs anymore, no heartbeats in his chest but he can feel the blood thick and sluggish in his veins, thrumming with light and life, and it’s dark here but the darkness is blinding, singing the songs of the universe, the feathers of sparkling colours are soft brushes against his skin, reaching out to run his fingers through swirling sinews that laugh and cry and shriek as they dance like smoke past his hands. It’s beautiful and awesome and terrifying, and Friedkin is looking up at the weaving threads of the universe like he used to look up at the stars, the darkness going on forever and the lights going even further, and he has been here for eternity and always and never and time doesn’t pass because time doesn’t exist and all of reality is strung out and thrumming with the sounds of life, and death, and the beyond, and the before, and the in-between. Babies taking their first breaths, in a million different timelines, and the same person dying across all of them, sometimes in old age, sometimes before they are even born, infinite humans and animals and plants and choices and changes and loves and losses and everythings and nothings, the strands of every lifetime of every being split into kaleidoscopes of colours and dimensions, every single alteration creating every single thread. And he can see it all, oh, he can see every lifetime, every reality, every dimension, swirling and dancing and crossing over and over again, a person in this one who isn’t meant to be in the next, a double, a triple, a one who isn’t there, and the universe is broken and how did they become so tangled like this, like they need to be pulled apart, like they’re bleeding into each other and the worlds are colliding and Friedkin is at the centre of it all and he can see the universe groaning and crying under the strain of its broken wings.

There is one strand that doesn’t cross the others. It curls and flows, bright and glittering, apart from the rest, and it is safe and it is beautiful and Friedkin is reaching out towards it, trying to take it in his hands, brush it with his fingers, and he can see everything that dances within it, the rainbow creatures and the princes and the snail witch, and he’s reaching, and reaching, and reaching, until he grasps it, manages to snatch it with his hand, and then there is nothing but blinding white and he lurches forwards, the darkness and the colourful lights pulled from under his feet, and he is falling, falling fast through the fabric of reality and there is nothing to hold onto and he can’t see, can’t feel, and he’s just falling, falling, falling…

Friedkin slams onto the ground on his back, wracked with pain as the force of the fall jolts through his bones, forcing him to inhale a hissing gasp of breath. He remembers, quite vividly, what it felt like to not have to breathe, to not be able to feel, to just be able to see. It was nice. This isn’t. It hurts, and he doesn’t like it.

The sky is a beautiful shade of blue above him, studded with candyfloss clouds, and he can see trees rustling gently as he squints upwards. He pushes himself slowly off the hard ground and to a sitting position, wincing as he does so, and starts violently when he sees two pairs of eyes peering back at him.

The men stand side-by-side and stare at him, one with dark hair and soft, brown eyes, and one with hair of the brightest bubblegum pink.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 3. Three months ago.

Detective Black needs a rest. Maybe a decent shoulder massage and a stiff drink, too. Possibly a trip to the Bahamas. But mostly a rest.

The scrawny-looking man at the desk with the big, blue eyes is frantic, panicked in the way they all are when they show up at the front desk to report missing persons, and in the way that Farah herself sometimes gets on the awful, gut-wrenching occasions when she can’t save them. Most of those who are missing, however, have been gone for longer than three hours. Right now, it’s eleven o’clock at night, and she’d like nothing better than to tell this guy to go to bed and wait for his sister to come home from the party she’s probably attending as they speak.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Brotzman,’ she repeats tiredly, ‘but as I’ve said-’

‘Look, Detective… Detective Black,’ Todd’s eyes find the name badge on Farah’s shirt as he places both hands flat on the desk between them to plead with her, and Farah inwardly groans to herself about the prospect of an all-out argument with a grossly overprotective older brother. ‘This isn’t just paranoia talking.’

Farah concentrates on breathing slowly through her nose. She thinks around twenty hours of sleep might do the trick. Maybe twenty-one.

‘Oh?’ she tries to remain as polite as she possibly can, whilst fixing the man with a flatly disbelieving look.

‘My sister has a disease that gives her terrible, painful hallucinations,’ he explains urgently. ‘They can come at any time, and they’re completely debilitating, sometimes life-threatening. I’m her full-time carer, and if she’s had an attack and passed out in the snow somewhere I’ll never forgive-‘

It sounds like a steaming heap of bullshit designed to manipulate her into cooperating. But, just in case it isn’t…

‘Okay,’ Farah cuts him off, squeezing her eyes tightly closed, the word out of her mouth before she can give herself the time to turn him away purely out of pride and irritation that she’s once again admitting defeat to the most obnoxious man on the planet. She heaves a heavy sigh and digs in her pocket. ‘Okay. I’m not supposed to do this, but… I know someone who might be able to help you.’

 Farah holds the business card out to the man, who takes it from her with a frown.

‘“Private de…”’ he reads, his head snapping back up to give Farah a look of crushing defeat. ‘I can’t afford a private detective!’

‘Then he won’t charge you. He’s notoriously lenient with people who can’t afford to pay. Just tell him Farah Black referred you, okay?’

‘Thank you,’ Todd gasps, ‘thank you, Farah, I-’

‘Don’t thank me,’ Farah interrupts flatly. ‘Just keep me updated. After twenty-four hours, we can get involved.’

‘Thank you.’

Todd gives her a grateful smile before turning away from the desk, starting towards the door.

‘Mr Brotzman?’ Farah begrudgingly calls after him. Todd halts and looks back at her expectantly. ‘I hope you find your sister.’

Todd gives her a curt nod and disappears out of the police station, leaving Farah and her aching feet behind the desk, trying to channel her anxiety about the girl with the disease into burning irritation at the fact that she somehow always manages to get tangled up in the mess that is Dirk fucking Gently.

***

Todd Brotzman isn’t usually one to make predictions about his own mortality, but he’s pretty sure that this is how he dies: in the passenger seat of an ugly, yellow sportscar driven by a distinctly not-ugly, yellow private detective, who is blasting K-pop and eating pepperoni pizza with one hand as he ‘holistically’ attempts to locate his missing younger sister.

‘And you’re sure this is the best method of finding missing persons?’ Todd says through gritted teeth, hanging onto his seat for dear life as Dirk casually uses one hand to swerve around a corner at breakneck speed. He thanks whatever deity that might be up there in the clouds that the roads have apparently been gritted and cleared of snow, or else his broken body would probably be sticking halfway out the windscreen by now.

‘Oh, absolutely. It’s how I work, you see. I’m rather good at accidentally finding people – just ask Farah.’

‘Accidentally?’ Todd stares at him incredulously. ‘And your success rate is…?’

‘A hundred percent,’ Dirk replies proudly. ‘Sort of.’

Todd lets his head fall back against the headrest with a thunk, not even bothering to hide his disdain. He’s ‘sort of’ a hundred percent sure that this man is absolutely insane, but it’s not as if he’s got any other real options.

‘This is ridiculous.’

‘“Ridiculous” is my middle name,’ Dirk replies cheerfully. ‘Now, did she say anything about where she was going when she left your house?’

‘Not a lot, really. She just said she was going to run some errands.’

‘Does she have a job?’

‘Yeah,’ Todd nods, ‘but we work together. We’re in a band. We didn’t have a gig tonight.’

‘You’re in a band?’ Dirk stares at him in enraptured wonder, and Todd has to grab hold of the steering wheel to steady them as he starts veering off to one side.

‘Dirk, keep your eyes on the goddamn road!

Dirk gives him a sheepish look. ‘Sorry.’

‘Can we just find my sister?’ Todd snaps at him.

‘I am finding her, Todd. I think we’re close!’

‘Wait, what?’ Todd frowns at him in disbelief. ‘You can tell she’s nearby or something?’

‘I’m a detective, Todd,’ Dirk scoffs. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’

Todd seriously doubts that. Without warning, Dirk suddenly pulls over on the side of the dark street beside a late-night store and steps out of the car, Todd fumbling to quickly do the same. The cold night air hits him as his shoes scrunch into the snow, but he can barely feel the chill as he stares at Dirk, waiting with baited breath for him to lead him to Amanda.

‘This way!’ Dirk shouts, taking off at a run and skidding dangerously around the corner of the store and into the dark. Todd follows suit, his breath condensing into clouds in front of him as he tries not to slip, and rounds the corner to find Dirk crouching beside the dark shape of a figure lying in the snow, her long, dark hair just visible under her bobble hat.

Todd’s stomach falls into his gut, cold panic seizing in his chest as he stumbles towards the girl and drops to his knees beside her; Amanda is blinking dazedly up at him, looking as if she’s only just come around from unconsciousness. She’s wrapped tightly in her winter coat and scarf, pale-faced and disoriented. Her lips are an alarming shade of blue.

‘T-Todd?’ she shivers weakly, and Todd grabs her shoulders and pulls her close to him, numb with panic and shock. She’s cold, too cold.

‘She’s okay, Todd, she’s okay,’ Dirk is awkwardly reassuring him, but Todd ignores him in favour of holding his sister tighter, sharing what warmth he has to give and trying to calm his breathing.

‘Amanda,’ his voice is muffled as he speaks into the hood of her coat, ‘Amanda, Amanda, Amanda…‘

‘I’m fine, Todd,’ she assures him with a hint of her usual derision. ‘Dude, let me go.’

Todd doesn’t let go.

‘What the hell happened?’

‘I just came to get cigarettes,’ she closes her eyes as if it’s too much effort to keep them open. ‘I had an attack and I couldn’t find my pills on me, so I came ‘round the back here so people wouldn’t stare, y’know?’ She shrugs. ‘I must have blacked out.’

‘Jesus, Amanda,’ Todd breathes, gripping her arms more tightly. ‘We need to get you warmed up-’

‘Oh! Almost forgot!’ Dirk beams suddenly, and Todd turns to see him digging around in the inside of his ludicrous yellow jacket. He’d almost forgotten he was there. Dirk pulls out what looks like a hipflask, and holds it out to a perplexed-looking Amanda. ‘Tomato soup,’ he announces. ‘I had a hunch you might be needing it.’

‘Thanks,’ Amanda takes it gingerly and unscrews the lid to take a sip. ‘Uh. Who are you?’

‘Dirk Gently. Private detective.’

Amanda turns to stare at Todd with incredulity, the colour starting to come back into her cheeks and lips. ‘I was late home… so you… called a private detective?’

‘Amanda, another hour out here and you literally would have died of hypothermia.’

‘Okay, yeah, true. Man, that is so punk.’

Todd glances up at Dirk, who looks overjoyed at the events unfolding in front of him. ‘We should get her to a hospital-’

‘Dude, no,’ Amanda shakes her head firmly. ‘I just wanna go home.’

‘I’ll drive you!’ Dirk offers. ‘As long as you don’t mind dropping in on Farah to tell her you’re safe, of course?’

Amanda looks pointedly at Todd, who glances between her and Dirk, before sighing in defeat.

‘Ugh. Okay. Fine.’

‘Fantastic!’ Dirk grins and actually claps his hands together, bouncing up onto his feet and extending a hand to Amanda, who allows herself to be pulled upright. Todd shrugs off his jacket so he can wrap it around Amanda’s shoulders. He’s fairly sure he didn’t imagine Dirk staring at him with his mouth slightly open as he stripped off.

The three of them trudge back to the car, and Amanda allows Todd to bundle her into the back seat with the thermos of soup and a blanket from the trunk, while Dirk turns the heating up to max and starts bobbing his head to his terrible music again. Now he’s helped Todd find his sister, it’s a little more endearing than it had been ten minutes before.

When they reach the police station, their mismatched gang of a grouchy musician, a sunshine-yellow detective, and a tiny, long-haired punk stuffed into two winter coats and a blanket, Detective Black actually breaks a smile.

‘Hi, Farah!’ Dirk gives her a bright little wave, and Farah’s smile becomes a little reluctant, but remains in place. ‘One missing girl for you, safe and sound.’

‘Good job, Dirk,’ Farah allows, and gives Amanda a nod. ‘I’m glad you’re safe.’

Amanda’s eyes are gleaming with what Todd has come to recognise as flirtatiousness as she grins back at Farah. ‘Man, can it be you who comes to find me next time I go missing?’ she asks cheekily from beneath her blanket. ‘I’d have sent Dirk away again if I’d known police detectives were this cute.’

Farah flushes a brilliant shade of red.

‘Uh,’ she stutters. ‘I-I… You… I mean, not that we’re assuming you’re going to go missing again, here-’

‘Thanks, Farah,’ Todd takes pity and saves her from her flustered rambling, giving Amanda a dark look. ‘We should be getting Amanda home. I’d never have found her if it weren’t for you.’

‘You’re… you’re welcome,’ she replies distantly, and Todd takes Amanda’s arm just as she sends a wink in Farah’s direction, guiding her out of the station. Dirk follows behind them, waving at Farah as he goes.

‘Sleep,’ Todd instructs Amanda firmly, ‘and you can flirt tomorrow.’

‘You ruin all my fun,’ Amanda grins back.

The clock in Dirk’s car has crept into the small hours of the morning by the time he pulls up outside Todd and Amanda’s house and switches off the engine. He hops out of the car and opens Amanda’s door for her to climb out before Todd has even managed to get out himself. The sidewalk is icy, and it’s even colder now that it’s past one in the morning. He helps Amanda out of the back seat, but she makes a face and waves him away when he tries to help steady her on the slippery sidewalk.

‘Thanks, Dirk,’ she hands him back his blanket and punches him lightly on the shoulder, earning her a confused but pleasantly surprised smile in return.

‘You’re very welcome, Amanda. Take care.’

‘Never,’ she gives him a little curtsy, which makes Todd snort, before setting off towards the house. Todd watches her unlock the front door and step inside.

‘Was she joking?’ Dirk asks him with vague concern.

‘Mostly. Thanks again for finding her. And I’m sorry about the whole… not paying you thing.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, Todd,’ Dirk waves an airy hand. ‘There are more important things than monetary reward.’

‘D’you take on all your clients for free?’ Todd shoots him an amused grin, and Dirk waggles his eyebrows.

‘Only the ones I like the most. Sleep well.’

Dirk makes his way around the car to the driver’s side almost before Todd registers the pass Dirk has just made at him, feeling a flutter of surprise and nerves in his stomach.

‘Dirk, wait!’ he blurts out before he can stop himself, and Dirk cocks his head at him questioningly, pausing in his opening of the car door. Todd feels heat travel to the tips of his ears. ‘Um. D’you… wanna maybe go get dinner sometime?’

To his utter relief, Dirk beams.

‘That would be lovely, Todd!’ he replies happily, a soft, pink blush dusting his cheeks under the streetlights. Todd ducks his head in pleased, bashful awkwardness.

‘Great! Well. I’ve, uh, got your number. So. I’ll call you?’

‘Please do,’ Dirk nods, his smile like the sun itself.

‘Okay,’ Todd takes a deep breath. ‘Goodnight, then.’

‘Goodnight, Todd.’

It’s still freezing cold as Dirk gets into his car and waves before pulling out into the road and disappearing into the night, but Todd thinks he might feel a little warmer than he did before.

He inwardly rolls his eyes at his own cheesiness as he kicks up the snow on the driveway towards his front door, and wonders what it is about Dirk Gently that’s already making him such a sap.

Chapter Text

Dimension: Wendimoor. Present day.

Friedkin had been fairly sure that his life couldn’t get any weirder after the bizarre liminal space filled with streams of light that he’d been existing in for an unknown period of time. He’s quickly realising that he had somewhat underestimated just how strange things could get.

The dark-haired and the pink-haired man stare at him in shock for an indeterminable pause, before the latter steps forwards and, horrifyingly, pulls out the biggest pair of scissors that Friedkin has ever seen, brandishing them challengingly at him.

‘Stand, interloper, and reveal your name,’ the Scary Man orders, even though Friedkin is already scrambling to his feet, fear and panic coursing through his veins like a poison as he struggles to distance himself from the two sharp-looking points. The other man gently touches the scissors with a gloved hand, lowering them so they hover just a little further away from Friedkin’s throat.

‘Peace, my love,’ he soothes, before turning his gaze to Friedkin with eyes much friendlier than the man with the scissors. ‘My warmest greetings to you, my friend. How may we refer to you?’

‘Uh. H-Hugo Friedkin? Why are you talking like that?’

‘Welcome, Mr Hugo,’ the Nice One greets him. ‘My name is Silas Dengdamor, Crown Prince of the Valley of Inglenook in the Land of Wendimoor. This is my husband, Panto Trost.’

Friedkin feels something soften a little in his chest, despite himself. ‘You guys are married? Damn, that is so freaking cute.’

‘From whence did you come?’ the man named Panto demands, but some of the bite in his voice seems to have dissipated.

‘And are you aware that you just fell from the sky?’ Silas adds.

Friedkin wrinkles his nose in bewilderment. ‘I dunno what “whence” means, but I’m from… uh. The real world?’

Panto shakes his head slowly.

‘That is impossible without immense power,’ he says. ‘The link between our worlds has been greatly weakened by the Boy being found and the Prophecy fulfilled. Even Wakti Wapnasi cannot-’

‘Uh,’ Friedkin interrupts him despite his better judgement, ‘well, I didn’t come directly from there. I was in this… place? It was really dark, with little colourful lights? A-and I saw you! I could see everything, in the whole universe, and everything that’s going wrong. I-it’s broken, it’s all messed up!’

Friedkin is acutely aware that his account of the events leading up to this point come with very little coherency, and even less credibility. Silas turns to fix Panto with a look of concern and grim seriousness that Friedkin doesn’t take as a good sign. He stares nervously between the two princes.

‘We must take him to Francis,’ Silas says decisively. ‘It is but a short walk.’

‘You are right, my love. He must know of these strange happenings.’ Panto raises his scissors towards Friedkin, making him jump. ‘Come, traveller, and we shall take you to the ruler of these lands.’

‘Could you… could you maybe put the giant scissors away?’ Friedkin asks weakly.

Panto offers him a smile that is somehow feline, one that might have been apologetic if it weren’t for the gleam of distrustful glee in his eye.

‘I’m afraid not.’

Great. Panto gestures with his scissors for Friedkin to walk in front of him, a command which the latter hurriedly obeys. Panto takes Silas’ hand in one of his own so that he can use the other to steer Friedkin along in front of them, towards what he can only assume will be his certain death.

It doesn’t stop him grumbling and muttering under his breath the whole walk.

He isn’t sure how long it takes for Panto to nudge him onwards through the trees before they come to a clearing in the forest, where rays of sunlight are beating down onto the dusty ground, and the shape of a small figure seems to be sitting silently in the centre. As he moves closer in curiosity, Friedkin realises that it’s a young boy, probably no older than ten, cross-legged and closed-eyed in the warm light. He’s wearing an impressive-looking crown, and his hair glitters gold under the sun, as if ringed by a halo.

Friedkin, once again, wonders how the hell this experience can get any more bizarre.

‘Francis!’ Silas calls out, stepping past Friedkin into the clearing. The boy opens his eyes, and slowly, gracefully, stands. There’s a regal quality to the way he holds his head that strikes Friedkin with awe.

The child nods graciously to each of the princes as they reach the centre of the clearing to stand before him.

‘Silas. Panto. And who is this?’

Friedkin shrivels a little under his gaze.

‘Hugo Friedkin, Sir,’ Silas replies. ‘He…’ there’s a pause while he glances at Panto, as if suddenly realising how ridiculous the situation is, ‘he fell out of the sky to tell us that the universe is broken.’

Francis turns his gaze back to Friedkin and appraises him for a long moment.

‘Mr Friedkin. It’s nice to finally put a face to the voice on the intercom.’

Friedkin frowns. ‘Huh?’

‘You know this man?’ Silas asks, and Francis nods sagely, eyes still fixed on Friedkin.

‘He’s the Director of Blackwing. My keeper for my final two months in the institution earlier this year, and integral to the recapture of Projects Icarus and Incubus, and the attempted recapture of Project Marzanna.’

The boy pronounces ‘Marzanna’ with a ‘shh’ sound, rather than the hard ‘z’ that Friedkin has been using.

Friedkin blinks. ‘I’ve been saying it wrong this entire time?’

Panto steps towards him dangerously, a snarl painted across his face, and raises his scissors.

‘You were the man who was hunting down Bartine!’ he spits, and Friedkin lets out an inhuman-sounding shriek and throws his arms over his head.

‘Don’t hurt me!’ he begs. ‘I didn’t mean to fuck up that bad! I wasn’t trying to, like, hurt anyone! I’m not even the Director anymore! I was… I was…’ Friedkin trails off worriedly as a horrifying thought crosses his mind, and stares down at himself to see that his shirt is entirely intact and clean of blood. ‘I was stabbed. With scissors. Oh, man. Am I… am I dead?’

The three adults, even Panto, who lowers his scissors a little, turn to Francis. Francis tilts his head to one side.

‘This place isn’t reality,’ he confirms. ‘It’s possible that your consciousness has taken hold here, while your body has expired. My own body no longer exists in the real world, after all.’

Friedkin shakes his head in disbelief. This all sounds like some hot bullshit.

‘What do you mean, “your body no longer exists”? Who even are you, anyway? You said you knew me from Blackwing?’

‘My name is Francis Cardenas,’ the child replies, ‘but you know me as Project Moloch.’

Friedkin lets his mouth fall open in shock.

‘Wait. You’re Moloch?! But... you’re a kid!’

‘This is a world of my own making. I can appear in whichever form I wish. I have chosen the last conscious body that I inhabited in the real world.’

Friedkin is suddenly struck with an overwhelming sense of unease. The person in front of him, the one he had known only as a frail, motionless, old man, hadn’t been conscious since he was a child. He feels his brow crease with a burning guilt.

‘Dude. I am so sorry about, like, everything. For keeping you in a cell, and for giving you a stroke and all that. Man. That was some bullshit.’

Francis inclines his head gracefully. ‘I’m grateful for your apology, Mr Friedkin. But don’t consider your debt to me repaid just yet. The Drummer Girl is coming, to fix the broken universe. We must go to Wakti Wapnasi, in the Village of the Bofuki Nepoo.’

Just like that, Friedkin is fed up again.

‘Can you not just use, like, words?’

‘Panto, Silas,’ Francis addresses them. ‘Lead the way.’

As Panto and Silas obediently bow, before preparing to, once again, cart him off through a fantasy dimension on the hunt for a mystery being, Friedkin elects to grit his teeth and keep quiet. It looks like it’s just going to be one of those days.

***

When Amanda’s eyes fly open, she is standing somewhere else, legs shaking a little and breath coming fast as she clutches the wand with both hands, in a death grip. She takes a couple of gasps of breath, trying to steady her pounding heart, and looks up to survey her surroundings.

The air is warm here, the sunlight casting dappled shadows on dusty ground through the gently swaying trees high above. There are birds twittering and chirping somewhere overhead, the sound of strange, faint music, and whoops and shrieks of laughter carried to her on the breeze from far away, what she recognises as the bizarre gurgles and whistles and coos of the Bofuki Nepoo.

Her face breaks into a smile of overwhelming relief and the triumph of a job well done. She made it to Wendimoor. She’s freaking awesome.

She turns, and is delighted to realise that she has managed to transport herself directly into the Bofuki Village, and that, standing proud and solid and familiar behind her is Wakti’s cave.

She grins to herself.

Total badass.

Amanda wanders over to the cave and runs her fingers across the rough rock of the exterior as she circles it, making her way to the entrance. It looks just like it did when she was last here, several months ago, the brightly coloured strings and feathers and slivers of cloth hanging delicately over the opening, making up what would, in the real world, be the front door.

Hesitantly, Amanda parts the strands with one hand, and ducks inside.

It takes a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, the dull, reddish light of the cave reflected in the circular pool in the centre and illuminating the dark shapes sitting quietly inside. She blinks a few times, to eventually make out the raised head of Wakti, huge hat and all, staring back at her in mildly pleased surprise.

‘Wakti!’ she cries, running towards her friend and flinging her arms around her. The dark figures perched around the room behind them let out a chorus of kazoo-like noises that sound like they could be cheering.

Wakti chuckles a little as she pats Amanda on the back.

‘I thought that I sensed your presence,’ she speaks in her strange, calming voice. ‘I was not expecting to see you again, young one.’

‘Oh.’ Amanda glances at the wooden stick still held tightly in her fist. ‘I kept this wand thing.’ She takes a moment to look around and offer a grin to the funny little creatures with the glowing eyes that stare inquisitively back at her. ‘Hey, guys.’

The figures mumble and buzz in polite response, while Wakti looks suspiciously like she’s trying not to fondly roll her eyes. ‘I should have known.’

Amanda suddenly remembers why she’s here, and takes a seat beside Wakti so she can look her seriously in the eye.

‘Wakti, I need your help. Things are getting really weird in my world. I ran into Dirk just now, and he didn’t even know who he was.’

Wakti gazes steadily back, apparently unsurprised.

‘I told you, Amanda Brotzman. The universe is broken. Reality is falling apart at the seams, infinite dimensions collapsing into each other. It will only get worse.’

‘“Infinite dimensions”?’ Amanda repeats, frowning. Wakti dips her head slightly in assent.

‘There is not only one reality, you know. Every choice creates a new path, a new timeline. The person you interacted with may simply have come from another.’

Amanda blinks. This is all starting to make a bit more sense. It hasn’t escaped her knowledge that the idea of infinite intersecting timelines sounding like an entirely logical explanation might be a slight cause for concern, but she chooses not to explore that realisation in too much detail.

‘Okay,’ she replies slowly, bewildered. ‘Um. I think I need to find Dirk. The real Dirk. Can you get him here?’

‘The Boy was found. The case was solved. My communication with your dimension is not what it once was.’

Amanda can feel herself desperately clutching at straws. ‘What about, like… multiple dimensions?’

‘There is a difference between our worlds, Amanda. The Land of Wendimoor is a creation, and there is a difference between creation and choice. It is choice that has broken your universe. Somebody has altered the course of events that must occur. Somebody is playing with reality.’

‘But…’ Amanda feels for a moment like a young child again, lost in a sea of expectations and things she doesn’t understand, the sinking feeling of hopelessness in her chest almost crushing. ‘But how do I even start trying to fix all of reality?’

‘It is your destiny to find out,’ Wakti replies. ‘Your powers extend far beyond my own, and even beyond that of the Boy. We look to you now: the Mandelbrot. A shape of infinite sides, and a girl of infinite dimensions.’

Amanda stares at her for a long moment. She takes a deep breath.

Badass. Remember?

‘Okay!’ she agrees with a hysterical note to her voice that she can’t quite hide. ‘Okay, I’ll… I’ll figure it out! Sure! I guess!’

She pauses for a second while she considers what the fuck she’s supposed to do next.

‘Uh. Okay, first decision: I’m gonna start by trying to… find Dirk. So he can help me, ‘cause I don’t know what I’m doing.’

Wakti inclines her head in a slow nod of what might be acceptance or respect, or maybe both. She spreads her arm, offering up the pool in front of them both for Amanda’s use.

Amanda takes another deep breath, and sits forward on her rock to stare into the rippling water, still glimmering gently with the reflections of the light.

‘Okay,’ she whispers to herself, trying to calm the terror that’s grasping her lungs so tight she can barely breathe, nausea lying leaden in her stomach. ‘Okay.’

Badass.

She steels herself, and plunges the wand in her hand into the water beneath.

The eyes of her physical form are closed tightly shut while those within her snap open wide to the vivid world beneath. Amanda is slammed into the vortex of reality, gasping as pain rips through her body and everything is too much, too bright, too loud, and she is searching, searching, searching, reaching out for the feel of him through the pain, gritting her teeth against the scream that bubbles up in her throat. She catches sight of Dirk’s face, a snapshot in the blink of an eye that she can’t cling onto, and he’s gone again, and she stretches out to snatch into the image of the world where he is, but he isn’t there anymore, he is somewhere else, and somewhere else there is another.

She wrenches her hand free, her whole body clammy and cold with sweat.

‘Okay,’ she pants as if trying to both reassure and brace herself, jaw set in furious, stubborn determination. ‘Okay.’

She plunges back in, the visions blinding in their vibrancy, pulling her further and further, and she sends out her feelers, searching the air and the water and the energy for Dirk, latching onto the sense of him that she’s reaching for, but he’s so far away, so scattered, that every time she feels herself getting close, feels him near her outstretched fingers, he’s ripped away again, a thousand, a million people with Dirk’s name walking through universes while she runs, and runs, and runs to catch up, and she isn’t fast enough…

Amanda drags her arm out of the pool again with a shuddering gulp of air, hands shaking and blood rushing dizzyingly in her ears as the pain slowly ebbs and fades. She squeezes her eyes tightly shut and lets her hair fall over her face as she breathes hard, allowing the wooziness to slowly drain out of her head, the bright colours that have imprinted themselves on the insides of her eyelids slowly subsiding into the welcome darkness of Wakti’s cave.

‘I can’t get to him,’ she groans desperately, clenching her fists so hard in an effort to hold onto reality that she can feel them cutting half-moons into her palms. She can feel rather than see Wakti sitting beside her, a reassuring presence that gives her the energy to speak. ‘I can’t reach him. It’s all messed up – he’s too scattered. And I mean literally scattered, like, across dimensions. Not scattered like he usually is.’

‘You must keep trying,’ Wakti urges gently. ‘This is the course of action you have chosen. You must find a way.’

Amanda squeezes the heels of her palms into her eyes, head still throbbing and roaring, but less so now, the sensation fading into cool relief as she allows herself to think.

Her head snaps up as an idea hits her like a baseball bat to the face – and she would know.

‘Wakti! What about… can’t you use Mona to move people around and shit?’

‘It is now beyond my power to move the pieces of reality,’ Wakti reminds her thoughtfully. ‘But Mona was once able to assist me. Perhaps, if the Shapeshifter Mona is with the Man Dirk Gently, she might be able to amplify your powers and connect you to him.’

Amanda feels a crazed smile spread across her face.

‘Dude. I’ve got to speak to Mona, so she can bring Dirk here.’

Wakti smiles back.

‘Now you have a real plan.’

Amanda grins, before taking a deep breath, and dipping only the end of the wand into the pool. The colours immediately swirl into view, bright and vivid and strange, but the pain isn’t so great this time, merely tingling in her limbs, because she doesn’t need to reach out to her just yet, only to locate her. She’s flying, circling, tasting the air like a reptile, searching, finding Mona

She gazes into the pool at the visions she sees in her head, feeling the energy crackle and the images swim into view, and Wakti is beside her doing the same, Amanda dragging the world closer to them like she’s taking them down winding streets, left and right and twisting and turning, and into a pocket, the pocket of somebody’s blue jeans, where there is a single coin.

Amanda suddenly shouts out with glee.

‘I found her!’ she yells. ‘She’s like… a dollar? I think? Wait…’ Her heart sinks as she tries to feel the air around them, assessing the scene; it’s dark, with flashing lights and the stench of whiskey soaking through the floor, the jeans clammy and burning a brilliant white under what looks like a spotlight. She twists the wand in the pool, gently, so that she can survey the room, and the man in whose pocket Mona resides, and realises with annoyance that it’s her brother.

‘What is it?’ Wakti inquires curiously.

‘She’s with Todd,’ Amanda mutters. ‘Not Dirk. Shit.’

Wakti shrugs her shoulders. ‘One is better than none.’

‘“One” of what?’ Amanda points out. ‘He’s not part of the universe… thing. He’s just my asshole brother.’

‘But he is the closest person to Dirk Gently you will find.’

If that ain’t the truth. Amanda groans and buries her face in her hands, not bothering to hide the reluctance that nags behind her temples at the prospect of bringing him back to Wendimoor. The peace between them is still fragile, still strained, and it still hurts.

Ugh.’

‘Why do you not wish to summon Todd Brotzman?’ Wakti asks, and Amanda stares at her in dismay.

‘Like, so many reasons!’

When Wakti just silently cocks her head to one side, Amanda admits defeat. She lets out a petulant sigh.

‘Fine! I’ll get my stupid big brother.’

This time, when she plunges her arm back into the pool, it’s with an even grittier sense of determination, and a great deal more optimism. She braces herself against the pain, and opens her mouth to shout out into the bright, burning colours.

Mona! I need you!

***

Dimension: 3. Present day.

When Todd had woken up that morning, the Todd that he considers to be the Real Todd, as opposed to any Other Todds that are knocking around, he definitely hadn’t been expecting this. Granted, in this line of work, he has learnt to expect the unexpected, whatever that may be. But, even so, he isn’t sure he can be entirely blamed for his bewilderment at how quickly his day has gone from having a friendly chat with Dirk’s old college roommate over coffee, to finding himself in another dimension, in which he is standing backstage in a seedy old bar he remembers visiting during his twenties, getting ready to play a show with an exceptionally angry alternate-universe version of his sister.

He doesn’t know what he’s more confused by: the fact that he’s mysteriously travelled to another dimension without any intention of doing so, or the fact that he seems to be going along with playing a set in front of God knows how many people.

He peers out of the wings and into the buzzing crowd as they dance to thumping music in the dingy bar, and drink terrible beer from plastic cups.

‘I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,’ he mutters as he allows Amanda to lift his guitar above his head and bring it down over his shoulders. He grabs the neck and steadies it so it settles comfortably against his midriff, a comforting weight that steadies the nerves bubbling in his stomach. Amanda’s awful mood has dissipated since the stony-silent drive from the Agency so that she’s enthused and gleeful, the way she used to get when she and Todd would jam together in her garage, and the memory strikes a pang in his chest.

‘I didn’t talk you into it,’ she reminds him. ‘I threatened you. Your ‘D’ string is super out, by the way. It got all fucked up when I was serenading the cat.’

Todd is still so relieved to see the usual mischievous glint in her eye replacing her earlier furious wrath that he can’t find it in himself to be annoyed with her, or else to question the existence of a cat in their lives. He starts tuning his guitar.

‘What are we even playing?’

Amanda huffs at him and takes a swig of water from the bottle she’s pulled out of her bag. ‘How many times have we been through this? We’re starting with Bring the Colour, and then going into-‘

Todd’s stomach drops. In his universe, it’s a song that had started to come to him late the night before when he was tossing and turning and unable to sleep, too busy thinking about the sudden appearance of Stevie, and definitely not the fact that he’d thought she had some kind of romantic history with Dirk, because that would imply that he had been jealous, which he absolutely, probably, maybe, wasn’t. The tune had taken hold in his head, and he had rolled out of bed to play with a couple chords on his guitar, jotting down a handful of lyrics. He has a chorus, he thinks, and possibly one completed verse.

‘What?’ he stares at Amanda, heart hammering. ‘Amanda, I finished writing that song yesterday. It’s not even finished. I haven’t learnt the chords!’

‘Well, learn them quickly, asshole, because the world’s not waiting.’

As if on cue, the thrumming music in the background of the bar cuts off without warning, and a muffled announcement rings out through the front of house:

‘Simmer down, assholes, and get ready for our Saturday night regulars, The Mexican Funeral!’

Cheers and whoops echo around the bar as Todd stands stock still in panic, actively regretting every choice he’s ever made in his life to get here. Before he knows it, Amanda is shoving him bodily through the wings and onto the stage, and he stumbles out into the spotlight.

The room is a throng of people, all dressed similarly to Amanda in her grungy, all-black outfit, and they are all looking at him. Whistles and cheers continue to sound from across the bar, the lights low and the whiff of whiskey and regret stinging the back of his nostrils as he is caught in the moment of calm, the beat before the music begins, the breath before he has to sing, and his blood is pumping and rushing so loud in his ears that it drowns out the whooping of the crowd, his own heartbeat all he can hear.

He’s vaguely aware of Amanda having taken her seat at the drumkit that’s positioned just off to the right and slightly behind him, and he glances over to give her a pleading, dumbstruck look. She just grins back, excitement radiating off her in waves strong enough to infuse Todd with the kick of confidence he needs to take a shuddering breath, and step up to the mic stand.

A hush falls, and Todd swallows thickly.

Amanda raises her drumsticks in the air, and taps them together, counting them in: one, two, three, four!

Her intoxicating beat starts up from behind him, and Todd looks over at her in panic as she hits out the opening rhythm, his shaking fingers fumbling to find the first chord, and then he’s playing, his fingers learning the notes at the same time as his brain, twitching into the right places from muscle memory rather than anything else. He’s a little tentative at first, a little slow, but he just about manages to keep up with Amanda as he plays out the intro, the crowd cheering them on, reassuring and enthusiastic as he finds his feet.

And then he steps forward, closes his eyes, and leans into the mic.

‘Can you hear the rain in my head?

When you come close can you see it fall?

Lit up by brilliant red

Your sunrise changed it all...’

He can feel himself starting to get the hang of it as he plays, the notes coming a little more readily, the lyrics still fresh in his head from when he’d first scribbled them out at about three o’clock in the morning, and his voice grows stronger, his fingers more assured, and he’s breathing the music, allowing it to run through his veins as he relaxes into the melody.

‘I don’t write cheesy songs

I’ve tried to drown you out

But since you came along

You’ve turned me upside-down...’

He turns to flash a grin at Amanda, who looks like she’s enjoying herself as much as he is, crashing away at her drums like she’s having the time of her life. He plays louder as the chorus kicks in, letting the music draw the notes and the words from his body, the adrenaline coursing in his system as he lets go, and wonders why, when he wrote this song, he was still pretending to himself that it wasn’t about Dirk.

‘So bring the colour to my life

I’m tired of the grey

And I’ll kiss that smile that

Turns my nights to day

You tell me I’m broken

But I-’

Todd stops singing abruptly as his eye catches a flash of colour, a bright orange suddenly lit by the spinning lights above the crowd as they dance, arms in the air, and he stares out at the man in the awful eyesore of a jacket.

Dirk is beaming at him from the crowd, bobbing along awkwardly to the music. He gives Todd an enthusiastic double thumbs-up as he catches his eye, face like the sun itself, and Todd gapes at him, hands falling from the guitar.

‘Dirk!’ he shouts out to him. ‘Dirk!

He barely registers the lack of sound other than the crowd and Amanda’s continued drumbeats as he scrabbles to haul the guitar up and over his head, setting it down on the stage and skidding over to the steps down into the crowd, his head pounding with the instinctive need to find Dirk, but when he looks up again, there’s no sign of him.

Todd vaguely realises that the drumming has stopped, hearing Amanda yell, ‘Intermission!’ into the mic as he pushes his way into the throng of people, frantically shoving himself to the spot where he’d just seen Dirk standing, a mere second ago, but he’s disappeared without a trace.

A firm hand grabs his elbow and, before he can protest, Amanda is dragging him out of the crowd and towards the backstage area. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Begrudgingly accepting that Dirk is probably long gone, Todd allows himself to be led out of the staff door and into the warm night air outside, alongside a couple of parked cars and a dull streetlight that barely cuts through the gloom.

She glares at him darkly, her water bottle from the stage clasped in her hand like she’s mere seconds away from hitting him over the head with it, but Todd is relieved to notice that her eyes are betraying far more genuine concern about him than the absolute fury she had been wielding earlier that evening.

That doesn’t mean she’s not also pretty pissed off.

‘Dude, what the fuck is with you today? We’re playing a set! Don’t you want to get paid?!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Todd replies desperately, ‘I just… I saw someone.’

Amanda is radiating irritation. ‘Yeah. Dirk. So? He said he was coming.’

Todd stares at her.

‘You know him?’ he asks, surprised.

‘You mean your boyfriend?’ Amanda gives him a withering look. ‘Uh. Yeah, Todd.’

Todd could swear his heart stops for a second.

‘Wait a minute. My boyfriend?’

‘Dude. How much have you smoked?’

‘Okay, okay, just…’ Todd shakes his head, too many complicated things rattling around in it for him to make sense of anything at all. ‘Go slow with me right now. Start at the beginning.’

‘You’ve been dating for, like, three months.’

‘That’s not the beginning, Amanda.’

‘Oh my god,’ she rolls her eyes so hard they almost disappear into her skull, and starts reciting the events of whatever timeline they happen to be living at this moment in time, as if spelling out something very simple for someone particularly stupid. ‘He’s a private detective specialising in missing persons, who you called to find me one time when I had a bad attack and passed out in the snow.’

Something clicks in Todd’s mind. ‘Oh, shit! That’s where the snow came from!’

Amanda ignores him completely.

‘He helped you figure out where I was, and then you asked him out, and I asked Farah the cute police officer out, and now Dirk comes to all our shows and tries to pretend he's into punk music so he can make out with you behind the stage when we’ve finished the set.’

‘Make ou…’ Todd’s heart stops for the second time in the space of roughly two minutes. He’s starting to wonder if he should consider seeing a doctor about that. He squeezes his eyes closed for a moment, considering what to say. ‘Okay, important questions: has he ever, to your knowledge, found a missing girl trapped inside the body of a corgi, and have you ever heard of a magical fairytale land called Wendimoor?’

Amanda stares at him like he’s grown an extra head.

‘Do you… need a drink of water or something?’

‘Amanda,’ Todd places her hands on her shoulders and looks her in the eye. She stares back with wide-eyed concern for a moment, before pulling back and starting to rummage in the pockets of her leather jacket. Todd elects to carry on anyway. ‘I know I sound crazy right now, but you have to trust me. The universe we know is falling apart at the seams, and I... I think I’m in a parallel dimension. Where I’m from, I’m a partner in Dirk’s supernatural, psychic “Holistic Detective Agency”, and you’re a badass witchakookoo who travels around in a van with a crazy rainbow lady and four energy-sucking vampires who help you with your pararibulitis.’

Amanda pushes her water bottle into Todd’s hands, and lights the cigarette she’s just fished out of her pocket.

‘What the fuck is a witchakookoo?’

Todd, barely listening, unscrews the cap from the water bottle and takes a swig. ‘Do me and Dirk really make out in this universe?’

That’s your top concern right now?’

‘I saw him in the crowd, ‘Manda, and I need to get back to him. He’s the one who can put this right!’

Amanda takes a long drag of her cigarette, and blows it slowly out through pursed lips as she considers this.

‘Okay, but… if you’re in a parallel dimension or whatever, isn’t he a different Dirk? One that doesn’t deal with, like, weird fantasy shit?’

Every Dirk deals with weird shit,’ Todd explains patiently. ‘He just… might not know it yet. He’s a universal constant, used by the hands of fate to bring people to where they need to be. And this isn’t a “fantasy shit” thing. It’s just, like, totally normal parallel dimensions. Wendimoor’s different – it was created by a traumatised child who dreamt up a fantasy world to deal with the shock of his mom murdering his dad. But we fixed all that, so it’s fine.’

Amanda is staring at him again, one eyebrow delicately raised. He needs to stop doing these rambling, Dirk-esque monologues.

‘Dude. Are you, like, cool in your dimension?’

Todd glares at her, feeling a little insulted. ‘Hey! I’m cool in every dimension!’

Amanda snorts derisively. ‘Uh huh. Right.’

Todd chooses not to continue this particular line of argument.

‘I need to get back to my own dimension, Amanda. I don’t know what’s going on. Dirk could need my help.’

An annoying-little-sister smirk plasters itself all over Amanda’s face, making Todd want to smack her with the half-empty bottle he’s holding.

‘Oh, man,’ she grins mischievously. ‘Looks like you’re totally gone for him in every dimension, too. You are such a dork, big bro.’

‘What?’ Todd splutters as he feels heat spreading to the tips of his ears, and knows that he’s flushing bright red even as he speaks. ‘No, I… no, I’m not! You asshole! I’m not… I am not in love with him!’

‘You said it, not me.’

Todd glowers harder, cheeks flaming. ‘Okay, so maybe I have, like, a little crush on him, but that doesn’t mean… Will you stop fucking smirking?!’

‘You’re telling me all this like you’re expecting me to be surprised.’

‘Well… well, you should be surprised!’ Todd cries. ‘I’ve never even dated a guy before! I’m still… you know! Figuring all that shit out!’

‘Dude,’ Amanda sighs and places her hands on Todd’s shoulders, a look of resignation finally replacing her irritating grin. ‘I love you, and I’m happy for you. But we’re meant to be playing a show right now, and I really don’t have time for your Big Bisexual Panic. You’ll figure it out.’

She pats him rather patronisingly on the shoulder as Todd stares bewilderedly at her.

‘That’s not… I’m not panicking about that,’ he admits, and it’s the truth. Although he hadn’t really questioned the whole issue of his sexuality before Dirk had barrelled his way into his life, it doesn’t particularly bother him that his answer to that age-old question, “are you straight?” has recently morphed from “probably” to “probably not”. ‘It’s just… I’m not good enough for him, Amanda, not even close-’

‘Again,’ Amanda holds up her hand to ruthlessly cut him off, ‘not the time. And, also, it is so not my job to be your relationship therapist. Tell him you want to have his babies, and stop being a pussy. I’m giving you two minutes to get your ass back onstage.’

Amanda stubs out her cigarette on the brick wall of the bar behind her, and flicks it to the ground before turning on her heel and disappearing back inside, leaving Todd staring dumbly after her with his mouth open in shock and humiliation, cheeks still aflame.

He kicks at the ground under his feet, scuffing his shoe, and scowls at the knowledge that, apparently, his sister is just as adept at pushing his buttons in this dimension as she is in his own. As if being trapped in the wrong universe with no Dirk, no idea how to get back, and the very threads of reality falling apart around him wasn’t enough.

It’s as he’s having this thought that he feels something slip out of his pocket and hit the floor with a clink. The dollar coin he’d been keeping hold of rolls a little before teetering onto its side and resting there for a fraction of a second before, in its place, and without any kind of warning, there is a dark-haired woman with glowing, green eyes.

Todd yelps and jumps back, as Mona tilts her head to one side, and smiles absently at him.

‘Todd Brotzman,’ she addresses him in her breathy voice. ‘We are required.’

Todd barely has time to react before she has taken the bottle of water he’s been holding out of his hand, and thrown it over them both.

Everything goes black.

***

Dimension: 1. Present day.

In a dark room, in a dark building, is a girl with a dark heart.

She sits at her table, with her eyes closed, or staring out into the nothingness in front of her, because there are no other ways to entertain herself here. There are no friends, no magical pink-haired princes, no knights, or weapons, or children in crowns. There is only darkness and boredom and the thoughts rattling around in her head.

It’s just light enough to see her hands if she holds them out in front of her. It’s light enough that she can see her hair falling over her face when she rests her chin on the table. It must be light enough for them to watch her on the cameras that she knows will be hidden somewhere around the room, otherwise they wouldn’t have left her alone, because she is alone, with her thoughts, and without the person she thought was her friend.

Ken isn’t the person she thought he was. He isn’t what friends are supposed to be, she doesn’t think: caring, and loyal, and kind. But she doesn’t think she was ever supposed to have friends in the first place, either, so she can hardly complain. It doesn’t make sense, she knows, to feel hurt or upset, but that doesn’t stop the misery seeping into her very bones, teeth on the back of her neck that goad and grin, in a way that she can’t escape. She doesn’t know if he’s a bad person, but she knows that the universe wants him dead, that it screams at her sometimes to walk out of these stupid doors that keep her inside, and to destroy him. She doesn’t, though, because he meant something to her, once; because she’s tired of this; because she just wants to stay sitting in the dark for the rest of her days, dead to the world, to the universe, to anyone else who might want to hurt her.

Because she was always so sure that she couldn’t be hurt, but she hadn’t realised that there are more ways somebody can hurt you than physically.

And now, something is wrong. Something is coming, and it’s something to do with the universe, and time, and Blackwing, and Ken. But she doesn’t want to face it. So she chooses not to.

Bart Curlish drops her head onto the table in front of her, and sits in the dark.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1.2ERROR%%?^. June 1993.

Svlad Cjelli sits on his bed, knees drawn tightly up to his chest, and listens.

He can’t make out the words, only the muffled sounds of voices drifting up the staircase from downstairs, but he knows what’s happening. He’s been moved too many times to hope that this would be the place where he would stay.

One of the voices is a deep, male voice that he doesn’t recognise, the other belonging to Doamnă Albescu, the lady he has been staying with for the past six months, and the fourth in a line of foster parents since his mother had died a few years ago. He never seems to stay long. He scares them. He doesn’t mean to, but he isn’t normal like the other children. He’s come to the gradual understanding, if not acceptance, that there is something wrong with him.

Svlad is only ten, but he feels like he’s lived a thousand lifetimes.

The walls in his bedroom are painted sunshine yellow, like his mother used to call him when she switched to speaking in Romanian sometimes: soarele meu; my sunshine. There are plants on the windowsill. Doamnă Albescu has a fat, grey cat called Motănel. It’s been nice staying here.

When the conversation below him comes to an end and the sound of footsteps creak up the stairs, Svlad draws further into himself, curling his body tighter around his legs until he’s squeezed so small he thinks he might disappear. He’d quite like that.

Tu eşti soarele meu, singurul meu soare

The door opens quietly, and Doamnă Albescu is worriedly chewing at her lip as she turns kind eyes on Svlad’s small, hunched frame.

There is a man here to see you,’ she speaks softly to him in Romanian.

A man steps into view from behind her. He has deep, brown eyes, and is wearing a pale blue shirt that offsets his dark skin. He doesn’t look like a threat, but he could so easily take everything away from him, all over again. He looks like another one of the men who comes into his room when the foster parents become too concerned, and takes him away to somewhere new. Svlad doesn’t trust those men anymore.

Doamnă Albescu leaves the room, and gently closes the door behind her. There is a long silence as Svlad stares down at the floor, refusing to look up at the man, and the man makes no move towards him.

After a moment, the man takes a step forward, and kneels down in front of the bed where Svlad sits, curled tightly into a ball. Svlad’s head remains steadfastly bowed, even as he feels his heartrate quicken with nerves.

Bună ziua, Svlad.’

His pronunciation is so terrible that Svlad feels the corners of his mouth twitch with a reluctant smile, before he schools his face back into carefully composed impassivity. He isn’t yet sure whether this mean is a friend or a predator, so he elects to stay as silent and still as he possibly can, like the deer and antelopes he sees on nature programmes on TV, standing like statues in the long grass as the lions close in.

The next time the man speaks, it’s in English.

‘Mr Cjelli,’ he says quietly, and, oh, no one has ever called him that before, ‘my name is Ken Adams. I’ve come all the way from America to speak to you.’

It’s been a long time since anyone has spoken to him in English, like his mother used to do before he died, and the words feel heavy and unfamiliar on Svlad’s tongue as he defeatedly croaks out the question he already knows the answer to. ‘Have you come to take me away again?’

‘No,’ the man, Ken, shakes his head. ‘I’ve come to make you an offer. I hear you’re good at finding things. Lost pets, for example.’

Svlad feels himself pale, his heart racing in his chest. He knows. He knows, and he’s come to lock him away, somewhere he can’t make people worry, because he can’t be normal.

‘I don’t mean to,’ Svlad whispers in terror, his voice barely audible even to his own ears. ‘It’s not my fault. I… I’m trying really hard not to, I really am. It scared my Mamă, and it scares Doamnă Albescu, and all the others-’

‘It’s nothing to be afraid of, Svlad,’ Ken soothes him gently, and Svlad looks up at him in fear. ‘It’s a gift. Can I tell you something?’

Svlad gives a jerky nod of his head.

Ken leans forward to speak seriously, conspiratorially, and Svlad hangs off his every word.

‘I’m a secret agent,’ Ken tells him. ‘I work for an organisation called Blackwing. We work with people who are special, like you.’

Svlad feels his eyes widen. ‘There are other people like me?’

‘Yes. And they need your help.’ Ken smiles. ‘A little bird told me you want to be a detective, because you want to help people. Right?’

Svlad nods fervently.

‘Well, that’s what we do. We help the good people, and stop the bad guys. But we need you to find them for us.’

‘Me?’ Svlad repeats breathlessly.

‘It’s the universe, Svlad,’ Ken speaks in a low voice, dark eyes full of a promise that intoxicates him, draws him in like a moth to a flame. ‘Those feelings that tell you what to do, where to go. I understand. And we can help you understand it too, we can teach you how to use your powers, and, once you’re old enough, you can come with us on our missions, and solve mysteries. You can be a real detective.’

Svlad stares at Ken with wide eyes, excitement and hope stirring in his stomach. A purpose he can be proud of. A home he’ll never have to leave. Somebody who understands, and thinks that he is special, and good, and worth something.

A real detective.

When Svlad agrees, he agrees with his whole heart. When he gets into the back of the car the next day, he barely looks back.

***

When he starts at Blackwing, it takes Svlad a little while to feel at home. He supposes it’s probably having been moved around from foster parent to foster parent in the last few years that’s made it difficult for him to learn how to settle without worrying that, if he lets himself feel comfortable enough, it’ll all be snatched away again. It isn’t, though, and they give him his own room with a narrow bed that’s all his, and they let him come and go as he pleases inside the base, as long as he goes to all his lessons and meetings. They teach him Maths and English like he used to learn at school, and get him to run on the treadmill a few times a week to make sure he’s fit and healthy. He doesn't mind – he always thought he would have quite enjoyed school if it weren’t for the other children and the fact that he couldn’t ever seem to fit in with them. The running is good for helping him burn off excess energy when he gets fidgety and twitchy, the universe nagging at him to do something. It makes it very difficult for him to sit still for any length of time.

When he is eleven, Ken and some of the other agents start Svlad on a training programme, teaching him how to deal with his hunches. He learns how to feel them out and understand what they mean: whether they signal good things, or bad things, or danger. He is taught some meditation techniques to calm his mind, and quieten the thoughts when they rage around his head so loudly he can barely breathe, and feels like his brain might explode. With no small amount of relief, he finds that it helps a little, and means he can block the universe out sometimes, or at least quieten it a little, like he’s turning the volume down. It makes things a little better.

When he is twelve, Svlad is allowed to spend more time with the other Projects in the facility. He has met them all already, bumping into them in corridors, and sharing lessons and snacks and snippets of conversation in the courtyard; he already knows that Bart is the scary girl who can kill people without even trying, and that the bigger boys who call themselves ‘the Rowdy Three’ are a little too loud and shouty for his tastes. Now, he has lessons that involve them, too. He and Bart sit and meditate together, and learn which of the hunches are useful and which ones are not. He helps Cross with his spelling, in return for Gripps helping him with his Maths. Gripps is good at Maths.

When he is thirteen, the training becomes more structured, and a little more intense. Svlad is becoming very good at blocking out the universe’s signals that aren’t useful to them, and listening to the ones that are. He can tell them, now, which cup the sweet is under, and can ignore the little twinges that pull him this way and that, those things that are irrelevant to Blackwing's purpose and goals. He gets much better at his English, and consumes American detective novels like a child starved. He tells jokes to Bart and grins when she cackles, and sometimes they sing along to songs on the radio during their free time in the afternoons. Occasionally, Mona is human, and he sits and chats to her in the courtyard. Most of the time, she isn’t, and he puts her in his pocket when she isn’t needed for training, in the form of a doll, or a beetle, or a coin. He has friends now. At some point, he questions whether he is supposed to be feeling something towards girls yet, but puts his total apathy down to the fact that all the female agents are much older than him, and Bart is terrifying, and Mona is Mona. It's probably that he just isn’t interested in the girls here, specifically.

When he is fourteen, he starts to realise that that’s not the reason.

When he is fifteen, Svlad is allowed to go out on his first mission. Practically vibrating with excitement and anticipation and nerves, he is accompanied out into the world with a handful of agents at his side, who quietly assure him that he’s doing fine. He follows the pulls of the universe, the ones that Blackwing want him to take notice of, and he finds the underground network of terrorists who are plotting to do something that Svlad knows must be horrible. When he leads the agents to their meeting place, Bart is dispatched, and she runs at the men with her arms raised over her head and a gun in her hand, and she shoots them all dead. Svlad is so shocked that he can feel the walls closing in, his throat and chest so tight he can’t breathe and he thinks he’s going to die, and he is told afterwards that he has had a panic attack. He questions, for the first time, whether he is really cut out to be this kind of detective.

When he is sixteen, Svlad is used to it. He closes his eyes when the gunshot comes, because he doesn’t like to see it happen, but he tries not to flinch anymore. They don’t need the other agents now, just him and Bart. They have codenames, when they’re in the field: he is Icarus, the one who finds the bad people, and she is Marzanna, the one who gets rid of them. They make an incredible, deadly team, and Svlad feels a sense of pride with every mission they complete. They’re doing the right thing.

When he is seventeen, Svlad tentatively broaches the subject of going to university with Ken. He enjoys reading, after all, and loves learning new things, and is sure that, with his intimate knowledge of the universe and the very hands of fate, he would probably be quite good at Philosophy. Surprisingly, Ken seems welcoming of the idea, even suggesting that he try for Cambridge, and Svlad allows himself to hope. It would be the final nail in the coffin of that small, terrified Romanian boy with his knees huddled up to his chest, the one who he feels so far away from now that it’s like another lifetime. He doesn’t feel like Svlad Cjelli anymore.

When he is eighteen, Svlad carefully pushes open the door to his room at Cambridge, pulling his single, tatty suitcase that he’s had since he moved to his first foster home, says a polite ‘hello’ to his new roommate, Douglas, and falls into bed to sleep off his horrendous jetlag. When he finally wakes up, almost sixteen hours later, he decides that he thinks he would like his new name to be ‘Dirk’.

Several weeks later, he settles on a surname. He is sitting at his desk, rolling his new name over his tongue, getting used to the feel of it, when there's a knock at the door, and a nervously fidgeting girl waiting behind it. Her name is Stevie.

***

Dimension: 1.2ERROR%%?^. March 2001.

Feet slapping against the pavements as he runs, Dirk is nineteen and he lets the thrill of cold air and the song of the universe in his head guide him down the winding Cambridge streets and back alleys, this way and that, the sense of the search hot under his skin like his beating blood as he pants, on the heels of a million hunches that all come at once and whisper to him softly where he needs to be. He knows the agents are following him, because he summoned them here, contacted the Head of the Division and switched on his location tracker, fresh out of a tutorial with Professor Standish and alive with the knowledge that he has to find this man – the one who is a threat, wrapped up in drugs, and money, and the boy with nice eyes in the café, and things that Dirk doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to. That’s not his job. His job is to find him.

The man with the pretty eyes serves Dirk in Fitzbillies sometimes, and smiles at him. Those are good days.

He takes a left, then another left, and then a right, letting the universe course through his system like the wind howling in his veins. He’s getting closer.

‘Of course, Svlad,’ Ken had answered indulgently when Dirk had asked if he could spend the next three years at university, in that gentle way he has that makes Dirk feel calm and comforted and safe, and yet prickles uncomfortably under his skin. ‘This is a workplace, not a prison. You’re here because you want to help us.’

Ken had, however, only allowed this on the condition that Dirk remain available for missions in England when required, and had put him in touch with the British authorities when Dirk had agreed. This isn’t the first mission he’s carried out in Cambridge, and he’s certain it won’t be the last. He is still owned by Blackwing, after all.

He shouldn’t be thinking about it like that, like it’s a question of ‘ownership’. But.

He shouldn’t be running around after criminals for the government while he should be studying, either. He should be staying grounded, and knuckling down to his work. Stevie helps with that; she doesn’t know much about all this, but she knows enough to keep his feet on the ground.

Dirk turns into a narrow alleyway, cramped by tall, thin buildings, and comes to an abrupt halt in the path of a figure, a man running towards him. He’s probably in his late thirties, and is carrying a bag across his chest.

The man slows, and stares at Dirk in terror.

Dirk’s heart skips a beat. He knows what happens next.

‘Here,’ he breathes, and there are footsteps and shouts behind him, the team of four, maybe five men wearing black and rushing to his aid, that he doesn’t need to turn around to see.

The man barely has time to open his mouth before a bullet cracks through his skull.

Dirk squeezes his eyes tightly shut. He always does. He hears the man’s body crumple to the ground, the men running past Dirk and to his side. He doesn’t need to look to see the eyes staring blankly up at the sky, the dark hole plunged into the centre of his forehead, the pool of blood on the ground around him. He feels a little sick.

When he opens his eyes, the body is surrounded by agents in black uniforms. One has pulled open the bag, which Dirk can see is bursting with tangling, coloured wires.

‘You alright, Agent?’ one of the men asks him from closer by, his face almost entirely obscured apart from his eyes, eyes he recognises from a few of his earlier missions.

Dirk nods tightly.

‘Had a bomb in his bag. He was on his way to murder a café full of people,’ the man claps him on the shoulder. ‘You did good, Icarus.’

The other agents barely acknowledge him, a stark contrast from the missions he carries out with Blackwing back in America. None of them offer the wolfish grin that Project Marzanna always gives him from behind her grizzled hair, matted with blood, after she’s carried out a kill. It still unnerves him a little, that gleeful leer, but he’s used to it now. It chills him, but it somehow comforts him, too, to know that she’s like him, in a strange, vague sort of way. These agents aren’t like him, though.

He tries to remind himself that what he’s doing is a good thing, the right thing. It gets harder and harder to remember every year that goes by.

Dirk holds his shoulders tense as he walks away, towards the safe haven of his room, where Stevie will be sitting at her desk and writing an essay. In Blackwing, he is Svlad. In the field, he is Icarus. Right now, he’d just like to be somewhere where he can be Dirk.

***

Dimension: 1.2ERROR%%?^. August 2017.

Dirk flings himself across the plush hotel bed, and stares up at the ceiling. He is dressed in his off-duty clothes – a shirt and tie, which he loosens – and his eyes ache with tiredness after the six-hour flight from New York. Maybe he’s getting a little old for all this CIA business.

He hasn’t been stationed in Seattle before, but it seems like a nice enough city, from what he’d seen of it on the taxi ride from the airport. The hotel he’s been put up in is luxurious, at least: the Perryman Grand. The lobby has a marble floor and expensive-looking fittings, although the grumpy bellhop in the silly outfit with the lovely, blue eyes hadn’t seemed much like he was enjoying spending his time there. Dirk supposes the world must look different from the other side of the desk, much like it looks when you’re one of the people in the clunky, black uniforms with enormous guns that civilians aren’t supposed to know about.

His room is so clean, so spotless, so quiet, that it’s almost uncomfortable, and he hauls himself up off the bed to switch on the TV mounted on the wall. He sits back down with the remote, and flicks through some of the channels, settling on a generic talk show, and turns down the volume so it’s a low hum in the background, making the air feel a little less oppressively silent.

The host is interviewing some rock star that Dirk doesn’t recognise. Boring.

He glances at the suitcase he’d dumped unceremoniously on the floor when he’d first entered his room, and decides without much thought that he can’t be bothered to unpack just yet.

He swings his legs. And fidgets.

After a moment, he digs in his pocket for his phone, and hesitates for a short moment before scrolling through his contacts to find ‘M’ for ‘Mander’. It’s been a while, and he could do with hearing a friendly voice.

He dials the number, and Stevie picks up after a few rings.

‘Dirk!’ she greets him enthusiastically, voice crackly and distant, but familiar and warm and distinctly un-American. Dirk feels a smile spread across his face.

‘Hi, Steve!’ he replies. ‘How are things?’

‘Same as always. You somewhere new?’

Dirk grins to himself. He’s acutely aware that he’s made a habit of calling when he’s just been stationed in a new place, lonely and unsettled and needing a friend.

‘I resent the implication that I only call you when I’ve just been moved,’ he chastises teasingly.

‘Well, more often than not. Where are you, then?’

‘Seattle.’

‘Ooh!’ Stevie says excitedly. ‘Have you been up the Space Needle yet?’

‘I’ve only just got here.’

‘So? What a disappointing lack of enthusiasm, Dirk. You could at least have sent me a picture from the top by now.’

‘Why don’t you come and see it yourself?’ Dirk suggests. Stevie snorts.

‘That’d be the day.’

What had started off as a throwaway comment is rapidly spinning itself into an idea in Dirk’s head. It’s been over a year since he last saw Stevie, the most recent visit being when he went to stay with her and her wife back in Sheffield, and Stevie hasn’t been to the States to see him in almost four years. It’d be nice to have her, even for a few days.

‘Why not?’

The derisive rolling of Stevie’s eyes is almost audible down the line. ‘And just drop everything? I’ve got a job, Dirk. And I can’t afford to just run off to America whenever I feel like it.’

‘I’ll pay half your airfare,’ he offers.

‘Have you even thought this through?’

‘It’ll be fun,’ Dirk whines. ‘You’re always saying you need to get away for a holiday, and I’m on leave for the next two weeks. You can bring Kate, too. If you can get time off work, say you’ll come?’

Stevie hesitates.

‘Kate won’t be able to get time off,’ she eventually replies; her wife is a journalist, and is overstretched at the best of times.

‘Just you, then.’

She sighs heavily.

‘Fine,’ she grudgingly agrees. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Don’t pretend you’re not excited,’ Dirk grins in smug triumph, and she lets out a laugh.

‘Shut up.’

They chat for over an hour before Stevie finally has to go and pick up the dry-cleaning, and they say their goodbyes. Dirk disconnects the call, considerably more cheerful than he had been when he’d first arrived, and feels his eyes settle back on the TV, still mumbling quietly to itself on the wall. The talk show has finished and morphed into a news programme, the broadcaster sitting at her desk and addressing the viewers seriously. Dirk isn’t particularly interested in what she’s got to say, but he reaches for the remote and turns the volume up anyway. He isn’t entirely sure why.

‘…Seattle police have no new leads regarding Lydia Spring, the teenage daughter of millionaire entrepreneur, Patrick Spring, who went missing two months ago without a trace…’

The cool stir of the universe twists in Dirk’s stomach as he watches the report with semi-interest, the knowledge that something about this girl is important buzzing beneath his temples. But it’s not his job to pay attention to the hunches that aren’t helpful to Blackwing. He has a job to do.

‘…Earlier this week, Lydia’s bodyguard, Farah Black, was found dead in the attic of a building in Springsborough. Farah Adrienne Black, who died from a bullet wound to the chest at the age of twenty-nine, was employed as a private security officer by the Spring family for over six years…’

A face is plastered across the screen, a woman with dark hair and eyes, wearing the stony expression of somebody who could probably slice Dirk in half merely by looking at him. There’s something familiar about her, like somewhere, in another lifetime, he’s seen her face before.

He shakes off the feeling. This isn’t his purpose, following the hunches that don’t involve killing off the villains of the world before they can commit atrocities. He doesn’t do missing persons, or women found dead in mysterious circumstances. The pull of his attention towards the news story is almost undeniable, but the universe always is. That doesn’t mean that he can’t ignore it; he’s good enough by now at knowing how. He’s here to do what he has to, and nothing more.

Dirk switches off the TV, and pushes it firmly out of his mind.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 5. Two months ago.

The minute he opens his eyes that evening, after being awoken by the ungodly shriek of his alarm, Todd knows it’s going to be a bad night. He can say that with some certainty, he is aware, because his nights always are.

His head is throbbing uncomfortably, so he stays lying down for another ten minutes to groan pitifully to himself, before rolling out of bed and stumbling into the kitchen to pour himself a whisky and a bowl of Lucky Charms. The milk tastes sour, so he tips most of it down the sink.

He starts work in an hour, so he pulls on yesterday’s jeans and a four-day-old T-shirt without bothering to shower or shave; the seedy bar always reeks of beer, piss and sweat anyway, so it’s not as if anyone’s going to notice that he doesn’t smell like a basket of roses.

The whiskey doesn’t even burn his throat anymore. He’s numb to it now, just like it makes him numb to the attacks when they come. Or, it helps, at least, even if it doesn’t block out the pain completely – it makes it feel more distant, somehow, more bearable. That’s what he tells himself.

Todd can’t remember when he started self-medicating to deal with the disease he used to fake having, but supermarket spirits are sure as hell a lot cheaper to get hold of than the pills he can’t afford to take.

He shrugs on a battered jacket and steps out of his apartment, not bothering to lock the door behind him, because it’s been bust for months and he isn’t sure he’d be able to open it again if he tried. The Ridgely is wasting away beneath his feet as he shuffles down the stairs and out into daylight that hurts his eyes and leaves him squinting grumpily at it, as if it has personally offended him. His beaten-up tin can of a car sits rusting on the curb, rattling unhappily as he climbs into the driver’s seat and pulls the door shut behind him. His head is still pounding.

Just get through another night. Just survive.

Todd clenches his jaw against the emptiness in his chest that somehow feels like both numbness and unbearable pain, and wonders how long he can go on like this.

But, for now, he has to, so he turns the key in the ignition and pulls out into the road.

He isn’t sure why it’s Amanda who he’s thinking of as he drives, but her laugh sounds in his head for some reason, eyes sparkling with mirth and hair billowing out behind her as she runs in the garden like they used to when they were children, before they grew up, and Todd lied to her about having the disease she would later be crippled by and that he would eventually get, too; before he had withdrawn so far into his own brand of self-flagellation that his sister had been forced to give up on him. He doesn’t blame her, but he can’t help thinking that this whole life thing would be a lot more enjoyable if he still had her to talk to.

He pulls up as the traffic lights change to red, and wrenches up the handbrake so he can sit for a moment while he waits for it to switch back to green. Eyes glazing over distractedly as his mind drifts far away, back to Amanda, back to the garden, he barely notices the car coming up far too fast behind him before it crashes, full-force, into the back of his own.

Todd feels his body lurch forward with the force of the collision, seatbelt cutting into his chest and taking the wind out of his lungs so that all he can make is pained ‘oomph’ sound before his head snaps back against the headrest behind him. He groans in pain, reaching up a hand to run it gingerly across the back of his neck, headache now throbbing even harder and setting off a horrible ringing in his ears to boot, and grunts instead when he discovers that groaning makes his ribs hurt. He clutches his aching chest and curses whatever piece of shit has done this to him. An experimental pressing of his ribs doesn’t reveal any broken bones, at least. He’ll be pretty fucking bruised, though.

Todd directs his gaze angrily to the rear-view mirror, and finds himself glaring at a flashy, blue Corvette. Sitting in the front seat is the pale face of a very guilty-looking man. He’s wearing an obnoxiously bright, pink jacket, and Todd hates him instantly.

Once he has deemed himself relatively unharmed and physically capable of moving, Todd clambers out of his car with only minimal wincing, and slams the door so hard behind him that it’s a miracle it’s still attached at the hinges. The man in the Corvette sinks lower in his seat, eyes wide with fear at Todd’s livid expression. One of his headlights is completely smashed in.

‘Out!’ Todd yells at him, and the man jumps with fright, before slowly opening his own car door and practically dribbling out to stand in the road, shifting uneasily from foot to foot like a guilty schoolboy hauled up in front of the headmaster.

Todd stares him down in icy silence.

‘Hello!’ the man says weakly in a ridiculous English accent, apparently trying to retain some politeness in the face of Todd’s fury. ‘I’m… I’m very sorry to tell you this, but it appears that somebody seems to have crashed into the back of your car.’

Todd is so angry he’s shaking. Though, that could just be the need for another drink.

‘I just saw you do it!’ he spits, and the man shrinks into himself a little more.

‘Right. Yes, that was the rest of what I was about to tell you. In my defence, I was actually following the whims of the universe, you see, which means it’s hardly my fault if I was entirely distracted from earthly things like other drivers by the hands of fate telling me where to go-’

‘Oh, I can tell you where to go. You can go f-’

‘There’s no need to be rude,’ the man interrupts, a slightly affronted expression on his face as if he holds the moral high ground here, and hasn’t just rear-ended somebody’s car at a red light. Suddenly, and to Todd’s utter disbelief, he holds out a hand for Todd to shake. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way. Dirk Gently. I’m trying out a new name. And you are…?’

Todd gapes at him for a second, making no move to take his hand.

‘Uh. Todd. Wait,’ he glowers, irritated at himself for even answering, ‘that’s not what I…’

The man is smiling pleasantly at him now, like they are merely two strangers having a pleasant chat in the middle of a thankfully quiet road, and Todd’s anger is cooled a little by the realisation that this man, this Dirk Gently, is clearly an absolute basket-case. Giving up with a heavy sigh, Todd stomps back to his car and wrenches open the passenger door so he can fish around in the glove compartment for the pen he knows he’s stashed in there somewhere. To his annoyance, the man follows, and stands behind him as he digs past a hundred scraps of old receipts, an apple core, and a half-empty tube of breath mints.

‘Nice to meet you, Todd,’ Dirk’s voice wafts cheerfully from somewhere over Todd’s shoulder. ‘Have you seen a corgi wandering around, by the way? I’m a professional dog-walker, you see, and I appear to have misplaced one of my charges, which is why I was in rather a rush when I bumped into you, and which, obviously, makes it not really my fault. Very sweet little thing, goes by the name of “Rapunzel”-’

Locating the pen at last, Todd retreats from the bowels of his car and shoves it at Dirk, along with one of the screwed-up receipts. Dirk falls silent as he stares bewilderedly down at the pen and paper in his hands.

‘I want all your insurance details, right now,’ Todd instructs him through gritted teeth.

Dirk avoids his eyes, suddenly shifty.

‘Ah. Well, you see, I’ve actually only just come over from England, er, two years ago, and I don’t exactly have… um… any insurance. Or an American licence. This isn’t even my car, actually. It was just parked outside my building looking rather lovely, and, since I really do need to find this dog-’

Todd stares at him in utter disbelief.

‘Did you steal this car?’

No,’ Dirk rolls his eyes impatiently, ‘technically the universe-’

‘Okay, just… put down your personal details, please?’

Dirk beams. ‘Of course. My pleasure.’

As Dirk flattens the crumpled receipt against the top of Todd’s car so that he can write on it, Todd almost wonders what on earth he’s done in his life to deserve this right now, before realising that he already knows, and deciding not to continue down that particular path of utter self-loathing right now.

After a moment, Dirk turns back to Todd with a huge smile on his face, and holds out the receipt. Todd takes it from him and glances down at his messy handwriting, which spells out nothing but his name and mobile phone number.

Todd can’t even be bothered to be pissed off anymore, electing instead for a heavy sigh of defeat. He knows for a fact that he won’t chase it up anyway, now that he knows this man is driving a stolen car without either insurance or a licence. It’s not like he needs the police sniffing around driving-related matters, given what his blood-alcohol levels are likely to be the majority of the time.

‘Great,’ Todd mutters. ‘I’ll… call you.’

He won’t.

Todd climbs moodily back into his car, already ready for this fucking night to be over, and Dirk gives him a grin and a little wave.

‘Okay, Todd. I hope you have a wonderful evening.’

‘Fuck off.’

Chapter Text

Dimension: Wendimoor. Present day.

When Todd finds himself flung bodily into the air out of a dark pool and into an even darker cave, he’s barely even taken by surprise. Rationally, of course, he knows that the weird portal-type thing between Wendimoor and the real world should really have been closed off by order being restored at the end of the last case, and that that should have meant he wouldn’t ever see this place again. Emotionally, some pessimistic little goblin in the back of his mind has clearly decided that no loose ends are ever tied up that neatly.

He grunts in pain as his body hits the ground with a dull thud, and lies on his back to groan for a moment. The rippling of the pool is reflected eerily on the ceiling above him, giving the cave a strange sense of peaceful calm that he can do little but grumble at. Eventually, he rolls himself slowly onto his front to assess his surroundings. The dollar coin glints faintly on the hard ground beside him: Mona, reluctant to stay human for any longer than she absolutely has to. Todd picks up the dollar and shoves it back into his pocket.

This is Amanda’s friend’s cave, he knows: Witchy McWitchface, or something. He can make out the circular shape of the pool, ringed with blocks of stone, and the strange, red glow that glances off the walls like an echo. It takes a second for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness, and he’s almost too busy staring at the glowing eyes of the odd creatures around the edges of the cave to notice that there is a figure sitting cross-legged and closed-eyed on the other side of the pool, a figure who looks a hell of a lot like his sister.

‘Amanda!’ he pulls himself up to standing abruptly, hope and relief colouring his voice and pulling a smile across his face, but Amanda doesn’t stir. She sits, still enough that she could be made of stone, no sign of recognition anywhere on her face, like she’s meditating. Todd frowns.

‘Amanda?’ he repeats cautiously, stepping towards her. Could she be in some kind of… trance? He peers into her blank face, but her eyes remain closed. He waves a hand in front of her face. Nothing.

Todd’s heart starts pounding, and he reaches out to place a hand carefully on her shoulder.

‘Amanda!’ he urges, taking both shoulders and shaking them.

Amanda’s eyes snap open, and suddenly she’s glaring at him, looking far less legitimately in danger than just plain pissed off.

‘Dude, shut up!’ she snaps. ‘Can’t you see I’m trying to concentrate?’

Todd opens and closes his mouth in an embarrassed combination of shock, relief, and indignation.

‘I thought you were, like, possessed or something!’ he splutters in protest, coming to sit next to her by the pool. She gives a huff of annoyance, but allows him to perch on the ridge of rock beside her. ‘So much crazy shit has been going down. I was just talking to you in another universe. Wait, which timeline are you from?’

‘The one where we went to Wendimoor, duh, same as you,’ Amanda looks at him like he’s being especially slow, which he feels is rather unfair. ‘I got Mona to bring you.’

‘What are you even doing here?’

‘I came as soon as shit started getting weird,’ Amanda shrugs. ‘I bumped into this alternate universe version of Dirk who was walking, like, twelve dogs? don't even know, man, but I'm pretty sure one of them was the corgi that Lydia Spring got her soul magicked into, or whatever. Anyway, I thought I'd come and see what Wakti thought about it, and I wanted to drop in on Farson anyway-’

‘Wait,’ Todd holds up a hand in stunned confusion. ‘“Drop in”? You can just show up here whenever you feel like it?’

‘I’m literally a witch, Todd,’ Amanda reminds him, waving the carved wooden stick that Todd hadn’t noticed she’d been holding loosely in one hand. ‘I’ve got a magic wand.’

Todd blinks. ‘Okay. Well… what did Wakti say?’

‘She doesn’t know. She just knows the universe is broken and it's my job to figure out how to fix it. So, I'm… figuring it out.’

For the first time since Todd arrived, Amanda looks a little unsure of herself, frowning slightly into the pool, lips pursed with worry. Todd raises his eyebrows. There’s a long silence.

‘You don’t have any idea what you’re doing, do you?’ he finally asks, and Amanda shoots him a grimace.

‘Not one single fucking clue.’

An odd chorus of gurgles and squeaks and animalistic warbling drifts in faintly from outside, prompting Todd to look around in confusion. Amanda is on her feet almost immediately, jaw set with such determined seriousness that Todd almost shivers.

‘Something’s coming,’ she mutters, and strides out of the cave without a second thought, Todd hurriedly clambering to his feet and following as she does so. The daylight outside is harsh, and he squints into the brightness as he ducks under the hanging strings and feathers that make up the entrance to the cave, and shields his eyes to see Amanda walking over to join the bizarre figure of Wakti in her enormous hat, as she stands looking out into the forest beyond the village. A handful of the tiny, rainbow-coloured Bofuki Nepoo chirp and chirrup inquisitively around them as they stand in wait, evidently the source of the commotion.

Todd steps forward and into line with Amanda and Wakti, peering into the forest, and manages to make out the shape of several figures – four of them, it looks like – walking between the densely packed trees towards them. Amanda is tense beside him, and Todd waits for their approach with a sense of foreboding, even as it becomes clearer that three of the figures are the Boy, and Panto and Silas. The other walks behind them, just out of view.

Francis greets them cordially as he steps forward and into the clearing that marks entry into the village.

‘Wakti. Amanda. Todd.’

‘Young child,’ Wakti inclines her head. ‘To what do we owe this pleasure?’

Francis steps to one side to reveal a bewildered and slightly scared-looking man wearing a black shirt and tie and wiggling his fingers in an awkward little wave. His pupils glow a fierce red, ringed with black that spreads almost entirely across his eyes, and Todd’s stomach flips with a combination of fear and grotesque fascination.

In an instant, Amanda is at Panto’s side, drawing the huge scissors from his belt, and brandishing them aggressively at the man. Todd is less shocked at how fast she manages to whip them out than he is at the fact that Panto lets her do so.

‘Stay back!’ Amanda snarls, pointing the scissors at the man’s throat with a viciousness that makes Todd decide to never argue with her, ever again. The nervousness in the man’s face has given way to total, abject terror.

‘No, no, no, no, no!’ he babbles, hands up in panic-stricken surrender. ‘Not the scissors!’

‘What the fuck is wrong with your eyes?’ Todd can’t help but ask with morbid curiosity. The man just wrinkles his nose in confusion.

‘Huh?’

‘How did you get here?’ Amanda demands, scissors still pointed at the throat of the man, who lets out a little squeak.

‘Amanda, who is this guy?’ Todd frowns. Amanda doesn’t take her eyes off him.

‘Friedkin. He’s Blackwing.’

Todd’s heart starts to beat faster as he stares at him, this asshole who must have been involved in keeping Dirk locked away and miserable for a huge chunk of his life. The colour drains from his face.

‘Hey, look, man,’ Friedkin appeals to them frantically, ‘I’ve made some really big mistakes, but I didn’t wanna hurt anybody!’

Amanda practically oozes venom. ‘You held a gun to my head!’

‘Okay, yeah, I fucked up, big time,’ Friedkin admits hastily. ‘But you gotta understand, man. I joined Blackwing as a career move. I wanted to be a soldier working on a big government project! And I didn't really understand what was going on. And then I got to the top, and I was, like, so in charge. You wanna know how in charge I was? Like, super in charge. But now I understand, and I understand that I am not in charge, and no one is in charge because the universe is its own giant thing, like, it rules itself! Resistance is fertile, you know?’

Todd and Amanda share a glance, but remain silent as Friedkin continues to gabble.

‘A-and I can see the threads, holy shit, I can see worlds colliding and coming together and all the wrong people and things in all the wrong places, and-’

‘Wait’ Todd interrupts, something about this not quite making sense. ‘You can see the… the worlds? And, like, how they fit together?’

‘Yeah!’ Friedkin nods enthusiastically. ‘Dude, I was in this crazy sci-fi place where I could see the whole universe! It was like being backstage or something!’

‘We’ve been there,’ Todd confirms. ‘But you can see what they are? How they work?’

‘The coloured lights? Sure. That’s how I got to Wendimoor – I could see it all happening, see the princes, and the… the… snail lady?’ Friedkin glances at Wakti uncertainly.

‘They’re dimensions,’ Amanda murmurs, realisation settling behind her eyes as they glaze over in thought. She lowers the scissors, and Friedkin visibly wilts in relief. ‘They’re timelines. We didn’t understand because we couldn’t see, but you… you can.’

Todd looks at Friedkin, impressed. ‘Dude, are you…? Do you have a universe… power thing? Like Dirk?’

Friedkin blinks, dumbfounded.

‘Uh. I just… see. With my eyes.’

‘Your eyes are looking pretty whack, to be fair-’

‘You can help us,’ Amanda addresses Friedkin, cutting off Todd’s line of comment before it can continue. ‘If you can see everything that’s wrong across all the dimensions, you can tell us where it all started.’

Friedkin looks elated. ‘Oh, yeah! There’s this one timeline that’s, like, all messed up. It should never have existed! That Ken guy, you know, the one who was all close with Project Marzanna, that one I can’t pronounce? He’s the source of it all. It all goes back to him.’

Something clicks in Todd’s memory and he frowns, vaguely aware of Panto biting out something that sounds like, ‘You dare speak her name?’ before Silas plants a pacifying hand on his shoulder.

‘Bart’s friend, Ken?’ Todd repeats. ‘Dirk said he was the new Director of Blackwing.’

‘Uh huh,’ Friedkin nods. ‘But he, like, messed around with a time machine and shit trying to change the past, and created a new dimension that wasn’t meant to exist. And now everything’s all fucked up because he made Icarus a secret agent in this weird new version of reality, and-’

Everything is starting to make sense in Todd’s head. ‘So…’ he says slowly, ‘so, he created the timeline where Dirk worked for Blackwing! The one Stevie came from!’

‘I dunno who that is,’ Friedkin shrugs.

‘Why has creating a new timeline just, like, broken the universe?’ Amanda muses. ‘I get that it shouldn’t have existed, but… what’s so wrong with it that it’s literally tearing reality apart?’

‘Dirk being a secret agent?’ Todd suggests. ‘Following Blackwing instead of following his hunches?’

Amanda nods slowly. ‘Yeah… yeah, that’d make sense…’

‘Either way, this Ken guy clearly got in way over his head.’

‘I never liked him,’ Friedkin sighs. ‘He took my job, and then he just watched me die. What an asshole.’

Amanda raises a sceptical eyebrow in his direction.

‘He… watched you die?’

Friedkin shrugs, looking more bummed out than upset by this fact. ‘Yeah. Some tattooed guy stabbed me with a pair of scissors, just like those ones. Francis says my mortal body is probably dead by now, but, honestly? I’m not even that mad about it. I mean, it was kind of bad luck, but I would have killed him, too, if I’d gotten the chance, so, fair play. And reality’s kind of a bitch anyway, you know what I mean? So much pressure, man. So, I guess I’m chill just staying here.’ He jerks his thumb towards Francis. ‘I just met this guy, who I’ve only ever known as an old man in a coma before, and, like, he’s super cool. And the princes? Freaking adorable. Even if the pink one keeps trying to slice me to bits with his huge-ass scissors-’

‘Hey,’ Todd interrupts suddenly. ‘Francis. You created this entire dimension. Surely you can just… you know. Sort out all the rest of them, too?’

‘I can only control this world,’ Francis replies. ‘It’s a dream of my own making, and I’m able to manipulate it as such. But I don’t have the power to control the threads of the universe.’

‘But there is somebody here who can,’ Wakti slyly adds.

Todd looks at Amanda as everybody else does the same, six pairs of eyes turning to fix themselves on her. She looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

‘Uhhhh-’

‘You are the key to fixing your reality,’ Wakti continues calmly. ‘I have told you. You are the Mandelbrot.’

‘Why do you keep calling me that?!’ Amanda asks in a vaguely panicked voice.

‘I have no answers for you, Amanda. I am merely a mouthpiece for the prophecies that are told through me. I am nothing but a speaker of words.’

‘But why that word?’ Todd asks. ‘It’s a fractal, isn’t it? A Mandelbrot Set? Like a shape?’

Infinite sides, and infinite dimensions,’ Amanda breathes, eyes wide. Her head snaps up. ‘Wakti. If I have to fix the universe, I have to fix it in every dimension. I have to, like, pull them all back together. Right?’

Wakti bows her head towards her. ‘That is the purpose of the Mandelbrot. And you have an ally: the Panoptes. The one who is dead, and the one who is not. The one who can see the fabric of reality, and the one who can control it.’

Amanda glances doubtfully over at Friedkin, who is staring between them with his mouth hanging slightly open in gormless lack of understanding. She looks distinctly unimpressed.

‘You can see it, and I can alter it,’ she repeats. ‘That’s how we can put all of the pieces back into place. If we can erase all the damage this Ken dude has done in the past, figure out a way to put a stop to him before he screws everything up, we can make sure it’s erased in every timeline, get rid of him and Blackwing, for good. Two birds with one stone. And… and then I’ll figure out how to set all the dimensions back to how they should be, so they’re not all crossing into each other anymore.’

Todd wrinkles his nose at this semi-formulated plan, unconvinced.

‘So, what? You’re gonna try to turn back time so you can pull together every single alternate timeline in existence, and then magically take them all apart again and put everything right?’

Amanda nods slowly. ‘Uh. Yep. Friedkin, in here.’

She beckons Friedkin, who is still staring between them all in lack of comprehension, to follow her into Wakti’s cave. He obediently trails inside, followed by Todd, Wakti, Francis, Panto and Silas, who all traipse in behind.

Amanda is already seated confidently at the pool by the time Todd’s eyes are used to the dark again, and Friedkin sits down beside her with a bump.

‘Blackwing is the centre of all this, so it’s where we need to start,’ Amanda addresses them all decisively. ‘Ken changed the past for a reason, right? To get the subjects on his side? I mean, Dirk being a Blackwing Agent has gotta be the main change he made.’

‘Uh,’ Friedkin’s brow crinkles. ‘I think so.’

‘So, if Blackwing is a key, and Dirk is a key, we need to get Dirk to the facility,’ Amanda explains, ‘to where it all started, where it all went wrong. Todd, I need you to take Mona to Dirk, the Dirk you know, so Wakti and I can send him there.’

There are a million questions buzzing around in Todd’s head that, in lieu of putting into words, he tries to just ignore.

‘Um. Right.’

Amanda turns to Friedkin. ‘Think you can figure out how the timelines are crossing well enough that we can make a plan to get Mona to Dirk?’

‘I… I’ll try?’

‘We’re gonna need to predict every event in every timeline to the letter, and then orchestrate an attack on a government agency that I can use as the meeting point for a million different alternate realities,’ Amanda continues. ‘It might get kinda crazy.’

‘Can… can I recommend Farah for helping with that?’ Todd suggests weakly. ‘I can’t recommend her enough for anything, really, but if you’re considering breaking into a secret military base, she’s probably a good bet to have on hand.’

‘Sure,’ Amanda inclines her head thoughtfully. ‘But we need Mona to teleport Dirk. If they’re not in the same universe and right next to each other, we can’t use her to get Farah there, too.’

‘Oh!’ Friedkin jumps in excitedly. ‘She could just, like, drive to the base! It’s actually not that far out of Seattle, only a couple hours. I mean, I know where to go, and I’ve got my security access and stuff so she could get in-’

‘It was in Washington the whole time?’ Todd repeats with a surge of irritation. ‘We went all the way to fucking Montana, and it was two hours out of Seattle? What the hell are the chances?!’

Friedkin shrugs. ‘Everything’s connected, I guess.’

‘Okay,’ Amanda jumps in before Todd can continue grousing. ‘Okay, Friedkin, if I can somehow send you down to speak with Farah…’ Amanda looks to Wakti. ‘Uh. Wakti? Any advice on that?’

‘You wish to project a dead man to another dimension,’ Wakti replies sagely. ‘Consider it practice for when you will have to cross all of them at once. I will gladly input all of the power I can, but I cannot offer you a way to achieve what you must achieve. That is something you must find in yourself.’

Amanda sighs heavily.

‘Okay. Sweet. Guess I’ve got a lot of work to do, then.’

‘Are you sure you want to do this, Amanda?’ Silas asks softly. Amanda lets a grin spread across her face.

‘Become a master of all reality, take down a top-secret government agency, and fix the broken universe all in one afternoon? Hell, yeah.’

Todd is fairly sure that, if he isn’t brutally killed my aliens or vampires or werewolves in the near future, his sister might actually be the death of him.

***

Dimension: 1. Present Day.

Dirk isn’t entirely sure why he’s decided that the Perryman Grand was a good place to start looking for a Missing Todd. But, then again, he never is.

Farah talks strategy for most of the drive, but Dirk isn’t really paying attention. All he can think about is his last conversation with Todd, how close he had been to, maybe, finally getting what his ridiculous heart has been hoping for. And now he doesn’t know how long it will be before he sees him again. Irritatingly, the very person who he knows could make him feel much better about this whole universe-collapsing-in-on-itself mess is the one who has disappeared into thin air.

When Farah screeches to a halt in front of the hotel, she’s up and out of the car, slamming the door behind her and making what Dirk fondly refers to as her ‘game face’ before Dirk even registers that they’ve arrived. He scrambles out of the car after her, slinging his bag across his shoulders, and hurriedly follows her up the steps to the front of the hotel as she slips her gun out of her holster.

She clicks off the safety and glances at Dirk.

‘Sound gun at the ready,’ she orders.

‘For what?’ Dirk frowns.

‘It’s a case,’ she reminds him witheringly. ‘Literally anything could happen.’

Fair point. Dirk digs around in the bag, eliciting a ruffled little hiss of annoyance when his fingers catch something furry, and grabs hold of the sound gun, pulling it out with a flourish. Farah nods once at him, and he nods back.

Together, guns poised and ready in the air, the two of them steal into the gap in the revolving doors, and emerge a few seconds later in the lobby of the Perryman Grand.

A handful of people mill around in the lobby, guests and hotel employees alike, waiting with their cases for a bellhop to take them upstairs, talking to the concierge behind the desk in low voices. There’s a quiet hum of conversation in the air, and the sound of suitcase wheels against the marble floor echoing around the high ceiling. Nothing seems at all out of the ordinary.

Dirk falters and lowers the sound gun slightly, just as he sees Farah do the same with her own gun out of the corner of his eye, hiding it behind her back. One of the guests shoots them a confused glance, and Farah offers a polite nod in response. She looks a little embarrassed.

‘What exactly were we expecting to find here?’ Dirk asks delicately, and Farah glares at him.

‘I don’t know, Dirk,’ she hisses. ‘The universe is literally falling apart. Secret agents? Our own murderous doubles? Dinosaurs?’

‘Farah,’ Dirk scoffs, ‘if you refuse to believe that aliens exist, then dinosaurs-’

Let’s,’ Farah cuts him off forcefully, ‘just… look for Todd. Okay?’

‘Certainly,’ Dirk nods. ‘We’ll find him, Farah. I’ll find our grumpy little colleague, or my name’s not “Dirk Gently”!’

The sound of gunshots ringing out, one, two, three, cracks through the air around them, and Dirk claps his hands over his ears, whirling around in terror to find the source of the noise as the other people in the lobby scream and run. Standing in front of the revolving doors is a woman with grizzled, matted hair, wearing a bellhop uniform complete with the stupid hat perched ridiculously on her head, and pointing a gun straight at him.

If he gets out of this alive, Dirk has got to stop shouting out his name in public places.

‘Dirk Gently,’ Bart growls, eyes glinting with bloodlust that has Dirk frozen to the spot with fear, ‘you are a dead man.’

Dirk slowly turns his head to the place where Farah had stood beside him only a moment ago, and finds to his panic that she has completely disappeared.

Oh, no,’ he whispers.

And Bart starts crossing the lobby.

She shoots bullet after bullet, striding purposefully towards him, and Dirk shrieks in terror, fumbling with the sound gun and managing to hold it out in front of him. The bullets whizz past his ears and he squeezes his eyes tightly shut and fires in her general direction, feeling the force of the explosion of air and sound all the way up his arms. There’s a thud, and the gunshots cease, the sound gun having found its mark. Dirk peels open one eye, and then the other, to see Bart glaring angrily up at him from the ground a little way away, having been thrown backwards by the force of the gun.

‘Hey!’ she yells at him, dragging herself up off the ground. ‘How’d you do that?’

Fingers numb and trembling with fright, Dirk drops the sound gun and rummages in the bag across his chest, grabbing hold of the kitten around her middle with one hand and brandishing her at Bart’s oncoming figure. The kitten twists and wriggles and mews in indignation.

‘I-I’ve got a shark, and I’m not afraid to use it!’ Dirk warns shakily.

The anger seems to dissipate from Bart’s face in an instant, leaving only pleasantly surprised curiosity. She tilts her head as she watches the kitten, stepping more closely towards it so that she is standing right in front of them. Dirk holds his breath, frozen to the spot as he holds the kitten out towards Bart.

‘That’s not a shark,’ she informs him. ‘That’s a cat! Hey, little guy! What’s his name?’

To Dirk’s astonishment, Bart starts delightedly scratching the tiny kitten’s ears, making her vibrate with soft purrs in Dirk’s hands. He fights to maintain an air of dignity for both himself and the cat.

‘She’s a girl,’ he sniffs loftily, bending down to place her on the floor in front of him, and Bart crouches to continue petting her. ‘And her name is… um. “Kitten”. Or “Shark Kitten”. “Shitten”, if you will.’

Bart snorts, tickling the kitten under the chin.

‘That’s a stupid name. I like “Ken”.’

The name stops Dirk in his tracks. Ken. The universe is whispering at him, washing over him in cold waves, telling him that this is important. He bites his lip worriedly as he watches Bart.

‘Bart?’ he says slowly. ‘Where’s Ken? See, you’ve tried to kill me before, actually, and, well, last time there were two of you.’

‘How d’you know my name? Bart frowns up at him. ‘Who’s Ken?’

‘He… he was your friend,’ Dirk replies softly, his brain slowly catching up with his mouth, fitting the pieces into place, like the answer to a question that sits on the tip of his tongue. ‘And now… now he’s head of Blackwing…’ It’s flooding to him, the realisation, and it’s overwhelming, hitting him like waves of nausea. He blinks rapidly. ‘It’s something to do with Blackwing. Why didn’t I see it before? Oh, why is it always stupid Blackwing?!’

Dirk stares at the ground in front of him, barely seeing it, as the cogs whir and chink into place in his head, not quite solving the mystery, but starting to set it all into place. His heart is racing, breathless from the speed that his brain is working at as it all starts to make sense.

‘In Stevie’s timeline, I was working for Blackwing, which I am absolutely positive no version of me would do willingly, unless something about it was very different, which means the… the brokenness must go right back to before I first encountered them. Blackwing is the key! And… and Ken… Ken has a part to play, because he runs it now, and, obviously, everything is connected and all that…’

Bart remains sitting on the floor, absently petting the cat and listening to him with semi-interest.

‘You’re weird,’ she comments, not looking up.

‘Bart,’ Dirk addresses her seriously, ‘I need you to help me get into a top-secret government facility that may or may not have single-handedly brought about the destruction of the universe.’

Bart shrugs. ‘Okay. Can I keep your cat?’

Dirk considers this for a moment, and eventually decides that it’s probably quite a small price to pay.

‘Yes, I suppose so.’

‘Cool.’ Bart stands up from the floor of the lobby, turning her attention to him with a disinterested look in her eyes, and Dirk realises with a start that she’s still holding her gun in one hand. ‘Do I still gotta kill you?’

‘No,’ Dirk feels his heart skip a beat in panic as he throws up his hands in front of him, wide-eyed and pleading desperately, ‘no, no, please don’t kill me-’

One more gunshot cracks through the air like a whip, and Dirk yelps and squeezes his eyes shut, bracing himself for the searing pain that he is anticipating. It doesn’t come.

He slowly opens his eyes, to see Bart crumpled on the ground in front of him, curled up into a ball on a floor that runs wet with her own blood.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1.2ERROR%%?^. Present day.

Fsssssssssss.

Another screen, the fifth now, dissolves into nothing but static, the image shutting off entirely as the screen is invaded by messy, black-and-white scribbles, and Ken curses to himself under his breath. The ground is unstable beneath his feet, the shaking of the walls playing havoc with the CCTV throughout the facility, which means he can’t keep track of the Projects, and it’s unnerving him. The camera in Room 11 is out, the room where Succubus is in training with a couple of the lieutenants, as well as Room 7, where Priest is conducting tests with Athos, and Rooms 36, 19 and 24, all of which are currently unoccupied, which is a blessing at least.

Ken has always been fairly good at keeping cool under pressure, he likes to think. But, this time, he’s in deep.

He grabs onto the corner of his desk and clutches it tight as another tremor rumbles through the walls of his office, a heavy sense of dread oozing like treacle into his chest as he feels his pulse quicken. It’s not as if they’re strangers to earthquakes in Washington, but this doesn’t feel like an ordinary earthquake.

Ken looks back up at the CCTV screens. In Room 42, a holding room that is supposed to be empty, a girl in a black jumpsuit sits at a table, mousy brown hair falling over her face, and Ken feels his heart skip a beat. Bart. Not Marzanna, with military training up to the eyeballs, the mercenary who is dispatched on missions to dispose of criminals, but Bart Curlish, the mucky, almost childlike holistic assassin who had taken him hostage in a beaten-up car in a universe a million miles away from this one, who laughed as he sang along to the radio in the car, and once tried to drink shampoo. She’s a version of herself that shouldn’t exist here, and yet, she’s sitting quietly at the table in the middle of an unlocked room that shouldn’t be occupied.

Ken remembers suddenly that the Bart he remembers as the girl sitting at the table is sitting there because she wants to, not because she’s been forced, which makes her far less likely to go for his throat than she would be otherwise, and this makes him fractionally calmer.

After only a few seconds, this screen, too, has faded to static, and Bart has disappeared from Ken’s view and into a mess of crackling, white lines.

Ken barely has time to think before a noise behind him prompts him to whirl around to see a thin, bird-like woman with close-cropped hair standing on the other side of his office, glaring at him with glowing, red eyes.

Project Banshee opens her mouth, displaying a set of razor-sharp pointed teeth, and screams the howl of a thousand birds of prey, the deafening racket exploding in Ken’s skull, sending him to his knees with his hands clasped over his ears, eyes squeezed tightly closed as he pants against the pain splintering through his head. He is vaguely aware of the CCTV screens exploding with the impact, her deafening screech like gunshots through his brain, and Ken cries out in agony, the sound too much, too harsh, too loud.

Just as his vision starts to blur, the room falls abruptly silent. Ken is gasping, shaking, his head throbbing with pain as he remains still for a moment longer, not yet daring to open his eyes or remove his hands from where they clutch at the sides of his head. She has burst the eardrums of several guards in the past, he knows, during the brief period before he had realised that noise-cancelling ear protectors were vital for anybody coming into contact with her. Since then, it had only been criminals and terrorists and those he had wanted to hurt who had been left with blood dripping down their cheeks, whimpering in pain.

When Ken finally brings himself to crack open his eyes, finding himself curled into a ball on his office floor, Banshee is nowhere in sight.

Something is incredibly wrong.

Ken pulls himself shakily to his feet, barely noticing the broken glass of the CCTV screens littering the floor, sparks of electricity still fizzing and smoking from the wires behind, and wrenches his office door open so that he stands out in the corridor. The LED lights lining the ceiling flicker eerily as a tremor once again shudders under his feet, but this time he can see the cause. A crack splits across the ground as he watches, a chink revealing nothing but bright, white light beneath, before it shifts, and closes again. Another crack, and then another, around his feet, the earth breaking up around him, before they groan and shift and close, breaks in the fabric of the universe he has made for himself, and panic leaps into his throat. The shaking stops, and the ground is stable and whole once more.

He starts off striding blindly down the corridor, heart pounding in his chest, and presses a button on the mic that rests against his cheek, praying desperately that the comms system will take him through to the once person he has confided in about what he has done.

‘Priest!’ he gasps into the mic as he marches down the corridor towards the closest alarm. ‘Priest, I need maximum backup now!’

‘Not a courtesy call, then,’ Priest’s crackling voice is laced with amusement. ‘This got anything to do with the world imploding?’

‘I need everybody on action stations, Code Red,’ Ken orders. ‘Everything is falling apart. The Projects have gone crazy, Banshee is loose, Marzanna’s in a holding room like she was before I went back in time-’

‘Looks like that’s what you get when you mess with the universe. Didn’t you once say, “that’s not how it works”?’

Ken can barely stand the glee in Priest’s voice, and even less so the fact that he might be entirely right. Anger clouds his brain like ice-cold fog as he continues to stride down the corridor.

‘Weaponize Project Incubus,’ he snarls, and Priest, apathetically, chillingly, giggles.

‘They’re not here, Kenny Boy,’ he purrs. ‘Seems like a pretty effective way to lose control of your subjects is to split them off into infinite parallel dimensions where you can’t reach them.’

‘Why is it happening now?’ Ken barely keeps his voice level. ‘I went back to recruit Icarus over twenty years ago. It doesn’t make sense.’

‘Universe don’t make sense, kiddo. Thought you’d know that by now.’

‘Osmund,’ Ken pleads quietly, desperately, ‘please. I need your help.’

Priest lets out a defeated sigh, like a parent finally giving in to their child’s inane nagging.

‘As much as I do get a sadistic kind of enjoyment out of watching people flail around in their own excrement, I’m willing to put aside my idea of a good time for ya, Kenzo. I’ll gather the squad, do what I can do. If Blackwing’s goin’ down, you can bet I’ll be there breakin’ faces ‘til the very end.’

‘Thank you,’ Ken breathes. ‘Thank you.’

He finally reaches the alarm on the wall of the corridor and slams his fist against it, watching the lights above immediately switch to red as the blaring noise begins to ring in his ears. If the universe wants to fight, he’s going to damn well give all he’s got.

‘Don’t mention it,’ Priest drawls. ‘Watcha wanna do about the little lioness in the holding room?’

‘Marzanna?’ Ken asks distractedly, turning to march back along the corridor. ‘Leave her. If she’s shown up from twenty years in another future, she’s here because she wants to be. She’s not a threat.’

‘Heard and understood, Kenny,’ Priest confirms down the comms. ‘Let’s have a fist-fight with the universe.’

***

Dimension: 2. Present day.

When Farah realises she’s unwittingly left Dirk behind in another dimension in the lobby of the Perryman Grand, one in which he’s about to be shot by a homicidal maniac wearing a bellhop uniform, she feels that the only natural response is to beat herself up about it. Her complete and utter lack of control over the situation is, as usual, no bar to her ability to blame all of the world’s problems on herself.

Lowering her gun disconsolately for the second time in the space of about a minute, Farah surveys the place where both Dirk and a bloodthirsty-looking Bart had been standing looking at each other like a pair of cowboys ready for a shootout, if one of the cowboys had been a gangling British detective wearing an expression of absolute terror, and the other a literal government-raised assassin. There are a handful of guests milling around in the lobby, apparently oblivious to the gunshots that had sounded mere moments ago.

Farah jams her gun back into her holster, and stalks through the lobby and out of the revolving doors to seek out the fresh air outside, sitting heavily down on one of the steps out front in dejected frustration. The sky is a dull grey, clouds bulging and ugly with rain, and she has lost Dirk. Idiot. Can’t even protect her friends, and now Dirk is in trouble and it’s all her fault. Stupid, stupid mouse.

She drops her head into her hands.

She tries to run through her options, but has no idea how to get back to him, or even what other steps she could possibly take to help. She’s sure she could think of something if she weren’t so fucking useless.

Rejected from every major government law enforcement agency. Failed every single one of her psychological tests. Barely saved Lydia. Kidnapped and tied to a bed. Knocked unconscious when trying to protect her friends against Priest. Useless, useless, useless.

‘Hey!’ a cheerful voice startles her out of her spiralling thoughts, and her head snaps up to see a man in a black suit standing in front of her, and he is fizzing at the edges, his profile indistinct like somebody from a dream, as if he isn’t really there. Farah is on her feet in an instant, snatching her gun back out of its holster and pointing it straight at him, her survival instincts kicking into gear and setting her heart hammering. The man’s face drops from friendly to taken aback, and he holds his hands up to deter the gun she is holding poised at his chest.

‘Woah, woah! You can’t actually shoot me, y’know. I’m already dead. It’s Farah, right?’

Farah is not dissuaded by the fact that this man knows her name. She sets her jaw and regards him coolly, making no move to lower her gun.

‘Who’s asking?’

‘Uh,’ the man offers a lopsided grin, ‘I’m Hugo. Amanda Brotzman sent me from Wendimoor to take you to Blackwing?’

‘Blackwing?’ Farah’s mind starts racing. Of course Blackwing are involved, of course, why couldn’t she see it, what an idiot

‘Uh huh. We need you to turn back time and stop the new Director of the Programme, Ken Adams, before he fucks everything up. It’s kinda complicated. We’re getting your friend Dirk Gently there, too, so he can sort out all the mess but, let’s be real here, he’s gonna need your help.’

‘You’ve got Dirk?’ Farah finally lets her arm drop, relief flooding into her chest so fast it feels difficult to breathe. ‘H-he was getting shot at-’

‘Oh,’ Hugo pulls a sympathetic face. ‘Bummer. I mean, that sucks, but, like, the universe won’t let him die, so don’t worry about it. He’ll be heading over with Mona.’

Farah narrows her eyes at him, unconvinced. The fact that he’s name-dropped Amanda, Dirk, Wendimoor, and now Mona, is little match for her omnipotent paranoia.

‘Why should I believe you?’ she challenges. ‘What makes you think I’m just gonna let you send me to a morally dubious government facility where they could be planning to slice me up into little bits? You could be anybody. You’re not even alive! How are you even here talking to me?’

‘Amanda’s pretty slick with a magic wand and the snail lady’s hot tub thingy,’ Hugo shrugs, and Farah understands less than half of what he’s talking about. ‘I mean, I’m just a projection from Wendimoor, ‘cause my body’s gone now, and all that. But I think I’m, like, kinda corporeal? Although, I can’t actually feel anything, so I guess I’m not sentimental, or whatever. I’m able to give you this, anyway.’

Hugo pulls something out of his pocket, something small and flat, like a credit card. He holds it out to her and, after a second of eyeing him cautiously, Farah reaches out to take it.

It’s some kind of key-card. She frowns as her eyes flit over the emboldened words.

‘“Friedkin”,’ she reads out loud, and she knows that name, oh, how she knows it, and she looks up to glare at this scumbag with the fury of a thousand suns, watching him shrivel into himself in response. ‘You’re one of them!’ she snarls. ‘You kidnapped Dirk!’

‘Okay, okay,’ Friedkin attempts to placate Farah while she quietly seethes, ‘I know I don’t look, like, super trustworthy right now. But I-I saw the universe! And it’s falling apart, and shit’s gonna get real bad, real quick, if you don’t go to Blackwing and put it right. I swear I’m not lying to you. Oh, and you might wanna pick up Amanda’s gang on the way, Project Incubus. “The Angry Three”, or some shit. Might be a bit of a tight fit in your car.’

Friedkin glances doubtfully at Farah’s silver Prius, and Farah follows his gaze, at a total loss for what to say.

She stares at him for a long moment, reluctant to trust him, and reluctant to not. This is the man who kidnapped one of her closest friends, and locked him in a government prison where he would be tested and experimented on, day in, day out. It’s the man who not only took part in all of this, but headed it, the man with the gun and the authority and the clearance, running the show. But he’s also the man who could help her get back to her reality, back to the Agency, back to Dirk, and Todd, and Tina. Back to her life.

Farah grits her teeth, and bites the bullet.

She takes a death breath.

‘What do I need to do?’

Friedkin nods towards the key-card in her hands. ‘That’s an all-access pass, getting you into all parts of the facility. I’ve written a couple clearance codes for certain doors on the back, ‘cause, uh, I kept forgetting them. Find the time machine, switch it back twenty-four years to before the Project was started, and stop Ken before he can change the way things were supposed to happen. Oh, and, uh. Try not to die.’

Something about the way he says it hits Farah’s very last nerve, setting her teeth into a snarl, and she, finally, snaps.

‘Listen,’ she spits, jabbing a finger at him, and finds a dark satisfaction in watching him take back a step in alarm. ‘I’m Farah Black, professional bodyguard, military-trained to the nines. I’ve lost a grand total of one fight in the past five years, blown up an evil wizard from a fantasy dimension with his own car, and accepted my place as one of a handful of crazy misfits, and I am tired of people underestimating me, of feeling like I’m not good enough. I am fucking good enough, and I am not going to let the insecurities my father planted in my head hold me back. I am going to this facility, I’m going to put a stop to this Ken guy, and I’m going to put everything right. So… shut up. Also, the word is “sentient”, not “sentimental”.’

When she stops to take a shuddering breath in order to try and snatch back a sense of control over her own mouth, Friedkin is staring at her with an expression equal parts respect and fear.

‘Oh, man,’ he murmurs. ‘You’re even scarier than Amanda.’

‘Tell me how to get to Blackwing,’ Farah orders sharply, leaving no room for disobedience. She clicks the safety off her gun with swift, military precision that she has been practising for years, and sets her jaw in fierce determination. ‘I’m going to fix the universe.’

***

Dimension: 1. Present day.

Dirk stares on in horror at the tangled mess of Bart Curlish as she sprawls, moaning and clutching at the bullet wound in her thigh, across the shiny floor of the Perryman Grand lobby. Dark blood is already pooling at the spot where, just moments before, she had been happily petting the tiny, black kitten, who apparently scampered off in fright at the sound of the gunshot.

Dirk whips around in search of the source of the bullet, to find Farah standing boldly behind him, still pointing her gun at Bart with her eyes trained on her blood-spattered form, even as it lies groaning on the marble floor. She looks… different, but Dirk isn’t exactly sure how. He’s never been very good at noticing these kinds of things.

Bart glares up at the two of them, cheeks ruddy with pain and anger.

Ow!

‘Farah!’ Dirk yelps in frustration. ‘We were going to go to Blackwing! She could have helped!’

Farah’s eyes slide to Dirk as she lowers her gun, giving him an incredulous look. ‘She said she was going to kill you!’

‘I was just asking,’ Bart snaps. ‘It’s polite.’

Farah rounds on Dirk, and he feels himself shrink a little.

‘What the hell is going on, Dirk? I’m on my way to the station and I hear gunshots?’

‘The… station?’ Dirk repeats blankly, and it suddenly hits him with all the force of an electric ghost rhino: Farah is wearing a police uniform. ‘Oh! You must be a different Farah!’ He pauses uncertainly for a moment. ‘Unless you just changed your clothes. Really fast.’

Farah merely raises an unimpressed eyebrow, leaving Dirk to hastily answer his own question.

‘Different Farah, then.’ He glances over towards the spot where Bart had been lying moments before, and finds nothing but a pool of blood, with no sign of the terrifying creature who had produced it. Fuck. Dirk sighs in annoyance. ‘And now she’s gone.’

‘Did she just… disappear?’ Farah asks in alarm, and, God, Dirk does not have time for this.

‘Farah,’ he rounds on her. ‘Focus. How do you know me?’

Farah blinks a few times as if completely overwhelmed, and tries to form coherent words. ‘I… you…’ She visibly pulls herself together, and takes a deep breath. ‘You’re a private detective who specialises in missing persons, which means sometimes we're forced to liaise on the cases you somehow get mixed up in, despite my complicated feelings of resentment and respect towards you and general irritation at the fact that you think you can waltz in on police matters and-’

‘Okay!’ Dirk cuts her off, his voice tinged with desperation. ‘So, we’re friends, right?!’

Farah furrows her brow, looking a little too disinclined to agree for his liking.

‘Uh-’

Before he can even consider the fact that this Other Farah doesn’t seem to enjoy his company quite as much as Real Farah does, and that, moreover, she appears all too happy to shoot people she isn’t fond of in the legs, Dirk grabs her arm and begins pulling her through the lobby and out of the revolving doors. Farah, though clearly wary, lets him.

‘Farah, I really, really just need you to trust me right now-’ Dirk tells her emphatically as he leads her into the fresh air of the outside world, before he stops abruptly in his tracks. Walking along the pavement and past Farah’s car where it sits at the bottom of the steps is the figure of a man so familiar, a man who Dirk has been missing so much, that it feels like a kick to the stomach, like a swooping in his chest, like his heart skipping a beat. Dirk gasps in hysterical delight.

‘Todd!’ he cries out, and the man halts in the middle of a step, turning to look at him in alarm. His features rearrange themselves into an expression of grudging recognition, which Dirk can only imagine is a good sign.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ Todd greets him in a reluctant tone, that might suggest he isn’t particularly happy to see him. Dirk’s heart starts racing anyway.

‘Is it?’ he asks excitedly. ‘And who might I be?’

Todd stares. ‘The asshole who rear-ended my car a couple months ago?’

That would explain the lack of enthusiasm. Dirk feels his beam falter into a more sombre, and decidedly shiftier, expression.

‘Ah,’ he grimaces, ‘well, you see, have you considered that you might currently be in another dimension, and so the fine young gentleman who rear-ended your car might not actually have been me, but rather another version of me? Or even that all of the infinitesimal realities that exist in this cold and meaningless universe that we call our home might have suddenly and catastrophically collided so that the very seams of reality are splitting apart?’

Todd looks at him as if he’s insane. Dirk is rapidly starting to believe that he might be.

‘Uh-’

‘Did you just say, “another dimension”?’ Farah asks disbelievingly, and Dirk feels his patience finally dissipate.

Look,’ he addresses both of them with a sense of increasing hysteria, ‘I don’t have the time to explain this to every version of you both I come across, but, in my dimension, the three of us are members of my Holistic Detective Agency, and we once solved a very long and complicated case involving a time machine created by the father of a missing girl who is currently a corgi, a case which is somehow connected to the fact that I’m pretty sure a top-secret government agency has somehow messed around with the fabric of reality itself, and what I need to do right now is to figure out how exactly to get into said government facility without any idea where it is or how to do so, and I have decided to do that by first of all going back to the office, basically because it’s all I can think to do at this point in time and that’s what the universe seems to be instructing me, and it would be very, very helpful if both of you could just. Get. In. The. Car.’

There’s a long, stunned silence, which Dirk uses to try and get his breathing back under control.

Todd turns to Farah.

‘Is he crazy?’

Dirk is so frantic he can’t even bring himself to feel insulted by the question. Farah glances at him uncertainly.

‘Uh,’ she replies. ‘Well, that’s kind of a complicated question. Crazy might not be, uh… the right word? In my universe, he’s definitely eccentric and hyperactive, and kind of a disaster. But in yours or his? No idea.’

Todd raises an eyebrow at her in what looks like concern.

‘Are… are you crazy?’

‘No!’ Farah gives him an offended glare. ‘Todd, do you really not remember him at all? Do you not remember me?’

Todd blinks.

‘Wait, who are you?’

‘Uh. I’m dating your sister.’

Please?!’ Dirk interrupts desperately, and Farah’s expression visibly fixes itself into her familiarly determined battle face. She turns to Todd and grasps him firmly by the upper arms, pushing him towards her car.

‘Okay, let’s go,’ she orders him as he flinches violently in surprise and indignation.

‘Hey!’

Dirk silently thanks his luck, the universe, and the force of nature that is Farah Black as she bundles Todd bodily into the back of her car and shuts the door behind him, before climbing into the driver’s seat, Dirk hurriedly circling around the car to the passenger’s side to clamber gracelessly in beside her. Her face is still set in grim determination as she turns the key in the ignition and releases the handbrake.

‘Tell me where to go, Dirk,’ she instructs over the sounds of Todd’s angry protests from the back seat, and Dirk can’t help but grin.

‘Now that, I can do.’

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1.2ERROR%%?^. Present day.

In the half-empty Starbucks just down the road from the Agency, Stevie slumps down in her seat next to the window, and takes another sip of tea. It’s taken two hours of waiting impatiently in a suddenly empty room for Dirk and the rest of his motley crew to show up again after all three of them had disappeared, along with the contents of their office, and several more of wandering aimlessly around the streets trying to find them. At this point, she had given up on looking, and decided that she might as well treat herself to a hot drink and somewhere to sit while she waits for them all to magically appear. It’s a long shot, she’s aware, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot else she can do.

Her eyes travel restlessly across the spread of the newspaper that lies open on the table in front of her, over her steaming mug of chamomile. She’s read the story four times now, trying to eke out clues that she might be able to use to find Dirk again, with little to no inspiration gleaned. There’s a large picture of a girl who can’t be older than sixteen smiling out at her, the girl who Dirk had managed to save in an alternate reality to her own, long hair cascading over her shoulders: ‘MISSING TEENAGE DAUGHTER OF MURDERED MILLIONIARE FOUND DEAD’. Stevie could have sworn her heart had stopped the first time she’d read the headline, struck by a wave of sadness and a sick sense of foreboding. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Her body had been recovered the previous morning, in a zoo, of all places. Stevie had never met Lydia Spring, but the pang of mourning she had felt for the young girl taken too soon, Farah’s beloved charge, had been surprisingly raw.

Stevie looks back into the intelligent, brown eyes smiling at her from the newspaper, and is just taking another sip of tea when a frantic banging on the window to her left makes her jump so hard she almost slops it all down her front. Standing with both palms pressed up against the glass, and wearing his fully protective Blackwing riot uniform, is Dirk.

Stevie feels a surge of relief bubble up in her chest and a grin steal across her face as she stands, setting her tea back down on the table and racing across the café and out of the door. Her joy is mirrored in the beaming face of Dirk as he holds out his arms to her and she throws herself into them, holding him tight, the hard outline of his bullet-proof vest pressing uncomfortably against her cheek.

‘Dirk!’ she laughs.

‘Stevie!’ he echoes, suddenly pulling back and gripping her by the upper arms, staring at her intently. ‘Stevie, everything has gone weird.’ He frowns at her. ‘Your flight was supposed to get in yesterday. Where have you been? Why haven’t you been answering your phone?!’

‘I’ve been hanging out with you in a parallel universe,’ Stevie explains easily, and Dirk’s eyes grow as wide as saucers.

‘So that’s what’s been going on!’

‘Yeah,’ Stevie huffs an incredulous laugh, almost astounded by how ridiculous this whole situation is. ‘Unfortunately, I got separated from you and the rest of the Agency before I could find out much more than that, so I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.’

‘“The Agency”?’

‘Your alternate-universe business venture,’ Stevie explains helpfully. ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.’

Dirk blinks, hazy with breathless surprise and a hint of pride. When he speaks, his voice is a little strangled, eyes glistening with sudden emotion.

‘Oh.’

Stevie gives him a soft smile. ‘Told you you’d make something of your life. Anyway, I tried hanging around there for ages, but I couldn’t get back. I don’t think we’ve got any control over which timeline we end up wandering into.’

Dirk visibly pulls himself together, giving her a determined nod as his mouth sets in a serious line. ‘Is the Agency close?’

‘Just around the corner.’

‘Can you take me there?’

‘Sure,’ Stevie shrugs. ‘Hunch?’

A grin breaks out all over Dirk’s face.

‘Of course.’

Stevie returns his grin before setting off along the street with Dirk close behind, two pairs of feet heavy against the pavement as they hurry past ambling office workers and gaggles of friends and mums with pushchairs towards the Agency. Stevie leads them down a side road towards the street where the Agency is located, and up to the bright, red door. Unlike when she had first arrived late the night before, the brass plaque is entirely absent. There is no bell tinkling as she ushers Dirk inside, and the two of them hurry up the stairs, shoes thumping and creaking on the hard, wooden steps.

When the two of them push into what had been the reception area, the room is entirely empty, just as it had been when Stevie left it several hours before. Dust motes float languidly on the beams of light that stream through the breaks in the boards nailed over the window.

‘I promise it looks a lot better than this in the reality where it’s supposed to be,’ Stevie assures Dirk, who is appraising the room with obvious disappointment. Suddenly, he lifts his arm to point in alarm at something over Stevie’s shoulder.

‘Man!’ he yells, and Stevie turns quickly to see a short, stubbled man wearing the same blue plaid shirt he had been that morning, staring at Dirk in a mixture of stunned relief and discomfort.

‘Dirk!’ he breathes, stepping forward, his hand twitching oddly before dropping back to his side, as if he were just about to reach out to him, and then thought better of it.

‘Are you Detective-Agency-Todd?’ Stevie asks hopefully, and Todd turns to her.

‘Yeah! Are you… uh. Stevie?’

Stevie raises her eyebrows. ‘I hope so.’

‘And you’re Blackwing-Agent-Dirk?’ Todd is eyeing Dirk’s all-black riot gear with obvious dubiousness, but Dirk doesn’t appear to notice.

‘Yes!’ he smiles happily. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’

‘I dunno if that’s the word for it-’ Todd frowns, and Dirk’s face suddenly lights up in recognition.

Oh! You’re the bellhop in the hotel! You took my bags up to my room!’

‘Yeah, no, wrong universe-’

‘Todd,’ Stevie cuts him off quickly before things can get any more complicated, ‘what do we do?’

‘We need to get to Blackwing to stop Ken.’

‘Director Adams?’ Dirk looks aghast. ‘This is all his doing?’

‘There’s no time to explain. Take Mona.’

Todd pulls what looks like a coin out of the pocket of his jeans, and hands it to Dirk, who takes it. To Stevie’s relief, Dirk just stares down at it in his hand, looking about as nonplussed as she feels.

‘Oh!’ he says in polite surprise, before his smile falters a little. ‘Um. What’s she got to do with all this?’

Comprehension dawns slowly on Todd’s face.

‘You never went to Wendimoor,’ he sighs. ‘Right. Mona can communicate with a magical snail lady in a fantasy dimension to send you straight there. In a couple minutes, my Dirk’s gonna come up those stairs, and you have to turn on the water so all of you can teleport to Blackwing.’

‘Ah!’ Dirk’s grin is back in place. ‘Well, that’s convenient!’

‘How’d you figure all that out?’ Stevie asks, impressed. Todd shrugs.

‘I know a guy who can map out all the threads of the universe and see how all the dimensions are crossing over each other. Also, my sister’s a witch.’

Dirk stares at him with wide eyes. ‘Wow.’

‘I can’t stay,’ Todd says hurriedly. ‘You know what to do?’

‘Coin plus water equals teleportation,’ Stevie nods. ‘Got it.’

‘Cool,’ Todd grins, giving Dirk one last look. Stevie doesn’t miss the fondness in his eyes, the hesitancy that’s all too evident at the difficulty of speaking to a version of Dirk that isn’t really him, and, all of a sudden, she knows. She knows that that isn’t a look you give to your business partners, or your friends, or even your best friend, and something warm glows in her chest as she glances at the bewildered face of Dirk, and wishes for him all of the things that she has already found in Kate.

‘Lovely to meet you again, Todd,’ Dirk offers, cheerfully oblivious, and Todd ducks his head in an awkward kind of movement, before Stevie blinks, and he’s already disappeared into thin air.

Dirk turns to look at her, bemused.

‘I’d love to say that that’s the weirdest thing that’s happened all day.’

Stevie grins.

‘I don’t think your life could ever be that dull,’ she teases, mere seconds before the room is filled with the sound of two pairs of footsteps coming up the stairs, and Dirk turns around to face the door in anticipation.

***

From the second that Dirk gets out of Farah’s car where it’s parked on the other side of the road to where the Agency should, quite definitely, be, he knows that everything is going straight to shit, and very fast.

There is nothing. It isn’t there, and Dirk feels his heart plunge into his stomach with dread and panic at the spiralling chaos he can’t control. The rest of the buildings stand proud and solid along the street, where they have always been, like unperturbed politicians ready to argue with him about the very existence of the Agency to begin with, but, the place where the Agency should actually stand is nothing but an empty space, a gap between the other buildings.

Dirk feels a little sick.

‘No, no, no, no, no…’ he murmurs in panic as he stares at the awful blank space where the Agency should be, sensing rather than seeing Farah and Todd coming to stand beside him. ‘I can’t get back, oh my god, I’m never going to get back, I…’

A poster, taped carefully to the lamppost just to the left of the Not-Agency, catches the corner of his eye. A familiar pair of brown eyes smile out at him as he stares at it. And something clicks.

‘Wait,’ he breathes. ‘Oh, shit. Lydia Spring.’ The cogs in his head are turning, turning, turning, like his brain is about to explode, and he rounds on Farah with what must be an alarmingly frantic expression if the concern in her eyes is anything to go by. ‘Farah. You said I specialise in missing persons in your universe. Did I, by any chance, find Lydia Spring?’

Farah blinks. ‘Uh, yeah, actually. I mean, you said something about her being inside a corgi to begin with, but I strategically edited that bit out when I wrote the report-’

‘A corgi?’ Todd interjects, and Dirk’s heart is pounding with hope, the pieces of the jigsaw slipping into place. ‘You were looking for a corgi in my dimension, too. It’s why you rammed into my car.’

‘Oh my god,’ Dirk repeats, his voice barely above a whisper as everything starts to, finally, make sense. ‘The Lydia Spring case… It’s one of the problems I was created to solve, a glitch that I was supposed to fix, and supposed to fix in every parallel timeline – I didn’t just solve it in my timeline, but in yours as well, Farah, and yours, Todd. I’m a universal constant, so I have to put the problems right in every dimension, but how could I do that in… in an artificially-created timeline where I’m doing Blackwing’s bidding? If… if you were right, Farah, or my version of Farah was right in what she suggested in my timeline, and Blackwing trained me to ignore the hunches, or to only follow the ones they wanted me to, there’s no way I would ever have solved the Lydia Spring case, or ever have put right the problems it caused. I… I don’t think that’s quite the whole story, because I think there must be something else about the Spring case that connects all this, too, but… that’s what’s gone wrong. That’s why the universe is broken! Because I didn’t solve the case. And the Bergsberg case, too, the whole Wendimoor mess! I didn’t solve the cases in the Blackwing timeline!’

Dirk is buzzing with the energy that only comes from the unravelling of a mystery, eyes alight with the frantic fire of realisation. Farah frowns.

‘But why couldn’t you solve them?’ she asks slowly. ‘If you’re some kind of… of tool for fixing the problems in every dimension for the universe to function, how is it possible that, in one dimension, you didn’t? Something else must have gone wrong that caused you to not be able to solve the cases. You said it was these… these “Blackwing” people messing around with everything, but what could they have done to totally screw up an entire timeline?’

Dirk barely has time to feel disappointed in himself at forgetting about this part before Todd answers for him.

‘I mean, in sci-fi movies and shit, problems with timelines getting screwed up are usually to do with time travel. Like, somebody goes back in time and changes something, and that creates, like, a butterfly effect and alters the whole course of the future. Sorta thing.’

Dirk could kiss him. This isn’t a new revelation, nor the first time that this particular desire has wandered, uninvited, into his mind, but this is in relation to a particularly helpful act of mystery-solving, so he decides to think of it as a mere product of context. Mostly.

‘Todd…’ Dirk breathes almost reverentially, ‘you’re right. That’s the other connection to the Lydia Spring case: Patrick Spring’s time machine! And Blackwing, and Ken… I knew they had to have some kind of hand in it, and it’s through trying to change time. Ken must have tried to go back in time and alter the past so that I would be working for him all along. But… but you can’t change it. You can’t change the past. Patrick Spring tried to do that and failed, and that’s why the original machine could only create a time loop. Ken couldn’t change the timeline, he could only create a new one, one that shouldn’t have been created, one where I wasn’t able to solve the cases and fix the problems that I needed to fix, and, in doing so, he threw the universe into disarray. The more time that passes without me solving the cases, and the more cases that go by without me solving them, the more broken everything gets, and that’s why everything is falling apart now, when the changes were made twenty-four years ago.’ Dirk lets a beam of delight spread across his face. ‘Oh my god. Solved it!

Todd and Farah are staring at him in semi-comprehending bewilderment, and he grins between them as he allows the sense of relief and pride to wash over him. God, he’s getting so good at this.

The sound of a bone-shattering crack, accompanied by a shockwave shuddering through the ground beneath their feet, extinguishes his positivity in an instant, as if to pointedly remind him of his subservience to the universe. He whips around, having just about enough time to wonder wryly if that might indeed have been its intention, before his eyes settle on a chink in the road behind them almost as big as all three of them put together, a huge sinkhole revealing nothing but a vast expanse of white nothingness below.

Dirk’s eyes widen, staring at it with his whole body braced in fear, before a second tremor rumbles through the ground, and the crack splits open, breaking and spreading so fast that there is barely time to shove Farah and Todd out of the way as the ground crumbles into nothing around them.

Run!’ Dirk yells at the top of his lungs, snatching hold of Todd’s arm and dragging him with him as he charges away from the rapidly collapsing road behind them, Farah running behind them as they flee, the cracks splitting and disintegrating almost as fast as they can sprint away and Dirk barely able to catch his breath in panic as he runs for dear life, until a shout sounds out from behind him.

He turns just in time to see the ground catch at Farah’s feet, the crumbling earth catching up to her even as she runs with everything she has, and it splits away as she slips and falls, scrambling desperately for safety as the very ground falls in on itself.

‘Farah!’ Dirk lunges for her, trying to grab at her hand as she scrabbles to reach him, slipping through the fabric of reality, but he’s too late, and she falls, disappearing into the vast expanse of whiteness, of nothing, below.

Farah!’ he hollers again in panic and terror, but there is a hand roughly seizing the back of his shirt, wrenching him away from the hole in the earth where Farah had been, and he stumbles as he is dragged forcefully away by Todd as the cracks continue to split and creep and spread, and he is running, running, running for dear life with Todd at his side, towards the gap in the buildings where the Agency used to be, and as they reach the expanse of bare ground, there is suddenly a red door, just standing there in the middle of the nothingness, and Todd yanks it open and drags Dirk through after him, slamming it behind them.

There is a calm, almost blissful silence. The ground has stopped shaking, the deafening sound of the earth cracking and crumbling away into nothing completely absent, and they are leaning against the bannister of a narrow, dark staircase, chests heaving with the physical exertion of running and the terror that is slowly, painstakingly, melting out of Dirk’s veins. The two of them are barely standing, and very much without Farah.

Dirk is gasping, the shuddering form of Other Todd beside him a reassuring presence as they both try to catch their breath.

‘You… you saved me,’ Dirk pants.

‘You were gonna fall in after her,’ Todd wheezes in response. ‘You fucking idiot.’

‘What do you think it was? The blank space? Where did she go?’

‘I dunno,’ Todd shakes his head and scrapes his hands over his face in clearly recognisable Todd-flavoured-crisis-mode, and Dirk watches him with worry. ‘I don’t know, Dirk. Another universe? I don’t fucking know. I can’t… I can’t do this-’

‘Todd,’ Dirk tells him flatly, the air starting to come back into his lungs in a far more regular manner, ‘you literally just saved my life. Or, whatever. I think that definitely qualifies as being able to “do this”, whatever “this” is.’

‘No,’ Todd’s face is pale, his breathing still unsteady, and he looks like he’s on the verge of a panic attack. ‘No. Look, Dirk. I’m not the Todd that you know. I work in a bar. I’m a barely functioning alcoholic who drinks to numb the pain brought on by a debilitating nerve disease, and the guilt of having my family pay for my treatment. I’m estranged from my parents, my sister’s given up on me, I have no friends, and I have never, ever been a detective. If it’s someone’s memories and experiences that make up a person, then I’m not the one you know or need right now.’

Before he can stop himself, Dirk reaches out to take his hand reassuringly, the warmth of his shaking, calloused musician’s fingers sending his heart fluttering as it trips over itself in pleasant surprise.

‘Todd,’ he tells him seriously, and Other Todd is staring up at him, his eyes full of fear and pain so raw that it feels like a knife in his stomach. He takes a deep breath. ‘Look. I don’t know you in this universe, but I do know another version of you, that is, the one from my universe, and I know that he’s really a rather good assis-friend. He is an invaluable member of the team, and brilliant help with my cases, and he has fought so many personal battles, and he has won. You are not the same as him, but you also are the same, and you’re capable of doing things just as incredible as he has. You are a good man, somebody who has saved worlds, and stood up to all his fears, and been the best friend I could ever have asked for. Also, I… think I might be rather in love with you, but that might be a matter for another day.’

He’s a little breathless by the time he’s finished talking, but Todd is still staring at him, enraptured and looking more than a little overwhelmed by this surge of emotion, but his breathing is more controlled, the shaking less pronounced.

The last few words to fly, unbidden, out of Dirk’s mouth catch up to him, and he feels his face flush with heat. Thankfully, Todd doesn’t seem to want to mention it. He just nods jerkily, and squeezes the hand that he still holds in his own, before letting go. It makes sense; this version of Todd has only just met him, after all. Dirk gives him one last reassuring smile, trying not to feel too disappointed at the lack of contact, and inclines his head up the stairs, the cool wash of a hunch whispering gently to him to climb them.

‘Ready to see what else the universe has in store?’ he asks, and Todd cracks a small smile.

‘Do I have another option?’

Dirk considers.

‘No.’

‘In that case, sure,’ Other Todd finally grins properly, and Dirk returns it in relief, turning and making his way excitedly up the stairs, the sound of Todd’s own footsteps echoing behind him.

When Dirk bursts into the room at the top of the stairs, there are several reasons why it looks completely different to what he’d expected. First, and to his utter indignation, the room is empty of all furniture, and it looks like the window has been partially boarded up. Secondly, there are two figures standing in the middle of the floor looking back at them, one of whom appears to be Himself. Wearing what looks like Blackwing riot gear. With messy hair, and a grin all over his face. Standing next to Stevie.

Dirk points a finger at Other Dirk.

‘You!’ he accuses.

‘Me!’ Other Dirk responds enthusiastically.

Dirk is suddenly aware of Todd standing at his shoulder, having followed him up the stairs and into the room, and hears him let out a quiet murmur of disbelief.

‘What. The fuck.’

‘There you are!’ Stevie beams, before gesticulating towards Other Dirk, who is standing happily in his bizarre uniform. ‘Look, this is my Dirk! I’ll let you introduce yourselves.’

Dirk rounds on Other Dirk, who shrinks in on himself a little.

‘I can’t believe you work for Blackwing!’

‘I thought I was doing the right thing!’

‘Dirk, the world is literally ending,’ Todd reminds him tiredly, and Dirk snaps back to the matter at hand.

‘Right. Yes. Hang on. He’s not your Dirk, too, is he?’

‘Uh,’ Todd frowns as if this is all getting a bit much. ‘I don’t think so. My dirk is a professional dog-walker.’

The room is suddenly filled with the appreciative murmurings of both Dirks and Stevie, a cacophony of, ‘That is the best job-’ and, ‘Oh my god-’ before Todd shouts them down.

‘Guys!’

‘Sorry,’ Dirk nods again, a little sheepishly. ‘Okay. I’m proposing that we get to Blackwing, somehow, find Ken, and ask him very nicely to put everything back the way it was.’

Stevie raises a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Erm. How are we planning on persuading him, exactly?’

‘Well…’ Dirk lets his mouth run faster than his brain, as it is wont to do. ‘We could go back in time! And stop him before he fucks everything up!’

‘There are so many reasons why that’s the worst idea ever-’ Todd mutters, before Dirk cuts him off.

‘Hush, Todd. It'll all go tits-up anyway, so we might as well pretend we have a vague idea of what we're doing to begin with. Everyone okay with that?’

‘Question,’ Other Dirk raises his hand politely. ‘What if we, quote, “fuck everything up”, unquote, even harder than it was originally, quote, “fucked up”?’

‘Unquote,’ adds Stevie, and Other Dirk gives her a sombre nod of gratitude.

‘And a good question that is, too,’ Dirk replies cheerfully, ‘to which my answer is: hopefully, we won’t.’ He looks expectantly around at the three of them. ‘So. Anyone know how to get to Blackwing?’

Stevie and Other Dirk share a conspiratorial grin, and Stevie slips over to the corner of the room. Before Dirk realises what she’s about to do, there is a cold gush of water over his head and down the back of his neck, the indoor sprinkler system coming to life. Barely registering the sounds of Todd’s furious complaints to his left, Dirk looks up to see Other Dirk holding a coin in his hand, a dollar, and throwing it up into the air between them, before the room is lost to darkness.

Chapter Text

Dimension: unknown/multiple. Present day.

Heart hammering, blood pumping in her veins, pulsing with adrenaline, she thrives on it, feeling the heaviness of her AK-47 tight in her grip, the knife strapped to her leg, and handgun in her holster as she slips the key card back into her pocket at the sound of the bleep that gains her access into the facility, a sound that makes the four men behind her, the Rowdies, whoop and yell. She is an army, she is trained, she is fantastic, and she is fucking ready.

She shoulders her way through the final set of heavy doors and into the dark, grey corridors of Blackwing, alarms already blaring and red lights flashing even before they’d entered. They must have already anticipated being under attack.

Farah cocks her rifle, stepping inside.

‘Take out every guard you see!’ she instructs the boys. ‘But don’t kill Ken. I’m gonna get the time machine.’

The Rowdies howl and whoop behind her, the one with the mohawk clapping her roughly on the shoulder as they pass, running down the corridor, the little one leaping as he yells with excitement. Farah watches them go, before starting down the corridor herself, tightening her grip on her rifle as she marches into battle.

Action stations.

***

Dirk knows he’s in Blackwing the second he opens his eyes, his hair sopping wet from the sprinklers and Other Todd gasping with shock to the left of him, with Other Dirk and Stevie to his right. He picks up the dollar coin, Mona, from off the ground and tucks her safely in his pocket while he looks around. They are at one end of a long corridor, a corridor he recognises, the one where his cell used to be. There’s nothing but grey wherever he looks, lit periodically by the red warning lights as the alarm wails around them, the clinical smell of experimentation and imprisonment and fear stinging at his nostrils. He shivers.

Todd’s mouth is hanging open in horror as he looks around fearfully at his new surroundings.

‘What the hell-’

He is cut off by the awful groan of the ground shaking beneath their feet, the dreaded sound that Dirk recognises from outside the Agency, and he instinctively grabs Todd’s arm as tremors rip through the floor with a crack, the earth splitting open a mere hair’s breadth from Stevie’s right foot, and the sickening terror is rising in Dirk’s lungs again as he yells at them to, ‘Move!

The four of them start to run, Dirk himself taking off at a dizzying pace he hadn’t even known he was capable of, sprinting along the corridor like his life depends on it, lactic acid bubbling in his limbs as the ground crumbles and falls behind him, the cracks snaking out and almost tripping him up, the world dropping away to blank, white nothing. There is a scream, and it sounds like Stevie, and Dirk wants to turn around, twisting back frantically to see, but Todd is gripping his arm and pulling him around so he can’t look back, can’t see behind him.

‘Don’t stop!’ he roars. ‘Don’t you dare stop!’

So he runs, and runs, and runs, blood pounding in his ears, and he is gasping as he sprints, and the noise is so loud, the groaning, the horrible cracking like the breaking of bones, and there is a door in front of him, getting closer and closer now, at the end of the corridor, a door with the number ‘42’ printed on it in bold, black writing, and his mind is screaming at him to get there, get to that room, even while his body is shouting at him to stop, and he is getting closer, closer, and he can’t see Todd beside him anymore, he has fallen behind, or he has slipped down the cracks and been swallowed up by the wide expanse of nothing, but Dirk can’t turn around, Todd told him not to stop, he can’t stop, he has to keep going…

He reaches the door and hurls himself into it so that it bursts open, and he collapses headlong into the ground, twisting himself around so he can look back out at the corridor, but there is no sign of Todd, or Stevie, or Other Dirk, and he has lost them all, lost them all to the unknown, and he chokes out a cry of anger and frustration, but the cracks are still coming, still splitting the ground, and so he scrambles to his feet, and he slams the door closed.

The silence is merciful. He stays with his fists pressed up against the door for a moment, his eyes squeezed tightly closed as he lets the flood of thoughts wash into his head. Couldn’t save them, couldn’t save them, couldn’t save them…

He stays there until the ringing in his ears has subsided and his lungs are working again, before he takes a steadying breath, and turns around.

It’s a large, white room, much like all the other rooms in Blackwing, except that there’s a table right in the centre. Sitting in one of the chairs is a girl in a black and blue jumpsuit, watching him calmly, with matted hair and eyes like stone. Dirk takes one look at her, and screams.

***

Farah glances over her shoulder to check that the corridor is clear before punching in the code for door marked, ‘Director’s Office’, one of the ones written messily on the back of Friedkin’s key card, and lets out a sigh of relief when the bleep sounds out, the little light switching to green. They must have considered that, with Friedkin dead and lost in the ether of the universe, there was no reason to change the code. First mistake. She pushes quietly inside, rifle trained in front of her, ready to defend herself if there is anybody lying in wait.

The room is fairly large, and very dark, the majority of the furniture comprising a desk and swivel chair at one end, the former layered with files and paperwork, and what must be at least fifty CCTV screens on the wall, all of them blown out, with a flickering light enveloping half of the room in an eerie glow. Farah slowly surveys the perimeter, keeping her back to the walls so she can’t be attacked from behind. Mercifully, the room seems to be completely empty, Ken possibly having fled to defend the facility when he’d realised how chaotic everything seems to be getting. Second mistake.

There is a filing cabinet just next to the desk, and Farah pulls open one of the drawers so she can flick through it. The files seem to be organised by Project, beginning with the unknown ‘Project Abaddon’. She rifles through a few more. ‘Project Icarus’ sits neatly between ‘Project Herodias’ and ‘Project Incubus’. She glances at the file for a second, before deciding against removing it to give to Dirk. If something goes wrong and they decide to come after the culprits of all this, they’re going to be looking for the one whose file is missing.

She moves on.

In the bottom drawer of the desk, there is a small box, one that looks a little like a 1940s radio, with a set of lightbulbs and wires and little screens. It’s not exactly the same as Patrick Spring’s version of the time machine – it’s a little smaller, a little more slick and polished – but she recognises it all the same. Her heart starts thumping as she carefully picks up the little machine, finding it heavier than she’d remembered, and allows herself a moment of relief. Got it.

Farah cradles it to her chest and attempts to adjust her assault rifle so that he can keep the time machine tucked under one arm whilst still aiming it in front of her ready to attack, and, after a couple of reshuffles, realises that she can’t. Slowly, and rather sadly, she places it gently on the ground, and pulls her trusty handgun out of her holster instead, aiming it at the rifle, and shoots a couple of bullets straight through the middle, putting it effectively out of use. If she can’t take it with her, she’s not going to be stupid enough to let somebody else find it and use it against her instead.

Then, quietly, she steals out of the room the way she came in.

Almost directly outside in the corridor and coming at her fast are three armed guards, head-to-toe in black and wearing helmets that completely obscure their faces. Farah braces herself, and aims without mercy.

Vests most likely bullet-proof, protecting torso. Avoid helmets in case of bullet ricochet. Limbs may be reinforced. Weakest points are those required for movement, where there will be breaks in the reinforcement: underarm, inner elbow, upper thigh.

She fires a round of three bullets in quick succession, pumping one after the other into the upper thigh of each of the guards, and watching as they fall to the ground like dominoes, incapacitated, giving her the opportunity to move in for the kill.

Weak points at the back of the neck, in the gap between uniform and helmet. Bang, bang, bang.

The guards slump motionless to the ground, blood pooling slick and dark on the grey flooring of the corridor, and Farah steps over them before she can think too hard about it. She’s got a job to do.

As she rounds a corner onto another corridor, the shouts and yells of the Rowdies fighting explode through the air, laughing with glee, and she strides towards the noise. There is a sudden shriek of fear before the shouts stop, a haunting quietness seeping into the cold air of the facility as she picks up her pace. Turning another corner, she finds herself standing behind another man in riot gear, who is spraying the contents of what looks like a fire extinguisher at the group of Rowdies in front of him, the corridor filling with something the consistency of dry ice, something that looks like it’s stunning them. Farah slips her pocket knife out of the strap around her calf, and marches up behind the man in silence, before gripping tightly hold of the knife and forcing it as hard as she can into the man’s back, halfway down, on one side. Kidney.

The spray shuts off almost immediately, bizarre device clattering noisily to the floor as the man lets out a strangled choke and falls to his knees like a ragdoll. The Rowdy Three have been thrown to the floor, coughing and wheezing and struggling to reach out to each other, but they are at least mobile again, at least alive. The man on his knees might won’t be quite so lucky. He isn’t even wearing a helmet, which means he’s probably an arrogant fuck. Farah plants a food roughly on his back, and pushes him over so he slumps to the floor on one side, mouth slack but eyes still roving around in pain and shock as he lets out a grunt. Farah immediately recognises him, and doesn’t feel in the slightest bit bad about killing him after everything he’s done to Dirk.

Priest.

He watches her in almost reverential defeat as she steps forward so she’s standing over him, still holding the time machine under one arm, and points her handgun at his chest. He doesn’t look scared. Just… resigned. Respectful, almost.

‘That was for knocking me unconscious,’ Farah spits. ‘And this is for Dirk.’

The sound of the Rowdies roaring in jubilant appreciation is almost loud enough to drown out that of Farah putting a bullet through the man’s chest. He is dead instantly, his eyes glazing over as the shot sends a jolt through his body and his mouth falls open in unspoken pain, and Farah tries to focus on all the awful things he has done instead of the fact that she has taken his last breath. The Rowdies collect around her, cheering and hollering, and it takes a few moments of trying to remember how to breathe, while alien hands slap her on the back and ruffle her hair, before her face twists into a reluctant smile.

‘Okay, okay,’ she tells them. ‘I’ve gotta find Ken. It’s time to end this once and for all.’

‘Go do your thing, awesome gun lady!’ the youngest one yells, and the others whoop and cheer as she turns to grin at them, walking off down the corridor towards the room right at the end, a room that she might as well explore.

Farah readies her gun, poised and ready to fire at anything that might be inside that room, with the time machine held tightly in her arm as she reaches the door in front of her. She braces herself as she stares up at the bold letters written across it like a warning that she refuses to heed: ‘42’.

***

Once he’s finished screaming, Dirk can only stare on in horror at the unimpressed-looking, murderous demon that sits at the table in front of him. She doesn’t try to kill him, thankfully, or even stand up. She just watches him uninterestedly back. At least if she’s coming at him with a gun, Dirk knows that he has to run away. But, in this situation, he’s rather at a loss as to how to react.

‘Not you again,’ he chooses to whine instead of doing anything more productive. Bart just squints at him in mild confusion and irritation, as if he’s interrupted her in the middle of an especially enthralling crossword puzzle.

‘What’s goin’ on?’ she growls, and Dirk steps towards her tentatively.

Everything is going on. I need to find your friend, Ken. Or a time machine. Preferably both. Ken has gone Very Bad. He went back in time and messed everything up, and I'm here to stop him. And... and I need your help.’

Bart shrugs apathetically.

‘Can’t do anythin’ to help.’

‘But you’re… you’re an assassin! You can quite literally kill a man with your little finger!’

‘Yeah, but I don’t wanna.’

‘But… why?’ Dirk asks incredulously. ‘He’s keeping you here!’

‘Nah. Came here ‘cause I wanted to.’

Dirk blinks, and allows a stunned silence to fall as he tries, and fails, to properly process this. Why anybody would ever want to be here is so far out of his own realm of understanding that all he can do is stare.

‘What?’

‘‘S nothing I can do,’ Bart says flatly. ‘I’m not a real person. I’m a pawn. I don’t have choices, and I hurt everyone I meet. I’m tired of the real world. I’m stayin’ here, and I’m doin’ nothing.’

Despite how appalled he should feel at himself for admitting it, Dirk feels a pang of empathy for the girl sitting in front of her, fiddling absently with a strand of her messy hair. She looks younger without all the blood on her face.

‘Bart…’ he appeals to her desperately. ‘Bart, that’s not true. You’re not a pawn. You do have choices, and you can take control. And, yes, you have a purpose, and so I do. But so does everyone, I think. Everyone has their place in the universe, their role, and everyone matters. But you can make your own choices, too, just like everybody else. Just like me. And I’m choosing to put this right.’

Bart shifts a little in her chair, and stares down at the table.

‘Look. I dunno where Ken is. Or a time machine. I just wanna be left alone. Are you only bein’ nice to me ‘cause you want my help?’

Dirk is struck with a horrible churning sensation in his stomach, something that feels very much like guilt. Hesitantly, he steps closer to the table, and sits delicately in the chair opposite.

‘No. no, of course not. Bart, I know I haven’t been very nice to you in the past, although, to be fair to myself, that was mostly out of abject terror, with only a very small amount of revulsion. But I’m sorry. I may have been too hasty in my assessment of you, even if you did try to kill me the first time we met. And I don’t want you to live thinking that you’ve got not control and everything is terrible, because I understand what that feels like, but it’s not true. And, you know, I think we’re more similar than I first thought.’

Bart snorts.

‘No, we’re not,’ she tells him. ‘I’m not a nerd.’

Dirk fleetingly wonders if he should be more baffled by the weirdness of this whole situation, before remembering that he makes a living out of weirdness, and that this is almost definitely the least bizarre thing he’s dealt with since before the Lydia Spring case. Instead of worrying about it, he just smiles at the odd little creature sitting at the table opposite him, and she smiles back.

After a second, she falters.

‘Why should I trust you when everyone else has betrayed me?’ she asks in her gravelly voice, and the question sends another pang to Dirk’s chest. He gives her a sad smile.

‘I don’t know, Bart. But it’s your decision to make.’

The sound of banging outside prompts both of them to look up, and, before Dirk can react, the door flies open to reveal Ken standing in the doorway, his hands visibly shaking as he holds his gun poised in front of him, switching it anxiously back and forth between Dirk and Bart.

Dirk shoots out of his chair, Bart following close behind and getting to her feet, but not bothering to hold up her hands in surrender like Dirk has done instinctively. Ken steps into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him, his breathing heavy.

‘Icarus,’ he speaks in a low voice, as if he’s trying desperately to stay composed, to keep himself under control. ‘How did you get in here?’

‘Ken. Let’s not be hasty here-’

‘Hasty?’ Ken lets out a bark of laughter. ‘It’s been twenty-four years. And now things start messing up?’

‘I needed to solve the case!’ Dirk frantically tries to explain.

‘What case? What the hell are you-’

The door is flung open again with another bang, and Dirk starts violently at the noise. This time, and to his overwhelming relief, the person standing there with a gun in one hand, and what looks like a second version of Patrick Spring’s time machine in the other, is Farah.

In a flash, she has disarmed Ken, his gun clattering to the ground, and is pointing her own at his temple, breathing heavily as if she’s been running. Bart doesn’t even react.

‘Farah!’ Dirk cries, overjoyed. ‘But how?’

‘I’m a badass!’ she yells, and with the hand that cradles the time machine to her chest, she flicks the switch, and Dirk feels all of the air rush out of the room in one go, the ground shaking beneath his feet as time is pulled out from underneath them – it’s different to the Spring machine, its reach clearly great enough to span a room rather than only those touching it, because Dirk can feel it, too, and Bart is clutching at the table with one hand as the ground shakes and tremors, and the lights flicker and flare and Dirk knows almost instinctively that they have gone back in time, gone back those twenty-four years to before Ken had managed to change time, and destroy the fabric of reality.

Farah presses the barrel of her gun to Ken’s temple, and he watches her in terror out of the corner of his eye, frozen to the spot with fear.

Before she can pull the trigger, the world is suddenly bleached white, the brightness blinding, and Dirk shields his eyes from the light that glows from the centre point of the room, right next to Farah. It’s overwhelmingly bright, printing shapes and patterns into the insides of his eyelids, and he squints against it, trying to make out Ken and Farah in front of him, and he finds that they are changing, that Ken is flickering convulsively between states, from his Blackwing clothes, to the bellhop uniform from the Perryman Grand, different combinations of jacket and shirt and tie and length of hair, facial hair that is there and then isn’t, and Farah is wearing a thousand different clothes, her Deputy uniform from Bergsberg, a suit, a hair wrap, a pair of sunglasses, and Dirk is looking down at himself, too, and his jacket is flicking through all of the colours of the rainbow, all of the colours of jacket he’s ever worn, all of his wonderfully whacky ties, and he knows that the light in the room is somehow the cause of this, knows that he is not only one version of Dirk Gently in this moment, but all of them, every single incarnation of himself being pulled together in one, and it is dizzying, the light blinding him, and…

The sound of a single gunshot rings out through the room, and Dirk jumps in shock. Ken sways for a fraction of a second, before he crumples and drops to the floor like a broken doll, a dark hole perfectly in the centre of his forehead, and Farah staring down at him with shock. Dirk spins around in alarm, to see Bart standing behind him, still holding the gun that fired the final bullet through Ken’s head. She looks a little upset. She is no longer flickering, instead simply wearing her Blackwing jumpsuit, and, looking down, Dirk realises that neither is he.

‘You’re not a good friend,’ Bart tells Ken quietly, even though he is a million miles past being able to hear her, or anything, ever again.

The blinding light disappears in a sudden flash, and Dirk blinks against the colours it has left engraved into his eyelids, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the dimming of the room. Slowly, he is able to make out a long-haired figure, a little fuzzy and sparkly around the edges, standing tall in the spot where the light had been emanating from.

Amanda?’ he gapes in surprise as her features swim more clearly into focus, her eyes stark white with a strange, black shape taking the place of her pupils that he can’t quite see. She is grinning widely, and her arms are spread as if she is controlling the very universe, which, Dirk wouldn’t be surprised if she was.

‘Hey, man!’ she beams. ‘Long time, no see.’

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ he asks in disbelief, and her cheeks dimple as her grin spreads wider.

‘I can transcend dimensions now, dude. Pretty gnarly, I know.’

Farah steps towards her in astonishment. ‘Did you… do that? And what… what happened to your eyes?’

‘Uh huh,’ Amanda nods excitedly. ‘I’ve been working on it. We managed to get you here, me and Friedkin and Wakti and Todd, and I was able to pull together every version of that Ken guy from across every different timeline, so you could properly stop him. It means he’s gone in all the dimensions, as far back as twenty-four years, including our one and the one he created that he shouldn’t have done. So, basically, he wasn’t able to create it in the first place.’

Todd. Dirk tries not to focus unnecessarily on that particular element of Amanda’s explanation.

‘So, the Blackwing timeline never happened!’ he chooses to mention instead. ‘You did it!’

‘Yeah, well,’ Amanda shrugs modestly, and gestures towards both Farah and Bart. ‘These guys helped.’

Dirk beams around at all of them, suddenly struck by an overwhelming sense of fondness and pride.

‘Amanda, you managed to pull together every single dimension in existence to make sure that we stopped Ken in all of them. Farah, you broke into the facility, stole a time machine, and then took us all back twenty-four years.’

‘Killed that Priest guy, too,’ Farah nods, and Dirk stares at her in awe.

‘You’re incredible! And, Bart,’ he grins at her, and she makes a face that showcases her grouchy reluctance to accept his praise. ‘You got rid of him! You made a choice!’

‘Don’t gotta be a big deal,’ she shrugs in slight embarrassment.

‘Where did you even get that gun?’ Dirk suddenly thinks to ask, and Bart just shrugs, holding out a coin in the palm of her hand for him to see.

‘Dollar fell outta your pocket and turned into a gun.’

Dirk nods to himself as he takes the coin from her and slips it back into his pocket ready to place back in Farah’s desk at the Agency, Mona’s preferred chill-out spot. Figures. Before he can give himself a chance to think, and undoubtedly change his mind, Dirk sweeps Bart into a tight hug. Her body stiffens up completely, arms rigidly down by her side. Dirk releases her as soon as he realises that this might not be something she’s enjoying very much.

‘Why did you do that?’ Bart stares at Dirk in confusion once he has stepped away, and he blinks.

‘It’s… it’s a hug?’ he offers. Bart continues to look at him blankly, apparently uncomprehending. ‘It’s to show affection?’

‘Oh,’ Bart squints at him. ‘Well, don’t stop!’

Amanda lets out a snort of laughter as Dirk hastily steps forward and wraps his arms around her for a second time, lest she get angry and decide that she wants to kill him again.

‘You guys need to get home,’ Amanda grins after Dirk has made his quick retreat behind Farah for safety. ‘I’ve got to put this goddamn universe straight.’

‘Haven’t you fixed it all?’ Dirk frowns. She shakes her head.

‘I’ve got rid of the timeline that was causing all the problems. Now I need to get everybody back to where they’re supposed to be.’

‘Not bad for a “sick girl”,’ Farah teases gently, and Amanda nudges her in good humour.

‘Could say the same for you, wackadoodle.’

Farah grins, and Amanda steps away from her and into the centre of the room, holding her arms aloft.

‘You guys ready?’ she asks the three of them, and Dirk is struck by a sudden feeling of foreboding.

‘Ready for what?’ he asks warily.

Amanda’s bizarre eyes twinkle with mischief. ‘I dunno. Witchakookoo shit?’

The white light flashes into the room again like a slap in the face, and Dirk yelps as he tries to shield his eyes from the brightness, squinting through it to find Amanda. She is silhouetted against the shining light, arms out in front of her, and she moves them slowly, gracefully, apart, spreading her hands as if she is the ruler of the whole universe, and Dirk feels the ground start to shake once more under his feet as a crack splits its way down the middle of the room, and Amanda is pulling, pulling it apart with her graceful hands, and Dirk fights his every instinct not to scramble away, not to try to run, as it opens before him, the blinding light coming through from below and above, from Amanda, from everywhere, and there is nothing that he can see anymore, closing his eyes tightly shut as he feels the ground crumble away to nothing beneath his feet, and, just this once, he lets himself fall.

Chapter Text

Dimension: 1. Present day.

Dirk cracks open one eyelid, squinting at the sunlight as it glares in through the window, and tries to remember where he is. He rubs groggily at his eyes with a fist, wondering if he’s somehow given himself a hangover despite not remembering the last time he consumed alcohol, before opening both of them to see that he is staring up at a familiar, cream-painted ceiling. It’s warm where the sun is bathing him in a soft glow of light that streams across the floor, the feeling of carpet against his knuckles as he grazes them experimentally over the ground. He’s in the Agency, he suddenly realises.

And it all comes flooding back.

Dirk shoots upright and gasps as he stares around at the familiar walls of the office, the three desks and the pot plants carefully arranged by Farah, with sunlight beaming in. A grunt sounds from beside him, and he twists his body around, realising with a delighted start that there are two stirring figures lying on the ground nearby.

Farah sits up slowly, blinking at her surroundings, and smiles at Dirk as their eyes meet. The final one to stir is a very grumbly Todd, who pushes himself up on one elbow, eyelids drooping sleepily and, Dirk might say, adorably. Or he might not say, but the sight makes his heart skip a beat nonetheless.

‘What the-’ Todd mumbles in a disoriented voice, before Dirk lunges towards him and Farah, grabbing them and pulling them into a hug that topples all of them over, Farah laughing as she finds herself lying back on the floor with Dirk half on top of her, and Todd making grumpy noises that are only pretending to be annoyed. Dirk knows this, because he hugs back, his arm enveloping Dirk tightly and his breath warm against his shoulder, the other arm laid across Farah’s as she tries to keep hold of both of her boys at the same time, and all of them are hugging and laughing like a ridiculous pile of puppies on the floor of an office that’s lit up by the summer sun, and Dirk doesn’t think he’s ever been this happy in his life.

***

Dimension: Wendimoor. Present day.

Bart opens her eyes, blinking in confusion at the lights, to find herself apparently lying on the hard ground, with ten pairs of eyes looking down at her. Her instinct would be to scramble away in surprise, did she not recognise all of the faces as both familiar and friendly. Bar one.

The girl that made all the white light is there, grinning down at her, as well as all four of Project Incubus and a girl wearing a bandana with rainbow-coloured hair. The Boy – Francis – is here, still wearing his crown, and so is Wakti the snail witch, and, if she determinedly blocks out the face of the Blackwing guy who she remembers being involved in kidnapping Ken back when he was nice to her, the two people who give her the most joy: the gentle face of Silas, standing closely to a smiling Panto.

‘Panto!’ she barks out in excitement, sitting up to throw her arms around his neck, and he laughs as his own squeeze her tightly, enveloping her in a reassuring warmth.

‘Hello, Bartine,’ he grins into her hair, and Bart can see Silas beaming from behind him.

The girl with the white light, Amanda, punches her lightly on the shoulder once she and Panto have broken apart.

‘Nice job back there, little lion girl,’ she tells her. ‘We couldn’t have done it without you.’

Bart lets out a coarse laugh of delight as something that feels like pride bubbles up in her throat. It feels like happiness. It feels like safety. It feels like home.

***

Dimension: 3. Present day.

‘No,’ Dirk shakes his head firmly after he’s thoughtfully chewed and swallowed a bite of his burger. ‘No, it definitely wasn’t a possum. It was a cat. It was very friendly, until it bit me. And it had a nice face.’

‘Uh huh,’ Todd nodes disbelievingly from the other side of the table, reaching out in what he probably thought was a subtle way to nab one of Dirk’s chips, before Dirk bats his hand away.

‘Hey, you’ve got your own! No chip-stealing on date night. And I’m quite certain it was somebody’s missing cat, who I went to great pains to rescue, might I add.’

‘Did it have a long nose?

‘Not that long!’

‘It was a possum, Dirk.’

Amanda’s grinning face, looking really quite scary with all the eyeliner, appears over Todd’s shoulder. She appears to have dragged Farah, still in her police uniform, into the diner with her by the hand to collect Todd for tonight’s gig.

‘Hey, loser,’ she gives him a light shove, and Todd looks up at her in surprise.

‘It’s eight already?’ he frowns.

‘Yep. Shovel those fries down, or give them to Dirk.’

Dirk gives him a smug grin, and Todd seems to decide that he’s going to eat all of his chips in ten seconds flat purely to spite him.

‘That is so gross, Todd,’ Farah wrinkles her nose at him in disgust as he swallows, hard.

‘Well, I’m not wasting food,’ Todd shrugs, and glances up at Amanda as he puts his napkin down on the table and edges his way out of the booth. ‘Come on, then, asshole. We’ve got a show to play.’

‘Yesssss,’ Amanda grins, clapping her hands together.

‘I’ll get the bill,’ Dirk offers, causing Todd to pause in rifling through the pockets of his jeans.

‘You sure?’

‘You can pay me back.’

‘How romantic,’ Todd rolls his eyes fondly. ‘You gonna be there in the crowd?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ Dirk replies honestly, and smiles into the kiss that Todd leans down to plant on his lips. ‘Good luck.’

As Dirk watches Todd follow his sister and Farah out of the diner, he is struck by a wave of contentedness that, once upon a time, he didn’t think he’d ever feel.

***

Dimension: 5. Present day.

Todd flings himself onto the couch in his apartment as soon as he gets in through the door, a thumping headache kicking at his temples after another awful shift, and wonders how much longer he can continue serving terrible beer to drunk assholes until four in the morning. He squeezes his eyes tightly shut, and lets himself sink into the softness of the couch, his entire body aching.

There’s a half-empty bottle on the coffee table, and an empty one beneath it that he eyes with a troubled glance. For the first time in longer than he can remember, he isn’t sure if a drink would make his headache better or worse.

What harm could it do?

‘I don’t know you in this universe, but I do know another version of you, that is, the one from my universe, and I know that he’s really a rather good assis-friend. He is an invaluable member of the team, and brilliant help with my cases, and he has fought so many personal battles, and he has won.’

He’ll see if he can last another ten minutes. Just ten, and then he’ll give in.

‘You are not the same as him, but you also are the same, and you’re capable of doing things just as incredible as he has.’

The words haven’t left his head since Dirk had spoken them, the ridiculous man in the stupid jacket who crashed into his car, and then took him on a whirlwind adventure to meet his double from a parallel universe before they’d been teleported to a secret government facility and he’d fallen through a crack in the floor and ended up back in his apartment. It’s the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to him, and yet he can’t stop thinking about how much sheer, unwavering faith Dirk had had in him.

‘You’re capable of doing things just as incredible as he has.’

Before he can stop himself, Todd pulls his phone out of his pocket, and flicks through his phonebook to find a number he hasn’t called in years. He’d cut himself off, drowning himself in drink, and she’d long ago given up trying to reach out.

He types out a quick text, hesitating only momentarily before he shoots it off without letting himself think too hard about it, because, if he does, he’ll never send it. And he thinks the time might finally have come.

She’ll get it in the morning.

Todd re-reads the text, the last in a thread that hasn’t been touched in almost three years, and then slumps back on his sofa and restlessly closes his eyes.

Hey, ‘Manda. Can we talk? I think I need help.

Outside the Ridgely, a man in a purple jacket finally picks up a squat, panting corgi, one he has been trying to get hold of for weeks.

‘There you are, you silly thing,’ he murmurs softly to her as he crouches down, and Rapunzel yaps in response. There’s a strange air to her, something different, something special. Dirk looks into her huge, dark eyes, and she is somehow familiar, somehow sad, somehow like the lost girl on the posters.

The pull of the universe towards the building to his right couldn’t be stronger, the cool waves washing over him in beckoning whispers. He stands up with the corgi, looks up at the building, and smiles.

There is more to the case of the missing dog, yet.

***

Dimension: 4. Present day.

Todd takes a swig of water from his bottle, the dry heat of the warm, summer morning doing nothing for his voice when he’s standing in the street busking all day. He absently strums his guitar, flicking through his mental list of songs as he tries to decide what to play next.

He feels Dirk’s presence before he sees him, the surrounding air suddenly getting just a little warmer, a little brighter, and Dirk is standing shooting him a nervous smile while he shifts from foot to foot. He’s wearing a red jacket today. There’s something different about him, but Todd can’t put his finger on what.

‘Morning, Todd,’ Dirk grins, but there are definite nerves tight in his voice.

‘Morning. You okay?’

‘Oh, absolutely!’ Dirk nods hurriedly, before taking a deep breath, as if he’s bracing himself. ‘I, um. I thought you might be a black coffee sort of person. If… if you wanted a break from playing?’

Todd realises with a start what it is that’s different about Dirk today: instead of holding the usual single takeout coffee for his boss, today he’s carrying one in each hand. He holds one out towards Todd, a simple hot coffee cup, while the other one looks like some ludicrous, sickly frappuccino with whipped cream. Todd can’t help but grin.

‘Don’t tell me you drink those.’

‘What’s wrong with them?’ Dirk asks defensively. ‘They taste like ice cream!’

‘You’re gonna lose all your teeth by the time you’re forty.’

‘Do you want this coffee or not?’

Todd’s grin widens as he reaches out for it, and Dirk hands him the cup of black coffee with significantly less nervousness than he’d been showing a moment before. He had been entirely correct in his assumptions about Todd’s taste in coffee.

‘Thanks, Dirk,’ Todd smiles softly. ‘Do you, uh… wanna sit?’

Dirk nods quickly, eyes lighting up with eagerness and relief that makes Todd’s heart skip a beat. Todd perches on the front step of the office building behind the spot where he busks, leaving room for Dirk, who comes to sit beside him, just a little closer than the laws of personal space would usually warrant. Todd doesn’t mind at all.

***

Dimension: 1. Present day.

They talk for more than two hours, the three of them, over endless cups of tea and coffee as they lounge on the client couch in the Agency reception, catching up on who has gone where, and the different people and versions of themselves and each other that they’d met in the dimensions they travelled to.

Dirk’s hand brushes against Todd’s every now and then as they sit side-by-side on the couch. It sets his heart racing, and all the hairs on his arms stand on end every time.

When Farah has eventually announced that she is well overdue about a week’s worth of sleep, hugging them both goodbye and exiting the Agency via the narrow staircase down to the street below, Todd is looking forward to doing the same. Dirk keeps looking at him with an odd expression on his face from where he’s migrated to the other end of the couch, and Todd’s ridiculous heart is making it a little hard to rationally assess what it means.

‘So,’ Todd says eventually, and Dirk glances over at him again. ‘Are we going home, too?’

Dirk smiles softly. ‘Fancy a walk first?’

It’s not something he’d expected Dirk to say, but, then again, very little of what comes out of Dirk’s mouth is what could be classed as ‘expected’. Todd shrugs.

‘Sure.’

It takes less than ten minutes for the two of them to walk to the nearby park in near-silence, exchanging no more than meaningless pleasantries and a couple more brushes-of-fingers as they wander together through the side streets. The park is surprisingly quiet when they arrive, almost entirely free of shrieking kids and parents with pushchairs. He supposes it’s because the sun is starting to gently set over the trees, painting the sky a vibrant colour of orange that Dirk’s newest jacket would envy.

The two of them settle comfortably on a bench that looks out across the grass, and up at the peach melba swirls of sky. There are a few minutes of gentle, companionable silence while Todd lets himself get lost in the peace, the moments of blissful quiet after a hectic case being something he’s sure he will never come to take for granted.

Eventually, Dirk speaks.

‘I slept here for a few nights when I first got to Seattle. It was quite pleasant, actually. Except when it rained.’

Todd is momentarily taken aback. ‘You were homeless?’

‘Not for long,’ Dirk assures him, as if he thinks that makes it all okay. Maybe he does. ‘Patrick Spring paid me an obscene amount of month to find Lydia. But it took a few days for the international payment to go through, and I’d spent all my savings on the airfare, so…’

He trails off and back into another comfortable silence. Another minute or so passes before he speaks again.

‘Perhaps I shouldn’t even be considering this, but… do you think that, maybe, that whole “wrong” dimension could have actually been the right one?’

Todd pulls a face of scornful confusion.

‘What? Dirk, it literally almost tore the entire universe apart. That’s how “wrong” it was.’

‘But I did so many good things with Blackwing,’ Dirk shrugs a little wistfully, ‘predicting terrorist attacks, and bombings, and God knows what else. I saved so many people. I saved Stevie.’

Todd shakes his head. ‘Dirk, I told you, what happened with Stevie-’

‘I know, I know, it wasn’t my fault. But why would a universe where all the right things were done be the wrong one? Who gets to decide?’

There’s a pause while Todd thinks this over.

‘Maybe…’ he replies slowly, ‘all those things just… weren’t meant to be fixed.’

Dirk looks him, appalled.

‘Todd! That’s a horrible thing to say!’

‘Not because they didn’t matter, or they weren’t important,’ he clarifies hurriedly. ‘I just mean…’

He pauses briefly while he considers how to word what he’s trying to say, before starting again.

‘You can’t fix everything, and you can’t change the past,’ he explains. ‘We found that out for ourselves a while ago now. And… I don’t know how fate works, or the extent to which we can choose our own actions, and I don’t know why this universe is the one we’re meant to exist in, but… bad things happen, terrible things, and all we can do is try to help when we can, and not beat ourselves up when we can’t. The Dirk in that universe did amazing things, and it really, really sucks that those have all been erased, or whatever. But you did amazing things in this universe, too. You saved Lydia Spring. You saved the whole of Wendimoor. There are certain things you’ve been put into this world to do, but you can’t do it all; you can’t stop every tragedy from happening, or every person from dying. You can only do what you can, and I watch you try your goddamn hardest to do the right thing every single day. You’re a good person, Dirk. You don’t need to… to feel bad. About anything.’

When he looks up, Dirk is looking a little choked up, his eyes glistening dangerously.

‘Thank you, Todd,’ he says in a strangled voice.

Todd shrugs one shoulder, embarrassed. ‘You just… deserve to be happy.’

‘So do you,’ Dirk nudges him gently in the side. ‘Though I know you don’t believe it. I met a rather alarmingly unhappy version of you, by the way. I didn’t know your self-loathing ran quite so deep.’

Todd smiles a little.

‘It’s not so bad anymore,’ he replies truthfully. ‘You’ve definitely helped with that.’

‘Is that why you stay?’

He says it so mildly, so resignedly, as if he fully expects to be told that he isn’t worth being friends with for any other reason, that Todd almost blanches, his stomach flipping as he stares up at Dirk, the look on his face the only betrayal of the sadness that must accompany his statement.

‘What? Dirk… you think the only reason I like being around you is because you make me hate myself less?’

‘Not the only reason,’ Dirk admits. ‘I’m also aware that I’ve created a lot more excitement in your life since I entered it, even if I do say so myself.’

Todd shakes his head incredulously.

‘Dirk. I’m not still here because you make my life more exciting, or make me feel better about myself. I’m here because of you. You… you make everything feel brighter, and not because of the weirdness or the chaos or the mysteries, or anything to do with the universe, even if I’ve been trying to kid myself that that was the reason. It’s because of your stupid ties and that face you make when you’re trying to pretend you’re not smiling. It’s because of how I feel about you.’

Todd is almost shocked at his own honesty, at the ease with which the words have flown from his lips, before he remembers that Dirk has always made him honest, that Dirk has always made him the best version of himself.

The light is catching in Dirk’s hair, making it glow rich and auburn like a lantern, like it could light up the whole of the sky on its own. His eyes are wide, and soft, and blue, and Todd can’t breathe for a second at the knowledge that he would sell his soul to be able to look into those eyes for the rest of his days.

He’s looking at Todd curiously.

‘As a friend?’

Todd takes a deep breath and tries to calm his fluttering heart.

‘More than that.’

There’s a pause that seems to last a lifetime.

Dirk narrows his eyes.

‘A best friend?’

Todd huffs out a laugh despite himself, shaking his head fondly, and making the final, executive decision to throw all caution to the wind.

‘No, Dirk. Like this.’

Todd leans in to place a hand on the side of Dirk’s cheek and gently press their lips together, feeling his eyelids flutter closed as Dirk gasps a sharp little inhale against his mouth. His lips are soft and warm, and he tastes like home, and sunshine, and Dirk, and the tea and ginger biscuits he’d been drinking with him and Farah back at the Agency. Dirk’s hands come up to rest like feathers on Todd’s shoulders, and Todd’s heart is suddenly beating so fast he feels lightheaded, warmth spreading all the way to his fingertips as his stomach does cartwheels. It feels like all the threads of the universe being brought back together.

When he pulls away, Dirk’s hands remain on his shoulders, Todd’s own not moving from Dirk’s face, and Dirk is looking at him with such adoration, such unabashed devotion in his eyes that it’s almost overwhelming.

‘I love you, too,’ Dirk whispers, and Todd is sure his chest is going to burst.

A crestfallen look suddenly clouds Dirk’s eyes.

‘Dirk?’ Todd asks worriedly. ‘What is it?’

Dirk frowns at him, a look of petulant disappointment on his face.

‘We didn’t get to keep the kitten,’ he whines, and Todd lets out a soft laugh. He looks so adorable that Todd can’t help but kiss him again.

***

Dimension: 1. One month later.

‘Yo, Hobbsy! Toss me another beer, man!’

Hobbs obediently picks up an unopened can from the coffee table in Farah’s flat, and poises ready to throw it for a moment, to make sure Tina is likely to catch it. She holds out her hands as if awaiting a baseball, and Hobbs gently throws it towards where she sits on Farah’s knee. She misses spectacularly, and the can clatters unceremoniously to the floor, making Amanda cheer and Bart let out a cackling laugh. Apparently, these two get on like a house on fire, which doesn’t bode well for the state of Farah’s flat, or the stability of anybody’s life. Dirk is still a little scared of Bart, but he’s learning to tolerate her. He’s just lucky that the Rowdies and Beastie are busy smashing up cars, or whatever it is that they do. They’ll show up later, he’s sure. They often do.

‘Don’t you dare open that now,’ Farah instructs her girlfriend, but Tina is already up off her lap and grabbing the can from the floor, cracking it open with reckless abandon. Predictably, the beer explodes and fizzes all over Farah where she sits on the sofa.

Tina!’ she yells, but there’s humour sparkling in her eyes, and Dirk knows that the roars of laughter from Tina, Amanda, Bart and Todd would be enough to pacify her, in any case.

Todd takes a sip of his own beer from beside him on the sofa, grinning into it as Hobbs visibly winces at the mess Tina has made of both Farah’s shirt and floor.

‘Sure you don’t want me to run out for more orange soda?’ he asks Dirk, who shakes his head.

‘It’s quite alright, Todd. The cherry stuff is good, too.’

‘All thanks to Farah for tempting you out of your comfort zone,’ Todd raises his eyebrows in her direction, and she grins back.

‘Pah!’ Tina snorts. ‘Comfort zones? Us guys? None of us have ever known the meaning of those words in our whole, weirdo lives.’

‘I’ll drink to that!’ Dirk raises his glass of cherry soda with a flourish, and cheers fill the room as six cans of beer follow suit.

When Amanda crosses the room to turn up Farah’s iPod speakers, dragging Bart behind her so they can dance with wild, flailing abandon, Dirk looks on in contentment at this strange bunch of weirdos, the people who have always been freaks and misfits, but, when together, make up the closest thing to family he’s ever known. Todd’s hand finds his own, squeezing gently and bringing him out of his reverie.

‘You okay?’ he asks softly, and Dirk turns to smile at him, the man with eyes bluer than any ocean in the universe.

‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘Yes, I really am.’