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When My Fist Clenches, Crack It Open

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When Syd wakes up, she remembers everything.

She doesn't panic, doesn't cry. She looks at her reflection and touches the cool surface of the mirror.

Her mind has always been her own, the essence of her inviolate soul. And now it's not. Now it's the aftermath of a battleground, the war come and gone, all the buildings blown to rubble.

She remembers what Melanie had said, what had seemed so utterly convincing in the moment. That mind readers were too powerful to trust. That she had to rely only on herself, her own thoughts, her own ideas. Syd believed that. She'd always believed that, except—

Beware of ideas that are not your own. For months the warning echoed through the halls of Division 3, for so long that they just became noise, for so long that she stopped listening to them at all.

Melanie wasn't Melanie. Farouk told Syd what he was doing to her even as he blamed David for it. He read her mind and showed her what she wanted to see: that all her fears and doubts were real, that the only way to stop them was to stop David. To stop the monster, the villain he'd become, was going to become. Will become? Always was?

She pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger. Everything exploded, and then David—

David made her forget. He violated her mind. He did that to her. That's not love. And then he came to her, strange and urgent, and he had sex with her, knowing what he'd done.

He did that to her. Her David, the David that she loved, who always asked permission, who respected her boundaries, who was gentle and sweet and vulnerable and brave. He betrayed her and violated her, and the worst part is she doesn't think he even knows that's what he did. She doesn't think he knows the difference between right and wrong, between real and unreal, between love and violation, not anymore.

She doesn't understand what happened to him. Was Farouk right? Was David always this way and she just didn't see it? Was she blind, did she look at him and see only what she wanted to see? Or did something change him, turn him into this, into just another man who thinks he has the right to do whatever he wants to everyone around him, even the ones he claims to love?

Did she ever know him at all?

Nausea hits her and she bends over the sink and tries to throw up, but there's nothing in her but bile. The dry heaves run their course, then she washes her face and mouth with cold water, her knees trembling.

She sits down on the cold tile, a stabbing pain in her chest as her heart rips open, the wound deep and angry. She cries, though she doesn't want to, because her grief is unbearable.

And then she pulls herself back together like she's always done. She stands and forces her legs to hold her steady. She washes her face again and looks at her reflection and promises herself that she's going to take back every inch of the control that's been taken from her. Her pain is her armor, it's how she survives. She wraps it around her wounded heart until the throbbing grief is dulled, contained.

As she reaches for the door, there's a knock from the other side. It's Clark.

"We have a situation."

§

When they reach Cary's lab, Amahl Farouk is standing there. Syd startles back and has to swallow her scream.

"What's he doing here?" she asks, bewildered by Clark and Cary's calm. She turns on Farouk. The inhibitor crown is gone, and he's healed and dressed in his suit. "Are you controlling them?"

"Not at all, my dear," Farouk says, with his salesman smile. She wants to punch it and shatter every single one of his perfectly even teeth. "I'm merely here to be of service."

Cary gives her an apologetic shrug, then looks to Clark to explain.

Clark sighs. "Division 3 has made an alliance with Amahl Farouk in order to deal with a greater threat."

"And what threat is that?" Syd asks, though she already knows.

There's a thin veneer of pity on Clark's face, but underneath there's determination, relief. "David."

"No," Syd says, shaking her head. "This is just another one of his tricks." She rounds on Farouk. "It's not going to work, not on me."

"The decision came from the top," Clark tells her. "Admiral Fukuyama's mind can't be controlled. It's not a trick. David is a danger to himself and others, and we need your help to stop him." He pauses, and then, with his typical brutal kindness, says, "We know what he did to you."

She goes still.

"I— I saw, when I was reviewing the sensor data from Le Désolé," Cary explains, knotting his fingers together in awkward apology. "He did something to your mind while you were unconscious."

"That's—" Syd begins, but doesn't finish. Can't finish.

"Concerning, yes," Clark says, making his own conclusion. "But it's only one piece of a very disturbing picture. We know the truth about the orb, where it came from, or rather when. We know that Cary makes it decades from now and you send it back."

"Not me," Syd says, because that wasn't her, the future her she saw cozying up with Farouk. But then maybe it is. Who is she now but her own dark future, cozying up with Farouk?

Clark puts on his pity again, but she doesn't believe it. She knows he's glad. She doesn't have to be a mind reader to know that Division 3 has always been scared of David Haller. They tried everything they could to kill him until he became too powerful to kill, and then they worked with him because they needed him to stop Farouk. And now...

"Farouk told us what he learned from you, in the future," Clark explains. "That David turns and once he does... This is our only chance to stop that future. To save the world from what he becomes."

"No," Syd says, shaking her head. "That's not fair. You're condemning him based on what? Farouk slaughtered your men, over and over. He killed Amy. He's a murderer, a liar, a monster."

Clark doesn't answer. Syd holds her head. She feels like she's losing her mind all over again.

"Syd," Cary says, taking a step towards her. "Even if it's just a chance... We're the ones who sent the orb back. We have to believe that we made the right decision, that this is our best shot at saving the lives of billions of people."

"So, what?" Syd challenges. "We're just gonna execute him?"

"Not if we don't have to," Cary says. He reaches for his work bench and picks up a crown similar to the one he'd placed on Farouk's head just hours ago. "I made another one, even stronger, with, uh, Farouk's help. We just need to get it on David's head. Then we can give him the help he needs."

"He'll never let you," Syd says. Not the way he is now.

"If he refuses treatment, then we will have to execute him," Clark says, and it's an honest fact.

Syd turns around and walks away from them, just far enough to get some space. She can't believe this is happening. She needs time to figure this out, but they don't have any time. As soon as he thinks to check, David will read their minds and then—

He's sick. Oh god, he really is sick. What he did to her, the way he's been since he came back, the thing he might become. He's sick and he needs their help.

"Okay," she says, dully.

"With your permission," Farouk oozes, "I will protect your minds so that he will not suspect. You will have to act quickly."

§

"David," Clark says, beckoning him to the center of the room. "Over here."

As David enters the courtroom, her instinct is to warn him, to give him the chance to get better on his own terms. But as he saunters over to Clark, she accepts that she made the right decision. Looking at him now, from a distance, she sees how much he's changed. He isn't himself. He's arrogant and smug and cocky.

"Just want to thank you," Clark continues, playing along. "You saved us all."

"That's what I do," David says, taking the praise like it's his due. "Where's Farouk?"

"They're bringing him in now. Let me just— I have a few questions before we get started. Let me just grab my pad." Clark walks clear as casually as he can.

"Yeah, okay," Syd whispers, giving the signal.

When Cary triggers the cage, she allows herself a moment of satisfaction, seeing David caught, knowing he'll be punished. But then she just hurts again, because once he's scared all she can see is her David. He bounces off the cage wall, whirls in confusion, starts trying to break free.

And then Farouk slithers in like the snake he is.

The moment David sees Farouk, Syd realizes their mistake. David's never going to trust them while Farouk is in the room. David starts pouring everything he has at the cage, desperate to escape and go after his enemy, his parasite, the thing that's tortured him his entire life. The smiling monster she has to work with because David might turn into a monster so big he'll kill the world.

It's not going to work. She has to try anyway.

"David, stop, please," she begs, trying to calm him. "I know that you don't want to believe me, but we want to help you."

David isn't listening. He only has eyes for Farouk. "Let me out! Now!"

"David Haller, your treachery has been discovered," declares a Vermillion. "The inevitability of your future crimes."

"We are informed by Sydney Barrett and the Shadow King of events that will transpire in the days to come," continues another. "The remains of the orb that took you have been analyzed. The probability that they have been created decades from now by the male Loudermilk is 98%."

David turns to Cary, betrayed. Cary shrugs; what could he say?

"This is a mistake," David says, looking around the room, angry, pleading for sense. "Future crimes? Things I might do? Are you—" He cuts himself off, shakes his head like he's trying to clear it. "Wait. What's— what's really going on?" And then, predictably, he focuses back on Farouk again. "This is you," he growls.

Farouk says something in another language. His voice is calm with mock sadness. "Seeing you like this, what you have become. The sweet boy undone by revenge. It fills my heart with such sorrow."

"Liar," David snarls.

As Farouk takes his seat, Syd knows that if they have any hope of pulling this off, it's up to her to find a way past David's anger and reach him. Despite what he did to her, despite her future self's warnings, she doesn't believe he's lost to her, not yet.

"David, I know how hard this was for you. What he did to you. The life that you lived." She stands up and approaches the cage, needing to say this to his face, to let him see how much she means it. "To think that you were sick for all those years, and then to be told that it was a lie, that you have these powers. This monster in your head, everything Melanie said, that you weren't mentally ill, when the truth is—"

"Syd," David pleads, begging her not to say it.

"You're both," she finishes.

The truth hits him like a gut punch. He reels, eyes darting in every direction. And then he suddenly lashes out at her with an accusing finger. "No! Shut up and let me think!" And then, calmer, dazed. "Just let me think." He presses a hand to his head, groans. "Something I do in the future? That hasn't happened yet? That isn't even me?" He laughs darkly. "Don't you see? This is some kind of mass psychosis."

"You're upset," Cary says, gently denying him. "Your mind can't reconcile the person we see with the person you think you are."

"But we can help," Syd insists. "Medicine and therapy."

David stares in wide-eyed devastation. "Back to the psych ward? David the zombie." She thinks for a moment that maybe this will work after all, that maybe the truth is getting through to him. But then he riles. "Well, bullshit! You want me gone so bad? Fine, I'm gone."

"No," Syd pleads.

"You will allow treatment, or we will be forced to terminate," declares a Vermillion, and that makes everything worse.

"You're gonna kill me?" David says, outraged. "No. No." He rounds on Syd, stares her down. "I want to hear you say it. That you're gonna kill me if I don't let them turn me into something different. Something easy. Something clean."

This is it. Her last shot at reaching him, at reaching the David she loves, or used to love, if he was ever there at all. She walks right up to the cage, as close as she can. "David," she begins, and every word is wrenched out of her with agonizing pain. "You drugged me and had sex with me."

She watches the truth sink in, a slow-motion disaster that she started and can't afford to stop. "No, that's not—" And she was right, of course she was right. He didn't know that he'd hurt her, he didn't know what he'd done.

He knows now.

Her David would have apologized. He would have been horrified, disgusted at what he'd done. But the David in front of her just wails like a lost child. "I need you," he whispers, like her pain is nothing, like only his pain matters. Like a boy loves his mommy or a dog loves a bone.

Maybe Farouk was right. Maybe her future self was right all along. Maybe he's always been a monster. He's a monster now.

"I'm a good person," David says, starts chanting the affirmation as he turns and turns, looking around the room trying to find someone who will believe him. "I deserve love. I'm a good person. I deserve love. I deserve love."

No one believes him. There's no one, and he's so, so lost.

And then suddenly he's angry. Focused. Controlled.

"You know what? I'm done," he declares. "You had your chance."

"No," Syd pleads, but it's too late. She failed. She backs away as David powers up again, as the cage strains to hold him.

"Cary," Syd calls.

"The gas." A Vermillion gives the order and the cage starts filling up. David waves it away, but it keeps pouring in, filling up the small space.

"Cary?" Syd asks, as she stands back with him.

"The field should hold," Cary says.

Syd's not so sure, because David's giving this everything he has. But for all his power he still needs to breathe, and as fast as he waves it away, the gas creeps up to fill the cage. And then she can't even see him through the haze.

The cage goes quiet. Syd looks to Cary, to Clark.

"Give it a minute," Clark says, holding up a hand. "It takes a lot to knock him out."

They wait but nothing happens. Did he teleport out when they couldn't see him? Is he waiting for them to drop the walls so he can attack? Clark gives the signal, and Syd waits, holding her breath as the walls drop, as the gas dissipates.

David is lying unconscious on the floor.

"The crown, now!" Clark orders, and Cary rushes in to put it on. David whimpers when it activates, body straining as the neural spines dig into his head, and then he goes limp again.

They have him now, for all the good it will do them.

"Take him," Clark orders.

Several soldiers haul David up and put him into a wheelchair. His head lolls back, and Syd takes a sharp breath in. She remembers David the zombie. She knows why he's afraid of this, after Clockworks, after so many years of misguided treatment that only made his life a misery. She's afraid for him, too. But this is the only way to help him, to stop him from doing things that he would regret if he was still able to regret doing them.

As they wheel David away, a Vermillion speaks. "Amahl Farouk, Shadow King. Your cooperation in this is now complete."

Farouk bows his head in acknowledgement. "Then I am free to go?"

"No," says another Vermillion. "Your services are required for another task. You must remain here until David Haller is neutralized or destroyed. There is a sixty-two percent chance that he will make an additional attempt to escape."

Farouk grins widely. "Then you wish me to be his jailer? It would be my honor, Admiral."

"Sixty-two percent?" Cary mutters. "Seems low after all that."

Syd wonders, but she's more concerned about Farouk. "I'm sorry, no," she insists. "We can't help David if he's involved. You saw what happened. David won't trust us if we're working with him."

"You're not," Clark says, all his conciliatory gestures gone now that he has David where he wants him. "He's working for Division 3. You also happen to be working for Division 3. It's your job to make sure that he doesn't have to do his job. Those were the terms you agreed to. If you have a problem with that, you can leave. We'll deal with David our way."

Syd stares at Clark, and he stares right back at her. "Fine," she says, not liking any of this at all. It's cure or kill, and she doesn't know if there's any hope of curing whatever's wrong with David. But she has to try. She's the only hope he has left, whether he realizes it or not.

"My dear," Farouk says, magnanimous in his victory. "Let us not start our new relationship on bad terms. Please, join me for a coffee." He gestures towards the door. "We are allies now. We must be civilized."

The last thing she wants to do is sit across from the monster that gleefully tortured David his entire life. But the actual last thing she wants to do right now is a tie between going down to David's new cell and waiting for him to wake up, and going back to her room to sit alone and feel absolutely miserable for doing the right thing.

"Fine," she says, and walks out, not looking back to see if Farouk is following.

§

Farouk almost moans as he takes his first sip of coffee. He ordered a café serré, a short shot of espresso so concentrated one sip would keep anyone else awake for days.

Syd ordered a shot too. Whisky, despite the early hour, because she can't deal with any of this completely sober. She only takes one sip, though, because she can't risk being anything other than completely sober when she's sitting across the table from a monster. She'll get drunk tonight, safe in the privacy of her room.

Not that anywhere is safe anymore. Not that her room was safe last night. Maybe if she'd been sober when David came to her, she would have had the sense to say no.

"You cannot blame yourself," Farouk tells her.

"I'm sorry?" Syd says, glaring at him.

"I apologize," Farouk says, holding up a hand. "It’s impossible not to hear such loud thoughts."

"Well, try," she says, and resists the urge to throw back the whole shot of whisky.

"It’s the truth," Farouk says.

He's still wearing those sunglasses, so she can't see his eyes, but she knows it wouldn't make any difference to see them. There is nothing about him that she will ever trust.

Farouk puts his hand over his heart. "You wound me, my dear. I’m only trying to do what is best for the world, as I always have."

Syd scoffs. "I'm sorry, when have you done anything for anyone but yourself?"

"I was a great king," Farouk declares. "My people thrived under my protection."

"I read Division 3's file on you," Syd says, unmoved. "You were a criminal before David's father stopped you. Your people were criminals. You hurt innocent people then the same way you hurt them now. You might have fooled me once, but—"

"Twice," Farouk smirks, and takes another tiny sip.

Syd's nostrils flare as she breathes in sharply. "I never believed your fantasy Clockworks was real."

"No," Farouk says. "But you believed your David was."

Nausea roils through her.

"That is when he changed, is it not? When you took me out of him with a kiss?" He chuckles. "I was the gift, remember? Le don. You should never have tried to take him away from me."

"Shut up," she whispers, but god, god, what if it's true? The timing, it makes sense, what if—

"What he did to you last night. It was truly sickening to see him hurt you so. He tried to trick you into loving him. But that is his nature, you understand? He is empty, a shell full of power. There is nothing to save."

"Shut up," she says again, louder this time. "I know what you're doing and it's not going to work."

"Then you still love him? Your David? You will let him back into your head, your heart, your body, after he has violated them?"

"He needs help," Syd says, wrapping her pain tighter and tighter around her heart.

"Perhaps," Farouk says. "Perhaps it is my help that he needs. I have guarded him all his life, saved him from himself. A little boy with too much power. Can you imagine the devastation? One tantrum and he wishes away his mother, his father, his country. I have always done what is best for the world."

Syd says nothing. She can't breathe.

Farouk takes another sip. "I would like to thank you, my dear. Not only for your noble efforts today, but for all you have already done for me in the future. Your assistance has been invaluable."

Everything hurts. Her soul hurts. She forces herself to breathe. "What do you want from us?"

"Right now? I only want to enjoy being back in my body, and to finish this delicious cup of coffee."

She can't take anymore. She stands up.

"Until next time," Farouk says, raising his cup to her as she turns and walks away.

Chapter Text

David’s head hurts. It really, really hurts, like someone’s stabbed needles into his skull. And if that wasn’t enough, he feels wrong, somehow, wrong all over and strange. There’s a bitter, familiar taste in his mouth that makes him think of swimming pools.

Swimming pools.

Division 3.

His eyes shoot open and he instantly regrets it. The room isn’t even very bright, but there’s long, cold-blue lines of light at the corners of the walls that stab right into his retinas. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to turn away, but there’s something holding his head still. He’s on a bed, and there’s something on his wrists, his ankles.

Restraints.

Shit.

Everything comes back to him at once. The trial — no, the ambush. Farouk gloating, everyone on his side, and then Syd—

No. No. He can’t think about that right now. He has to get out of here. They’re going to kill him if he doesn’t get out of here. It should be easy to make the restraints open, but they don’t obey him. He tries to teleport away, but he doesn’t budge from the bed.

There’s something on his head. Shit.

“It’s not going to work.”

David looks and sees himself leaning against the wall. He’s wearing a green shirt and looking dismayed.

“I’ve got this,” says another him, pacing on the other side of room. That him is wearing yellow.

“I don’t think you do,” says Green.

“Gimme time,” Yellow says. “I just need to bust this stupid thing and get it off our head. That’s obviously what that shit beetle did.”

“Obviously,” says Green, dryly. Then he looks at David. “Finally back with us?”

David tries to nod, but the motion sends a stabbing pain through his head. He breathes through it until it ebbs, but there’s a low, deep throbbing left behind. God, his head hurts.

From across the room, Yellow curses.

“Don’t do that again,” says Green, rubbing his own head.

“Okay,” David says, keeping his head very still.

He remembers the other hims from before, but he still doesn’t understand what they are. There’s always been voices in his head, usually lots of voices, but things have been mostly quiet since he got Farouk out of his head and learned how to control his powers. For all of two whole weeks, a few days more. That’s all the true freedom he’s ever known, and now—

Calm. He has to stay calm.

He pretty sure they’re the source of the voices that he’s been talking to for those two weeks. It confused him, at first, but they've been helping him and he needs all the help he can get. He’s used to listening to other people talking in his head and he’s used to seeing things that aren’t there. He’s pretty sure that these other hims aren’t actually there, but neither was Lenny when she showed up in Amy’s basement. Sometimes if he keeps talking to things that aren’t real, they end up being real after all, and sometimes it’s the other way around. It’s hard for him to judge, so he usually just rolls with whatever’s happening.

He is not going to roll with lying here, gift-wrapped by Division 3 while Farouk waits for the right moment to kill him. He has to get out of here.

“We already tried,” says Green.

Yellow glowers. “I tried, you did nothing except lecture me.”

“I don’t tell you how to do your thing, you don’t tell me how to do mine.”

“Your thing is telling me what to do,” Yellow shoots back.

“And your thing is keeping us safe, which you have spectacularly failed to do.”

“Hey, don’t take this out on me. He’s the one who didn’t stick to the plan.” Yellow smirks. “He just had to stick his wick in that blonde—“

“Hey!” David calls, angrily. “Shut up!”

“What?” Kerry appears from somewhere past his feet.

“What?” David asks. She must have been sitting by the door this whole time.

“I wasn’t saying anything.”

“Right,” David says.

Kerry frowns at him. “Then who did you just yell at?”

She’s a very straightforward person, Kerry. He’s always liked that about her. So he’s straightforward back. “Myself?”

Kerry considers this, then accepts it. “Good. I wanna yell at you, too. But Cary says you’re sick so I can’t.”

“I’m not—“ David starts to say what he’s desperately wanted to believe for the past month, ever since Melanie told it to him with such absolute confidence. But the last word dies in his throat.

This— This whole situation he’s in. It’s not good.

“You are,” says Green, standing next to Kerry and looking disappointed in him. Green sighs and rubs his face in a familiar gesture David’s made himself a million times. “Maybe this is for the best. Running away wasn’t the answer.”

“You told me to leave,” David mutters.

“What?” Kerry says again. She looks around the room, baffled.

“Myself,” David explains. “I told myself to leave. And now I’m telling myself to stay, which really doesn’t make any sense because if I don’t get out of here they’re going to kill me!”

By the end of it he’s worked himself up and he can feel his panic kicking in. God, he hates this, he hates this, he has to get out of here before it’s too late. He’s breathing too fast and pulling at the restraints but with this thing on his head he’s powerless, just a man, just a patient strapped to his bed the way he’s been strapped to beds in hospital after hospital after hospital after—

He moves his head and it hurts: agonizing, searing pain but he has to get it off, he has to get it off, and he moves his head again, trying to push the crown against the bed and wrench himself free. The pain doesn’t matter, he’s used to pain, his whole life is pain, and he’s not going to have any more life if he doesn’t get it off now now now now now

“David, stop!” Kerry shouts, grabbing his head. Her eyes are wide with fear. Through the haze of agony, he thinks that he’s never seen her afraid about anything before.

“If you force the crown off, it’ll kill you,” Kerry says. She shows him that her hands are smeared with his blood. “Cary said it’s hooked into your brain. So don’t, okay?”

“I have to,” he says, but even that small attempt took everything out of him. His whole body is reeling.

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Yellow, holding his own head and grimacing.

“This isn’t the answer,” Green says, doing the same.

It seems whatever hurts David hurts the other hims, which is satisfying in a twisted way. If he has to suffer, at least he's not suffering alone. Not that the other hims are anything but persistent hallucinations. Friendly hallucinations, but they can't really help him because they're not real. They can't get him out of this. They might even be a symptom of whatever's wrong with him. Why he's sick.

He's sick.

"Finally," sighs Green. Yellow scowls at him.

Kerry washes her hands in the sink, then comes back with handful of damp paper towels and starts wiping away the blood.

"Please," he begs her. If she cares about him at all anymore — and she must or she wouldn't be down here taking care of him — then she has to understand. "Please, you have to help me. Get this thing off my head, please, please. I don't want to die."

"The whole point of this is so you don't die, stupid," Kerry says, giving him a rough swipe with the towel. "That's why we're helping you. Me and Cary and Syd. We're doing this so you don't die, so stop being an asshole."

David can't— "Syd?" he asks, weakly.

"Yeah," Kerry says, gruffly. "I don't understand what you did to her but it sucks. You're not supposed to hurt the people you love, and if you do you're supposed to feel bad about it. I kicked Cary in the spleen but then I said I was sorry, even though it wasn't my fault."

She wipes the drying blood from the side of his neck. The pillow is damp under his head but he doesn't think they'll remove the head restraint to let him get clean. It's probably fitting to make him lie in his own blood.

"You're right," he says, bleakly. He knows he's crashing now that the panic is over, but he can't stop himself. It doesn't just suck, what he did to her. It was monstrous. He's a monster, just like—

He warned her. When Syd wanted to see his memories, he warned her that she wouldn't love him anymore once she knew what he was, once she'd seen all the bad things he's done and all the ways he's ruined everything. But she kept staying and kept seeing something good in him, and he wanted so badly to believe that she was right.

But she wasn't. She wasn't.

Tears stream out of his eyes, streak down the sides of his face and into the stained pillow. Kerry pulls back, surprised. When she disappears from view, he thinks she's as disgusted with him as he is with himself. But she comes back with a clean towel and wipes his tears away as they fall, as they keep falling.

"Syd says you have to get better or you'll die," Kerry tells him. "So do it."

§

"Is there any change in his condition?" Clark asks.

Cary looks up from his monitor, startled out of his concentration. "Oh. I didn't hear you come in. And, uh, no, there's no change. Either of them."

Cary's lab has been turned into an impromptu infirmary, specially tailored for his two patients: his oldest and dearest friends, Oliver and Melanie Bird. Oliver he found himself, barely alive after David psychically tortured him. Melanie was recovered later, when Division 3 was sweeping through the labyrinth and found Farouk's empty coffin. Both of them are unconscious and frankly lucky to be breathing. Melanie especially; she's only human, and her body couldn't take the strain of Farouk's brief possession.

Technically, Cary has three patients. But he can't actually be in two places at once, so as long as David is a prisoner as well as a patient, he has to trust Kerry to look after him. He'll visit when he can, but after David's courtroom histrionics, he has to admit that he's a little afraid of what he's going to find.

Clark is standing over Oliver, looking thoughtful but otherwise unreadable. Clark is a difficult man for Cary to understand. They spent so long on opposing sides of a bloody war, and then just like that they were allies, their shared goals aligning them: finding David, finding Oliver and Farouk and his body.

He's not sure if they're allies anymore, now that everyone's been found.

"Oliver's strong," Cary assures him. "I do believe he'll recover. But the psychic trauma he endured was great."

"David's very powerful," Clark says, but it’s not a compliment.

"He thought he was torturing Farouk," Cary explains, as he's explained before. "He was tricked. It was a mistake."

"David makes a lot of mistakes."

Cary picks up a scanner, not because he needs to use it but because he needs something to look at that isn't Clark. "He does. But that doesn't make it right to condemn him for mistakes he might make in a future that might not happen."

"You gave your testimony," Clark reminds him. "You're going to make that orb one day because of what he does. Are you willing to risk the lives of billions of people?"

"No, no, of course not," Cary says, looking up. "It's just— I'm not comfortable with this."

"You don't have to be, because it's not up to you. Unless..."

"Unless what?"

"David's only a threat because of his abilities. If he was just a mentally ill man, Division 3 would be happy to let him go. He would be free to do anything he wants."

"What you're asking is impossible," Cary says, straightening his spine. "And not only impossible, but immoral."

"I just want to keep people safe," Clark says, calmly.

"You want a cure for mutations. You want to genetically rewrite us out of existence. I'm sure all the world governments paying your salary would prefer that to having to hunt us down and execute us one by one."

Clark quirks a smile. "Sometimes I forget how long your memory is."

"Maybe it's just that I'm the only one left who remembers," Cary cuts back. "Everyone else is unconscious or dead, mostly because Division 3 killed them."

Clark holds up his hands in surrender. "Forget I asked."

"I won't," Cary mutters, but lets it go. He has more important thing to focus on, like helping his friends. He goes to Melanie and checks her vitals, compares them to the last check. She's stable, at least, but he can't guess beyond that. She could wake up in an hour or she could never wake up at all. There's no way for him to know what kind of damage Farouk did to her mind.

"He was devastated, you know," Cary says, still feeling like this whole situation is unjust. "David. When he realized what Farouk made him do. I don't believe that he's some kind of unfeeling monster."

"And how long have you known David? All of you? Four, five weeks?"

Cary scowls.

"You think I don't want him to get better?" Clark says, not letting this go. "I like David, I do. But it doesn't matter if he feels bad. He's unstable and he's always been unstable. We don't know what happened in that future that made him end the world. Maybe it was all a big accident. If there's a nuclear reactor that's gonna blow, you don't forgive the reactor. You take it out of commission."

"He's a human being, not a nuclear reactor."

"He's not a human being, he's a mutant."

They stare at each other.

"Get out of my lab," Cary says, quietly livid.

"I'll go," Clark agrees. "But I'll be back. You think this is your lab? Everything here is the property of Division 3. And as long as you're working for us, so are you." He starts towards the door, then turns back. "Here's the thing. Every single day, I look in the mirror and I see what David did to me, what your people did to me. But I put it all aside because what we're doing here is important. We're protecting the world."

"By allying with sadistic monsters like Farouk?" Cary retorts. "Like Walter?"

"That was always the problem with you Summerlanders," Clark says, shaking his head. "You think society is about right and wrong, or who's on whose side. Society isn't about sides. It's about power and who has the most of it. Either you deal with David or we will, and when that's done we'll deal with Farouk."

Clark limps out of the lab, his cane tapping aggressively loudly. But he closes the door quietly behind him.

§

It's a bad idea, but Syd goes back to her room and starts drinking and doesn't stop. Really, getting drunk is the least bad idea in an entire forest of bad ideas.

She gets very, very drunk.

"A toast," she says, raising her glass to no one. "To everything being completely fucked."

She knocks back the shot. Wow, she is super drunk right now. This is just the level of drunk she has to be to do something stupid, which is why she takes what's left of the bottle and stumbles her way out into the hall.

"Shit," she slurs, as the hallway lists alarmingly to the left. She leans against the wall until the building rights itself again.

What was she going to do again? She's not going to see David. David the empty shell. David the illusion. There's nothing there to see, right? If she believes the King of Lies, lying to her face, pouring poison into her ear.

Amahl Farouk is the worst. The worst. Syd has known some real pieces of shit, but he is the biggest, stinkiest shit of all goddamn time. He is the living embodiment of diarrhea, including the way he can't ever stop running his goddamn shitty mouth.

"Fuck you!" she shouts at him, because she knows he's listening. She knows he's loving this, watching her suffer because he stomped all over her broken heart. Fuck him. Fuck him!

Ugh, where was she going? Oh right, not to see David.

Because here's the thing. Here's the sticking point. The Shadow King is an absolute sadistic lying bastard, but his biggest weapon is the truth. Not the whole truth, just bits of it. Enough to bait his victims with a fuzzy rabbit on a hook. And then the hook is in deep and it's dragging you down a hole and through an underground labyrinth until nothing makes sense except the story he's telling you with someone else's face.

Farouk was in David's head for thirty years, for his whole entire life. What she doesn't understand is how there can be anything left of him after that. How can there be a David at all? How could he survive it?

Syd's life was never great. She's never belonged anywhere because she was different, because her mom was different. She's hurt people: emotionally, physically, sexually. She got shoved into a mental hospital because some asshole judge decided she was a danger to herself and others. David thinks she saved him, but that's never been her truth.

The thing she loved about him was the same thing that drove her crazy: his blind, stupid optimism that everything would be okay. That there was good in the world and that they deserved to have some of it.

The world is shit. It's a shitty, shitty world, a world full of sadistic monsters that always get their way. A world where victims are just shoved out of sight because that's easier for everyone. That's what happened to her. She got shoved out of sight, but David saw her. David loved her. He would have done anything for her, no questions asked, like some gallant fucking knight.

But he wouldn't save the world for her. He chose revenge over her. That's why she's not going to see him. If he'd just saved the goddamn world—

She takes another sip and stumbles down the hall.

Thirty years. She can't stand being on the same continent as Farouk for more than thirty seconds. She's not surprised that David's broken, that he's sick, that he's a confused mess most of the time. She's surprised that he survived. She's surprised that he's sweet and gentle and respectful and empathetic and capable of making someone feel as loved as he made her feel.

Farouk is good, but he's not that good. That snake wouldn't know real love if it clubbed him across the face. Though she would have no objections to testing that theory with an actual club.

There's a big door in the wall, and buttons. She presses one. It's the elevator and it starts going down and takes her with it.

She's not going to see David because he's the fuzzy bunny wiggling on the hook. Who wouldn't want to save a fuzzy bunny? But she knows. She knows how this works. She's not taking the bait this time. She's not rushing over to David so she can drive herself crazy trying to figure out if David is even David anymore, or if David was ever David at all.

No. She's going to talk to Amy. Lenny. Lemmy. Lamy. She snort-laughs as she staggers up to the cell door.

"Laaaamy," Syd calls, and laughs again, because it's just that fucking hilarious. Or because she's toxically drunk. Probably that.

She fumbles open the door and staggers through, nearly getting pulled along with it as it swings around. "Whoops," she says, careful not to drop the bottle. It's very important that she not drop the bottle.

"Whisky, nice," Lenny says. She's sitting on the bed, still wrapped in chains. "Gonna share?"

"You know," Syd says, pointing at her. "I don't think Division 3 follows the Geneva Conventions."

"Sister, you read my mind. This place is basically evil. You here to bust me out before they make me fry?"

"Nope," Syd says, making sure to pronounce the whole word. "But you can have a drink." She staggers until she reaches the bed, then leans over Lenny and puts the bottle to her mouth. Lenny's eyes go wide but she takes the mouthful Syd pours. Syd takes the bottle back and has another sip.

"You really know how to show a girl a good time," Lenny declares.

"I'll show you a good time," Syd leers, wagging the bottle like a fuzzy bunny. "But first I gotta talk to Amy."

"Ah. See, that's gonna be a problem, because Amy's not home anymore."

Syd snorts. "Please. Don't give me that. I know how this works. That shithead's not gonna throw away something he can use to torture us. He uses every. Part. Of. The. Cow." She punctuates each word by poking Lenny with her finger.

"Gimme another drink first," Lenny says, resigned.

Syd obliges.

This time Lenny sputters and coughs. "I said a drink, not a waterboarding. Shit, you are a sloppy drunk, girl."

"Amy," Syd demands.

"It doesn't work like that," Lenny protests. "I can't just dial her up. She, like, comes to me in dreams and shit."

"Amy," Syd calls. "If you don't come out, Farouk's gonna kill David."

Lenny startles. "Okay, that worked."

Syd looks around, but she doesn't see anything. "Where is she?"

"She's in my head, not yours." Lenny rolls her eyes. "She wants to know what she can do to help."

"I wanna know how you did it," Syd says. "How did you keep David David?"

Lenny looks confused, and based on the look she gives to thin air, so does Amy.

"Farouk said he's empty. An illusion. That he's not even— he's not even capable of love." Syd starts choking up, so she takes another sip. She can't deal with this even a hundred miles from sober.

"Amy says that's bullshit," Lenny says, and means it. "And so do I."

"How would you know?" Syd retorts. "You're not even a real person."

"Hey, whatever I am, I was in his head while you two were mooning over each other all over Summerland. I know for a fact that he was stupid in love with you. It made Farouk want to throw up."

"How much?" Syd demands.

Lenny's eyes dart back and forth. "Which how much?"

"Both."

"Like, carve out his own heart and eat it much. For both."

It's possibly the least romantic image she could imagine, but for the first time in days the dread in Syd's gut actually lessens. Down from a hundred percent to ninety percent, but she'll take it.

"Okay," she says, breathing for what feels like the first time. "Okay. So ask Amy how she did it. How did she keep him going?"

"Ask her yourself," Lenny grumbles, then listens to nothing. "Amy says she didn't."

"She— You must have," Syd insists. "He was tortured his entire life. Thirty years. Who survives that?"

Lenny frowns. Whatever she hears must not be happy. "Yeah, he was. And he was a juvie and a junkie and he tried to kill himself. That ain't surviving."

"So, what?" Syd realizes belatedly that it would have been more helpful to have this conversation sober. But if she was sober she couldn't have had it at all. "He gave up?"

"Amy says she did everything she could for him. But yeah. He gave up." Lenny mimes hanging herself. "Game over."

"Shit." That wasn't what she was hoping to hear.

"He was in bad shape when they dumped him at Clockworks." Lenny gives an exasperated look at thin air. "Don't make it pretty. That place wasn't a hospital, it was a landfill. Anyway, yeah, he was done. The turkey popped. He was still walking around and breathing but that was about it. And then, well."

"And then me." She's not sure how that makes her feel. She's not sure what she should feel. She saw some of his memories, she saw the kind of person he used to be. She knew about his suicide attempt. But it was so hard to see any of that in the David she loved. He was fragile, she saw that, she saw his pain. But he didn't let it eat him whole.

Maybe she really did see what she wanted to see. Maybe Farouk was telling the truth and her David was an invention. It was just that David made it up himself and Farouk had nothing to do with it. David wanted to be a good person for her, he wanted to be everything he'd lost to his pain. So he made himself sweet and gentle and clung to that optimism as hard as he could, because it was the only thing keeping him from giving up all over again.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. She'd talked to Amy a lot over the year David was missing. She heard all her stories about him. When he was a boy, he really was all those things. And then Farouk took them away, took and took until David was empty. And then David tried to kill himself.

"Jesus," Syd says, the bottle falling from her hand. It doesn't break, but rolls across the floor, sloshing until it clacks against the wall and stops. “That’s the rabbit.”

“Huh?”

She’d almost taken the bait. She had her eyes wide open and she still reached for that rabbit, determined to free it. And if she had? Oh god, if she had. There would have been nothing left between David and Farouk, nothing to stop the real monster from eating David whole all over again.

“Thank you,” she says, numbly. She staggers to her feet, picks up the bottle and puts it in Lenny’s cuffed hands. “Both of you. Thank you.”

Syd has to get some sleep and sober up. She has to save love if she’s going to save the world.

Chapter Text

There's not much David can do while he's strapped to a bed with needles in his brain. He can barely move and can't use his powers, and frankly even thinking is hard when his head is throbbing like a drum. But thinking is what he has to do.

He's supposed to get better, but he doesn't know what that means. He doesn't even know what it means that he's sick. They all said he was, Syd and Cary and Kerry and Clark and the Admiral, and even his own hallucination thinks he's sick. So he must be. He must be, because that's the thing about being sick. The sickness tells you you're healthy, that nothing's wrong, that everything is fine just the way it is. But everything isn't fine. It's not even in the same galaxy as fine.

Everything's gone wrong but he doesn't understand how it happened, how it all slipped through his fingers like water. For one blissful moment, he was happy, he was free, he was in love. And then he had a mission, a purpose, for the first time in his life. He had to stop Farouk, stop the bad guy. People were relying on him to protect them. He was their hero. But he had to help Farouk, too, apparently so Farouk could kill him before he destroyed the world. Because he's the villain.

He doesn't understand. None of it makes sense, but it makes sense to everyone else. Enough that they're ready to kill him if he doesn't get better, whatever getting better even means.

Something is wrong with him, though. He knows that something is wrong with him because he hurt Syd. He would never hurt her, not like— Not like—

But he did. Oh god, he did. He drugged her — altered her mind so she wouldn't stop loving him — and then he had sex with her. That is an actual thing he did to the woman he loves, and he didn't even know it was wrong until it was too late. That's what's sick.

Maybe they shouldn't be bothering to try to help him. Maybe there's no point, if this is what he is now. They should just execute him and get it over with instead of trying to save what can't be saved. If he doesn't even know when he's hurting people, how can he stop himself from doing it again?

"Kerry?" David calls, and she comes over from her guard post by the door. He's not sure what she's supposed to do to protect him. If Farouk shows up there's nothing anyone can do to stop him. But he's glad to have her company.

She sits down in the chair next to the bed. "Hey. Do you need some more water? Or, you know, the other thing?"

David flushes with fresh humiliation. Apparently he can't even be trusted with his own hands so he can piss. "No," he says, wishing he could turn his face away. But he's lost the right to any human kindness. He's not a person anymore, just a patient, a prisoner justly condemned. Or justly enough, anyway.

"Oh, good," Kerry says, visibly relieved. "That was really gross."

He laughs, dry and bleak and mostly at himself. "Sorry."

"It's okay," Kerry shrugs. "Cary keeps telling me I need to get used to body stuff. Maybe it's good to practice on someone else."

David gives a soft assent, but that's all.

"So what do you want?" Kerry asks.

It's such an enormous question that David can't even begin to answer it. But of course that's not how she meant it. "Why are you here? Helping me?"

"Because Cary told me to."

David prays for strength. Kerry's literalness can be a bit much for him sometimes. "You don't have to."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No," David says. "But... If you're not comfortable. Being around me. Helping me. You don't have to."

"I'm not afraid of you," Kerry says, forcefully.

"I didn't—"

"You can't even stand up. Even Cary could beat you right now."

"That's n—"

"I'm the one keeping you safe from yourself. If I left you'd probably hurt yourself again."

"Well, maybe, but—"

"And we're the only friends you have left. If we leave, what's gonna happen to you?"

David waits a beat before he answers, in case she has more to say. But she's done. "Maybe that's why you should leave."

Kerry stares at him. "Are you kidding? You're giving up, just like that?"

"I'm n—" He is. Or he should. "I don't know. Apparently I end the world, so..."

"Then don't end it."

It's a breathtaking statement, perfect in its simplicity. But his life has never been simple. "What if I can't stop myself?" he asks her. "What if it's an accident, or someone makes me?"

"No one makes me do anything," Kerry boasts.

"Cary makes you do body stuff."

She huffs and crosses her arms. "That's different. And anyway I have to do body stuff because Cary's the one who goes inside me. Maybe he's the one who should stop doing body stuff because that's my thing now. I'm a body stuff expert."

David doesn't want to smile. He really doesn't. But he can't help himself. Kerry smiles back, and maybe it's just a moment, maybe it's meaningless when everything else about his situation is just as dire as before. But it makes him feel like he's a person again.

And of course, that's when the door opens and Clark comes in with a needle.

Kerry stands up and gets between them. "What's that for?" she challenges.

"Cary's busy, so I thought I'd check on our patient myself." Clark leans past Kerry. "I hear you've been a busy boy, talking to yourself, hurting yourself. Trying to get free."

"It's under control," Kerry says, not budging. "He's better now."

Clark smiles, but it's not pleasant. "I'm sorry, better? What was it you just said? If you left he'd probably hurt himself again?" He looks down at David. "And what was it you just said? 'Well, maybe?'" He shakes his head. "I told you, we're always listening."

Just the sight of the needle has already sent David's heart racing. "Please," he begs. "I don't need— The drugs, they don't help, please."

Kerry stares Clark down, but he stares her down right back. She looks away and he walks around her, sits down in the chair.

"I'm sorry," Clark says, like he means it. Maybe he does, but David begs him to stop and Clark doesn't stop. He cleans a spot on David's arm with a medical wipe.

The prick of the needle is intrusive and agonizingly familiar. The medication pushes into his veins, and David despairs.

"I'm sorry," Clark says again. He pulls out the needle and covers the tiny wound with a band-aid. "I can't have you interfering with this." He taps the crown once, just enough to make David wince. "I'm doing you a favor. This is the only thing keeping you alive."

Kerry curls her hands into fists. "We're the ones taking care of David, not you."

"This is an executive decision," Clark tells her. "If David can't control himself, the medication will."

"How's he supposed to get better if he's drugged all the time?"

Clark heads for the door. "Medication is part of his treatment. I checked his files, I'm sure he'll tolerate the dose just fine."

"I'm telling Cary!"

"Good, he can manage things from here." Clark gives her a meaningful look, then he's gone.

Calm. David has to stay calm.

Fuck, he's not calm, he's not calm at all. He starts panicking again because he's trapped in a literal nightmare and he can't wake up, and maybe brain damage is the only way out. He braces himself against the pain as he tries to push the crown off again, but Kerry holds his head still and he's helpless, he can't even kill himself, he can't— he can't—

The drug hits his system quickly, the woozy numbness as agonizingly familiar as the needle.

"I'm sorry," Kerry says, and she's crying over him. He's never seen her cry over anything except Cary.

"It's— It's okay," David slurs. The panic is pulling far away from him, along with everything else. He hates the way panic makes him feel but at least it's his. He'd forgotten how the medication used to smother him, how much it steals.

"I'm gonna talk to Cary." She stands up and wipes her eyes. "You can't hurt yourself while I'm gone. If you do I'll be mad. Okay?"

"Okay," David says.

And then he's alone. But he's not alone, because his hallucinations are back.

"Happy now?" Yellow sneers, glaring furiously at Green. "Still think running away isn't the answer?"

Green's the one pacing now. "I don't know. I don't know, okay? This is bad."

"It wasn't bad before?" Yellow says, arms wide as if displaying the entirety of how thoroughly awful the situation is.

"Yes, it was," Green admits. "Are you going to blame me or are you going to help?”

“I never stopped helping. I told you, I’m gonna bust that stupid crown until it blows off our head.”

“That sounds safe,” Green grumbles. He sits down in the chair. “David. Listen to me. We’re not hallucinations.”

David blinks. “That’s what I’d expect a hallucination to say,” he slurs. That feels like it should make him laugh but it doesn’t.

“I told you we should’ve told him sooner,” Yellow says.

“Yes, you’re just full of good ideas,” Green mutters. “I didn’t want to scare him. He was dealing with enough already.”

“And now’s a vacation,” Yellow mutters back.

Green glares and clenches his jaw. Then he visibly calms himself and turns back to David. “We’re part of you. A stress response. We protect you, or at least we try.”

“Like my rational mind,” David remembers. “He was nice.”

“He was temporary,” Yellow says. “We’re not.”

“I don’t understand.” David was having trouble thinking before, but now it’s like pushing through wet cement. “You’re new.”

“Farouk made you forget,” Green explains. “He couldn’t get rid of us because we’re part of you, but he could keep you from recognizing us. He drowned us out with noise. Now our mind is our own.”

Yellow stands over him from the other side. “He couldn’t do shit because you didn't have to listen to his moralizing advice anymore.” Yellow puts a proud hand to his chest. “I’m all about action. If you get scared, I’m the one who saves us. That interrogation room, that fake Clockworks, those stupid memory walks? I saved us every time.” Yellow frowns. “I almost got us out of that courtroom, too.”

“Almost.”

“No,” David says, refusing the whole thing. “No, that’s— This is a trick, another one of his tricks.”

Green sighs. “I knew you’d say that. David, we’ve been part of you for almost your whole life. That’s why it’s important that you listen to us. We know what’s best for you.”

“How can you know what's best for me if you don't even agree with each other?”

“He’s got a point,” Yellow says.

“Okay, I know what’s best for you,” Green says. “If you’d been able to hear me you wouldn’t have been expelled from college. You wouldn’t have had a drug dealer for a best friend. You wouldn’t have ended up like this if you’d just listened to me and told everyone the truth before it all spiraled completely out of control!”

“Wow, frustrated much?” Yellow says, and sniggers.

David takes a moment. “You said you were permanent?” This really is a nightmare. “I’m insane,” he says, with what he feels is remarkable equanimity. This is what’s wrong with him. Maybe it’s a good thing Clark drugged him.

Yellow snorts. “Rude.”

"Look," says Green. "We all want the same thing, to get out of here. I thought your friends would be able to help, but it's not looking great. So it's up to us now. We have to get you better right here, right now."

"That— that doesn't even make sense," David says.

"I know what your delusion is," Green says. "I told you before. Were you listening at all?"

David tries to remember the details, but the past two days have been... stressful. "Uh, something about not being a good person? God... doesn't love me?"

"I'm not listening to this." Yellow rolls his eyes and walks away.

"Do you have any idea what got you into this mess?" Green asks.

"Uh, no?"

Green rubs his face. "You weren't like this before, you know. This wide-eyed puppy act. You were a goddamn mess but you didn't delude yourself with fairy tales and stories about heroes and villains. You faced reality. You didn't want things we can't have."

"He was miserable," Yellow says, coming back again. "I was glad when Farouk shut us up because you made him feel worse about everything. We've been through enough bullshit without you telling him he deserved it."

"I didn't say he deserved it," Green says. "I said there's no point in hoping for things we're never going to get. We were never good and we sure as hell don't deserve love. We know what we are."

Yellow was cranky before, but now he's mad. "If you say things like that, you know what's gonna happen."

"We tried to stop him! Besides, that wasn't my fault, he couldn't even hear me."

"You think that mattered? All those years with you telling him what a useless piece of shit he was. Every time we did something wrong, you had to lecture him about it and rub salt in the wound. How did that work out for us, huh? How's that for protection?"

"And you telling him he's a god who can do anything he wants? Telling him to make Syd forget? ‘You have to say it, David,’” Green mocks, imitating Yellow’s words in the desert. “How did that work out for us?"

Silence. Blessed silence. If David's head wasn't already screaming they would be giving him a headache. "I don't think this is helping," he says.

"I'll tell you what your problem is," Yellow says, barrelling on. "You're afraid. You've always been afraid. You don't want us to have anything good because you're afraid of losing it. The more we love, the more it hurts, right? That's why you don't want us to have Syd."

"What, you're defending her now? 'The blonde thing who pretends to love us'?"

"She tried to kill us, she can rot in hell," Yellow says. "But the last thing he needs is to be realistic. You're just a— a moralizing pessimist."

"You're a delusional narcissist with a god complex.”

"Oh, everyone's deluded but you?"

"Maybe I'm afraid for a reason," Green says, standing up now. "What do you think happened these past two weeks? We finally had something good and Farouk took everything away, piece by piece. That's what he'll always do, and if it's not him, there'll be some other monster out there waiting for a victim like us. So yeah, I want David to stop hoping because maybe that way the monsters won't have anything to torture us with!"

David stares at the ceiling. Of course his "protective other selves" are just as traumatized as he is. Of course they are. "Maybe you two should go... wherever it is you go when I don't need protecting."

"That’s what you want, huh?" Green says, angrily. "Fine. We’re gone."

David stares at him. And then he really is alone.

§

Kerry runs as fast as she can, sprinting up the stairs because she's faster than the elevator, then down the hall to the lab.

"Cary," she calls, breathless. "Clark drugged David and he's really upset. We have to— uh— What's that thing doing here?"

There's a Vermillion in the lab, sitting on the third bed, the one Cary set aside for David to use once he's deemed safe enough to not be a prisoner anymore. Cary is standing in front of it, and he turns to greet her.

"Kerry, you'll never believe this," Cary says, waving her over like an excited puppy.

Kerry approaches the Vermillion warily. She's never known what to make of the androids. They've always kinda creeped her out, and even though the thing with the eggs and the black creatures was a trick, it was really satisfying to kick the crap out of them. But the main reason she hates them now is because they're spies.

"Get the hell out," she tells it. She doesn't want it listening in when she's talking about David. Division 3's not giving him a chance to get better and it's not right.

"Kerry, don’t be rude,” Cary chides. “Well, go on, say something!”

The Vermillion stares at her and makes weird electrical noises. And then it says, “It’s good to see you, too,” with a familiar voice.

“Ptonomy?” Kerry asks, cautiously.

“Ptonomy!” Cary cries, and hugs her in celebration. “He’s alive! Well, sort of. His mind has been preserved in Admiral Fukuyama’s mainframe. Astonishing!”

Ptonomy's Vermillion is as blank-faced as the rest of them. "Weird," Kerry says, staring into its — his? — eyes. She snaps her fingers in front of its face. The Vermillion doesn't blink. No autonomic reflexes.

"I've reached an arrangement with Admiral Fukuyama," Ptonomy explains. "He's given me access to this Vermillion."

"And what are you doing in return?" Cary asks.

Ptonomy's Vermillion turns to stare at Cary. "I'm still on our side. Just because my body's dead, that doesn't mean I'm not a mutant."

"I apologize," Cary says.

"Why wouldn't Ptonomy be on our side?" Kerry asks. "What's going on?"

"Nothing yet," Cary says. "But the winds are shifting. I believe whatever happens to David will determine a great deal for all of us."

"Something's happening," Ptonomy says. His Vermillion pushes off the bed and marches over to a monitor. It stares at the monitor and then a video feed appears. It's David's cell.

“No. No, that’s— This is a trick, another one of his tricks,” David says, but there's no one else in the room.

"Who's he talking to?" Cary asks. "Could the crown be damaged? Or is someone reaching out to him?"

David doesn't say anything for a while, but he's listening, his eyes moving back and forth. And then: "How can you know what's best for me if you don't even agree with each other?”

"Two telepaths?" Cary wonders.

“You said you were permanent?” is the next thing David says, and he's upset. Then, with resignation: “I’m insane.”

Kerry doesn't like the way this one-sided conversation is going.

There's a bit more, but nothing that gives them any better sense of who David is talking to or how. And then David says, "You know, maybe you two should go... wherever it is you go when I don't need protecting." Then he's quiet and still.

"Huh," Ptonomy says, tilting the Vermillion's head.

"Interesting," Cary says. "Can we see what we missed?"

Ptonomy stares at the screen and the video rewinds. Kerry sees Clark giving David the shot and leaving. She sees herself in the room, holding David's head so he doesn't hurt himself. She sees herself crying, then running off to where she is now.

Almost the moment she leaves, David starts listening to something. Then he says, “That’s what I’d expect a hallucination to say." A long pause as he listens. "Like my rational mind. He was nice.” Then: “I don’t understand. You’re new.” And then they're back to the part they saw before.

Cary has them watch it all through a few times. He frowns thoughtfully. "Kerry, you said he was talking to himself before."

"Uh, yeah," she says, feeling confused and unsettled and not liking it one bit. "I thought he was shouting at me but I wasn't saying anything so why would I need to shut up? He said he was yelling at himself. And then, um, then he said, 'I told myself to leave. Now I’m telling myself to stay.'"

"These visions seem to be trying to help him," Cary says, rubbing his chin. "Or at least he thinks they are."

"It could be Farouk," Ptonomy says. "More mind games."

"Possibly," Cary says. "But I don't think so. Can we see the live feed? What's he doing now?"

Kerry squints at the picture. David's eyes are closed, and his breathing is slow and even. "He's sleeping."

"Right." Cary taps his chin, looks up and thinks, then thinks some more. Usually when he gets like this, Kerry goes off and finds something to punch to keep herself busy. But she needs to know what's happening to David.

"What about the shot Clark gave him?" she asks. "Did that make him see things?"

"Unlikely," Cary says. "The last thing Clark wants to do is make David more unstable. No, that was just to sedate him. I think David's seen these 'hallucinations' before."

"I'll review the Admiral's archive," Ptonomy says. "Clark wasn't lying. Everything we've done here has been recorded. If there's evidence something was wrong before—"

"Yes, that footage may be just what we need," Cary agrees. "Can you leave this feed up? I need to keep a close eye on David but I have to stay here with Melanie and Oliver."

"I can go back and sit with him," Kerry offers. She doesn't like leaving David alone. If anyone tries to hurt him right now, there's nothing he can do to stop them. That's the worst feeling in the world.

"It's been a long day," Cary sighs. "For all of us. If David's resting, we should take the opportunity ourselves."

"I'll watch over him," Ptonomy promises. "I don't sleep anymore."

Cary turns to the Vermillion and puts his hand on its shoulder. "I can't express how good it is to have you back." He pulls the Vermillion into a hug, then releases it. "I'm sorry we couldn't save you. All of you."

"Being dead is a lot busier than I imagined," Ptonomy says, and if he still has a face somewhere he sounds like it's smiling. "I've got this. You two get some sleep. We'll find our answers tomorrow."

The Vermillion walks out, and Kerry waits, watching the monitor, until she sees it appear in David's room. It sits down in the chair next to the bed, perfectly poised and alert. She breathes out, the awful tightness in her stomach finally relieved because David has someone to protect him again.

She just hopes he has good dreams tonight. Anything's better than his reality.

Chapter Text

It's hard for David to sleep while he's strapped to a bed with needles in his brain. But he's so incredibly tired, exhausted down to his bones. So he drifts in and out of consciousness, sometimes pushed down by the sedative and sometimes pulled up by the pain.

The sedative keeps him calm, and it's a familiar, forced calm. There’s nothing he can do to escape it even though he hates it. It makes him feel like he did in Clockworks. It makes him feel like they're going to send him right back where he belongs.

Clockworks never actually let him out in the first place. His freedom was stolen, an escape made under the false pretenses of a body swap. So maybe it's just the truth he's feeling. All of this, Summerland and Division 3, that's the dream, the nightmare. Soon he's going to wake up from all of it and he'll be back in those same walls, that same routine; the same questions asked over and over, the same medications forced on his body so it submits. He'll be just another cog, one tiny gear in the huge machinery of mental health, turned in circles until his mind or his body or both simply give out under the strain and he's thrown away.

Will it be worse this time, because he let himself believe he could have anything better? Or easier because he'll go back knowing it's exactly what he deserves?

Clark's right about him. He is a danger to himself and others, far more than he ever imagined. He'd thought that once Farouk was gone, he could finally have the normal life Amy wanted for him, or as close to normal as he could get as an incredibly powerful mutant. But his mental monsters are a hydra, and once one was cut out, two more sprang up in its place.

That's probably harsh. Green and Yellow aren't anything like Farouk. It's their existence that's the problem. If he can believe them, they've always been there, even though he didn't know at all. It's entirely likely that Farouk did make him forget them. Farouk made him forget so much, so much that if David really tries to remember the path of his life, all he finds are fragments, dead ends, roads cut off by lost bridges. Memories of things that aren't real, and real things twisted out of shape. And fear, so much unending, awful, suffocating fear.

Green said he'd changed, that he's a different person now than he used to be. But how could he ever be who he was before when there's nothing left of who he was but scraps? He spent years in Clockworks trying so hard to make himself a person again, sewing those scraps together with bits of cotton thread, and this ragged patchwork quilt is the best he could do. His clearest memories are from his childhood, when everything still felt new and full of wonder and hope. When he felt as safe and loved as he ever would, surrounded by calming nature, cared for by Amy and his parents and King. Even though his family wasn't his family, even though King wasn't real, he still remembers how much they loved him, and how much he loved them back.

None of that matters, now. How could it matter? All that hard work, and the truth is he failed. He rebuilt himself wrong. That's the only explanation for all of it. He thought he was building a man and instead he made a monster, and maybe that makes sense because he wasn't much better than a monster before. He wanted so much to blame all of it on Farouk: the drugs, the lies, all of it. But listening to Green, hearing the story of a life that he only knows in fragments, the cold hard truth settled in his gut like a stone.

He's always known what he is. His mistake was letting himself hope he could be someone better. Someone good and loved and worth loving.

Syd.

He's never going to see her again. Why would she ever want to, after what he did?

His heart hurts so much. He doesn't want to feel it anymore.

"I told you," says Yellow's voice, a whisper in his mind. "Stop being so hard on him. He can't take it."

Go away, David pleads. He's so, so tired and everything hurts.

"David, I'm sorry," Green says, his usual attitude gone for once. "I didn't mean— It's not as bad as all that."

"Yeah, apologize to the puppy after you kicked it," Yellow grumbles.

"Do you wanna be right or do you wanna help?" Green asks.

"Both? Oh, fine, I'll gloat later. David, c'mon buddy."

"He's not actually a dog," Green mutters.

Their voices are close now, like they're right next to him, but David doesn't open his eyes. He's still in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, the medication holding him level like water weights.

"Look, the whole 'wipe Syd's mind' thing," Yellow says. "That was totally my fault. Real shitty advice, right when you were super vulnerable from her trying to murder us. Okay? My fault, not yours. And did I mention that she fired an actual bullet at our head?"

"Maybe you shouldn't help."

"Okay, you try."

"David," Green says. "David, you're not a monster. Yeah, you screwed up, but... It was hard, okay? Watching him torture you for— He wouldn't let you hear me for so long. I got— I got angry. At you. But it's his fault. It's always been his fault, this whole—" He sighs. "Please don't give up. Not again."

They're nice words, but they're just telling him what he wants to hear. It's not the truth. The truth is he's the one who messed with Syd's mind because he was afraid of losing her. The truth is he's the one who lied, who stole for drug money, who got into fights and hurt people and took and took from the people who loved him until there wasn't anyone left who'd ever love him again.

He's so tired of trying to get better, when he'll never get better. He just wants to sleep.

"Okay," Green says, gently. "Then sleep."

Something pushes him down, and sleep finally takes him.

§

David knows he's dreaming when he realizes nothing’s holding him, when he touches his head and there's nothing on it and all the pain is gone. He doesn't care that it can't be real, that everything awful is still waiting for him when he wakes up; if dreams are his only escape from the horror his life has become, he'll go as deep into dreams as he can.

It feels good to move again. He starts walking and the world resolves around him into path through a summer forest, all deep greens and sweet air and birdsong. He walks, just walks, breathing and feeling his body, feeling alive.

Maybe he should stay here. Maybe he should never go back. Would the other hims take his place? It would be hard for them to do a worse job of being him than he's done. He doesn't know if they're really whole people but he's not a whole person either. Green would finally be able to make all the right choices he's always wanted to make for them. Yellow wouldn't have to save him all the time.

If he's the one who ends the world, then the world is better off without him.

He walks until the path ends at a beach full of sand and rounded rocks, and he recognizes this place. It's where he and Amy and King used to play, building sand castles and splashing in the waves and throwing rocks into the water as far as they could. He would find a stick and throw it and King would always bring it back, his tail wagging with pure joy.

His whole life is a delusion. Nothing happened the way he remembers. But none of that matters in dreams.

He sits down on the shore in a meditation pose, just above the line of wet sand, and closes his eyes. The sun is warm and pleasant. He tastes the salt on the ocean breeze as it ripples through his clothes and hair and caresses his skin. The waves are steady and he lets his mind follow their sound back and forth, and he drifts, at peace.

He's not sure how long he stays this way. A long time, probably hours. But then he hears footsteps crunching in the rough sand, and he opens his eyes.

"No," he says, immediately closing them again.

"I'm just here to talk," says Farouk.

"Nope," David says, shaking his head. "Fuck off."

"I intended to visit you in person, or even in your mind, but your friends are very protective of you. This is the only place they've let you be alone."

"What, did Kerry scare you off?" David says, opening his eyes again to glare at Farouk. David can easily imagine Kerry standing up to Farouk and telling him to get the hell out, even though he could turn her to dust with a thought.

"It would have been a simple matter to freeze all of them in place so they could not interfere, but there's really no need for such dramatics."

Farouk creates a beach chair and unfolds it. He puts it on the sand, angled so he can see David and the water, and makes himself comfortable.

David grinds his teeth.

"Is there a reason you're here? Besides torturing me some more? Because you won, okay? There's nothing left. You got everything, hooray for you."

"Not everything," Farouk says, taking a sip from the drink that's suddenly in his hand.

David scoffs. "There's nothing left. Unless you're here to convince me to throw myself into the ocean."

"Why would I need to?" Farouk asks. "You have already convinced yourself. I am here to give you a reason to live."

It's such an utterly absurd statement that David can barely believe he heard it.

"This— This was what you wanted," David insists. "It's what all this was about. I got away and you couldn't stand it. You couldn't stand me being happy for five whole seconds out of my entire life."

"Not at all. I was expecting you to escape. To become a glorious sunrise. But instead you are reduced. Tied to a bed and drugged, your powers stolen from you. They make you suffer because they think that will purify you. When the truth is, you have suffered beyond what they can imagine, and that is what made you into the very thing they fear."

"No," David says, and gets up and walks away. "I am not having this conversation."

"So you truly are giving up?" Farouk calls after him.

"Yes," David calls back. "I've thought it all through and made a clear and rational decision to make the world a slightly less awful place by removing myself from it, okay? Now leave me alone."

He walks further down the beach, but Farouk is waiting for him when he gets there, still lounging in his chair with his drink. David glares at the sky, wondering what kind of history-book monster he must have been in a past life. Maybe Genghis Khan. How many people did he kill, forty million? That's probably not enough for him to deserve this.

"So how will you do it?" Farouk asks. "Will you hang yourself again? Your friends will try to stop you."

"I don't know," David says, staring at the ocean so he doesn't have to look at Farouk. "I'll think of something."

"Think of how terrible they will feel when they find your body. After they tried so hard to help you."

"They'll get over it."

Farouk takes a sip of his drink. "Very well. Then once you are gone, who will save them from me?"

David rounds on him. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare. You asshole! Fuck you!"

"Ah, there is still a spark," Farouk says, grinning.

David kicks sand in his face. Farouk sputters and wipes the sand from his mouth.

"You're not gonna blackmail me out of killing myself!" David yells. He's livid, absolutely livid.

Farouk waves the sand from his suit and freshens his drink. "I believe I just did."

David turns and stomps back down the beach. He's not surprised at all when he finds Farouk at the other end.

"Fine. You're obviously not gonna leave me alone. So what do you want? You wanna turn me evil so I'll end the world? Fuck you. Kerry's right, that's stupid."

"Is it? You are already so convinced you are a terrible monster."

"I hurt people," David says, poking his own chest. "I hurt Syd."

"You are still at the kiddie table," Farouk says, flashing his teeth. "A god who thinks he is a child."

"What, you think I want to sit down and eat with you? You are the last thing I ever want to be. That's why I want to kill myself, because of everything you did to— I don't know, shape me in your image. You said I was, what, your baby? That you tried to make me love you? You lived in my head and sucked me dry and tortured me. That's not love. No matter what you do to mess me up, that will never be love.”

If David didn't know better, he would swear that something he just said actually got under Farouk's skin. But Farouk's skin is thicker than rhino hide, so he doubts it.

"Good," Farouk says, standing up from his chair. He clenches his fist and the drink is gone. "The spark has become a fire. Now feed it."

David steps back, shaking his head. "Leave me alone."

"Do you think I won't do it?" Farouk challenges. "Do you think I will spare them because you are no longer there to witness their suffering? For thirty years I have tortured you, and your father has known none of it. I need no audience but my own victims."

Revulsion rises in David's gut. "I won't let you hurt them."

"Really? Will you play the hero from your hospital bed, crippled by your friends and your own self-loathing?"

"No, I—" David shakes his head. "I'm not a hero. Stop trying to make me a hero!"

"But what is a villain without a hero?" Farouk says, advancing for every step David retreats. "What is a monster without its prey? A torturer without a victim? The moon without the sun?"

"What, I'm your victim and I'm the sun?" David asks, still retreating. "You wanna talk about sick? You're sick. You are a literal sickness."

Something catches the back of David's foot, and he falls back on the sand. Farouk looms over him with a terrifying grin. "Then fight your sickness. And then we will see. Time to wake up."

Farouk steps on his chest and pushes down, and David screams as he's shoved down into the sand, into the earth, into darkness.

He wakes screaming and cries out in agony as his rough awakening jolts the crown. All the pain comes back at once, and tears spill from his eyes at the cruel futility of his life. He can't do this, he can't get dragged into another one of Farouk's torturous games. But there's no way out. He can't even kill himself without Farouk winning.

"David?" says a voice, electronic but familiar.

David blinks the tears from his eyes and looks over at the shape in the chair. It's a Vermillion. What the hell is a Vermillion doing here? Where's Kerry?

"David, it's me. Ptonomy."

"Oh!" David slumps as he remembers. "The mainframe. Right. Hi."

"Bad dream?"

"Uh, pretty bad."

"Wanna talk about it?"

David really, really doesn't. He wants to forget it ever happened. But keeping secrets about Farouk really didn't work so well for him the last time around. "Oh, just— Farouk, visiting my dreams to let me know if I kill myself he'll torture all my friends for decades."

The Vermillion tilts its head. "Is that a joke?"

"I really wish it was."

"So you were planning on killing yourself?"

"Yeah."

"That's a stupid plan," Ptonomy says, with as much feeling as can be conveyed from the speaker of an unemotional android. "I can't say I approve of his methods, but I'm glad he made you change your mind."

"I didn't change my mind," David grumbles, but it's half-hearted. "He blackmailed me. So I'm holding that particular stupid plan in reserve. For now."

Ptonomy goes quiet, and David wonders for a moment if he’s lost control of his Vermillion like he did in the cafeteria. But then he's back.

He reaches down and opens all the restraints.

David stares, frozen, afraid to move in case this is some kind of test or trick. Is this Ptonomy at all? Is it Farouk pretending to be Ptonomy? Is he still dreaming? What's happening right now?

"David, it's okay," Ptonomy assures him. "The restraints were only because you kept trying to hurt yourself. You're not going to hurt yourself now, right?"

David carefully sits up. His whole body feels stiff and sore from being immobilized for so long. "No," he agrees, moving his arm and staring in wonder that he can move his arm. He carefully touches the crown. Whatever the trick is to getting it off, he doubts he can manage it with bare hands. Not without brain damage and likely death, which isn't really an option anymore.

"Are you sure this is okay?" David asks. The last thing he wants is Clark barrelling in with another round of sedative. He still feels fuzzy at the edges but he must have slept a good while if most of it has worn off.

"I got permission from the Admiral. It's okay."

"Wow. Um, thank you." David tries to stand up, but his legs are so shaky he nearly falls.

"Take it easy," Ptonomy says. "You've had a rough time."

"Yeah," David says, and it's such a massive understatement that he might start crying again, or laughing, or both. He sits back down and rests his face in his hands and breathes.

"What do you want for breakfast?" Ptonomy asks. "Lemme guess, waffles?"

Well, yes, obviously, but— "Why are you—" David doesn't understand what's happening.

"David, I know what you've been through," Ptonomy says. "I know what Clockworks was like. This isn't Clockworks."

"No, but—"

"We're your friends. We want you to get better. This isn't a punishment, even if you tried to make it one."

"I didn't—" David rubs his face. "Why aren't you mad at me?"

"Should I be?"

"You're dead. Or not alive, I don't know. Because of me, because of Farouk. He sent that black thing that— You know. He hurt you because of me. That's what he's going to do to everyone if I—"

"If you kill yourself."

David swallows.

"I don't know what he did to you since that orb took you," Ptonomy says. "We're going to have long talk about that, and about other things. For now what's important is that we take care of you."

"I thought you were the memory guy, not the talk guy."

"I'm not really the memory guy anymore. Not like before. Besides, Melanie's still out of commission, so I'm what you've got."

"Melanie's alive?" It's the first David's heard of it.

"And Oliver," Ptonomy says. "But they're still unconscious. We don't know if they'll wake up again."

"Oh." David's mood starts to crash again. God, he should have known Oliver was Oliver. He should have known something was wrong with Melanie. He should have helped her, not let her sink into a drugged stupor like the ones he sank himself into for years. He made such a terrible hero, it's no wonder it was so easy for everyone to believe he's doomed to be a villain.

The door opens, and two more Vermillions march in.

"Fresh clothes and fresh waffles," Ptonomy says. One Vermillion puts down a stack of David's own clothes; no prisoner stripes, either black and white or orange and yellow. The other gives him a tray with a generous stack of steaming hot waffles.

David hesitates, still feeling like he doesn't deserve any of it. But as the smell of the waffles hits him, he's suddenly ravenous. There's even syrup.

Fuck it, he's starving. He pours on the syrup and shoves almost half of the first waffle into his mouth, and god, he's never tasted anything as good as this, ever, in his whole life. He moans as he chews, and as the first bites hit his stomach, the oncoming wave of despair drops back into the sea and retreats.

Waffles really do make everything better.

Chapter Text

It's the second morning in a row that Syd has woken up and wanted to vomit, but this time she actually manages it. She makes it to the bathroom in time and kneels over the toilet until it's over.

She's probably lucky she didn't give herself alcohol poisoning last night, she drank so much. Her mouth tastes like something died in it. Her head is throbbing and her stomach hurts now that it's empty. She brushes her teeth three times and drinks two full glasses of water and regrets ever taking a liking to whisky back when she was a stupid teenager and thought liking whisky made her look intellectual.

God, she did a lot of stupid shit as a teenager.

She has to shower and put on some clean clothes and be functional. She has to get out there and start saving David from Farouk. She has to be the hero -- for real this time, not because of some vague story about the apocalypse and a broken orb. But the morning sun peeking in through the blinds seems to be actively trying to murder her brain.

She just needs a minute. Just a minute and she'll save the world.

There's a knock on the door. She groans.

It's Clark, again.

"Oh god, now what?" she moans, holding her head.

"Wow," Clark said, waving away the air. "How much did you drink last night?"

"Everything," Syd moans, and leans her face against the doorframe. The metal feels good against her forehead.

"Did it help?"

"Yes, actually. Please tell me you have good news."

Clark gives her a face. It's not the face she was hoping for.

"It's not as urgent as yesterday," he tells her. "We have a few minutes. Get cleaned up and I'll take you to Cary."

"Not again," Syd mumbles, but pushes off the frame and stumbles back to get ready.

She feels vaguely human once she's done, and when she looks in the bathroom mirror she supposes that it doesn't much matter if her eyes are shadowed and puffy. She's not going to get through the day without crying anyway. She might as well go into battle with her scars on display.

Clark hands her a cup of tea he made with her kettle and she sticks her face in the steam.

"Thanks," she mumbles.

"You're gonna need the caffeine, trust me."

Clark didn't offer her caffeine and moral support yesterday. "Are you telling me this is worse than yesterday?"

Clark gives her another face. "It's not better. A lot's been happening while you were, ah— asleep."

"Jesus." Syd sips the tea. It burns her tongue and she winces.

"Interesting chat you had with Lenny, by the way. Good catch on the whole 'how did David survive' thing. But it's not gonna be much help."

Syd frowns but doesn't ask him to explain. She'll find out soon enough. "Does this place have any concept of privacy?"

"Nope. But that's probably for the best, given what we're dealing with now."

As they approach the lab, Syd says, "Please tell me Farouk isn't in there."

"No," Clark says, sounding relieved about it himself. "But we do have another surprise guest."

There's a Vermillion standing in the lab, talking to Cary. That's odd, since they're not usually very talkative.

Cary waves her over. "Syd! Come over and say hello to Ptonomy."

"I'm sorry, what?" Clark was right, she is going to need caffeine. More of it than this. Maybe an entire cup of Farouk's café serré.

"Syd," says the Vermillion, with Ptonomy's voice sing-songing out of its speaker. "I'm alive inside the mainframe. Admiral Fukuyama has lent me this Vermillion. I'm thinking about having a suit made for it. Full bodystocking isn't really my style."

"Ptonomy," Syd says, stunned. "Wow, it's really you." She's not a hugger, generally, for obvious reasons. But Ptonomy is actually safe to touch now, and she feels like she should make some kind of gesture to welcome him back. She leans forward and gives him an awkward hug, made extra awkward because the Vermillion's body doesn't react. She lets go and tries to recover from her embarrassment. "I'm really glad you're alive. Do you know what's going on?"

"I've been talking to David. There's been a development in his situation. More than one, actually."

Ptonomy's Vermillion walks over to a monitor, currently displaying David's cell. Kerry's with him and he's sitting up, dressed in his normal clothes and looking a hell of a lot better than the last time she saw him. The sound is muted, but he and Kerry are chatting and he's still wearing the crown.

Everyone gathers together to listen.

"So, David's been having a rough time. He's been suicidal, tried to hurt himself more than once. We've been keeping a close eye on him, but not close enough. Last night, while he was asleep, Farouk visited him."

"And you didn't stop him?" Syd exclaims, horrified.

"We have no way to stop him," Clark says. "You try telling an omega-level mutant no."

"True. But we also couldn't because we didn't know he was there. He went directly into David's dreams. Apparently it was the only way he could speak to him privately. When David told him to get the hell out, Farouk told him that if he tried to go through with killing himself, Farouk would dedicate himself to torturing all of us for the rest of our lives."

It's not caffeine Syd needs, it's more whisky.

"When David woke up, he told me about what happened, and that Farouk had blackmailed him into putting his suicide on hold. After conferring with the Admiral, we decided that David is not currently a danger to himself, so he's been released from the restraints. Now that he's had a chance to settle, we're going to have our first therapy session."

"To talk him out of trying to kill himself?" Syd hopes.

"We have bigger problems to deal with first. This was from last night." The monitor changes, and now David is lying in the bed, wearing all white and strapped down. He's alone but every so often he talks aloud, like he's in a conversation with more than one person. The things he says are strange. He ends the conversation by telling whoever is talking to him to leave.

"And this was from the night before."

The scene changes again, and now it's the room where David went to sleep alone after they returned from Le Désolé. David is sitting on the bed, looking worried. Then he looks irritated, and turns to the side, and says "I can fix it. I just need time. You saw Syd, she didn't remember." He looks around, listening to nothing. "She's confused. I just need-- we just need time together so she can remember what we had-- have." Another listening pause. "Anyway, Farouk's still alive. I've got to finish it." Whatever he's hearing upsets him, and he shouts, "Would you just-- Get out of my head? I'm trying to think." He moves into a meditation pose and stays there.

"What the hell?" Syd says, stepping towards the screen. Was this right before he projected himself into her room? What the hell is going on? "Is there someone in his head? Controlling him? Again?"

"That's what we're going to find out," Ptonomy says. "Cary and I have a theory I'm going to test. We think this isn't another case of possession, or telepathic intrusion. But we can't be sure until we talk to David."

The screen changes back to the live feed, and now Syd understands what Clark meant. They might not need to worry so much about David's mental health if the reason he's been acting so strangely is that he's someone else entirely.

"For David's comfort," Ptonomy says, "I'd like to ask you all to stay and watch the session from here. This will be a delicate situation. If he does try anything, Kerry and I are strong enough to safely restrain him. Still, I believe he's not in any danger of harming himself, not as long as all our lives are at risk if he does."

Syd stares at the monitor. What is even happening? She can't process this. She walks over to the empty bed and sits down.

Cary comes over and carefully takes the cup from her hand before she drops it. "Syd, it'll be all right. If it's what I think it is... it'll be all right."

"Nothing about this is all right," Syd says, hearing the panic in her voice. God, last night she thought she had it figured out. She thought she could deal with this crazy situation, find her way back to David and maybe... But he's been trying to kill himself. He might have killed himself last night, while she was passed out in bed sleeping off her drinking binge, and the only reason he didn't was because Farouk popped in and blackmailed him into staying alive.

And now there's someone in his head, telling him to do things, controlling him. Again. God, it never ends.

"How long has this been going on?" she asks.

"That's what we need to find out," Cary says. "I'll handle things on this end," he tells Ptonomy. "Go talk to David."

"Wish me luck," Ptonomy says, and the Vermillion leaves the lab.

Syd's starting to think that throwing up is going to be the highlight of her morning.

§

Ptonomy sits down on the bed with David and sets down his supplies. He can't do much body language work with his host Vermillion, at least not until he's figured out the equivalent of fine motor control. So he has to let his voice do the therapy heavy lifting, even though when he speaks he sounds like he's singing.

Kerry sits in the chair next to the bed and gives David a friendly pat on the shoulder. He's nervous, but he manages a smile back to her.

He's glad that Kerry and David have bonded over the past two days and that she's staying to support him. They've made a surprising pair, but a well-matched one. Cary commented to him earlier that he was so impressed with how well Kerry has connected with David, relating to him and reaching out to him in a way she's never done with anyone but Cary himself. Maybe because she sees David in this state as someone else she can protect. And with David's fragile condition, Kerry's certainty of mind is just what David's needs as an influence right now. Based on David's encounter with Farouk, she's already helped make him a little bit better.

But a little bit better isn't going to be enough. Not if he and Cary are right.

"David," Ptonomy begins, in as soothing a tone as he can manage, "there's two big things we need to talk about. We're gonna talk about what's happened to you since the orb took you. But first we need to talk about the voices you've been hearing. The hallucinations?"

David goes pale and wide-eyed. "I-- How did you--"

"You've been talking to yourself for days," Ptonomy says. "Of course we noticed. But I think you've been hearing the voices for longer than that."

David gives a shaky nod.

"How long?"

"Um, a couple of weeks."

"Since we got Farouk out of your head?"

"Yeah." David swallows. "I wasn't-- At first I thought they were just more noise, leftovers, but once everything else was quiet-- They were still there."

"How many voices?"

"Two. Just two."

"Good, you're doing great." David's dealing with all of this remarkably well, but in a way that's concerning itself. David's spent almost his entire life with Farouk in his head, messing with his perceptions and giving him hallucinations, and then there's David's powers themselves and the complications they add. Ptonomy always suspected that David has a very shaky grasp of reality, and this is only turning that suspicion into a certainty.

"They weren't-- They didn't try to scare me or anything. They're not like-- They've been helping me. When things are difficult." David gives a harsh laugh and rubs at his face. "Things have been really difficult."

"I know," Ptonomy soothes. "So they helped you? How?"

"Well, there's two of them, and they're-- they're pretty different. One of them's kinda bossy, gives me a lot of advice. The other one, um, encourages me to, um, use my powers. Apparently he's been protecting me."

"Protecting you?"

"From Farouk. Other threats. When I get scared, he--" Something about this upsets David, and he stops, fidgets nervously. "Do we have to talk about this?"

"We do, but we can come back to this part later. What about their appearance? You've seen them, not just heard them, right?" It's not typical for hallucinations to be part of what David's dealing with, but there's nothing typical about what David is dealing with.

"Yeah. Yeah, um." Another nervous swallow, a nervous glance at Ptonomy and away. "They look like me. I've started calling them Green and Yellow, because that's the color shirts they're wearing."

"They don't have their own names?"

"I don't—" David says, honestly bewildered. "I didn't even know they were real until-- not that they're real, but-- I only started seeing them after-- In the desert. That's when they--" He's struggling, trying not to get upset, but it's upsetting him. He glances to the side, away from Kerry, and makes a small, dismissive motion.

"Are they here now?" Ptonomy asks, gently.

David looks guilty, like he's been caught hiding something. He nods. "They've been kinda quiet after... There was a lot of yelling, before, and I was upset, and-- I mean, I'm okay now, obviously, but--"

David is obviously very much not okay. "Can I talk to them?" Ptonomy asks.

"Um. I-- I guess? I can ask--"

"No, I mean, can they talk to me directly? Do they take control of your body?"

David wraps his arms around himself. "I don't-- Yellow said-- When I'm in danger, when I can't-- When I can't protect myself, he protects me. They said they were a-- a stress response. To protect me."

Ptonomy can tell that David's getting near his limit, so it's time to change tack. "Based on what you've told me, I have a pretty good idea of what's going on. Would you like me to tell you?"

David takes a calming breath. Braces himself. "Okay." He looks at Ptonomy with wary hope.

"What you've described. Other people that are part of you, that are there to protect you. They are a kind of stress response. It's unusual for them to manifest so late--"

"They're not new," David interrupts. "I mean, I thought they were new, but-- They said Farouk made me forget them."

Ptonomy almost wishes he still wrote case studies. David would make a barn-burner of a case study.

"Okay," he continues. "That actually matches how these things usually happen. They're caused by extreme trauma, usually in childhood. I think that fits your situation pretty well."

David's expression is a masterful understatement.

"Sometimes that trauma can be more than one person can bear. So the mind splits, and one or more other identities form to help spread the load. These multiple identities work together in what's called a system. So in your case, you, David, are the main member of the system. And Green and Yellow, they're other members, or alters, depending on how much they participate."

He stops and lets David take that in.

David fidgets nervously, looks at where Green and Yellow must be standing. He turns back to Ptonomy and rubs at his face. "So you're saying that-- You're saying that I'm schizophrenic."

"The correct term is dissociative identity disorder. The two diagnoses are very--"

"I don't care what it's called!" David shouts, and then takes calming breaths as he tries to regulate his anxiety. "I'm sorry, I just-- I can't believe this is happening." His breathing quickens and he draws in on himself. "Leave me alone!" he shouts, but it's directed at Green and Yellow.

"You're upset," Ptonomy prompts.

"Of course I'm upset!" David says, eyes wide. "I thought--" He's fighting tears, now. "I thought I was-- I just wanted everything to be-- to be okay, to be normal. Nothing's normal. Even my own mind isn't--" He laughs bitterly. "It's not even my mind."

"You're still you," Ptonomy assures him. "David is still David."

David shakes his head, refusing the comfort. "Is there something I can take? Medication to make them go away?"

David asks the question so desperately, Ptonomy wishes he had a better answer for him. "I'm sorry. This isn't something you can cure or fix. They're a part of you and they have been for most of your life, even if you can't remember. The best thing for all of you is to accept each other and learn to work together."

"No. No." David flinches away from nothing, and it must have been Green or Yellow reaching out to comfort him. "Go away. Go away. Go away! Go away!" He keeps chanting it, his eyes squeezed shut and his hands over his ears, until he opens them and looks around and slumps with relief.

"They're gone?" Ptonomy asks.

David nods. He looks haggard, haunted. The reaction is worse than Ptonomy expected, but in hindsight it makes sense. David's still recovering from the trauma of discovering he had a mental parasite all his life, still recovering from so much, and even if Green and Yellow have been helping him, their presence and his diagnosis have shaken him badly just when he needs as much stability as he can get.

Ptonomy's deeply worried for him. He would put David back in the restraints if he didn't know it would only make his situation worse. David's lost so much control over himself on all levels, they can't risk taking any more away from him even if it puts him at risk. They'll just have to hope that Farouk's threats are powerful enough to keep him alive.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, gently. "We're not gonna talk about anything else. That was it for now, okay?"

David doesn't respond. Damn it. Ptonomy can't end the session like this. He needs to help bring David back to himself, at least a little. But he doesn't think familiar clothes and waffles will do it this time.

"Kerry, could you?" Ptonomy tilts the Vermillions head, and thankfully Kerry understands. She sits down next to David and wraps her arms around him.

"It's okay," she tells him. "Me and Cary have always been inside each other. I protect Cary all the time, and he takes care of me. We've got a system, too."

David chokes up. He tries to say something but can't. He starts crying, which is good, and curls into her arms, which is better. Thank god.

He waits until David has cried himself out, then he takes several items from his supplies.

"When you're feeling better, I want you to try something for me. I want you to ask Green and Yellow to write their names on these cards. Write your own on the third. We'll need them later, okay?"

David accepts the cards and the marker. "Okay." He looks a little bit less awful, but this was a terrible shock for him. They'll have to let him process before they go any further.

"Kerry, can you stay with him? I'll have some lunch brought in for you both."

"I got this," Kerry says, confident.

"Thank you," he tells her. "I'll go speak with the others. If you need anything just call, I'll be listening."

§

Syd doesn't say anything. No one says anything.

David. Oh god, David.

This is-- She knows exactly what this is. He told her what this is, in Summerland, right before they got Farouk out of his head.

"More than anything else," she says aloud, needing to hear the words he said. "You want to believe you're not sick, because that means you're not crazy. It means you can fall in love and live happily ever after. But you know if you believe it, if you surrender to the hope and you're wrong, then you're never coming back."

"Did David say that?" Cary asks.

Syd nods, and she was right. She is going to cry today. She lets the tears fall, doesn't wipe them away.

Syd told him he wasn't sick. Melanie told him he wasn't sick. They all tried so hard to make him believe he wasn't sick, so he did. And now he can't accept that he is, and it's hurting him so much.

"Do you think he's never coming back?" she asks Cary.

"No, no," Cary says, gently. "That's what he's afraid of, but we're not going to let that happen."

"Maybe--" Syd sniffs. "Maybe I should--"

"No," Cary says, shaking his head.

No. If she went there, if he saw her-- He's already suicidal. God, if he saw her, he might--

David. Oh god, David. Please don't give up again. Please.

Chapter Text

A while after Ptonomy leaves, some Vermillion come by with lunch trays and clean bedclothes. David stands aside as they strip away the sheets and replace the bloodstained pillow. They remove the restraints from the bed, so it's just a bed, and instead of hospital white the new sheets are familiar, yellow, with a quilted blanket. If he could feel anything, he isn't sure if they'd make him feel better or worse.

When they leave, he sits down on the clean bed and curls up into a ball.

Kerry, diligent in her body stuff practice, reluctantly chews her way through some dumplings, and slurps with enthusiasm at some kind of soda. David leaves his tray untouched on the other end of the bed. Right now he can't even imagine the concept of hunger.

He just wants to be alone, but they don't trust him to be alone. Kerry was absolutely resolute about staying put. The most she would do was to move her chair away from the bed so he could have some personal space.

Ha. Personal space.

His life is over.

He’s never going to see daylight again. Division 3 will never let him out of this cell. He’ll have to suffer wearing this painful crown for the rest of his life, however long or short that will be, and then they’ll kill him— No, they’ll put him down because he’s nothing more than a rabid dog, too sick and dangerous for the world to tolerate.

Green and Yellow are gone — or not gone, he doesn't know what they do when he can't hear them. But after he stubbornly ignored their attempts to talk to him, they finally stopped trying and went quiet.

He doesn’t care if they want to help him. They’re what’s making him sick. They're why his life is over.

He just wants to die. Why won’t they let him die? What’s the point in keeping him alive? Why make him suffer and suffer when there's nothing left to hope for? At least he understands why Farouk won’t let him go. David’s pain is his pleasure, the way it’s always been. The only thing David's life is good for now is being the punching bag for a vile sadist whose godlike powers will ensure he never escapes.

Maybe he can convince Clark to put a stop to this farce. He’s the only one of them who seems to understand the truth, who knows what Division 3 should have done back when they had the chance.

David raises his head from his knees. "I want to talk to Clark."

Kerry slurps the last of her drink and sets the empty glass aside. She narrows her eyes supiciously. "Why?"

"It's private."

Kerry snorts. "Yeah, in this place? Good luck with that."

"I want to talk to Clark," David says again, too done with everything to deal with anything else.

"No," Kerry says. "Not until you tell me why."

David tightens the hug he has around his folded legs. "I want to talk to Clark." He's not raising his voice. He's just going to keep saying it until he gets what he's asking for.

Kerry huffs, like she can't believe she has to deal with him being such a child. "You're just trying to trick me into leaving."

"I want to talk to Clark."

"I'm not leaving you alone so you can try to—" Kerry says, too angry to finish.

David looks away from her. "Because of Farouk."

"Don’t be stupid," Kerry says. "I know you’re hurting but we’re all here because we care about you and we want you to get better. I don't care about that stupid jerk. He can threaten me all he wants, if he tries anything I'll kick him. Maybe he's the only thing that makes you care about your life but the rest of us just care about you because you're you, ok?"

David can't even begin to think about any of that. "I want to talk to—"

The door opens and Clark walks in.

"It's okay," Clark says, holding up a hand to pacify them. He turns to Kerry. "You don't have to leave him alone."

Clark holds the door open and looks at Kerry expectantly. With a huff she walks through, giving David a warning look as she leaves.

Clark closes the door and shuts it.

"Like she said, not much privacy in this place."

David puts his head back down. He feels the bed shift when Clark sits down.

"You wanted something?" Clark prompts, eventually.

David gathers his strength. He forces himself to look up, to meet Clark's eyes so he knows this isn't a joke, so he knows David absolutely means every single word of what he's about to say.

"Farouk said— He only said I couldn’t kill myself. He didn’t say you couldn’t kill me."

Clark, to his credit, doesn't so much as blink. "I'm not sure he'll see it that way. Suicide-by-proxy is still suicide. And honestly are you willing to take that risk?"

David puts his head back down. He doesn't have the energy to argue, especially when he's doomed to lose.

"I’m sorry, it's just not possible," Clark continues. "Not unless Farouk suddenly changes his mind about keeping you alive."

"He won't."

"Is that such a bad thing?" Clark asks. "Where there's life there's hope?"

"Oh, please," David grumbles, looking up again just so he can show that he's annoyed. "Say it like you mean it."

"You're right," Clark acknowledges. "At the moment, I don't see any way out of this situation for you. You're at the mercy of an unstable god who's tortured you for your entire life. What I'm trying to do is prevent anyone else from ending up in the same situation."

David could pretend that Clark is talking about Farouk, but he knows he's not.

"Please," he begs, the word trembling and heartfelt.

"My advice is that you focus on getting better," Clark says. "If you can be considered stable—"

"I'm sorry, what's the point?" David asks, bitterly. "I'm sure you heard Ptonomy from wherever it is you listen in on me. There's no cure, no treatment. There's no such thing as better for me, not— not anymore. And even if everything else was great, we both know Farouk will never stop torturing me so what's the point? Just... just let me go. Before it's too late."

David puts his head back down and breathes in the small space between his chest and his knees. God, he just can't. He can't.

"There... is a way," Clark says. "For us to actually let you go."

David's head feels so heavy when he picks it up again. He doesn't bother to ask, he just waits to hear what nonsense Clark has come up with now.

"There's no cure for your illness," Clark admits. "But there may be one for your powers." When David just stares at him, he continues. "I've already raised the matter with Cary, but he refused to consider it, said it was too dangerous—"

"But it's possible?" David asks, a tiny spark of hope lighting in his chest. It burns like acid.

"Theoretically," Clark admits.

David sits up, lowers his knees. "And if I don't have any powers?" He leans forward.

"Then you would be nothing more than a man with mental illness. You would be free to leave, assuming you don’t kill yourself. Is that what you want?"

David’s powers are the only thing that make him special, the only reason he's worth anything to anyone. They're why Melanie found him and tried to help him, so he could win her war for her. They're why Division 3 needed him to stop Farouk, why Future Syd needed him for— whatever she— Whatever. It doesn't matter. Maybe if he doesn’t have them anymore, they’ll all let him go. Maybe even Farouk will let him go, because there’s no point in trying to make him crazy enough to destroy the world if he’s just a sick, powerless human.

And then when Farouk is gone, then he can kill himself.

"It’s what I want," David says, with absolute certainty.

Clark nods. "I’ll go talk to Cary."

§

Kerry's mad at him. He knows she was listening in from the hall, because the moment she came in she gave him a look so lethal by all rights he should be dead already and all his problems solved.

It doesn't matter. She can be mad all she wants. If this works, he'll never destroy the world and no one will be tortured and all of this, all of this will finally, finally, finally be over.

Cary doesn't look especially happy when he arrives. David doesn't care. For the first time in days, there's some kind of light at the other end of the tunnel. It doesn't matter to him if it's an exit or an oncoming train.

"I spoke to Clark," Cary says, sitting down in the same spot Clark had sat.

"And?" David asks, waiting.

"David," Clark says. "I want you to understand. There's only one way to remove your powers, and that requires a complete rewrite of your entire genetic code."

"Okay," David says.

"We only have one way to do that. A genetic sculpting gun. The same one Farouk stole and used to— alter your sister."

David leans back. Amy.

"The gun works by using someone else's genetic data. If we used it, it wouldn't just remove your powers. It would overwrite everything that makes you who you are. You wouldn't be yourself anymore."

It's not— David closes his eyes. It's not ideal. He would— He would die the way Amy died, if she— He can still hear her screams, the memory of her screams—

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. So what if there's pain, blood, screaming? He'll die as he lived.

"Okay," David says, opening his eyes and trying not to shake. "Can you— Can you build another one? How long...?"

Cary looks away, covers his eyes, pushing up his glasses with his hand. Kerry sobs and runs out of the room, the door slamming behind her.

"David," Cary says, voice thick with grief.

"It's okay," David says, even though his own voice is trembling, even though his eyes are wet. "It's okay because— because there's no me anyway, there's nothing— I'm not— I wouldn't be dead, so Farouk—" He can't say any more, there's no air in his chest, he can't breathe past the pinprick tightness in his throat, he can't—

He pulls himself back into a ball, shaking, shaking.

When Cary's hand touches his shoulder, he flinches. But Cary doesn't take it away. He keeps touching David as he shakes and shakes and gasps against his knees.

"Of course there's a you," Cary says, so gently. "If there's no you, then who's making this huge decision?"

"No," David sobs. It's all he can say.

"Is that what you think?" Cary asks. "That you're gone?"

David lifts his head, even though he can't stop the tears pouring out of his eyes and there's snot in his nose and he still can't stop shaking and he still can't breathe.

Cary hugs him. He wraps his arms around David and holds him tight. It's a good hug, the best hug, and it feels like forever since anyone— He cries into Cary's sweater vest and cries and cries and cries, and Cary just keeps holding him.

It's a storm raging through him and when it's over there's nothing left, nothing. Cary lies him down, careful to place the pillow so there's isn't any pressure on the crown. He grabs the folded blanket from the end of the bed and wraps David up in it, tucking it tight around his body. He rests a hand on David's shoulder and stays with him.

"Did I ever tell you about how I met Kerry?" Cary doesn't wait for David to answer, just continues, his voice soft and lulling. "I was very young, just a little boy when I first heard her voice in my head. I was so young I didn't know there was anything strange about it. She was my invisible friend. And then one day she showed up, real as life, and I was so happy that I could finally see my invisible friend. But little boys grow up. And Kerry, she was so shy. If anyone else was around, she'd stay hidden deep inside of me where no one could see. But I kept hearing her, talking to her, because that was the only way I knew to be." He pauses. "Back then, no one understood much about multiple personalities. So I was diagnosed as schizophrenic."

David takes a sharp breath in.

"Our family was poor, but the school gave me medication. Antipsychotics. They didn't work, of course. Kerry kept talking and I kept talking back, but for years she didn't come out at all because she was afraid they would do to her what they were doing to me. For a while I thought I was losing my mind. Those years were very hard. But do you know what got me through them? Kerry. No matter what happened, she was always there, always sharing my experiences with me. As long as I could hear her, I knew I wasn't alone, that I never would be.

"And then one day, I met a man who told me about the existence of mutants. Oliver Bird and his wonderful wife Melanie. Melanie was the first person who Kerry felt safe enough to come out for. And then all of a sudden, I wasn't schizophrenic anymore, I didn't have multiple personalities. I was a mutant. Sometimes with situations like ours, it can take us a while to figure everything out."

David finds his voice, even though it's tight and rasping. "You're not—"

"I'm not?" Cary asks, warmly. "Not a mutant, like you? I don't share a body with another mind, like you? Kerry and I have been part of each other our whole lives, just like your other selves have always been a part of you. What we have, who we are. Maybe if it wasn't for my powers, my age, my diagnosis would have been the same as yours is now. But it doesn't matter what anyone calls it.

"David, you've survived so much. What you’ve been through, what you’ve lost. There are things you’ll never get back. But that’s not a reason to give up. Your situation will always be unique to you. But having other people inside you doesn't mean you're not there. It just means you're not alone. And that's the most important thing for you to remember right now. You’re not facing any of this on your own. You just have to let us help you, all of us, so one day you’ll be well enough to help yourself."

When he's finished, Cary stays with him, his hand resting on David's shoulder.

"Okay," David rasps. And maybe, maybe, maybe, there's a tiny spark of hope lighting in his chest that feels like sunlight.

§

Cary stays with him until he falls asleep. David's so tired, bone-weary, everything in him spent.

When he wakes, hours later, he's still tired. But the all-consuming black has receded from his soul. He can breathe again, so he breathes.

Eventually he sits up, rubs the dried tears from his eyes, the spit from his face. He feels like a mess and he probably looks like one. But there's no one there to see it, at least not in the room with him. He's alone.

He's alone. He nearly collapses with relief.

His tray at the end of the bed is gone, but the chair has been moved back beside the bed and there's another tray on it with a covered plate. He lifts the cover and there's a wrapped sandwich, some fruit. He puts the cover back on and next to the plate is a set of three blank cards and a marker.

He gets up, legs shaky, and washes his face at the sink. He is a mess, eyes red and puffy. But he feels purged and calmer than he's felt in days, weeks, all his frantic, nervous energy finally drained away.

He drinks a lot of water and eats the food. Then he puts the cards on the bed.

It's hard to not be afraid. He was possessed his whole life, haunted by another mind. He didn't know he was possessed and he didn't know about the other hims. What did Ptonomy call them? Alters?

Okay. His alters. Green and Yellow, or not, because they've been with him since he was a child, they must have names. Real names. Because they're real people. Like Kerry and Cary, living inside each other, real people living inside him, and he just forgot.

He just forgot. Like he forgot Benny. He forgets things, people. That doesn't mean Benny isn't real.

They're not parasites. They're not Farouk. They're not going to hurt him or scare him. They want to help him. They're just people, like him. They're parts of him that he forgot, like the other parts of him that he forgot.

"Hello?" he calls, voice rough and tentative.

Nothing, and suddenly he's worried. He pushed them away so much, what if they're never coming back? What if after all of this they don't want—

"Hey," says Green, his voice just behind David's left ear.

"Hi," says Yellow, from his right.

They're shy, David thinks. Like Kerry was shy.

He can do this. He's doing this.

"Hi," he says back, staring at the cards. "I'm sorry for all the— Um, so— I have this thing, this, um— I have to ask you something. If it's okay."

"It's okay," Green says, gently. He sounds a little bit like Cary when he talks that way, slow and easy.

The next part is hard. It's hard. It's giving up control and he has so little left to give. His hands are trembling as he grips the marker, removes the cap.

"I, um, I need you to— Each of you. One at a time. If you could use my, um, our hand? To write your names?"

God, this is strange. What is he even doing? This is madness.

But then his right hand steadies itself. It moves over the first card and brings the tip of the marker down. David watches as a name appears in careful handwriting, neater than his own.

"This is my name," says Green.

There's a pause, and then his right hand moves to the next card. His right hand is still steady even though his left hand is still trembling. The tip of the marker touches the paper, and writes in strong, all-block letters.

"This is mine," says Yellow.

His right hand starts trembling again, and that's when David knows they're done. So he brings the marker over to the third card, and writes his own name on it.

He looks at the three cards.

Divad, written neatly.

Dvd, in block letters.

David, the letters as shaky as his hands.

David.

There are two other people inside him. But he's still himself. He's still here.

David is still David.

He holds his card and cries, and smiles, and breaks down again.

Chapter Text

It's Kerry that he's worried about first. Cary's heart would have broken for her when he heard her anguished sob as she ran out of David's cell, if it hadn't already been shattered. But by the time he gets back to the lab, he finds her solely focused on knocking the stuffing out of the heaviest punching bag they have.

He knows from experience that there's no point in trying to talk to her when she's like this, in too much of a state to do anything but vent her anger. So he leaves her to it. When she's worked some of her feelings out — or she's destroyed every piece of training equipment they own — then he'll try and coax her into talking.

There's no rush, really. None of them are going anywhere.

Cary’s lab has never been so full of people. It’s not just Oliver and Melanie sleeping in his lab now. He’s had to bring more beds in, cots tucked into the corners because no one dares to leave for long. It’s probably for the best. David’s not the only one suffering from his pain, not by a long shot. It’s hard for all of them to watch him, to see him so broken.

It's best that they all stay close to each other. Cary's worried about all of them, even himself.

Except Clark. Cary's not worried about Clark. Right now, a part of Cary wishes that he could string Clark up in the exercise area and let Kerry work out her frustrations on him instead of the bag.

He doesn't know where Clark is now. Clark drifts in and out if the lab; he doesn’t need Ptonomy’s live feed to stay informed of David’s progress. There’s technology inside him, communications embedded in his body that keep him part of the flow of Division 3’s surveillance and command systems. In some ways he’s as much a part of Admiral Fukuyama’s mainframe as Ptonomy has become.

Cary wouldn't call Clark inhuman. That would be an insult to the inhuman.

What Clark did, telling David that there might be a way to remove his powers... When Cary saw him say it, over the feed, he was more furious than he had ever been in his life. David was already beyond a breakdown, deeply suicidal and heartbreakingly accepting of the necessity of his own death. And then because of Clark, Cary had no choice but to go down there and tell David what it would take to remove those powers. He had to explain to David exactly how horrible and untenable such an act would be.

Cary hoped, with all his heart, that his words would finally be enough to shock David back to sense. That the mere idea of dying in the same manner as his sister would make him see what he was doing to himself, to all of them. Surely, Cary hoped, surely that would finally make David see that all of this had to stop.

It didn't.

David begged Cary to kill him. To erase him. He begged him knowing exactly what he would suffer, having been tortured with the memory of Amy’s agonized transformation. David’s haunted, despair-fevered eyes will follow Cary to his grave.

Yet in the end it was enough. Thank god it was enough. David finally couldn’t drive himself any further, couldn’t hurt himself any more, even though he was pushing for that final, hideous step with all his might.

Cary did his best to catch him as he fell, tried to offer him a lifetime’s worth of wisdom earned with his own suffering and fear and pain, distilled down and sealed into a pill small enough to swallow. It's the only medicine he can truly offer, a tiny antidote to the poison that’s been burning David alive.

He thinks it was enough. He hopes...

After David finally fell asleep, Cary made the decision to let him wake up alone. Even though Cary has never truly been alone in his life — even though David hasn't either — he knows there is a curative effect to a quiet room, a chance to breathe, to be still. If David is ever going to get better, they have to give him the opportunity to do so. They have to trust David so he can learn to trust himself.

This is the most delicate of moments. David's lost too much to find his way back on his own, but he has to make the journey himself or it won't be his at all. Cary still believes that David can return to them, but only if they give him someplace to start, a first step on the path to healing.

Cary looks over at the live feed again. He can't look away from it for long, none of them can, even though David is still resting quietly, his breathing steady and even. Cary needs to see those signs of life, needs them to know he made the right choice two days ago, when Farouk came out of his cell and turned everything upside-down.

If David can't make it back to them, Cary knows he will blame himself. That grief will be his burden to bear, because it was his own testimony that started all this. It was his own handiwork, that tiny, innocent-looking orb, that snatched David away from Summerland. Even if he created it for good reason, even if David's fate truly was that of a world-killer, Cary knows in his heart that if the orb had never taken David away from them, then David wouldn't be lost to himself the way he is now.

He knows that Syd will blame herself, too. He knows she already does. She hasn't said anything since their short conversation after David's diagnosis. She's just haunted the lab with the rest of them, sometimes watching David, sometimes turning away because the pain of watching is too great.

He can't reach her either, not right now. Not while they're all suspended, waiting to see what will happen when David wakes, waiting to see if they can stop holding their breath. Waiting to see if David will live, so they can live.

While they're waiting, the last of their ragged crew returns. Cary knows he definitely should be worried about Ptonomy, no matter how well the man seems to be adapting to life in the Admiral's mainframe. His death was sudden and tragic and physically horrific. His mind has survived, seemingly intact, but at what cost to his soul? His spirit?

In a way, maybe David's condition is a blessing in disguise. It's brought Ptonomy back to them, given him a purpose outside of the mainframe. A connection to the humanity that he could easily have left behind and still might. Sometimes the best medicine for the soul is to reach out and give of one's self to another human being.

Ptonomy pauses in front of the live feed, then moves to a second monitor. The screen changes to reveal another moment in David's life, not this one but from two weeks ago. The moment of David's miraculous return to Division 3. The beginning of what Cary prays is not his end.

"Have you found something else?" Cary asks, going over to join him.

"Nothing yet," Ptonomy says. "But I thought a few more pairs of eyes might help."

Cary gives a hum of agreement. "If David's alters have taken charge of him in the past, there's no reason why it would be obvious. Especially if his identities are similar in affect. We might not know they're in control even once we know what we're looking for."

Ptonomy's Vermillion goes quiet. Then: "Earlier, David said that one of his alters admitted to controlling him when he’s in dangerous situations."

"Yellow," Cary recalls. "So when has David's life been in danger? When was he unable to protect himself?"

On the screen, Cary sees himself trying to wake David up. Kerry steps out to keep back the child soldiers, her fists raised.

"I don't think he has been in physical danger, not since he gained control over his powers," Ptonomy says. "Mental, emotional danger, but not physical."

On the screen, David opens his eyes and asks for waffles.

"What about last year?" Cary asks. "Before Farouk was removed." There was no surveillance system at Summerland. That kind of panopticon was antithetical to everything they were trying to achieve there. Clockworks, for all its faults, didn't invade the privacy of its patients that way either. But Division 3 has been recording everything for a long time.

The screen changes to surveillance video of the old Division 3 compound. David appears and strolls towards the guards. They open fire and he spins like a dancer as their limbs separate from their bodies.

"Farouk," Cary says, with disgust. There's nothing at all like David in how David's body prances through the compound, taunting and joyous as he effortlessly massacres everyone who tries to stop him.

"I agree," Ptonomy says. He must find the footage as disturbing as Cary, because he stops it, freezing on the inverted image of Farouk's misshapen form, the truth revealed by Division 3's psychic filters. The parasite, bloated on his victim's power.

Cary thinks back. "Division 3 took David before we could get to him after his escape from Clockworks. Before we rescued him, is there any footage?"

There is. Cary's never seen this before. David is unconscious, hauled into a room by black-clad soldiers and dumped into a chair. There's a red table in front of him, and the place seems to be set up as a kind of police interview room. There's a man dressed as an officer, and office noises start up, adding to the illusion.

David wakes slowly, disoriented and confused. When he sees the officer, he instantly looks guilty, slumps in surrender. He must think the police have found him and he's going to be taken back to Clockworks.

Clark appears, and Walter. Cary tenses as the interview begins. It's a thinly-veiled attempt to provoke David into an emotional state that will trigger his powers. Clark toys with him, taking his time, gradually ramping the pressure up while David struggles mightily to stay calm and cooperate. David's powers leak out when he panics, making the pen jitter on the table, and when Clark pushes him too far, the pen flings itself into Clark's cheek.

That's when Walter grabs David and slams his head against the table.

It's a physical threat, and David couldn't protect himself. His eyes roll back as his posture and expression change, and then the room explodes with force, the table flipping and shattering, everyone but David flung away to crash against the walls. David stands at the center of the destruction, grinning darkly. And then the gas pours down and he falls.

"That's not David," Cary decides.

Ptonomy rewinds the footage, freezes on David's menacing smile. "I think we've just met Yellow."

"What?" Syd walks over, stares at the image of David.

Cary's not sure how much she heard, or how much she processed. She's taken all of this so hard. "We've been trying to identify any moments where David's alters may have been in control. We believe this is Yellow, trying to protect David when he was captured by Division 3."

Syd stares at the image, then takes a step back, shaking her head. "No. No, this is—" She's horrified but doesn't look away. "His true face."

"Syd?" Ptonomy calls, concerned.

"The one he hides," Syd says, and she's not herself, she's caught in something. "The monster." Then she turns away, her hand over her mouth. She's shaking.

Cary has never seen her like this. Syd is always so in control, so strong in herself, even if that strength can feel brittle to him. "Syd?" he calls, reaching out, but stopping himself because she can't be touched.

"I believed it," she says, distantly. "I believed everything that asshole wanted me to believe."

"Farouk?" Cary guesses. "What did he want you to believe?"

"That David was evil," Syd says, voice trembling. "And I believed it. Everything felt so clear, wrong and clear and—" She holds herself still, so utterly still. She's the opposite of David, whose wild emotions can overwhelm him and send him physically reeling.

"When was this?" Ptonomy asks. "In the desert?"

Cary knows some of what happened in the desert, but not enough. He knows David did something to Syd's mind. Maybe this is why he thought he had to. "Syd, what happened to you?"

Syd shakes her head. "He told me. He told me what he was doing to me and I still believed him. Why? Because that's what I wanted? How could I want that?"

"Syd," Cary says, at a loss. "Whatever he did to you, it wasn't your fault."

Syd looks away from them, and her eyes catch on the live feed. She looks back at the frozen image of David, of Yellow smiling with David's face. She looks back at David now, huddled on the bed, pale and swollen-eyed and so, so fragile.

"I did this to him," she says, distantly. "I thought— I wanted him to save the world. I wanted him to be a fighter. I showed him, over and over, how to hold on to his pain and use it, because that's—" She takes a tight breath, but her eyes are dry.

"You tried to help him?" Cary guesses.

"He was so—" Syd looks to them at last, begging them to understand. "He was always so— I thought— when he came back, with the monster gone, I thought he was ready to be strong."

"He wasn't," Ptonomy says, but kindly.

"I made him worse," Syd says, with quiet devastation. "The only thing that kept him going was love, and I told him love made him stupid and weak. And then I let Farouk take me away from him, and now there's nothing left to save him."

"This isn't your fault," Ptonomy says, firmly. "You were trying to help. You told him what works for you. Maybe it wasn't right for him, but a little bad advice is nothing compared to what Farouk did to him. It's not even a drop in the ocean that he's drowning in. Blaming yourself won't make him better."

"It wasn't love, what I did to him," she says, a few tears finally leaking out. "What if he's never coming back?"

Ptonomy says nothing.

"Syd," Cary tries, but can't find it in himself to lie and say that David will be okay. David might never be okay again.

"We're doing what he wants now," Syd continues. "Farouk. We're doing exactly what he wants, keeping David alive. We're torturing him."

"Syd, no," Cary says, alarmed. "You know that's not the answer."

"Isn't it?" she asks, desperate. "Sometimes it’s just too late. Sometimes there’s nothing left to save. My mother, she was brilliant and strong and a fighter but her cancer took everything. Every last inch, and in the end—" She closes her eyes tight, opens them again. "She begged me, just like David begged you. To let her die in peace. We didn't let her, and she died in so much pain. I did that to her, to my own mother."

"David isn't dying," Cary says, firmly.

"Isn't he?" Syd asks, on the edge of despair. "He was sick all this time and we let him suffer. Just like my mother. He's been sick for so long."

"So you wanna kill him too?" Kerry's there, suddenly, even angrier for what she's overheard.

The bluntness of her question startles Syd. "I—"

"You said you loved him. If you love someone, you don't give up on them even if they give up on themselves."

"Kerry," Cary warns, even though he's frankly impressed by her maturity. Sometimes he forgets that she's as old as he is; that for all her naivete about the world, she understands some things with the wisdom they've earned together.

"I'm not giving up on David even if everyone else does," Kerry declares. "I'm not gonna give up on him because he has to get better so he can apologize to me for being stupid."

"That's right," Ptonomy says, seizing on the opportunity to bring the situation back under control. "We're not giving up on David. Right now what he needs most is our patience and support. We can't give him that if we're busy tearing ourselves apart. That's what Farouk wants us to do. Don't let him torture us again. Okay?"

Ptonomy's Vermillion stares at Syd, pressing her for a response. Challenging her.

"Okay," Syd says, backing down, cooling off. Then she turns and leaves, walks out of the lab.

"Let her," Cary says, cautioning the others from following her. Syd has always been intensely private, the best thing they can do for her right now is let her lick her wounds.

She'll be back. None of them are going anywhere.

Kerry rolls her eyes at Syd's departure, but as she turns her eyes catch on the second monitor. She steps up to it and frowns at it, disturbed by the un-David-like smile on David's face.

"What if—" she asks, suddenly hesitant.

"Kerry?" Cary asks. For all her defiance, of course she has her doubts. Of course she does. She has no understanding of what's actually happening to David.

"Yellow and Green. What if we don't like them? What if they're bad?"

"They're not bad," Cary assures her.

"We don't know that," Kerry says. "Just because they say they're protecting David it doesn't mean they are. They could be lying. Tricking him to hurt him. They're sneaky, hiding like that."

"Like you hide?" Cary says, a little harshly. But he wants to put an end to this idea before it can grow.

Kerry does managed to look chastised, but she's not done. "I don't want some strangers taking him over."

"They're not strangers, they're David."

"You said they were other people," Kerry says, exasperated. "Both of you said that. I heard it."

"They are other people," Ptonomy explains. "But they're also David. They're not a threat to David because they are David. They're not some outside influence trying to take control of him."

"I don't understand," Kerry says.

"It's complicated," Cary admits. "The kind of situation David's dealing with, where he's forgotten these parts of himself, I don't know that it's ever happened before to anyone. David isn't just a person, he's a system. He's multiple people, each as truly a part of him as the other."

Kerry just looks at him, lost.

"What David has is different from you and Cary," Ptonomy explains to her. "The best way to understand it is from his perspective. He was a child, his identity still forming, and terrible things happened to him. So terrible that he couldn't accept that they were happening to him. So he decided that they weren't. His mind split between the him that was suffering, and the him that wasn't. It gave him a way to save some parts of himself from what he was experiencing, to gain control over a situation he had no control over."

Kerry takes this in. "So, like... he pretended he was someone else?"

"He wasn't pretending," Ptonomy says. "Any more than you're pretending to be Kerry instead of Cary. He is David, and he's also Green and Yellow."

"All at the same time?"

"The mind is very complicated," Ptonomy says. "We barely understand how healthy minds work, much less those like David's. How do you truly know your body is part of you? That you are in control of your own thoughts and actions? Most of it is an illusion. Our awareness of ourselves is just a thin layer over countless separate systems, conflicting and pushing against each other until somehow they agree. Our selves can seem very solid, but they're not. Things can go wrong, and sometimes there's no way to put them back the way they were."

"No," Kerry says, denying his words. They're too much for her to understand, much less accept.

"Kerry," Cary says, trying to soothe her. "The important thing to remember is that even though David's identities will always be separate, they are all him. They're how he was able to survive what Farouk did to him, to get him all the way to us so we can help him now."

"I don't want him to be someone else," Kerry says, her chin crumpling. "We just got him back and it's not fair that he has to be someone else."

She throws herself against Cary like she's trying to hide inside him, but she can't do that anymore. She cries out in frustration and thumps at Cary's chest, trying to force her way back in. Cary holds her and wishes that he could let her in. He wishes he could spare her this, like he's spared her from so much.

He holds her as long as she needs him to. He can still manage that much.

"Why don't you go get us something to eat?" he prompts her. "Pick whatever you like."

"Cream soda?" she says, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist.

"Cream soda," Cary agrees.

Once she's gone, Cary sits down, emotionally exhausted. God, all of this is so hard. He's not used to this, to being the one everyone relies on. That was Melanie's job. He took her so much for granted.

He wishes she would wake up. But he's not sure what's left of her, either, now that Farouk is done with her. Maybe it's better that she sleeps.

"She's wrong, you know," Ptonomy says.

"Hm?"

"About David being someone else now," Ptonomy explains. "It’s possible for identities to die, even main members. That means if David had truly given up before, Green or Yellow or another alter would have taken over in his absence. David wouldn’t be David anymore. He would have a different identity, a different name. But that’s not what we’re dealing with. As painful as it is, even the fact that David wants to die means he’s still fighting. He wants to exist, to keep living. He just doesn’t know how."

"You're right," Cary says, grateful for the solace. For the hope, however slender, that David has the strength to make it through all of this. "Thank you. As you said, David is still David."

"That he is."

"And is Ptonomy still Ptonomy?" Cary asks.

"I don't know," Ptonomy admits, quietly. "But whatever I am, I exist. Maybe that's enough."

"If it's not, you'll tell me?" Cary doesn't want to let him slip away, like they let Melanie and Oliver and David slip away. There’s nothing easy or simple about what any of them have been through and will yet have to endure. But none of them has to endure it alone.

"I'll tell you," Ptonomy agrees.

Chapter Text

David.

Divad and Dvd.

Divad and Dvd and David.

All evening he tries to remember them, his alters. They've been part of him for so long, surely there must be something Farouk didn't take away, some scrap of memory overlooked until—

But there's nothing. There's nothing. He goes over the same old memories again, the way he has countless times, trying to sew together the scraps into something that will hold together, something that he can look back on and recognize as himself.

He can't remember Benny either, even though he knows that Lenny wasn't ever a part of his life before he met her in Clockworks. He's known for weeks but the memories of Benny are still gone. They're lacunas, dotting the galaxies of his mind like tiny black holes, information going in but never coming back out again. Destroyed, even though the laws of physics say that no information is ever truly destroyed.

He is here to tell the laws of physics that they are very, very wrong.

Divad and Dvd are mostly quiet, still giving him time to adjust and recover. But he can sense them, the closeness of their presence within him. They don't leave him again, not like before.

It helps. His heart is as raw as his eyes, his throat, but it helps, feeling them. Not being alone.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, when he's finally getting too tired to try to remember them anymore, when sleep is pulling at him down at last. "I wish I could—"

"It's okay," Divad says. "It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could do."

A few more tears leak out of David's eyes and he doesn't know how. He's cried all day and he keeps thinking he's done but somehow there's still more tears inside him. The well of grief in his chest must be bottomless, filling and filling no matter how much pours out of him. He doesn't want to be sad anymore but he doesn't know how to stop.

He keeps going back over Cary's words to him, turning them into a kind of mantra, something to hold on to, to help keep him going through all of this. Through whatever transformation he'll have to endure.

He's survived. There are things he's lost that he'll never get back. But he's here and he's not alone. And if he lets someone help him, one day he'll be well enough to help himself.

He holds the words close to his heart, pulling on the strength of them, trying to make it his own.

§

Kerry doesn't come back in the morning. David must have scared her, hurt her badly, and he's sorry for that. He didn't mean to. He just couldn't—

He couldn't. He'd been pushed so far beyond his ability to deal with anything that's been happening that he got lost, so, so lost. He wishes he had a window just so he could see the sun rise, so he could see the new day begin. The dawn has always made him feel like he has the chance to start again, no matter how dark the night before had been. But he's still in a prison cell, a sub-basement dungeon. That's still where he belongs.

"David," warns Divad, concerned but trying not to push.

"I know," David says, stepping back from the mental cliff he'd nearly strolled right off of. It's strange: having someone hear his thoughts, watching for bad ones as they arrive. Was this how it worked for them before? Was this how Divad used to help him before Farouk took him away from them, and them away from him?

He doesn't know. And it's been so long for all of them, so long since the body of David Haller had anything resembling any kind of healthy mind inside of it. This isn't just new for him, he's realizing. This is going to be new for all of them.

Ptonomy arrives with breakfast. Waffles, of course, but also eggs and bacon and hash browns and a sliced orange. David eats everything, barely able to keep up with his own hunger; his body is starving for energy.

"You're looking much better this morning," Ptonomy says, the Vermillion's speaker making him cheerfully sing.

David heaves a sigh. "Yeah. I feel..." He doesn't know what word to use. "Better." That's good enough. He burps, and covers his mouth. "Sorry."

Ptonomy laughs, which is weird because the Vermillion doesn't. It moves its lips, synchronized with the speaker, but no one would call that a laugh.

David takes a moment to remind himself that as bad as his situation is, it really could be worse. At least he still has his body, he's still alive inside it, even if he's sharing it with two veritable strangers. When Ptonomy had first returned, showing up in a hacked Vermillion in the cafeteria, David was confused and bewildered and then— And then nothing else had mattered but the name. La Désolé. There was no room in his head then for anything but Farouk and revenge. He was consumed, boiling with it day and night ever since Amy—

He's been lost for a while, he thinks. So, so lost, since long before he started wandering in the desert.

"So, um— What's it like? In— In the mainframe?" David glances away, ashamed for not asking sooner. "Sorry I didn’t— things have been— I know, it’s no— it’s no excuse. You’re— I mean, you died, I’m just—"

David swallows. He reaches out in his mind, and Divad is there, right there.

"It's okay," Ptonomy tells him, then pauses, thinking. "I'm not sure, honestly. I'm still getting used to it. I’m still myself here, or at least I think I am. I feel calmer. Less angry about things that used to feel important. Maybe it was my body making me angry.”

That sounds... David doesn't know what it sounds like. "Is it— is it nice?"

"It’s busy. There's so much information flowing all the time, from so many places. It’s a lot like memory walking, but bigger, wider. It's like I'm walking through the whole world at once, and I don't have to take a step."

Oh. "Do you need to, uh— Should you be doing something else? Right now? With all the—"

The Vermillion's eyes hadn't exactly gone distant, but now they focus on him. "Not at all. This is exactly where I need to be. I see you did your homework. Can you show me?"

David had been fidgeting with the cards on and off all through breakfast. He picks them up again and lays them out on the bed, in the same order as they were made.

Divad. Dvd. David.

"All variations on your name," Ptonomy observes. "Interesting."

"Is that— Is that bad?"

"Not at all. Every system is unique to its members and their needs. So tell me about them, Divad and Dvd. Which one's which?"

David feels kinda funny about calling them after their shirt colors now. "Divad is Green. Dvd is Yellow."

"And you've been talking to them again?"

"A little," David admits. "They're being very—" What's the right word? Not shy. "Cautious."

Ptonomy hums. "Yesterday, you said there was shouting? Do you want to talk about that?"

Not really, but David's given up on not talking about things he doesn't want to talk about. "He— he hurt them. Farouk. I don't know— what he did, exactly, but—" He takes a breath. "I think it was hard for them. Watching me—" He takes another breath, another. He's so tired of crying, he just wants to make it through the morning without crying and he knows he won't.

"That makes sense," Ptonomy says, all soothing, musical tones. "It's hard watching someone you care about suffer."

"I tried," David says, eyes welling up just as he knew they would. "I tried to remember them. I tried. I wish you could still—" He swallows a sob. "Maybe if you could still go inside, you could have found something." He closes his eyes, breathes deep, fighting the tightness in his throat. "He took that too."

David picks up his card. He holds it in his hands. David is still David. He's still here. He survived. There are things he's lost that he'll never get back. But he's here and he's not alone.

"We're here," Divad says, soft and close.

"We're both here," Dvd says.

David picks up the other two cards and holds them tightly, all three together, perfectly lined up. Even though he's been wearing away the edges of the paper, when they're pressed together this way it's like they're still a whole, something complete and uncleaved. It must be nice, to be whole. It must be so wonderful.

"Yes," Ptonomy says, his therapist demeanor dropping. "He took a lot from all of us. And that's why we can't let him take you, David. Do you understand? We all need you to stay with us and keep fighting."

"I know," David says.

"Do you?" Ptonomy challenges. "I don't think you do, not yet."

David breaths out a huff, amused even though he knows he shouldn't be. "It's been a while since you yelled at me."

"Well, you've always been good at pissing me off," Ptonomy says, in that friendly, furious way of his, and it feels good to hear it. To remember that he's been other things than pain and grief and guilt.

"Yeah, well, you lost your body, something's gotta keep you angry." David manages a smile, and the tight clench in his chest releases. Relief washes through him. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," Ptonomy says, and David knows he means it.

David takes a beat, drinks some water. Blows his nose. When he's ready, he nods.

"Let's talk about the cards," Ptonomy says, switching back into therapist mode. "It must have taken a lot of courage to do that. To reach out to Divad and Dvd, to let them share your body."

"I guess— it's their body, too, right?" David says, as lightly as he can. "I don't want to— I know what it's like, being— trapped. In myself. Watching. They're not— They don't deserve that."

Ptonomy pauses. "Do you want to talk about that? What it's like?"

He doesn't, god he doesn't. But something stops him from saying no. "Syd, she—" It hurts to say her name, but he plows on. "In the desert. She— she said that I liked— When I went to save Amy from Division 3—" He's shaking but he can't stop now. "I didn't want to go alone, I didn't want to hurt anyone, I just— She— He twisted everything up inside me and then we were there and he used me and— And I couldn't— I screamed and I screamed and I—"

"David," Ptonomy says, urgent.

"I didn't like it, okay?" David shouts, too loud but he can't— "He made me, he made me, why couldn't she understand that? Son of Sam?! She knows what he is and she still fired a gun at my head!"

Now he stops. He wraps his arms around his knees, feeling like a bomb just exploded out of him, unexpected and shattering. He's shaking again, breathing too fast, and he knows if the crown wasn't on, his powers would be exploding out of him like they had that day in the kitchen, like they do when he has nightmares and panic attacks. But nothing in the room is shaking but him.

"I'm sorry," David breathes, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry."

"David," says Ptonomy, soberly. "What happened in the desert?"

"You know," David moans. Everyone knows what he did.

"We know parts of it. And us not having the whole story is a big part of what's hurting you right now. So I think we need to talk about this. Can you do it?"

He doesn't know. He doesn't know. It's so much. But he can't keep it inside now that he's started. "I’ll try," he says.

"Take a moment. Catch your breath. Drink some water."

David does. He can do this. He has to do this.

"Tell me what happened," Ptonomy prompts. "Start from the beginning, from when I found you in the cafeteria. We met and you rushed off and then?"

"The lab," David says, closing his eyes to center himself in his memory. His memories of the past two weeks are shockingly clear compared to all the rest, created with his mind free of interference. But in some ways that makes them harder to face. "I went to the lab to use the amplification chamber. We found the desert. I— We knew we needed a plan. So we made one."

"You and your alters."

"We couldn't tell anyone," David says, remembering. "But we knew— we could see that we'd need help. So we left messages. Time delayed, so there'd be nothing for Farouk to know until it was too late."

"Smart," Ptonomy says.

David smiles briefly. "We could see flashes, pieces of time. We knew things would go wrong so we made the plan better. Then we left." He frowns. "But the desert was... strange. Confusing. Everything shifted and changed. The monastery, where Farouk's body was kept, it wouldn't stay put. We didn't know what to do."

"And then Syd came after you, right?"

"I left a note, but..." David shrugs. "She was mad. Kicked me in the shin."

"A note, not a message?"

David opens his eyes.

"You didn't include her in the plan?"

"No," David says. He still feels ashamed about this part, and angry. "I was mad at her. Not her her, her from the future."

"Why?"

"Because she knew," David says, and it hurts. It hurts so much. "She knew about Amy and she didn't— She chose to let my sister, to let her—" He takes a breath. "If she'd warned me, I could have stopped it. I could have saved Amy and Ben and—" He shakes his head. "I know it wasn't her, it wasn't Syd now. But—"

"You couldn't help how you felt."

"I had to stop Farouk," David says, remembering how by the end that was the only thing that mattered. The only path left to him after wandering in confusion through a maze of choices. "Syd didn't want to. Or maybe she did, but—"

In the end, she wanted to stop David more. With a bullet to the head. They hadn't seen that when they saw the glimpses of the future in the amplification chamber. It was only sheer dumb luck that Lenny saved his life.

Syd almost killed him. She really tried to kill him.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, bringing him back. "So she found you, you got a kick. Then what?"

David closes his eyes again, centering himself back in the memory. "We wandered around, me and Syd, trying to find the monastery, but it kept moving. Then there was a storm, and a tent, so we went inside. And we were there, us from the future, or some future, I don't know. We were dead, skeletons. It was— I don't know. Syd said— she didn't think we were going to have a happy ending." He pauses. "In the morning she was gone."

"Down into the labyrinth."

"I didn't know," David says. "I looked everywhere, and then I finally reached the monastery. I went inside and—" God, this. "Oliver was there." He feels ill.

"It was a trap," Ptonomy says.

"I know," David says, hugging his knees. "But I was so— I had to find Syd, he had her and I couldn't— He said things, Farouk things, dared me to— I was just so angry. I was so angry about everything he'd done to me and Amy and I finally had him, I finally made him feel just a fraction, just the smallest taste of the pain and suffering that he made me feel for thirty years."

God, it had felt so good. It was awful and horrifying and it felt so good. And then it was ashes in his mouth, because it was a trick and he'd just tortured Oliver nearly to death.

He puts his head down on his knees. Then what happened? It's hazy after that. He felt sick, his whole body hot and sick and he— He stumbled outside and then— He can't—

"David went away for a while," says David's mouth, as his head picks itself up. "I had to take over."

Ptonomy's Vermillion, already in perfect posture, somehow manages to straighten further. "Please hold the card with your name on it."

David's hand picks through the cards and holds one. Divad.

"Has that happened often?" Ptonomy asks. "Things become too much for David, so you take over?"

"It's my job to protect him," Divad says, with David's mouth. "I used to protect him a lot, back when I could. So yes, I took over until he was able to return. I'm sorry, David, I didn't mean to startle you."

And then just like that, David's back in control. His heart is racing. Shit, shit.

"Good one," grumbles Dvd's voice. "He just said he doesn't like that. Stop upsetting him!"

"David wasn't there for that part," Divad's voice defends.

"He doesn't remember how we used to work," Dvd says. "You can't just step in like that."

"You step in all the time," Divad says, annoyed. "It's not different just because our life is in danger."

"That's exactly why it's different!" Dvd says.

"David?" Ptonomy says, concerned. "What's going on?"

"Please stop arguing," David pleads. God, they're stressing him out more, not less.

Divad and Dvd fall quiet. "Sorry," Divad mumbles.

"David?" Ptonomy prompts again. "Stay with me."

"I'm here," David says, and drops the Divad card, fumbles for his own. He grabs it so hard that he crumples it, and panic spikes in his chest. He smooths it out but it's broken, it's ruined.

"It's just a card," Ptonomy says, gently.

The Vermillion's hand reaches out and covers David's hand. It's cool to the touch, smooth and artificial. David suddenly misses Kerry.

It's just a card. It's just a card.

"What Divad did surprised you," Ptonomy observes. "Is that the first time you've been aware of him taking over like that?"

”Yes," David's still catching his breath. "Dvd said he— But I don't remember." They're not Farouk, they're not parasites, they're not trying to hurt him.

"David," says Divad's voice, regretful.

"Please don't—" David tells him. He can't talk to him, not after that. Not for a while. That was— It was awful.

"See?" Dvd sneers.

"You're not any better," David says, angrily. "I don't care if you're saving my life. I don't care. I need— You can't just—" They can't just take him over like he's a puppet anytime they like, on a whim, like he's nothing. If they do they're no better than Farouk.

"You said it was our body, too," Dvd says, defensively.

"Now's not the time," Divad hushes him.

"David?" Ptonomy prompts again.

"I think I need a break," David says.

"I think you're right," Ptonomy agrees, but doesn't leave.

David gets off the bed and walks around, pacing to settle himself. He gets a drink of water, splashes water on his face. He breathes. Breathing is always good. Slow, deep breaths. Calm. He's calm.

He leans back against the wall and winces as he bumps the edge of the crown. He leans forward, grimacing as pain shoots through his skull.

"Can you please take this thing off?" David pleads, angrily.

"I wish we could, but it's a condition of your therapy," Ptonomy says. "The Admiral won't risk you—"

"Ending the world, yeah yeah," David finishes, really done with that whole thing. "Why would I end the world? The only thing I want to end is Amahl Farouk." And himself, he wants to add, but doesn't. He doesn't want to as much as he did, anyway. He's a lot less sad and a lot more angry now. God, this whole thing, with Oliver and Syd and—

"Come sit back down," Ptonomy says. It's not an order but it's more than a suggestion.

David heads to the bed, then turns away. He can't. He's too stirred up, there's too much in his head. In every sense.

It's obvious that Ptonomy doesn't want to risk leaving him alone. David knows he's in a bad state, but he's run out of coping mechanisms and he doesn't know how to stop. In Clockworks, even before that, by the time he got this bad he would have already been involuntarily drugged into a stupor by the nearest medical professional, or tackled by cops who'd decided he was a danger, which he usually was. Without the drugs, without the crown, he would have already trashed everything around him. Without the crown he would have had an outlet, even if it was a destructive one he couldn't control.

God, what if this is what causes it? What if he just can’t stop himself? What if it’s as simple as that and he kills the world because he doesn’t know how to stop?

"Can you—" David says, voice tight as he paces helplessly. "Can you help me?" He's not used to asking for help, not with this. He's always managed on his own. Or at least he thought he did.

"Who are you asking?" Ptonomy asks, and it's a good question.

"Anyone." David's still angry but he's desperate enough that he doesn't care. He hates losing control of himself to other people but it's even worse when he loses control of himself to himself. It's so stupid, it doesn't even make sense.

"Do you want to go away?" Divad asks.

"No," David says, horrified by the idea. "Just— just make it stop."

And then just like that, it stops. The shaking, the tension, the buildup of emotions threatening to explode. They’re not erased, he doesn't lose anything he's feeling, but all the strength falls out of them at once and the pressure’s gone.

It's so sudden he falls to the floor.

"David!" Ptonomy rushes over, as much as a Vermillion can rush. He kneels in front of David. "What just happened?"

David stares. "It stopped. He made it stop.”

"Show-off,” grumbles Dvd’s voice.

Someone walks up to Ptonomy and kneels down beside him. It’s himself— It’s Divad, in his green shirt. He’s smiling. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to do that.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Everyone is sad. They're so sad all the time, and Kerry hates it.

Kerry doesn't do sad. When she gets upset, she punches things until she feels better. She's punched a lot of things since yesterday and it helped, mostly. But everyone hanging around the lab and watching David and being sad makes her upset all over again.

Even Clark was sad when he visited, and after what he did yesterday, Kerry wasn't sure he was even capable of feeling sad about David. He didn't actually apologize or anything, but he asked if there was anything he could do to help, any resources Division 3 could give them to speed David's recovery along. Cary politely but firmly told him thank you, but no, they already have everything they need.

Kerry hopes he's right.

When David woke up late yesterday afternoon, she hoped that he would start getting better right away. But mostly he cried and talked to himself a little and cried some more, which made Syd and Cary cry, which made Kerry need to go away and punch things again.

Her fists are actually getting sore. She'll have to switch to kicking things if David doesn't get his butt moving and get better fast.

David's session with Ptonomy this morning was... confusing. He seemed better, but then he got so upset, the most upset she's ever seen him maybe, even worse than when he was trying to hurt himself. He talked about Syd trying to shoot him, which was news to Kerry. Nobody tells her anything, they just assume she knows stuff because they tell Cary everything. She didn't always, even when she was resting inside him, and now she's never inside him anymore so she definitely doesn't know all the things he hears.

She was glad she got to hear about what happened in the desert from David, even if he wasn't telling her about it directly. She's glad that his stupid plan actually ended up making sense. It was probably only any good because his alters helped him make it, because even though he's super powerful, David's always been kinda useless. They tried to save him when he was on the run from Clockworks but he hid from them, so they had to rescue him from Division 3, and then he kept messing up the memory walks and the MRI, and then they had to rescue him again, and then they had to rescue him again, and then he got snatched and only turned up after a whole year, and he couldn't remember anything.

Useless.

So yeah, that whole desert plan was obviously the work of Green and Yellow — no, Divad and Dvd. Kerry's already decided they're the brains of David's system, the way Cary’s the brains of hers.

When Divad took David over, everyone in the lab gasped, even her. He apologized but he scared David as much as he scared everyone else. And then Syd and Cary were freaking out and David was freaking out more than everyone combined, pacing around like he was about to explode.

And then he fell down, and suddenly he was okay.

Well, not okay. He was talking to himself and angry and really upset, still. But he wasn't trying to climb the walls anymore. He sat down and talked to Ptonomy some more, and then Ptonomy gave him a notebook and a pen and told him to rest, and that if David was feeling up to it they would pick things up again after lunch.

Since then, all David's done is write in the notebook and argue with himself. Cary seems relieved about how things went but Syd looks like she’s going to fall down herself. Kerry hopes it's because she feels bad for trying to kill David. It’s bad enough that she wants to kill him because he's sick; now it turns out she already tried to shoot him because she thought he was evil.

David's not evil. That's stupid. He's too useless to be evil.

Divad and Dvd, though... They might still be evil, even if they are just parts of David. They're not useless, anyway. Divad was pretty rude, scaring David like that, taking over without warning him. And all they know for sure about Dvd is that he blew up the fake interview room in Division 3 and really enjoyed doing it. So neither of them are looking great right now. It's no wonder David's mad at them.

Kerry's mad at them, too. She'd march right down there and punch Divad in the face if it didn't also mean punching David in the face. And she's not going to punch David. He's already crying all the time. She's not going to give him something else to be sad about.

Which means she should probably stop avoiding him.

Before Ptonomy left, David asked Ptonomy where she was, and Ptonomy had to lie and say she was busy helping Cary with Melanie and Oliver. Even through the monitor Kerry saw him flinch and look sadder. She knows that David feels bad about Oliver, but she doesn't think it's only that.

It's just...

Syd's known David the longest out of all of them. She knew David for a whole year in Clockworks. But Syd didn't know about any of this. David didn't even know about any of this, and this alter thing has been happening to him his whole life.

Even if Divad and Dvd are just other parts of David, they're still strangers. It creeps her out, thinking that they've been inside him all this time and no one knew. Even if they wanted David to know and Farouk stopped them, it's weird and creepy. No one seems to know what to do about them, and it's their fault that no one knows what to do about David.

Maybe Syd's right. Maybe he's never going to be the David they knew, not ever again. But if Kerry lets herself think about that, it hurts so much that even punching things doesn't help.

She's not gonna give up. She's not gonna be a coward.

"I'm gonna go to the cafeteria to get David lunch," Kerry announces, and rushes out before anyone can react.

When she's far enough away from the lab that no one will see her, she leans against a wall and works up her courage.

She has to stay with David so that David doesn't try to hurt himself again. She doesn't understand why he wants to hurt himself so much. There's no one making him, not even Farouk. The only thing everyone wants to do is help him, but he won't let them.

Useless. Stupid.

He'd better apologize when she sees him. She needs him to say he's sorry for hurting himself and trying to die. If he doesn't, she'll never forgive him. She'll leave and stay away and won't come back even if he misses her. Even if he cries.

She stands in the cafeteria and stares at the river of food, all the dishes carried along on their little boats. She doesn't know what David likes to eat besides waffles. She's trying really hard with all this body stuff but it's creepy and weird. She has to chew things and then let them go into her throat, and then they just sit for hours and hours, turning into mush. She can feel them inside her, heavy and unnatural, and all she wants to do is get them out of herself, but that's the grossest part of the whole thing.

But she's outside of Cary now. She can't get everything she needs from him anymore.

Because of Farouk.

Maybe she does understand why David tries to hurt himself even though no one's making him. Farouk is forcing David to live just like he's forcing Kerry to do body stuff. Maybe it's just as awful for him to live as it is for her to eat.

But she has to eat stuff. And he has to live. So if they're both stuck dealing with things they don't want to do, maybe the only thing they can do is deal with them together. That's how it's always been for her and Cary. She wouldn't make Cary deal with anything alone.

She chooses two plates of the beef teriyaki because she likes the cheerful vegetables. Maybe if David eats some smiles he'll smile again. That's probably not how food works but it makes more sense than mashing up a bunch of plants and animals and dissolving them in a pouch.

When she reaches David's cell, she pauses outside of it, listening through the little window. David's still talking to himself, to Divad and Dvd. She wishes she could hear what they're saying back to him. Maybe it wouldn't be so weird and creepy if she could.

When there's a pause in the conversation, she opens the door. She finds David holding up his middle fingers and smiling. The moment he sees her, he hides his hands and ducks his head, embarrassed.

Kerry decides not to ask. ”You hungry?" she asks, and brings in the tray.

"Ah, yeah, sure," David says. He watches her as she sits on the bed and uncovers the tray. There's a notebook on the bed, the one he's been writing in. She's been curious about it. She thought maybe he wrote something about how he's feeling, about what's happened to him. Maybe something about Divad and Dvd.

Instead it's his name, written over and over. Just 'David,' over and over, for pages.

She has no idea where to even start with that, so she ignores it. When she looks up, David's staring down at his knees.

"So, um," Kerry says, trying to find some way back to how they were before everything went wrong yesterday. "Ptonomy says you're feeling better."

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

Kerry sighs. There's no point in lying about it. "Yeah, everyone's watching from the lab."

"Great," David says, even more miserably.

This isn't going very well so far. Maybe she made a mistake, coming back now. Maybe David doesn't want her here. Maybe he needs more time.

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

Kerry startles, and then she's kinda mad. Did he really think she was just gonna abandon him? "Of course I was gonna come back. You still have to apologize to me. For being stupid." He's so stupid, how does he even breathe?

David finally looks her in the eyes. "I'm sorry for being stupid," he says, and means it.

“Good,” Kerry says, satisfied that he knows it, at least. And she got her apology so she can forgive him now. “So you’re feeling better?” she asks, and hands him his plate.

They eat, neither of them with any enthusiasm. Somehow that makes Kerry feel better about having to put more stuff into her throat. Ugh.

“Yeah, um. Divad, um, Green? His thing is helping me with—“ David waves his fork at his head. “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?” It's like he has a whole new mutant power. Mutant emotional regulation.

“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 waves his fork at his head again, then frowns, then goes back to reluctantly eating.

Kerry reluctantly eats, too.

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

Kerry stares where he’s pointing, but there's nothing beside her. Does that mean Divad is sitting beside her? Maybe she can punch him after all. But then she thinks that maybe she shouldn't punch him, if he's David's mutant emotional regulation. Wait, that means— She frowns and turns back to David. “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.”

Okay, that settles it. She can't punch Divad, at least not until David is better. “You’re here so you can get better,” Kerry reminds him. He seems to need a lot of reminding about that.

But the reminder only makes David grumpier. “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.”

Shit beetle. It's the funniest thing Kerry's heard in ages. Even Cary hasn't made any jokes in days, and he always has something to make her laugh, even if it's just an endless rainbow scarf tucked into his shirt pocket. “Can I meet him?”

“Who, Farouk?”

“No, stupid. Dvd. I wanna meet him.” Not that she has to or anything. But if he's funny maybe he's not awful either. Maybe they're both okay, these secret David strangers. “I mean, he can’t be all bad if he says stuff like that.”

David looks to her other side like there's someone there. Is Dvd on the bed, too? Weird and creepy.

“I’m not sure that’s—“ David begins.

“Aw, c’mon,” Kerry pleads. “I wanna meet both of them.” She has to meet them, if they're going to be hanging around her like this.

“No,” David says, firmly. “No, this— I’m— I’m not comfortable with—“ He stops, listening, then he puts his face in his hands. “I am extremely not comfortable with this."

It seems like Divad and Dvd want to meet her, too. Kerry crosses her arms in solidarity. “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?”

David continues listening to whatever his alters are saying, and then he visibly relents. He takes a deep breath, holds it, lets it out slowly. "I don't want to— I don't want to go away," he says, quietly.

Kerry waits. She can tell he's not talking to her. If this is something David's going to be doing for the rest of his life, she has to get used to it.

"That's not going away?" David asks, even more quietly. He looks wary, stares at the space where he said Divad was sitting. After more listening, he comes to a decision and puts his plate on the floor. "Okay. Okay, what do I do?" He frowns. "But you're not real."

And then David closes his eyes. And then—

And then David opens his eyes, and he grins. Kerry wanted David to smile, but this is definitely not David smiling.

"Hi," says not-David.

Kerry silently panics. What did Ptonomy do when Divad showed up? The cards. Where are the cards? "Uh. Please, uh, hold the card with your name on it," she tells not-David.

Not-David smirks and looks around, finds the cards. He holds one up between two fingers.

"Dvd," she reads.

She can tell a lot about a person just by looking at them. Dvd might be a part of David, but he's definitely not David. He meets her eyes directly, challenging her, so confident in himself that he comes off as arrogant. All the grief and guilt and sadness are gone. She didn't think she would miss them, but she does.

"Hi," she says back, holding out her hand. "I'm Kerry Loudermilk."

"Oh, I know," Dvd says, taking her hand. He squeezes it hard when he shakes, then lets go and leans back, judging her. "We've been watching all of you for a while now."

Kerry wasn't sure what she expected, but it wasn't this. If Dvd is going to be aggressive, she can be aggressive right back. "And you've been hiding for a while now."

Dvd narrows his eyes, annoyed. That's one hit for her. "We weren't hiding," he defends. "We were waiting for the right time."

"You were being sneaky," she shoots back. "You were spying on us."

"Yeah? Well you've been spying on David," Dvd accuses. "He doesn't like that, you know. You're upsetting him, putting him on display like he's some kind of zoo animal."

And that's one hit for Dvd. "I don't like it either," she admits.

"Then do something about it."

"I can't," Kerry says. "It's not up to me."

"Weak," Dvd sneers. "Here I thought you were some kinda super strong badass."

Ugh, two hits. "And here I thought you were," she shoots back.

Two for two. Divad bares his teeth at her and launches himself to his feet, walks around the cell. He swings his arms, claps his hands together. He doesn't even move like David, though if she squints it does look kinda like what he does when he's really upset. There's a lot of energy in both, but Dvd's is tense, focused, and David's is loose and chaotic.

He really is a different person. Holy shit, there really are two other people inside of David. "Holy shit," she says aloud, unable to stop herself.

Dvd looks at her like she's the weird one.

"So you wanna interrogate me, huh?" Dvd challenges. "Ask away, I've got nothing to hide."

"Oh yeah?" Kerry challenges back. She stands up and faces him. "Okay. Okay. So, um—" Damn it, she's the one who punches people. Clark's the one who asks probing questions. How does she need Clark right now? What is happening? "Why are you so angry?"

"Why do you think?" Dvd sneers. "Next?"

Ugh! Three-two. "Are you gonna hurt David?"

That makes him falter, but not enough. "Don't be stupid," he says. "I'm the one who keeps him safe when no one else can. I do a hell of a better job than any of you people." Then he rounds on nothing. "No, shut up! I finally have the chance to give these useless idiots a piece of my mind and I'm gonna do it." He turns back to Kerry. "You think you're helping him, putting him through this? You're doing exactly what that shit beetle wants. You're torturing him!" He turns back to the air. It must be Divad. Or maybe David? Both? "Shut up! Get away from me!"

Dvd struggles against nothing, and Kerry doesn't know what to do.

"Sanctimonious moralizing asshole!" Dvd yells, and pushes whoever it is away. Then he grabs at the crown. "Do you have any idea how much this thing hurts? God, how does David put up with you people? You know what? I'm done. I'm getting this off right now, and getting him away from all of you!"

Dvd starts clawing at the crown, trying to pull it off. He screams against the pain but he doesn't stop. He doesn't stop and it doesn't matter what he says, he's hurting David right now.

Kerry rushes up to Dvd and punches him square across the jaw. He goes down hard and falls to the floor, out cold.

Shit. David! Oh god, she just—

There's a rush of footsteps as everyone arrives at once: Cary, Syd, Clark, Ptonomy. But it's too late. The damage is already done.

Three-three with a knockout punch. But Kerry knows that everyone's the loser in this fight.

Chapter Text

"Stay calm," Divad says, as David paces back and forth, frantic. He's freaking out, just as bad as he was before Divad started managing him again. "Everything's going to be fine."

"It's not," David says, between too-fast breaths. "It's not. It's really not."

"I thought you had this," Dvd hisses at Divad.

"This is your fault!" Divad hisses back. "Look what you did to him!"

On the bed, David's body is strapped down again, back in full restraints. Every time David calms down enough to look at himself, he starts freaking out all over again. It probably doesn't help that there was blood, or that David's jaw has a nasty bruise that's swelling up. It probably doesn't help that there are people hovering around his unconscious body and shaking their heads and acting like the world just ended.

It probably doesn't help that Kerry is crying and that Syd looks like she's going to be sick.

The blood's gone, anyway. Cary cleaned that up when he checked the crown and checked David's head. He's holding an icepack to David's jaw now, trying to bring down the swelling before it gets too bad. Dvd is outside of their body with the others again, but he can still feel the power of Kerry's right hook. He rubs his jaw, glad for once that he doesn't have to be the one in charge of their body. Though right now no one's in charge.

"I just needed more time," Dvd mutters. If he'd just had more time, he could have got that stupid crown off for good. He couldn't break it from the inside so he had to get at it from the outside, with hands.

"God, for once in your life will you just give up?" Divad yells, then curses as him yelling only makes David even more stressed out.

They can hear David's hamster-wheel thoughts, cycling over and over. He's terrified, convinced that he'll never escape this situation. That all of his friends will write him off as a lunatic, as crazy, as a worthless madman too dangerous to ever let see the sun again. And when he's not thinking that, he's thinking how even if he somehow gets out of this, he'll never escape Farouk, he'll never stop being tortured. Farouk will torture him and torture him until his mind breaks into countless fragments and one of those fragments is finally crazy enough to end the world and he kills everyone. And David can't bear that, he can't bear any of that, he just wants to die, please, please, let him die.

Dvd wishes he didn't have to hear any of that. He really, really wishes he didn't.

"I was trying to protect him," Dvd insists. This isn't his fault. It's the shit beetle's fault, like always. "This place isn't helping him, it's making him worse."

Divad rounds on him, furious. "Right now the only thing making David worse is you. You know what? You wanted to be in charge so bad? Be in charge. This is your mess, the last thing David needs right now is to have to clean it up."

"Fine, I will," Dvd says. Not that he'll able to do anything until their body is ready to wake up again, or that he'll be able to do them any good when he's stuck in a body that can't even move because it's strapped down. He rubs his jaw, braces himself. Damn it, this is gonna hurt.

When he opens their eyes, it's later, and yeah, their jaw is killing him and so is their head. He doesn't know how later it is because there's nothing in this place that gives any sense of time. It's a prison designed to torture the prisoner, and that's just more proof that Dvd made the right choice in trying to get David out of here. It's not just Farouk trying to drive David crazy, it's this place, it's these people who claim to be his friends. Parasites, that's what they are, using him for his powers, throwing him away the moment he's too much trouble for them. They're all the same, all of them. If Divad wasn't so far up his own ass, he would see that and help him instead of letting these people fuck David over again and again.

But anyway, Dvd knows it's later because he doesn't hear anyone crying or talking. He can't see much with their head strapped down like this. He looks as far as their peripheral vision allows, and notices someone.

It's one of those weird robot things. Vermillions. It must be Ptonomy's. Ugh, the last thing Dvd needs right now is another sanctimonious moralizing asshole. He gets enough of an earful from Divad all the time.

The Vermillion notices he's awake and shifts closer. It stares at them, right into their eyes, then leans back.

"I'd ask you to hold up a card, but..." says Ptonomy.

"Ha ha," Dvd sneers. "Very funny. Lemme out of this."

"Still Dvd, right?" Ptonomy guesses. "I'm sorry, you're not going anywhere. We can't trust you not to hurt David."

"I'm not the one who punched him in the face," Dvd says. "You people are the ones hurting him with this stupid crown. Keeping him stuck in this prison cell, treating him like an animal." Pathetic. "You know what the worst part is? You all think you're so much better than him, that you know what he needs, and you're wrong."

"And you know what David needs?"

"I'm the only one who's ever known what David needs," Dvd says, and yeah, it feels good to say it, especially to one of David's so-called friends. "I'm the only one who's always had his back, no matter what happened. All those people who claimed to love us? They abandoned us, over and over. They found a hole to stick us in and walked away. They try to kill us because they can't deal with what we are."

"You don't think David needs help?"

Dvd laughs. "You call this help? You're just that shit beetle's puppets, dancing on a string. Torturing David for him while he sits around being pleased with himself. And you call yourself his friends?" He scoffs. "We know what you’ve been thinking about him since we came back. None of you trusts him. You’re all afraid of him, all of you. It’s no wonder it was so easy for the shit beetle to trick you into turning against him. He doesn’t belong here and if we’d just left right away everything would be fine."

"You wanted David to leave?" Ptonomy asks. "After you got back from the desert?"

If only they had. "We had a plan," Dvd says. "We all agreed. We made David agree to it. After that blonde thing tried to kill us, he finally saw that there was no reason to stay. It was time to get away from all of this bullshit and go somewhere else."

"Where did David want to go?"

"I dunno, a farm or something. It sounded boring but whatever, I don't care where we go. He just wanted to be somewhere quiet, away from all you people. But you wouldn’t let him."

"Okay," Ptonomy says. "So what was the plan?"

"Simple," Dvd says, proudly. It was mostly his plan and it was a good one. "Stay long enough to watch Farouk fry, and if he tried anything, kill him. Turn him into dust. We know how to do it, the shit beetle used our body to do it. Give him a taste of his own medicine."

"So why didn’t you? Kill him? Why wait at all?"

Dvd grunts in frustration. "David kept changing the plan. He wouldn’t stop obsessing over Syd. You know, I didn’t mind her as long as she made him happy. But ever since we got back it’s been nag nag nag. Stop Farouk, help Farouk, don’t leave, go away. Then just when we’re finally about to smash his head in, she comes up with a gun and starts rambling on about how David’s gonna end the world, and then she shoots us! Fuck her! It was kind, what we did to her, making her forget whatever bullshit mind control the shit beetle did to her. I wish I could forget what he did to me, to David, to all of us. But I can’t. I have to remember because if I don’t know all the bad things that happened to David, I won’t be able to stop them before they happen again."

Shit. That was a lot. He didn't mean to say all of that. And now their throat is tight and there's water in their eyes.

"That sounds like a lot of pain to hold on to," Ptonomy says.

Dvd doesn't cry. David is the one who cries. But now he's the one in their body and their body wants to cry. Dvd won't let it win.

"Well, I have to," Dvd says, roughly. "That’s what I’m here for, that’s why David needs me. I keep him safe, I protect him from anything that tries to hurt him."

"You haven’t been able to protect him from himself."

That hits harder than Kerry's fist.

"David’s suicidal, and not for the first time," Ptonomy continues. "Do you really think you’re helping him by taking him away from his treatment? What if you'd succeeded? What if you got him away, but all that did was give him the opportunity to do what he’s been trying to do for days?"

"No," Dvd insists. "No. I wouldn’t— That wouldn't happen."

"Are you sure about that?"

"No!" Dvd says, loudly. "No, I wouldn't let him! I know, I know he tried before, but I stopped him. Even with that shit beetle always in the way, I got rid of that stupid cord. I saved us!"

"You couldn’t stop him from putting that cord around his neck in the first place. You couldn’t stop him from stepping off that chair."

There are tears leaking out of their eyes. Dvd squeezes them shut.

"What makes you think you could stop him again?" Ptonomy continues, his musical, calm tones slicing through Dvd's guts like a knife.

"I'd stop him," Dvd says, gritting their teeth.

"How? By controlling him, the way Farouk controlled him? By making him a prisoner inside his own body? You’d be just like Farouk, torturing him, making him suffer because you won’t let him get the help he needs."

More tears, flowing out hot and fast no matter how much Dvd tries to stop them. Their stomach hurts and their chest hurts and everything is awful. It's been so long since Dvd was in control of their body for more than a few minutes at a time. All he's been able to do for years is step in to save their life. He forgot what it was like to live in their body, to be at the mercy of it. It's no wonder David hates being alive if he always feels this way.

"You're right," Ptonomy says, softer now. "We did let David down. We thought we helped him but all we did was leave him vulnerable to more pain. I think you know exactly what that feels like, and you know how much we need to make up for that now."

"I just want--" Dvd gasps, their throat tight. "I just want to make it stop." It's been so hard, so hard. David's hurting all the time and Dvd didn't know what else to do. He just wants David to stop hurting.

"That’s what we all want," Ptonomy says. "But there’s only two ways to make David's pain stop, and that’s either to let it win, or to face it and help him through it. I don’t think you’re a coward. So what I want to know is: are you gonna step up and work with us, or are you gonna leave David vulnerable to more pain?"

Dvd doesn't want to let the pain win, to let the shit beetle win. He can't stand that. But staying, letting David suffer in this place, letting them hurt him, how can he stand that either? But god, David wants to kill himself so much. It's worse than it was when David hung himself. It's so much worse. Farouk's threats truly are the only thing keeping him alive, and that hurts the most out of all of this. That the shit beetle is doing what Dvd is supposed to do. Dvd wants to kill him a billion times over for that. He wants to turn every speck of his body to dust, every atom, and then stomp on the dust until even the atoms don't exist anymore.

God, he hates this. He hates all of this. He wishes they'd run away and never looked back.

"Okay," Dvd spits out. "Fine. You win."

The Vermillion leans back like its relieved. "Thank you, Dvd. You're doing the right thing."

"Wait," Dvd says, because he has to try. "The crown. Please, it hurts him so much."

"I'm sorry," Ptonomy says, and maybe he actually means it. "I know it hurts him. But it's not forever, even if that’s what you and David are afraid of. If David gets better, he won’t need it anymore. If you want to make all the pain stop, then help David get better. Will you do that? For David?"

More tears, and still he can’t stop them. "Yes. For David."

The Vermillion goes quiet for a few seconds. Then it reaches out and opens the restraints. Dvd fumbles out of the bed the moment their body is freed. He stumbles backwards until he's in the corner, as far away from Ptonomy as he can get. It's only when he catches their breath that he realizes he's standing in the same spot that David is, that he's standing through him.

David is curled up in a tight ball, blocking everything out. He's gone away again, lost in his despair where nothing can reach him. Dvd looks and finds Divad sitting a few feet away, his head bent with grief.

Dvd sits down between them.

"I'm sorry," Dvd says, to both of them. Even if David can't hear him right now. He's sorry for making things worse.

"He's right, you know," Divad says, his voice rough even though he doesn't have a body making things hard to say. "We can't do this on our own. We can't protect him. Again."

"I know," Dvd accepts. "But I don't-- David trusts people, but I don't. I can't."

"You have to," Divad says, looking up to meet his eyes. "We have to. These people are the only chance David has."

"Shit." Dvd knows he's right. He knows. But it's so hard. Not trusting people is the only way he's been able to keep David safe. He's always been on the alert, waiting for the betrayal to come, waiting for their warm smiles to turn cold and angry. It never bothered him before that he was always right.

He doesn't want to be right, not this time. He truly, truly doesn't want to be right. Because if he is right, and David's friends abandon him like everyone else has, then even Farouk's threats won't be enough to keep David alive. And then--

No. No, Dvd's not gonna let that happen. Not again, not if there's anything he can do to stop it. He's not giving up. He's never given up, not ever, not once, no matter how bad things got. And he knows how bad things got, because Farouk's favorite way to torture him was to make him remember all the things that David forgot.

"You take over for a while," Dvd tells Divad. "I got this."

Divad doesn't argue. Dvd steps out, and Divad steps in. David's body gets up and goes back to the bed, sits down, and starts quietly talking to Ptonomy about what's happening to David now.

Dvd can touch David again, so he does. He gets as close as he can and wraps his whole body around David, holding him with all of himself, willing him to get better and come back to them. They've both had to do that for David so many times, so many, many times. Farouk would torture David until he broke, and then leave the shattered mess for Divad and Dvd to frantically try to piece back together. And then he would do it again, and again, and again, and--

Dvd hates how trapped they are, still, after everything they've done to escape. He understands David’s despair. His anger is all he has to protect him from feeling it himself.

They have to do this. They have to get David through the pain, whatever it takes, no matter how hard it is. They have to bring him back and help him get better. They only just got David back. They can’t let Farouk take him away from them again.

Chapter Text

It’s more than strange, hearing David calmly talking about himself, about the damage he’s suffered, the state he’s in. But he's not David at all. He’s Divad.

David’s gone away, apparently. He does that when things are too much for him. He goes away, and Divad or Dvd takes over until he’s ready to come back.

Syd's finally starting to understand who David is. Or more importantly, what David is, why he is the way he is. This system he’s a part of. It’s like he was a three-legged stool and Farouk took away the other two legs to see if he could stand on his own. He couldn’t, of course, but he wobbled around for a long time before he finally fell over.

David couldn’t remember that he was only part of a person, part of a system. But when he fell in love with her, he tried to make a new system with her, to fill the missing parts of himself back in. He made them into a binary star, the two of them orbiting around each other, never touching but tethered by the gravity of their love.

But she’s not one leg in a stool. She’s whole unto herself as she always has been. And the harder he leaned on her, the more she tried to make him stand on his own. She just wanted him to be like her: whole and stable and able to bear the weight of things.

He wasn’t. He couldn’t. All the weight did was make him fall faster, to make more mistakes, to spin in confusion until—

She's hurt so much, watching him. She's hurt in every way she could hurt, so much she's barely been able to speak. She would have drunk herself into a stupor and stayed there, but she needed to be sober so she could understand what she was watching, what she was seeing and hearing. She searched for David for a year, knew him for a year before that, and still she missed so much of him. So much.

Divad has assured them that David will come back. David always comes back eventually, he never leaves them for longer than he has to. Because David has a role, too, in this system of his. He's the one who suffers for them. Divad and Dvd protect David’s mind and his body, and in return David takes as much of their pain as he can. He takes it and takes it until he can’t take any more, and then he comes back and takes it again.

It’s unspeakably cruel, what Farouk did to them, what he turned David into. He tortured David until his mind shattered, and then took the pieces of him and turned them into his twisted poetry. He made David’s protectors unable to protect him, and used David’s suffering against the very system that formed to save him from it. Farouk did all of this to a helpless, frightened child whose only crime was being fathered by a man he never knew.

There aren’t words to describe that kind of monstrosity. There aren’t words in any book. It’s too enormous.

She can’t forget what David did to her, but she understands how it happened. She still doesn’t know everything, but she knows the rough steps that brought him to the place where he thought it was okay to reach into her mind and change it. She knows the desperation that drove him to seek her out and try to prove their love was still true, and in doing so destroyed it.

It’s better off dead, that love. She was never what he truly needed, because no one could be that but the other parts of him.

She still loves him, her David. She might even love him more, knowing the truth of him. But he’s so broken and so far away from her, and she doesn’t know if he’ll ever come back. If he even can. She believes Divad, she knows David will open his eyes again. But she doesn’t know what hope there is for him. She doesn’t want it to be too late, like it was for her mother, but she’s so afraid. What if no matter what they do, no matter how hard they fight, they lose him anyway?

All this, and they might lose him anyway.

Divad has been talking to them about what David needs from them, the changes they have to make so he can start to get better. Division 3's methods have been hard on David, and some of them have definitely made things worse. Allying with Farouk. Threatening to kill David if he didn't get better. Strapping him down in a prison cell. Drugging him when he got upset. Treating him like a thing in a cage and putting him on display. The crown, which hurts him, even though it's the only thing keeping him alive, the only thing stopping him from killing himself with a single thought.

They can’t change everything, but they can do better. David is a thing in a cage to Division 3, but he shouldn't have been to his friends, to the people who said they care about him. They should have protected him, fought on his behalf against the organization they're living at the heart of, but Dvd was right. They were too afraid of David to trust him, to love him the way they should have. They let Division 3 shove him out of sight because that was easier for everyone. They watched, but they still turned away.

Syd turned away, at the beginning. She gave herself the luxury of that. If it wasn't for Ptonomy...

Ptonomy's finished talking to the Admiral and has approval to transfer David out of the cell that's been making him worse. It's the strangest patient transfer she's ever seen, because the patient is currently invisible and insensate, curled up in a ball of despair, tended to by one of his caretakers while the other walks his body up to the lab.

She's not sure how that works. She's not sure how David works. His whole situation is so unusual. Syd doesn't care about normal, but David is so one-of-a-kind that there's no case study, no reference material, no expert who can help them. He's an mutant identity system that forgot parts of himself because of a mental parasite that still won't let him go. And knowing all of that doesn't even begin to fix what's wrong with David.

If he can be fixed. If he can get better. If, if, if.

Cary's lab has already been overtaken by beds and cots, but Syd and the others get to work rearranging it to make a space for David to recover in, to live in. He needs privacy, but they can't let him feel like he's being hidden away. He needs to know he belongs with them, he needs reminders that he's still part of the world they're trying so hard to coax him back to.

Ptonomy couldn't convince the Admiral to turn off the surveillance for the lab, so they set up a folding screen by David’s bed for when he needs it. The sleeping cots are right beside his bed, with Melanie and Oliver's beds and equipment at the other side of the lab. There’s a table for them to eat at together. The whole setup reminds Syd of Summerland. The shared sleeping space, the closeness of everything, the way there was no separation between the patients and the staff.

It reminds her of Melanie. The real Melanie, the way she was before Farouk got his hooks in her, too; not the pale, lost Melanie sleeping across the room. Syd doesn’t even know how it happened, how they let her slip away from them. One day, she was with them, missing Oliver deeply but still fighting for a better future for everyone. And then one day she was gone. She was still physically present, but her mind had drifted away, like Oliver’s mind drifted away from spending twenty years in an ice cube on the astral plane.

Syd's never been a joiner. She was never part of anything until she was brought to Summerland. But she worked with Melanie every day over the year David was gone. They fought side-by-side against Division 3’s stubborn hatred for mutantkind every single day, and they did good work, real work together. Syd's proud of what they accomplished. They stopped so many terrible things, far beyond Farouk. They stopped innocent people’s lives from being ruined across the world.

But maybe they pushed themselves too much. They were so busy looking after the world that they didn’t look after their own. And now they’re all paying the price.

When they've finished arranging the room, Divad sits on David's bed, looks around. "Yes, this is much better," he says.

"Is there any change?" Cary asks him.

Divad looks at something they can't see. Maybe it's David. It's strange to think of him like this, so close but just out of reach. He's been trapped outside of his body before, stuck in the astral plane or some other psychic space, but he's not trapped this time. He could come back to them, to himself; he just can't bear to.

"No," Divad says, unhappily. "Dvd's with him. He'll let us know when David comes back."

"And then you'll switch?" Cary asks.

"If that's what he wants," Divad says. He's worried, too; she can see it, even if his worried face is different from David's worried face.

Cary sighs, runs his hand back through his hair. “Thank god you’re here.”

Divad raises his eyebrows.

“Not that we don’t want David back, very badly,” Cary explains. “But you and Dvd are so important. Thank you, for keeping him alive, for not letting him— Thank you.”

Divad actually seems quite touched by that. “I know our existence makes things harder for everyone,” he admits. “David’s afraid that—“ He pauses, upset. “It’s hard for him, accepting that we’re part of him.”

“It must have been terrible when he forgot you,” Cary says, with feeling. “I can’t imagine—“

“It was worse for David,” Divad says. “At least Dvd and I still had each other, even if all we did was fight. David knew something was missing, but he just thought—“ He swallows. “He blamed himself. He thinks he’s—“ He can’t finish.

“Well,” Cary says, firmly. “Obviously he’s wrong about that.”

Ptonomy walks over, having finished going over the new plan with Clark. “I think we’re all set. Is there anything else you want to tell us?”

“There’s a lot,” Divad says. “But I don’t know what you’ll need to know until David comes back.”

“That’s what’s giving us a fighting chance,” Ptonomy assures him. “Most therapy is fumbling in the dark, hoping to find part of the story. With your help, we don’t have waste time with that. We can find what’s hurting him and treat it.”

Syd thinks of her mother. She thinks of chemotherapy and surgery, carpet bombing and targeted strikes. Maybe there is hope, if they can find the mass of his disease and cut it out quickly.

“And you’re able to keep David’s emotions from going out of control,” Ptonomy continues. “That means we don’t need to rely on any drugs. No side effects, nothing to remind him of the ways he’s been treated before. He can face things with a clear head.”

“It’s still not going to be easy,” Divad warns them. “But we’ll do everything we can from our side, and we’ll trust you.”

“Thank you,” Ptonomy says. “We’ll do everything we can for him. If we can get David well enough, he'll start to help himself. That’s when we’ll know he’ll be okay.”

§

It was lunchtime when David left. They wait through the afternoon, through dinner, but he still doesn’t come back. Divad and Dvd switch places, Divad watching over David while Dvd takes care of their body.

Their body, not his. Syd’s going to have to get used to this, to David being other people, even if the other people are still him. Even though no one knew, Divad and Dvd have been there the whole time. They’ve experienced almost all of David’s life with him. They’ve—

They’ve experienced her. Her body, her love. The things she and David did thinking they were alone. The things she said to him, she also said to them.

It’s a lot to take in. It feels too much like last year, when she realized with sinking horror that the David who’d come back from the astral plane and made love to her wasn’t fully David at all. That there was someone inside him, guiding him, controlling him, looking out at her through his eyes. Wearing David like a mask.

These alters, they’re not Farouk. They weren’t trying to deceive her or David. They were trapped inside him the way David was trapped, shouting and pounding and trying so hard to be heard.

She knows that David didn’t like what Farouk made him do to Division 3 last year. Even in the brief time they’ve had, he’s woken up with terrible nightmares, reliving that day. She feels sick when she thinks about the things she said to him under Farouk’s control. It’s no wonder all David could think to do was make her forget. He wanted to forget, too. He didn’t want the pain of hearing her tell him he was the very monster he’d tried so hard to fight. She said she loved him, but she still said that to him. She wonders if that’s what finally broke him, that last, feather-light straw on top of decades of straws.

She thinks maybe it was.

There's nothing she can do to take those words back, just like there's nothing David can do to take back what he did to her. They have to live with all of it, like they have to live with all the things they've done and all the things done to them. That's the only choice there's ever been for her, even if it hasn't been the only choice for David.

He has to come back. Please let him come back, so they can help him the way they should have from the start.

"He'll be okay."

It's David's voice, and it startles her. But it's still Dvd behind David's face, looking out at her.

"David's tough," Dvd says, with quiet pride. "I mean— He’s not like me. He doesn’t have to be because I’m the tough one, I’m strong enough for all of us. Anything the world wants to throw at us? I knock it down.” The arrogant gleam in his eyes fades. “David’s— He’s soft, but he takes it. Whatever it is, he takes it.”

“Maybe he took too much,” Syd says, quietly.

“Yeah,” Dvd says, frowning and furrowing his brow. “But— A few hours? That’s nothing. We had to cover for him for over a week when we were fifteen. He still came back.”

A week? “What did Farouk do to him?” She asks, unable not to, but she really doesn’t want to know.

Thankfully, Dvd doesn’t want to tell. “What he always does. Fucked him over, fucked all of us over, jerking himself off the whole time.” He puts up his middle fingers and points them at the ceiling.

Syd saw David do that, over the live feed, just before he stepped out of himself and vanished. She’d wondered, but hearing only one-third of David’s conversations with his alters has been challenging at best. At least that’s one mystery solved.

“What was it like?” Syd asks, curious. “For the three of you? Besides—“

“Besides the torture?” Dvd huffs. “Sometimes he left us alone for a while. It’s no fun breaking what’s already broken. Those times were— We had each other. We had Amy. She loved us for longer than anyone, until—“

Amy. God, with everything going on, Syd had completely forgotten about her drunken revelation.

“But she gave up on us, too,” Dvd grouches. “I was so mad, David would’ve been on my side if he’d been able to hear us, but Divad—“

“Amy’s still alive,” she says, and everyone turns and looks at her.

“What?” Dvd is the first to speak, but they all want to know. “Farouk killed her, he turned her into Lenny.”

Syd rubs her forehead. “I know, but— After David was— I had a hunch, a drunken hunch that Farouk had done something to keep her alive just so he could use her to torture David. So I went down and talked to Lenny and— Amy’s still alive. Or part of her, something. Her soul?” It must be her soul, Syd knows about souls. “She answered my questions about David.”

“You spoke with her?” Cary asks.

“I talked to Lenny. Lenny told me what she said.” It’s weird, but is it any weirder than anything else they’ve dealt with? Is it weirder than a woman who can swap souls with a touch? A man inhabiting a hive-mind android? Two people who’ve alternately lived inside each other? Maybe David and his alters are the most normal out of all of them.

Now that’s a thought.

“You didn’t think to mention this sooner?” Ptonomy says, angry in a way he hasn’t been since he came back.

“I was drunk, and hungover, and then—“ Syd makes a wordless gesture to encompass every crazy thing that’s happened. This is the first time in days that her mind hasn’t been one long, high-pitched scream.

“Amy,” Dvd says, stunned. “Hold on, I gotta—“ He closes his eyes, and then when he opens them: “Amy’s alive?” asks Divad.

"Okay, okay, let's take a breath," Ptonomy says, tersely. "The last thing we want to do is walk right into another one of Farouk's traps. Until we know it's really her, we can't tell David. We don't even know that Lenny is Lenny."

"We need a telepath," Cary says, and looks over at Oliver, looks back at Divad. "That's the one thing we don't have."

"Maybe we could take off the crown?" Syd offers. "Dvd could do it. Just for a few minutes, while David's not awake."

"And if David comes back right in the middle of that?" Ptonomy says. "It would be a disaster."

"Well the only other telepath is Farouk, and that would be even more of a disaster," Syd says back. Shit, how are they going to talk to Amy? They need to get into Lenny's head somehow, figure out what's going on. See if-- "Oh my god," she says, realizing. "I can do it. I can swap with Lenny."

"But--"

She cuts Ptonomy off. "When I was leaving Clockworks, David kissed me. I was in his body. But so was Farouk. I saw him. He's what made me--" He's what made her seal up all the patients using David's powers, he's what made her kill Lenny. And then he snatched Lenny's soul and dragged her into David's mind, so he could use her to hurt David when David came back.

It's almost predictable how awful Farouk is, how single-mindedly he tortures David at every opportunity, in any way he possibly can.

If Syd swaps bodies with Lenny, Amy will still be in Lenny's body. And then Syd can see her and talk to her directly. They'll know for sure if it's her, at least as sure as any of them can be about any of this.

"I'll get Clark," Ptonomy says, and a few minutes later, the man himself limps into the lab.

"Been a little distracted, have we?" Clark smirks.

"You knew," Syd realizes. He told her, that morning, right before David got his diagnosis. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"The same reason why you're not already down in Lenny's cell," Clark says. "I didn't want to make a bad situation worse. I still don't. We have no reason to believe she's anything but a roadside bomb, waiting to go off and take the last of David's sanity with her." He touches his forehead. "Like David's little messages. Farouk just has to sit back and watch the fireworks."

"That's all he's been doing," Syd says, though frankly she's glad of that. The last thing David needs is for Farouk to pay him another visit and make things worse.

Shit, they're going to need to watch out for that. If David does start getting better, and Farouk doesn't want him to... Shit. Shit.

Okay. Okay, one potential disaster at a time. At least this one is something she can actually do something about. She's done with sitting on the sidelines, watching.

They say the best way to defuse a bomb is to blow it up. A controlled explosion, that’s what it’s called. Clear the blast zone, isolate the bomb, and trigger it on your terms, not the terms of whoever left it there.

Lenny’s the package and Amy’s the bomb hidden inside. Syd doesn’t know how yet, but she knows Clark's right. Lenny's the innocuous package left on the street, waiting silently for some unsuspecting passerby to pick it up and blow themselves apart.

Farouk is getting predictable. He always does the cruelest thing that anyone could possibly imagine. It makes her sick to put herself in his head, even in the abstract, but she has to. She has to, because if she can’t control this explosion, it’s going to blow what’s left of David apart.

She doesn’t know how yet, but she knows it’s true.

"So let's set off some fireworks," Syd says.

Chapter Text

Sunflowers. Amy keeps thinking about sunflowers.

She had a garden full of them, in the desert. It wasn't much, as gardens go, just a dusty patch of sand she had to water several times a day just to keep it alive under the relentless sun. Not a lot of things grow in a desert, even with all that water, fertilizer, attention. But her sunflowers thrived, growing so fast, so big and strong. From tiny little seeds they grew up and up, until they were taller than she was.

They're probably all dead, now, without her to water them. Without her to love them. A few days in the sun and they'll have withered away. A few weeks and they'll bake until they crumble into dust and blow away on the desert wind.

Ben. Oh god, Ben.

She knew, as soon as he walked to the door and there was silence. She knew. She thinks part of her was waiting for it to happen, waiting all year for the monster to find them. It was almost a relief when the dread finally stopped because the worst was already happening.

But then there was the pain. And the pain was worse than the dread, even a whole year of dreading and worrying, a whole year of praying for a miracle, for David to come back to them whole and healthy, for the wandering monster to stay away for good and leave them in peace. That's all she ever wanted, for her and Ben and David to be left in peace to live their lives. For things to be safe and normal and happy. That's all she ever wanted for all of them.

She didn't even know David was back. Division 3 didn't tell her. Syd didn't tell her, even though they'd grown close over the long year of waiting. The first time she knew that David was back, it was when he appeared in front of her in an upside-down interrogation room. She couldn't speak to him, couldn't tell him she was there. But then he saw her memories and he knew. He knew.

She thinks his pain was equal to her own, in that moment, hearing him wail with intolerable grief. She grieved for him back, and for herself, for Ben, for everything the monster had taken away from all of them. He took so, so much.

She wishes she'd been able to hold him, but it was Lenore that did that. Lenore Busker. Lenny, as she likes to be called, as David called her when he talked about her in Clockworks. Lenny was his friend, his only friend in that place for a long time. And then she died, and then her ghost possessed him, controlled him, walked him around like a doll and spoke with his mouth.

David explained all of it later, when they were finally safe in Summerland. He explained how there had been a monster in his head, making him see things and hear things. How the monster hurt him and then made him forget what it had done, so he wouldn't be able to stop it from hurting him again. He explained that Lenny was just a trick it used to manipulate him.

Amy didn't understand any of that. It was all madness to her. She only cared that it was all over and that David was finally well. Her little brother, her sick little brother who'd suffered so much, was finally going to be okay.

And then, just like that, someone took him.

God, it was so unfair. He was happy for the first time in so long. He had somewhere he could actually belong. He was loved and safe and had everything she'd always wished for him. And someone reached out and ripped him away from all of that.

She doesn't know who they were. She had a year of questions and no answers and then a horrific, final answer to a question she never wanted to ask. But they were cruel, doing that to him. They were unspeakably cruel.

The monster possessed someone else when they got it out. It couldn't have David so it took Oliver Bird instead. Oliver was a kind man, odd but kind, and she was so grateful to him for saving them, for helping them save David. She didn't understand any of what he did, but she knows he did more for David in those few days than all the doctors ever could.

She knows it wasn't Oliver who did this to her, who killed Ben. She doesn't blame him for being walked around like a doll, for being spoken out of. She's grieving for him too, even though she doesn't know if he's alive or dead. He probably doesn't want to be alive, after doing the things the monster made him do.

She thinks about her sunflowers. She thinks about cutting them down, a row every week, so she could sit with them in the kitchen. She thinks about their dark, wide faces and bright petals, the yellow rays taking the sunlight and making it smooth and soft and solid. She planted them in sequence, another row every week so every week would have a harvest. Fifty-two rows of sunflowers. With all that sun, it took about fifteen weeks for each seed to grow big enough to bloom. So many of those rows will never bloom. The ones she planted last are already dead, tiny seedlings too weak to survive even a single day without her.

Ben. Oh god, Ben.

He hated the desert. As little as Amy understood about their situation, about why their lives were in danger, he understood it even less. Ben was a man of simple needs and that was part of what she loved about him. She'd dealt with enough complexity in her life, enough suffering and confusion. She needed someone like him, who understood so little of her life that he let her leave it behind. To Ben, David was just her crazy little brother who belonged safely locked away in a mental hospital, and that was that. He didn't mean to be dismissive, to be cruel, to ignore how important David was to her heart. He just didn't understand, and it was easier to ignore what he didn't understand.

That was why she married him. So she could ignore what she didn't understand and not feel guilty for it. Even before David tried to kill himself, Ben urged her to find somewhere to put David away. Ben was the one who researched the options, who left pamphlets on the dinner table. Ben proposed to her the week after David walked into Clockworks, and Amy said yes, and cried with joy and cried with grief and cried with shame because she knew he wouldn't have asked if asking meant bearing the burden of David with her.

David couldn't come to the wedding. They wouldn't let him out for that. They wouldn't let him out for their father's funeral. They wouldn't let him out at all.

She knew it was a mistake, putting him there, but she didn't know what else to do. She didn't know how else to help him. And the doctors there had been so kind when she met with them, telling her that David would get his own room, that he would get the best treatment, that they would do everything they could to make him better, and if they couldn't make him better they would at least keep him safe.

All they did was keep him. She visited him whenever she could, at least once a month, but he never got better. He was physically safe but that was all. It broke her heart to visit him, and it broke her heart to sit at home knowing there was nothing she could do for him.

At least he couldn't try to kill himself while he was there. That's what she told herself. At least he's still alive. If she hadn't put him there, he would have tried again. That's what the doctors said, in the hospital, as he lay in the emergency room bed with an angry bruise across his throat. They said he would almost definitely try again, if nothing changed, and that he needed professional help before it was too late.

She made the right choice, getting him help, even if it wasn't the right kind of help. She believes that. She didn't know about the monster, no one did. Even if she had, what could she have done differently? There was a bad thing in David's head, driving him crazy, and it didn't matter if that bad thing was a literal monster or just a figurative one. Either way, she couldn't have got it out on her own.

She couldn't have. She spent so many years trying to help him get better, and she never could.

She thinks about sunflowers.

She thinks about sunflowers.

She saw the message when David put it into Lenny's mind. She didn't understand that either, but it was important to David and she wanted to do everything she could to help him, now that she could help him. So she did. She got Lenny to the blue octopus, to the car with the gun, to the desert. Despite what the monster did, twisting them together like this, she knows Lenny is David's friend, his only friend for the years he was at his lowest. Amy knew Lenny would step up and help, if she just had a little push.

Amy's glad she pushed. Lenny saved David's life twice with that gun, in the desert. Lenny might be crude and an addict and mostly an awful person overall, but she's been there for David when he needed her, when she could. She loves him the way only two people who've been through something terrible together can love each other. If Amy has to spend the rest of her life a prisoner in her own body, unable to do anything but watch, at least she's trapped in someone who loves David the way they both love him.

She just hopes he's all right. She thought he was, until Syd came to visit, incredibly drunk and offering liquor. She thought David's plan had worked and the monster had finally been caught. But Syd said David was in danger, that Farouk was going to kill him, and she hasn't been back and no one else has come for days.

So there's nothing Amy can do but wait, again. To wait in a prison cell inside of a prison cell. She doesn't do well in prisons. That's not a truth about herself that she ever wanted to know. She's not a tough person, if she gets a papercut she has to lie down. But here she is, trapped in an incredibly unpleasant cell at the heart of Division 3, again. She can't even scream this time. So she thinks about sunflowers.

She thinks about sunflowers.

She thinks about--

The door to the cell opens. There's guards, and they take rough hold of Lenny and drag her out of the cell. Lenny struggles against them even though she's just as glad as Amy to see the back of that awful room, even if whatever's going to happen to them is even worse.

They're brought to a strange room. There's a man sitting in a chair at the center of it, and he has a basket on his head. There are two strange women standing on either side of him, on pedestals, with large magnifying lenses in front of their faces. There's a giant picture of a forest behind them, and it's glowing with light.

If Amy wasn't already slowly losing her mind, she'd think she was finally going crazy.

Syd walks in, sober this time. Clark and one of those strange women are with her. Amy saw the women through Lenny's eyes before, and thought they looked familiar somehow, but she doesn't know why. They have thick mustaches. She certainly would have remembered seeing women with mustaches before.

"Lenore Busker," says one of the women, in an odd, robotic, melodic voice that's just so familiar Amy wishes she could place it. "There is an eighty-nine percent chance that the soul of Amy Haller is contained within the body formerly known as Amy Haller."

"Shit, you didn't have to drag me up here to tell me that," Lenny says, cocky but as bewildered as Amy feels. "You coulda just asked." She turns to Syd. "Party's been pretty dry in that cell, you got any more whisky? Vodka? Hard drugs? These chicks look like they do hard drugs."

"You will tell us the purpose of your presence here," says the woman on the other side of the basket guy.

"Yeah," Lenny says, already looking around for a way out. "I already told you guys, I was in a drawer. I'd love to help, really. Where's David? I heard, ah, I heard he was in trouble."

"David Haller is currently receiving treatment," says the first woman.

Lenny doesn't like the sound of that. "Treatment? What the hell? What are you sickos doing to him?"

Amy wants to know the answer to that herself. What's happened to David? She needs to know what's happened to David. Oh god, something's happened to him and she can't help him, not when she's a prisoner inside of a prisoner. God, she wishes she could scream. She can't even scream.

Lenore, do something, Amy urges, because that's all she can do. Help him!

"He is receiving treatment," says the second woman.

"He just saved your asses from that asshole!" Lenny says, wriggling in the guards' grip. "Lemme see David!"

"Lenny," Syd says, walking up and stopping in front of her. "I need to talk to Amy again."

"Fuck you, talk to her yourself," Lenny snarls.

Syd smiles, lips pressed together. "I will," she says, and reaches up and touches Lenny's cheek with her bare hand.

And then everything--

And then Lenny--

There's this moment, this perfect suspension in time, when Amy is alone in her own body again. She's still trapped, tucked away in a corner of her own mind, but Lenny is gone, completely gone.

And then someone else rushes in, filling up all the space.

In front of her, Syd collapses, and the third mustache woman catches her before she hits the floor.

"Hey," says Lenny's voice, but it's not Lenny's mind around her now. It's Syd's.

It takes Amy a minute to remember that this is a thing Syd can do. This is a mutant thing she can do, swapping souls with someone else. It's how they got the monster out of David.

"Amy, can you hear me? It's Syd. If you're there, say something."

It's not easy for Amy to manifest herself visually. It takes a lot of effort, and she's only managed it twice, but both times were when David needed her and David needs her now.

"I'm here," Amy says, showing herself.

Syd sees her. "Is it really you?"

"Yeah," Amy says, and relief suddenly floods through her. When Syd didn't come back before, she thought-- She didn't know what had happened, but it scared her. She thought maybe Syd was too drunk to remember that she was still inside of Lenny. She thought no one but Lenny would ever see her again. "Syd. Thank god. Please, what's going on?"

"David's safe," Syd promises. "You'll find out everything soon. But right now we have to take care of you, okay?"

Syd nods, and one of the other women comes over and helps the third woman drag Syd's body towards the back of the room. Lenny's waking up, but she's still limp, groggy.

"What's happening?" Amy asks, worried. She never worried about anyone losing their body until recently but she's very worried about that now.

"We'll both find out soon," Syd tells her. "It'll be okay, I promise."

And then, to Amy's shock, the two women drag Syd's body into the picture of the forest. They vanish inside it.

"I'm sorry," Syd says to her, genuinely. "We tried to keep you safe, but we failed."

And then everything--

And then Syd--

And then it's everything around Amy that changes. She feels lots of things at once: Lenny rushing back, a blur of trees, a pain at her temples. And then she's pulled, pulled, and Lenny's pulled, too, into--

Amy opens her eyes. She's in a dark space, and there are numbers glowing on the walls.

"What the fucking fuck?" Lenny says. She's in the room, too.

"It takes some getting used to," says a voice, familiar and male. Amy turns. It's Ptonomy, wearing a black suit.

Amy rushes up to him and hugs him. "Where are we?" she asks, bewildered. "What happened?"

"We killed you," Ptonomy says, apologetically. "I'm sorry. It was the only way to save both of you."

"You killed me?" Lenny says, outraged. "I just got my body back, asshole!"

"That wasn't your body," Ptonomy says, sternly.

Amy steps back. It was bad enough that her body had been mutilated, overwritten with Lenny's genetic material. But they killed her? "I'm-- I'm dead?"

"We're alive," Ptonomy assures her. "We're in Division 3's mainframe. Farouk can't reach us here. I'm sorry, we didn't want to have to do this, but it was the only way to save both of you. We had to act quickly."

This is all too much for Amy to cope with. She's inside of a computer now? Maybe she has gone crazy, completely crazy. Maybe she should be the one checked into Clockworks.

"Amy," Ptonomy says, putting a hand on her arm. "I know it's a shock. But Farouk was going to use you to hurt David."

That brings her back. Protecting David always brings her back. Maybe it's wrong, that he's her constant. Maybe she should have stopped trying to help him and lived her own life. But he's her little brother. He's her heart.

"We figured out his plan," Ptonomy continues. "Once David realized you were trapped inside of Lenny, he would have faced an impossible choice. Either he would have had to kill Lenny to save you, or he would have been forced to let you suffer, trapped inside your own body, the same way David was trapped inside of his."

"So you killed my body?" Lenny says, still outraged.

"We cut the Gordian knot,” Ptonomy says. "David's in an extremely fragile state right now, and even if he wasn't, there's no reason to make him go through that. Farouk's tortured him for long enough. We're not letting him hurt David or either of you anymore."

"By killing us!" Lenny says, spreading her arms wide. "I told you Division 3 was evil. That's some supervillain shit."

"Farouk already killed you," Ptonomy shoots back at her. "And what he did to Amy-- We had no way to restore her, and even if we did, restoring her would have killed you again. At least this way you're both still alive."

"You said--" Amy's trying to focus, trying to cling to something she can understand. "You said David's sick?"

"Yes," Ptonomy says, sobering. "He's very sick. We're taking care of him as best we can, but he's going to need you -- both of you -- to get better."

Amy looks around. She's dead, her body is dead. No, she's alive and inside a computer. Maybe she's dead and inside a computer and crazy all at the same time. "How-- How can we help him from here?"

"The Vermillion," Ptonomy says. "The android women with mustaches? We can put our consciousnesses inside of them. That allows us to be part of the world. It takes some getting used to, but it works. I'll help you, don't worry. I've been in here for about a week now. It's not so bad once you get used to it."

"Shit," Lenny says, finally calming down. "You're dead, too?"

"Ptonomy," Amy gasps. She hugs him again. "I'm so sorry."

Ptonomy resists, then holds her back. He sighs against her hair. God, he's been dead for a week, dealing with all this, and he was alone in here.

"At least we have each other," Amy says, tearful. They can still cry, here, it seems. Even without their bodies.

"We do," Ptonomy agrees, and she can see that he's glad for that. "Come on. I'll show you around. This place is pretty wild."

§

"You killed them," Syd says, and feels another headache coming on.

"Technically, Ptonomy killed them," Clark says. "I wasn't allowed to know that part of the plan either. But yes. We killed their fused, mutilated body so we could upload their minds into the mainframe, where they'll be safe."

When they started working out a plan to save Amy, they ran into the same problem that David, Divad, and Dvd had. If the people making the plan had minds that could be read by Farouk, who was always listening, then Farouk would know the plan before they'd even finished making it.

The only person among them whose mind couldn't be read was Ptonomy. So he had to make the plan and only share the parts he absolutely had to share for it to work. Syd's part of the plan was to swap bodies with Lenny, confirm that it really was Amy inside of her, and then wait a certain number of seconds to swap back. When she saw her body dragged into the mainframe, she'd had a moment of horrified doubt, but she'd waited those last seconds and made the switch, trusting that everything would go as planned.

It did. She's just not thrilled with the final result.

"How are we going to tell David?" Syd asks, frankly at a loss.

"As far as David knows, Amy is completely gone," Clark offers. "Now she's alive, if disembodied. It's still an improvement."

"And Lenny?" Syd asks, not impressed.

"It's not great," Clark admits. "But this was the best option out of a lot of bad options. They're alive, they're safe. We can look for a way to get them out of there. Make them new bodies, somehow. This is an age of wonders."

"Optimism isn't a good look on you," Syd tells him, but she has to admit he's right. Obviously they can't bring any of them out of the mainframe until Farouk is gone or all of this will be for nothing. But at least for now they're safe. Farouk can't touch them.

She's still not looking forward to having to tell David any of this. Jesus. They killed Amy's body.

"Okay," Syd says, gathering herself. "Okay. It's a win. I'll take it."

Clark looks pleased with himself. "Good. I'll let you deliver the news to the others."

Syd glares at him. "Thanks," she grits out. God, she's not looking forward to that either.

Clark waves as he walks away.

Syd takes a moment to collect herself. Jesus. They killed Amy's body. They're going to have to wait until David is a hell of a lot more stable to tell him any of this, or it's going to be just as bad as letting the Lenny-Amy package bomb blow up in his face.

But Clark's right. He's right, David thought Amy was dead. Now Amy is alive. It's still an improvement. And she's in the mainframe with Ptonomy, so it's more like Amy and Lenny are just... somewhere else. With Ptonomy. That's not so bad.

They're alive, they're safe. It's an age of wonders. The three of them were uploaded into the mainframe, there's no reason why they can't be download back out of it.

"An age of wonders," Farouk agrees, and Syd jumps like a startled cat.

"Very smart," he says, standing there, calm and composed. She doesn't know where he teleported in from, but he almost gave her a heart attack doing it. "Divide and conquer. I must congratulate you. I never expected you to go along with something so ruthless."

"I guess you don't know me very well," Syd says, trying again to collect herself as quickly as possible.

"Always full of surprises," Farouk says.

"Stay away from David," Syd warns, happy to turn the subject away from herself.

Farouk chuckles. "My dear, there is no reason for such hostility. We want the same thing, for David to get better. What is it he said, David? It's no fun breaking what is already broken."

God, she hates how he's always watching them. "That was Dvd, not David."

"Ah, then you have decided to feed his delusion, his madness," Farouk says, with mock pity. "Do you not want to cure his sickness?"

"Dvd and Divad are how he survived being infected by you," Syd shoots back.

Farouk raises a finger. "Ah, but you yourself know he did not survive. They told you, the ones you saved. His sister, his best friend. His mind shattered into fragments. He hung himself. He yearned for death as he yearns for it now. He strains for it with all his heart, but I deny him. David is only alive because that is what I want. I am his god."

Syd takes a step back, unable not to. She can't stand to be near his monstrosity.

"It's true, he's too broken to play with," Farouk continues. "Do you think this is the first time that has happened? So I rest. I let him struggle to put himself back together. And if he can't?" He waves his hand. "A simple matter to make him forget. These fragments of him that fool themselves, thinking they are someone else. Even they forget, when I wish them to, and they do not even remember forgetting."

He steps forward, and she takes another step back.

"You destroyed a beautiful sunrise," Farouk says, all menace now. "A marble sculpture revealed by my chisel. But David is clay. He is pliant, always ready to be shaped again to my will." He tilts his head. "So please, heal his tortured soul. Put him back together. Make him whole for me. Take your time, I insist. I am a very patient man."

And then he's gone.

Syd falls back against the wall. She slides down to the floor and sobs, her hand over her mouth.

Chapter Text

It’s not the kind of thing Syd does, having a breakdown in a hallway. If she’s going to have a breakdown, she’ll have it alone, in the privacy of her room, with a full bottle of whisky for company.

But she can’t move. She can barely breathe around the pain in her chest. She feels like she’s been punched in the gut, a strong right hook to the soft of her belly.

She can’t move, and Division 3 is always watching. So it doesn’t surprise her when she hears footsteps coming towards her. It surprises her who they belong to.

“I saw,” Clark says, and holds out his hand for her. “I’m sorry.”

Syd lets out a harsh breath. “Yeah.” She has to pull herself together. But it’s hard when she’s just been torn apart.

Clark’s still holding out his hand. She forces herself to take it, to let him pull her up. Ants crawl under the skin of her palm. When she’s standing again she lets go and leans against the wall.

“He’s an asshole,” Clark says, so casually that it makes Syd laugh through a sob.

“God, he really is,” she agrees.

Clark considers her, then joins her, leaning back against the wall. “You know, here’s the thing about people like him.”

“Are there others?” Syd interrupts, horrified at the very thought.

“Too many. But most of them aren’t mind readers. The thing about people like him is that they can’t stand it when they lose.”

Syd sniffs. “So?”

“So when people like him get angry, that’s when they make mistakes.”

Syd wishes he would get to the point. “Which are?”

“What he said, all of that. I’m sure it was true. But it was only mostly true.”

“And which part wasn’t?” She asks, and wipes her eyes. “He did all of that to David. He’ll do it again.”

“He did. He could, when he lived in David’s head. But he’s not in David’s head anymore, because you and your friends got him out.”

Syd can’t believe what’s happening. “Are you pep talking me?”

Clark shrugs. “Don’t get used to it.”

Syd gives something like a laugh. It’s not quite a laugh but it’s better than crying. She takes a deep breath, lets it out.

“You’re right,” she says, letting the realization calm her. “He’s pissed off because we beat him. He wanted to hurt me.”

It worked. But it was a mistake, lashing out. This is the second time he’s gone out of his way to hurt her, to drive a wedge between her and David’s recovery. He was angry after David was captured, too, despite everything he did to make that happen. She can see that now. He was angry because he lost.

Farouk likes to think of himself as a god. He’s incredibly powerful, but he’s back in his body now, and the real world isn’t as easy to control as David’s mind. He can talk, he can watch, he can push their buttons all day long. But they’re not his puppets. He can’t control them. Not the way he could control David from the inside, for thirty years.

You can forget a lot about the way the world works when you leave it behind for thirty years. Even one year in Clockworks was enough to teach her that.

“Just because I made a deal with him, it doesn’t mean I want to see him win,” Clark says.

“You know he just heard you say that.”

Clark shrugs. “I work with David. I’m used to mouthing off to unstable gods.”

It takes a moment for Syd to catch it: that he used the present tense and not the past. That he still considers David as an ally and not just a sick and dangerous patient.

It means a lot, even though she knows he doesn’t want her to mention it.

“Me too,” Syd says, and that’s enough.

§

It’s almost morning when David finally comes back to them.

Divad is awake, having rested earlier; Dvd is sleeping in David’s body. Everyone else is asleep except for Ptonomy. His Vermillion is quiet, and his mind is probably in the mainframe, keeping company with Amy and Lenny.

It’s always a delicate time when David comes back. Divad doesn’t want to startle him. He lets David surface at his own pace, waits patiently as David uncurls from his tight ball, as he lifts his head and rubs at his eyes, sluggish and confused.

David looks around, bewildered. A lot has changed since he went away. Divad can hear his thoughts: wondering if he’s still asleep, wondering if he’s dreaming. It doesn’t feel real for him to be here.

“Hey,” Divad says, softly. No one but David can hear him, but in a peaceful moment like this, it feels right to whisper.

“Cary’s lab?” David asks, also whispering. “What are we doing here?”

“We’re done with the cell,” Divad tells him. “We’re staying here now, with everyone.”

David looks around, sees his body sleeping on a bed. His body is peaceful, unrestrained but for the crown. The bruise on his jaw is spectacular but it’ll fade. David looks at the cots, at his friends sleeping beside him.

“I don’t understand,” David says, and the heartbreaking thing is that he doesn’t. He can’t. Not yet.

He looks at Syd. She chose the cot closest to his bed. She’s still wearing the compass necklace David gave her.

David rests his head in his hands. “I don’t understand,” he says again, struggling.

“You don’t have to,” Divad soothes. “We’re here. Can you let that be enough?”

David looks around again, and it’s hard for him. It’s so hard. But he nods, accepting.

“Do you want to step back in?” Divad asks.

David shakes his head. “Not yet. Is that—“ He looks to Divad, uncertain.

“It’s okay,” Divad says, gently. “We’ve always liked sharing.”

David smiles a little at that. He leans back against the wall, his body opening up more. “I went away again?” he asks.

“For a while. Not too long.”

David takes a deep breath, lets it out. “What time is it?”

“Almost dawn,” Divad says, and gestures to the window. “Why don’t you go see?”

David freezes, going so still. It breaks Divad’s heart, the way David is afraid to let himself hope. Divad blames himself for that. Dvd was right, of course. Divad was afraid to let them hope, because it hurt too much to have those hopes shattered again and again. But he went too far the other way and dragged David down with him. Too much despair is even worse than heartbreak.

David makes a faltering move, then another. He gets to his feet, walks towards the hexagon of pale light at the far wall.

The dawn breaks, orange-pink from the dirt of the city air. It’s imperfect and messy and beautiful. David watches it and Divad can feel the way it wakes the pain in his heart. But it’s a needed pain, a good pain. It’s a start, however small.

Divad reaches into their body and nudges Dvd awake. Their eyes flutter open and Divad presses a finger to his lips, cautioning Dvd from making any noise. The two of them watch David as the sun rises and daylight streams in, warm and bright around him.

§

David's back, but he's not back back. He's been awake all morning but he won't get back in his body. Apparently he's decided that Divad and Dvd should just keep sharing his body, since they're enjoying it so much, and he should stay some kind of fake ghost forever.

Kerry's not having that. She didn't punch Dvd in the face, which meant punching David in the face, and then cry about it, just so David could hide in some invisible sulk.

"I don't want to push him," admits Divad, quietly, as if David isn't right in the room with them and can’t hear everything they're saying.

"Where is he now?" Kerry demands, looking around the lab. "I'll push him."

Cary looks up from where he's checking on Oliver and sighs.

"Still by the window," Divad says. "Let's just-- Give him some more time."

"No," Kerry says. She turns to the window, hoping she's looking at the right spot. "It's lunchtime, and I'm not eating lunch if you won't eat lunch. We did all this work to make you feel better. You need to get back in your body so you can appreciate it."

Divad listens. "He says he's already very grateful," he relays. "And that we've already done more than he deserves."

Kerry rolls her eyes. "You have to make him come back," she tells Divad.

"I'll try again," Syd says, putting aside the psychology book she's been reading. She goes over to the window, then looks to Divad. Divad waves her to stand back a foot, so she does. "David, you have to come back. We can't help you if you won't talk to us."

Divad shakes his head. David hasn't been willing to talk to Syd all morning. According to Divad, he hasn't wanted to talk much at all to anyone. He's just sat by the window and felt bad about everything.

Kerry supposes it makes sense. Before David disappeared, all he was doing was sitting around and feeling bad about everything. But it was a lot easier for her to deal with that when she could look him in the eye and yell at him. Now she can only yell in his general direction and it doesn't have the same effect.

"Let's have lunch anyway," Cary says, ever the peacemaker. "Maybe seeing us eat will make him hungry."

"He didn't want waffles," Kerry reminds him. "David always wants waffles."

"Yes, that was disconcerting," Cary admits. He looks to Divad. "Are you sure you can't--" He makes a pushing gesture. "Encourage him?"

"I don't think forcing David to do anything is a good idea," Divad says. Then he pauses, listening. "Dvd says to just leave David alone. He says--" He rolls his eyes, but continues. "He says David's probably mad about you punching him."

Kerry hesitates. "Is he?"

"No, but Dvd is," Divad says.

Syd rubs her forehead. "David, please. We just want you to get better."

Divad sighs.

"What?" Syd asks.

"Getting better is--" Divad winces. "He says he's never going to get better, and he's tired of trying."

Cary rubs the back of his neck. "When you said it was going to be difficult to help David, I didn't think it was going to be this difficult."

Divad gives a long-suffering sigh. "Okay, switch." Divad closes his eyes, and Dvd opens them.

"Leave him alone," Dvd growls at Syd. "He doesn't want to talk to you. He doesn't want to talk to anyone."

"What does he want?" Kerry challenges.

Dvd looks pained. "You know what he wants."

Kerry crosses her arms. David still wants to die. She thought she got him to apologize for that but she realizes now that she should have been more specific. "Well, he can't," she says, angrily. "Tell him he can't."

Dvd narrows his eyes at her. "No."

"You're supposed to be helping us."

"No, I'm supposed to be helping David. All you're doing is annoying him."

"Maybe he needs to be annoyed."

"Maybe you need to fuck off!"

Kerry glares at Dvd, and then delivers him a sharp kick in the shin.

Dvd leaps back, grabbing his shin. "What the hell!"

"David, if you don't get back in your body right now, I'm gonna keep kicking Dvd."

Dvd looks at the window and has some kind of silent exchange with David. Kerry steps forward and kicks him on the other shin.

"Brat!" Dvd shouts, wincing.

"Oh, you want more of that?" Kerry challenges. She puts on a thoughtful pose. "Hm, left or right this time?"

"Wait, wait!" Dvd holds up his hand, closes his eyes. They stay closed for almost a whole minute. And then just when Kerry is about to deliver another kick, they open again.

It's David. Finally.

"Ow," David says, bending down to rub both shins. "That really hurts!"

By the window, Syd gives a strained laugh. "I should have thought of that."

David straightens and winces, rubs at his bruised jaw. "Happy now?" he grumbles. He starts for the window, but sees Syd and turns around and walks over to his bed. He lies down, adjusts his pillow, and curls up around himself.

Oh.

Kerry feels bad now. But she's not giving up that easy. "You still have to eat lunch," she tells him.

David doesn't respond. This isn’t much of an improvement, if she's honest. Now she can see him sulking, but he's still sulking.

Now that he's back in his body, everyone decides to give him some space. After they've all eaten, Kerry brings him a plate of dumplings. She made sure they got soft food for him because his jaw's gonna hurt for a while.

“You have to eat to stay alive,” she reminds him. “If you starve yourself that’s suicide. You’re not allowed to do that, remember?”

Kerry doesn’t care that Farouk threatened to torture them all forever if David kills himself. But David does. It’s the one thing that gets through to him, besides kicking Dvd in the shins.

David sits up and half-heartedly eats the dumplings. Then he lies back down and curls up again.

Kerry thinks about all of this. Maybe David doesn’t care about himself anymore. But he must still care about them or he’d still be invisible.

She sits down in one of the chairs next to his bed, looks at him, and does what Cary does all the time. She thinks, and keeps thinking until she reaches a conclusion.

"I'm sorry I punched Dvd's face," she says to him. "Cause it's your face, too. It must really hurt. He deserved it but you don't. So I'm sorry. And I'm sorry for kicking you."

David makes a small noise. It's not much, but it's a start. She plows on.

"You must have been pretty scared to go away like that. I was worried you weren't going to come back. Divad and Dvd said you would, but-- If you didn't, it would've been my fault."

David looks up at her. "No," he says, softly, and looks down again. "It's--"

When he doesn't continue, she does. "And then you woke up somewhere else. That's scary, too. It makes you feel like-- Like you're not even there. You're just a passenger. It makes you not want to come out at all, because you're not-- It's not your life." She takes a shaky breath. "And then it's easier to let it not be your life at all."

Across the lab, Cary is watching her. They've never talked about any of this. She didn't want to. But she has to now, because she's the only one who understands what David's going through. She's the only one.

David's looking at her again, and he's not looking away. She keeps going, knowing they're close to what they need.

"Being alive hurts," she says, honestly. "It's scary, being-- Outside, all the time. With people. Staying alive, eating, it's all-- It's a lot of work. Sometimes all I want to do is go back into Cary and never come out again. But I don't because-- Because I spent so long hiding inside him that I missed a lot of good things, too."

Cary's so old, now. He's so old and she's not. She promised to punch death in the face for him, but deep in her heart she knows death isn't something she can punch. Punching Dvd only meant she punched David, too.

"I think," she says, gathering her courage. "I think everything hurts. Your jaw. Your shins. The crown. I think everything hurts and you just want it to stop hurting."

David's eyes are wet now, and he's looking at her like he's starving for every word.

"That's what we want," she says. "We want to help you stop hurting. But you have to stop hurting yourself. If you do that, you won't need the crown, okay? You won't need a kick in the shins and you won't need me to punch you in the face again."

David lets out another noise, something between a sob and a laugh. A few tears track down his face. "It hurts," he says, admits, quietly pleads for her to understand.

"Yeah," she agrees. "It's gonna hurt. It hurt when I got shot. There was a bullet sitting in my chest, and even after Cary dug it out, I didn't even want to breathe because every time I breathed it hurt so much. And I couldn't go away, I couldn't hide because if I did it would have hurt Cary, too. So you're gonna hurt and we're gonna hurt and everything's gonna suck for a while. But we'll get through it together and it's gonna get better again. That's the truth."

There's a little spark of hope in his eyes, but there's fear, so much fear trying to drown it out. "I can't," he says.

God, this is hard. She can do this. She has to do this.

"You can," she tells him. "You have to. Because we need you. We-- We love you, and if you give up, that's gonna hurt us worse than anything Farouk could ever do to us. So if you need something to fight for, fight for us. Stay alive because we want you to stay alive, not because he does."

David closes his eyes and turns away, rolls onto his back. He takes gasping breaths as more tears spill down his face. He must be in so much awful, awful pain, worse than ten bullet wounds. Worse than a hundred. Maybe it's not that he wants to die. Maybe he just feels like he's already dying, and every breath hurts worse than the one before it. Maybe what they have to do is help him breathe so they can get the bullets out and sew him up.

"She's right."

Kerry turns to see Syd standing at the end of the bed. When David sees her, his face crumples.

Syd comes over and sits next to Kerry. "David," she says, gently. "I know what he's done to you. I know you're-- You're so afraid it's all going to be the same. That you're trapped, that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you fight, it won’t make a difference. He has you in his grip so tight you're never going to get away. That was the truth for a long, long time. But it's not true anymore because we got him out of you. Whatever else happened since that day, we got him out of your body, and that's-- It wasn't enough, god it wasn't, but it's everything. It means this isn't going to be like before. It means you have a chance. That's something you never had before."

David shakes his head.

"You never had a chance," Syd says, kindly. "He only let you think you did so it would hurt more every time you failed. I know that you're afraid. You've had to put yourself back together so many times, just so he could break you. But even that was never your choice. Everything he did to you, if you couldn't come back from it, he would just make you forget. And he made you forget so much."

Syd pauses, visibly shaken by the horror of that.

"We love you," she says, imploring him. "That means we wouldn't put you through that again for nothing. We wouldn't make you suffer if there wasn't any hope. For the first time, you can truly make the choice to get better. We'll be here with you, fighting every step of the way, but you have to take that first step. You, David. You're the only one who can do that. And you can do it, because you are here and alive and you have that choice."

The whole time Syd talked, David kept crying, but he was listening, too. Kerry could see him trying so hard to hear them, to believe them. With a great rush of relief, she realizes that he truly doesn't want to die. He doesn't. He's just so afraid.

Kerry stands up and hugs him. David startles, not expecting that at all, but she doesn't care. She just hugs him tighter. She knows Syd can't hug him so she has to hug him for both of them, for everyone.

She keeps hugging him until he hugs her back. She keeps hugging him, and he breathes out, breathes in. He keeps breathing.

Chapter Text

The first step. That’s what he has to take. And he can take it because he’s here, here’s alive. Because David is still David. There are things he's lost that he'll never get back. But he's here and he's not alone.

David’s not sure yet if he can believe the other thing his friends have told him, if he can accept them into his ever-growing mantra. He’s not sure he can believe that this time is different. Even if Farouk is out of his body, he’s still as determined as ever to control every aspect of David’s life. He’s still able to influence him, to manipulate him, to take away every other option until David has no choice but to choose exactly what Farouk wants him to choose.

David doesn’t want to try to get better if that only means giving Farouk what he wants. He doesn’t want to be whole if that means being broken all over again, if that means he won’t be able to stop himself from becoming whatever monster Farouk wants to turn him into. He doesn’t want to be someone who hurts other people, whether it’s his own choice or not.

He doesn’t want to. But when has it ever mattered what he wants? He’s not allowed to die, and he can’t suffer without making everyone who cares about him suffer, too. Just like before, he’s had every other option taken away from him. So he has to take the first step. He has to get better, even if getting better terrifies him in so many different ways.

After Syd and Kerry finished taking away his choice to stay broken, he asked for his notebook back. Of course they gave it to him, thinking it was a good sign, a positive sign that he’s ready to get better. They even left him alone to write down his thoughts in peace.

But he still only has one thought, so that’s all he’s writing. David, David, David, David, David. No variation this time. He just writes his name as neatly as he can, his hand steady because Divad keeps it from shaking. This is the only thing he can truly choose to do, the only thing he can control. It helps him remember that he exists when everything is trying to erase him.

He’ll have to ask for another notebook soon. He’s filled up half of this one already, and he’s only been physically able to write for half of the past two days. Part of that lost time he spent in a terrifying absence, and the other part he spent where he wants to be right now: away from his body, away from the pain it holds, away from the heaviness of living in the world.

Kerry was right. It’s hard being alive. It’s so, so hard. He doesn’t want to go away again, but god, he doesn’t want to be alive either. Not if it’s just going to be this forever: pain and fear and agonizing dread, the future always barreling towards him like a freight train and he’s tied to the tracks.

He would kill himself. Even if that’s a kind of going away, he would do it. Because his existence isn’t worth the price everyone else has paid and is paying and will continue to pay. He isn’t worth the world. He’s not even worth a third of a person.

But he can’t. So he keeps writing.

Ptonomy comes back to the lab. He’s been busy with something, no one’s told David what. It doesn’t matter if he knows or not. He doesn’t get choices, so it can’t matter if he knows anything. He’s just a passenger along for the ride.

Divad and Dvd have been giving him space, too. They’ve gone invisible again now that this latest crisis is over. He still feels them, especially Divad, silently urging him away from the mental cliff he’s been staring down at all afternoon. But David hasn’t jumped. He’s not allowed to jump. So there’s nothing for Divad or any of them to worry about. He’s doing what they want him to do, what all of them want him to do, including Farouk. He’s existing. He’s breathing. He’s in his body, experiencing it and all the ways it hurts him.

He’s trying to give them what they want, Divad and Dvd and Kerry and Syd and Cary and Ptonomy. He doesn’t want to hurt them with his suffering. So he’s trying, he truly is. But god, he wishes that first step was off the cliff and not away from it.

Ptonomy’s Vermillion pulls up a chair next to the window David is sitting beside. It sits down, posture unnaturally perfect, and stares at him. David accepts this latest inevitability and closes the notebook, sits up from his slump.

“How are you feeling?” Ptonomy asks.

David shrugs. “I’m here.” It’s the best answer he can give. It’s what they want from him.

Ptonomy accepts it. “So what have you been writing? Can I see?”

David doesn’t want to share it, but it doesn’t matter what he wants. He hands over the notebook, waits as Ptonomy flips through it. It hardly matters how crazy it makes him look when he’s irrevocably insane. What are they going to do, drug him? Lock him up? It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t matter.

Ptonomy hands the notebook back. “You’ve written a lot. Has it helped?”

David shrugs again. “It’s something to do.” He looks across the room. Syd is reading a book about all the ways crazy people like him are broken. Kerry is up in the loft beating something up. Cary is at his computers, doing something David will never understand.

“I guess I should find a better hobby,” David says, looking down. Vermillion have strangely perfect knees.

“Maybe stick with this one for a while,” Ptonomy says. “You’ve filled a lot of pages. It’s obviously meaningful to you. What do you think about when you write?”

Everything. “Nothing,” David says, and looks out the window. “It just—“ He looks at the buildings, full of normal people, living their normal lives. He wonders what it’s like to have a job in an office. He’s never had a real job. He did a few things while he was in school, and then when he was expelled from college he scraped by doing menial labor while Amy paid his bills. But he’s never tried to be more than he was. He was a mental patient, a drug addict, and then he wasn’t anything at all. He just existed, doing what he was told, taking what he was told to take, saying what he was supposed to say. Yes, Doctor Kissinger, I’m feeling much better now.

David’s always been such a liar.

“Just what?” Ptonomy prompts, pulling David back from his thoughts.

David shakes his head. “Nothing. It’s just my name.”

“Names are meaningful,” Ptonomy says. “They’re part of what makes our identities. They’re how people relate to us. If you had a different name, your life might have taken a different path.”

David very much doubts that. “It’s probably not even my real name. My birth name.”

“That’s right, you were adopted.”

“If you could call it that.”

“What would you call it?”

He was dumped. Shoved into the first of many holes by people who claimed to love him, or presumably they claimed to. He’ll never know if his real parents loved him or not, just like he’ll never know his birth name. “They got rid of me,” he says, finally. “Maybe it was to protect me from Farouk, I don’t know. If that was why, it didn’t work.”

“No,” Ptonomy agrees. “So they gave you up for nothing.”

“Maybe they didn’t want me at all,” David says. His rational mind tried to talk him out of that idea, but— It would make sense, that they didn’t want him.

“Do you want to try to find them?”

The question startles David, even though he’s asked it to himself many times over the past weeks. “I don’t— I don’t even know if they’re still alive. It was thirty years ago. Thirty-one.” He keeps forgetting about that missing year. His birthday doesn’t match his age anymore. Not that it was even his real birthday. He doesn’t know what that is either.

God, he’s just— There’s nothing real in his life. Nothing he can hold on to. He barely exists at all. He’s just fragments, ragged scraps of nonsense badly sewn together. How is this ever going to work? They want him to get better, but there’s no ‘him’ to get better.

“David?”

“I don’t—“ David swallows. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Find your parents?”

David presses his fingers to his face. “Exist.”

“You already exist,” Ptonomy says. “Whether you want to or not. Existence isn’t something we choose. It’s something that happens.”

“Does it?” David asks, genuinely. “Because I don’t— I’m not a— a person. I’m not even— I don’t have anything real, I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I’m even supposed to be.”

“You don’t have to be anything more than everyone else,” Ptonomy says, in that mix of soothing and angry. “You just have to be yourself.”

“And who is that, exactly? David the boy who grew up in a house in the country? David the— the victim, with Farouk in my head making me crazy? David the broken mind, who’s so fucked that he thinks he’s three people at once?”

“Why not all of that?”

David breathes out, sharp with frustration. “I don’t remember so much of my life. Even before— Even before. I tried so hard to— to make myself a person. And I failed. Now I know just how much more I’ve forgotten and— If there’s a jigsaw puzzle, 500 pieces on the box, but you buy it and take it home and inside it’s just, what, thirty pieces? Fifteen? You’d take it back to the store and yell at them for selling you garbage. And then they’d throw it out.”

“And that’s what you think you are? Garbage?”

“Yes,” David answers, without hesitation. “When a plate breaks, you don't fix it. You just get another plate.”

Ptonomy doesn’t reply to that. What is there to say? It’s a truth David has known about himself for a long, long time, since long before he tied a knot in an extension cord. It’s just the truth.

“So you want us to get another David?” Ptonomy asks, finally. “Should we go to the David store, pick up a few spares just in case we break the new David, too?”

“There’s already two extra Davids.”

“They’re not Davids. They’re Divad and Dvd.”

“Semantics.”

“No. You want to talk about names? Those are their names, Divad and Dvd. Not David One and David Two. They have their own names because they’re other people. They can’t replace you.”

“Then maybe no one should. What good have I ever done for anyone? What have I given back to the world? I spent years ruining everything I touched. I hurt my parents, I hurt Amy, I got her— I got expelled and I got high and I couldn’t even manage to kill myself. And then I sat in a hospital and did nothing. And when I tried to be something I wasn’t, something better, someone worthy of— of being loved and able to actually give something back to the world after taking so much, I ruined all of that, too.”

God, Divad can’t keep his hands from shaking now. David can’t even keep his hands steady with a whole other person trying to steady them. He is worth so absolutely nothing.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” Ptonomy says. “You’ve covered all the details. You wanted to make absolutely sure that you were doing the right thing in killing yourself. But that’s not how this works. Our lives aren’t about what we take and what we give. There’s no balance sheet. If we judged everyone that way, there’d be no one left but the saints, and most of them were just as messed up as the rest of us. They just have better PR.”

If David didn’t feel so awful, he might have laughed at that. But he feels awful.

“You, David, have worth. Not because of anything you did or didn’t do, but because you’re you. You’re a person, not a plate, not a jigsaw puzzle. A person, and the thing about being a person is that no one has it right. I’ve walked through hundreds of minds and I know for a fact that every single person out there is just as scared and screwed-up and imperfect as you. Does that make them worthless?”

David tries to answer, but nothing comes.

“You are not a collection of memories,” Ptonomy continues. “You are who you are now, the choices you make now. You are a part of the people who love you, and if you dismiss yourself then you dismiss them. You can’t hold yourself separate from the world for judgement. You have always been a part of it and every good and bad thing it contains. That list you just rattled off? Where’s everyone else in that? Forget about Farouk and what he did to you. Your birth parents gave you away. Your family couldn’t help you when you were suffering. Your school didn’t give you support. Clockworks might have kept you alive, but their methods were abusive and made everything else worse. Even we failed you. We said we wanted to make you whole, but we couldn’t see past your powers. We put stopping Farouk entirely on your shoulders when you’re the last person who should have to bear that weight. We failed you. Does that make any of us worthless? Should we all kill ourselves too? Are we just one big pile of broken plates? Why shouldn’t we be replaced?”

David gapes at him, completely at a loss. No one has ever— He feels like he’s been knocked flat but he’s still sitting up.

“It’s easy to blame yourself,” Ptonomy says. “When you have no control over what’s happening to you, blaming yourself feels good because that means it was your fault, your choices. But that’s nothing but a lie you tell yourself. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help the people around you. Yes, you’ve hurt people. You’ve made mistakes, some of them terrible. But those actions can’t be judged in a vacuum. You had a monster in your head making you very, very sick. Even now that he’s out, he’s still doing everything he can to keep you sick. Not just by torturing you, but by twisting your thoughts, turning them against you, the way he always has. In another life, where he never found you, where you grew up healthy and safe? All those things you blame yourself for, would you have done them without him?”

Ptonomy waits for an answer.

“I— No,” David says, because god, no, he never wanted any of it.

“Then that’s who you are. That’s who David is. You need a foundation to build your new life on? That’s your foundation. So write it down. Open your notebook and write it down.”

David can only comply. He opens the notebook, flips past all the Davids to the next blank page. He holds the pen and stops. “What should I—”

“The truth,” Ptonomy says. “David’s truth. Not the lies. Not the story you keep telling yourself.”

What is his truth? What would he have chosen, if he’d ever had a choice?

His truth is—

His truth is no. NO. That’s his truth, the one thing he’s been screaming deep inside for so long it just became noise. No to the pain, to the fear, to being made into something he never wanted to be. No to all of it.

NO, he writes, the lines angry and pressed deep into the page. He writes it again, again, again, so hard he rips the paper.

He’s shaking, but god, god, now it feels good.

“Keep writing it,” Ptonomy says. “Write your name. Write your truth. This is your foundation. Build on it.”

David doesn’t answer. He turns to a clean page and he writes. He makes his first real choice, his first step away from the cliff. He chooses to say no.

Chapter Text

It’s hard to avoid Cary when they’re all together in his lab all the time, working hard to keep David alive. But Kerry’s trying anyway, even if she has to actually leave the lab to do it.

She doesn’t like avoiding Cary. She likes it even less than avoiding David. She’s not even mad at Cary like she was when she avoided him last year. She’s just—

She needs to be on her own, for a while.

That’s something new for her, even newer than eating. She's never needed to be on her own. Even when she avoided Cary before, it wasn't because she wanted to be alone. She just couldn't look at him without being mad at him for not being there when she needed him. It was the opposite of how she's feeling now, whatever it is she's feeling now.

She meant everything she said to David. Being alive, being outside all the time-- It's so much. New things keep happening to her, like this new thing of needing to be alone. She doesn't even understand what it means. Before, if she was upset, she went into Cary. And even when she couldn't do that anymore, she still went to him and he still held her.

This is different. It's new. She doesn't know if she likes it.

So of course Cary finds her anyway, following her out into the hall, and she can't concentrate on figuring it if she likes being alone because he's with her. And now she’s annoyed that he’s with her, and that’s even newer, and she hates this feeling for sure.

“Kerry?” Cary calls, worried.

Kerry walks faster. Cary walks faster to keep up with her.

"Kerry?" Cary calls again, more worried.

"Leave me alone," Kerry says, and that makes Cary even more worried. She breaks into a run and leaves him in her dust. But once she's alone, she feels another new thing. Instead of running away, she wants to go back to him. To talk.

Kerry doesn't like talking. It's hard and slow and she has to remember so many words. When she stayed inside of Cary all the time, he knew her thoughts without her having to say them. He talked to her aloud, and that was fine. She never minded listening. Once she started spending more time outside of him, she got used to speaking. She even got used to speaking to other people. But it's never come naturally to her.

She's probably talked more to David than she's ever talked to anyone but Cary. Maybe that's why she wants to talk to Cary now.

She turns around and runs back. Cary hasn't gone far. He's still standing in the hall, pretty close to where she left him.

He's upset. She made him upset.

"Cary?" she calls, and now she's the one who's worried.

"I just-- I just wanted to see if you were okay," Cary says, hesitant. "The things you said-- I'm sorry, I shouldn't have--" He turns to go.

"Wait," Kerry says, and closes the distance between them. Then she doesn't know what to say. She bounces on her heels twice. "Ask me what you were going to ask me."

Cary adjusts his glasses. He always does that when he's nervous. "Um. Are you? Okay?"

"I don't know," Kerry says, excitedly. "I don't know? I'm feeling a lot of things and they're new?"

"Oh! Okay, well, um. Do you want to talk about them? These new feelings?"

"I think--" She thinks. "I don't."

"Oh."

"Yet," she adds. "Because-- Because I need to think about them myself first. On my own."

"That is new," Cary says, impressed. "Well. Should I leave you to it?"

She wants to, but she doesn't want to. She wants to keep talking to him, just about something else. "Do you want to talk about something?" She hesitates, then plunges on. "We could talk about what I said to David."

"That is something I'd like to discuss," Cary says, going all serious, the way he does. Then he looks around. "Why don't we sit outside in the garden?"

The garden would be nicer than the hallway. And the lab is full of people, and the cafeteria is full of food, so... "Sure."

The garden is much nicer than the hallway. Kerry hasn't spent much time in it, despite living here for over a year now. It's an outside thing, and she's only been truly outside of Cary for a few weeks. She looks at the city around them. She's been out in it with Cary but now she wants to go on her own. She's never gone to new places on her own.

"Wow," she says, feeling kinda dizzy.

"It is quite a view," Cary says, and she realizes he didn't understand her. Like David, apologizing for the wrong thing.

Cary always understood exactly what she meant when she was talking to him from the inside. And she didn't care if anyone else understood her. If they didn’t, that was their fault, not hers, because Cary always understood her perfectly.

She wants to correct him, but then she doesn’t want to. She wants to let it happen, this misunderstanding between them. She wants to experience it.

“So,” Cary begins. “What you said to David. I'm sorry, I never-- I didn't mean to make you feel that you were-- You were never just a passenger to me, never."

Maybe she doesn't want to experience too much misunderstanding.

"I know," she says, and she does. She knows it wasn't something he did to her. He's only ever wanted to protect her, the way she's always protected him. "It wasn't--" Ugh, words are so hard sometimes. She's not sure what it is.

"I never wanted you to be scared," Cary says, his eyes mournful. "I don't want you to be scared now. If there was any way I could fix us, put things back the way they were--"

"No," Kerry says, even as she realizes it. "No. I don't-- You shouldn't do that."

That surprises him. "I shouldn't?"

She thinks about it some more, but that only makes her more certain. "You shouldn't."

Cary is entirely taken aback. "Well," he says, adjusting his glasses. "I must admit I'm not sure how I feel about that."

"I don't know either," Kerry admits. "But-- I think--" She thinks as hard as she can, as hard as she thought when she was trying to make David understand that living was hard but they could get through it together. "I think-- If I could still hide inside you, I would. But I can't and that's-- I have to stay outside and the longer I stay outside, the more-- the more things keep happening. And I don't understand them but I want to? I want to-- understand-- I want--" She pauses as something comes together in her head. "I want to understand myself," she says, and it's a revelation.

Cary stares at her for a long time.

"Did you-- Did you not? Understand yourself?" he asks, quietly.

"I thought I did," Kerry says, thinking back. She was the fighter, the muscle, the one who kept Cary safe. And when she wasn't that, she hid. Like Divad and Dvd hid, because they were-- Because they were afraid of being seen.

She was afraid of being seen, even when she was protecting Cary, even when she was fighting.

It was a misunderstanding. She misunderstood herself. She didn't even know that was a thing she could do, that anyone could do.

"Do you understand yourself?" she asks Cary.

"My goodness," Cary says, putting his hand over his heart like she just hit him there. "I-- I think I do. I hope I do."

Kerry looks at the flowers in the garden. There are bees buzzing around them, landing at the centers of them and then bustling around inside the petals. Do bees understand themselves? Do flowers? She looks at the city. Does everyone in the city understand themselves, too? There so many of them. She never thought about how many people there are in the city, in the whole world.

"Wow," she says, stunned.

"Kerry," Cary says, leaning forward. "I-- I'm so sorry. I had no idea."

"It's okay," she tells him. "I didn't either." And she didn't. Just like David didn't know he had other people inside him. He was walking around his whole life and he didn't know what was inside him. Just like her.

Just like her.

"Now I can find out," she says, and-- Wow. She wants to find out.

She's better not find out there's any people inside her. She doesn't think so, but David didn't think so either, and look what happened to him. Cary's the only one who's allowed to be inside her.

Cary.

She hasn't let him back inside her, with everything happening, not for days. He's used to being outside, but it's not-- "Do you need to go back inside me?"

He stares at her again. "I--"

"I know it's weird," Kerry says, because it's really weird, him being inside her. It's not how they were meant to fit together and it's awkward and kinda hurts and it's hard to get him out again. But that's how they are now. It's how they need to stay, or else--

Something else clicks in her head.

Cary's old and she's not, because she hid inside him for so long. But now he goes inside her and-- and that means--

"You need to go inside," Kerry insists. "Cary, you have to!"

"I do?"

"Yes!" She grabs his wrist and pulls his hand to her chest. "Now!"

He tries to pull his hand back, but she doesn't let go. "Kerry--"

"If you don't get inside me, you'll die!"

"Kerry--"

"You have to hide inside me," Kerry insists. "You have to! For just as long as I did, because if you don't--"

She can't say it. But he understands her anyway.

"Oh, Kerry," Cary says, and pulls her into his arms.

She should be-- She needs to be like he was. She needs to be outside so he can be inside. She needs to protect him so he'll never leave her. She should be the one holding him. But she lets him hold her anyway.

"I can't do that," he says, gently. "I can't hide. That's not who I am."

"It's who you should be," Kerry says, stubbornly.

"I'm sorry," he says, but keeps holding her. "You know, I always thought--" He stops.

She pulls out of his arms so she can look at him. He's talking and she wants to listen. She wants to understand.

"It should have been you who was outside, when we were born," Cary continues, quietly. "I was the one who was wrong. The wrong gender, the wrong race. If it had been you, everything would have been-- Maybe it wouldn't have been perfect. But you would have been happy. Our parents wouldn't have divorced. Mom wouldn't have--"

Kerry knows what he won't say. She saw it from inside him, even if she didn't understand what was happening until much, much later. Mom was drunk all the time, after Dad left. She was drunk and mean and--

Kerry was afraid of her. She was afraid of being yelled at and smacked, so she let Cary be yelled at and smacked and she hid like a coward.

"No," Kerry says, angry at herself. "It wasn't your fault."

Cary gives her a sad smile. "It was. Even if--" He takes a deep breath. "I know it wasn't. Melanie helped me see that. But it's still-- These things stay with us, no matter how hard we try to escape them. That's why I've always tried so hard to keep you safe. To protect you. But I think-- I protected you too much. I didn't help you to live your life. I haven't been helping you enough now, with everything you've been going through."

Kerry wants to protest, but she knows it's the truth. She told David as much, and saying it out loud meant she told Cary, too. She nods.

"I'm going to tell you the same thing I told David. There are things we've lost that we'll never get back. But we're here and we're not alone, and it's never too late as long as that's true."

Kerry wants to accept that, but-- "But if you stay outside me, one day-- one day--"

One day he'll be dead, and she'll be alone. Like Melanie. There could be a whole world full of people around her and she'd still be alone.

"We're never alone as long as we have people who love us," he tells her. "And we have so many people who love us. Just like David does. You know how hard it is for him to see that, but it doesn't mean it isn't true."

Kerry nods. She thought David was stupid for not seeing that. They've all been trying to help him but it was like he couldn't see them at all.

But she couldn't see it either. All she saw was Cary.

"I think what David's going through is an opportunity for all of us," Cary continues. "We've all been through so much. Not just in these past weeks, but throughout our lives. We all need support and protection the same way David does. We all need help to heal from the pain we've experienced. These things never go away, but we learn to live with them. And the best way to do that is together. All of us."

Together. All of them, not just Cary and Kerry. Not just Kerry and David.

Kerry likes the way that makes her feel. She smiles at Cary and he smiles back, and everything's okay again.

"So what do you think we should all work on together first?" Cary asks.

"Food," Kerry says, without hesitation. "Every time I go down to the cafeteria, I don't know what to pick. There's so many different things, and I don't-- I don't know what I should like or what I need to eat or what David needs or--"

"Okay, okay," Cary says, fondly. "You know, I don't think David knows what he should be eating either. I reviewed all of Division 3's footage of him and he has terrible eating habits. He's had almost nothing but waffles and cherry pie since he came back. That's not good for anyone."

"Waffles are bad for him?" Kerry asks, alarmed.

"Waffles and pie are treats," Cary explains. "But they don't give him what he needs to be healthy and strong. He eats like-- Well, he eats like someone who's never taken very good care of himself and has spent a good part of his life in an abusive mental hospital."

"Then he's not allowed to have any more waffles," Kerry decides, firmly.

"Not for a while," Cary agrees. "How about we make up a meal plan for everyone to follow? That's a guide for what kinds of foods are good for us to eat every day."

A guide sounds really helpful. "Yeah," she agrees, and immediately feels better about the cafeteria. She doesn't think it'll be so scary once she has a guide. "And then we can all eat and get better together."

"We can," Cary says, and he looks at her like he's so proud of her he could burst.

§

David was right. He’s going to need a lot more notebooks.

He’s written NO so many times that he’s filled up the rest of the pages. Every single one of them felt good to write. He feels like something’s been released in him, something he’s been holding back for so, so long.

NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

No, he didn’t want to hurt anyone. No, none of this was his choice. No, he doesn’t want all the fear and pain that’s been inflicted on him. No, this wasn’t meant to be his life. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. No to all of it, to every single miserable day in his life since Farouk got hold of him.

He wrote through dinner, eating with one hand, writing with the other. Everyone’s settling in for the night, but he can’t stop writing. He doesn’t even care that it’s making his hand cramp. He wants to write NO forever, to graffiti it on every wall, to write it across the whole sky in massive letters made out of clouds. To carve it into the moon, two giant, gouged-out scars that everyone will have to see every single day forever.

But then the pen runs out of ink. He feels a spike of panic, but Divad dulls it. He’s okay. He’s okay. It’s just a pen. He can get another pen.

His hand really hurts. Maybe he needs to take a break. He stares at the last page of NOs, flips back through all the others.

NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

“No,” he says aloud. It's almost the first thing he’s said since he started writing and didn’t stop.

“David?” It’s Syd. She’s in her pyjamas. Her hair is in pigtails. She’s wearing the compass locket, the one that can find him anywhere. The cut on her lips is healing.

It hurts to look at her. Especially when she— It’s like nothing’s changed, like he didn’t— Like she didn’t—

“I didn’t—“ He says, something else working it’s way free now that he’s started.

He’s still sitting at the table, and she sits down next to him. She listens.

He doesn’t know what he needs to say. He looks down at the notebook again. He traces his fingertips over the NOs, each of them carved deep into the page. He’d be able to read them even without the ink.

He knows she must have heard what he said before. About the desert, about Farouk controlling his body, using him to— He knows she heard it. But he needs to say it again, to her, now.

“I didn’t want it,” he says, forcing himself to look at her face instead of the notebook. “He made me do so many—“ He swallows.

“David—“

“No. No, let me— I have to— I didn’t want it. It’s not fair that you were— That you blamed me. Not just about— I was taken away and I was scared and confused and nothing made any sense and you acted like it was my fault, like I chose to leave. I didn’t choose anything! I was— I was taken, by you, by him, I don’t—“ Breathe, breathe. “All I wanted to do was stay and be happy. That’s all I ever— And you blamed me for something I didn’t do, you were so angry. You were right there, you saw what happened, you know that wasn’t— You knew. Why did you blame me when you knew? Was it all him? Or did you— Do you really think that’s what I am?”

Syd waits until he’s done, when he can’t say anything more. She looks down. Looks at him again.

“You’re right,” she admits. “It wasn’t just him. I was— It was a long year, waiting for you. It was—“ She looks up, presses her lips together, the way she does when she’s trying to be strong. “I kept asking myself if it was me, if you’d got free of whatever took you but then you didn’t want to come back because of me. Or maybe you were dead. Maybe I took too long, trying to find you. I tried to keep you safe but something took you right in front of me. I waited and I waited, holding my breath because I needed you to be alive. I needed—“ She swallows. “And then there you were. You were just the same, you didn’t even know how long you’d been gone. It felt like a joke, a sick joke because I changed so much and you didn’t change at all. And that made me angry. I was angry at myself and then I was angry with you for putting me through everything alone. For not changing with me. It wasn’t fair. I’m sorry.”

It’s a lot to take in.

It’s a lot. It’s a whole year of a lot, a whole year that didn’t happen for him. He didn’t see it before. He was so hurt and confused that he couldn’t see that she was hurt and confused, too. He just needed her the way he always needed her. The way—

The way he still does. If he’s being honest with himself. If he’s trying to start all of this only with the real truths, and not the lies he’s clung to to survive.

But he can’t ask that of her. He can’t ask it of anyone, to bear his burdens with him, but especially her.

“I’m sorry, too,” he says, and means it. Not just because he hurt her, because he knows he wasn’t— He accepts that he wasn’t in control of himself, of anything, not then. He was caught in madness and did mad, terrible things because of that.

He’s sorry because she deserves his pain the least of anyone. Even less than he deserves it. And he’s trying to accept that he doesn’t deserve it.

When she— In the desert, when she came to him and stopped him and pointed a gun at him. Something in him broke when she turned on him, when she called him every awful thing he’s always fought against so hard, and then proved how much she meant it by pulling the trigger. He was desperate after that, he lost himself completely. He knows Dvd tried to make him feel better by taking the blame for their plan, and he knows Farouk made Syd say those things because her words were meant to break him.

He still broke. He was broken. His mind slipped a gear and the whole machinery of him flew apart. He felt— It was like a fever consuming him, burning him up. Everything had spun so far out of control, he just needed to pull something back. So he crawled over the sand and reached into her mind and tried to take her back. To undo whatever Farouk had done to her to make her say every awful thing she said. But it was already too late, and all he did was break her the way she had broken him.

And then—

“God, I’m sorry,” he says, turning away and putting his face in his hands. He shouldn’t cry. He doesn’t deserve to cry when he did that to her. He did it. Farouk took away every other choice but he still did it.

He’s lost so much of himself, and he took away a piece of her. That’s what he did, that’s what Farouk turned him into. He doesn’t want that. He never wanted that. He screamed NO with all his might, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the freight train, barreling down until it ran him over.

He’s so afraid of what else he might be capable of. He’s terrified that one day he’ll be turned into exactly what she said he already was. It’s another train barreling down the tracks and he doesn’t know if anyone can help him get free.

God, he shouldn’t cry. But he’s breaking down, sobbing into his hands, his chest heaving.

“David,” Syd calls to him, worried, but she can’t comfort him here, body against body. She shouldn’t have to comfort him at all. He’s hurting her again, spilling his pain all over her, making her suffer with him when he’s the one who hurt her.

He stumbles up from the table, stumbles away. He’s fallen apart completely and all he feels is shame. He’s so shameful, this thing he’s become, the things he did, even if he didn’t choose to do them and didn’t want them and he only did them in the throes of madness. He still did them and he’s ashamed, and he can’t—

He ends up in a corner of the lab, pressed against the walls like he’s trying to hide inside them. He’s bawling, feverish with grief and shame and terror, and he slides down the wall, legs folding under him.

All of it just keeps coming out of him. He’s been blown open, his chest a ragged wound that feels like it will never, ever close. The shame burns hottest of all, like glowing coals shoved into his heart, burning him slow and relentless from the inside until it turns him to ashes.

He’s vaguely aware of everyone crowding together, trying to figure out how to help him. He doesn’t want them to. He doesn’t deserve it.

Someone touches his shoulder and he pulls away from their hand. But the hand follows him. It touches the side of his face, where his own hands can’t cover.

The hand is wearing a glove.

He turns to look, unbelieving.

Syd is kneeling beside him, touching him, her gloves hand cupping his flushed, wet face. She’s crying too, delicate tears tracking silently down her cheeks. She keeps touching him.

She’s never— She’s touched him for real before, body against body, but only a few times, mostly to save his life. He’s saved every moment in his memory because they’re so precious to him. Her hand pulling him out of the pool. Her body covering his to save him from Walter’s bullets. Her fingers against his lips after he caught the bullets, making them land safely in his hand, so he wouldn’t kiss her in the flush of victory.

She’s never touched him just to touch him. She’s never— It hurts her, to touch him. He hurts her.

She’s touching him anyway.

He’s stopped sobbing, but his tears spill out faster, pouring down and soaking her glove. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t— He can’t— She shouldn’t—

“David,” she says, looking him in the eyes, holding his attention. “I forgive you, okay? I forgive you. Please just— Try to forgive yourself. Please?”

She shouldn’t forgive him. She shouldn’t touch him. She should hate him. She should be physically sick just looking at him. Every time she hears his voice, she should want to throw up.

But she’s not. She’s doesn’t. She’s crying over him and she’s trying to help him get better.

He doesn’t understand. He can’t. It’s beyond him. But—

Maybe he doesn’t have to understand. Maybe he can just let it happen. Maybe that’s enough.

Chapter Text

David wakes late the next morning. His chest still hurts, a dull ache when he breathes. He feels tired, for all the hours he slept, for all that they were deep and dreamless.

Yesterday was— It was— It turned him upside-down and ripped him wide open and—

He feels sore. Not just his hand from writing, his chest and throat from sobbing, his jaw and his head and his bruised shins. His soul feels sore, his heart feels sore.

If this is what it’s like to get better, getting better might actually kill him.

He probably shouldn’t think of that as two birds with one stone.

He breathes out, groans as he pushes himself into a sit. There’s a glass of water by his bed and he drinks all of it. God he’s thirsty. He must have cried himself into a state of dehydration last night.

He rubs his face, gets to his unsteady feet. He goes to the bathroom and washes up, showers long and hot, and emerges dressed and feeling vaguely human. When he gets out, breakfast is waiting for him, and so is Syd.

He has to force himself not to run back into the bathroom and stay there. His stomach rumbles, so he focuses on the food. He can just about handle the concept of breakfast.

Syd lets him eat. She’s still working her way through that psychology book. He doesn’t like to think about how many diagnoses he qualifies for by now. Dissociative identity disorder. Suicidal ideation. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, panic disorder, depression, addiction, traumatic memory loss. At least he’s not actually schizophrenic anymore.

He pauses, mid-chew. Is he not actually schizophrenic anymore? He honestly has no idea. He was diagnosed because of the voices and hallucinations, but between his powers, his alters, and Farouk, he thinks everything is explained. Even the delusions, the confused thinking, the paranoia, his swiss-cheese mind.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what the cause is if all the symptoms add up to the same result. That’s all any diagnosis amounts to, in his experience: just a collection of symptoms. Maybe Farouk is his schizophrenia.

It’s so strange. He honestly believed he was schizophrenic for decades. He was diagnosed when he was a teenager, but got the retroactive diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia on top of that. Maybe he questioned it in the memories he lost. But he doesn’t remember questioning it. It was just another truth he accepted, until it wasn’t true anymore.

His past is like quicksand. He wishes Ptonomy could still walk through his mind with him, help him make sense of what’s left. David didn’t fully appreciate that ability when he first came to Summerland. He was impressed, but he didn’t understand why he needed it, and it all kept going wrong anyway. Between Dvd and Farouk, his mind was a battleground, but he wasn’t allowed to remember anyone doing the fighting. He just kept tripping over the rubble, confused and scared and completely unaware.

It’s no wonder he kept pissing Ptonomy off. David’s mind didn’t make any sense to himself, much less anyone else.

David’s very glad that his mind makes sense to Ptonomy now. He’s probably the only one who actually understands the broken mess of David’s brain. Maybe being the memory guy was only holding him back. He’s the best therapist David’s ever had by miles, and he’s had a lot of therapists.

To be fair to his old therapists, none of them could have known his actual diagnoses, which made it extremely difficult to help him get better. But still. Ptonomy has a way of slicing through David’s defensive bullshit and right into his heart. It’s like being operated on without anesthesia, but at least the cuts are clean and quick.

But like actually being operated on without an aesthetic, David wonders if he’ll survive the shock of the cure. He’s sure he’ll be expected to endure another session today, and he’s already dreading it.

He pushes aside his plate, slumps forward, and rests his head in his arms. He needs a break. He’d ask to step out of his body, but he knows what the answer will be. No one will want to risk him refusing to step back into it again. He can’t even astral project with the crown on. The whole thing makes him feel so stuck. Ironic, to feel trapped in his body when he’s more in control of it than he has been for his entire life.

A hand strokes his hair, and David goes still. He didn’t hear anyone else approach the table, which means—

He peeks up from the pillow of his arms. It’s Syd.

“Did I miss something?” David asks, genuinely confused. Last night he could understand. Syd was trying to save his life again, in a way. He gets why she would put up with touching him for that, even if he disagrees that he deserved it. But he’s not a blubbering mess now. He’s just exhausted.

“You were gone for a year,” Syd says, still stroking his hair like it fascinates her. “Remember the cat?”

“You were swapping with it.” David might have forgotten a lot of his life, but he’s never going to forget Syd the cat.

“She’s my therapy animal. Her name’s Matilda. I practice swapping with her so I can control my power, but the real reason I got her was to help with my haphephobia. My fear of touch.”

David doesn’t want her to stop stroking his hair, so he doesn’t raise his head. Instead he frowns down at the table. “You don’t have haphephobia.”

“I don’t?”

“No, you— It’s just your powers. It’s physical, not mental.”

“I’m touching you now, like I touch Matilda.”

“She’s a cat.”

“And it feels the same,” Syd says. “David, I meant what I said. I’ve spent the past year changing. You’re not the only one who needed to get better. I’m still working on myself. I probably always will be. When you left, I was antisocial—“

He does raise his head, then, and she takes her hand away. “But—“

She hushes him. “I was antisocial and I had haphephobia. And now I lead Division 3’s strategy department and I’m working on my fear of touch. You missed that.”

David missed most of that even for the time he’s been back. He vaguely remembers Ptonomy telling him how each of them was in charge of a different part of Division 3, but he never really processed any of it. He never really got his bearings at all after waking up that day. He hadn’t noticed Syd being in charge, but looking back he barely noticed anything that didn’t center around killing Farouk or helping Farouk or rushing to Syd or Future Syd every time something went wrong, which it did, constantly.

God, everything has been so exhausting all the time. From the moment he got scooped up to now. He feels so utterly done. He puts his head back down.

“You don’t have a fear of touch,” David says to the table, with unaccountable stubbornness. “You just didn’t understand your power.”

“Actually, I did understand my power. I’ve known about it since I was a teenager. I used it. I couldn’t control it very well, but I used it. I told you, remember? About my mother’s boyfriend?”

She did. She told him, and then she showed it to him, in vivid, disturbing detail. And there was the time she swapped with that boy and beat up her bullies. And she went to the club and bumped into all those people, swapping and swapping.

Why did he think she didn’t understand her powers? She even tried to tell him not to kiss her in Clockworks, as he rushed in and did it anyway. He heard her thought, her warning, but by then he’d long since given up on believing everything he heard. Because he was schizophrenic and the voices weren’t real.

Except they were extremely real. Too real. His life would probably be easier and happier if he really was schizophrenic after all, if it meant he didn’t have so many people stomping around in his head.

Dvd grumbles from the back of his mind, not appreciating the insult. David thinks back an apology, then thinks about how completely insane he is to be having casual conversations with himself.

He’s the one who didn’t understand his powers, who didn’t understand anything. He still doesn’t, apparently. Because he missed it. He missed a year and then he missed the rest because he was too busy spinning in circles to be anything but constantly dizzy.

“Wait,” he says, picking up his head again because circles make him think of loops. “You showed me. You were a baby. You hated being touched.”

“Yes.”

“Because of your power.”

“Yes.”

And now he’s confused again.

Syd looks at him with familiar, tolerant affection. It makes David’s sore heart ache a little more. “It’s still not— It takes work, to tolerate it. Habituation. That’s why I need Matilda. That’s why—“ She stops and flashes guilty.

“What?”

“It was probably wrong,” Syd says, chagrined. “But since you’ve been back, when you’ve been asleep. I’ve been touching you.”

David sits up. “What?”

“I needed to practice,” she says, both a confession and a defense. “I didn’t want to tell you until I was ready.”

David doesn’t know if he’s upset because he feels violated or if he’s upset because he was asleep and missed it. She’s been touching him? For weeks? And he didn’t know?

God, what is his life?

“You’re upset,” Syd says.

David doesn’t even know what to say to that. He just— he doesn’t know what to say.

“I’m sorry,” Syd says, wincing. “I didn’t want you to— I know how important touch is for you. I know it hurts you that we can’t even hold hands. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tolerate— But I wanted to be able to hold hands. With you.” She drops her gaze.

David doesn’t know what to say to that either. He doesn’t know where to start, where to end. They’re over, aren’t they? He doesn’t see how they could be anything but over. They’re never going to hold hands. Even if Syd has somehow managed to tolerate touching him, he ruined all of that. It’s done, it’s over, no hope of return.

It’s over. His heart hurts more again, and not just a little.

He doesn’t understand why she’s being so— Why she’s sitting here, talking to him like he didn’t— He doesn’t understand why she forgave him. He doesn’t understand anything.

Maybe he just doesn’t understand Syd. He thought he did, but he obviously didn’t. Even when she forced him to watch her life over and over, he didn’t understand her. He tried, he did, he really tried. He thought he’d got it in the end. But he didn’t get anything.

Maybe he’s just stupid. Maybe decades of psychiatric medication damaged him for life. Schizophrenia is supposed to be associated with cognitive impairment. Maybe his Farouk schizophrenia impaired his cognition along with everything else. Great, another reason he’ll never be safe to let out. He’ll never be trusted with his powers once they realize he’s brain damaged.

Ha. As if he has any brain left at all. Maybe Farouk’s not such a genius manipulator if he’s spent most of his time manipulating someone so utterly stupid.

From the back of his mind, Divad sends a quiet warning. David thinks at him to leave him alone. He’s not in the mood. He might not be allowed to be suicidal, but he can still be grumpy.

“David?”

David snaps out of his thoughts and realizes Syd is still waiting for his response. He still doesn’t know what to say. So he says what he thinks he should say.

“It’s fine,” he lies. “I wasn’t even awake. It’s fine.”

Syd doesn’t look like she believes him. But she probably knows better than to believe him by now.

“So where’s Matilda?” David asks, changing the subject to something he can actually wrap his head around, like the existence of a cat.

Syd shrugs. “She’s around. She’s very independent. She shows up when she’s hungry.”

“Sounds like your kind of therapy animal,” David says, meaning it as a joke but wincing as it comes out rude. “Okay, maybe it’s not fine.”

“Obviously,” Syd says, with a complete lack of surprise. But she softens. “I should have told you. I should have asked. I guess we’ve both been bad about asking first.”

What little remains of David’s brain struggles to process that. “I drugged you and had sex with you,” he reminds her, parroting back her words.

“We’ve already dealt with what happened in the desert. The sex was— neither of us was in any condition to consent. I was drunk. You were in the middle of a psychotic break.”

“And that makes it okay?!”

“No. But it wasn’t— I thought—“ She struggles for the right words. “I thought it was something much worse.”

David feels sick. He feels physically ill. It’s nothing he hasn’t thought about himself, accused himself of. But it’s a whole other thing to hear it from her.

She thought he altered her mind so he could have sex with her. So he could rape her.

Maybe that’s exactly what he did.

He wants to get up and leave. He wants to walk away from this entire conversation. He wants to go back into the bathroom and throw up every last bite of his waffles. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to eat waffles again.

“David,” Syd urges. “Stop it. Please. Stop hurting yourself.”

“It’s not me I hurt!” David says, too loud. “I can’t— How can you just be okay with this?”

“Because I understand what it’s like. I understand, David. You know I do. I know what it’s like to think you’re doing something that will fix everything, but the moment it’s done you realize you’ve made everything so much worse. That you violated someone. That in doing so you violated yourself.”

“It’s not the same,” David insists. “You were a kid.”

“And Farouk used me to make you lose your mind. Is that any better? Is that worse? Think about what Ptonomy said. Would you have done it if you had the choice?”

“No, but—“

“Then it’s not who you are,” she says, firmly.

He feels like he should have some kind of argument against that. He still did that to her, even if he did it because of what she did to him, because of what Farouk did to both of them. But trying to untangle the confusion of culpability is beyond him. He can’t even just blame himself for everything anymore, because Ptonomy cut that out of him before he even knew he was bleeding.

“Don’t make this part of your foundation,” Syd continues. “Don’t keep any of that monster’s poison in your head. If you let it stay in you, it will kill you. It will help him turn you into whatever it is he wants to turn you into.”

“But—“

“No. I don’t want that. I don’t want to let him use me to hurt you again. I don’t want to be the reason you end the world. Neither of us needs to carry that. So I forgive you, and I need you to forgive yourself. You don’t have to do it now, but you have to start. You have to try. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

David can’t. He can’t. He gets up and walks away.

§

David sits by the window and tells everyone to leave him alone. He can’t do this anymore. He can’t listen to people tell him why he can’t punish himself. He can’t sit there while they verbally reach into his head and change him into who they want him to be.

He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know who he wants to be. But he knows that everyone is still trying to erase him.

He knows that he exists. By whatever definition he can manage to apply, he unquestionably exists. He thinks, he feels pain, he has a body. He doesn’t walk through walls when he presses himself against them. So he knows that he exists, even if he doesn’t want to.

He knows what he doesn’t want to be. He knows a lot of things he doesn’t want to know about himself or remember. He knows and has forgotten a lifetime of things he never wanted to be party to. He knows he wouldn’t have done any of it if he had any choice, and he knows he didn’t have any choice.

But that’s all he’s got. It’s so little. He doesn’t know what else anyone can find in him, not even Ptonomy. If there’s anything left to salvage.

Ptonomy was right, of course. It did feel good to punish himself. It felt right. It’s what the world taught him was right. If he did something wrong then he was punished. His parents weren’t especially harsh, but he was— He remembers being a difficult child, a troubled teenager. They dealt with his lack of self-control by trying to control him. There was so much yelling, slammed doors, cold silences. Restrictions on his freedom. They were convinced that the only way to make him stop acting out was to take things away from him. All it did was make him act out more.

It didn’t end with his parents. The world didn’t like him either and made that plain. He was forced to take medication and supervised to ensure his compliance. He was arrested, sometimes violently. He spent so much time locked up in jail cells and hospitals that the two spaces blurred together, indistinguishable except for the type of violence his captors inflicted on him.

His only solace was Amy. But she didn’t know what to do with him either, except to find another prison for him.

So what could he have done but accepted what the world told him was his truth? That he was broken and wrong and bad and because of that he deserved to be punished. And maybe it was just easier all-round if David cut to the chase and punished himself. Maybe if he punished himself enough, he’d finally learn his lessons and stop being broken and wrong and bad.

He never once experienced forgiveness. He doesn’t know how to forgive himself. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to learn from it.

He knows Syd is right. He knows that if he keeps hurting himself he’ll never get better. He knows that if he lets Farouk’s poison into his new foundation, it will eat away it away until the whole thing crumbles, and he knows how little effort it will take to break him all over again.

But he can’t forgive himself. He doesn’t know how. He doesn’t deserve the attempt.

The obvious solution to all of this is the only one he’s utterly unable to use. If he can’t be stable, if he’s a danger to the world, then he should kill himself.

But he can’t. He’s not allowed because of Farouk, and he’s not allowed because it would hurt everyone who loves him. And he’s so tired of hurting everyone who loves him.

He’s at an impasse. It’s not so much that he’s been left with only one choice, but with no choices at all.

So he sits by the window. He looks out at the world and knows he’ll never belong to it. He’ll never be part of it. It’s impossible. They’re over, him and the world. It’s done, it’s over, no hope of return.

He hears the soft clack of nails against the hard floor, and Syd’s cat walks up to him and stares at him.

“Syd, please,” David grits out. He just wants to be left alone. Swapping into a cat won’t change that, no matter how fluffy Matilda is.

The cat keeps staring at him. Then she meows. When he doesn’t respond, she walks up to his legs and rubs herself against them, marking him with her scent.

Okay, maybe that’s not Syd. Unless it is?

He picks Matilda up and stares into her eyes. “Are you Syd?” he asks.

Matilda meows at him and paws at his face.

“Okay, not Syd.” He sets her down on his lap and she stares at him some more. Then she stretches, digging her claws through his pants for an eye-watering moment before settling down in his lap like she owns it.

So now apparently this is happening. He has a cat curled up on his lap. He can’t push her off, so he does the only thing anyone could do with a cute, fluffy cat on their lap. He pets her.

She starts purring. The rumble is low and soothing. He keeps petting her and she rumbles like a tiny racing motor.

He can see why Syd picked her as her therapy cat. Matilda is extremely calming to touch.

He thinks of Syd’s hand on his cheek last night. Her hand on his head, petting him like he’s petting Matilda.

He can’t believe she’s been touching him. For weeks. He just can’t even begin to process it.

It feels—

It feels cruel. The one thing he always, always wanted for them, and he gets it and loses it before he even knows it was something they could have. It feels like the summation of the joke that is his life. The punchline.

He could have held her hand. But he ruined everything.

Maybe he’s glad she didn’t tell him. He doesn’t deserve whatever effort she has to spend to touch him. He doesn’t deserve anything, much less forgiveness. Hers or his own.

He stops trying to make sense of his life and focuses on petting Matilda. It must be nice to be a cat. There’s nothing complicated about her life. No one tries to make her do things. Maybe she gets taken to the vet once in a while, and sometimes she’s inexplicably a human being, but it still sounds blissful to David. He never wanted his life to be complicated. He never wanted the responsibility that his powers suddenly thrust upon him. He just wants to live somewhere quiet and green and to not be alone. But he’s never going to get any of that. He just won’t.

He doesn’t cry, for once. He’s all cried out. He just feels sad and doesn’t try to feel anything else. And he pets Matilda and listens to her purring.