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When My Fist Clenches, Crack It Open

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Melanie presses the button for the top floor and waits as the hospital elevator doors slide shut. The moment they seal, the busy sounds of the hospital lobby cut off, sealing her in silence. But there’s no silence in her mind.

Hospitals have never been an easy place for her to be. So many minds in so much pain, so much life and death. If she lets herself, she can hear it all at once: a cacophony of grief and sorrow, of joy and relief, sullen resentment and cautious hope. There've been times in her life when she’s almost lost herself, unable to her hear own thoughts inside a head filled with other people’s thoughts. But she’s long since learned to protect her mind, to help herself so she can give others the help they need. As the elevator climbs, she dials down all the other voices, tuning them out until she can only hear one voice: her own.

She breathes out. The elevator stops and the doors open. She walks through the short hallway and swipes her badge to enter the private lab that takes up the whole floor.

It’s early, but Amahl is already awake and so is his patient. She hears their thoughts before she hears their voices. She hears Amahl’s relief at her arrival as he hears her footsteps and the wheels of her suitcase. She hears his love for her, old and familiar. She hears David.

She’s deeply familiar with David Haller, having read his case history more than once. He’s been Amahl’s obsession for months, this boy with a monster in his head, and she's intrigued herself. Such a tragic case: a troubled life made many times worse by misdiagnosis. Melanie knows all too well how destructive such criminal malpractice can be, and how commonplace it is. Without the ability to hear the thoughts of their patients, even the best diagnostician can be left fumbling in the dark, hoping to find part of the story.

Melanie's gift eliminates that ambiguity. Just as Amahl is a surgeon of the body, she considers herself a surgeon of the mind. She's treated patients all over the world, but she could do so much more if she wasn't forced to hide her truth behind claims of 'deep empathy' and 'microexpressions.' She could do so much more if the world understood and accepted mutants.

She opens the door to the main room, and Amahl rises from the table to greet her.

"Melanie," he says, his warm thoughts like a caress even before their bodies touch. She hasn't seen him in over a week, since he devoted himself fully to David. Even though it's usually her work that takes her away from him, she hates to be without him, and she knows he hates to be without her, so they always deeply treasure the time they have together.

Working together to help David-- Melanie would have wanted to help David anyway, but the opportunity to stay with her husband, to be with him every waking and sleeping moment for however long this takes-- She couldn't pack her suitcase fast enough.

They kiss, then rest their foreheads together, soaking in each other's presence. The certainty of his love for her feeds her love for him, and their minds soak in that love like it's a hot bath, soothing, blissful.

But they can't stay in that bath forever. They have work to do.

Melanie breaks away and looks at David. He's still sitting, eyes cast down while he fidgets with nervous uncertainty. The remains of their breakfast are on the table. Melanie had her usual quick breakfast already, but she's looking forward to Amahl's mother's home cooking. Travelling the world gave her a broad palette, but those spices taste like home.

She sits down next to David. "Hello," she greets. "My name is Doctor Melanie Farouk. But you can call me Melanie."

David finally looks at her. His eyes are expressive, haunted, and their vulnerability makes him look even younger than he is. She feels anxious hope coming off him in powerful waves. He's locked down, verbally and mentally; he's in so much terrible pain.

"Um," David starts. "I'm David."

"It's good to meet you, David," Melanie says, gently drawing him out. "I'm hoping we can do great things together." She holds out her hand, and he looks at it before cautiously reaching out to take it. She notes the protective wrap around his forearms but doesn't let her eyes linger.

Amahl's had his hands full keeping David alive while he established David's physical and mental baselines. She can see why he brought her in. He probably should have brought her in sooner, but-- She knows how stubborn and proud he can be. He wanted to be able to fix David all on his own. But just looking at David, she knows his suffering is too great for one person to fix, even someone as brilliant as her husband.

"I know Amahl has told you about my gift," Melanie continues. "That gift is going to--"

She's interrupted by a burst of urgent thoughts. 'Like me? Is she really like me? It's not safe, Mom and Dad said it's not safe but if she's like me maybe it's safe, maybe I don't have to be alone anymore, I can be-- She's a mutant, another mutant, like me, she's like me--'

"Amahl?" Melanie calls.

"Yes, my dear?" Amahl says, returning to his chair. "What's wrong?"

"Is there something about David you forgot to tell me?" Melanie asks, wryly.

But Amahl is genuinely confused. "I sent you all his results." 'Did I miss something?' he thinks.

David looks between them, also confused. 'Did I do something wrong?' he wonders, and immediately starts blaming himself.

"You didn't do anything wrong, David," Melanie assures him.

David startles, wide-eyed. 'You heard that?' he thinks.

"I did," Melanie says. 'And can you hear this?' she thinks, assuming that if David is another mind reader, he'll hear it.

But David doesn't respond.

'Can you hear this?' she tries again, sending this time.

David startles again. He stares at her in stunned amazement.

"I'm going to count to ten," Melanie tells him. "Tell me which numbers you hear."

Melanie counts off in her thoughts, only sending him the even numbers. If he's a telepath, he should be able to hear all the numbers. If not--

"Um, I heard-- two, four, six, eight, ten," David says. "You're a mutant, you're really--" He tears up, overwhelmed. 'I'm not alone. I'm not alone.'

In his distress, he automatically turns to Amahl, and Amahl takes him in his arms, holds him, soothes him. Their movements are so natural. David's only been awake for a week, but they're already like-- Father and son.

Melanie and Amahl never had children of their own. They were always too busy saving the world to start a family. But seeing David in Amahl's arms, the trust and comfort shared by her husband and this wounded young man-- It rouses her maternal instincts. And if David is a mutant--

It's clear that David needs Amahl's comfort for them to be able to continue. Melanie takes the moment to reach into her suitcase and pull out her tablet. She flips through the test results Amahl sent. A full physiological, neurological, psychological, and genetic profile. Everything there is to know about how David Haller works, everything that can be scanned or tested or analyzed. David Haller is an open book to Amahl, and Amahl has studied him intensely.

She finds the genetic profile. She reads it, then reads it again.

No mutant genetic markers found. David's not a mutant, not by any criteria they can identify. It's one of their secrets that Amahl has amassed a catalog of genetic markers that indicate mutant abilities, even latent ones. The information is deeply sensitive, and in the wrong hands it could be used to identify and capture mutants across the world. Amahl uses it to check if any of his patients are mutants, and if they are he gets them to Melanie so she can help them.

'David thinks he's a mutant,' Melanie sends to Amahl. 'But he isn't one, not according to your tests.'

'We'll run them again,' Amahl thinks, trusting that she'll hear him.

§

When David calms, Amahl brings him to the sofa and wraps him in a blanket. He sits with David and keeps a comforting arm around him, holds his hand. David is terribly fragile; Melanie knows from the information Amahl sent her that he's prone to breakdowns, that his condition can make progress slow. Like most trauma survivors, what helps David is to feel safe and cared for, but those things can be very difficult for survivors to accept. It's a testament to Amahl's dedication and compassion that David feels safe with him, trusts him as much as he does.

"You're safe with us, David," Amahl soothes. "You're our favorite patient. Nothing you say or do will ever change that."

David nods, but-- Even with all of Amahl's assurances, verbal and physical, David's still deeply anxious.

"I already heard what you thought," Melanie says, as gently as she can. "But I think it would help you if you said it aloud."

David looks at her, his eyes full of hope and fear and so much feeling. He closes them, preparing himself, then looks at her, working up all his courage. 'She's a mutant. She's a mutant. She's a mutant.' "I'm a mutant," he says, in a rush.

"That's wonderful," Amahl rewards, rubbing David's back, squeezing his hand. He smiles, and David gives a nervous smile back.

David looks at Melanie. "I've never-- I never told that to anyone before, ever." The words are coming out easier now. "It wasn't safe. It's never been safe, never--" He's nearly overcome again, but he holds Amahl's hand tightly, drawing strength.

"How long have you known?" Melanie asks.

"Forever," David says. "My parents-- I was really young when I started using my powers. I could--" He hesitates again.

"Hear thoughts?" Melanie prompts.

David nods. "Not just that. I could do-- Almost anything." He musters a proud smile, but it quickly fades. "But-- It wasn't safe. Using my powers. If anyone found out--" He's upset again, but it's an old pain. "I couldn't even tell my sister."

"Your sister isn't a mutant?" Melanie asks. "Your parents? No one else in your family?"

David shakes his head. "Just me." 'Us,' he thinks. 'No, don't-- Don't think about-- She's a mutant, but--'

"Us?" Melanie prompts.

David looks away, guilty, afraid. He's trying very hard not to think.

"David, are you protecting someone?" Melanie asks. David genuinely believes Melanie is the first other mutant he's met. David's never had any close friends, not as far as his personal history revealed. So who is he protecting?

David's still trying not to think. But Melanie knows that won't work. The harder someone tries to consciously avoid a thought, the more the thought asserts itself. And so Melanie simply waits and listens.

'Maybe she can help,' David thinks, struggling. 'If she can find them-- If she can get them back-- I won't have to be in charge anymore-- They could help-- Divad-- Amahl would-- It would be better if I was-- I already hurt our body-- Whatever Amahl needs me for-- I'm just going to ruin it. Divad wouldn't ruin it.'

Our body. Melanie's heard that kind of thinking before, in DID patients who are co-conscious. But she doesn't hear any other minds in David's head.

David doesn't just think he's a mutant. He thinks he has DID. But neither is true, not as far as they can tell. They're going to need to run more tests, but-- Melanie's very concerned. They shouldn't lie to David, but telling him the truth about such enormous delusions-- They need to tread very carefully.

"Who is Divad, David?" Melanie asks.

David looks caught, but visibly surrenders. "He's-- I'm--" He tries, but this is clearly even more difficult than admitting he's a mutant. "The monster--" The pain in his eyes-- Melanie's only seen pain like that in the worst cases, in survivors of unspeakable abuse.

"What did the monster do, David?" Melanie asks, gently. Amahl made some guesses, based on David's history. But they're just guesses. Only David can tell them the truth, or the truth as he knows it.

David shakes his head, unable to speak of whatever terrible things he suffered. They're so bad he can't even bear to think about them. But he answers as best he can.

"Broke me," David admits, his voice and body trembling. "Over and-- Over and-- I couldn't-- Survive. On my own. So I made them. Divad and-- Dvd. To protect me. They're-- Stress responses. That's what the books said. To protect me. But--" He falters, in great distress. "They're gone. I don't know how. They're not supposed to-- And I don't know if-- If the monster, or--" He looks desperately at Melanie. "Please, you have to-- You have to help me find them. I keep looking for them but I can't find them."

"Okay," Melanie soothes. "How about we run some more tests, see what we can find?"

David sniffs. "Okay."

§

They start the tests. David tenses but complies as Amahl takes his blood. While they let the gene sequencer do its work, they set David up for the MRI. His stripey socked feet shift restlessly, but that's the only part of him that can move. He's strapped firmly to the MRI bed so he won't hurt himself or affect the scans. She can hear how anxious he is about the tests.

"David, we'll be just on the other side of the glass," Melanie tells him.

"That's right," Amahl adds. He rests a reassuring hand on David's leg. "If you need anything at all, all you have to do is ask. But don't speak aloud. Just listen and speak with your mind. Melanie will be able to hear everything you think."

"Okay," David says, and then closes his mouth firmly. 'Okay,' he thinks.

"Very good," Amahl says, rewarding David with a squeeze and a rub. "When we're done, we'll have a little treat. Makrout. Have you ever had them, David? They're fruit cookies. Usually they're filled with dates, but my mother made makrout á la David. They're filled with cherries. Your favorite, yes?"

'Cherries,' David thinks. 'Mom used to make cherry pies. Dad would bring back a big bag of cherries from the fruit stand between work and home, and we'd help her cut the cherries in half and remove the pits. We'd sneak so many cherries-- If Dad didn't bring such a huge bag, there wouldn't be enough left for the pie.'

It's the calmest, most coherent thought David's had since her arrival. Melanie's startled by it, and starts to wonder if keeping David away from his family is a good idea after all. But then David flinches and his thoughts change.

'Mom-- We couldn't save her. And Dad and Amy-- We know what they think about us, about me. If Melanie can't get Divad back-- I'm the wrong David. I'm wrong I'm wrong I'm wrong--'

"Shh," Amahl hushes. He pulls a kerchief from his pocket and dries David's eyes, then rests his hand over David's heart. "You're safe with Amahl, remember? You're always safe with Amahl."

"I'm safe with Amahl," David echoes, aloud. Then he tries again. 'I'm safe with Amahl.'

"Very good," Amahl says again. "If you're scared, just remember: I'm right here. Right here." He keeps a steady press against David's chest until David calms. But when he takes his hand away, David lets out a soft protest.

Amahl considers him. "Hmm. David-- If you promise to keep very still in the machine--" He frees David's right hand from the straps and brings it to rest over his heart, just where Amahl had pressed. "Just keep thinking those words. You're safe with Amahl."

'I'm safe with Amahl,' David chants to himself. 'I'm safe with Amahl, I'm safe with Amahl.'

"Perfect, my dear," Amahl says, pleased. "Absolutely perfect."

§

It's not easy to prove that someone doesn't have dissociative identity disorder. Usually Melanie is asked to do the opposite: to confirm that the bouts of dissociative amnesia and other confusions a patient is suffering are indeed caused by the presence of multiple minds in one body. She can speak to each mind individually, help them understand what's happening to them, coax their system towards healthy multiplicity.

She's not the only way to confirm the presence of multiple minds. Scans can be done to show unique brainwaves for each identity. But the scan of David's mind only shows David, just like all the scans before it.

When the tests are over, they bundle David up again and sit him down with a paper plateful of makrout á la David. It's not safe to leave him alone for long, but the cookies should be enough of a sedating distraction for Amahl and Melanie to speak in private.

'I've never seen a case like this before,' Melanie admits to Amahl. Telepathy is safer than speaking in such a close environment, even from a room over. 'Most people don't even know mutants exist, much less believe they're mutants when they're not. And David does seem to have had experience with genuine telepathy. He was surprised that he could hear me in his thoughts, but he was relieved, not disturbed.'

'He believes he is a mutant, but he’s human,' Amahl thinks. 'He believes he has multiple identities, but he has only one.' He gives her a wry look. 'Quite an unusual patient.'

Melanie huffs. 'So what happened to him? What gave him these delusions?'

'It must have been the monster,' Amahl thinks. 'He claims to have always had powers. But we know he began to manifest schizophrenia symptoms at a very early age.'

'He doesn't have schizophrenia,' Melanie corrects.

'No,' Amahl says, amused. 'But if the infection was the cause of his apparent schizophrenia--'

Melanie realizes with dawning horror. 'We never figured out what the monster was. What if it was a mutant? A mutant with mental powers. And it used its powers to make David believe he has powers himself.'

Amahl considers this. 'I don't see why not. We've seen cases of mutants separating their minds from their bodies. The monster could have been-- A parasitic mind that burrowed into David's brain when he was a boy, perhaps even a baby.'

'We already know it made him see things, hear things,' Melanie thinks. 'What if these alters, Divad and Dvd, were more hallucinations? Or-- Masks the monster wore to manipulate David, to convince him to give up control? The Divad identity seems to have taken control of David's body in the past.'

'A strong hypothesis,' Amahl agrees. 'But I'm concerned. David is very fragile. If we tell him all of this-- He might never recover.'

'I've never had a patient who didn't want me to tell him he's normal,' Melanie thinks, wryly. 'Aside from the trauma he's endured, David is-- Normal.'

'Which makes him the perfect research subject,' Amahl admits.

'Maybe that can help us,' Melanie thinks. 'If he's been dependent on these false identities-- I'm sure you couldn't miss that he's transferred some of that dependence onto you.'

'I assumed the cause was his estrangement from his family. Should we discourage it?'

'Absolutely not,' Melanie insists. 'You might be the only thing keeping him alive. It's not the normal way to handle these things, but-- David's situation is one of a kind. If we encourage that transference, help him feel like he belongs, help him to-- Accept his singularity-- We can make him strong enough to reject the monster's delusions.'

'A delicate endeavor,' Amahl says. 'Will you help me?'

'Of course, my darling,' Melanie says, and takes his hands. 'We help those who need the most help. And I can't think of anyone who needs help more than David Haller.'