If only somebody had thought to mention to Dirk that Todd was busy trying to repress his feelings.
If they had, Todd might have found himself marginally less inclined towards insanity. He had to be insane – why else would he keep finding himself alone with Dirk, despite his firm conviction never to be in the same room with his best friend until he got himself under control?
It just … kept happening.
Todd would settle down on the sofa haphazardly placed in the middle of the office, after hours, (not that they had ‘hours,’ technically speaking), with a book or his laptop, fully prepared to hide away downstairs until he was certain that Dirk had gone to bed – only to find Dirk sauntering into the room with a bald eagle on his arm, or a video of a bee on his phone that Todd simply had to see. Admittedly, those particular occasions weren’t … awful, in terms of Todd controlling his wayward sexual urges. Actually, they’d been kind of nice. Sitting next to Dirk on the sofa and going down a Youtube rabbit hole made for a pretty relaxing evening. And the bald eagle had turned out to be pretty useful – that case had paid out well.
On the other hand …
Summer had finally reached them, and the second Dirk volunteered to buy a round of ice creams as a celebration of another case somewhat-efficiently solved (and instantly had to beg Farah for money as he’d left his wallet at home, or possibly inside the stuffed elephant they’d managed to subdue), Todd was gripped by a terrible sense of foreboding. He couldn’t put his finger on the cause and took a pill as a precaution, worried it might be an oncoming pararibulitis attack.
He didn’t need to, though – as soon as Dirk returned with their food and Farah’s change, Todd knew exactly what he’d been subconsciously worrying about. Dirk was carrying a heart-shaped Magnum for Farah and a lemon gelato in a cone for Todd, which meant that the distinctly phallic-shaped rainbow popsicle left … was for Dirk.
Todd walked away without saying a word.
Or rather – attempted to, before Farah and Dirk realised what was happening and called after him, sounding worried. At that point Todd realised that he wasn’t going to get away with simply leaving the vicinity every time he felt overwhelmingly attracted to Dirk for increasingly stupid reasons, and so he meekly returned and accepted his gelato, carefully looking at it and only it until he was sure that Dirk had finished his popsicle.
It was, in all, actually a nice afternoon. Rarely did cases land them by the sea, and with the tourist-y little town they’d ended up in deep in the summer swing, there was plenty for them to do. A local twilight market, live music everywhere they turned – and the beach itself, a little wilder than most, the hangout of competitive surfers and triathlon trainees. When Todd remembered the trip later, he would remember best the simple act of walking by the waves at sunset, his best friends at his side.
Even if, the entire time, he was secretly wishing one of them wasn’t only a friend. It was difficult, more than difficult, to look across at Dirk in the sunset by the sea, and not wish for more, in addition to what they already had.
Maybe it was because Todd was beginning to accept his attraction – romantic attraction, to be exact, he still felt like a creep for daring to want Dirk in any other way – that the Universe decided to bump things along. Or maybe the Universe was just fucking with him for the fun of it. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Either way, it was with a sense of dawning horror that Todd walked in on Dirk in the kitchen with a line of alcoholic drinks haphazardly scattered about the counter.
Please, Todd thought desperately to the Universe, I just want some coffee.
“Todd!” Dirk’s smile was wide and terrifying. “Just the assis-friend I was looking for.”
“… Right,” Todd replied flatly. “Any reason for that?”
“Well, Todd, as it happens – you won’t be surprised to discover that in the world of TikTok challenges, I’ve been making quite the name for myself.” Dirk set a shot glass on top of the counter with an ominous clink. “And I’ve been thinking lately about how to up the ante.”
“Please tell me you’re not gonna start binge drinking for clout.”
Dirk wrinkled his nose in disgust, which briefly made Todd remember how unbearably cute Dirk could be when he wasn’t being a bastard. “Ugh, no. It’s just a one drink thing – see, there’s this thing called a blowjob –”
“Heard of them,” Todd said, in an impressively calm tone for someone who felt like he’d suddenly wiped out under a ten-foot wave at the beach. “Pretty sure you don’t need to explain.”
“No, I mean – there’s a drink called a blowjob.”
Oh, thank god.
“Because you have to – see, the idea is that you don’t use your hands, yes? So, you hold your hands behind your back, and then bend over and sort of slurp it up using only your mouth.” Dirk attempted to demonstrate the action, and Todd thanked the Universe that he wasn’t standing behind Dirk while he bent over.
“Right. Mm.” Todd cleared his throat. “And you know this how?”
“Q.I.!” Dirk answered brightly.
Of course. Of course Dirk had heard about a shot called a blowjob from a British quiz show.
“Anyway, I was going to make one and try it for fun, but I thought it’d go better as a challenge if I were to tie my hands behind my back, which, obviously, I can’t bloody well do on my own – hence why I was so pleased to see you, not that I’m not always happy to see my best assiss-friend.”
Todd closed his eyes for a brief moment, before rounding the counter and switching on the coffee maker. “So,” he began slowly, “you’re asking me to – tie you up. For a TikTok challenge.” He turned back to face Dirk, who was leaning with deliberate casualness against the counter.
Dirk’s bright smile might almost have seemed sweet to someone who didn’t know better.
“Yes, that’s the basic gist of it.”
… Todd hated that he knew better.
But, looking at Dirk’s shit-eating grin, Todd was surprised to discover that quite apart from panic, quite apart from the usual flustered self-doubt he had become used to in Dirk’s presence of late, somehow, inside him, there was a kernel of annoyance making itself known. It wasn’t unusual for Todd to find himself annoyed with Dirk (though it was always mingled with affection), but this particular feeling was somehow being heightened by Todd’s lately recognised attraction. It was almost like – rising to a challenge, maybe. A sort of understanding that, though he might be thirty-five years old and way too old for shenanigans like this …
When it came to gay chicken, two could play at that game.
“Sure,” he said, calmly. “Where do you wanna do it?”
Dirk’s face had always been incredibly expressive, but Todd still hadn’t expected the sudden look of frozen whoopsie that overtook it in that moment to be quite so obvious.
“Buh,” said Dirk, before seeming to hear himself. “Er – I mean – I’ll just – at the kitchen table?”
“Cool. I’ll leave the shot to you. I’m gonna make some coffee.” With that, Todd turned back towards the coffee maker and pulled down a mug from one of the shelves above it. He stepped over to the fridge and pulled out the milk without looking back at Dirk, busying himself on his phone, doing absolutely nothing for the next thirty or so seconds. From behind him came the sounds of Dirk making the drink, unaccompanied by Dirk’s usual chatter. Good. This was good. This meant that Todd was winning.
Winning at what, exactly, he still couldn’t say, but that wasn’t the point.
Finally the coffee maker switched off, and Todd was able to fill his mug. After adding milk and then returning it to the fridge, he realised he couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer, and turned back to face Dirk, who by now was sitting quietly at the kitchen table.
Unfortunately, Dirk had evidently been using the time it took Todd to make his coffee to gather his nerves, because he merely smiled and held up his wrists with a flourish.
Todd opened his mouth to point out the fact that they had no rope around for him to do as Dirk asked, but then noticed a spool of ribbon sitting on the table in front of Dirk – a leftover from Christmas gift wrapping the previous year. Jesus, okay. Dirk had clearly been planning this even longer than Todd realised if he’d actually thought ahead enough to dig that up.
“Sure,” Todd said, betraying absolutely none of his self-doubt, to his relief. “You said behind your back, right?”
“Yes – otherwise what’d be the point, obviously,” Dirk replied, a little quickly, “I can’t have any use of my hands at all.”
“Makes sense,” Todd commented casually, picking the ribbon up off the table.
Dirk obediently placed his hands around the back of the chair, holding his wrists close together. Todd began to wrap the ribbon around them, not even needing to touch them at this angle – at least, if he was careful. The ribbon itself was thick, but had no glitter or rough, sparkly embroidery to it like their other ribbons had last Christmas. It was a deep shade of red – really, a kind of crimson – and as smooth as silk. Todd tried to focus on that instead of the fact that he could feel the heat from Dirk’s wrists against his knuckles as he wound the ribbon around them.
He tied off the ribbon with a simple bow, and internally cringed at the sudden thought which entered his head of Dirk being the best Christmas gift he could possibly receive. There was a time and a place for that kind of cheesy bullshit, and it certainly wasn’t when he was trying to beat Dirk in a battle of wills.
“Done,” Todd said, and his voice came out softer than he intended it to.
“Thanks!” Dirk sounded chipper, but there was the tiniest edge to it – as if he was having to try very hard not to squeak. He turned to face Todd with some difficulty, elbows still hooked around the back of the chair. His smile was as brilliant as ever, but his eyes were a little too wide to be concealing anything but strain.
Good. Todd wasn’t out of the game yet. “Do you want me to hold the phone?”
“Oh, yes, please! I didn’t think of that.”
“Color me shocked,” Todd muttered under his breath, retrieving Dirk’s phone from the bench while Dirk made protesting noises.
Todd sat across the table from Dirk, unlocking the phone – god, how many times had he told Dirk to use a damn password other than bestholistic – before holding it up to film.
“Okay. Ready when you are.”
Dirk made a face. “Well, that’s hardly a resounding introduction. Honestly, it’s like you don’t even want to help m–”
“– so anyway, yes, let’s try it! Hands tied behind my back, shot before me, and best friend filming because he’s very kind and patient.”
They both fell silent for an awkward moment, before Dirk lifted his eyes up in a seeming prayer for the trick to go well.
“Here goes nothing.”
With that, he leaned over – giving Todd the worst kind of de ja vu – and picked up the shot glass with his mouth, lifting it quickly and swallowing immediately before dropping it back down again. In all, the entire thing took about five seconds, and then it was over.
Dirk grinned at the camera. “I did it!”
“Yeah, okay,” Todd admitted, deflating a little. “You did it. Can I stop filming now?”
Dirk’s face fell. “You don’t sound half as impressed as you should be feeling right now, Todd.”
Todd shrugged, unwilling to explain that what he was feeling was definitely not impressed, but rather an emotion difficult to put into words at all. Some kind of queasy mix of disappointment (which he refused to examine more closely given how that had turned out last time), and relief that the worst was over and Dirk’s latest weird flirting game was done, once again having led nowhere.
“I mean, it doesn’t look that hard,” Todd said, just to fill the silence. “Like, I’d be more impressed if it was something actually hard to down in one go.”
Dirk spluttered. “I – excuse me! The whole point of a shot is that it’s hard to down in one go! It’s a shot!”
Todd rolled his eyes, but he was unable to completely keep from smiling. This, he was familiar with. This he could do.
“Right, sure. And that’s why you chose such a tiny-ass glass to do this stupid challenge with.”
Dirk scoffed, if possible, even more. “Oh! Is that so! Well, how about you bring your stupid – coffee over here, and I’ll do it again! The entire mug!”
“Dirk, you hate coffee,” Todd said, pointing out the obvious.
“All the more reason to rise to your challenge, Todd.”
“I never said –”
“No, no! You insist that there’s no inherent challenge to swallowing a shot with no hands, I am therefore forced to prove you wrong, and only the most disgusting of beverages will do the job.”
“Are you –” No, of course Dirk was being serious. What was Todd saying? He shut his mouth for a moment and shook his head. “Okay. Whatever. Coffee it is.”
“In the mug.”
“In the mug?”
“In. The. Mug.” Dirk’s expression was so stonily determined, Todd could almost forget how they’d gotten into this ridiculous situation.
Of course, then he caught a glimpse – out of the corner of his eye – of the ribbon around Dirk’s wrists as he went to fetch the coffee (which he’d have to make another of, damnit). And that made him remember, with the worst kind of clarity, how warm Dirk’s skin had been against his as he gently wrapped Dirk’s wrists in the soft ribbon. And that made a roiling wave strike painfully against his ribs, so intense for a brief moment that Todd wondered whether an attack might be imminent.
But no. It was, yet again, simply a reminder of how badly he wanted Dirk, and how little faith he had that Dirk could actually want him back. Silly flirting via food-related TikTok challenges was one thing, but whatever game Dirk was playing, Todd still couldn’t bring himself to consider it anything more than just that. A game. A … challenge.
He set the mug down on the table before Dirk a little harder than he meant to. A droplet flew out and landed on the table, and Dirk blinked in surprise.
Guilt swept through the waves in Todd’s chest like an unwelcome maelstrom of doubt.
“Okay. Since you’re feeling so confident,” he said quickly, trying to cover for his own stricken feelings, “there you go. The entire thing in one go, no hands!”
Dirk, staring down at the coffee, looked just a little less confident than he had a few seconds ago – but he rallied as soon as Todd raised an eyebrow, and tossed his hair aside in a gesture that was flamboyant even for him, as if to say, ‘what, you think I can’t take it?’
“What, you think I can’t take it?”
… Well, Dirk was naught if he wasn’t predictable sometimes.
“I didn’t say anything.” Todd sat down on the other side of the table. “But if stalling makes you feel better, feel free to continue doing it.”
Dirk shot Todd a truly murderous stare at that, and dipped his head without another word, clearly intending to prove Todd wrong.
It was at that exact moment that Todd realised that there was a problem.
A mug was unlike a shot glass, in that it was, well … a mug. Designed to hold hot liquids, and to warm cold hands in the depths of winter. Definitely not designed to be drunk from without the use of said hands. A mug was unlike a shot glass, in that – were one foolish enough to attempt to drink from it without the use of one’s hands – the hot liquid within would surely rush out and all over the individual in question, at best inconveniencing them, and at worst …
… Todd couldn’t remember how hot the coffee had been when he’d picked it up.
In slow motion he watched as Dirk stubbornly picked up the mug with his teeth – a much more involved endeavour than the shot glass had required. Seconds felt like years as Dirk pulled the mug off the table with his mouth and it began to tip upside down, but there wasn’t enough time for Todd to stop him – nor for Dirk to stop himself, if the sudden alarm in his eyes was anything to go by.
The coffee within the mug suddenly found itself without, and promptly splattered itself all over Dirk’s face and chest.
Todd forgot how to breathe for a moment.
“Dirk!” He shot up from the kitchen chair and rushed around the table, just as Dirk managed to drop the mug and shatter it into a hundred pieces on the floor.
Dirk blinked. “Shit,” he whispered.
He swore loudly and gestured ineffectually, helplessly torn with indecision over what to do. Finally he decided that he needed to get the coffee-soaked shirt off Dirk before it burned him even more, and rushed forward to begin unbuttoning it.
“Ow,” Dirk said, wincing, “oh – that’s actually, ouch, shit!” As his hands were still tied behind his back, he couldn’t do anything about his current predicament, but he did manage to stand, elbows knocking against the back of the chair in a way that was surely painful. Todd continued his attempts to undo the shirt, frantic fingers slipping against the wet buttons and damp fabric.
“Don’t worry.” A strange sort of calmness overtook Todd’s brain in that moment, masking his blind panic. It was the kind of sensation he’d become used to about the time Amanda got sick. “It’s fine, we just – need to get this off, and then – I’ll call 911, or Farah – no, fuck, she’s out, just – hang on, it’s okay, I’ve got this. Everything’s fine.”
“No, Todd, I –”
“It’s okay! We’re all fine, I just can’t – I can’t –” Todd’s fingers slipped on the fifth button, and he swore again, voice cracking in fear.
“Todd! I’m fine! Just – look at me, I’m fine!”
He looked down at Dirk’s chest – splattered with coffee, yes, but showing little more than a faint blush of pink where the coffee had spilled. No blisters. No angry, red welts. Todd looked up at Dirk’s coffee-covered chin to see that it too was unharmed, only sticky.
It was at that moment that he realised he was still holding onto Dirk’s shirt, his fingers making terrified fists in the fabric.
“It’s okay. Todd – I’m all right. It just gave me a fright. It didn’t burn me.”
Todd should have felt relieved.
He absolutely, positively, should have been comforted that Dirk was safe and unharmed, and the entire thing had just been a silly mishap that even weeks from now they’d laugh at, wondering how Todd possibly could have panicked. Todd should have felt dizzyingly grateful that nothing worse had happened.
“What the fuck, Dirk!”
He let go of Dirk’s shirt, stepping back, only just avoiding slipping on a shard. Dirk opened his mouth, but Todd was too angry to let him continue, whatever explanation might have been forthcoming.
“No! No, you don’t get to – I don’t care. I don’t. What the hell is going on? Don’t answer that. I’m too mad at you, Jesus Christ, Dirk.”
Todd felt like a can of soda that someone had shaken up, forgotten about, and suddenly cracked open many hours later. The words just kept spewing forth, half without permission, the other half with highly-strung precision.
“I don’t get it! I don’t understand! First I think you’re just – oblivious, and then – then I actually started to think that maybe you –”
Todd couldn’t even say the words, a flush creeping up his neck.
“But now I … Is it just a game, or … what is it? What are you doing? What do you … want?” Do you want me? His brain unhelpfully supplied the question before he could stop it.
“Because if it’s just a joke, then I can’t – I can’t keep doing this, Dirk, it’s not …” It’s not fair.
Dirk stared at Todd with his mouth hanging open like a deeply guilty fish. He seemed to be completely at a loss for words, which didn’t happen to him all that often. Dirk always had something to say, no matter how inappropriate.
Only, historically speaking, he’d never known what to say when Todd was mad at him. Todd felt a shard of guilt pierce through the stormy confusion of his anger.
“Please,” he said, voice cracking, “Say something?”
Dirk swallowed visibly. “I … erm.”
Todd’s heart sank like a stone.
Whatever vague hopes he’d been entertaining that Dirk might possibly return his feelings and that this whole thing, however misguided, might have been an attempt to … seduce Todd (or whatever other word one could use that didn’t make Todd feel like crawling under the nearest heavy piece of furniture, never to be seen again), those hopes were instantly drowned in that moment. Dirk clearly had no idea what Todd was talking about. As usual, Todd had read into things and seen what he wanted to see rather than the truth.
The worst part was that he really thought he’d grown beyond that.
“Right,” Todd said, and this time he didn’t let his voice waver even a little. “Okay. I’ll … go. Sorry.” He turned to leave through the door to the hallway, fully prepared to get into bed for the rest of the day and feel incredibly sorry for himself.
And turned back.