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When My Fist Clenches, Crack It Open

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David. David. David. David. David.

David writes his name over and over. Slowly, deliberately. Cursive, lowercase, all capital letters. Ornate, with little flowers growing out of it, like an illuminated manuscript.

"Don't you think you're being ridiculous about this?" Divad says, sitting on the bed, his arms crossed.

"Nope," David says, and keeps writing. Ptonomy left him with a notebook and a pen to put his thoughts down, and right now David has one thought, so that's what he's putting down. He's sitting in the chair, his feet resting on the edge of the mattress, the notebook propped against his thighs.

Dvd is visible, too, but he said that as tempting as it was, he had better things to do than listen to Divad grovel. He's been floating in the corner, sitting silent in a meditation pose for a while now, trying to use their power to break the crown. David's starting to think he'll never manage it. Whatever Farouk did to get out of his, he obviously made sure David — or any other part of him — wouldn't be able to do the same thing himself.

In a way, David almost admires the efficiency of the trap Farouk lured him into. Push him until he snapped, then make everyone believe that snapping was proof he was evil. Maybe even use all of that to make him evil, if he could manage it. David writes his name with little horns coming out of the big D. He draws a pointed tail coming out of the little d. Then he crosses it out angrily and flips to a clean page.

He starts over. David. David. David. David. David.

When Farouk's first trap failed to pay off, he set up another, just as efficient. David wants to kill himself, so Farouk has forced him to live, knowing that will be perhaps his greatest torture yet. David doesn't know, because he's forgotten most of the actual things Farouk did to him over his entire life. All he really remembers is the fear. That's the scar tissue Farouk left behind for him to keep. Layers and layers of it, piled up over the decades, all different flavors. The ultimate shit sandwich, served to him three times a day, every single day. He'll never get the taste out of his mouth.

David writes his name in sharp, angular letters, like nordic runes. He draws his name made out of little pointy knives. He draws a stick figure Farouk being stabbed through the head, with x-shaped eyes and a lolling tongue.

He furiously scratches out the stick figure. Then he rips out the page, crumples it into a tiny ball, and throws it at Divad.

"Hey!" Divad says, as the ball sails through him and bounces across the floor.

David starts over. David. David. David. David. David.

"You know, that really makes you look like a crazy person," Divad says.

"I am a crazy person," David replies, and keeps writing. "I'm three crazy people."

Divad opens his mouth, like he's about to argue against that, then shrugs. "True."

David glares at him and keeps writing. He switches back to careful cursive. He hasn't written in cursive for years. He suddenly remembers Amy helping him write out all the letters on wide-lined paper, guiding his hand through the loops.

A bubble of grief catches in his throat and pops.

Divad sobers, leans towards him. "David—"

"No," David says, firmly. It's his grief for his sister. He's going to feel it, no matter how awful it is, no matter how much it hurts. It's his and he's going to feel it.

Divad gets annoyed again. "You know, you asked for my help. You can't get mad at me because I helped you when you asked for it."

"I absolutely can," David says. He switches back to all capitals, writing his name with smooth, even lines. DAVID. DAVID. DAVID. DAVID. DAVID. A silent shout of defiance to everything and everyone trying to erase him.

"I don't want to erase you," Divad insists. "That's the last thing I want, okay? I'm supposed to—"

"Protect me, yes, I know," David says. "You've done a great job, thanks so much."

In the corner, Dvd snorts.

"Don't you start," Divad grumbles at Dvd, then turns back to David. "Yeah, I failed. We both failed. And we feel like shit about it, thanks so much."

David keeps writing. It's very meditative, writing his name like this, over and over. Filling up the pages one by one. He's always looking for new ways to steady his emotions, to calm himself. He should have started doing this years ago. It wouldn't have made a single blessed bit of difference, but at least it would've been a hobby. There wasn't much to do in Clockworks besides watch other people drooling when he wasn't drooling himself.

Divad gets off the bed, tired of being ignored. He paces around the room, walking in steady, narrow circles, keeping to the space between Dvd and David.

"Look, you're feeling better, right?" Divad says, from across the bed. "Your head's clear, you can actually think about what's happened without going into another panic attack."

"Yes," David agrees, though he hasn't been too keen to test that theory. What he does know is that for the first time in a very long time, maybe ever, he doesn't feel like he has to screw his eyes shut and run full tilt just to get through whatever's happening to him. He can just sit and write his name and recognize the burning, toxic disaster that is his life, and it's fine. It's fine.

Closing his eyes and running full tilt only made him crash into everything anyway.

Divad heaves a sigh, deep and deeply felt. David swears he can actually feel him fighting the urge to say 'I told you so.' Maybe he can. Divad and Dvd can hear his thoughts, there no reason why David shouldn't be able to hear theirs in return.

"You can't," Divad says.

"Why not?"

"Because protecting you from bad thoughts is the whole reason I'm here. If you know what I know, you'll know, so what's the point in having me?"

David stops writing so he can rub at his face. "That's—" He thinks about it. "Okay, that makes sense." He thinks about it some more. "So let me think about the bad thoughts. I'll be fine."

Dvd snorts again.

Divad stares at David with great feeling.

"Shit," David sighs. "Okay, fine, I need you. But I'm still mad." He starts writing again, all lowercase. Childish. Maybe he has a right to be childish, when he lost his childhood to a monster. Lost his sanity, lost his mind, lost everything that Farouk could possibly make him lose. His bag of marbles strewn to the wind, tossed at random across the entire ocean, plop plop plop, never to be found again.

"Careful," Divad warns.

"Don't 'careful' me," David says, grouchily. "You wanted me to think clearly? I'm thinking clearly. I see exactly how inescapably fucked I am. That's what you wanted, right? No illusions. Just cold, hard reality."

The cold, hard reality is that it doesn't matter if he strolls off a mental cliff, if he plunges back into despair. None of it matters because he's still as trapped as he's been since the day Farouk burrowed into his head when he was a baby.

God, he is so inescapably fucked.

He flips to a clean page and starts again. David. David. David. David. David. Perfectly neat, the way his life will never, ever be.

"You know, you don't make it easy," Divad says. "I'm not saying any of this is your fault, but you sure as hell don't make it easy."

Dvd cracks open an eye. He clears his throat.

"You know," David says back, philosophically, "it's really saying something when the alter that's supposed to protect my body is the one protecting my mind from the alter that's supposed to protect my mind."

"We've had to adapt to a lot," Dvd says. "That shit beetle worked us over too, you know. He loved it when you made us. Three victims for the price of one. It gave him whole new ways to fuck with us. New colors to paint our screams."

David stops writing. Maybe, maybe... Maybe there are worse things than forgetting.

Dvd and Divad both stare at him with great feeling.

David brings his feet down to the floor and puts the notepad on the bed. "I'm sorry."

Shit. This is his fault, what they've suffered trying to protect him. He made them and trapped them in his head with him. They were tortured because of him. Shit.

"I'm sorry," David says again, tearing up. God, he can't even stop hurting people inside his own head. He should never have tried to survive what Farouk did to him. He should have given up and died the moment Farouk dug his claws in so deep they'd never come out again, whether he's physically inside of him or not. That's all David's doing now: hurting his alters, hurting his friends, making them suffer with him. He's so fucking selfish.

Divad and Dvd are suddenly close, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Okay, let's bring that all back a step," Divad says, worried. "We're you, remember? We're just parts of you. Farouk was gonna hurt you no matter what, so all you did was try to save us. To save something from the monster. You could have gone away and left us to deal with him but that's not what you did. You stayed. You fought him with everything you had. It just wasn't enough."

"That's not selfish, man," says Dvd. "That's the opposite of selfish. Stop beating yourself up because that's exactly what he wants you to do. He's probably watching all of this right now and shoving his hand down his pants because he gets off on your tears."

David recoils. "Oh, that's—! That's disgusting!" Ugh, now he really does need to forget something. Or pour bleach into his brain. He shudders.

Dvd puts up both middle fingers and points them at the ceiling, to where Farouk must be watching them from up above. Divad does the same.

"Come on," Dvd urges.

Talk about childish. But David puts up his middle fingers all the same. Divad and Dvd smile at him, and David can't help but smile back.

The door opens and Kerry walks in. She stares at his raised hands and he quickly puts them down, tucks them under his thighs.

”You hungry?" Kerry asks. She's carrying a tray, and David realizes it must be time for lunch. It's hard to keep track of time without any clocks or natural light.

"Ah, yeah, sure," David says. Divad and Dvd shift to make room as Kerry sits down on the bed and starts uncovering the dishes. Her hand pauses as she notices the notebook, and the litany of Davids written across the open page.

David feels the urge to curl up under the bed and die for a while, at least until his face stops burning. He really does look like a crazy person. But then that cat is well and truly out of the bag at this point. His lengthy conversation with himself must have been very entertaining for his audiences, however many he has by now. His friends; Farouk; the entirety of Division 3's command and control structure; international officials and government leaders; future historians of mutants and mental illness, assuming he never gets around to ending the world. God, he's not a mental patient, he's a zoo animal, a public exhibition.

All of this was a lot less of a problem for him when he was trapped in a multi-day panic attack and suicide attempt. Maybe he should go back. It'll be a vacation.

"Or don't," Divad mutters.

David glares at him, then looks down at his knees. He should just keep looking at his knees from now on. He won't have any embarrassing public conversations with his knees.

"So, um," Kerry says. Even she can't miss the painful awkwardness that's come over him. "Ptonomy says you're feeling better."

"You don't have to pretend you haven't seen everything," David says, sparing her.

Kerry lets out a relieved breath. "Yeah, everyone's watching from the lab."

"Great," David says, weakly. Now he has a whole new reason to kill himself. He won't be able to face anyone ever again. What's his best option? Self-immolation seems emotionally resonant. Or maybe something fast, to bring a quick end to this ongoing humiliation. Like a guillotine.

Bad thoughts. He doesn't need Divad to warn him about wandering at the edge of that particular cliff. He needs to move on to something else.

"I wasn't sure you'd come back," he admits.

There's a flash of hesitation on Kerry's face. She's a terrible liar, even worse than him. But she puts on a stubborn look. "Of course I was gonna come back. You still have to apologize to me. For being stupid."

David thinks back through the haze of panic and terror he was gripped in for the past few days. He's not sure what specifically she needs him to apologize for. Maybe for being a flaming wreck of a human being and getting everyone who gets close to him burnt. Probably that. "I'm sorry for being stupid," he says, and means it.

“Good,” Kerry says, satisfied. And apparently that’s that.

She really is a remarkable person.

“So you’re feeling better?” she prompts again, as she hands him his plate.

Lunch is beef teriyaki with sticky rice and bento-style vegetables. The carrot slices are carved into smiling suns and the radishes have cheerful faces. David would wonder if that was meant to cheer him up specifically, but the cafeteria staff are reliably whimsical. He starts eating. It’s good.

“Yeah, um.” He swallows, pokes at the rice. “Divad, um, Green?” He’s not sure if everyone is caught up on the name situation yet. They probably are, if they've seen and heard everything. “His thing is helping me with—“ He waves his fork in the general vicinity of his brain. “Avoiding dangerous thoughts, helping me manage my emotions so I don’t get, um, like before.”

“Wow,” Kerry says, genuinely impressed. “He can just do that?”

“Apparently,” David says. “I guess... If my mind was working the way it was supposed to, I’d be able to do it myself. But, you know.” He whirls the fork next to his ear, to indicate that he’s, well.

Sick.

He frowns and forces himself to eat another piece of teriyaki.

He knows he should be grateful that Divad is able to help him. He is grateful. He doesn’t want to be unable to manage his own emotions. But the fact is that he can’t. Maybe the cumulative David Haller system can, but David the member of it is too completely fucked in the head to function like a normal human being. He's always struggled so hard to be in control of himself and he's always failed. He needs a whole other identity to do that for him, and in doing so remind him why he’s stuck down here in the first place.

Because he’s not normal. He’ll never be normal. He never even had a chance at normal. Which means... which means a lot of things, none of them good.

Divad sighs.

“I know, I know,” David sighs back. “Sorry, Divad’s—“ He points his fork to her left.

Kerry stares where he’s pointing. It’s just empty space to her, of course. She frowns and turns back to him. “Does that mean you were having a dangerous thought just now?”

David shrugs. “Most of my thoughts aren’t exactly safe,” he admits, and musters a brittle smile. “That’s why I’m here. A danger to myself and others.”

“You’re here so you can get better,” Kerry says.

David isn’t in the mood to pretend. “I’m here until they can figure out what to do with me. Or until the shit beetle gets bored and decides to play a new game.”

Kerry snorts. “The what?”

“The shit beetle. That’s Dvd’s nickname for Farouk. Like a— Like a scarab? Because he’s from Egypt. He’s been using it for a while, it’s starting to stick.”

“Can I meet him?” Kerry asks.

“Who, Farouk?”

“No, stupid. Dvd. I wanna meet him.” Kerry gives an indifferent shrug. “I mean, he can’t be all bad if he says stuff like that.”

Dvd looks at Kerry. David doesn’t think he’s ever seen Dvd curious about anyone before, beyond their status as a potential threat to David’s survival.

“I’m not sure that’s—“ David begins.

“Aw, c’mon,” Kerry pleads. “I wanna meet both of them.”

Now all three of them are looking at David expectantly. “No,” he says, firmly. “No, this— I’m— I’m not comfortable with—“

“It’ll be good for us,” Dvd declares, eager now. “This crown’s being a real pain. Lemme stretch our legs.”

“It won’t be like before,” Divad promises. “No surprises. I’ll make sure things stay nice and calm. Besides, I think we all know you need to sit back and take a break.”

David puts his face in his hands. This isn’t happening. He’s not facing a rebellion in his own body.

“Our body,” Dvd reminds him.

“He’s right,” Divad agrees.

“I am extremely not comfortable with this,” David insists. This morning was enough of a shock. He doesn’t need another.

When he looks up, he has three disappointed faces staring at him.

Kerry has her arms crossed. “How am I supposed to decide if I like them or not if I can’t look them in the eye when I interrogate them?”

Dvd blinks. “What?”

Divad laughs. “Oh, I like her. Come on, David, do you really want to stand in the way of this meeting of the minds?”

Without Divad's help, David knows he would already be having another panic attack. He can feel the edge of it, the shape of it, but it's blunted and far away. His pulse is a little fast but his heart isn't trying to race out of his chest. He knows he should be scared but he mostly isn't. Nervous, worried, but not scared.

He takes a deep breath, holds it, lets it out slowly.

"You're okay," Divad soothes. "I promise, it'll be fine. We used to do this all the time. We shared. You liked sharing."

"I don't want to— I don't want to go away," David says. Whatever happened in the desert, after Oliver. He doesn't want to do that.

"No one's going away," Divad says. "If you want, you can stay where you are and we'll be in there with you. Like when we wrote our names, and when I talked to Ptonomy. But— I think it'll be easier for you if you step out."

"That's not going away?" David asks.

Divad leans forward, closing the space between them. "You only go away when things are too much for you. Really, really too much. This is just... it's like astral projecting."

Astral projecting. He's used to that. Sometimes he's felt like he's spent more time outside of his body than in it, these past weeks.

He does need to take a break. Maybe they're right, maybe this will be good for them.

"Okay," he says. He puts the plate down on the floor, rubs his palms against his legs. "Okay, what do I do?"

Divad reaches out to him. "Take my hand."

"But you're not real."

"Take it anyway."

David closes his eyes, breathes, breathes. He can do this. It's just like astral projecting. He knows how to do this.

He opens his eyes without opening his eyes, and reaches for Divad while his hand remains limp in his lap. Divad's hand grasps his, real and solid, and helps him onto the bed.

David reaches up and touches his head. The crown is gone. He knows it's still there, on his actual head, but like the panic attack his sense of it is blunted and far away. The crown is gone and so is the low, constant, intrusive pain. He hadn't even realized how much it was taking out of him until now. His eyes well up with relief.

Divad wraps an arm around his shoulder. "See? Just sit back, relax. Let someone else do the work for a while."

In the chair, David's body opens its eyes. "Hi," Dvd says, and grins.