The first thing Pickle Inspector noticed about Diamonds Droog was his hands. He noticed the way he held the Ace of Diamonds, so delicately yet so firmly. He noticed how smoothly his hands switched from holding the card to holding the Ultraviolence Cuestick. It was as though there was no transition at all, as though the cuestick had always been there. He did not grip the weapon the way his comrades did theirs, white-knuckled, as though strangling the implement would make it more effective. He held it loosely, just as delicately as he had when it was still a card, and struck in single fluid motions.
Pickle Inspector did not have the opportunity to observe anything else that night.
The next time, the Inspector noted the way Droog shuffled his deck. It was an instinctive motion, one he did not have to pay the least bit of attention to. When he pulled a card from the deck, held between three fingers, it was exactly the card he needed. The Inspector was impressed enough that he didn’t start running until entirely too late.
It was a long time before they met outside of work. Inspector was at a café. It was a small place near downtown, owned by a nice old couple. There were potted plants all over the shop, and spending time there was the closest thing to being out in nature that the Inspector could get in the middle of such a big city. He ogled a lilac plant and wondered whether it would grow better if he gave it some tea. A dark shape entered the shop, moving across the corner of his vision. The dark shape moved with purpose and grace, and the Inspector knew before looking who it was.
He sipped at his tea, deciding not to share the drink with the lilac. Droog approached the counter and ordered a coffee. Black. Pickle Inspector wouldn’t have expected anything else. Droog produced his wallet, counting out a few bills and handing them to the cashier. Inspector watched Droog stow the wallet away, then tap his fingers gently on the counter while his coffee was being retrieved. It was an unnecessary gesture, and it struck him as out of place.
He was paying so much attention to Droog’s hands that he did not notice Droog’s eyes scanning the shop and landing on him. He did notice when Droog got his coffee and started walking toward him.
Pickle Inspector tried to hide behind the lilac and failed miserably.
Droog pushed the plant out of the way, glaring up at Inspector with cold grey eyes. Tired eyes, with dark circles under them. Droog didn’t usually show fatigue this readily, and so he must have been awake for a long while.
“G-g-good morning,” Pickle Inspector said, never one to skip pleasantries.
“You know it’s rude to stare,” Droog said.
Inspector ran his fingers over his tea cup. “W-was I st-staring?”
“Yes,” Droog replied. He started tapping his fingers again. “You were not even subtle about it.”
“Sorry,” Inspector said. He sipped his tea. “Are. Are you all right?”
“Sorry,” he said again. Inspector rested his head on his hand, absently pulling his hair. “I s-suppose you’ve been, ahh. V-very busy.”
Droog took a breath. Not deeply enough to be a sigh, but close. He may have been holding off a yawn. He took a long drink of his coffee, then leaned back in his booth seat. The cheap faux-leather groaned under his movement, going quiet again once he was settled in.
“You could say that,” he said.
Inspector continued pulling at his hair, focusing on a lock about an inch behind his ear. He sipped his tea again to keep from speaking too soon. Droog would not give anything away. Pickle would have to deduce the thing keeping Droog awake.
Droog’s coffee cup sat to his right on the table. He had his fingers on its lid, idly running them over the ridges and curves of the plastic piece. There was no force there. He did not pull off the tab, nor push in the little buttons. He was being too delicate for the problem to be a source of anger. The Crew’s usual antics, then, were not the cause. The tapping would imply impatience. The weary look, beyond the obvious sleep deprivation… worry?
He was worried.
“Is it…” Inspector hesitated, mimicking Droog’s motions on his own tea cup. “Snowman, right?”
Droog stopped fidgeting.
“Slick went to see Snowman,” Inspector hypothesized. He stopped pulling his hair and put his hand on the table instead. He drew indistinct shapes with his finger as he worked out the details in his head. “He… hasn’t b-been back in a while. Days, I assume. You’ve been looking for him.”
Droog didn’t look at him. He looked past him, at a shelf of plants, their vines winding down the shelf, almost becoming one with it. There were more lilacs here, as well as freesia, anemone, ranunculus and a few others.
Pickle Inspector offered him a small smile, but he did not accept it. Instead, Inspector reached behind him and plucked a freesia flower. He would apologize to the shop owners later. He held it out to Droog.
“Th-this is, this flower is ah. It's symbolic. For retaining grace, even under pressure.”
Droog took another deep breath, this one a full sigh.
“Grace under pressure,” he repeated under his breath.
He reached over and took the flower. It had a sweet, almost citrusy smell. It was a bright shade of yellow, like sunshine or the edges of light fluffy clouds at the beginnings of sunset.
Droog inspected it a long while, taking in its every detail. The curve of the stem, the structure of the petals. Then he placed it in his palm and crushed it, working it to a moist, crumbly mess between his fingers.
“I don’t need flowers to keep my head, Inspector.”
Inspector’s eyes glanced up at his, but he couldn’t bear to keep looking. Droog’s gaze was intense, like the cold, cold winter. Inspector was a weak tree, liable to lose everything of himself to that unending ice.
Inspector returned his eyes to Droog’s hands, which were brushing off the flower’s remains. Inspector reached over to take one of those hands. Droog didn’t seem to approve of this contact, because he pulled it away and replaced it over Pickle Inspector’s throat.
“Y-your coffee,” Inspector said, forcing his voice through the increasing pressure on his trachea. “Will get cold.”
The sides of Droog’s mouth twitched ever so slightly as he held back a snarl. He squeezed harder, then loosened his grip. Before he could remove his hand entirely, Pickle Inspector took it and placed a kiss on Droog’s palm. It still smelled of flowers.
“D-don’t worry,” Inspector said to him, still staring at his hand, still too afraid to look Droog in the eye. “M-Mister Spades is—is a tenacious man. I’m s-sure he’s fine.”
Droog pulled his hand back, holding it in front of him as though unsure what to do.
“I know,” he replied.
He took his coffee and drank it. Inspector rubbed at his sore neck. Droog’s phone rang, and Inspector was unsurprised to find out that Droog’s ringtone was a recording of himself playing the saxophone. An unmistakable expression of relief crossed Droog’s features. He answered the phone with a deft thumb gesture, then listened to someone talk. He replied only with short, curt answers. He hung up.
“S--Slick?” Inspector asked.
“I’m glad,” Inspector said.
Droog, stood up, picking up his coffee and taking another sip. “I have to go.”
“T--take care,” Inspector said. He plucked a cluster of flowers from the lilac plant to his side, and held it out to Droog. “Here.”
Droog took the plant and eyed it critically.
“What, pray tell, does this flower mean?”
“Oh, ahh.” Pickle Inspector toyed with his hair again, watching Droog’s hand as he turned the flowers in his fingers. “I. I d-don’t remember.”
Droog looked from the flower, to Inspector, then back at the flower. Inspector could tell that Droog didn’t believe him.
He tucked the flower into his pocket.
“Try not to stare inappropriately at anyone else,” Droog said, tipping his hat.
“I. I’ll try.”
Droog took another sip of his coffee, nodded, and left.
Inspector watched Droog out the window until the mobster was out of sight. Then he resumed ogling the lilac for a moment, before finally giving it a little tea. After that he leaned back in his seat. He looked up at the ceiling, touching his neck and imagining Droog’s hands on it instead.