At some point between the school and the field, Angus realised he’d started hallucinating. Whenever a house of dull grey sat at the right angle, cross from his seemingly linear path through the city, he’d start to see things that were almost colours. It was a relief, honestly – those little flashes of red and green and blue that reminded him of whizzing optical illusions he’d made in school after reading about them in some old textbook or other in the craft room, where a collection of straight black and white lines became a swirl of dull green or pale pink. It made a difference, looking down at his own shoes, seeing them grey, when he knew they were brown, his not-jeans, not-brand, not-good-enough pants, darker grey, and thinking they were black when they weren’t in this perfectly monochromatic world. Belt, vest, shirt, tie, jacket, coat, all in various shades of dark grey, lighter grey, off-white, down to his own hands, dark-grey and not-so-dark grey, with the little off-white cuticles.
It stopped having meaning. The grey faded into black at curves and lines and that was that.
“I rather think he’s hallucinating at this point.”
There were also them.
When they’d changed into his outfit, copying it on either side, it’d been frustrating, moreso because he wasn’t used to walking down the street in London being followed by people walking in lockstep if they weren’t police, and that usually ended with a sheepish conversation and an apology. It was even more awkward when they moved in lockstep with him, giving every footfall that unpleasant choral quality.
Talking to them had been like talking to a newspaper – but that was the first time one of them had volunteered any words for a long while. Stopping short, Angus watched as the two strode, in their smooth, consistent step just beyond him – and then pivoted around one another, like parts of a clockwork, and faced him.
Smoothing his tie, Angus narrowed his eyes and peered at them. “Okay,” he said, drawing his breath. “… How do you know that?”
The woman tilted her head one way, the man the other, and the pair shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re asking him for,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything you didn’t put there,” pointing with a finger at her twin accusingly.
“You know that’s just as true of yourself,” he said, pointing back in the same way, rigidly facing Angus and tilting his head. “And there’s no there, there, either.” He said, wiggling the finger accusingly at her.
As if in curt response, she leant over and bit his finger off, exposing momentary insides that weren’t made of sinew and flesh but looked instead like spilling and curling black-and-white text, spread and smeared by sweat and human fumes. Showing no sign of pain, he drew the hand back and rubbed at the stump, while his sister idly crunched away in a way that sounded more like hard crisps than it sounded like the removal of a finger. Wiping her mouth with a demure fingertip, she tilted her head and looked at Angus expectantly.
“You’d imagine you’d have solved it by now, then?” She asked, even while her brother returned to pointing at her.
“Why?” Angus asked, drawing low, steady breaths, trying to not yell. He’d had quite a traumatic day, and he was convinced he was handling it in a fairly calm, British fashion. Somewhere, he fancied his own personal corner of the internet featured a Keep Calm And Ignore The Greyness poster. Still, he had his limits, and their silence earned them another, gritted, “Why?”
“Well, this is the time for answers,” they said, in unison. “It’s just how it would work. Isn’t it?”
They seemed genuinely surprised. Putting his hands on his face, Angus drew a long, shuddering breath, feeling his shoulders ripple a little as the little boy who threw tantrums kicked on the walls of the mature, serious person Angus had convinced himself he’d become. “… Why, why, why, do you think that?”
“Because you think that.” The choral response.
Angus rubbed both hands against the top of his head, gritting his teeth and managed to keep from yelling again. “I think that, do I?” he said, leaning forwards. “Every single last haunted-house fan, alien spotter and and and… uh… homeopath! used to think that I just ‘wanted’ the world to be like this! That I didn’t want the world to have magic in it, and that’s why I thought what I did!” Okay, well- “Here I am! Here I fucking am! Alright? Here’s the real thing, here’s something that’s sure as hell happening and now I’m meant to explain it?! Because there’s some arbitary what, time?”
The two figures turned to each other, then looked back at him.
“You swore.” He said.
“Quite a big swear.” She said.
Angus threw his head back, planted his hands on his eyes and dragged in a breath that timed itself perfectly with the closing of his hands into fists. No. No. No, don’t be that boy. That boy got sent to his room, that boy never solved anything. That boy got in trouble and got beat up for trying to fight. Just… Lowering his head and looking back at the figures, Angus growled. “What would you like to know?”
“Oh, this is much better!” she immediately said, leaning forwards into Angus’ personal space. “What is Grey London?”
“It’s a place where people are dragged by the Prince of a Thousand Eyes,” Angus said, waving his hand dismissively, as if they should know this, “Where the Prince contains people, where things don’t have to be complicated, where there’s no magic messing things up, and no change. It’s where everything just is the way it is and will be tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow, because things don’t change. It’s the world, good enough, for those people who wish life was easier.”
Even as the last words fell from his lips, Angus knew something was wrong. Knowing that, knowing to express it like that wasn’t right. It wasn’t his place to say those things because he didn’t know them. That was insane. Not knowing anything so comprehensively in this place was exactly what had made him afraid of this place to start with. Swallowing, feeling something growing inside him, Angus raised his hand and snapped his fingers, gesturing to the twins. “… Anything else?” He said, trying to feel natural.
“Did the Prince make this place?” Asked the male twin.
“No, this place made the Prince. Wait, no, the same place that made the Prince also made this. They’re sibling ideas.”
“What makes this place like it is?” The female added.
“It exists in the mind, the place people who are comfortable dream of existing,” Angus said, now practically dancing on the knowledge, the understanding that blossomed in him. “It’s a sort of good-enough best-fit of the world where they act like most things are fine, or their little problems are big problems, but they never have to worry about a broken bone or being shot or or or…” and he threw his hand upwards. “It’s why I can do this!” he said, snapping his fingers. “Because, because Grey London is about putting you someplace that won’t upset you, or disturb you, or horrify you, it’ll just be mundane grey nothing.” He whirled and pointed behind him, keeping his eyes focused on the twins for fear looking away would break this spell. “I want to be a scholar. I want to be smart, I want to be listened to, and that doesn’t disrupt anything, so I can just be that here.” he swallowed. “… And… and… it’s the time for answers, I think, so that’s why I can do this.”
“I didn’t ask that.” she said.
“Close enough,” Angus said, rubbing his hand through his hair, scratching his scalp through his short hair. “You, you’re Gemini. That’s why you can’t know this until I tell you. You’re… you’re…” and he waved his hands at the pair of them again. “And … that’s what makes the Prince of Eyes work. It’s why-” he smacked his hand into his palm. “He’s stars! He’s just an idea of what the stars represent! People saw the mess on TV, people knew something was wrong, and they wanted someone, just anyone to come together and fix it. You know? Someone who could make it make sense.” Angus’ fingers clenched in that moment. He’d wanted that, too. That’d been why he’d been the first… to… Looking up at them, he pointed. “Constellations. That’s what you are. Newspaper constellations. You’re part of the crap we swap around-”
“That’s not very nice,” a twin said, but Angus was rolling.
“That everyone recognises. Nobody knows exactly what you mean but everyone knows what you are.” A pause. “Sort of. Sort of. And the rest of them must be elsewhere, must be doing something, and-”
“We didn’t ask…?” One twin said.
“… You’re right.” Angus said, looking forwards, at the never-ending expanse of Grey London. The spiralling road that wended up and down, pits of nowhere that curled back up and out again into equally vast expanses of ancient buildings that were never built, that just stood in people’s minds as a symbol of Grey London. Where it always rains and never changes. The realisation was everything. The recognition. The Prince was an old god, a memory of something humans had once wanted to make the world make sense. And like a distant father, he’d returned and was trying to make everything better.
Angus turned around.
The diner in front of him still smelled of bacon, and he could still see the dazed waitress inside. Pushing the door open, Angus cleared his throat, stepped through the door, and called over to her.
“I’ll be back to settle my bill in a few minutes,” he said…
And then he wasn’t there, any more.
As far as badass one-liners go, Angus couldn’t help but fear that it was quite, quite awful.