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When My Fist Clenches, Crack It Open

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Syd wakes up to the combined sensation of purring and pinpricks against her arm. She knows that familiar combination, and she opens her eyes to see Matilda resting against her gloved arm, her hand and Matilda's head both resting on the pillow.

Syd doesn't move. She lets it happen. Touch, warmth, soothing discomfort. The sensation of another living, breathing body in contact with her own. She's had a whole year to learn to endure that sensation, to accept it instead of flinching away.

It was a difficult year.

Melanie suggested a therapy animal just a few weeks after David was taken. Syd had gone her whole life without touch before David. She tried to convince herself she could go back to that, that she could turn the need David awoke in her back off. Or if they could just find him, if they could just get him back--

She felt like a junkie herself, craving him. Craving him pressed against her, his bare body against her bare body, sheer skin-on-skin. His mouth, the texture of his lips pursed in a kiss, the press of his teeth as he smiled against her. In the white room, they could lie together for hours, soaking each other up, filling themselves until they drowned the empty ache they felt in their actual bodies.

But David was gone. There was no trace of him, no trail to follow. He was just-- Gone. And Syd needed.

So she got Matilda.

She'd never had a pet before, for obvious reasons. As a therapy cat, Matilda was already trained and largely self-sufficient, but there were responsibilities. Food and water and a litter box, the occasional trip to the vet, a scratching post so she didn't wreck the furniture, cat toys. Those were all easy. Syd didn't even have to play with Matilda if she didn't want to, because all the little kids Division 3 conscripted absolutely loved playing with and petting the fluffy, friendly cat.

But Syd didn't get Matilda for the kids. She got Matilda for her haphephobia. So one evening, Syd put out food to lure Matilda back to her room and she closed the door so Matilda had to stay. She set the thermostat down for the night. No one can tell a cat what to do, but-- Cats can't open doors. And if they're in a cool room with a warm body, they'll go to it. It's in their nature to want to be close, to share warmth, to be touched.

Syd sat on the bed and waited, and soon enough, Matilda came to her. She hopped up on the bed and sniffed around, and then--

The first time Matilda crawled into her lap, Syd wanted to scream. She didn't, but she flinched so badly she startled Matilda, who ran off before inevitably returning to her only source of warmth. She was more cautious the second time, but Syd was more prepared. She offered a cat treat as an apology, and Matilda settled back into her lap.

The first session with Matilda, Syd opened the door after a total of ten minutes. She only kept Matilda in her lap for thirty seconds before she picked the cat up and put her out in the hall as gently as she could. And then she sat down at her table and drank, and hated David for not fulfilling his responsibilities to her. How dare he choose her, how dare he pry his way into her heart and touch her and make her need him, and then leave?

He made her need him, and then he left.

She knew it wasn't rational. She knew he was taken. But his absence gnawed at her, and her need for him sat in her heart like a worm in an apple. Everything was fine on the surface, but she was being destroyed from within.

She talked about it to Melanie, a little, in the context of how it felt to need touch when David was the only one who could touch her. Syd wanted to be fine. She'd always taken care of herself. She didn't need anyone. She didn't need David. She didn't need touch.

Syd was lying to herself. Melanie tried to coax her into seeing that. She urged her to keep trying with Matilda. She taught Syd about touch starvation, skin hunger, somatosensory affectional deprivation. She tried to get Syd into a haphephobia support group, but Syd politely declined. All those people who were afraid to touch, they didn't have powers like her. Touch didn't bring physical pain that would never ever go away. It was just-- Psychological pain.

But having one kind of pain didn't mean she couldn't have the other.

So she kept trying with Matilda. She kept trying and it got easier. She stopped wanting to scream. Matilda was soft and warm and purred like a motor and petting her was-- Still like petting a hedgehog the wrong way, but--

David was still gone. Weeks, months, and David was still gone and she still needed him. So she kept trying. Everyone else started to give up hope. After so long with no sign, and David being as powerful as he is-- If he didn't come back to them, it was either because he wouldn't or because he couldn't. Because he was dead.

Syd couldn't accept that. She tried not to. But every day he wasn't there, it was harder to believe he'd ever come back. So she held Matilda more and more, practiced swapping with her, prowled the halls of Division 3 and let the child soldiers pet her. And all of that was almost enough.

She lifts her arm and pets Matilda. It's like petting a very soft, soothing hedgehog the wrong way.

"Good morning."

Syd looks up to see Amy at the foot of her cot. She looks around. Kerry and Cary are already up, but David's still asleep. Amy sits on Kerry's cot and scratches behind Matilda's ears.

"Can I borrow her?" Amy asks.

Syd nods, and Amy picks Matilda up and puts her into her lap. She pets Matilda in long, easy strokes, soaking up the sensation of the soft, warm fur under her hand. Syd feels a twang of old, familiar jealousy, but lets it go. Troublesome as it is, at least she has a body.

Syd thinks about how it felt yesterday, having Amy and Ptonomy touching her, holding her. It doesn't feel real. Maybe she dreamt it. She stares at Amy's hand, moving in steady strokes, and feels jealous not of Amy, but of Matilda.

Amy notices her watching. She susses her out. Amy's been-- Different, since they rescued her, since she got her own android. Less reactive, less caught up in her own head. She's calmer and more engaged. It was her body making her anxious the way Ptonomy's body made him angry. What does Syd's body do to her? What would she be like in the mainframe?

She'd rather not find out, but-- She can't help but wonder.

And then Amy reaches out, slowly so Syd could stop her if she wanted, and strokes Syd's arm the same way she stroked Matilda.

Syd bites back a moan. It's embarrassingly sexual. But god, it feels so good.

Amy smiles. "Good?"

Syd bites her lip, nods.

"Ptonomy said I should try giving you a massage," Amy says, continuing to casually pet Syd's arm. Every time she reaches the end of Syd's glove-- That narrow band of bare skin between her sleeve and the glove--

Forget alcohol. This is something she could get drunk on.

Amy gives her a fond smile. "I think that's something we can work up to. Would you feel comfortable taking off your glove?"

Syd hesitates. It's silly, this is just-- Amy touching her arm. There's no reason for her to feel like-- Some blushing virgin.

But she does. She's so used to having that physical barrier to protect her, and not just from an accidental swap. She knows her powers won't activate with Amy, they can't. There's no needles warning her away. It's just like the white room, like the first time David took her there and kissed her cheek and-- Touched her. Held her hand. That moment was-- So intense, so intimate, so-- She fell in love with David all over again when he touched her.

And it wasn't him. It was but-- It wasn't. Farouk was inside him, he had control of David for-- All of that. Syd flashes back to the desert, to Melanie-Farouk pouring poison in her ear, and then Syd poured that poison into David, accusing him, calling him Son of Sam--

Syd sits up, her heart in her throat, and wraps her arms around herself. Her whole body goes utterly still.

"Syd?" Amy calls, concerned.

Syd can't answer. She can't--

"Syd?" Ptonomy's here. He sits on her cot, but at a safe distance. "It's okay. Whatever it is, you're safe. Just breathe."

Syd takes a shuddering breath, then another. Her heart sinks back down into her chest. She eases her hold on herself, but doesn't drop her arms.

"Can you tell me what just happened?" Ptonomy asks, gently.

Syd looks at David, sleeping in his bed. Are his brothers still sleeping with him? The sleep inducer isn't on his head anymore. "Not here," she says.

"Okay," Ptonomy says. "How about you take a moment, get dressed, make a hot drink. Then we'll talk in the garden. Okay?"

Syd nods.

§

Syd sits in the garden with a blanket around her shoulders, letting the steam from her tea fill her senses, and finally understands how David feels with all his rough mornings. Being vulnerable, letting herself feel all the things she's worked so hard not to feel-- It's awful. But it's the only way she can start to get better.

She wants to do this. She wants to-- Love other people, open up to them and trust them.

She takes a deep breath and meets Ptonomy's eyes. There's still no judgement in them, only acceptance. She can do this. She can open up. Here she is, opening up.

"Last year," she starts, because that's where she needs to start. "When David-- Came back." Not the second time they lost him, but the first. She blamed him for that, too, even though-- She remembers David as a scared little boy in the memory walk. She held him and he held her back so tightly.

That was the first time she touched him, not the white room. And that was David, it was only David.

Ptonomy's eyes are sharp with understanding. "He wasn't himself."

Syd looks down into her cup. "How much do you think-- Was him?"

"I was asking myself the same question a while ago," Ptonomy says. "Looking at Division 3's old footage of him. I wondered when David was David, and when he was Yellow or Green. Dvd or Divad."

Syd remembers that. She was half out of her mind with shock, and then she saw the footage of David, of Dvd. And she felt-- Horrified and scared and hurt and betrayed and angry and sick and-- Used.

"Farouk used me," she says. "As a-- Reward. For David. Sex." She knows Ptonomy read Melanie's notes, so she knows he knows her side of what happened that day. "To keep David distracted, to keep him-- Compliant."

"That seems very likely," Ptonomy agrees. "We still don't know David's side of that story. I started getting David to talk about that, but-- He was distracted by a breakthrough about still being himself." He gives a wry smile. "David's full of surprises."

Syd gives a dry laugh. She sips her tea. Takes a breath. She can do this.

"He was inside David," she continues. "Not just-- Watching, passive. He was-- I don't know, directing him? David felt so different. He was different. I don't know-- How much of what happened--"

"How do you feel about that?" Ptonomy asks.

It's a hell of a question. "I didn't," Syd admits. "All I cared about was getting him back, and when we did-- I don't think either of us wanted to-- Maybe if we'd had more time, but--"

"I don't think time would have helped," Ptonomy says. "Given what we know about the original timeline--"

"Yeah," Syd admits. She and David are both experts at repression. In the original timeline, that destroyed them both and they took the world out with them.

"So how do you feel about it now?" Ptonomy asks. "Is that what upset you with Amy?"

Syd nods. She tries to say more, but she can't.

"Farouk violated both of you," Ptonomy says for her. "You told David you forgave him for violating you two weeks ago. Have you forgiven him?"

"I have," Syd insists. "I was-- Doing exactly what David was doing. Refusing to let go of my pain." She meets Ptonomy's eyes. "That's what I taught him to do."

"You did," Ptonomy acknowledges. "But you were also teaching yourself that lesson. Don't hold on to your pain from this."

Syd's trying. It's just-- Too big for her to pull free.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, seeing that she's stuck. "When you think about that day, who are you mad at most? David, Farouk, or yourself?"

It's such a good question. Syd takes a sip of her tea and thinks. "I guess-- I'm mad at everyone, but-- I should have known. That David wasn't-- That something was wrong. But he-- Farouk gave me what I needed."

"He watched you for a year, read your thoughts," Ptonomy says. "That's a lot of time to get to know someone. And you're the most important person in David's life."

Syd scoffs at that. "Maybe I was then. But now?"

Ptonomy nods. "Yes. I know, David's been dealing with a lot. He has a lot more people in his life now than he ever did. He has family, friends. All of those relationship are important. But you said it yourself. His love for you is powerful and he can't take it back."

That shouldn't make Syd feel better. She shouldn't want to still be in Farouk's sights. But Ptonomy's been listening to David's thoughts, studying him intensely day and night. He probably knows David better than he knows himself, just like Farouk. If he says David still loves her--

She thinks of Lenny telling her that David loved her so much in Summerland that it was-- Carve out his own heart and eat it much. And despite herself, despite her own need to survive, knowing he loves her that way-- It makes everything else, all the dangers and problems and violations-- None of it matters when she feels his love.

She wants him back. The more she lets herself feel that, the more it hurts that they lost each other. The more it hurts that she pushed him away. The more it hurts that he was gone. The more it hurts that they've been used, both of them, against themselves and each other, all for the benefit of a vile monster.

It's not fair. David loves her so much, and she loves him. That love shouldn't come with so much pain.

"I just want--" Syd starts, carried by a swell of emotion. "What we had should have been ours. Just ours, and he-- That monster took it from us, like he took so much--" She cuts herself off, her throat tight, eyes pricking with unshed tears.

She wants to push all those feelings away from her. She wants to wrap her pain so tight around her heart she can't feel anything. But she can't. She can't allow herself that false comfort, and she knows it's false because it didn't protect her from Farouk, it didn't protect her from her own future self. It didn't protect her from herself or from David. What good is it, all this pain, if it can't protect her?

"I hated my mom," she says, suddenly. "I hated the way she-- She couldn't touch me but-- Sometimes I'd think, even if she could-- Because she didn't let anyone touch her. They could touch her body, but they couldn't--" She feels another fragment of pain break free. "I was so glad when she died, I was so glad. Fuck her, that's what I thought. She died alone and in pain and I was--"

Relieved. She was relieved, but-- Not for her mom, for herself. Her mom was dead and it was over. Syd was free. But she wasn't free. Her mom's poison didn't die with her. It lived on, controlling Syd long after her death. It was a parasite, draining her, making her contagious. It used her to infect David. It did that to her and she couldn't stop herself.

"I don't want to believe the things she taught me," Syd says, firmly. "I want her poison out of me. But I don't--" She takes a breath. "Taking the words out wasn't enough."

"No," Ptonomy agrees. "It was a powerful step, but it was just one step. Real change means the work never stops. We have to teach ourselves to be the kinds of people we want to be. But it's easier if we do it together, if we help each other, if we see the change we want for ourselves in those around us. You've figured out what you don't want, but that's not enough. You need to figure out what you do want, for yourself and for your relationship with David."

"I don't know," Syd admits. Even though she hated her mom-- Her mom was her world. Syd didn't have anyone else. She was an Untouchable Barrett.

"That's okay," Ptonomy says. "But it means you have to look around you. You have to open yourself up to other people so they can show you other ways to be. No one has it all figured out, but they're all doing the work. Cary and Kerry, Amy and Lenny, the Davids, even Oliver. Everyone here has their own way to survive, their own way to love and be loved, their own way of navigating the challenges the world throws at us. That's all any of us are trying to do. So be with us. Talk to us. Open yourself up to the experience."

"Is that my homework for today?" Syd asks, wryly.

"It is," Ptonomy says. "It's time to go down for breakfast. David's awake and everyone's waiting for us. Then he needs me to talk to him, and then after that, you two are going to talk to me together. Use the time to get ready for that."

Syd takes a deep breath. "Right," she says, working up her courage. This is what she came back for. This is what she asked for. A chance to work things out, to try again. To make a relationship with David that's too strong for Farouk to use or break.

"And Syd?" Ptonomy reaches out his hand. "You can talk to me, too. As a friend."

Syd stares at his open hand before forcing herself to reach out and take it. His touch is different from David's, from Amy's. The grip of his hand, the texture of his palm, the pull of his strength against her own. She thinks of Amy's caress, the way it was-- Intimate and giving. She thinks of David's touch and the adoration in it, the devotion, the tender care and the desperate need.

She thinks of how it felt to touch David’s cheek as he cried in grief-stricken shame, horrified at the way he'd unthinkingly hurt her. His tears soaking into her glove and the heat of his flushed face. She stroked his hair as he rested his tired head on the table. She touched his cheek again and saw his shame. She made him hold her hand.

She touched his body every night while he slept. She caressed him the way Amy caressed her arm, but she didn't let him know her touch. She did all that work on her haphephobia while she waited for him, but once he was back--

She used touch like a weapon. She used it to get what she wanted for herself, and sometimes that also meant giving David what he wanted. But touch can be generous, it can be kind. It can give without expectation of return.

Other ways to be. Cary and Kerry, Amy and Lenny and Ptonomy, the Davids, even Oliver. They've all been showing her other ways to be, but she couldn't see them. She was too busy keeping herself in pain. Just like David.

But David's getting better. She has to get better too, so they can get better together.