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Darling, Dearest, Sweetheart, Love.

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“Did you just call me darling?”

Todd doesn’t sound angry. He sounds perplexed, more than anything, but Dirk’s learned not to immediately trust his judgement when it comes to tone and facial expressions, even those belonging to Todd, who he can read better than anyone. He pauses in the doorway to the agency office, turning back to squint at Todd’s face.

Confusion? Amusement? It’s difficult to tell.

More to the point, Dirk did call Todd darling, and doesn’t actually know why he did it, so he’s going to have to come up with some premium grade bullshit on the fly.

“I may have,” Dirk acknowledges, shrugging. “Surely that’s not the first time I’ve done that? Although, you know, I once went six months calling a woman Jonathan because I misheard her when we were introduced. Well, I say introduced, she was in the process of kidnapping me –”

Todd’s eyebrows have shot up in alarm. That expression’s easy, it was the first one Todd ever made at Dirk, so Dirk always recognises it.

“Okay putting the kidnapping aside,” Todd interrupts, “Yes, Dirk, that’s the first time you’ve done that.”

Dirk shrugs. “Well, today was your lucky day!”

Todd narrows his eyes and shifts around in the office chair to face Dirk fully. Oh dear. He’s not going to let this one go.

“You call other people pet names, but mostly, like – strangers? And Farah, a couple of times?”

Dirk casts his mind back, considering. He says quite a lot of tripe he doesn’t remember. And he’s been known to slip into the old pet name now and again, hasn’t he? He knows he called the Beast a lot of pet names, but admittedly, calling her “the Beast” had felt a little rude.

Plus, he’s pretty sure it’s his right ‘as a gay’ as Tina would phrase it, to call people pet names. It’s affectionate. Dirk likes being affectionate, especially now he’s got people he’s allowed to be affectionate with.

He throws his hands up in the air in a gesture which he hopes conveys the depths of how little he’s thought about this until now, bouncing on his feet. “It’s my new thing. I’m making it a thing! I’ll throw out a darling, I’ll slip in a dearheart, maybe even a naughty cariad if I’m feeling generous.”

“What does cariad – wait, no, seriously? You’re just gonna start calling everyone pet names now?” Todd shakes his head like Dirk’s being odd again, but there’s a little smile in the corner of his mouth, so Dirk’s going to take that as a nod of approval.

Dirk grins. “That I am, darling!”

The last thing Dirk hears as he closes the door behind him is an undignified choking noise. It gives him a warm glow of satisfaction to know that he can have that effect on Todd – it almost feels like flirting for real, instead of just – platonic teasing with a dash of utterly unromantic affection.

Not that Todd would ever reciprocate, if Dirk tried really flirting..

 

~

 

You,” Dirk groans, as he presses his head against the bars of the cell he’s currently trapped in, “are the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Well that’s the first time someone’s ever accused me of being that,” Todd mutters dryly, as a police officer unlocks the grate.

Dirk scrambles to get to his feet, his body itching to be free of the oppressive confines of the cell. It feels like he’s a bee, trapped in a hive full of buzzing, only the buzzing is coming from inside him, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he’s a hive and the bees are inside him, absolutely off their nuts on violets. He wrinkles his nose at the thought, only to realise Todd’s giving him an odd look as he steps out.

“… I said all of that out loud, didn’t I?”

“How long has it been since you slept?” Todd looks reassuringly calm – one might almost call it affectionate, actually.

“Don’t know,” Dirk admits. “Got a bit befuddled somewhere between the escaped librarian and the ghost bridge.”

Todd’s face folds into another look that Dirk’s definitely filing away under fond.

He loves those looks best.

They trudge their way to the nearest bus station (they had a car at one point, but sadly, the Universe had said no to that little venture), and collapse onto the bench, waiting for what Dirk assumes will be their chariot home again.

It may just be the sleep deprivation. It may be that Dirk is braver than people give him credit for. But he leans over, resting his head against Todd’s shoulder.

“Thank you, dear,” he murmurs.

He doesn’t see if Todd reacts to the endearment, already half-asleep. By the time they get home, he’s forgotten it ever happened.

 

~

 

“Hey, sweetheart –” Todd says casually, and Dirk drops Farah’s laptop.

He screams perhaps a little more loudly than the situation warrants, since the laptop is, for one, the sturdiest thing on the market, and for two, it lands on a couch cushion before sliding sadly to the side, coming to rest against the seat.

Dirk stands frozen, hands useless before him, as Todd stares at the scene which has unfolded before him.

“… Shit, Dirk, are you okay?” Todd is probably reasonably alarmed, given the length and volume of Dirk’s scream.

Dirk waves him off, wincing as he gingerly picks up the laptop and sets it on the coffee table.

“It’s fine, I’m fine, we’re all fine here, how are you?” Dirk says, sitting down on the couch beside him, trying to sound chipper.

I’m – Dirk – I just –” Todd stops, sighing. “Your ears are okay?” Todd gestures vaguely towards Dirk’s head, awkwardly indicating the source of his concern.

“Oh!” It brings a warm glow of – something or other, very bubbly – to Dirk’s chest to realise that Todd’s talking about his processing issues. That’s one of the nice things about having friends. The fact that they know you can’t stand loud noises, and don’t do them on purpose as well. “Yes, well, screaming occurs. No harm done.”

“Okay, well. Good.” Todd clears his throat in embarrassment. “… I’ll take that as a no on pet names.”

“No!” Dirk blurts out, before nearly hitting himself in a moment of instant regret. Hitting oneself is bad, Farah had been very clear on that front, though of course she seldom followed that advice when she got particularly upset.

Not the point, what was the point?

Right. Todd. Called Dirk sweetheart, Dirk nearly died on impact, now Todd’s offering to never do it again. Dirk has to stop him.

“I mean,” Dirk says, thinking frantically, “Only if you’re too much of a coward to commit.”

Todd raises his eyebrows so high they’re in danger of floating clear off his face. “Commit?

Dirk shrugs in a way which he hopes comes across as highly unbothered. “Yes. Commit. I’m not saying you don’t have a great deal of strength of character in you, Todd, but I am saying that publicly owning pet names might be a step too far for one as repressed as yourself. Cowardice, you know.”

Repressed?”

“Are you just going to copy everything I say? I thought we’d passed that point in our relationship a long time ago, Todd, are you feeling –”

Todd punches him in the arm. Not hard, but hard enough.

“Owww,” Dirk whines, rubbing his arm.

“Sorry, darling, did I hurt you?”

Oh, that’s sarcasm, definitely. Dirk glares at Todd resentfully.

Todd’s deadpan expression doesn’t change.

“… Now, Todd, you mustn’t get angry … think of how much it would stress Farah out!”

“I think,” Todd says, in a dangerously calm tone which nonetheless does something gooey to Dirk’s insides, “that you want me to call you cutesy names.”

An alarm of very-bad-oh-no-whoopsie goes off in Dirk’s brain.

“No,” he squeaks.

Todd rolls his eyes. “Let me guess, you made a bet with Tina?”

A brilliant assistant even when he definitely doesn’t mean to be, Todd really does provide every out for Dirk getting all mixed up in himself.

“Got it in one,” Dirk says, laughing nervously.

“Tell her you won. And I’m not repressed,” Todd mutters, turning back to his laptop.

“The bet wasn’t a one-off!” Dirk blurts out, scrambling to think of a way out of this. “It was – supposed to become a habit, sort of.”

Todd pauses, hands hovering over the keys. It’s all Dirk can do not to hold his breath in anticipation.

“Oh, well. In that case, you’re lucky that I like you better than Tina, sweetheart.”

Dirk should probably say something here about how that’s not a very nice thing to say about Tina, but it’s difficult to summon up the will to form words when all he wants to do is curl into a ball and make happy noises, so he doesn’t. He smiles instead, and pretends he can’t see the corner of Todd’s mouth twitching upwards as he stares at his laptop screen.

 

~

 

Dirk is beginning to consider the fact that he may have made a mistake by asking-slash-teasing-slash-tricking Todd into continuing to call him various endearments. This particular revelation comes upon him not under any strange circumstances, not because of any case – but because of an overeager sales assistant, who Dirk comes upon when he walks up to Todd in the middle of a Target one Saturday afternoon.

“Dirk! Hey! Where – where – uh, where’ve you been, babe?”

Something’s off about what Todd just said, Dirk’s sure of it, but he just blinks rapidly as Todd launches himself across the aisle to grab his arm.

“He’s always running off,” Todd babbles to the sales assistant, who is looking displeased. “Never sure where we’ll end up.”

“Well, yes, that’s in the job description, Todd,” Dirk explains. Honestly, Todd could have just said he was telling the sales assistant about the holistic interconnectedness of the Universe. Dirk smiles sunnily at the young man, who has a small muscle twitching in his jaw. “I’ve recently promoted Todd here from assistant to partner!”

Todd laughs very loudly – one might even say forcefully – at this pronouncement, and Dirk’s confusion deepens.

“Oh, he just – we just – it’s our kind of, uh, in-joke, you know, because we … were … friends, before we started –” and here Todd shoots Dirk a pleading look “– dating.”

Oh. Oh, dear. Dirk feels something shrivel in his heart.

But – that look is still on Todd’s face, a look of obvious desperation, so plain that even Dirk can see it. And what is Dirk, if not there to help? He can do this. He can pretend to be Todd’s boyfriend. It’s only a little heartache, and damnit, Dirk Gently knows how to nurse a broken heart and help out a friend at the same time.

Of course – that doesn’t preclude him from having a little fun of his own.

He throws an arm around Todd’s shoulder, squeezing for extra effectiveness. “That’s right. My darling Todd here always used to assist me with, er …” Think fast, no cases, might google me. “… vending machines. Could never get the hang of them.”

Todd looks like he’s two seconds away from strangling Dirk, but since he dragged them both into this situation, Dirk feels justified in continuing.

“It was the third or fourth time that I got myself trapped that he gave me his number. From there it was all romantic candle-lit brunches, and flower-strewn bunkbeds, and chocolates after midnight. Still can’t quite believe I snagged myself a beefy firefighter boyfriend. One might even say I really am living the dream.” Dirk turns to face Todd, proud of the level of detail he managed to squeeze into their cover story on such short notice.

All five-feet-six-inches of Todd is radiating murderous intent in Dirk’s direction.

… All right, Dirk may have gone a bit far with the whole beefy firefighter bit. Oh, no, he definitely did, judging by way the sales assistant’s eyes are narrowing in suspicion.

Todd clears his throat, evidently preparing to say something to back up Dirk’s flimsy story. He never gets the chance, though, because – acting on an impulse he will later justify to himself as the will of the Universe, though it certainly didn’t feel like a hunch at the time – Dirk tilts Todd’s chin up and kisses him cheerily on the cheek. It’s a chaste thing, utterly unremarkable.

And yet somehow, Dirk’s lips feel like they’ve been electrified. The sensation of Todd’s faintly scratchy cheek (Dirk will never admit he likes Todd’s scruffiness), makes Dirk’s stomach swoop with anticipation, leaving his whole body feeling strangely like the time he got shot with an arrow and fainted from blood loss.

“Shall we get on, dearest?” Dirk drops his arm to Todd’s side, taking Todd’s hand before Todd can protest. From there it’s a simple matter of dragging Todd away from the undoubtedly affronted sales assistant, and exiting Target altogether.

As soon as they enter the bustling food court outside, Todd slumps down and removes his hand from Dirk’s grip. Dirk doesn’t comment on it, even if it does makes him feel a little like he did about seven seconds after a packet of ink would explode in his face in Blackwing.

“Well,” Dirk says brightly, ignoring the feeling, “He was rather taciturn, for a Target employee. American sales assistants are supposed to be very in-your-face, aren’t they? At least that’s always been my experience.”

Todd snorts, hunched posture still holding his frame captive. “Yeah, well. He was definitely being that before you arrived.” He starts walking a little more quickly, so that Dirk has to hasten along to keep up – a reversal of their usual roles, and one that Dirk’s not sure he enjoys.

“He was bothering you?” Dirk doesn’t even attempt to hide his concern, feeling a dreadful creeping sensation making its way up his throat, some unpleasant mix of protectiveness and jealousy. “I thought, maybe you were just – erm …”

“No, he was hitting on me. And not really taking no for an answer? I was just about to text you and ask where you were, but. Well. There you were.”

“Universe,” Dirk says, nodding with relief. “Probably.”

At that, Todd finally looks up, the very edge of his mouth twitching into a smile. “Or, you got a hankering for frozen yogurt.”

Dirk makes a vague gesture that could be construed as a maybe. “I mean, only if you insist, Todd. It’s very important to get your daily intake of – things, and vitamin … G.”

Todd’s shoulders are finally starting to loosen up. “Uh-huh. And I’m guessing I’m paying?”

“Left my wallet at home again, yes.”

“Universe?”

“You’ve really gotten the hang of this assisting thing, Todd, I must say!”

Todd finally breaks into a laugh, and it’s every bit the reward Dirk was secretly hoping for. Definitely worth it. Always, always worth it.

 

~

 

Dirk knows, in the same way he knows that the whims of the Universe will take him where he needs to go regardless of what he wants, that by now he should be used to seeing Todd lying on the ground, helpless to whatever it is that pararibulitis is making him see. But there’s knowing something and then there’s reality – and the reality is that it doesn’t matter that Todd’s had countless pararibulitis attacks in front of him by now, Dirk still feels the floor drop out from below him every single time.

His first instinct is to rush forward and take hold of Todd, to pull him off the hard kitchen floor tiles – but no, that’s a bad idea, too much sensory input – Todd had explained it once, told them how hard it was to get used to the fact that he couldn’t always touch Amanda when an attack was really bad, he had to gauge whether it was necessary every time.

Dirk glances around desperately for Todd’s medication – and there it is on the ground beside him, unopened. Todd must have tried to get it out but dropped it – who knows how long he’s been trembling on the floor like this? Dirk falls to his knees and swipes it up with shaking hands, babbling to Todd the whole time to let him know that he’s there. Todd’s eyes are screwed shut; it’s entirely possible he hasn’t even heard Dirk come into the kitchen.

“Hey, hey, listen, I’m here, love – just hold on, hold on a minute, just let me –”

Above them, the sink is full of quietly popping bubbles and soap suds. Todd must have been doing the dishes without gloves. Damnit, Dirk should have remembered to get new ones. No use thinking about that now. Dirk pops the medication bottle open, hands shaking, trying not to imagine what Todd’s seeing, feeling. Todd’s arms are drawn into painful-looking knots of tension, hands clawing inward like he’s being electrified. For all Dirk knows, he is.

From there he has no choice but to pull Todd into his arms, try to force the medication down his throat without Todd choking on it. This isn’t the first time Dirk’s had to do so – he’s gotten better at it. He knows how to support the weight of Todd’s head in his hands, how to pull Todd’s body onto his lap, away from the hard, unforgiving floor. He shuffles them around, carefully as he can, until Todd’s head is resting against his arm, his back against Dirk’s folded legs.

“Just focus on breathing, all right? In and out, oxygen to carbon dioxide, or – actually that might be the other way around – never mind, just breathe. Whatever it is, it isn’t real. Remember what Amanda said, you have to picture yourself taking control of it. Even if it’s bears. You’re doing so well, love, just keep breathing.”

And Todd does. He breathes, little choking gasps that even out slowly, slowly. He swallows his medication, and lies still in Dirk’s arms, wheezing and coughing.

It isn’t always like this. How Todd’s body reacts depends on the attack. Sometimes Todd is completely limp, and he’ll explain later that he felt like he was melting, like his bones had gone soft and useless. Other times, he’ll see great shards of ice or rusty blades sticking out of his chest, unbearably painful, but he can at least control the rest of his limbs when that happens. The main attacks Todd tends to get are electrical ones. And those knock him down for hours, if not days, as his body recovers from full-body cramping and spasming. This one looks like an electrical one.

Dirk, historically, has never been very good at looking after people in emergency situations. He certainly cares when they’re happening, but generally he’s only known how to deal with the sense of panicky, worried love by wringing his hands and babbling nonsensically about utter bullshit in order to distract the person he cares about. And admittedly, the last one can occasionally be very helpful indeed.

But Dirk is not a take-charge kind of man, when it comes to medical emergencies. He’s only learned how to be a responsible adult in situations like this since he met Todd and Farah. Farah, because she taught him, patiently and kindly, with the kind of understanding only someone who is also prone to panicking can provide. And Todd, because … Although he, too, is good in a crisis, ultimately, because he’s sick. Dirk doesn’t have a choice anymore about being useless in a crisis. And he has far too many opportunities to practice his newfound skills.

Todd begins to relax in increments, fingers first, then his arms and legs. The tension in his chest and shoulders is harder for him to be rid of. He’d told Dirk once that it was because he was usually pretty tense there anyway. Without meaning to, Dirk finds himself stroking Todd’s arm – but he stops as soon as he realises what he’s doing. Bad idea. Sensory input is finnicky, this soon after an attack – there’s every chance he’ll hurt Todd as much as comfort him.

“Sorry – just let me –” Dirk tries to shuffle back a little without dropping Todd’s head onto the floor.

“Don’t stop.”

Todd’s voice comes out rough, like his throat is dry. He swallows, but doesn’t open his eyes.

“It’s fine. Feels good.”

Dirk holds himself completely motionless. He hesitates for only a moment before tentatively reaching over once more to run his hand along Todd’s arm. He keeps at it for a few minutes, watching carefully as Todd slowly relaxes in his arms. He falls silent, out of ways to describe how much he loves Todd and how much he wishes that Todd didn’t have to go through this without – without saying just that.

Todd reaches up a hand over Dirk’s, and Dirk stills. Todd clears his throat.

“Keeping up the pet names thing?”

Dirk … cannot read Todd’s tone right now.

And that may cause him to panic a little. “I can stop – I don’t have to – oh, damn it, I don’t even remember what I called you. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, or, or –”

Todd’s making a wheezing noise that takes Dirk a moment to identify as laughing.

“Are you – laughing at me, Todd Brotzman?”

Todd nods with a shit-eating grin, then winces, rolling his neck. “Ow,” he mutters, defeated.

“Sorry.” Dirk anxiously attempts to adjust the angle he’s holding Todd’s head at.

“No problem, babe.” Todd smiles tiredly again.

Dirk wishes he had it in him to laugh a little harder at the joke. As it is, all he can think is that he wishes Todd would call him that in earnest. Which is quite a lot to process, actually, because one Americanism Dirk has always had a strong stance against is the word ‘babe.’ So much for his principals.

A few more minutes pass in quiet, determined patience, both of them waiting until Todd’s body decides it can dredge up enough energy to move. Dirk continues to hold himself still, far moreso than he ever is, waiting for the moment to break. Finally, Todd opens his eyes, looking up at Dirk.

“Hey,” he says, tiredly. “Come here often?”

Dirk can’t help but grin at that. “Only when I’m on a case, darling,” he answers, the endearment slipping out before he can catch it.

Todd doesn’t laugh at that, but there’s something in his eyes – something like –

Dirk doesn’t know what it means, but it’s sad.

 

~

 

Dirk stops calling Todd by anything other than his name.

And, occasionally, Mr. Brotzman. Rarely but still sometimes, his full name. But no more ‘darlings,’ no more ‘dearests,’ no more ‘sweethearts.’ It was a bad habit to get into in the first place, because all it did was make Dirk wish they could do it for real.

Not that he’s stopped wishing he could do it for real. Actually, if anything, the effort to break the habit of calling Todd by every endearment his brain can think of is driving Dirk up the wall.

It’s just –

The decision to stop calling Todd anything other than Todd is one Dirk makes the second he realises that their clients are beginning to make certain assumptions about the two of them.

Or, well. One client in particular – a statuesque woman who hires them after a series of mishaps involving a missing age-of-sail era warship which she suspects has been commandeered by a twelve-year-old with one leg named Johnny.

The case is resolved with the agency’s usual arguable efficiency, though for bonus points, they don’t get arrested on this occasion. Bart shows up for the first time in six months, saying something about how she can’t stay for long, her fourth plan to make Ken a good person again is working pretty well this time, and she can’t keep escaping if she wants to have any hope of it succeeding. She’s been called by the Universe on this occasion, so up she comes to Seattle, murdering a few people along the way – and so, when the cops show up, they arrest her instead of the agency, which is a nice change. She doesn’t even try to fight it, just waves them off cheerily.

It’s funny – she’s even starting to warm up to Farah, which definitely hadn’t seemed possible all those years ago in Bergsberg.

But the client. The client is different, because even Dirk can tell that she and Todd get along swimmingly – her goth sensibilities probably mean there’s a significant punk crossover happening somewhere in their interests, and Todd ends up spending a lot more time with her on the case than anybody intends.

So when the word darling slips out of Dirk’s mouth, in reference to Todd, in front of the client, and entirely by accident, Dirk doesn’t missed the raised eyebrows she directs at Todd in response.

Nor does he miss the sudden flush of shame on Todd’s face.

And, well. Right, obviously. Dirk has always been faintly aware, in the back of his mind, that some people find him embarrassing – social cues are difficult to follow at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a case – but somehow the thought had never occurred to him that Todd might feel that way. Not after all this time.

But there’s more to it. Whatever feelings Dirk might quietly be harbouring regarding his best-friend-slash-assistant-slash-business-partner, he’s fully aware that they are not reciprocated. And that’s obviously completely fine and not a problem at all. Todd deserves to be able to date whoever he wants, which means Dirk can’t interfere with Todd’s chances at romance. Dirk has interfered with enough of Todd’s life trajectory, he doesn’t need to ruin Todd’s romantic life too.

Thus: he can’t keep play-acting like they’re together anymore.

Also, he should admit to himself that that’s what he’s been doing all along.

Because he has been, hasn’t he? He’s been pretending at a life they most certainly do not and never have had together. He’s been pushing for something he doesn’t really deserve, or at least – something that Todd is not interested in. Dirk understands, with the experience of someone who’s spent a very long time flitting from place to place and never having a home, that what he’s been given in Todd (and Farah, and the agency,) is an extraordinarily precious gift. A gift that he still struggles to believe won’t end some day. A gift that means that he doesn’t get to be greedy about it, doesn’t get to ask for more.

Even if, deep down, it has begun to ache in a way which is not easily ignored.

What Dirk cannot predict, however, is that Todd might notice Dirk’s self-imposed exile from verbal affection. Nor is he able to predict that having noticed, Todd might be willing to actually confront Dirk about it.

Said confrontation takes place about a month after Dirk stops calling Todd endearments, in the backseat of a stolen vehicle parked outside a highway truck stop, during what might generously be termed a stakeout. In truth, it’s far closer to a temporary break from running while Farah tries to get in contact with a man about an oversized clown costume in the cornfield a mile over.

“You stopped calling me names,” Todd blurts out suddenly, just as Dirk’s beginning to wonder whether they should stop in at the diner for brunch.

It takes a moment for the words to sink in. Dirk avoids looking at Todd, instead choosing to sit up straight and carefully fold his hands in his lap like a non-suspicious, totally normal person.

Sorry?”

Dirk’s pretty sure the pitch of his voice isn’t that high, but Todd’s judgemental silence says otherwise.

“Like – pet names and shit. You used to like, call me – things.” Here, Todd cuts himself off, as if he’s too embarrassed to say what it is that Dirk used to call him.

Well, of course he is. That’s why Dirk stopped.

Dirk wonders if he can get out of having this conversation by pretending to be asleep. He glances very quickly out of the corner of his eye at Todd, sitting with one leg up on the seat and a steely look of determination directed right at Dirk’s face. Nope, okay, Todd is definitely not going to buy the ol’ sleep routine.

Looks like it’s back to basics: say something, anything, and hope it’ll lead somewhere.

“Did you know,” Dirk begins carefully (so far, so good), “that cariad is a Welsh term that roughly translates as dearest?”

… What the hell was that?

“I did know that, actually,” Todd says casually.

Avoidance temporarily forgotten, Dirk swivels his head around to gawk at Todd in amazement. “Really?”

Todd nods. “Yup. I googled it after the first time.”

Dirk squints. “First time that you …? Went to Wales?”

“The first time you called me darling.”

Oh, shit.

“I didn’t know you spoke Welsh,” Todd continues. “But it kinda makes sense.”

“I don’t,” Dirk explains hurriedly. “Speak Welsh, that is. Just English. And I can understand Romanian, but that’s – erm, you know.”

Todd looks pained in the way he often does, when Dirk refers to his childhood. “Yeah, no. Of course.”

A silence falls, and for a moment, Dirk thinks he’s gotten away with things. He looks over Todd’s shoulder, hoping desperately that Farah will appear from the cornfield.

“Dirk,” Todd says softly, and oh, Dirk hates that voice.

Worse, he hates that expression on Todd’s face, something quietly hurt in it, something Dirk put there making him speak like he’s trying to be gentle.

“Why did you stop calling me darling?”

Dirk loves the sound of that word in Todd’s mouth.

He looks down at his hands, and tells himself to give it up already.

“Because I didn’t want you to be – embarrassed, or … I didn’t want to stop you from, I don’t know, dating, or whatever it is people do. People might have thought we were ...” He trails off, unable to say it.

Todd’s expression is difficult to read. “That’s – that’s all? You were worried you’d stop me from dating people?” He huffs, a strange noise, like he wants to laugh but can’t quite bring himself to.

“Well, no, it was – I mean – I think, Todd, there’s a lot to the situation that you haven’t considered here! We are two best friends, and you’re my assistant –”

“– Business partner, Dirk, we agreed –”

Dirk waves a hand at him. “My assis-friend, in any case, and it just – wouldn’t be appropriate! Farah says we have to have a strict policy on workplace flirting!” Dirk punctuates his point by making the haughtiest expression he can manage while he’s feeling this delicate.

Todd stares at him incredulously. At least, Dirk’s going to assume that’s what the silence implies.

Todd’s mouth flattens into a hard line. “So – okay. Let’s just go ahead and assume that makes any sense at all, which it doesn’t, because Farah never said any of that. I’m just – I’m going to tell you, right here, right now … I don’t mind it when you call me that. I – I actually –” Todd grits his teeth, like he’s trying to force the words out. “I like it. I like it when you use all the stupid pet names.”

Dirk blinks very rapidly. “You do?”

Todd’s mouth quirks in a strange movement that might almost be a smile. “Yeah. I do. So just – you can keep doing it, okay?”

“No!” The word is out before Dirk has a chance to think.

Todd stares at him. “I thought – do you not, like, want to do it, or …?”

Dirk winces. “No, I – in a technical sense, yes, I would very much like to be working under such circumstances as would necessitate the use of endearments with you, I mean – specifically you, I don’t really have this issue with Farah, because that’s different, which – erm, never mind, it’s just –”

“Dirk.” Todd places a hand on Dirk’s arm, and Dirk falls silent and still at the touch. “Just – why – why did you stop? Why don’t you wanna do it anymore?”

“Because it hurts,” Dirk says, all in a rush, and then he looks away, squeezing his eyes shut like he can take the words back.

The sound of the highway rushes into the small space between them as Todd falls quiet.

“I – I’m sorry.” Todd sounds horrified. “I didn’t mean – shit, Dirk, I …”

Dirk doesn’t dare turn back to him.

“… Wait, no. Hang on. That’s dumb, why would …”

Oh no. Dirk hates it when Todd’s being clever.

“Dirk, can you – would you look at me?”

Dirk would dearly like to do anything but that. But he turns back, slowly, to face Todd’s gaze.

Only there’s no anger in Todd’s eyes. Only a little puzzlement, and even that is overlaid with some kind of light, like Todd’s had a revelation – like he looked, so long ago, when he first began to believe in Dirk.

“Dirk,” he says softly. “Could you – would you do something for me?”

Dirk swallows. “… Yes.”

Todd shuffles closer, and licks his lips, uncertain. “Would you call me darling again?”

Dirk pauses, feeling as if a cloud of moths have just begun beating their frantic wings in his stomach.

He finds himself speaking in a hushed tone, like he’s telling a secret.

“Darling.”

Todd moves even closer, shuffling over the back seat. “Again.”

Dirk remains where he is – but he can feel himself leaning in, hardly daring to hope. “Dear.”

Todd smiles. “Again.”

“Sweetheart,” Dirk whispers, feeling his heart skip a beat as Todd places a hand on his thigh.

“Again,” Todd murmurs, and his voice is barely above a whisper now.

Dirk feels his eyes beginning to close in anticipation. “Love.”

The word echoes in Dirk’s mind when Todd kisses him.

It multiples and blooms, like a thousand wildflowers suddenly taking root in Dirk’s heart and head, all at once. Todd’s palm comes to rest against Dirk’s shoulder, and he can’t help it – he reaches out, pulling Todd in closer, pressing himself against Todd, solid and warm, the fulfilment of a promise made in endearments he’s used a hundred times. They kiss for only a few moments – but Todd lingers, before pulling back, like he’s making a promise of his own.

For a second, all Dirk can hear is the sound of Todd’s breathing.

“Is that why?”

“What?” Dirk can’t understand why Todd expects him to be able to make conversation after a kiss like that. It’s downright rude.

Todd laughs. “Is that why it hurt, because – because you wanted … this?”

Dirk stutters out a series of probably-quite-ridiculous noises before finding his footing in real words again.

“I – maybe.”

Maybe?”

“Yes, all right, I was very much caught up in hoping you’d kiss me and we could have a different but infinitely more personally satisfying relationship while still harbouring under the knowledge that you don’t feel any romantic feelings for me, happy?”

Todd narrows his eyes, but he’s still smiling, like Dirk’s done something funny. “Are you – do you still seriously believe that I don’t have romantic feelings for you?”

“Well …”

Todd laughs out loud now. “Okay, that’s – the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said, I can’t believe –”

“You never said anything!”

“Because you never said anything!”

“You’re my best friend, Todd, I couldn’t risk losing you!”

Abruptly the smile slides off Todd’s face, replaced with a look of quiet worry. He pulls Dirk in with a quickness that startles Dirk, and wraps his arms around him tightly.

“You – you won’t. At least, not ’cause of …”

Todd pulls back. Dirk finds himself caught once more in Todd’s blue, wide-eyed gaze.

“I’m – god, I’m sorry if this is too much but I – I’m in love with you, okay? I love you. This isn’t, for me …”

And Todd really could be saying just about anything just then, but Dirk can’t hear it – all he can think is that Todd is in love with him. Dirk. That Todd wants this too. That Todd wants him.

That Dirk doesn’t have any reason to hold back.

“Todd, love.” Dirk interrupts Todd’s undoubtedly very lovely and important speech by putting a finger to his lips. “Do shut up.”

For a second, Todd is stunned into silence.

And then – the return of that grin.

“How about you make me, sweetheart?”

And Dirk, with all the thoroughness and care of someone who’s wanted to do so for a very long time, does.