When you wake up in the morning, the world surprises you every time. It’s not a good thing. You suppose it isn’t a bad thing, either. But it’s definitely never good. The world is too grey to be good.
You are continually amazed by it. Your childhood was not immune, and you suppress memories of your youth as thoroughly as you can. That time was not grey. It was saturated far too heavily. It hurt then. It hurts now. You’re the most forgetful man in the world, sometimes, but you can’t forget that.
But the world slowly lost its painful too-bright horror, and nowadays you wake from vivid dreams of swirling colour into a grey place, and your dreams dull themselves against it. They lose their keen edge as you live. You stumble through existence in an odd state, where your life has the floating disconnect you have heard others possess in their dreams, and your sleeping existence is so painfully true as to replace it entirely.
Sometimes, you think, you are barely a person at all.
Your first meeting with him is a blur. It wasn’t important then. At the time you couldn’t have known the Midnight Crew would prove to be any different from any of the other gangs making a grab for the top while Kingpin’s men scattered, defeated. Nothing special. At first you thought there were three of them, you remember vaguely, even though he was right there all along. Something about him was so still, so devoid of that faint breath that implies life, that your eyes passed over him. It wasn’t his appearance; when he moves casually he is eye-catching, though he is not attractive enough to be head-turning.
His style baffles you, a language you simply can’t speak. Deceptively simple: black suit, shirt. White tie. Red pin. Recognizable. But the effort of crafting such things and the ease in wearing them are foreign to you. You understand they are clothes. But you have no idea how they go from that to the banner, the armour, the art that they become when he chooses them.
You saw the clothes then, but the man didn’t breathe, and your mind didn’t think to record what you saw.
You are genuinely horrified when Problem Sleuth tells you. It’s after a long conversation with you and Ace Dick, one of your team meetings where Sleuth lays out strategies and plans you never end up putting into action past the first step. He dreams big, though in a different way than you. You have imagination. Problem Sleuth has ambition.
There is a long not-fight between him and Ace, you can tell that much, a passive-aggressive thing where they point out each other’s shortcomings. It doesn’t completely register with you, because you have no idea what they’re talking about. One minute you’re plotting surveillance of the bank on First Street and the next, the rest of your group are trying to make each other feel guilty enough to admit the other was right about... something.
When you express your confusion, a good couple of minutes into their debate, they both look at you blankly.
“You didn’t know?” asks Problem Sleuth.
“’Course he didn’t,” replies Ace. “It’s only on account of I’m so observant I picked it up at all. And that you’ve been throwin’ yourself at him like he’s-”
“A thing?” interrupts Problem Sleuth. “To throw stuff at?”
Ace’s expression turns nasty. You caught that one. It was a dig at his low Imagination. “Just like,” he growls. “No nice way to say it, PI. He’s been-”
“I’ve got this,” Problem Sleuth cuts in smoothly, and, you think, a little desperately. He leads you halfway across the room and admits to you that he’s been doing things with Spades Slick. A lot of things. A lot of times. It’s why he keeps showing up with cuts on his face. And also why he missed poker night last week.
He seems a little baffled when you ask the only question on your stunned mind. “I... dunno,” he answers. “I guess I probably want to.”
That doesn’t answer it enough, and your mind keeps asking “But why?” for the next few days.
You stick to yourself, most of the time. It’s not that you don’t like company. It’s just that you don’t like certain kinds of company. For a long time, Problem Sleuth and Ace Dick were all you had, and so you sort of just got along on your own outside of work. You like them enough, but they’re not the sort of people you want to invite home and make tea for. You don’t know anybody like that.
You are the only source of quiet politeness in your life, and it is really a little frustrating sometimes. Some days you go home to your shabby apartment and want to express it somehow.
“When I’m mad and I can’t do anything about it,” Problem Sleuth said once, “I go into my room and scream for a couple minutes. Cathartic.”
You don’t think you could do that. When you attempt to, you squeeze your eyes shut and open your mouth a fraction. Then you clamp your lips back together, embarrassed at the very idea. Problem Sleuth must have some very accepting neighbors. You can’t do it.
“I just punch the nearest guy I see,” said Ace Dick. You can’t do that either. You just remain unhappy.
Tea is your solace. Tea is perfectly reliable. Tea never lets you down or surprises you. In fact, if it weren’t for tea and dreams, you think you would waste away.
You prefer light teas, white and soft and no shock to your taste buds. You have to dilute black with milk to be able to drink it comfortably, and so much of the flavour is lost that you tend not to bother. Instead you brew your gentle flowery silver needles, your peonies, pale green-yellow and lovely. You keep others around; once in awhile you brew an Assam or Darjeeling, feel guilty over watering down such a prize, and retreat to your garden of whites.
In the months to come, you find a use for it.
You run into him at some large social function you would never have attended if Problem Sleuth hadn’t sensed the opportunity to mix work and free drinks. You lurk as far away from the dance floor as you can muster and keep your eyes trained on the foreign diplomat. This you can do. You can watch people. You just wish you didn’t have to do it with several hundred people in too-close quarters to you. You are painfully conscious of your personal space. You also don’t feel like you blend in at all. Your wardrobe is by no means suited to gala attire; all the more reason to stay in the shadows at the edge of the room.
For all you’ve spent a lifetime reading small print in poor light, your vision is perfect, and you have no trouble with your job until he shows up. You’re seated at the table you’ve found for yourself, so far away from the main attractions that nobody has asked to share it yet. He pauses so naturally that at first you think it’s accidental, the meeting.
“Pickle Inspector, isn’t it?” he asks. His smile looks like his usual serious face is just leaning a little, pulled to one side fractionally.
Of course you know him, this time. By now the Midnight Crew are infamous beyond your reckoning. Mobster Kingpin nearly destroyed the universe, but he never held power like this. In this town, the Midnight Crew takes what they want. You are naturally terrified of them, a very real and simple fear that you wish Problem Sleuth shared with you. The fear catches up with you and trips your tongue. “M-mister Diamonds. Ah. Good- good evening.”
His smile pulls a little to the side, and he steps a little closer, glancing out to the floor as he does. You are acutely aware of his distance, and you can’t imagine how the criminal can make sidling closer to threaten you look so acceptably natural. His every move must be calculated. You marvel at this a moment, the ability to apply logic to social mores.
You exchange small talk, easy and leading on his part and awkwardly stumbling on yours. You aren’t sure when you stop watching the diplomat, but it’s likely around the point you catch the first piece of innuendo you’ve ever noticed in your life, a wry suggestion that at least the party won’t have been a complete loss. You follow his gaze, feeling oddly as if you’re looking down a sight, to Problem Sleuth, out on the floor and dancing wildly. It’s not socially correct (even you can tell that), but it is very skilled, and people are watching. Beside him, Spades Slick, criminal, monster, and fiend, is breaking it down too, somewhat less skilfully, though just as socially inappropriate. They’re clearly trading insults as they do, because Problem Sleuth has his challenge face on, and Spades Slick has his teeth bared. You happen to follow Diamonds Droog’s sightline back to your area, and he pauses at the buffet, where Ace Dick is loading up what you think might not be his first tray. Diamonds Droog smiles again, faint and almost unnoticeable.
And then he segues easily into small talk, getting carefully and steadily closer to you. Your tension rises, buffetted by social interaction and his presence, and when he takes one step too far, you panic and slip your hand in your coat. He’s around you instantly, a motion that tells you how much he conserved before, bending behind your chair. He reaches over your shoulder and clamps his fingers around your wrist, keeping your hand (and the revolver in it) in your coat. His voice is softer now, a whisper in your ear, and you straighten up like a ramrod hearing it.
“No, I don’t think so, my dear Inspector. I think we’re going to keep you right here. And this,” his hand slides briefly up your own to mimic your hold on the gun, “right here too.” Shivers run up your back and over your skull. “You are observant, Inspector. Follow my lead.” His gaze wanders. Sleuth and his criminal dance partner- at the drinks table, this time, Sleuth arguing good-naturedly the entire time. Ace chatting up a group of young ladies. Then a routine scan, as far as you can tell, and then the exact spot you’d been watching all night, empty. The diplomat, gone. You start, and get nowhere. His grip is frightening. “I just wanted to let you know,” he murmurs. “As I’ll be on my way soon.” You cannot help your breathing, trembling out of you. He is far too close and far too terrifying and his voice, soft in your ear, and his hand, restraining you without effort, are combining to make an effect that would be interesting if you weren’t so light-headed with mostly-fear. “You... liked that,” comes his voice again, wondering this time.
You stumble a protest, but by the time you finish it, Diamonds Droog has backed away, released his grip, and given you a half-bow. “And with that,” he says, “I’ll bid you a good evening. I hope it won’t be a total loss. Find some small solace. Your teammates, at least, have that well under control.”
You find no solace outside your failure, but it is also not the poor diplomat (no doubt taken by Clubs and Hearts while you were distracted) that you dwell on. You sit there for a few hours yet, and think about his presence at your back and his voice in your ear.
The next time he foils you, he pins you similarly, though you do not draw on him. This time he smiles at you, face to face, and keeps you just out of sight of the rest of your team. One hand is clapped over your mouth, restraining sound and movement. He doesn’t restrain you further; this is really enough as it is. He mutters words to you, implications of violence. He promises cruelties, raining them down on your friends.
Later, when you recall the specific words, you shiver at his monstrosity, but when he is there, your overactive mind simply shorts out and leaves you with nothing but the sensation of his wired, lean body a careful inch from yours.
His fingers dwell on your lips for a moment before he removes his hand entirely. The next time, he slips them between your lips.
Your life begins to feel uncomfortably that it doesn’t belong to you. Your dreams dull, or rather, polarize. As if magnetized, the world begins to divide, to sweep into blacks and whites, sharp strong divisions you tumble through in a wash of heat-cold-black-white-dark-light.
Your waking life, by contrast, has never been stranger. How is it the world has gained colour after so many years? You find it baffling, and you desperately contemplate it at length to take your mind off the vivid sensations plaguing your body and occupying your mind. When you drift off into daydreams now, they are not colourful flights of fancy but pressure, presence, and pride wrapped in those same strong black-and-white of your dreams.
You know who. The thing you can’t figure out, just like with Problem Sleuth, is why.
The answer comes abruptly and so obviously you cannot ignore it. You are at home, but the entire place feels alien. The tea set is carefully set to the side. The excellent black Darjeeling is cooling in the pot, but still, you think, happy to be brewed at all. Diamonds Droog is pacing around your chair, looking all the world like a slim panther with his fluid braced movement. He touches you, and you close your eyes and shiver. You don’t know why you let it happen. You don’t know why you’re not trying to save yourself, trying to stop it, trying to get out, get away, run.
So he tells you.
His fingers glide carelessly along your shoulders, raising goosebumps. Down your arm, then casually taken back as you gasp and lean in. He strokes your hair, your cheek, places both hands on your shoulders. His voice, cool and knowing as ever, sidles into your ear. “You need this, don’t you, Inspector?”
“N-n-need?” you repeat, trembling. A finger traces the line of your neck, and you let out a soft cry entirely involuntarily.
“Need,” Droog says again, radiating satisfaction. “You have so little control, my dear Inspector. Tell me, is it simply that you want it taken away?”
You can’t answer, of course, but you both know it is true. Knowing, he seems to feel more free to take advantage of you.
You allow it, not that you could stop him if you tried.
After that, things get inexplicably easier.
You couldn’t have anticipated this. But he was right. You have so little control that having it taken away is actually more reassuring than frightening (for all you find it terrifying, too). The highs of your meetings with Diamonds Droog ground out the rest of your life, having that knowledge that someone will be there to tell you what to do, to instruct you, to encase you and protect you.
You wake beside him one morning in confusion. Your body feels unfamiliar, strange. The world is surprising you somehow, but in a different way than it used to.
You don’t get the sensation of change. It feels more like things have been slowly changing and you’ve only just noticed it. Belatedly, you assign the word “good” to it as well. You feel... good. Being you, you immediately try to find out why, mostly because it’s so rare as to be previously nonexistent.
Thankfully the answer is easy. You glance over your shoulder to Droog, still asleep and facing the wall. You blink at his back, count his vertebrae (not as prominent as yours, but the same number), and feel the bizarre urge to wrap your arms around him and burrow your face into the back of his neck. You feel good. You feel...
What is it you feel? Something like the way you do with your puzzles, happily distracted. But easier; you don’t have to distract yourself.
You didn’t dream, you realize, or at least, you remember your dreams as being sort of vaguely twisty and involving a hallway and a lot of the colour blue. When was the last time you didn’t dream? You don’t know, but you’re happy with it, you think. You’re comfortable. You’re alright with it all. You are.... oh. You are content.
How strange, you think, but you wrap your arms around him. And your mind settles, and you drift back to sleep, and lose yourself in dreams just like everyone else’s.