The First Taste is the Sweetest
Author's note: This fanfic was mainly inspired by Nahman's little scar. I was really interested in delving into his mind to explore some of his experiences and possible motivations. If you're interested in reading more Norman fanfiction from me, take a look at my multi-chapter story Euphoria. Thanks to everybody for such a great response to this fic, and happy reading! :)
By the way - my amazing friend Lissa has drawn a piece of art inspired by this fanfic! The address is qalissa. deviantart. com/ art/ First-Taste-is-the-sweetest-160028380 (remove the spaces), or you can find it manually under the name "First Taste is the Sweetest" by ~Qalissa on DeviantArt. I urge you to take a look because she's an absolutely brilliant artist. :D
It is late Friday night and Norman Jayden is alone.
His apartment is lit by the vacant, hazy blue of a television screen filled with static. The sound of the rain thundering down outside permeates everything with a sense of quiet dread.
Fuck, I hate rain.
He is sitting by the piano, a tumbler of whiskey clasped in his palm on its sleek black surface. His other hand rests aimlessly over the keys, every so often hitting one and causing a short, melancholy note to reverberate into the air. They are beautifully glossy to his touch.
He breaks into a snatch of a tune, something waltzy, bittersweet, that seems strangely macabre here in the dark and the damp. His fingers are nimble; he plays skilfully. But the melody deteriorates after only a few bars, because he has forgotten the rest of the song.
He laughs hoarsely to himself.
Coulda been a pianist, maybe. All a long long time ago now.
Another sip of whiskey and everything becomes a little more numb. He no longer feels the cold so acutely. Jayden rubs his face sleepily, subconsciously gravitating towards the side of his right cheek. Watery blue eyes become unfocused, unseeing, as he runs his fingers back and forth over the faint scar etched into his jaw.
He still remembers – even the things he longs to forget, the memories he tries so hard to erase. He remembers far too well.
Joining the FBI, Norman felt like a hero. Here was his chance to fulfil every young child's fantasy: chasing down bad guys on a daily basis, being rewarded with honour and admiration, living the dream. Except it didn't turn out to be all wacky hijinks and happy endings like the vibrant cartoons from his childhood.
They eased new recruits in as well as they could under the circumstances. After several months of gruelling training you were sent out of the Academy, and for some days it was mainly office work, a few files here and there, plenty of opportunities for a fresh-faced young agent to get used to the bureaucracy and red tape. Then one fateful day you'd accompany someone into the field.
It was a Thursday; a thick fog hung over Washington that afternoon. They had been sent to question a man suspected of being heavily involved in a local drugs operation, but when they arrived they found that someone had beaten them to it: their suspect had a bullet through his heart and hopelessness in his glassy eyes. That jarring taste of reality, of gathering evidence, joining the dots – later, an arrest which was the tangible culmination of hours and gallons of coffee of hard work - and Norman was hooked.
But the grisly sight of death was different. That was a black taint, and nothing had truly prepared him for it. It was an inevitability; of course in this line of work he knew one day it would come; but nonetheless his first run-in with a corpse made his head pound and white spots dance. He tried not to think too much about it. It was an unfortunate occurrence and life goes on.
After two months of toil, Jayden had already helped to track down five fraudulent bankers and an arms dealer. People said it was as though he was born to piece together clues. Snippets of conversation recalled from days earlier; tentative links established in obscure legal records; the subtlest of facial expressions; Norman could take all of these murky discrepancies and work his magic until they brewed a conclusion as clear as day. And he never tired, never hesitated to give more than was asked, never cared if he was sleep-deprived or aching as long as he could solve the puzzle and keep that small voice alive inside of him that said you're making a difference.
They had big expectations of him. He was going to go far, they told him.
But really, how much of that meant a fucking thing when you were staring down a black-eyed man who could so easily be a cold-blooded killer, a pistol firm in his hand, and the situation is unravelling right before your eyes like a train wreck so everything comes down to a split-second decision because suddenly he's twitching his finger and there's a million horrific thoughts in your head and you raise your gun and BAM you made the right choice, of course you made the right choice but there's blood all over the walls and the floor and especially on your hands, so who's the real killer in the end.
They taught him to bury those kinds of thoughts.
In the cold, soulless and perfectly aligned files of the FBI those kinds of events were only minor setbacks. A small inquiry, more for the sake of formalities than to serve any real purpose, and any memory of the unfortunate occurrence would be swept under a rug somewhere. No cause for concern. No reason to blemish a bright future.
Everybody makes mistakes, right?
At first the technology was unbelievable. Entering the Bureau was like stepping ten years into the future. Cameras, guns, lasers, tracking devices, communication signals, all manner of gadgets that looked like they had been plucked straight from a James Bond movie: Norman would see frequent glimpses of these from the more veteran agents, although he never handled them himself and certainly no one was ever in any hurry to explain how they worked. Apart from being exceptionally interesting and appealing to the small boy inside of him, however, none of this affected Jayden and he had little reason to pay any real attention to it.
This was the state of play for several months. Norman slipped into his role like a glove – like he had been waiting his whole life to fill this post. He made swift progress, handling all of his cases with tact and precision. Apart from the odd slip-up, his resume was immaculate.
He didn't appear to be affected by things that would affect other inexperienced agents. Murder, rape, criminals with shifty eyes and dirty lies - enough to make angels despair - were all handled with a cold efficiency unusual for someone so young. He took pride in his duty and his accomplishments, and on most days could be spotted with a small, self-assured smirk on his face.
Then came ARI.
It was one of only a handful of virtual reality prototypes. His superiors had bestowed an honour upon him by selecting him, and he felt honoured. This, he remembered this so clearly but could not understand why it was burned into his memory: black lenses which glinted secrets in the sunlight.
He was told to be cautious, and given a basic tutorial on its various controls and capabilities, but other than that he was left to his own devices.
So there he was; Norman Jayden, FBI agent, sitting in his office with an uncertain look on his face. And there they were, nothing but dark tinted sunglasses, sitting in the palm of his hand. They were light and flimsy. They looked like any pair of shades he could purchase for ten dollars by walking into any store. He could not believe the things he had been told.
Either way, seeing was believing - so he smiled his smile and put them on.
How could he describe it? Like dreaming, passing through the looking glass, and opening Pandora's Box all at once. ARI was a beautiful mask to conceal the darkness of an imperfect world. It was rendered in infinite detail, virtually indistinguishable from reality and yet a hundred times more compelling. Vast vistas of falling leaves, wind-swept mountaintops, a perpetual sanctum of beauty: but most importantly, all the data an agent could ever want. Information spinning by at a breakneck speed. An icy blue glow.
When Jayden put on the glasses, eased the glove onto his right hand, the real world would immediately cease to exist to be replaced by that comforting light, data and files, evidence and records and things that made sense.
It was addictive of course – deliciously so. To begin with Norman used ARI only on crime scenes, to pick up faint traces of various chemicals, assess fingerprints and the like, and verify information that might have taken days to pinpoint otherwise. Soon his productivity had doubled and he was solving cases at an unprecedented rate. They told him he was making groundbreaking progress.
But then of course he needed to do better, so he began utilising the system to store his case files as well, for quick perusal at almost any time. ARI became second nature. Sometimes he would check his pockets just for the calming feel of smooth plastic against his fingertips. Sometimes he would wear them just to pass the time.
The symptoms came agonisingly slowly. It started with a dull ache in his head which was easily fixed with painkillers. He vaguely recognised it was getting harder for him to sleep, and people would comment on how tired he was starting to look, but no real links were made in his mind. It was easy to become worn down when working hard.
It was ironic, really, how Norman's entire life revolved around finding connections between pieces of evidence, and yet…
Or maybe he chose to ignore.
He began to develop odd twitches and tics, especially around his eyes. His eyes. They were no longer cool, icy blue but always weary, always red and bloodshot. At times he would be sitting in his apartment when suddenly he would freeze - perfectly conscious, aware of his surroundings, and yet he could not move. He simply was unable to summon a single coherent thought into his brain to control himself, as though his mind had gone into a state of shutdown whilst his physical shell continued on undaunted. Like a waking coma, he was a prisoner trapped in his own body. It would have been utterly terrifying if only he had had the capability of properly registering emotion. And fifteen minutes later his body would get up and carry on as if nothing had happened, but in his mind he would be screaming and screaming.
Every so often, during lucid moments, he thought of seeking medical help. But what the hell would a doctor say to him? Perhaps less time on the experimental added reality glasses might help. They wouldn't have one goddamn word of advice, because as far as the general public was aware this type of technology didn't even exist yet.
Besides, he couldn't stop using them: that wasn't an option. Imagine how much time he'd lose and how he'd be slowed down. How many people, innocent people, he would hurt. He couldn't remember how he had functioned before ARI, and he didn't want to.
And it was so beautiful… always bright, never dark, never murky. Perfect resolution. Sunshine and birds singing. Auburn leaves spiralling slowly down. He had always loved the fall.
Next were the migraines after prolonged exposure. Drills twisting into his brain, searing relentlessly away behind his eye sockets until finally his defences broke down and all he could do was curl up into a ball and pray for it to go away. He felt pathetic. When he lay awake at night, his eyes wide open and staring in the darkness, a single thought ran over and over in his mind. Addicted.
Such a strong word, so negative. He looked it up in the dictionary: Webster's defined addiction as the persistent, compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. But ARI could never be harmful. ARI helped him save lives and capture villains. Never harmful.
Things were dark, but the darkest came when he was sitting at his office desk late one evening. A Monday, around 10 pm. He was pulling an all-nighter because it had suddenly hit him that somewhere out there was the murderer and rapist he had been tailing for three weeks, and Jayden knew he could stop him, if only he could get himself to think clearly. There was no rain - the sky was heavy and overcast but the night oddly still outside his window. His eyes were covered by dark lenses, his face set into a determined mask. Flicking furiously, his gloved right hand hurtled through his clues, trying in desperation to trigger some sort of epiphany. Norman was so close to catching his prey he could almost taste it, and yet something wasn't quite clicking.
He had been using ARI for… three hours, perhaps more, who could tell? Minutes melded into eternities and he had not been keeping track.
His mind was running a mile a minute. Time seemed to have slowed down, because he had sped up, twitching and jerking in his chair. Have to link the evidence. Have to find the last connection. Think, think! Dot to dot to killer. Fucking think!
It was only the knocking on his office door that drew him out of his trance, causing him to yank his head up, swearing under his breath. The glasses were slipped off impatiently and his world became a little darker. He stood up in a hurry to answer the door when –
Lost in a world of trees and dappled shadows. The grey walls melted away, the concrete floor under his feet evaporated; and in their place was a forest alive around him, embracing him and whispering its secrets. Serenity. He brought his hands up to his temples, fingers expecting to meet cold plastic, but they touched nothing because nothing was there. The trees seemed to enclose him threateningly with their peace and silence. He staggered forwards. This was were his desk was, he fucking knew his desk was right here, and he was leaning against it and desperately trying to run his hands all along its surface but all he could see was a large rock in the middle of a woodland clearing. The sun was filtering calmly through the canopy above. Fuck, fuck, oh fuck. Where am I? I'm in my office but there are orange and amber leaves everywhere. And the wind was picking up, wrapping around him in a soft caress and saying forget the rest, this is the true reality and this is all you'll ever need. This is bright and this is perfect. But I don't want false perfection, even ugly skyscrapers and murderers and rain is better than this. But you love beauty, Norman, and what could be more beautiful? He fell to his knees. Dully he noticed a strange warmth upon his cheeks, so he pressed his fingers to his icy skin and when he looked at them they were covered in red. The crimson liquid fell from his face and mixed with the foliage littered on the ground. As his head began to swim he collapsed against the wall, or was it a tree trunk? Blood mixed with tears and the once mighty FBI agent was wrenched by huge shuddering sobs. He did not acknowledge the shocked yell from above him, or the firm grasp which held his shoulders: all he saw was a flurry of browns and greens covering him in a tender blanket, and rays of sunlight shining upon his face.
Jayden awoke in a cold, clinical hospital bed. They told him he had been unconscious for seventeen hours and had suffered a minor cerebral haemorrhage. They said he should feel extremely lucky to be fully functioning and in one piece, but he just felt numb.
He underwent a number of examinations, and the doctors reeled off a list of symptoms he might experience in the coming days, as well as regular dates when he would need to return for check-ups. His sat and listened blankly. The nurses all gave him odd looks.
The FBI cleared it up and he was discharged on the Tuesday afternoon. There was nothing wrong with the boy of course, he was just working a little too hard for his own good.
Returning to the headquarters made him feel cold and detached. His superior checked up on him and suggested he take a few days off work to recover, but Norman knew it wouldn't make things any better. As he was leaving the office the older man slipped something icy and rounded into the young agent's palm.
"Something developed to be used in conjunction with ARI. It's called Triptocaine," he told him with an emotionless face. "Let it help you stay in control. Don't be afraid."
After his boss had left, Norman ensured the office door was locked and the blinds were shut before unclasping his hand. The icy something was a small glass vial which contained what appeared to be a blue powder: the sight of it flicked a switch in his head, reawakening his emotions. Shit… drugs? Jayden threw the object onto his desk in irritation, where it rolled about pointlessly before settling.
Goddamnit! I'm already addicted to ARI and look where that got me, like I need any more of this shit. What the hell were they thinking?
He paced for a while, his hands shoved in his pockets. Was the FBI really promoting drug use now? But these were special circumstances, of course. The Bureau knew what it was doing - maybe this stuff really would help to keep ARI under control, so to speak.
And ARI. He searched his thoughts tentatively: did he want to stop using, after what it had almost done to him? No. That didn't feel right somehow. He had been an idiot but he couldn't quit, at least not cold turkey. It had so many benefits after all, saved so much precious time, and he'd been entrusted to handle it competently. Surely if he was just strong, restricted himself, he wouldn't have to abandon it completely.
Flashes of green leaves. That same tranquil glade where he had lost himself in mirages so many times.
He groaned and sat down heavily in his chair, running his hands along his face. He felt like shit. Not surprising after what he had been through, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. He had a pounding headache, his mouth felt like sandpaper, and all his limbs were aching. What he needed was rest: he just needed to take some time to relax, to mull things over. Maybe he would take up his supervisor's offer and go home.
Before he left, his hand hovered over his desk. It was cluttered by various files and photographs, not to mention his computer, but only two items held his attention. On the left was the soothing sight of oil black lenses, still waiting patiently where he had placed them just the night before; to the right was the mysterious blue vial.
The glasses he pocketed, but the sapphire bright tube was left untouched.
That might've been the end of it. He exited his office and was making his way out of HQ when the mutters of a nearby conversation halted him in his tracks.
"I heard he had a total breakdown."
"Yeah, that's the special agents for you. They're all workaholics."
A small pause.
"Pretty weird it happened when it did, though. You heard about the killer he was searching for, right? Yesterday night, only a few hours after Agent Jayden was found passed out, he murdered another two girls. Yeah, I know, it's a fuckin' mess. If only our agent had been able to handle the pressure, eh?"
Norman felt the corridor shrinking around him. Only a few hours after… fuck. He looked down at his upturned palms and it seemed like he could feel the blood of those women slipping through his fingers. He fell against the wall to his right, frantically wiping his hands on his shirt.
He squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his fists to his forehead, and forced himself to regulate his erratic breathing. If it hadn't been for his own fucking carelessness, his frailty, he would've found the killer before… before… he had been so close. Shit, not more death, please no more death. The numbers of people whose lives he had snatched away was an escalating chalkboard in his mind.
So there was only one thing he could do - he must fix things. But not in his present state. His face resolute, he turned and stormed back into his office, slamming the door carelessly behind him. He stalked to his desk and grasped the small vial glinting there.
A single moment of hesitation.
He thought of innocent civilians lifeless in pools of their own blood. Eyes that shone with a murderous glint. A warm gun in his hand.
Jayden lifted the tube to his nose, steadied himself, and inhaled deeply. Almost instantaneously his headache dissipated, as though the veil that had been clouding his mind had been lifted. The world was polished with a newfound clarity. His pupils constricted; his pain was alleviated; he could feel his heartbeat slow dramatically.
Why had been so anxious and distressed? Lowering himself into his chair, his mouth agape, he spread his palms over the glossy surface of his desk, mesmerised by its polished finish under his fingertips. His breathing was slow and heavy. He was so calm. This is true serenity, he thought, leaning languidly in his chair and closing his eyes.
And it came to him just like that: the last connection. Norman sat bolt upright and reached for the glasses which were staring at him expectantly. His every movement was filled with precision - each thought more calculated, clearer somehow, as if for every moment in his life up until now he had been looking at the world through a hazy screen.
Slipping ARI on felt like coming home. In no time at all he had opened his evidence files and was sifting through clues which had previously infuriated him with their discretion, but now appeared clear and simple. He found what he was searching for and took a moment to scan the contents of the data file. Of course. A satisfied smirk, which had been absent for so long, settled onto the young man's face.
Several frantic hours later and Agent Jayden's elusive killer had finally been caught: Norman even had the delectable pleasure of staring his quarry right in the eyes for several long seconds before he was hauled away to the nearest police station.
That evening he sat in his apartment twirling the vial of Triptocaine between his hands. This exquisite drug had caused everything to fall into place; everything he had been too tired and too restless to see; this was the reason a bad, bad man was locked up and the decent people of the city could rest a little easier in their beds.
He glanced at his watch - it was almost exactly 10 pm. Twenty-four hours ago Jayden had been a wretched shell of a man, but now he felt good for the first time in months. Rain was thundering heavily against the window and for once it didn't annoy him. Surprisingly, he did not regret having taken his dose of magical blue powder. He had never planned on taking drugs of course, and at one time the mere thought of it would've disgusted him, but he had been desperate. How could he lament his actions when this was the outcome? I feel so tranquil; everything is perfect and crystalline.
Besides, it wasn't like he was taking the stuff just to get high. The drug was practically a prescription treatment. It seemed simple, really: ARI sped you up, Triptocaine slowed you down. The only problem was too much of it might slow him to the point where his heart would stop beating altogether.
Norman sighed quietly to himself. Getting to his feet, he deposited the small tube into the drawer of his bedside table, shutting it closed with an air of finality. It would be comforting to know it was there, but he didn't expect he'd need to use it. You were a lucky bastard to survive bleeding eyes, but even you might not be so fortunate if you let it happen again. From now on, he'd stay in control of ARI. There would be no need for any narcotics.
He resisted the drug for nearly a week.
All too soon the dreadful realisation came that his ARI dependency was nothing compared to a ruthless Triptocaine craving. One taste, just one taste, that was all it had taken. He'd seen drug addicts who existed solely for their next hit, but never imagined he'd be one of them: he had underestimated his adversary. Unlike his lust for virtual beauty and data bytes, which had been a slow burning desire growing over time, the allure of Tripto was a raging inferno that flared up almost instantaneously and without warning only a few days after his first ingestion.
The scales are weighted with black and blue, and my whole life is finding the balance between them.
He was at work when it happened, the cold sweats. His head was throbbing and he began to tremble uncontrollably; at first he assumed he had been using ARI for a little too long, so he removed the glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. But it didn't go away - when he stood up he lost his balance and staggered into the wall, and his vision blurred to dull greys and browns, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get enough oxygen into his lungs. Triptocaine… I need Tripto! The thought came out of nowhere but once it appeared he clutched a hold of it desperately and goddamn I need some of that fucking drug.
He was lucky, because he had no access to the innocuous blue vial sitting by his bed, and by the time he got home he had survived his first taste of withdrawal.
But Jayden was in his apartment for his second experience. He had purposely cleared his desk and was sitting on top of it, leaning against the window which looked out upon an entire cityscape drenched in hazy rain and neon lights. He was far away from the drug, as far as he could go without leaving the room. The yearning for that powder, that sparkling clarity, had been aching for some time, along with a sickening nausea. Scattered around him were items telling a story: a matchbox which had distracted him for a while, because he loved the feel of fire as it smouldered down to his fingers. A bottle of vodka to deaden everything, but it was no comparison to Tripto. Today's newspaper, which he had first read and then torn into little pieces.
Triptocaine will brighten everything; Tripto will chase the shadows away. I don't need it. Just a little pick-me-up, Norman. I'm fine. I've always been fine. Are you sure? If you don't give in now, the memories might come back again.
His world was starting to spin on its axis. His breathing came rushed.
Memories of eyes that are black pools. No, no. You killed him, didn't you Norman? A mistake… I just made a mistake. And all the others? Why don't you fucking leave me alone. Oh, Norman. You've had it wrong all this time. You're not a hero, you're a monster.
He slammed his left hand into the surface of the window. It was stone cold to his touch and he held pathetically onto this feeling, spreading his palm wide as thought the change in temperature might divert his attention. But that little bottle was still waiting for him, still calling to him from across the room.
Did they know it was your fault they were dying? Did they know you were too lost in fantasies to save their lives?
He let out a sudden, bestial roar and jumped to his feet. He needed to wrench things apart. He needed destruction and chaos and anarchy. He punched the wall, and it felt good. His knuckles began to bleed but he moved on regardless through the room, like a tempest, searching for anything he could tear to pieces with his bear hands. His fingers seized upon the first object he found, a wineglass, and he raised it above his head to come crashing down into the tabletop. It shattered instantaneously and shards of glass flew everywhere, embedding into the woodwork and scattering over his clothes and, he remembered so intensely, slicing a nick in his right cheek.
By that time it was too late. He was raging and irrational, and the drug was close enough so that he could have his hands all over it before he had time to contemplate otherwise. Norman tugged the drawer open, mercifully clasped the vial and inhaled his blue bliss.
Utter silence. Utter stillness.
He leant against the wall and slid slowly down, his eyes rolling into the back of his head in ecstasy. There it was again, that beautiful wood of eternal autumn. The sun embraced him with rays of gold.
The Triptocaine, still clutched in his fingers, did not return to its drawer. It was welcomed quietly into his pocket.
Norman Jayden stands with his elbows propped against his bathroom sink, nimble hands running through short black hair. His breathing comes rushed, fluttering too soon from strained lips. His misty blue eyes are closed but under his eyelids their erratic movements can still be seen.
His heartbeat gradually slows as the memories slip away. Eventually his eyes open and they glance fleetingly, regretfully, at the young man in the mirror.
Shit. I look terrible.
He brings a hand up to feel at the scar along his cheek, the tangible manifestation of the conflict raging within him. Every morning when he shaves, every time he happens to see his reflection, even in puddles of rainwater it's there: a constant reminder of all his flaws, both physical and mental.
The bathroom door is ajar, and in the corner of his eye Norman catches a glimpse of a pair of ebony sunglasses and an electric blue tube lying on his bed - his twin imprisonments. Which one is he trying to escape? He no longer knows. The endless sound of rain can still be heard tapping out a dull rhythm against the windowpane, mimicking the earlier strains of the piano.
I'm not an addict.
But the words sound hollow and lifeless, even in his head.
Jayden turns on the tap and douses his face with the sting of freezing cold water, soaking his sleeves without noticing. His eyes flicker upwards and this time he manages to keep his gaze fixed upon the figure staring back at him, rivulets of water running down its nose, hair slicked against its forehead, face half in shadow and half lit by the off-centre bathroom light.
Norman… it's a fucking dangerous game you're playing.