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like a small boat on the ocean

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It was half past four in the office on a slow Friday afternoon, and for the past forty-five minutes, Dirk had been meticulously constructing a tower of oreos on his desk.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a tower, technically speaking. It was a single oreo in essentials. Dirk had built up a worryingly tall stack of icing on a single cookie base, which he would presumably top off with another cookie in order to complete the thing. Now, the oreo was verging on seven inches tall.

Todd had been watching out of the corner of his eye with increasing alarm as Dirk created the monstrosity. He was morbidly curious as to how Dirk intended to actually eat the thing, having always been more of a twist-and-lick oreo-consumer himself. Dirk had used up three packets of oreos in his endeavor, discarding all unwanted cookies by carefully placing them back into the packets.

… Maybe Dirk wasn’t planning on eating it. Todd could never be sure when it came to the inner workings of Dirk’s mind and how, precisely, he intended to act out his bizarre plans.

Todd forced his eyes back to his computer screen. He had a job to do: specifically, working extremely hard at convincing himself that he was better than Dirk at focusing on paperwork. Said paperwork was completely mind-numbing, but also necessary if they didn’t want to get sued again, so he valiantly made an effort to get the words on the screen to make sense. Something about being liable for damages pertaining to the client’s property and person, including...

Nope, it wasn’t working.

Farah, as the only one amongst them who’d finished all of her paperwork, had gotten the afternoon off. Todd thought, with a touch of sulkiness, that if she wanted to get Dirk to concentrate on anything, she probably shouldn’t have left. Serve her right, Dirk wasting time on – whatever the fuck he was doing, and Todd getting distracted by said time-wasting.

A reproachful voice in the back of his head told him that he was acting like a child, but he ignored it, feeling too petulant to act like anything else.

Dirk was humming something under his breath as he worked, which was another minor irritant to add to the pile of distraction preventing Todd from actually getting any work done. He’d had been humming it for weeks at that point, and Todd knew he could just ask what the tune was from – he recognised it from something – but he’d gotten himself far too deep into a stubborn attempt to recall the name of the song himself. Whenever he got close to forgetting about the whole thing, there Dirk would go again, humming the same annoying melody from some top forty hit most likely created by a Swedish musician in a lab somewhere in order to torture Todd specifically.

Dirk put a cookie on top of the stack of icing, sat back with a satisfied look on his face, and with a start, Todd realised that not only was Dirk finished, he had tricked Todd into watching him waste all that time.

“Todd.”

Todd hastened to type gibberish on his computer screen, trying to look busy.

“To-odd.”

The gibberish was kinda starting to look like words. If Todd squinted, maybe.

“Todd!”

Todd pointedly adjusted his earbuds.

“I know you’re not listening to music. You haven’t bobbed your head in at least half an hour.”

Exasperated, Todd finally yanked out an earbud. “I don’t bob my head.”

Dirk smiled in a sincere and condescending manner. “Oh no, of course not.”

Unfortunately the sincerity got to Todd just a bit, which meant he couldn’t think of anything to say. He settled for giving Dirk a withering look instead.

Dirk only continued to smile blithely, gesturing at his creation. “It’s complete. Look.”

Todd looked. Dirk’s great oreo mistake was a teetering structure of iced precariousness sandwiched between cookies that at this point looked to be merely decorative. It was eye-searingly sugary even at this distance.

“No,” Todd said flatly, putting his earbud back in.

“Todd!” Dirk sounded unreasonably affronted. “I’ve been working on this for hours–”

“It hasn’t been – your sense of time is just …”

Dirk waved a hand, smiling. “I know, it’s uncanny, like I have a second sense.”

Todd didn’t get the chance to explain that that was definitely not what he’d been trying to say before Dirk continued.

“But that’s not important right now. I have been striving for perfection, for hours, and you could at least feign interest in my culinary vision.”

Todd pulled out the earbud again. “I have files to sort, Dirk.”

Dirk held his hands out placatingly. “Okay, okay! Just – look what I can do!” And then he did something very odd.

Dirk bent over the oreo tower with his mouth wide open.

This action triggered a series of terrible realisations in Todd’s mind.

One: Dirk was about to attempt to swallow the oreo stack whole.

Two: Dirk was either going to choke and quite possibly die in front of Todd, or he was going to succeed in swallowing it whole, and either way it would involve Todd watching Dirk deepthroat vegan confectionary if Todd didn’t somehow stop him or leave.

Three: It was too late to stop him.

Four: It was too late to leave.

Five: Todd was going to have to accept his fate with cold, grim resignation.

Dirk knew none of this, and so entirely unceremoniously took the entire stack of oreo icing into his mouth, stopping half an inch before his lips hit the desk. Todd was disappointed in himself, but much less surprised than he might have been to discover that even under the patently ridiculous circumstances, the sight before him was inspiring a … bodily reaction.

Well, there was a little surprise. Despite Todd’s series of realisations, not a single thought had managed to make its way through Todd’s brain but this: Oh, fuck no.

Dirk sat up at last, cheeks full of oreo, with a proud smile on his face. Todd took a brief moment grieve his own dignity, since he still couldn’t think of a single thing to say or do in response to Dirk’s … everything.

But as Dirk seemed to have run into some difficulty chewing, Todd finally forced himself to speak.

“Wh… why, Dirk?”

In the tone of someone defending themself from serious perjury, Dirk began to gesture enthusiastically, loudly mumbling through a mouthful of oreo. Todd watched with a grimace until it became clear that no actual words were forthcoming, other than what might have been the word ‘challenge,’ which would actually explain a lot. What the hell kind of challenge was that? The ‘fellate an oreo’ challenge?

“Dirk, stop,” Todd pleaded, as Dirk continued to fail to speak actual words. “You’re gonna –”

Dirk’s face transformed, and Todd was reminded of a cat under anaesthesia he’d seen once on Youtube. Doubling over, Dirk spat a frankly disgusting mouthful of chewed up oreo into the wastepaper basket beside his desk.

And thank god for that, because there went Todd’s incipient arousal.

“Jesus Christ,” said Todd, before relaxing enough to laugh. “I knew your gag reflex had to kick in at some point.” He sounded fond – knew he sounded fond – and therefore immediately tried to school his expression into something more annoyed than he really felt.

Dirk rose, wiping his mouth. “Oh, no, I don’t have one. I just hate the taste of oreos.”

“What?”

“I don’t have a gag reflex,” Dirk clarified.

Oh. Oh god.

Far from having no thoughts whatsoever, so many thoughts now flooded Todd’s mind that he was forced to make a concerted effort to not think anything. Any thoughts, at all, even regular ones, because thinking thoughts would inevitably lead to –

“No, really!” Dirk seemed to misinterpret the frozen expression on Todd’s face for skepticism. “Well – sort of. In emergency situations I can throw up, you know, when I’ve needed to.”

“Oh,” said Todd, feeling a flood of relief at the distinctly un-sexy turn the conversation was taking. Not that Dirk seemed to have noticed Todd’s internal crisis, but still. All Todd had to do was keep his mind on the gross stuff, and he’d be fine. “Cool.”

Dirk paused for a moment, apparently having gotten distracted by one of the various brightly-colored knick-knacks on his desk. “On the bright side,” he added after a moment, “it does mean I’m really good at deepthroating!”

Todd wished he’d taken a sip of water or something, because that would’ve made for a great excuse for him choking, but no. He choked on his own spit instead with the force of his inhale at Dirk’s pronouncement, then felt himself steadily turn red in embarrassment.

He stuttered a little. “You– w– with, with oreos?” Smooth, Brotzman.

Dirk gave Todd a strange look. “Well, yes. But also in the … traditional sense.”

Todd focused very hard on not sounding like his voice was being wrung from his throat like a wet dish towel. “I thought you were … ace? Or, uh. I mean I guess I assumed …”

“Well, yes,” Dirk confirmed, nodding as if Todd was being slow. “And. I’m also really good at deepthroating.”

Todd’s brain once more failed to comply with the requirements of conversation. What he wanted to say was, you can deepthroat? How do you know that? Like, there’s only one way to know that, surely. Why are you telling me this? What kind of person just drops that into a casual conversation unannounced? Of course, you would. How do you expect me to get over myself when you keep

But Todd didn’t say any of that.

Instead, he said, “You really spent like an hour recreating some dumb TikTok?”

Dirk’s face scrunched up into a confused expression. “What? No, I haven’t listened to Kesha in days.”

“I mean – you said, about the oreos. You said it was an internet challenge?”

“Oh!” Dirk brightened. “Yes, it is. That’s where I got the idea. I wanted to know if I could still do it!”

“Swallow an oreo stack?” Todd asked hopefully.

“No, Todd, deepthroating, haven’t you been listening?”

“I have been –” Todd stopped, bit his tongue, and continued in a less confrontational tone. “I’ve been listening. It’s just … That’s not the kind of thing you usually would, uh, drop into a conversation. And I thought … you being ace meant …”

“Oooh …” Dirk made an understanding face, but his nose remained wrinkled, as if he was deep in thought. “Er, well, sure, I’m not a fan of … sex. I’m not against it either, just, you know, sort of generally a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. Which was something I worked out by trying it! Many times. Mostly in my twenties, but then, what else is there to do in Minnesota on a cold winter’s night?”

“Oh,” said Todd faintly. Cool. Dirk, in his twenties, having an incredible amount of sex in Minnesota. None of it involving – nope, not going there. But Dirk hadn’t enjoyed it, Todd reminded himself firmly. Although he wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or worse.

“Anyway, I always thought it was really funny, being asexual without a gag reflex. What am I going to do with that, I always said to my friends! Or I would, you know, if I’d had friends before you.”

Todd felt his heart melt a little with fondness. Get a hold of yourself, he thought, rather weakly. “I mean, it sounds like you – got some, some use out of it.” Wow.

Dirk smiled, but it looked a little wistful. “I suppose. But it definitely always seemed to me like the kind of talent that should be enjoyed rather than tolerated for the sake of a frankly pretty shitty boyfriend with a deeper affinity for ramen than the people around him.”

“Yeah. Yeah, no, that definitely sounds … shitty,” said Todd softly.

“There’s always a chance, though,” Dirk said casually, “that I could. Enjoy it, I mean. Some day. Never say never, in my line of work. So …” He trailed off, and seemed to be giving Todd a meaningful look.

That was not something Todd felt even remotely capable of interpreting just then, though, because he was busy shooting down inappropriate thoughts like so many unfortunate ducks.

“Cool,” he blurted out, before standing up too sharply and sending his desk chair flying. He winced, and stood awkwardly for a moment. “I gotta. Uh. I’m gonna get coffee, be back soon,” he excused himself, before beating a hasty retreat out of the office and down onto the street.

It took him twenty minutes of pacing to realise he’d forgotten his wallet.

Chapter Text

Todd’s feelings for Dirk were, if somewhat nebulous, at least able to be defined by the fact that they were unlike his feelings for anyone else. It could be argued that his feelings for Dirk had been that way since the night they first met, actually. And Todd was perfectly happy to leave it at that. Ineffable, ill-defined, and satisfactory in such a state.

He and Dirk had met at a very strange time in his life: they had been bound by fate, thrown into time, hopelessly lost with hands joined fast in the darkness. All of that fuckery made it easy for Todd to take the various emotions he felt regarding one Dirk Gently and place them, deliberately and carefully, into a box labelled ‘misc – undefined – unlabelled.’ After all, very little about his life was conventional anymore, so why should his feelings about the man who’d made all of that possible be any easier to define?

Of course, Dirk then had to go and cheerfully hurricane his way through the elaborately constructed house of cards that Todd called his psyche, as Dirk tended to do. This was a particularly impressive example, to be fair: this time, Dirk had managed to crumble Todd’s brain like a wet biscuit armed with only a dumb TikTok challenge and some references to deepthroating. Todd considered whether he was now fucked, but in the end miserably accepted the truth: he only wanted to be.

The fact of the matter was that he didn’t have any knowledge of how to cope with having feelings for Dirk. Putting them in a box and hoping they’d go away was about as far as Todd’s coping mechanisms got when it came to inconvenient feelings, negative or positive. What that meant historically was that said feelings, when finally released, had usually progressed beyond the point of reason and were wildly out of control – like a tsunami, travelling miles to shore and gaining mass every second, leaving destruction in its wake. The last shake-up on that level for Todd had caused him to channel a lifetime of social anxiety and self-pity into a lie so potently toxic it had fucked up his life for years to come.

But … Todd’s feelings for Dirk weren’t nearly so selfish in nature. Nor did they make him feel nearly as bad. In fact, apart from the shame of having them, and the fear that they’d drive Dirk away and thus end Todd’s current new lease on life with an abrupt eviction notice, Todd’s feelings for Dirk were … wonderful.

Todd had always loved the idea of love. He’d dismissed it, of course, for many years – acted the part of the cynic in his worst moments – even sneered at those who happened to have what he didn’t. But deep down, Todd knew that he had continued loving it nonetheless, because only the most dearly-held of hopes could have inspired such bitterness. He had discovered that many years later.

It was disconcerting and depressing to discover so much of himself had been held down by the weight of his shame. Shame over his sensitivity as a child, shame over his sexuality as a teenager, shame over his struggles with college as an adult – and then a whole lot of very-much-earned shame over the lies. Trying to cast off that weight all of a sudden was a messy process.

And yet he continued to love the idea of love, and knew that he always had. He lived for moments in which his stomach swooped and made him feel off-kilter, moments when his heart felt so full it ached, moments when his body began to feel like a ship upon a rocky but nonetheless exciting sea. All of that he could, and had, accepted.

He just hadn’t managed to accept that all of those moments for the past way-too-long had been in the presence of one Dirk Gently.

Now he knew. And couldn’t un-know it.

Knowing was dangerous, because now Todd couldn’t stop wondering whether – and he felt like an idiot even to imagine it – Dirk had been … flirting with him.

Assuming that Todd hadn’t lost his goddamn mind, and that was a big assumption to make these days ... it wasn’t a completely unreasonable thing to contemplate. 

Todd considered the facts:

One: Dirk had done a TikTok challenge, a type of activity he’d never done before, despite his usual predilection for weird tricks he learned from the internet. 

Two: He had done it in front of Todd, deliberately winding Todd up about it and trying to get him to pay attention. 

Three: Then, when Todd had reacted with unimpressed amusement (or least Todd hoped that was how he’d come across), Dirk had … extremely explicitly, and with surprisingly few frills about it for him, informed Todd that he was very good at deepthroating.

And for all that Dirk tended to be a little lacking in the arena of socialising, a trait that Todd found annoyingly endearing, Dirk wasn’t that inappropriate – at least not when he wasn’t babbling and overstimulated, which he definitely hadn’t been when he made the deepthroating comment. He’d been casual. Deliberate. Like he wanted Todd to listen and understand exactly what he was communicating. Certainly towards the end, he’d seemed on the verge of saying –

Something. Todd couldn’t be sure what. Dirk could have said anything, and Todd was definitely asking for trouble by looking for meaning where there might not be any. Except –

‘There’s always a chance, though, that I could. Enjoy it, I mean. Some day. Never say never, in my line of work. So…’

God, what the hell had Dirk meant by that?

Todd knew that Dirk was ace, but also knew that like many things with Dirk, it was more complicated than that. Dirk had once described his sexuality as ‘holistic, with middling asexuality and strong hints of queerness.’ It definitely appeared, between that statement and their more recent … discussion, that Dirk had had sex, with men, or at least a man. But he hadn’t enjoyed it very much and that had apparently been that.

… On the other hand, Dirk had also admitted to thinking that he could enjoy it, given the right circumstances. He had admittedly only been referring to a very specific sex act known for being somewhat of a challenge, and not especially enjoyable unless the person happened to be a particular enthusiast. But, he’d also told Todd that he didn’t have a gag reflex, which meant that the more unpleasant element of that particular sex act was removed for him, which meant …

Todd squeezed his eyes shut and thumped his head down on the kitchen table. It was time to admit defeat. He had no goddamn idea what Dirk wanted.

He raised his head again when he heard voices coming towards the kitchen.

“… No, seriously, and then you – no, hang on, I said it was going to be a surprise, because I want to show Todd later –”

“Dirk, if this is going to be like the time with the helium …”

“Absolutely not. This is going to be way better than that!”

“That doesn’t bode well,” Todd commented dryly as Farah and Dirk entered the room, Dirk walking backwards, no doubt attempting a pleading expression aimed squarely at Farah. He whirled around when Todd spoke, face lighting up instantly.

Todd tried not to let it get to him.

“Todd! Brilliant. Okay, hold it right there,” Dirk said, gesturing for Todd to stay where he was.

Farah walked around the kitchen bench looking exasperated, coming to a stop beside Todd, still sitting with his chin in his hand at the kitchen table. They shot each other a look of resignation to Dirk’s antics as Dirk turned to the fridge and began rifling through it before coming up with a can of whipped cream, which they’d bought the last time Amanda was in town so that Todd could make her pancakes. Dirk spun back around and sprayed a liberal amount on the back of his hand with far too much enthusiasm, to which Farah made a disgusted noise and Todd narrowed his eyes in suspicion. The last time Dirk had done something bizarre with food, it hadn’t ended well for him.

“Right,” Dirk said, eyes on the pile of whipped cream, “watch this!”

With that, he did some kind of complicated gesture that involved hitting his arm with the palm of his left hand, causing the cream to fly off the back of his right hand and straight into his mouth.

Farah gasped and began to laugh as Dirk triumphantly held his fists in the air, an expression of pleased shock on his face. Todd was unimpressed - there was a bit of whipped cream in the corner of Dirk’s mouth which hadn’t quite made it in. 

He found himself staring at it before he was able to dredge up any common sense to stop. Slightly desperately, Todd tried not to think the things he was already thinking about that tiny smudge, but of course it was already too late. 

It was only because he’d just spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Dirk’s weird deepthroating comment. And if he kept telling himself that, he could ignore the way his thoughts kept circling back around to the urge to wipe it off Dirk’s face with the pad of his thumb.

“Holy shit, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it,” Dirk said, once he’d managed to swallow. He sounded extremely pleased with himself.

“Yeah, I think that was a bit of a fluke,” Farah laughed, “but – fair’s fair, well done. It was a complete waste of time and that seems to have been the aim.”

“Yes!” Dirk agreed pleasantly. His gaze slid over towards Todd, who quickly glanced away and back again, having been caught staring. A smile slowly dawned on Dirk’s face.

“I’m not sure it was worth dragging me away from yoga though, Dirk.”

“Oh, was that what you were doing?” Dirk’s gaze didn’t budge from Todd’s face as he began to raise his hand towards his mouth.

Oh no, said a small voice in Todd’s mind.

“Yes! Dirk, why else would I have been upside-down?”

“Dunno.” Dirk swiped his thumb slowly across his mouth, removing the cream. “Maybe gravity inverted again.”

He knows, Todd thought, with dawning horror. He knows what he’s doing.

“A– again? When has – you know what, I don’t wanna know right now. Tell me when I’m doing tactical prep.”

“Okay,” said Dirk, not even bothering to pretend he was paying attention.

And with that, he sucked the cream off his finger.

Todd sat as still as a rock, hardly daring even to breathe. He couldn’t look away, even as a nagging voice reminded him that Farah was still in the room, Dirk was still looking at him, and there was no way he could pretend he hadn’t been staring at Dirk’s mouth. His fingers clenched into the fabric of his jeans, the rest of him frozen, even as his heart hammered away inside him. Even as it felt like a wave of embarrassment was threatening to swallow him whole from the inside.

“...Okay, well. Yes. I’m going back to yoga now. Any last tricks you wanna show off?”

“No.” Dirk lowered his hand to the kitchen bench. “I think I’ve made my point.”

“Thank god for that,” Farah muttered below her breath, before turning to leave the room. If Todd had been paying attention, he might have noticed the expression of exasperation on her face.

But Todd didn’t notice. The second Farah left, the air in the room went with her. He felt like an astronaut who’d just had the airlock catastrophically fail on him.

“So …” Dirk began, setting his palms on the bench and leaning forward. “What have you been up to, Todd?”

Inexplicably, Todd remembered what Dirk had been saying as he entered the kitchen, before he’d seen Todd - ‘I want to show Todd later.’ Not only had Dirk known what he was doing with the whipped cream, he’d planned it.

Todd was going to kill him.

“Nothing,” Todd said darkly. “I’m not … doing anything. So I’m … going to go … do stuff now.”

“Okay!” Dirk’s voice was as cheery and unaffected as if he hadn’t just deliberately tried to end Todd’s sanity. “Have fun. Doing … stuff.” He said the last word as suggestively as if Todd had implied he was about to go and jerk off, which Todd had no intention of doing, since he needed time and space to think about what he was going to do next. He wasn’t going to jeopardise their friendship for the sake of his wayward dick, genuine romantic feelings aside. There were considerations to be … considered.

And Todd would maintain that he’d had every intention of doing just that, half an hour later, while washing his hands in the bathroom with a red face and a racing heart.

Chapter Text

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.

“Would you?”

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.

Damnit.

“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–”

“Dirk.”

“– 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.

Todd panicked.

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.

“Todd –”

“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!”

Todd did.

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.

He didn’t.

“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.

Fuck!

Todd paused.

And turned back.