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When My Fist Clenches, Crack It Open

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Amy looks in a mirror, and for the first time in weeks, she sees herself in her reflection. She puts her hand over her mouth and sees her hand cover her mouth. Her eyes crinkle with emotion and she can feel them crinkling.

She's herself in the mainframe, but— She didn't realize how cut off she felt there until now, until the full, real world rushed back into her senses through her new, artificial body. She breathes in and she smells the air, the concrete and metal of Division 3. The smell reminds her of the compound where she was held prisoner, brings back the memories in a sensory rush.

They're not pleasant memories and she always avoided them before. But if Amy has learned anything from all of this madness, it's that even her bad memories are something to cherish. It's better than having no memories at all. And the simple act of smelling the air and having it trigger a memory— She can't take that for granted anymore either.

She might still be dead, but in this body she feels alive. She feels impossibly grateful.

"Thank you," she tells Ptonomy, and hugs him. Up close, the artifice of their bodies betrays itself, but— It's real enough for her. She knows it will be real enough for David.

"Thank the Admiral," Ptonomy says, but he's happy too. "He made all of this possible."

"I will," Amy promises. It would be easy to open her eyes in the mainframe and reach out to him now, but she needs to be— Present in her body. Like David does. She needs this. She can't believe how much she needed it.

She understands now why Ptonomy needs to be outside, why David does. She needs to be outside, too, to feel— The sun, the breeze. To smell and hear the city living around her. To feel the rough pavement under her shoes. She has shoes again, her own clothes and shoes.

"It looks like Lenny has everything under control," Ptonomy says. "Where would you like to go?"

"I'm afraid I don't know the area," Amy says. She navigated her way to the clothing store to help with Kerry, but beyond that—

"Then let's just go out and walk," Ptonomy suggests. "Your new body was designed for you, but you still need time to get used to it. Let's get your feet under you."

§

They stroll around the city. No one looks twice at them. The Vermillion aren't exactly an unusual sight in this city, but they usually don't go shopping or have to talk down young women from panic attacks in clothing stores. Amy drew a lot of stares in the Vermillion. Now— She's normal. Or at least— She passes for normal.

She never truly felt the distinction before. How— Isolating it is, to be so different but have no one see. It's a relief but— It's also—

She smiles at people as they pass and they smile back. There's a baby in a stroller and she stops to greet it. She buys a newspaper at a bodega and has a pleasant chat with the owner. His son has been helping with the store for years but he's finally going back to college to finish his degree.

They find a bench in a small park and sit down together. It feels so good to exist again, to feel real. She opens the newspaper and skims it, catching up with the world she thought she'd never live in again. She could look at the whole world from inside the mainframe, see all the news, but—She likes holding the paper, the feel of it, the rustling sound as she turns the pages. It's— Tactile. Grounding.

She folds the newspaper and sets it aside. She takes a deep, cleansing breath and lets it out.

"Better?" Ptonomy asks.

"God, yes."

"You look better," Ptonomy says. "I know all of this has been difficult for you. The mainframe, the Vermillion, David. Thank you for your help today."

"I just wish I could do more," Amy says. It's hard hanging back, watching David struggle with himself, knowing— She has to let him struggle. She has to let him suffer. Not because of Farouk, not anymore, but— There's simply no way for them to—

David has to heal himself. They can help, they are helping as much as they possibly can, but— He's broken and they can't just glue him back together. They can't medicate him better. However much he can heal, he has to do the healing.

She just wishes she'd been able to stop him from going away again. She wishes she could hold him so he would know he's loved and that everything will be okay. She hasn't truly been able to do that for a long time. And now she has a body that's good enough to do it, but David is— Gone. Invisible and catatonic and beyond comfort as well as pain. When she thinks of how many times he must have gone away, how many times Dvd and Divad had to cover for him—

Maybe she can't do more right now, but— She didn't do enough for him then. She truly didn't. And their parents, however well-intentioned— Their fear and secrecy did so much damage. She still loves them, misses them deeply, but— She's angry with them for lying to her. For not trusting her with David's powers even when they had to trust her with everything else about him. She would never have let anyone hurt him, she wouldn't.

"Do you want to talk?" Ptonomy asks.

Any shakes her thoughts away. "Oh no, I'm just— Woolgathering."

"I've had a lot of practice reading emotions on David's face," Ptonomy says. "You make a lot of the same faces. And you know how this works, how we're surviving this. If you're upset, you need to talk about it."

"You already have your hands more than full."

"You're not my patient," Ptonomy says. "But with everything we're going through, I think we can call each other friends."

"I'd like that," Amy says, smiling for him. Perhaps they're a bit more— Therapist and supportive family member rather than friends, but— They're also two people trapped in a terrible situation together and trying to survive it. They're going through that as equals. Ptonomy's the one who saved her from being a prisoner in her own body, who stopped her from being the catalyst for a lot of pain for David and the world. She's trying to help him, too. That's how this works, how they're going to survive this. Helping each other.

"I'm angry at Mom and Dad," Amy admits. "They— I know they thought they were doing the right thing, keeping David safe, but— They lied to me about so much. They hurt David. And— I know exactly how they must have felt. How— Scared and helpless and— I know they thought they were doing the right thing. But I'm angry at them and at myself and— Even David."

Even though he didn't want to have all those awful things happen to him, even though none of it was his choice— She's still angry with him. He lied to her, too, just like Mom and Dad. He doesn't remember it anymore but she does. Or— Parts of him remember it. Divad and Dvd remember. She could talk about it with them, but— They barely want to talk to her at all.

"How's the lab?" Amy asks. She could look herself but—

"Productive," Ptonomy says. "They're having a wake. Lenny's unorthodox to say the least, but I can't argue with her results. She's getting Syd, Dvd, and Divad to process their grief."

"Oh, that's wonderful," Amy says, relieved. "After Dvd's session I was so worried."

"They'll be all right," Ptonomy assures her. "Dvd loves David. If he has to let go of their past to be with him, he'll do his best to let it go."

"It's still so strange, David having these— Relationships with himself," Amy admits.

"His situation is incredibly unique," Ptonomy says. "A system like his— Clearly they were co-conscious and deeply cooperative. They must have loved and trusted each other unconditionally despite how things went wrong. And then Farouk took all that away. It's as hard for them to accept David as a separate person as it is for David to accept that they're a system. But they're all trying."

"They are," Amy agrees. She's heard their thoughts, she knows how hard they're all trying. David— All the parts of David want to reconcile. Even though they can't be one person again, they want to be— A healthy system made of three brothers who love each other. She wants that for them, too.

"Is it wrong that— It's harder for me to see them than hear them?" she asks. "Listening to them existing together— It was strange at first, but— Seeing David switching like that, It's hard not to— See them all as David acting strangely and not— Being Divad and Dvd. Even though— They were the ones who used to pretend to be him. Divad was him for years, I— I didn't know."

"They were good at pretending," Ptonomy says.

"I should have known," Amy insists. "I should have known about his powers, I did know. But— I pretended not to. We were all pretending that everything was normal, as if— If we just pretended enough that would make it true. Like— David trying to make himself believe he already loves his brothers."

"We can't believe things if we know they aren't true for us. We can try but deep down— Whether the ideas are our own or someone else's, we'll reject them. That's the problem with the delusion parasite. It has such a hold over David's system, it makes them believe things they know they shouldn't. They know they didn't deserve their suffering and we've seen moments of understanding, but they can't believe it yet. We just have to keep helping them believe it."

"I hope we can," Amy sighs. "It's awful watching him— Punish himself. The way each part of him takes out his anger on the other parts and themselves. David never liked to show his anger but— I had no idea how bad it was. How much he's been— Tearing himself apart, all this time."

"They have a lot to be angry about. But they need healthy ways to express that anger so they can stop punishing themselves with it. I've been reading up on anger management techniques. Maybe once they've grieved they'll be ready for them."

"They really are keeping you busy," Amy says, sympathetic. "David was always a handful but— I'm so impressed by how much you've helped him."

"He should have had real help from the start, Ptonomy says, an edge of anger in him. "He had a monster in his head making sure nothing could help him, but— That doesn't excuse my own mistakes. I had a lot of good reasons to be angry, too. I still do. But I took that anger out on David. I even took it out on you. I doubt anyone ever told you, but— I tried to stop David from going to save you when you were held captive by Division 3. Even though we knew you were being tortured, I considered you an acceptable loss. I'm sorry. That was wrong."

Amy stares at him, taken aback. Ptonomy does seem to be genuinely sorry, but it's— Unsettling, to hear that he was willing to let her be tortured. Being tortured was bad enough, even if that seems like a paper cut compared to what she's endured since then.

"Well," she says, searching for how to respond. "That's— I suppose—"

"It's okay," Ptonomy says. "You don't have to try to make me feel better about it. But I don't want that between us. I don't want that to hurt us. I— There's always been a part of me that— Wanted David to be— Unsalvageable. The mad god that had to be destroyed to save the world. I wanted to punish him, I wanted to take my anger out on him. He was dangerous and unstable, he was a liar, he got Rudy killed, he got me killed. When I woke up in the mainframe I was— Numb at first, just— Struggling to understand where I was, what happened to me. When the shock wore off I should have been furious, but— I couldn't be angry the way I wanted to be, not without my body. And the Admiral— The odds were bad, but— David saved his life. He wanted to return the favor and he needed my help to do it. And that— It gave me a reason to stay. Helping David has given all of us a reason to stay. And now— I truly do want him to heal. Not just to save the world, but— Because he doesn't deserve what happened to him. He doesn't. Neither do you. So for my part in— Getting us here, I'm sorry. And I'm trying to fix it."

Amy takes that in. It's a lot. But— It probably doesn't matter how much of it she understands. Ptonomy needed to say it. He's had all that bottled up inside him for a while. She knows what that's like.

She holds out her hand for him. "Thank you," she says. "For trusting me with that."

He takes her hand and smiles, grateful.

§

When they get back to Division 3, Clark is waiting for them.

"Is something wrong?" Ptonomy asks, concerned.

"It's not urgent. The Admiral decided it could wait until you came back. But we do have a new development. Cary's setting up a secondary lab, I'll take you there."

Ptonomy skims through the feeds as they walk and sees Cary and Kerry working with the research team. There's a whiteboard with the words 'Detachment Syndrome' written large and a list beneath, some of it crossed out. The secondary lab is being filled with medical equipment and computers, and the table the research team is around is full of printouts.

He checks on the primary lab. Oliver's meditating, conveying the relay. Divad and Dvd are quite drunk, hanging off of Lenny and moaning plaintively about David. Syd is chewing a Twizzler and her eyes are red from crying. The whiskey bottle is nearly empty and there's used tissues scattered across the table. Getting them drunk certainly wasn't Ptonomy's first choice or even his second, but he has to admit it's working. Lenny made the right call. Again.

It's— A relief to see that— This isn't all on him. He's not doing this alone. It's felt that way sometimes even though he knew it wasn't true. But knowing and believing are two different things. He believes it a little more, seeing all this.

"Ah, there you are," Cary says, waving them over when they reach the lab. "We've had something of a breakthrough."

"Detachment syndrome?" Ptonomy asks.

"Kerry and I were pondering the nature of the soul over some hot chocolate," Cary says, in his usual tangential fashion. "We realized that— Well, we realized quite a lot of things but the important part is— We believe we know what's wrong with Oliver. And because of that, we know what wrong with you. Both of you, and Lenny, and— Anyone whose mind and soul have been detached from their body."

"We're dead," Amy points out. "Can there even be anything else wrong with us?"

"You're not dead, you're— Disembodied," Cary says, pushing up his glasses as he gets into lecture mode. "Traditionally, of course, the loss of the body was the definition of death. But just as our understanding of death evolved with the concept of brain death — the death of the mind while the body survives — now we have situations where the mind survives and the body dies. Body death or— Physical death, as opposed to mental death. If the mind can be moved to an alternate host, it can survive as you have. But disembodiment can happen through other means. Mutant powers often create a— Dynamic relationship between the body and the mind. Minds can separate from their originating bodies via astral, mental, or physical projection. We're still working out the details, but— We know now that astral projection — the disembodiment of the soul — has drastic effects on the mind, both good and bad."

"Okay," Ptonomy says, trying to slow Cary down. "What does that have to do with Oliver?"

"Right," Cary says, focusing. "It wasn't getting lost on the astral plane or— Being cryogenically frozen or even Farouk's possession that made him— Mentally altered. It was the disembodiment itself, chronic use of astral projection. The mind is— It forms as a conjunction of the body and soul. Separate them for too long and— The mind loses coherence. Emotions, memory, the sense of who we are— Drift away. We don't understand the soul, its properties, but— it seems to be—" He pauses, thinking. "Our bodies can retain our emotions and experiences even when we're not aware of them. It seems— The mind is like an impression made on the soul, but that impression isn't permanent. It's—"

"Clay," Ptonomy realizes. Damn Farouk. "Our souls are putty. Our bodies are the newspaper. We pull the putty away and there's a perfect copy, but it doesn't stay."

"Exactly!" Cary says, caught up in his understanding. "Return the soul to the body and the mind regains its coherence. Memories and emotions and our sense of ourselves returns. But the longer or more frequent the disembodiment periods, the more that coherence fades. The healing process between the soul and body is unable to complete. The way Oliver drifts and can't remember, even though his brain is undamaged, that's detachment syndrome."

"And we're disembodied," Ptonomy says, with dawning horror. "We're going to become like Oliver."

"Oh god," Amy gasps. "How long—"

"It's difficult to say," Cary admits. "This is a brand new diagnosis, it's never been studied. We're looking at all of Division 3's records of mutants able to disembody, whether that's through projection or other means. We're looking for patterns. It might affect each person differently depending on their genetics and mental and physical health, just like any disease. But your new bodies— Amy, do you feel better now?"

"Much," Amy admits. "I didn't even realize until— I guess I was— Fading?"

"You're probably the most vulnerable," Cary says. "You don't have any mutant powers which might lend your mind extra resilience. And the start of your current disembodiment preceded Ptonomy's and Lenny's. Thankfully, it seems these aesthetically accurate androids function as prosthetic bodies. It's not ideal, but it gives your souls the sensory input and proprioception they need to sustain your coherence, just as a mirror box can be used to reduce the pain of a phantom limb. And the mainframe acts as a prosthetic brain, so that should protect you from memory issues."

"So we're safe?" Amy asks, hopeful.

"For now, but— Even powerful mutants like Oliver can't sustain long-term disembodiment without displaying symptoms. We have no idea how long you can retain coherence even with your new bodies and the mainframe's support."

"The mainframe isn't just a computer," Ptonomy points out. "We're inside the Admiral's body."

"Which is how your souls were able to be 'uploaded' in the first place," Cary says. "His body is your souls' new host. But simply moving a soul into another body— The mainframe environment actually insulates you from the influence of the Admiral's body on your soul. Otherwise his body would begin to— Gradually overwrite you."

Ptonomy sits down. So does Amy.

"This impacts all of us," Cary continues. "Oliver has an advanced case and we need to track his recovery and search for ways to accelerate it. He has to stay in his body to heal which means we can't let him go searching for Melanie. But that also means Melanie is going to be affected. Just like Amy, she has no mutant powers to protect her mind. Wherever she is, she's likely already begun to drift. But the good news is that as long as we keep her body safe, when she returns to it she'll be able to start healing." He turns to Clark. "I've decided to accept your offer. You can take Melanie after we explain all this to Oliver. I want her body to stay as healthy as possible so she can focus on healing her mind when we get her back."

"I'm glad to hear it," Clark says.

"David is unable to astral project with the crown on," Cary continues, turning back to them, "But I am concerned about the mental projections he, Dvd, and Divad are sustaining. Divad has expressed a similar sentiment that David needs to be in their body to heal and it's possible that he and Dvd are sacrificing their own health on David's behalf. Switching out, taking turns as they're doing now, that will be beneficial. Mental projection likely isn't as dangerous as astral projection as the soul is still inside the body. But it's quite important that we help David so his whole system can share their body together. The whole of David's mind needs to heal. Perhaps they could share while they sleep."

"Okay," Ptonomy says, mentally adjusting his plan for David's recovery yet again. "What about us?"

"You, Amy, and Lenny should spend as much time in your new bodies as possible," Cary says. "Social contact is important. You should participate in activities that stimulate your senses and your proprioception. You'll all need to be tested regularly and so will David and Oliver. We're also setting up a new security procedure to help detect the physical manifestations of mental invasions and infections for all of Division 3, and those of us who are embodied will need to be part of that procedure. Division 3 has proved itself unable to defend against mental attacks but we can at least improve our detection rate."

Ptonomy nods, barely taking all that in. Cary and Clark can handle the security procedures but— "We'll work out a new treatment plan and a schedule for everyone."

"Agreed," Cary says. "And— regarding Lenny, Oliver, and Farouk. The three of them shared a body for a year. Three separate souls, two of them powerful mutants— there must have been consequences. Even though Oliver was the host body, Lenny described being inside of Farouk, like Russian nesting dolls."

"So Farouk was her host?"

"Effectively," Cary says. "We believe that's why David expressed difficulty in differentiating between Lenny's thoughts and Farouk's thoughts. But between her time in her second body and the mainframe's security procedures, that should no longer be a concern."

"Should?"

"Again, all of this is— Uncharted territory. A large problem with all of these mental diseases is that once our minds change, we have no easy way to detect that change because we are our minds. If the Admiral declared Lenny clean, then she probably is. But Farouk spent thirty years inside of David and a year in Oliver. He's back in his own body now and he was obviously powerful enough to retain at least some of his mental coherence. But we don't have a baseline to compare. We don't know much about Farouk's mind at all. David's body is incredibly powerful and so is Oliver's. Farouk's behavior over the decades, his singular obsession with David, his behavior now— It's likely that these are all related to detachment syndrome, either the effects of it or the effort required to retain coherence and survive as a parasitic soul."

Ptonomy leans back. "Did you just diagnose Amahl Farouk?"

Cary shrugs. "I doubt he'll appreciate it. Interestingly, Syd may be immune, or at least strongly resistant. Her powers are directly related to the separation of the soul from the body, and when we did her entry interview at Summerland she expressed that no matter what body she entered, she always retained a strong sense of self. Granted, those were historically for short periods and she didn't switch often, but she has been practicing with Matilda a great deal and she hasn't started— Chasing mice."

"You were totally going to say licking herself," Kerry says, amused.

"It seemed— Impolite," Cary admits. "Regardless. Perhaps she can assist us in better understanding the relationship of the body, mind, and soul, and even with developing treatments for detachment syndrome. Assuming of course that it doesn't put her own health at risk."

"As long as it doesn't get in the way of David's treatment," Ptonomy says. "That has to stay our first priority."

"And it is," Cary agrees. "But David has done a substantial amount of astral and mental projection, both recently and before he lost his memories. And once he has the crown off, he'll want to resume doing those things. If we're going to keep him healthy and stable and help him create a life for himself and his system, we need to understand all of him. Not just his mind but his powers and the way his powers, soul, mind, system, and body all interact."

"That's quite a list."

"It is," Cary admits. "David is, as a person, incredibly complex. His powers, DID, amnesia, trauma and other issues— All of these are substantial on their own, but they must be taken both individually and as a whole."

"Just like David's system," Kerry says, visibly pleased by her contribution.

"On the plus side, this is an opportunity to learn a great deal about all of those things," Cary says. "And understanding detachment syndrome— That has tremendous potential to help many, many people. Division 3 has been so hostile to people like David in part because mutants with his powers have been the most unstable. Detachment syndrome may be the answer to that: a disease that went completely unstudied and untreated because it wasn't safe for its sufferers to ask for help, assuming they could even realize they needed it. Now that we know, we can develop treatments and learn the safety limits for projection. We can teach mutants how to protect their minds and use their powers responsibly. A lot of lives can be saved and made better." He turns to Clark again. "I think it would be good for Division 3 to be the ones to help make that happen, don't you?"

"The Admiral agrees," Clark says, but beneath his reluctance he sounds almost— Glad.

Amy turns to Ptonomy. "I guess the good news is— We're alive."

"We're alive," Ptonomy echoes, equally stunned. They thought they were dead but they're alive, just— Disembodied. The bad news is— They're sick. And if they don't get the treatment they need, they're going to drift away just like Oliver.