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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. Whiskey, 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 whiskey.

"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.

"Whiskey, 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 whiskey back when she was a stupid teenager and thought liking whiskey 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 whiskey.

"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 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 whiskey? 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 whiskey 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 out in the garden? Up on the roof?"

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 he’s lived 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.

Chapter Text

By lunchtime, David has managed to chase everyone else out of the lab.

They didn’t want to leave him alone. But he reminded them that it’s impossible for him to be alone because he has two people hovering around in his head, just itching for the chance to pop out and protect him. So it’s safe for them to let him have five whole minutes of peace and quiet to himself. Truly, it is.

He’ll have to apologize later for being awful to them. But that’s all he spends his time doing anyway. Being awful and apologizing for it, awfully.

Even Matilda had enough of him, startled out of his lap by his petulant shouting. Good. He didn’t ask her to sit on his lap and purr at him. Now she knows better.

God, he’s in a foul mood. But he has nothing to feel good about. So he’s just going to wallow for as long as he’s allowed. That’s his choice and even if it’s the only one he can make, he’s still making it.

He’s sure they’re all talking about him in the cafeteria. He must be the only thing anyone in Division 3 talks about. The crazy, crippled god in a cage. A prisoner inside his own body, inside a prison built of threats and other people’s love. They must wonder what’s going to happen to him, because it's too dangerous to let him live but it’s too dangerous to let him die.

He needs to know the answer to that question himself. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it’s just this, forever. Farouk must be loving all of this so much. He must be bathing himself in David’s misery, gorging on it, fat as a tick.

David hopes he chokes on it.

He puts both his middle fingers up and points them at the ceiling, then points them at the window. Fuck Farouk and fuck the world. Fuck all of it. Fuck everyone and everything.

“My sentiments exactly.”

David’s so startled he nearly slides out of his chair. He looks over and sees to his astonishment that Oliver is awake and trying to sit up.

Holy shit, Oliver is awake. He has to get the others.

“No, no,” Oliver says, moving slowly into a sit. “I don’t want any fuss. My head hurts enough as it is.”

David stands, hesitates, then gets over himself. He pulls his chair over and sits. “You’re awake,” he says, stupidity, but he’s stupid. “I mean— How are you feeling?”

“Like I’ve been psychically tortured.”

Ouch. David deserved that.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Oliver says, waving his hand before letting it fall limply back onto the bed. “You’ve been doing enough of that.”

“You’ve been— You’ve been listening?” It shouldn’t make any difference, the whole world has been listening to him talk and he’s got three people listening in on his thoughts at all times.

Four people, apparently.

“You’ve been thinking extremely loudly,” Oliver says. “And there’s three of you. I’m amazed I didn’t notice them before. But your mind was much noisier then.”

“How— How long have you been awake?”

“I wasn’t asleep,” Oliver says. “I was resting outside of my body. Like you did. Waiting for it to heal.”

That really is a good idea. David’s going to have to remember to do it, if he gets badly hurt in the future. Assuming he ever gets this crown off his head.

“Could you— Could you see me? When I was—“ Could he have seen Oliver?

“I heard your thoughts,” Oliver says. “The crown traps you inside your mind. You couldn’t see me.”

David’s going to start forgetting to say things out loud, if he’s surrounded by people who are always hearing his thoughts. He used to do the same thing to everyone else, but he tried not to be rude about it. People have rarely reacted well when he answers back their thoughts, whether they were actually their thoughts or not.

“Okay,” David says, rubbing his face. Should he apologize? He should really apologize. “I’m—“

Oliver waves his hand again. “Forget all that.”

David prays for patience. Why won’t anyone let him be sorry about hurting them?

Oliver deigns not to answer that unsaid question. Probably because he’s had to listen to everyone else telling David the same answer over and over again, as if repetition will force it to make sense to him.

When David refocuses his attention, he sees that Oliver’s has also drifted elsewhere. More specifically, to the bed beside his.

Melanie.

“She’s not here,” Oliver says, sadly. “Her mind. It’s not in her body. I looked, but—“ He closes his eyes with grief.

“Oliver,” David says, at a loss.

“He did this. Your monster. I felt him tear her out of herself. I couldn’t stop him.”

“It’s not your fault,” David says, because if anyone knows it’s not Oliver’s fault it’s him.

In the back of his mind, Divad clears his throat.

“Do you mind?” David asks, tersely. “Sorry, not— That was—“

“Yes, I heard.”

That’s— Actually, he’s glad Oliver can hear his thoughts, if it means he can hear his alters. It makes David feel a little bit less crazy when other people can hear the same voices he can. Even if they’re just him talking to himself.

David wants to help, if there’s any way he can. Not that he’s good for much of anything in his current condition. Actually, he’s completely useless. But—

“What did he do with her?” David asks. “Did he put her somewhere, or—“

God, he hopes Farouk didn’t just leave her stranded outside of her body. Melanie is only human, she doesn’t have any mental abilities that could help her get back to herself. Whatever happened to her, she must be stuck, helpless. David knows what that’s like, too.

“I don’t know,” Oliver says, distantly. “But I believe she’s somewhere on the astral plane.”

“But that’s— That’s good, right? I mean, I found you there.”

“I found you,” Oliver corrects. “You were lost in the vast subconscious. Your mind burned bright, impossible to miss. If Melanie is there, she’s only one among billions.”

Well, that’s—

“I’m sorry,” David says, genuinely. It was petty and cruel to do that to Melanie, which is of course why Farouk did it. He lives for the chance to be petty and cruel.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” Oliver says in return. “I’m glad your friends were able to save her. And your friend. Lenny, I believe?”

David stares at him. “What?”

“Ah, my mistake,” Oliver says. “They didn’t want to tell you. Forget I said anything.”

Forget he— “Amy’s alive?!” His friends saved her? Why didn’t they tell him?!

“I’ve already said too much,” Oliver answers. “Oh dear. And now they’re here.”

Ten seconds later, the door to the lab bursts open and everyone hurries in. “Oliver, you’re awake,” Cary cries.

“Amy’s alive?” David cries back, standing up to face them.

Syd, Kerry, and Cary all wince. Ptonomy’s Vermillion and Clark do not.

Those are not good news faces. Amy being alive should be good news. Why is it not good news?

“David, stay calm,” Divad says, suddenly visible again.

“You telling me to stay calm is exactly the sort of thing that makes me a lot less calm,” David tells him. “Wait, you knew about this? And you didn’t tell me?” His own mind knew Amy is alive but it wouldn’t tell him? How is this his life? “What happened to Amy?”

“I told you we should have told him,” says Dvd, also visible.

David ignores him. He rounds back to his friends, if he can call them that for hiding Amy from him. He doesn’t ask again, just looks at them, exasperated.

They all look at each other, like no one wants to be the one to have to tell him. God, how bad is it?

“Amy was dead,” David says, trying to make sense of whatever is happening. “Farouk— He killed her. I saw— I felt her die. I heard her—“ He searched Lenny’s mind and saw fragments of Amy, memories, but he couldn’t find her thoughts. He couldn’t find her.

“David.”

The voice is electronic, familiar, coming out of Ptonomy’s Vermillion. David stares at the android.

“David, it’s me. Amy. I’m alive, I’m— I think I’m alive. I’m in the mainframe.”

Amy’s in the mainframe? With Ptonomy? They’re both in the mainframe? But how did they even—

Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.

He wants to rush forward and hold her. He wants to stumble back until he’s as far away as he can get. He doesn’t do either but puts his hand over his mouth, horrified and relieved and horrified again.

Farouk didn’t kill her. He didn’t kill Amy. No, of course he didn’t, he’s too petty and cruel to just kill her. He must have ripped her out of her body just like he did to Melanie, but then shoved her back inside, hiding her somewhere so deep David couldn’t find her. She was trapped inside her own body. For days and days. While he ran around like the idiot he is trying to kill his fucking monster and making everything worse. She must have been so scared and hurt, she must have pounded on the walls of her mental coffin and screamed and screamed for him to save her and he was right there but he—

“David,” Amy’s voice soothes, though the Vermillion‘s face is expressionless. “It’s okay. I’m okay, now. I’m safe, Farouk can’t hurt me here, or Ptonomy or Lenny. We’re okay.”

The mainframe. David saw what happened to Ptonomy. He saw the Vermillion drag him away even as he was busy chasing after the hideous creature that burst out of Ptonomy and ripped him apart. He didn’t know what it meant, not until Ptonomy showed up in the cafeteria to help him. But that was how they did it. How they uploaded him. How they saved his mind, how they—

How they saved—

Lenny. Lenny was alive. She wasn’t— Lenny was alive, she saved his life, she— In the truck, after Division 3 captured her, she said she was going to fry if he didn’t save her. He was going to save her. That was part of the plan. Watch Farouk fry, turn him to dust if he didn’t, and then take Syd and Lenny and get as far away from everything as he possibly could.

He does step back then, shaking his head, but he bumps into Oliver’s bed. “Please tell me you didn’t—“

He screwed up the plan. He couldn’t let Syd go even though she shot him. He tried to make her come back, to love him again, but he couldn’t. And then he screwed up by not getting away, and then Lenny—

“No,” Divad says, stepping closer. “David, that’s not what happened.”

“They didn’t kill her?” David asks him, angrily. He’s angry at them, because Lenny didn’t do anything to deserve that, but he’s angrier at himself. He promised he would keep her safe, that he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. “They didn’t execute her?”

After everything she went through, everything Farouk did to her. She got through all of that and she saved his life twice and how did he repay her? He lost his mind and fucked up and let her die.

The Vermillion goes silent, and then—

“Yeah, they killed me.” It’s Lenny’s voice now, coming out of the Vermillion. “Look, I’m not happy about it either. It’s bullshit. But they did it to save me and Amy. We’re okay, man, I promise.”

God, it’s disorienting. Three people in one body. Maybe this is what it’s like when he and his alters are sharing.

“You’re okay?” David asks, inching back from a very, very steep cliff.

“We’re okay,” Amy says. The Vermillion raises its arms, stiff and straight like a zombie, but David would know what she’s trying to do no matter what body or android or crazy thing she was in.

She’s opening her arms for him to hug her. Like she always does. Because she’s alive. She’s alive and she has arms so she wants to hug him.

He rushes forward and hugs her so tight. Her body is hard and unresponsive and it should be awkward but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care. She’s alive and he can hug her.

When he finally lets her go, he looks to his friends. “We can get her out, right?” he asks them, begs them. “We can get all of them out?”

“We hope so,” says Syd. “But right now the mainframe is the safest place for them. They’re safe. They’re alive. That’s what’s important right now.”

David nods, wipes his eyes. His legs feel like jelly. He has to sit down. He makes it back to his chair and leans forward, his head between his knees.

“You okay?” Divad asks, crouching beside him.

“Don’t—“ David warns. He doesn’t want Divad to take this away from him. It’s his. It’s awful and it hurts but it’s his.

“I’m not taking anything,” Divad assures him. “I’m just asking.”

It’s not like Divad needs to ask. He can hear every thought in David’s head, even the ones he can’t hear himself. He said he knows what’s best for David, better than he does himself. Maybe it’s true. But David doesn’t want what’s best for himself. He wants what’s his. He wants to be himself, even if it’s awful and it hurts.

His whole life has been pain. He can’t lose one without giving up the other. He almost lost Amy and Lenny and— He doesn’t want to lose anything else.

He doesn’t.

“I’m okay,” David says, breathing. He’s okay. Not great, but he’s okay. He’s alive. He’s trying to get better. 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.

He’s not alone. He raises his head.

“Thank you,” he says, to all of them. For saving Amy and Lenny. For keeping him alive. God, if he’d— If he’d killed himself, and Amy— God, he doesn’t know what would have been worse. If he’d killed himself and then they saved her after it was too late to save him. Or if he killed himself and then they had no reason to figure out she was still alive, and she ended up trapped inside herself until—

Okay, he definitely knows which one of those would have been worse. Oh god.

He doesn’t want to die. But he might throw up and pass out. Oh god.

“He’ll be all right,” Oliver says to the others. “He’s just had a bit of a shock.”

§

David has to lie down after that. He’s just— He needs to lie down. So he lies on his bed and watches as his friends mill around Oliver’s bed, as they fret over Oliver and hug him and do for him what they’ve been doing for David all this time.

They’ve been helping him. Saving him. Giving him their love to try and keep him alive. And they did. They kept him alive. They helped him so one day he’d be well enough to start to help himself.

He feels like he’s been in a fever, his body straining to burn out the infection in his mind. And now the fever has broken. And he’s weak and tired and still nowhere near healthy, but—

He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t. And he doesn’t feel like he has to, not the way he did before.

Nothing has changed about the situation he’s in. His mind is still— He knows he’s sick. He knows it’s going to take work to get anywhere near healthy, whatever healthy even means for him. Farouk is still listening in, waiting, planning his next move with all that infinite patience and even more infinite cruelty. The freight train is still bearing down the tracks, as fast as ever, and there’s still nothing he can do to stop it.

Yet. There’s nothing he can do to stop it yet. Because—

Because he doesn’t want it. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want it. It’s not his. He never asked for it. He never wanted it. It’s not who he is and he’s not going to let it happen to him without fighting against it with everything he has. He’s not going to let Farouk turn him into a world-killer. He’s not.

He’ll still kill himself, if he has to. If it comes to it. If there’s no other choice, if it’s between his life and saving the world. He will die and he won’t regret the choice.

But he doesn’t have to make that choice now. It felt like he did, but that was the poison in his mind, telling him that. Farouk’s poison, the world’s poison, his own poison. He’s been swallowing poison for so long thinking it would help him, but all it did was make him so very, very sick.

He’s sick. But he wants to get better. He wants to try. Even if he’ll never be normal, never be whole like everyone else. He wants to try. He wants to try.

That’s his choice. His first true, genuine choice, made of his own free will, with his own mind and a clear head. It feels good to finally be able to make it.

Chapter Text

Once all the fuss dies down, Oliver, like David, is left alone to rest. David watches quietly as everyone goes back to their usual places and activities. Cary to his computers, Kerry to her exercises, Syd to her reading. It’s calming, knowing their routines, letting them happen around him. It makes him feel like he’s part of things, even when he isn’t doing anything at all.

The Vermillion walks over to him. David sits up, not sure who’s currently in charge of it.

“How are you feeling?” It’s Ptonomy.

“Um. Better,” David says, and this time he truly means it. “Thank you. Again. For, um. Everything.” He rubs the back of his neck. Thanks hardly seem like enough, when Ptonomy was the one who rescued both Amy and Lenny, when he put them somewhere they’d be protected, when he did all that and saved David’s life, too.

“I’m just glad you’re feeling better,” Ptonomy says, and he must be getting a finer grasp on piloting the Vermillion because he manages to use it to put a comforting hand on David’s shoulder. It’s close enough to actually being comforting for David to appreciate the gesture.

“I was, um—“ David begins. “We haven’t had a chance to talk today.” He dreaded his next session with Ptonomy earlier, but now he feels the urgency of it. He wants to get better, he needs to get better. But he can’t do it on his own. He needs help, a lot of help, and he doesn’t want to waste any more time than he already has. “Maybe we could—“

“David,” Ptonomy says, in the calm tone he uses when he wants David to be calm. “You’ve just had a shock. It helped you a lot, but it was still a shock. All you need to do today is rest. Be with your friends, your family. Just be with us. We’ll start the hard work tomorrow.”

“Isn’t this already the hard work?”

“Keeping you alive was hard work for us. Getting better will be hard work for you.”

That’s rather more ominous than David would have liked to hear, but Ptonomy isn’t one for sugar-coating. Maybe resting is a good idea. He really does need a rest.

“Come sit with us,” Ptonomy says, gesturing to the table. “You haven’t had lunch?”

David shakes his head. He’d been too busy sulking, and then Oliver— He follows Ptonomy to the table, sits down heavily, and opens the covered plate they brought back for him. It’s a bowl, still warm, filled with rice and vegetables and meat and some kind of sauce. It’s comfort food and it’s just what he needs. He takes a bite and the savory-umami of it hits his tongue just right.

The cafeteria staff really do work wonders. He’ll have to thank them, too. Until now he’s barely had anything they serve except waffles. And after this morning, he needs a break from waffles.

He definitely needs a rest. Definitely.

He’s halfway through the bowl before he realizes that none of the others have come to join them. Then he realizes what Ptonomy meant by “us.”

Right. Three people in one body. Which makes six of them sitting at the table, and they still have plenty of available chairs.

David never thought that his life was normal, but it’s definitely gotten very strange.

“So, um. How does this—“

“We’re all listening,” Ptonomy says. “I’m sorry this can’t be more private, but the mainframe isn’t designed for privacy. Just talk to whoever you want to talk to.”

It’s surprisingly similar to David’s own situation. Right down to the lack of privacy. Right, okay.

“Amy?” he prompts.

“Hey,” Amy says.

She sounds like she’s smiling. It makes him want to smile back. He tries to, anyway, but his mouth won’t quite do what he wants. Yeah, okay, this was all a hell of a shock. He breathes, breathes. Amy’s okay. She’s alive. She’s not trapped anymore and Farouk can’t hurt her anymore.

She doesn’t have a body. Which is bad. But David is surrounded by minds without bodies, and too many minds in one body, and minds that can detach from bodies. The whole mind-body problem is— he’s not sure if it’s more complicated than anyone imagined or completely irrelevant.

At least he remembers something from his intro to philosophy class.

“So, um.” God, why is this so awkward? It’s Amy, she’s his sister. There shouldn’t be anything for them to be awkward about. “So it turns out I’m a mutant and I’m crazy.”

Oh yeah, there’s that.

“Oh, David,” she says. She probably means it as sympathetic but it feels like pity, and it rubs him wrong.

“It’s okay,” he insists, all evidence blindingly to the contrary. God knows how much of his mental breakdown she’s seen. Probably all of it, like everyone else. “I’m getting help. It’s all— It’s under control.”

“You’re not crazy,” Amy insists. “You’re sick.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I said.” God, why is he getting upset at her? He should be blissfully happy that she’s alive. He shoves more food into his mouth so he doesn’t shove his whole foot into it instead.

Divad appears in one of the empty chairs. It’s still empty even with him in it. “Cortisol’s getting kinda high.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” David says back.

“I’m here if you need me.”

David really wishes he could say he doesn’t. But he does. “Okay, fine,” he relents.

Divad does whatever it is he does, and David stops feeling like he has to squeeze his eyes shut and run into things. It’s better, even if he hates that it’s better.

His head clears. He stalls by eating more of his food, and thinks about why he’s upset, now that he’s less upset.

A memory comes back to him, one he wishes he could forget. It’s Amy laughing at him in Farouk’s fake mansion. She wasn’t real. It wasn’t her. It was Farouk messing with him, like always. But Farouk lived in his head and knows everything about him, even things David has tried to hide from himself. He always knows exactly which of David’s buttons to push. And he pushed this one hard.

It’s not the first time. It’s only been weeks for him since Farouk’s fake Clockworks fantasy. Farouk made Amy cruel to him there, too. The worst part is that David knows all of that was meant to mess with him. He knows that it was meant to do exactly what it’s doing now, which is to stop David from simply being happy that his sister is alive. He knows all of that but he still can’t stop himself from being upset and angry and hurt.

Because Farouk always hurts him with the truth. He takes the truth and stabs David in the gut with it and slowly twists the knife, staring deep into his eyes the whole time so he doesn’t miss a moment of David’s pain.

“David?” Amy calls, worried and confused.

“Sorry,” David says, rubbing his face. He hates this. He hates giving that shit beetle the satisfaction of being even a tiny bit right. “You’re right. I’m— I’m sick.”

He’s crazy.

He just wants to be happy that she’s alive. That’s all he wants. So he’s just going to be happy that she’s alive.

He tries to smile again. It still comes out wrong. He shoves the bowl away in frustration and it crashes on the floor.

“Shit. Shit, I’m sorry.” He kneels on the floor and starts cleaning it up. He glares at Divad. “You said you were helping.”

“I’m trying to give you space so you can get better,” Divad returns. “I’m trying not to ‘erase’ you.”

David doesn’t need this right now. What he needs is to get better. What he needs is to be not sick anymore, so he can be not crazy.

Except—

Except he’s always going to think he’s three people. There’s no cure, no treatment. Even if he gets better, he’ll still be sick. He’ll still be crazy.

Kerry kneels down in front of him and takes the broken pieces of the bowl out of his unmoving hands. She looks worried again. He’s tired of people worrying over him. He just wants to be better.

He just wants to be better.

“Hey,” says Lenny.

David opens his eyes, even though he hadn’t realized he’d closed them. The Vermillion is sitting in front of him now, cross-legged, like Lenny sometimes sat.

Only Lenny could make a Vermillion casually slump.

“Fuck that bowl, am I right?”

David unfreezes enough to nod his head.

“Fuck that food too, I bet it was gross. They serve you rotten food here, too?”

Sometimes the meat in Clockworks wasn’t the freshest. It was usually passable and overseasoned to make it palatable, but sometimes David got food poisoning. That’s why he stuck to cherry pie. Cherry pie was always safe. Just crust and cherries.

“No,” David says, because the cafeteria staff here wouldn’t do that to him, not with their carrot suns and smiling radishes. “It was really good.”

He guesses she can’t try it herself, now that she’s dead. Or not-dead. Just like Ptonomy. Just like Amy.

Okay. Okay. He has definitely had a shock. Divad’s keeping his head clear enough to see that. He’s keeping away the panic. But there’s only so much he can do without making David upset about losing his feelings entirely.

David’s so fucked in the head that even his entire separate identity with mutant emotional regulation can’t keep him from being a disaster.

“You wanna stay down here?” Lenny asks. “The floor’s better than chairs anyway. Fuck chairs.”

David manages something approximating a strained laugh. “Fuck chairs,” he agrees.

“What did chairs ever do for anyone? You know what I miss? Beanbags. The really huge ones, you know? You’d sit in em and just sink.”

David remembers those. There were some in the common area until someone tore them open and spilled all the tiny foam balls all over the floor. They weren’t replaced.

His knees hurt. How long has he been kneeling? He sits back, brings up his knees and rests his head against them.

Breathe, breathe. Keep breathing.

This is bad. He knows it’s bad. He focuses on the Vermillion. On Lenny. She’s helping him through, the way she used to. Bringing him back again. He’s really glad she’s alive. Even if they had to kill her to—

“Did it—“ David tries, meeting her eyes. The Vermillion’s eyes. “Did it hurt?”

A pause, and then: “Nah, I didn’t even know what happened until it was over. You should see this mainframe place, it’s the wildest shit ever. No drugs, but it’s like living in a kaleidoscope. I’m tripping out.”

She sounds like she’s telling him the truth. He doesn’t think she would lie to him. Lenny’s never been one for sugar-coating either, despite her sweet tooth. She was the only one he trusted for a long time. That’s probably why Farouk killed her, so he could use that trust against David. And even that wasn’t enough, so he changed David’s mind until Benny was Lenny, too, and Benny was the person David trusted to help him destroy himself.

It worked. All that trust, and then when Syd was in danger, despite his misgivings he gave himself up. Gave over control. Farouk toyed with him for a while, let him think Lenny was helping him. Showed him who he could have been, in another life. Someone focused and stable and fully in control of himself and everything around him.

Farouk gave him the white room. He was riding David, the bridle loose enough to be ignored, when he and Syd finally—

And then the bridle pulled back hard, and then David was just a passenger, forced to watch as his body committed a massacre.

Is that who he’s supposed to be? Is that him, focused and stable and in control? Not the massacre, he hopes, but everything else?

He doesn’t like that him. In the moment it was exhilarating, freeing, but that freedom was the thinnest of illusions. And he hurt people. He hurt Melanie and he hurt Syd. Farouk tricked him from the start: Syd wasn’t even in danger at all. And because of him, Walter got away and Kerry got shot.

David doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He doesn’t want to be the cause of so much pain, even if most of it is his own. He just wants to be better. He doesn’t want to die so he has to get better.

It’s just all so much. All of it. It’s all so much and he has so far to go, and even if he makes it he’ll still never be—

“What’s— What’s going to happen to me?” He asks. He doesn’t know who he’s asking. Anyone.

Ptonomy takes control back, and the Vermillion’s posture changes. “You don’t have to worry about that now. We’re just taking this one step at a time.”

“But I’ll never be—“ How can he get better if he’ll never get better?

“Never be what? Normal?”

David nods.

“You don’t have to be. You just have to be yourself. I’ve helped a lot of people like you. Your situation is complicated but that doesn’t mean you can’t be stable, happy, in the right environment, with the right support. It doesn’t mean you can’t give back. That’s what Oliver’s dream was about. A place for complicated people to get better and get the chance to give something back.”

“Sounds nice,” David says, because it does. It was nice in Summerland, with all that green. It was noisy, with so many powerful minds so close together, thinking loud thoughts, but it was peaceful, too. He wishes he could go back there, but it’s gone. He helped kill it by urging everyone to work with Division 3 to stop Farouk. And besides that, Melanie is gone. Oliver is grieving. There’s no one to bear the burden of that dream anymore.

“It was,” Ptonomy agrees. He stands up and holds out the Vermillion’s hand. David takes it and lets the android pull him up. He wobbles and sits down again, but at least this time he’s in a chair.

“I hope this is worth it,” David says, quietly but not to himself.

“You have always been worth the trouble, David. Everyone is. That’s why we found you and tried to help you. Yes, because of your powers. But also because that’s what we do. What we used to do. Maybe you’re right. This place hasn’t been what we needed.”

David looks at him.

“Oliver and Melanie found us, too,” Ptonomy explains. “They found me and Cary and Kerry, and Rudy, and Syd, and so many others. We’re complicated people, too, all of us. Division 3 was never designed to support us. It gave us the opportunity to give back on a scale we never imagined, but we paid the price for that. So your question should really be: what will happen to all of us?”

David’s heart cracks. “But I’ll never— They’ll never let me leave.”

It’s just like Clockworks. They’ll never let him leave. Maybe Farouk will take him away but Division 3 will never let him leave.

“Do you really think that we would leave you behind?” Ptonomy asks. “Whatever happens in the future, we’ll face it together. That’s what we always did at Summerland. That’s what we forgot to do here.”

David wants to believe that. He wants to believe he has a future that doesn’t end in death and pain. He wants to believe he can be stable and happy. It’s just all so far away. It’s all so much and he has so far to go.

In the desert, Syd said that every story ends the same. He didn’t believe her then, but he was wrong. He doesn’t know what to believe now. He doesn’t see a happy ending for himself. And if his fate is tied to theirs, he can’t see a happy ending for them either.

He has every reason to just give up. That’s still the cold, hard truth. But he isn’t ready to do that. He still needs to try, even if he’s doomed to fail. There’s something stubborn in him that’s never given up, even as he pulled the cord tight around his neck and stepped off a chair. Even as he sat by the sea in his dream and readied himself to die.

“I guess— You weren’t kidding about this being hard work,” David says, as lightly as he can.

“That’s why we’re taking this one step at a time,” Ptonomy agrees. “Nice and easy, okay? Why don’t you go lie back down? If you’re feeling up to it later we can play a game. What do you like? Cards? Scrabble? Monopoly?”

“Not Monopoly,” David pleads. That game is a form of torture that even Farouk couldn’t be petty and cruel enough to invent. But then he is hundreds of years old. Maybe he did invent it.

“Not Monopoly,” Ptonomy says, warmly. “Do you want to talk about anything else? To Lenny or Amy?”

David feels bad about turning them away, but he can’t. He doesn’t have it in him to talk to anyone, not even his sister and his best friend after they just—

He can’t. It’s too much. He’s had a shock and he needs to rest. Just rest.

§

After David is tucked back into bed, Ptonomy goes over to Cary.

“So what do you think?” he asks.

“What does the Admiral think?” Cary replies.

“He thinks that we should do whatever will keep David stable. He doesn’t want us to leave. Division 3 needs people like us.”

“We never should have come here in the first place.”

“I know it was never your choice,” Ptonomy allows. “You came because we came. And we came because of David. We did what we came here to do. Now we need to do something else.”

“You know he’s right,” Cary says, quietly even though David is asleep. “Division 3 will never trust him to be stable. They’ll never let him leave.”

“I’m the one in charge of David’s recovery,” Ptonomy says, firmly.

“Do you really think that matters?”

Ptonomy reminds himself to be patient. “This place isn’t what it was a year ago. We changed it. All of us worked hard to change it. We have to give it a chance to be better, just like we’re giving David a chance.”

Cary crosses his arms grumpily. “David actually deserves a chance.”

“If we all got what we deserved, the world would be an empty place. And that’s the very future we’re trying to avoid.”

Cary relents, but he’s not done. “So what’s next? What’s our ‘something else’?”

“I don’t know yet,” Ptonomy admits. “You were right, it all depends on David.”

“At least he doesn’t want to kill himself anymore.” Cary frowns at whatever dark moment he’s remembering. There are plenty to choose from.

“That’s a lot,” Ptonomy says, and means it. “I think he’ll get there, wherever he needs to be.”

“But can he get there fast enough?”

“This isn’t a race. It’s therapy. I think Farouk was telling Syd the truth before. He needs David to get better just as much as we do.”

“So he can break him again.”

“That’s what he wants to do, but we’re not gonna let that happen. David’s not facing this alone.”

Cary nods.

“We’re already moving David as fast as he can take,” Ptonomy cautions. “The last thing we need is to do Farouk’s work for him. Finding out about Amy and Lenny might have shocked him out of suicide but it’s set him back, too. He’s extremely delicate.”

“I know,” Cary sighs. “It wasn’t how we wanted to tell him. But there was never going to be an easy way to tell him.”

“I suppose Oliver did us a favor, spilling the beans.”

Oliver’s sleeping too, or at least his eyes are closed. It’s possible that he’s gone to look for Melanie again. Ptonomy hopes he doesn’t wander far. Oliver and wandering are a bad combination.

“We have to watch out for him, too,” Cary says, sadly, and then he creases with grief. “I can’t believe Melanie’s gone.”

“She’s lost, not gone.”

“What’s the difference, if we can’t find her?”

“Maybe none. But there’s three minds in here with no bodies, and only one of us is a mutant. Melanie’s strong. If she’s still out there, she’ll survive. We just have to find her.”

Cary quirks a smile. “You sound like Melanie. Which is really quite amusing when you couldn’t stand the way she waited for Oliver.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve all been through a lot of changes,” Ptonomy admits. “I used to think sacrifices were necessary to win the war. Now I have a different perspective. Not just because I died. I’ve been watching the whole world from here. The war isn’t what I thought it was.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’ll let you know when I figure that out.”

Chapter Text

While David is asleep, Divad gently pulls him out of their body and steps in. He feels bad about doing this without David’s permission, and when David is feeling better they’ll talk about it, but right now he needs to take the opportunity to check in with David’s friends.

David will rest better outside of their body anyway. Divad gives him an extra push down to make his sleep deep and dreamless. Divad can feel the weight of the burdens their body carries. It’s a lot, and Divad wishes it was a burden they could share. But right now David needs to be in it for both body and mind to heal together, and he needs to be in it to stay with his friends so they can keep him alive.

They need to figure out how to help David. Divad has been holding back, trying to give David space to heal, trying not to make him feel 'erased'. But it’s difficult. It's always been difficult when Divad can't help him, and now that Farouk is gone it's difficult not to do everything he possibly can. But he can't.

He could help David so much more, but David doesn't know him. David doesn't trust him. Farouk took all of that away, and that's why Divad and Dvd both need to trust David's friends to help him. That's why they all need to work together.

Kerry, Cary, Syd, and the Vermillion are sitting around the table playing cards. Divad’s not sure who’s in charge of the Vermillion’s hand. Maybe all three of them at once: Ptonomy, Amy, and Lenny.

David’s right, their lives have become incredibly strange.

“David?” Syd says, seeing his approach.

“Divad,” Divad says, waving off their concern. He sits down with them. “We have a lot to talk about. I left David sleeping on the bed.”

They all look over to the bed, but of course they don’t see David curled up there, or Dvd sitting in the chair beside him, guarding him. It's hard for Dvd, too, letting David suffer. Despite everything Farouk did to interfere, Dvd at least has been able to protect them. Now all he can do is sit and watch. That's all Divad could do for years, and for all their arguments he'd never wished that on Dvd.

It's hard to figure out where to start. But then he looks at the Vermillion and he knows.

"Amy," Divad says. "Are you there?"

A pause, then: "Yes. Um. Divad?"

She asks cautiously, of course. She doesn't know him either, but that wasn't because of Farouk. When the three of them shared, or when David went away, Divad and Dvd would pretend they were David. It was easier that way. It was David's life that needed to be protected, his relationships, his school work. The whole normal, unaware world kept going on its business around them, oblivious to the horrors happening inside of their body all the time.

"Yes," Divad says. "I'm sorry I never introduced myself before. Dvd is, too."

"Ptonomy showed me, um-- You're David's alters?"

"Yes. We grew up with you. We've been here all along. David knew about us until Farouk made him forget. We didn't tell you, because-- We had to keep David safe."

Maybe they should have tried to tell Amy. Maybe she could have helped them. But they didn't dare to try. Farouk had already done so much to make everyone believe that David was crazy. No one would have believed them and it would have only made things worse.

Divad wishes he could see Amy's face. She had such an expressive face. Sometimes when he was the one in their body, she would hug him and she made everything feel okay for a little while.

As hard as Amy's death has been for David, it's been hard for him and Dvd, too. She's their sister, even though she didn't know about them. She loved them, even though she thought she was only loving David. They had to protect David, but she protected them, as much as she could.

"Oh," Amy says. "Well, um. It's good to finally meet you." She pauses. "So I guess I should think of the three of you as triplets? Three little brothers?"

She's trying so hard for them, for David. Even though her voice quivers when she talks, her uncertainty audible despite the electronic filter.

"Yeah, I guess so," Divad says, surprised by the idea. He didn't-- David made them to help him survive. They're separate from him, but they're still part of him. They've helped him live his life, they haven't lived their own. But from the outside, he supposes that's what they are. Three brothers in one body.

Brothers. He likes that. He hopes they can be that, if David can accept them again.

"Amy," Divad says, because they need to talk about this. "David-- He got upset, seeing you again. I want you to know why."

If Amy still had her body, she would probably be biting her lip and looking at him with wide, anxious eyes. But the Vermillion is impassive. She's still just a passenger inside it, still struggling to adapt to her strange new existence.

"After you died," Divad continues. "Farouk tortured David with a vision of you laughing at him. He told David you thought he was a joke. That you-- That you put him in Clockworks just to hurt him."

"Oh god," Amy says, her voice horrified.

"David knows it wasn't true, but-- There's enough truth in it."

"I never--" Amy says, upset. "I just didn't want him to hurt himself again. I didn't know what else to do to help him."

"I know," Divad soothes. "When you put us there, I thought it was the best decision, too. Farouk stopped David from hearing us, he took David away from us so we couldn't protect him anymore. Not the way we needed to. We couldn't stop him from--" He stops, takes a breath. "We couldn't stop him either. Clockworks could. But David-- It was hard for him, in there. It was really, really hard. That place hurt him. It made him worse. He resents you for doing that to him."

Amy cries in tight, quiet gasps through the Vermillion's speaker. Divad wishes he could hold her, comfort her the way she used to comfort them. He hopes Ptonomy and Lenny can touch her in the mainframe, the way he and Dvd can touch David when they're all outside their body.

"David wants to be--" Divad says, trying to make this easier for her. "He wants to be happy. He wants to put everything behind him. But he can't, not yet. He's angry and he's upset that he's angry, he blames you and he blames himself. We'll try to help him through it but--"

"Should I--" Amy sniffs. "Should I stay away from him?"

"No, no," Divad says. "He needs you. He loves you so much. He just-- It's going to be hard for him, for a while. It's going to be hard for you. Just be patient with him. Let him work through it. Help him when he's ready."

"I can do that," Amy says, and it sounds like she's trying to smile for him, the way she always tried to smile for David when things were hard. She always tried to help him be happy when he couldn't be happy on his own. "Thank you for-- For telling me."

The Vermillion goes quiet, and then someone else takes over.

"Divad," Ptonomy says. "What else did Farouk do to David? We know that Future Syd told him to work with Farouk to find his body. We don't know what happened when they met."

Divad thinks back. "Farouk was-- Aggressive. He was constantly trying to provoke David. He kept talking about how they were both gods, how David had to leave the kiddie table. Make the rules and take from the world what he deserved. Farouk told him to remove his mask, show his face and be beautiful." Just thinking about it gives Divad the creeps, and his words have a similar effect on the others.

"He wants David to be like him," Syd says. "He wants to turn him into some kind of violent god. He made me think he already was one."

"David didn't want any of it," Divad insists. "He pushed back as hard as he could. But--" This part is-- "In the desert. When he broke. He lost himself and-- and Farouk got his claws into him. David tried to take what he thought he deserved. And we didn't help. I was angry at David, and Dvd was angry at Syd, and-- I tried to keep everyone under control, to make David see that he was sick. But he couldn't hear me, even without Farouk in the way. He couldn't see what he was doing until it was too late."

"And does he still think that?" Ptonomy asks. "That he's a god?"

"David doesn't even think he's a third of a person," Divad says, their chest squeezing with the pain of that. "He's ashamed of all of it, ashamed of what he is, ashamed of being sick. Amy and Lenny being alive reminded him of what he'd be giving up if he killed himself. But he still doesn't think that he deserves to live."

"So what can we do to help him?" Cary asks.

"I don't know," Divad says, though it's so hard to admit. He's not worth a third of a person either, with how badly he's failed to protect David. "There's always been this-- Even before Dvd and I were made, David was already sick. Farouk was alone with him in his head for years, draining him, torturing him even when he was a baby."

Divad stops, unable to continue, and the table stays silent.

Cary is the first to speak. "Farouk was his world. Very young children, they look at the world and all they can do is accept it. When the world is healthy, they learn to be healthy in it. But that's not what David experienced. The things he suffered at that tender age, it's-- It's very common, with child abuse or a hostile environment. We believe it's our fault. We make it part of ourselves. The suffering becomes a punishment, and the worse the punishment, the more we must deserve it."

Kerry puts her hand in Cary's and holds his tight.

"That's why he can't forgive himself?" Syd asks. "Because he thinks he deserves whatever Farouk does to him?"

"I think it is," Cary says.

"He said he was garbage," Ptonomy says. "That's how he thinks of himself. He said he deserves to be thrown away."

"This just keeps getting worse," Syd says, tightly.

"You know what Farouk did to him," Cary says, addressing Divad. "You know what he's been made to forget."

"Most of it," Divad says. "According to Syd, he made us forget things too, but we can't remember that we forgot. Just like David. It's-- It makes things incredibly hard for him, not remembering, not knowing his own past. But if he remembered it would be--" He shakes their head. "He needs us to remember for him."

"Do you have any way to share your memories?" Cary asks. "Safe ones."

"There aren't a lot of safe ones. Everything's-- When Farouk left us alone, it was because David was too broken to hurt anymore. He'd let us help David until he was better, or he'd wipe it all away. Then he'd start again. I can't let him re-experience any of that. A lot of it-- Farouk didn't take all his memories away. David just couldn't live with some of them, so he forgot."

"Traumatic memory loss," Ptonomy says. "It's very common. If the memories still exist, they could be recovered. But you're right, it would be more than he can take, especially right now."

"So what can we do now?" Syd asks.

"Even with Farouk out of his head, David is still trapped deep in his trauma," Ptonomy says. "He's still a victim. We need to help him learn how to be a survivor." He looks at Divad. "I think you're still victims, too."

Divad startles. "Excuse me?"

"You and Dvd. You were tortured right along with David. It might be worse for you in some ways because you remember so much of it. All three of you need therapy. And I think it would be good for David to share his with you. One of the most powerful ways to help a victim is to show them they're not alone. That it wasn't just them. David feels like he deserves what happened, but he doesn't feel like anyone else does. If he can see himself in you, maybe he can start to move past that."

"That's--" Divad's more than skeptical. "You know I'm not actually another person, right? I'm part of David."

"You think independently of him. You have your own personality, your own opinions, your own life experience. You and Dvd are both as much people as I am, as Lenny and Amy are."

It's hard to argue against that. "Even if that's true, how would that even work? We can't all share our body at once. Well, we could, but it'd be too upsetting for David." Farouk really did a number on him with his possession.

"Oliver will help us," Ptonomy says, like it's as simple as that. "He can hear all three of you, right?"

"You're in the mainframe," Divad points out. "Aren't you protected from telepaths?"

"They can't read us, but that doesn't mean we can't listen. Oliver can relay your thoughts into the Vermillion. And I'll be able to hear David's thoughts. That might be easier for him."

"Or make him run screaming," Divad mutters. He's not thrilled with being roped into David's therapy, even if it makes sense and he could probably use some himself. "Dvd's not going to like it."

Dvd looks up from staring intensely at David while he sleeps. "What am I not going to like?"

"We're doing group therapy with David to help him get better," Divad tells him.

"Fuck no," Dvd says, standing up with alarm.

"He needs us," Divad says, because that's the one thing that always gets through to Dvd.

"I'm not letting that thing anywhere near my head," Dvd declares, pointing at the Vermillion. "He's the one who talked me into this-- this--" He makes a wordless noise of frustration and spreads his hands at David's sleeping form.

"David needs to know he's not alone," Divad says. "We're the only ones who know what he's been through. We went through it with him."

"Not a chance," Dvd says, teeth bared. "I watched for decades as shrinks fucked with David's head and made him worse. They're the ones who made him crazy."

"He's sick, not crazy," Divad says.

"Like there's any difference to them," Dvd says back. "If you ask me -- and I know you won't -- the only thing David needs is for everyone to leave him alone."

"If you ask me, you're scared," Divad says, and smirks as Dvd riles.

"I'm not scared of anything," Dvd says, and it's a good thing Divad's keeping David deeply asleep because Dvd's loud enough to have woken him up.

"Chicken," Divad taunts. He makes clucking sounds and Dvd flushes red.

"They really are like brothers," Syd says, in wonder, even though she can only hear Divad's half of the conversation.

"Dvd, Divad," Ptonomy says, like a firm parent. "Please. This might be the only way to save David's life."

Divad and Dvd both fall silent. Dvd walks over. "Tell them I'm only doing it for David, and that I'm going to hate every last second of it."

"Dvd will do it," Divad says, and Dvd glares at him.

"Good," Ptonomy says. "You know, this might be exactly what you two need. Not just because of your trauma. David lost all his memories of you. You're still basically strangers to him. That must be extremely hard, when you have a lifetime of memories with him."

Dvd goes very still.

"Yes," Divad admits. David doesn't know them, doesn't trust them. After everything they shared and endured together, David treats them like strangers and pushes them away and denies their help as much as he possibly can. Every minute of that hurts.

"Even if you won't share your memories of the past, it will help you reconnect to share what you can," Ptonomy says. "What you had might be gone, but this is your chance to build something new together. Like David's foundation. The three of you have the rest of your lives together, if you do it right. If you make it strong."

Divad can't-- He can barely dare to hope for that much. It's been so long since Farouk got between them, since he made David forget them. It's been—

Dvd walks back to his chair and sits back down. He angrily wipes his eyes and goes back to staring at David like he can somehow will him better.

"Yeah," Divad says, quietly. "We'll start tomorrow?"

"If David's feeling strong enough," Ptonomy agrees. "I know all of this must seem... insurmountable. David’s been very sick for a very long time. And Farouk's waiting for him to get better so he can start all over again, just like he always did. But things are different now. David has all of us giving him the support and protection he needs so he can be healthy and safe the way he always should have been. And so do you, and Dvd."

Divad doesn't-- He doesn't understand. He and Dvd have spent their lives hiding their existence from the world because it was the only way to keep David safe. But these people, David's friends, they're just-- accepting them? Trying to help them? They're just alters, stress responses, they're not--

They're not even people. That's what David thinks of himself, that he's not even a person. Not even a third of a person. He's garbage unworthy of love or kindness, deserving only of Farouk's cruelty. Divad had his own part in feeding that delusion and he bears the guilt for that. But maybe all three of them have been sharing it together, like they shared so many things before they lost everything.

Brothers, Amy called them. Her three little brothers. They should have been, but they didn't let themselves. They were too afraid to let her see them. Divad has so many regrets, and now he adds one more.

He remembers what Amy said to them, when she said goodbye to David in the car outside of Clockworks. When David said his life wasn't supposed to be like this, she said she knew, but it was.

Divad and Dvd would never have existed if not for Farouk. They would both gladly stop existing if it meant David could have grown up safe and healthy and happy. They aren't supposed to exist. They're just here to protect David, and they couldn't even do that.

None of their lives were supposed to be like this, but they are. And as terrible as that shared life has been, maybe Ptonomy is right. Maybe things will be different now, because the three of them aren't alone anymore.

Maybe these aren't just David's friends. Maybe they're Divad's friends, and Dvd's friends, too. Maybe Divad and Dvd aren't just fragments of David. Maybe they're three brothers, with a sister named Amy who loves them.

Maybe David can get better. Maybe they all can.

"Okay," Divad says. "Tomorrow. I'll just--" He stands and walks back to the bed. He lies down over David and pulls him back into their body, and then steps out of it again.

He sits down next to Dvd in the chairs by David's bed, and stares at David like he can somehow will him better.

Chapter Text

David sleeps. He sleeps and sleeps and sleeps. He wakes briefly, hungry, and eats the food he finds waiting by his bed. Dumplings. He swallows the last one and lies back down and sleeps again, and stays down in the quiet deep.

When he finally returns to the surface, there’s something on his chest. He reaches for it, eyes still closed, and feels something warm and silky-soft.

He cracks open one eye. Matilda is curled up on his chest, her back to him like she’s his own personal bodyguard. Or like he’s her own personal heating pad. Probably that.

He pets her a few times and then goes still again. He closes his eye. He feels Matilda’s weight against every breath, but she’s not heavy.

The past few days slowly trickle back into his mind. Going away and coming back to find everything had changed. Being out of his body and then forced back into it. Accepting that he can’t kill himself, and then deciding that he shouldn’t. Listening to Kerry talk about living. Syd touching him, forgiving him. And then Oliver and Amy and Lenny all coming back at once.

It’s no wonder he was so tired.

And he still has to do the hard work.

He doesn’t know how he’s going to get through it. He’s probably still doomed no matter what he does. All this work, it’s just a hobby, like writing his name over and over. At the end of it he’ll have a full notebook and a sore hand and he’ll still get run over. But he remembers making the choice to try and it’s a clear, untainted memory of a clear, untainted choice. He won’t give up something so precious without a fight, even if he knows he’ll have to give it up.

He reaches up and pets Matilda some more. She purrs loudly and the vibration goes right into him. It’s very soothing. Maybe he can convince Syd to let Matilda be his therapy cat when she doesn’t need her.

“Morning.”

David opens his eyes. It’s Kerry.

“Morning,” he replies, and is suddenly overcome with the urge to stretch. He gives into it even though it startles Matilda. She leaps off of him and into Kerry’s lap.

Hmm. Apparently they’ll all have to take turns with Matilda.

He sits up and looks around. The morning sun is up, and the city noises filter in from outside, mostly muted by Division 3’s thick walls and windows. This place is a fortress, as good at keeping things out as keeping them in.

Maybe he’ll never get out of here. Maybe this is all he’ll ever have. But he wants to live so he has to try.

“Cary’s getting us breakfast,” Kerry tells him, as she pets Matilda. “Eggs and stuff. Eggs are okay, I guess. I don’t have to chew them much. How’s your jaw?”

David rubs his jaw, works it. It’s still sore but it doesn’t hurt anymore. “Better. I think the swelling's gone.”

“Good.”

Kerry doesn’t seem to have anything to add to that, so David slides out of bed and tries to get his bearings. Another session with Ptonomy today, he can do that. He needs to do it.

He looks over at the cots. Syd’s still asleep. She—

He turns away. He shouldn’t even think of her. He thinks about her anyway. He wishes he could hold her hand, but he never will.

God, he doesn’t know how he’s going to get through any of this.

Cary comes back, thank goodness, and saves him from himself. Kerry carries Matilda with her to the table and Cary gives her a bowl of shredded chicken. Rather than put Matilda down to let her eat, Kerry hand feeds her each piece of chicken, one by one.

“I’m practicing on Matilda,” Kerry explains. “We all have to get used to eating.”

“That’s right,” Cary says, supportively. “Nutrition is very important for all of us. Which reminds me. David, we’re starting a new meal plan. No more waffles for a while and no sugar. We need protein and fat and lots of vegetables.”

“Uh, we?” David asks.

“We’re all getting better together, right?” Kerry says. “So we’re gonna eat better together, too. Except, you know, the people who don’t eat.”

Which is— David counts. Half of them. His life is madness.

He digs into his eggs. There’s spinach and ham and mushrooms mixed in, and cheese on top. It’s good.

The smell of breakfast rouses Syd, and she gets up and joins them. Her bed head is— David looks back down at his eggs. His own hair is probably a mess. He hasn’t even brushed his teeth.

It’s— It’s actually—

It reminds him of breakfast with Amy. With his family, on weekend mornings when no one was in a rush. It reminds him of that.

Amy.

He fell apart in front of her yesterday. She's probably worried, upset. She's dead and he upset her.

No. Alive. She's alive in the mainframe, with Ptonomy and Lenny. She was dead and now she's not. They'll get her out again, somehow, when it's safe. If it's ever safe.

If he can't get better, does that mean she'll be trapped in the mainframe forever? Will all of them?

"David." Divad appears, sitting at the table, even though he's one of the half of them that doesn't eat. Has he ever eaten? He's probably eaten when he was in their body, in the memories David lost. Maybe he likes eggs. Maybe David should let him eat, give him a turn at all this existing.

"David?" Syd's looking at him, concerned, and then so are the others. He has to stop falling apart like this. He has to pull himself together. He has to get through this so everyone else will be okay.

"David," Divad says again. "I'm going to help you, okay? Don't freak out."

David squeezes his eyes shut. "Okay," he says, his chest tight.

The pressure lets out of his thoughts like a balloon with a leak. It goes down, down, slow and steady. He leans his elbows on the table and slumps over his eggs.

"What just happened?" Syd asks.

"I was spiralling," David admits. "Divad helped."

"Oh! Um, thank you, Divad," Syd says, not sure where to look.

"Yeah, thanks," Kerry adds, and Cary adds his, too.

Divad looks quite pleased, but then focuses back on David. "This isn't all on you," Divad says. "Everyone's here to help you."

But what if he can't be helped? What if this is all for nothing?

"Then it's for nothing," Divad says. "But I don't think it is and neither do you."

He ruined everything before. That's what he does. He ruins everything.

"You know that's not true," Divad says.

"Quitting before you even start?" Dvd says, appearing in another chair. "Quitter. Chicken." He makes clucking noises.

David stares at him. "I'm not quitting. I'm just--"

"Quitter," Dvd taunts.

"I'm not quitting!" David says, and then slumps back in his chair. "Sorry. Sorry."

Dvd's the one who looks pleased with himself, now. "Good. I'm only doing this stupid therapy thing for you, so you'd better appreciate it."

Divad gives Dvd an exasperated look. "You can't keep your mouth shut for five minutes?"

Dvd shrugs. "What's it matter? He was going to find out anyway."

"You have absolutely no sense of timing," Divad says. "Let him eat his breakfast before you give him anything else to deal with."

"He wasn't eating it anyway," Dvd says. "He was freaking out. Now he's not. That was me. Keep it up and I'm gonna be the one who protects David's mind and his body, and you'll be out of a job."

David turns to Cary. "Is there something going on with my therapy session today?"

"Ah, yes," Cary says, surprised to be addressed. "We all thought it would be helpful for the three of you to do a group session together. You and Divad and Dvd."

David presses at his face. "How would that even--"

"Oliver," says Kerry.

"Right," David says. Oliver. Just what he needs. His torture victim can relay the thoughts of his multiple identities to his android not-dead therapist.

Dvd laughs. "Okay, that was funny."

David cannot, cannot deal with any of this. He shuts up and eats his eggs. He's almost done when a thought occurs to him. "Wait, how did you--"

Divad flashes guilty.

"No," David says, angrily. "No, you have no right to just take my body like that."

"Our body," Dvd says.

"Is that why I slept so much?" David asks them. "Because you wanted a turn?" He would have happily let them have their body all the time, but they wouldn't let him. And now they're walking away with it when he's asleep. They're as bad as Syd!

"You needed to rest," Divad defends. "I'm sorry I didn't ask, but you were-- You didn't need to worry about it. You still don't. I only used it to talk to your friends so we could figure out how to help you."

"Well don't," David says, still angry. "Don't help me. You can all just stop helping me. I'm doing this on my own. It's my fault and I have to fix it and I've always done this on my own!"

Divad doesn't like that. "You really, really haven't. You can't remember it, but you wouldn't be here if it wasn't for us. You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them, for our friends."

"Our friends?" David asks, astonished. "You can't even talk to them without hijacking my body."

"They're my friends, too," Divad insists.

"You're not even real," David says.

"Well neither are you!" Divad shoots back. "That's what you think all the time, right? I can hear it, we both can. You're not real so it's fine if you shrivel up and die. Well that delusion is over. It's done. We're all real and we're all going to get better. So stop trying to scare yourself out of trying."

David stares at him. What even happened when he was asleep?

"I see you've started without us," Ptonomy says. Oliver is with him, looking rough but standing on his own.

David puts his hand over his face and slumps in his chair again. He's really starting to miss his cell. It was awful but at least he had some peace and quiet.

"Talk about a bad thought," Dvd mutters.

"Everyone, Divad, Dvd. Can you give David some space?"

Everyone clears away from the table, taking their plates with them. Divad and Dvd stay visible, but they walk away with the others.

The Vermillion sits down next to David. Oliver sits on the other side.

"I heard all of it," Oliver says, before David even has the chance to think the question. "So did he. We were testing the relay when you woke up."

"Great," David says, flatly. Now there's five people listening to his thoughts at all times. No, actually, now the whole world is, because the mainframe isn't built for privacy. His entire life isn't built for privacy.

"I'm sorry," Ptonomy says. "I know there's aspects of your treatment that make this harder for you. We're doing the best we can with an extremely difficult situation. Privacy is a compromise we had to make."

"I didn't make it," David says.

"Well, I'd like to not be dead," Ptonomy says back. "Oliver would like to not have been tortured. I'm sure Melanie doesn't want to be lost on the astral plane. Should I go on?"

"Please don't."

"I know you're scared," Ptonomy says, gentler. "I know this is a lot. But Divad is right. You're not carrying this alone. This isn't something you have to do to save us. It's something we're helping you do so you can save yourself."

David thinks of Farouk, telling him to play the hero from his hospital bed. He's not a hero.

"Do you think saving someone's life is heroic?" Ptonomy asks.

David looks at him. He was right, he is going to start forgetting to say anything aloud. Who's even left that he should bother? Kerry and Cary? Syd? Matilda?

"Maybe not Matilda," Ptonomy allows. "I think everyone else wants you to talk. But you didn't answer the question. Do you think saving someone's life is heroic?"

"Yes," David says, but--

"That's what you're doing now," Ptonomy says. "Saving David's life. Or do you think David doesn't deserve to be saved?"

David tries not to think his answer. He thinks it anyway.

No, he doesn't.

"That's why we need to save him," Ptonomy says. "I think Farouk's right about one thing. You should be a hero. But you have to save yourself before you can save anyone else."

"I think we all know what kind of hero I make," David says. "I did such a good job I turned into a villain."

"What do you think a villain is, David? What's your definition?"

"Someone who goes crazy and ends the world?"

"You didn't do that," Ptonomy reminds him. "That's what Farouk wants, but that future hasn't happened yet. It never will, if we can save you. So what's a villain?"

David struggles, thinking back over his painful memories. "Someone who's-- Who's selfish and cruel and doesn't care about anyone else. Someone who hurts people."

Someone like Farouk. Someone like David, or what Farouk turned David into.

"You think you're like him?" Ptonomy asks.

"Obviously." Farouk wiped his memory and David wiped Syd's. Farouk tortured him and David tortured Oliver. Farouk thinks he's a god and David thought he was one, before he crashed back down to earth. Farouk lived inside him and shaped him and twisted him into whatever he wanted David to be. Farouk claimed to think of him as his baby. Obviously he's going to turn out just like Farouk. Obviously. He never had a chance to become anything else.

"Is that what you're afraid of?" Ptonomy asks. "That you're going to look into your own heart and find it's his?"

David can't say it, can't even think it. The fear is too huge.

He doesn't want it. He never asked for it. But he never had a choice. Farouk's made him do so many awful things. If David could just die it would stop, but he can't die. No one will let him and he doesn't want to, but he doesn't want what's coming for him. He doesn't want it.

"If you don't want it, if it's not your choice, it's not who you are," Ptonomy reminds him. "Farouk lived in your head for thirty years. What's the worst he made you do in all that time? Mostly he made you hurt yourself. You've hurt other people, it's true. But you didn't do it because you enjoyed it. You didn't do it because you wanted them to suffer. Every time you hurt someone, you hurt yourself. And maybe that was all he wanted, but I don't think so. I think when he realized how powerful you are, he tried to take you over, to make you the same as him, but he couldn't. Because David has always been David. There has always been a part of you that has fought against him with everything you have. No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't change that. He can't."

God, David wants to believe that. He wants to.

"You don't have to believe it yet," Ptonomy says. "We'll do that for you, until you can. But you have to trust us. You have to let us help you."

David swallows. "I'm trying," he says. He doesn't know if he can be helped, but he's trying.

"Good," Ptonomy says. "And if you don't want to be a villain, I think you should start by apologizing for hurting your friends. We've all worked hard to save you. I know you're scared but that doesn't make it okay to dismiss us, or to tell Divad and Dvd they're not real. Or to dismiss yourself."

"Should I apologize to myself, too?" David asks, in bleak humor.

"Actually, yes," Ptonomy says. "But I know you won't, so save that for later."

Ouch. David felt that cut go deep.

He turns to where everyone moved to give him space. "I'm sorry," he tells them, and means it. "I'm sorry for saying I didn't need your help. I'm sorry for saying Divad and Dvd aren't real."

He doesn't apologize to himself. Ptonomy's right, he can't. He doesn't deserve apologies.

Divad and Dvd come over. "Apology accepted," Divad says. "So if you're done with your therapy session, can we have ours now?"

David whimpers.

"Take ten minutes," Ptonomy tells him. "Clear your head. Then we'll start."

Clear his head. In ten minutes. Hilarious. David puts his head down in his arms and tries not to think about anything at all.

Chapter Text

David’s never much liked group therapy.

He never saw the point of it. He already hates the way he has to open himself up in private sessions, displaying every broken part of himself to some therapist for inspection and judgement. But doing that in front of random people so they can pick him over like he's some kind of mental health yard sale? No, thank you. He'd have opted out of it if he'd ever been able to opt out of anything.

He doesn't have a choice about it now, either. So once again, here he is, sitting in a circle of chairs and waiting to be pulled apart and picked over. The only difference is that this time, the other patients are also himself.

Sort of.

"Maybe we should start with that," Ptonomy says.

God, David hates this. He just wants to have some part of himself to himself. But no. He can't stop his thoughts from being overheard. He can't opt out of having them fed into the mainframe. He should probably try to keep his mind blank but what's the point? If everyone's going to listen in on him anyway, he's going to give them the full David Haller fucked-head experience. They can choke on it, just like Farouk.

Everyone looks at him. They're not impressed. He doesn't care.

"Dissociative Identity Disorder," Ptonomy says, continuing on. "Getting that diagnosis upset you."

"Yeah," David says, tersely and aloud. "It was upsetting. I'm still upset."

"I can see that," Ptonomy says. "So tell me why."

Divad and Dvd continue to look at him, but now with an air of expectation. Or foreboding.

Oh god, he can't do this. He can't do this. He can't sit here and talk about himself to two other people who are also himself.

"Is that what upsets you?" Ptonomy asks. "That you feel Divad and Dvd aren't real people?"

David sits up from his slouch. "I'm sorry, how are they real people? They're just--" He taps aggressively at his own head. "Pieces, broken pieces of this broken mess. I'm delusional. I'm hallucinating."

“It’s not typical for DID to present with hallucinations,” Ptonomy admits. “But between your powers and the extreme stress your mind suffered, that’s how your DID presents. As for why? Your powers already enable you to separate your mind from your body. You can hear the thoughts of others. And that’s just scratching the surface. All of that is part of how you make sense of the world, even though Farouk kept you from remembering or understanding that.”

David hates it when Ptonomy does that, when he makes David's insanity into something reasonable. Like he's supposed to just accept it now.

"Accepting it is the only choice you have," Ptonomy says. "Divad and Dvd are part of you. They're not going to go away. They can't. Even Farouk couldn't get rid of them."

"Maybe he didn't try hard enough," David mutters.

Dvd crosses his arms angrily.

"You all have to learn to live together," Ptonomy insists. "Divad and Dvd still remember how things used to be for the three of you, but you don't. Those memories may be gone forever. So you have to start over. But you can't do that if you can't accept that they're just as real as you and me."

"A ringing endorsement," David says. Then he feels bad. "Sorry. Sorry." Shit.

Shit.

"I'm sorry," he says again. He leans forward and puts his face in his hands. God, he's such an idiot. If any of them aren't real, it's him.

"Why wouldn't you be real?" Ptonomy asks. "You're the main identity in your system. Divad and Dvd came into existence to protect you. Your name and the name attached to your body are the same."

God, that makes it sound even worse.

"I don't remember being a system," David insists. "I remember being me. Just me. Broken and fucked up, but me. And now I'm-- I'm not me. I'm not a person, I'm just--"

Madness. He's just madness. Like the black monster that killed Ptonomy. Someone should pull him out of his own head and crush him under a boot.

"Please stop that," Divad says, pained. "Please."

"You told me to stop deluding myself,” David reminds him. “God doesn’t love me, remember? You were right. I’ve always known what I am. We’ve always known what we are, your words. I forgot everything else but I still remember that.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Divad defends.

“Yes it was,” Dvd interrupts. “Maybe not the real part, but all you did for years was yell at David for failing. You’re the one who made him hate himself.”

“David already hated himself,” Divad says back. “But yeah, I made it worse.” He turns to David. “I’m sorry for that.”

David doesn’t know what to say to that. “I don’t remember,” he says, helplessly. Plenty of people yelled at him for failing, there was practically a line around the block sometimes. But he doesn’t—

God, he doesn’t know anything. His past could be a complete invention for all he remembers it. Philly used to accuse him of that. If Amy didn’t exist, if he hadn’t been to his childhood home last year, if there wasn’t external documentation of his existence, he would have nothing to say he ever existed at all. But external isn't enough. Maybe Farouk went too far one day and just started from scratch. Maybe David died and he’s just another alter, one Farouk tricked into thinking he was real.

“We know he didn’t,” Divad insists. “We were there. You’re still you. You always have been.”

“No,” David says. “How would you know if he made you forget?”

There’s nothing. There’s nothing to hold him, he’s just air from a balloon that popped and he’s being blown away.

No one says anything. What could they say?

“David,” Ptonomy says, quietly.

“What?” David asks him, genuinely wanting to know. What could anyone possibly say to help him have some way to know he is who everyone thinks he is?

“I don’t think there is anything anyone could say,” Ptonomy admits. “You do exist. You know you do. What you need is continuity. Something to connect you to who you were before you forgot. If Amy isn’t enough, if Divad and Dvd aren’t enough, then you need something only you can provide. A memory.”

Divad stiffens.

“One of your own,” Ptonomy adds.

“I tried,” David says. “There’s nothing. He took all of it.”

“I don’t believe that,” Ptonomy insists. “I think there’s something of your past inside you, just like Amy was still inside after her body was altered into Lenny’s. Whether that's because Farouk left it behind to hurt you with or because you didn’t want to remember.”

“You’re saying I made myself forget?” David asks, horrified.

"Traumatic memory loss is very common," Ptonomy soothes. "If the memories are there, they can be recovered. But I didn't want to suggest that before because those are also going to be the hardest for you. The memories of things too terrible for you to bear."

God, how does this keep getting worse? "So you're saying that-- That the only way for me to know I'm me, is to remember being tortured?"

"As a last resort," Ptonomy allows. "But there's no need for us to do that if there are other memories. Memories you can't find on your own, just like you couldn't find Amy even when you looked for her. They might even be hidden in plain sight. You can only know what they are because you have two people who have their own memories of everything you've experienced. If you look together, you have a real chance of finding something. But to do that you're going to have to let them in. You're going to have to trust them. So what do you want to try? Do you want to recover a traumatic memory on your own, or do you want to find a good memory with their help?"

David wishes it was a choice. He wishes he could do this on his own. But as bad as forgetting has been, he knows remembering his own torture would be so much worse. And he knows that even if he doesn't remember it, he hasn't done anything on his own. He's been full of people trying to help him and hurt him his entire life. His mind has been the battleground of decades of invisible warfare.

It seems like all he ever does anymore is give up control of himself: of his powers and his body, of his privacy and his thoughts. And now he has to give up his memory to two people living inside him who he can't remember.

It's probably only going to make things worse. Whatever Farouk hid in him, it'll only make things worse. But he can't keep going like this, with nothing to hold him, quicksand pulling him down every time he tries to take a step. He needs something solid to stand on, even if the odds are it's just going to crumble under his weight and send him plummeting down the sheerest drop.

"Okay," he says, faintly. "When do we start?"

§

They're going to start after lunch. Ptonomy orders David to take the rest of the morning off to relax while he and Oliver talk to Divad and Dvd. He can do that now that he can hear everything in David's head, since the three people that he thinks he is are independently functioning. David can sit and read a trashy romance novel while his alters have a strategy meeting with his therapist.

If Ptonomy could actually see Divad and Dvd, that might make this whole thing vaguely normal. But he's just listening to them through Oliver's telepathic relay, and then talking back to them through Oliver from inside the mainframe through the interface of an android. It's only David's delusional hallucination that the four of them are sitting together.

Honestly, this whole thing is giving him a headache. Which is probably not a helpful thing to have when he's about to go sifting through his brain. He puts aside the book and goes to rummage through the first aid cabinet. He finds some painkillers and takes two of them.

At least this means Divad won't need to borrow his body anymore. No more sneaking off with it while David's asleep. God, that whole thing creeped him out so much.

When he closes the cabinet and turns, Syd is standing there. David nearly has a minor heart attack.

Speaking of nighttime invasions...

No, that's not fair, even just in his own head.

"Kind of a rough morning," Syd says, sympathetically.

David makes a pained noise. He fills a cup at the sink and washes down the pills. "I've been having a lot of those lately. Rough mornings." He'd say he can't remember the last time he had a good morning, but he has no idea what he remembers anymore.

He remembers Syd. Looking at her, all he can do is remember. The bad things and the good, and the good hurt worst of all.

He doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what to even begin to say.

"How's the book?" she asks.

"It's a book," David says. "Honestly, I can barely concentrate. I keep reading the same paragraphs over and over."

"They must be fascinating paragraphs," Syd says.

She's trying, for him. He knows she's trying. He doesn't understand why she thinks he's worth the effort, but he does appreciate it. Honestly, he's never thought he was worth the effort for her. But she keeps putting it in anyway.

That's what all of them keep doing. Putting change into the broken machine that is his head, hoping something's going to come out of it.

"How's your book?" David asks, because the least he can do is hold up his end of a conversation. She has her psychology book tucked under her arm. This morning she was going through it with different colored highlighters. "Have you found everything that's wrong with me yet?"

"So far," Syd says, with a little smile. "I just started the chapter on traumatic memory loss. Keep it up and I think we'll work our way through the whole book. I'm learning a lot."

"Glad I could be of service."

She holds out the book. "You want to see?"

"Not really," David says, eyeing it warily. "Besides, I still have those paragraphs to re-read before I get my brain sifted. I don't want to clutter up all that empty space."

She gives him that familiar, tolerant look. The one where she isn't sure if she should hug him or hit him. Not that she ever did much of either. But she probably could do them now, if she wanted to.

He doesn't want her to. He doesn't want her to fill him up with quarters that are never going to pay out.

"You don't have to sit alone," Syd tells him. "If you're just going to read. We can read together."

Like they did in Clockworks, he thinks. They couldn't touch, so they would sit together and read. Or he would sit and she would draw him.

She shouldn't be able to stand his presence. She should be angry with him. She should throw her book at his head and kick him in the shins until he bleeds.

"David," she says, softly.

"I can't," he tells her, tightly. "I know what you want but I can't." He can't forgive himself. He can't understand why she's forgiven him.

"I know," she says. "But that's not what I'm asking right now. I'm just asking you to sit with me while we read together. We don't even have to sit close. Just... in the same part of the lab. How about by the window? You like sitting by the window."

He does. He does like sitting by the window.

"Matilda can join us," Syd adds. "She likes you."

"I scared her," David says. Yesterday. He yelled and she ran away.

"She came back. She's a therapy cat. She's used to a little scare now and then. She knows you need her."

David doesn't think they're talking about the cat anymore.

"She should be someone else's therapy cat," David says, hugging himself. "Kerry needs her to practice eating with. She can be Kerry's."

"Matilda doesn't belong to anyone but herself," Syd says. "That's why I like her, remember? She does what she wants. Mostly what she wants is to take care of people who are hurting."

David's hands clench at his arms. "I guess that's me. One big cat bed of pain."

"Yeah," Syd agrees. "And you're warm, she likes that. She likes being touched. Touch is-- It's really important. Especially when you don't get enough. There's terms for that. Touch starvation. Skin hunger. Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation."

"Are you giving me another diagnosis?"

"It's one of mine, but we can share."

David huffs at that. "We really are going to work our way through your whole book."

"I think it would be good for you to read it."

David shakes his head.

"Okay," Syd says. "Reading about my diagnoses helped me a lot while you were gone. It helped me understand what was happening to me. It gave me context. It helped me see I wasn't alone. What I was feeling, what I still feel, so many other people feel it that they had to put it in a reference book."

"I'm a unique case."

"You are. You definitely are. But so's everyone. No one else has my powers. No one else has been through what you've been through. But we can share the pieces that match."

"And how do we match?" David asks, before he can stop himself.

Syd gives him a steady look. "When we don't get enough touch, it makes us sick. We feel lonely, depressed, angry at the world. It dehumanizes us and stunts our growth. Touch calms our anxiety. It makes us feel safe and nurtured."

She takes a step towards him, another. She reaches up her hand, slowly, so slowly. He holds utterly still as she rests her gloved palm against his cheek. He doesn't even breathe, not until she takes it away, and then he takes a shaky, desperate gasp.

"It'll be okay," she tells him, like she somehow knows. Like she can see his future and it's not a burning, toxic disaster, like the rest of his life has been. "I promise. So just-- Come and sit by the window with me and Matilda."

She steps back and walks over to the window, positions two chairs. She calls for Matilda and the cat trots over. The morning sun is still slanting through, casting warm light on the chairs. Matilda hops onto one seat and curls up in the sunbeam.

Syd sits down and opens her book. She glances back at him, then reads.

David can't move. He stands there, long minutes ticking away while all he can do is feel the ghost of her hand against his cheek. But finally he does. He walks back to his bed and picks up his book. He didn't even mark where he was reading. He just closed it and put it down. He read the same paragraphs over and over, but now he's lost them. He doesn't know where he left off.

Maybe... Maybe he can just start again. At the beginning. Table of contents, author's notes, chapter one, page one. Maybe he can do that.

Maybe.

But he's not ready to sit with Syd by the window. Not yet. He lies back down and doesn't open the book.

Chapter Text

"Okay, David," Ptonomy says, in his soothing, musical therapist tone. "It's time to get started. Are you ready?"

"I'm ready," David says, and rubs his palms against his thighs, trying to believe his own words. This is probably going to be a disaster, but as usual all he can do is let whatever's coming for him happen to him. He hopes whatever's going to run him over isn't too horrible. He doesn't think he can take anything horrible right now, even if it's only the memory of something horrible.

They remade the circle of chairs after lunch. It's the five of them again: David, Dvd, Divad, Oliver, and the Vermillion.

He looks at Oliver. Oliver should be resting, not being forced to endure this on David's behalf.

"It's all right," Oliver assures him. "It's quite soothing, actually. Like listening to a burbling stream. Besides, I'd hear you even if I wasn't helping. Your thoughts resound."

"A resounding burble?" David asks, skeptically.

"I prefer it to the sound of cracking ice," Oliver replies.

He has a point.

"So how's this going to work?" David asks. "Is it like a memory walk?"

"Unfortunately, no," Ptonomy says. "With my body gone, we have no way of entering your memories directly to experience them with you. Divad and Dvd can hear your thoughts, as we can, but they can't see what you're remembering unless you show them."

"How do I do that?"

"The crown prevents you from using your powers. But your mind still works the way it always has. You were able to step out of your body the same way you would astral project. Think of this as creating an environment on the astral plane. The environment is your memory. Bring Divad and Dvd into it, just as you would bring someone into a psychic space you created."

A white room. He has to make a white room, but made of his memories and only existing inside his own mind.

"Okay," he says, mulling it over. "I think I can do that."

"Good," Ptonomy says. "Once all three of you are in your memories, Divad and Dvd will guide you through them, as I would have. They'll help you avoid the ones they know aren't safe, and they'll look for something good that matches their memories. Oh, and one more thing. Amy's going to help."

"Hey," says Amy.

David tenses up. "No, that's-- No."

"She won't be able to see your memories," Ptonomy assures him. "She'll just hear your thoughts, like the rest of us."

Oh god, Amy can hear his thoughts. Of course she can, she's in the mainframe. She and Lenny have heard everything he's been thinking all day.

He tries to stop himself from thinking about her laughing at him, so of course that's the only thing he can think about. God, why can't he forget that? He remembers like five things out of his entire life and that's one of them, and of course it is because why would he remember anything real?

"We need Amy's help," Divad tells him. "Dvd and I didn't exist at the beginning. Amy's older than all of us, she remembers how you were before us. She remembers how we were from the outside."

"It's important that Amy's part of this," Ptonomy insists. "She has her own perspective of your life, one separate from all the mental games that Farouk put you through."

"Farouk ripped her out of her body," David protests. "What if he did something else to her?"

"I don't think he could have anticipated this," Ptonomy says. "He was trying to make you lose your mind so you'd end the world. He expected to achieve that. That's why he left Amy alive for you to find. The longer it took for you to figure that out, the more damage her existence would do to you. Messing with her memory doesn't fit into that. He didn't want you to doubt that she was real, so he left her whole."

Whole. He left her whole. David wishes that wasn't such a relief. He wishes Syd hadn't stopped him, he wishes he'd finished smashing Farouk's head in until his brains spilled out all over the sand.

"It's a good thing you didn't," Ptonomy says. "That's what happened in the future Syd was trying to avoid, wasn't it? You killed him in the desert. That along with Amy and whatever else happened in that timeline pushed you over the edge. It broke you so badly that nothing could fix you again."

God. And here David is, laying himself down on the tracks so something else can break him.

"You're not gonna get broken," Dvd insists. "We're gonna keep you safe. Just like your-- Just like our friends did when they saved Amy."

Divad looks at Dvd in surprise. So does David.

"What?" Dvd shrugs, defensively. "We always share everything. I'm not gonna get left out now just because you don't remember how we work."

"David," says Amy, her voice coming out of the Vermillion. "Please let me help. I want to help you."

Like she helped him by locking him up in a mental hospital for six years. Shit, he didn't want her to hear that. He needs to stop thinking about anything.

"You're right, I did do that you to," Amy says, and she sounds sad but not nearly as upset as he expected her to be. "It was-- I just wanted to keep you safe, but that place wasn't safe for you. I'm sorry."

David looks away, looks toward the window. He always knew she was sorry. He always knew, even if he thought it was just a delusion that he heard her think about how sorry she was. He lost years of his life and most of what was left of his mind to that place. Farouk was right, he was angry with her all the time, he was so angry but he swallowed it because he deserved to be there, he deserved it.

"You didn't deserve it," Amy says, and now she sounds upset. "David, they wouldn't let you out for my wedding, for our father's funeral. And I let them keep you there. I'm your legal guardian, I could have-- When I realized you weren't getting better I should have found somewhere else. I should have kept trying to find you the right kind of help, even if I didn't know what that was."

But she didn't.

"You're right. I didn't."

He doesn't want to be angry. He just wants to be happy she's alive. But he's angry, he's so angry, even though he deserved to be stuck in that place forever because he's--

He cuts that thought off before Divad can. He's never going to get better if he keeps spiralling.

"I need to focus on getting better," he says, saying the words aloud so he can hear them with his own two ears and listen to them.

"I know," Amy says. "That's why I'm asking you to let me help. I love you, okay? All I've ever wanted was for you to be healthy and happy and-- That's all I want. Please let me help you."

That's not all she wants. She wants him to be normal. She wants him to be normal and easy and clean. And he'll never be that. No matter what he does, he'll never be that.

But he has to get better. He has to get better. He doesn't want to end the world.

"Fine," he says, surrendering. It's not his choice anyway, like any of this is his choice.

No, he's choosing to get better. He chose to try. He remembers that. It's never going to work but he chose to try.

"Thank you," Amy says, quietly.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, taking control again. "David, take a minute and clear your head."

Oh, he just needs a minute now instead of ten? Even more hilarious.

"When you're ready," Ptonomy continues, "I want you to create a mental white room and go into it, then bring Divad and Dvd in. Don't cut off the outside world completely. You still need to be able to hear us."

Okay. Okay, he can do this.

David brings his legs up and folds himself into a meditation pose, settles until he's comfortable. He closes his eyes and focuses on his breathing. Slow, even breaths, nice and deep. Calm, he's calm.

He can do this. He knows how to do this.

And then he's not sitting in a chair in Cary's lab. He's sitting on the bed in the white room.

He gets off the bed quickly, walks back from it.

This isn't the white room. Not the real one, the one where-- It's not really that one, just like he wasn't really astral projecting when he stepped out of his body. It's just a trick he's playing on himself.

Like Farouk tricked him when he taught him how to make the real white room. When he--

No. No. He's not thinking about any of that now. He has to focus on getting better.

This is his mind and his mind is his own, or at least this corner of it is. In his own mind, in this space, he decides what's real and what isn't.

He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, the bed is gone. The carpet, the sofa, they're all gone. It's just an empty room with sheer curtains moving with the gentle breeze that's coming in through the open sliding doors.

"David?" It's Ptonomy's voice, drifting in with the breeze. "Can you hear me?"

"Yeah," David calls back. He doesn't know if his body is thinking or saying it, but it doesn't really matter. "I'm bringing in Divad and Dvd now."

He knows how to do this, too. It's just like reaching out and pulling Syd in. And then they're here, Divad and Dvd, standing in front of him.

"Nice," Dvd says, looking around. "Decided to redecorate? Hmm, you know what this place needs?"

Astronomy posters appear on the walls, the same ones from David's childhood bedroom. So much for this place being his own.

"We're part of you, dummy," Dvd says, but fondly. "And we're people," he says, before David can say it. "Like Ptonomy said, we're complicated people."

Complicated is right.

"Let's get started," Divad says. "Amy, you're up."

"She is?" David asks.

"We're not just looking for one good memory, we’re figuring out the story of your life. Do you actually remember being a baby?" Divad asks.

David tries. He remembers seeing himself as a baby when Oliver and Cary were ripping Farouk out of his memories, but he doesn't remember being a baby.

"Yeah, that's why Amy's up," Divad says. "She'll tell us the early years, then you join in when your memories start. Just try and picture whatever she's telling us."

This whole situation suddenly reminds David of being stuck on the astral plane with his rational mind. That experience actually helped him a lot. Maybe this won't be a complete disaster.

He probably just jinxed himself. Oh, well, never mind.

"Amy, go ahead," says Ptonomy. "How did you meet David?"

"I was four," Amy says. "It was late. I was in my room and I heard voices. I snuck out onto the landing and-- there was a man."

David blinks and they're standing in his childhood home. A young Amy is on the landing above, looking down through the wooden posts of the railing.

"For a long time, I thought it was a dream," child Amy says, her voice changing to match how David perceives her. "But you were real."

Child Amy points, and David turns to see his parents standing in the hall with a man. The man is hidden in shadow. David walks up to him but he can't see his face, like he couldn't see his father's face when he tried during his memory walks.

"We don't know what this mystery man looks like," Divad explains. "Our mind will fill in what it can, but this isn't actually a memory."

David looks at his parents. His mother is holding a baby in her arms. It's him.

It's him.

This isn't real. It's not even his memory. He's just-- It's just his mind, filling in the blanks of Amy's story. But it's him. It's David, or whatever his name was before it was David.

"Did they-- Did they name me?" David asks. "Did they give me a new name?"

"I don't know," child Amy says. "One day I had a new little brother named David. You were the sweetest thing. I didn't care where you came from."

David looks at baby David again. Baby David looks back at him. "Farouk hadn't-- He hadn't found me yet."

God, if only there was a way to go back and stop all this. To keep himself safe. Maybe he can. He sent his mind forward in time to talk to Future Syd. Maybe he could send his mind back, find some way to warn his parents. He could undo all of it, all of it, and then he'd just be-- he'd just be whoever he was supposed to be before Farouk took everything. He'd be someone else, he wouldn't exist anymore but-- It would be suicide, Farouk said changing the timeline would be-- But that would be okay, because-- He wouldn't be--

"David," Divad says, drawing him back with a hand on his shoulder. "Right now you have to focus on getting better. You can't do anything until you're better."

"Right," David says, wobbling back from the edge. The idea won't go away, but he has to focus on getting better. He can't send his mind anywhere until he gets rid of the crown and he can't get rid of the crown until he's stable and he won't be stable until he's better.

He can't kill himself until he's better. He feels a little manic, thinking that.

"Amy?" Divad asks. "What happened next?"

"We were happy," child Amy says. "David was the little brother I always wanted. But then-- You got sick. No one could figure out what was wrong. You cried and cried. The doctors couldn't help."

"Farouk," David says, knows it. Farouk got into him, made him sick.

"You’d only stop crying when I held you," child Amy says.

And then the room changes and they're in Amy's childhood bedroom, and she's a little older and she's holding baby David, and he's a little older, too. He has tear tracks on his face but they're dry, and he's smiling up at Amy as he grabs at her hair.

David's heart aches, seeing them. It hurts. Why did everything have to go so wrong?

"Eventually you stopped crying, but you were always-- Sensitive," child Amy says, as she plays with baby David. "It was easy for things to upset you. Living away from everyone, out in the country made it easier to keep you calm, but-- It was so hard for you to be happy."

"I thought I was happy," David says. He did. He remembers being-- "I remember being loved."

"You were loved," child Amy says, smiling as her eyes fill with tears. "We loved you so much, as much as we could. And you loved us back as much as you could."

David kneels before her. He remembers Ptonomy telling him not to interact with his memories. But these aren't memories and he needs to hug Amy so much. He doesn't care about Clockworks, he doesn't care about any of it.

And then she's hugging him, she's fully grown and hugging him so tight. He holds her and buries his face against her shoulder, and her long hair brushes his cheek.

It's not real. It's just his mind filling in the blank where she used to be. But he misses her so much, so much. She's dead and she's alive and he might never see her again, she might be trapped in the mainframe forever because of him, she might have been trapped in Lenny forever because of him.

"No, David," Amy says, and his mind fills in the blanks so he can feel her speaking against his chest. "You didn't do any of that. You can't-- you can't say you deserve what I did to you, and blame yourself for something someone else did to me."

"I really can," David says, through his tears. She's not here. She doesn't have a body anymore. He shouldn't-- It's wrong, doing this. Holding her when she isn't-- It's wrong.

He blinks and Amy is gone. Child Amy and baby David are gone, too.

He slumps over the bed and tries to pull himself back together. He has to get through this. He has to get better.

"David?" Amy's voice comes in through the open window. She's worried, he can hear it.

David pushes himself back to his feet. He wipes his eyes. "What happened next?" he asks, and congratulates himself for the relative steadiness of his voice.

It takes a moment for Amy to answer.

"As you got older, things started to-- I know what it was now, but I didn't--" She takes an audible breath. "Sometimes I would leave you in the bathroom and turn around and you'd be wandering outside. You would know things, conversations you shouldn't have been able to overhear. You didn't stay put, even when we locked the doors."

David doesn't understand. "I didn't-- Amy, I didn't know about my powers. How could I have--" He thought-- he thought that Farouk suppressed them, somehow, drained him too much for them to-- He heard voices, he made things move with his mind, but those were-- He was older when that happened.

He thought he was schizophrenic, and then he thought that he was crazy because his powers made him crazy because Farouk kept him from being able to control them. Because Farouk kept him from knowing he had powers in the first place.

"Of course we knew about our powers," Dvd says. "We used them all the time. It was great for school, we always knew the right answers because we would listen in on the smartest kid in the class."

David knew about his powers. He was a little kid and he knew about his powers and used them and controlled them and he was fine.

"Oh my god," David says. He sits down on the bed, absolutely stunned. "I knew about my powers."

"Was he always this slow?" Dvd asks, and Divad shrugs.

Chapter Text

"David, do you want to take a break?" Ptonomy's voice asks, through the open window of Amy's childhood bedroom.

"No," David says, distantly, then he snaps back to himself. It's a shock, learning that he knew about his powers as a kid, that he used them and controlled them. It's a shock but it's-- It's not a bad shock. It's not an 'Amy and Lenny are in the mainframe' shock. It's just--

He should be used to it by now, having his understanding of himself and his life completely turned upside-down. He should be used to it, but each time it knocks him flat.

He has no memory of knowing about his powers. Not when he was young, and by the time he understood that something strange was happening to him, he had his diagnosis of schizophrenia. And then when he did suspect that there was something more than schizophrenia happening to him, that he was somehow making the world change with his mind, that he was hearing actual thoughts and not delusions of thoughts--

By then, he’d already been on heavy medication for years. He’d been arrested, he'd been put onto psych holds, he'd been strapped down to hospital beds. By then, he knew not to trust his own mind, his own senses. By then, he knew he was crazy. He knew.

But he didn't. He didn't know it because before Farouk made him forget, he knew he had powers. So he would have known he wasn't crazy.

"Maybe we should take a break," Divad says.

"No," David says, looking up at him. "No, I have to-- I need to know the truth. The whole-- I need to know who I really am."

He's not David the lunatic. He's not-- He doesn't know who he is, who the David is who knew he had powers the whole time. But he needs to find out.

Wait. Maybe this is the proof that he isn’t who everyone thinks he is. Maybe there was a different David who knew all of that and died and that’s why he—

“No,” Divad says, firmly. “David, we were there when he made you forget. That’s all he did, he made you forget.”

“But—“

“No,” Divad says again. “We’ll find your proof, but you have to give us the chance to do that.”

“Yeah, come on, we haven’t even got to your memories yet, much less ours,” Dvd says.

“What’s the first thing you remember?” Divad asks. “How far back can you go?”

David concentrates. He’s gone over the same few memories so many times, but what’s the earliest?

When he opens his eyes, he’s sitting on the floor of his childhood bedroom, and there’s a crib instead of a bed. His blue rocket lamp is slowly turning, softly creaking and casting stars across every surface.

“My lamp,” he says, remembering how much it fascinated him, how he would stare at it for hours. “It’s— It’s real, I think it’s real. I accidentally broke it in Amy’s basement after—“

After Lenny appeared, or what he thought was Lenny. It was just Farouk, wearing her like a mask, starting a new game because David wasn’t a drugged, docile prisoner of Clockworks anymore. There was something new to do besides terrify him and then make him forget why he was terrified, over and over, day after day after day, while slowly sucking him dry.

Was it real?

“We liked the lamp, too,” Dvd says. “It was real. I was kinda mad when you broke it.”

David regretted breaking it. He stayed up late patching it back together, searching the basement floor for every last ceramic fragment, fixing the wiring, bending the shade back into some kind of shape. He wonders what happened to it when they moved Amy and Ben to the desert. It was so busted, even after all that work. They probably just threw it out.

“I saved it,” Amy says. “Of course I saved it. I knew how much you loved it.”

Oh.

He wants— Maybe they could—

“I’m sure we can have it brought to the lab,” Ptonomy says.

Maybe there’s a tiny upside to having his every thought heard by everyone.

Okay. So he remembers his lamp and so does everyone else. It’s not much but it’s a start. What else does he remember?

His legs pumping as he rode his tricycle down the street. The sun shining down, the scrape of skateboards against the curb. Amy on her bike, riding ahead and then back again, circling him like a hawk.

Sitting on the grass, his fingers sticky as he blew bubbles across the yard. Picking dandelions from the lawn. Playing with toys, playing with Amy; sitting on his mom’s lap or his dad’s shoulders.

He doesn’t remember hearing thoughts or teleporting out of bathrooms. He doesn’t remember being sad and sensitive. He remembers— He remembers being normal. A normal little boy doing normal little boy things.

But that wasn’t real. He wasn’t normal. He knew about his powers and used them. Amy and his parents— His parents—

“They must have known,” he realizes. “That I’m a mutant. They must have known.” They took in a baby in the dead of night, of course they knew there was something unusual about him. Maybe not the extent of his powers, not at first, and they didn’t know about his parasite, but—

Amy was a child and she knew, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, even if she thought— Amy knew and his parents must have known.

“Why didn’t they—“ he starts, but then stops, because maybe they did talk to him about his powers. Maybe they did a lot of things that people trying to hide a powerful mutant toddler would do. But he doesn’t remember any of it. He remembers being loved by his parents, but he doesn’t remember them helping him. He—

He doesn’t remember talking to them much at all. There are moments, but— When he thinks about his family, he mostly just thinks about Amy. He didn’t know he was adopted until a few weeks ago, but he always— It’s like—

If he wasn’t already sitting down, he would have to sit down.

During his memory walks with Ptonomy, he kept feeling like there was something in the way of him seeing his parents properly. He could see Amy fine, but Mom and Dad— He couldn’t see their faces. He remembers being loved but if he tries to remember more than that—

“I don’t think these memories are real,” Divad says. “I don’t think any of that was. Maybe you did those things. You probably did. But you were never normal and our family knew that.”

“What did they know?” David asks. Divad and Dvd and Amy remember what he can’t. “Please, why did he make me forget them?”

He forgot them. Not everything, Farouk had to leave something behind or it would have been suspicious, but he took away so much. When Dad died, when they wouldn’t let him go to the funeral, David thought— He thought a lot of terrible things, but he mostly thought it didn’t matter because they’d never been that close anyway.

“No, David, that’s not—“ Child Amy is back, older now, with braids and skinned knees. She sits down on the grass with him. “I didn’t know what you were. But they must have. They told me never to say anything about the strange things that happened. They didn’t want anyone to find out you were a mutant. I think they were afraid of what would happen.”

“They had reason to be afraid,” Ptonomy says, his voice drifting over. “Even beyond protecting you from Farouk. Division 3 was actively searching for mutant children. If they’d found you, you would have been killed or forced into becoming their weapon. Especially given how powerful you were at such a young age. Your adoptive parents couldn’t even risk telling their own daughter the truth about you.”

“They were trying to protect me,” David realizes. They didn’t know about his parasite, they didn’t know Farouk had already found him. They were trying to keep him safe from another threat, from the military arm of the world governments that wanted to destroy mutantkind and had no morals against abducting and brainwashing mutant children and forcing them to slaughter their own kind.

That’s what Division 3 is. That’s the organization he talked his friends into joining so they could stop Farouk. God, he really had no idea about the war he found himself in the middle of. He just wanted everyone to stop trying to kill each other. He wanted to do something good with all the power he suddenly found himself with.

He’s such an idiot. He made them join Division 3. This place nearly destroyed them and it’s his fault.

“You didn’t make us do anything,” Ptonomy says. “You’re right that you had no idea what you were doing when you tried to negotiate with Division 3. But you stopped the killing. And once you were gone, we made the choice to come here, to take the opportunity you gave us to change Division 3 into something better. We did a lot of good while we searched for you. Don’t take away our choice because you can’t forgive yourself.”

That’s all too much for David to process. He tries to focus on what’s happening right now, on the false memories Farouk created for him after he took away the real ones. Farouk must have had to take away so much that David wouldn’t have been able to remember anything at all, but if he didn’t remember anything he would have tried harder to understand his own past.

So Farouk left behind the normal things. He left behind Amy and the love of his family. He built David just enough false memories to be believable, using just enough truth for him to swallow all of it without question.

When did he forget? When was he changed so completely?

“When we were in college,” Divad says. “But we’ll get to that later. Do you remember any of what Farouk did to you before you made us?”

“No.” David shakes his head. He’s known about Farouk for weeks but there’s still nothing. Just like Benny, but— He was wrong, before, thinking of the missing memories like black holes. His whole mind is a black hole. He barely exists at all, he’s just this paper-thin mockery of a person that Farouk—

That Farouk made. This person he is now, he didn’t make himself, he didn’t sew himself together out of scraps and cotton thread. Farouk took away almost everything he was and then picked through the scraps and built something new to play with.

How could they ever— How are they ever going to find anything inside him that’s real?

“We’re not gonna let you float away,” Dvd says, sitting beside him on the grass. “We’re not gonna let that shit beetle hurt you again. And that’s— It’s bullshit, okay? Even if you don’t remember, it’s bullshit, because you’re still you, David. I would know. He left Amy whole to torture you, right? Well he left me whole to torture me. He made sure I’d remember. So I remember who you were and you grew up, you changed, you forgot. But you never stopped being you.”

It’s the most eloquent thing David’s ever heard Dvd say. And Dvd is looking at him so— There’s no defensive anger in his eyes, no sarcasm in his voice. He’s just—

He’s telling the truth. It’s not enough to make David believe, but Dvd’s telling the truth as much as he knows it. It’s not enough but— It helps. It does help.

“Aww, c’mere,” Dvd says, and hugs him.

David freezes, surprised. Dvd’s never— Neither of his alters have been very— Most of the time he’s known them, they haven’t been able to touch him, much less—

Dvd hugs him tighter. “Just because you don’t remember how we work, that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna hug you. Syd's right, you need hugs.”

David swallows. "I thought you hated Syd."

"Eh," Dvd says, noncommittally. "We need all the help we can get. I'll be mad at her again when you're better. Now hug me back already."

David tentatively hugs him back. This is all very, very strange, everyone knowing so much more of his life than him, his relationships being different and having relationships he doesn't remember at all. He wasn't sure what he expected to find but it wasn't this, it wasn't this entire other existence that he barely feels any connection to at all. He feels even less real than he did when they started this, and he wouldn't have thought that was possible.

Dvd pulls back, lets him go.

"I think we should stop," Divad says. "Just for now."

"What?" David says, alarmed. "No, we-- we can't. We haven't even--"

"I agree," Ptonomy says. "David, finding out all of this-- If we keep going, we risk hurting you, setting you back. We have to take this slow."

"No," David insists. "I need-- We have to find the memory, the-- The good memory. So I can have continuity. We have to find it." He can't get better if he doesn't know who he is.

Divad crouches down to meet his eyes. "David, this is only going to get harder. When you were this young, Farouk was already hurting you, draining you, but he wasn't-- He hadn't broken your mind yet. He wasn't strong enough to do that. He was still-- He had to recover from being forced out of his body."

There's something else. There's something else that Divad doesn't want him to realize yet. Something he realized when he was a little older, maybe before he created the alters, maybe after.

Oh god.

"I didn't just know about my powers," David realizes. "I knew there was a monster."

Divad gives a resigned nod.

The invisible war. It wasn't invisible, not then. He knew about his powers. He knew he was being tortured by something alien, by some creature living inside him. He couldn't have known what it was, who it was, but he knew it was there. He must have tried to tell someone. He must have tried to tell his parents. They knew he was a mutant, they knew about Farouk, they must have known--

They must have known. How could they have-- How could they have just--

"They didn't know," Dvd insists. "By the time we came and we realized what was happening to us, the monster had already made sure that no one would believe us. He made everyone think we were crazy so no matter what we said, no one would help us."

"David, I'm so sorry," child Amy says. "If I had known about your powers-- I wish Mom and Dad had told me. But you talked to people that weren't there. You saw things that weren't there. You forgot things and got confused, you were upset all the time, you said you were being controlled, that something was inside you, hurting you. We just thought-- The doctors thought--"

That he was schizophrenic. His parents knew he was a mutant and thought that he was schizophrenic. Farouk really was his schizophrenia after all.

He doesn't remember telling people he was being controlled. He doesn't remember that at all.

"Yeah, we are definitely done," Divad says, firmly. "Come on, David. Let's go back."

"No," David refuses. They can't quit now. They have to find something real, he needs something real from his own memory. He needs proof that he isn't just something Farouk created like a false memory, to paper over the gaping emptiness that is his mind.

He knew it, he knew this was going to happen, that looking into himself would only make things worse. There’s probably nothing to find. Farouk doesn’t want him to have anything good, and he’s never been able to stop Farouk from getting what he wanted. God, why did he even think he could try to get better? It was never going to work.

He just--

He just wants--

"Stop it," Dvd says, cutting off the thought. "Just stop it. Divad's right, we need to go back so you can rest. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to say that he's right? No, you don't, because you don't remember us. And you know what? You're right, too. It's not okay. It's awful. It's been awful for years and I thought it would be better once you could finally hear us and see us but it's actually worse."

"Dvd," Divad says, concerned.

"Shut up, I'm not done," Dvd says. "David, he tortured us. He tortured us, do you understand? You don't remember and you shouldn't ever remember but I remember more of it than even Divad does. And it was--" He closes his mouth tight, closes his eyes, tenses up so tight and then lets it go. "None of this is gonna be fixed with one memory. It's just not. Because I have all the memories and it's still awful." He reaches out and holds David's arms. "We'll find a good one, okay? We will find a good one. But we're finding it so it will help you get better. If we hurt you finding it, then this whole thing is pointless and we should just take off the crown so you can go back in time and kill everyone."

David freezes.

"That's what you were thinking, you know we heard it," Dvd says. "Everyone heard it. You think that's the answer? It's not enough for you to kill yourself, you want to kill everyone else, too?"

"No!" David protests, he just--

"If we could never have existed," Dvd says. "If we could spare you all of this. If you never had to make us because someone kept you safe, that would be okay by us. But that's not a decision we get to make for the world. We thought we should make Syd forget and look what happened. We can't make the world forget without— Without it being seven billion times worse."

"But-- But Syd, Future Syd--"

"Excuse me?" Dvd says, outraged. "I might not be mad at Syd right now, but if we ever see that bitch's face again I'm going to use our body to smash her head in with a rock! She is not a good example of how to save the world, you get me?" He looks up at the sky. "Unbelievable." He looks back at David. "Now get us out of this place before I do it myself."

David opens his eyes. He's back in Cary's lab, back in the chair. Divad and Dvd slump in their chairs, both in their own versions of overwhelming relief.

Maybe-- Maybe it's a good thing he has to wear the crown. David doesn't think he's capable of making any kind of decision right now, much less a good one.

"I'm glad you realized that," Ptonomy says, sounding relieved himself. "That was a lot for you, learning about your past. Give it time to settle. Talk to Amy, when you're up to it. Let her tell you what she can about who you used to be. When you're ready, we'll do more memory work, but Dvd's right. There's no point in doing this if it makes you worse. We have to take it one step at a time. If you keep pushing yourself, you'll end up just like that lamp, and we'll have to work even harder to put all the pieces back together just to get you back to where you are now. I don't think you want that."

David thinks of his lamp and all the tiny pieces he had to find. He never did find all of them. There were holes in the rocket when he taped it back together, gaps like missing teeth. Like black holes, lacunas; information destroyed, never to be found again.

"No," he agrees. He's lost so much, he must have lost a little more of himself each time he was broken. He doesn't want to lose anything else. He can't afford to.

Chapter Text

David sits by the window.

He was sitting by the window alone, but then Matilda walked up and jumped into his lap. He’s a cat bed of pain so he lets her do what she wants. He pets her and keeps petting her and she rumbles against him like purring is going out of style and she has to get it all done now.

And then Kerry came over with a second chair and a stack of magazines. She hasn’t said much. She just keeps him company and flips through the magazines. She seems to be— If he didn’t know better, he’d say she was lost in thought. She doesn’t seem upset, though, so he doesn’t ask. He’s not really up to asking.

To his relief, Syd hasn’t come over. She’s at the table bent over her psychology book. She’s still highlighting things and now she’s making notes in the margins. He really, really doesn’t want to see them. He used to try to look at his patient files and his therapists' notes, but seeing how crazy they thought he was only made him crazier.

Or at least that’s what he remembers.

It’s a lot, what he learned during the memory work. It’s really close to being too much. He should have stopped the first time they told him to stop, after he learned he’d always known about his powers, but he kept going anyway. He never understood why Ptonomy’s sessions and the old memory walks were so short, why they didn’t pick up again right away after being interrupted by Dvd or Farouk. But yeah, he gets it now.

There’s only so much someone like him can take at once.

Even with Divad’s help, David’s still been trying to do what he always does, which is to close his eyes tight and run as fast as he can until he gets to the other side.

He can’t. He would have run into so many walls by now if he didn’t have people constantly pulling him aside. He would have run right off of so many cliffs if he didn’t have his alters watching and waiting to pull him back to safety. If there is an other side to all of this, it’s too far to run and it’s too dangerous. It’s a minefield, one he can’t even walk through without blowing himself up. He has to take one careful step at a time, with everyone checking to make sure there’s nothing explosive hiding under the dirt because there probably is, and if there is they have to defuse it before he puts his foot all the way down.

It's bad enough that Farouk broke him however many times he broke him. David doesn't want to break himself. That's probably a good thing, that he's thinking that now, because before now he really, really wasn't thinking that.

He doesn't want to end the world. But he would also like to not end. Even if the need to end is still perilously close to the path he's taking, one slow, careful step at a time, he doesn't want to step on that landmine again. He doesn't. He keeps putting his foot over it but he hasn't put it all the way down, and he wants to just-- Not. To not put his foot down. To put it down somewhere else, on ground that won't explode under his weight.

He's trying. He really is trying to step anywhere else, to step somewhere safe. He's just not very steady on his feet.

Divad and Dvd are letting him rest, but they haven't vanished. They seem to be-- intentionally not vanishing. They're each sitting on one of the cots right now and they're playing cards. If David was feeling uncharitable, he would say they're doing it on purpose to remind him that they're real people and not just figments of his imagination. But they deserve better than his uncharitable thoughts.

They—

They—

Cary is busy doing Cary things. Oliver is astral projecting to look for Melanie again. At least while he's gone, David's thoughts aren't being constantly relayed into the mainframe. He's down to only three people listening in on his thoughts at all times, which these days is a luxurious amount of privacy.

The Vermillion is sitting at the table with Syd, but nobody's home. Ptonomy and Lenny and Amy are doing whatever it is they do in the mainframe. He hopes it's nice in there. He has no idea, but everyone seems okay. Not that he would know if it wasn't, even without the crown, because it's impenetrable to telepathic intrusion. Part of him wishes he could just upload himself. It's the one place he'd finally be safe from Farouk.

Across the room, Divad and Dvd pause, Divad's raised hand gone still mid-discard.

Yeah, I know, David sighs to them. There he goes again with his unsteady feet. And he wasn't even trying to walk anywhere.

David decides to think about something else, and Divad finishes putting down his card.

David knows he should have stopped, in the white room. He should have let them stop him. But he needs to know the truth about himself, even if the truth is—

Even if—

Even if he is David, the same David who loved his blue rocket lamp-- Even if he's the same, continuous identity--

He doesn't remember that life. He doesn't remember it beyond the bits and pieces Farouk left for him to keep. He doesn't remember being anything but a normal little boy who loved his sister and his parents. He doesn't remember knowing about his powers and using them. He doesn't remember being some kind of refugee hidden from the world, mentally unstable because of the parasite in his head even before his mind split into three. He doesn't remember his parents protecting him from Division 3. He doesn't remember knowing there was a monster inside of him, hurting him, and he doesn't remember asking for help getting it out.

Whatever memories are hidden inside him, whatever Farouk left behind or David made himself forget, he can't remember them and he probably never will. It's all just gone, like Benny is gone. It's never coming back.

There are things he's lost that he'll never get back.

He's been telling himself that for days, but this is-- It's so much. It's so much to lose, and he lost all of it.

He doesn't know if he should-- Should he mourn that David? Should he be grieving the loss of himself? Divad and Dvd keep telling him that despite everything he's forgotten and endured, he's still the same person, but he can't-- He can't see any connection between that David and the David he is now, whoever that David is. He has nothing to sew them together beyond a broken rocket lamp and Amy's love, and he doesn't have the lamp and his sister is--

Alive. Dead. A digital ghost. A bunch of ones and zeros on a hard drive.

His whole life is such a swirling existential nightmare.

Okay. Okay. This is-- He's doing the work of getting better. Ptonomy said it would be hard. It's just really, really, really hard. A lot harder than other people keeping him alive was and continues to be, and that hasn’t been easy at all.

He glances at the Vermillion again. Ptonomy said he should talk to Amy when he’s ready and learn more about the David-that-was.

He wants to. He needs to. He will. He’s just— he doesn’t feel ready yet. He’s still— He’s had a shock, another shock, and he needs to rest.

He needs to rest.

§

Kerry flips another page of the magazine she’s reading and frowns.

After she and Cary got all the food stuff figured out with their meal plan, Kerry asked him for something else to help her understand. It’s new, this need to understand herself and the world, and even newer is the need to understand how those two things fit together.

Cary went out and came back with a stack of magazines. All different ones, ones about science and medicine, which she’s familiar with because Cary reads them. But also ones about other things: about food and people and news and sports.

"See what interests you," Cary told her, and gave her a notebook and a pen, just like the ones he gave to David. "I think you’ll have a great deal of questions but don’t worry about them. Just write them down and we’ll go through them all together."

So that’s what she’s been doing while she keeps David company and keeps an eye on him. She’s been reading and coming up with questions and writing them down. She keeps coming up with more questions, and questions about those questions, and even questions about the questions about the questions.

The world is— Bewildering.

She remembers Cary teaching her that word, like he taught her most of her words. He made games out of it to keep it interesting, to keep her speaking instead of thinking. List the names of all the states containing the letter N. List every adjective that describes an emotional state. List all the medications that have side effects involving imbalance of the inner ear.

But knowing all the words isn’t helping her understand any of this.

She thought the sports magazines might make sense because she likes fighting and she understands fighting, but— The sports magazines aren’t about fighting at all. They’re about teams and statistics, which she understands some of, but they’re mostly about specific people she doesn’t know, and everyone cares about every little thing about them but also they don’t care about them at all. They just care if the specific people will manage to do one specific thing by a specific time, and everyone wants a different specific thing. It's rude and exhausting.

The food magazines made a little more sense now that she knows about food plans. There were lots of glossy photos of things she wants to try eating eventually because they look really good. The recipes were long and full of confusing instructions like ‘salt to taste.’ But they were also full of advice about what to eat and not eat and most of it didn’t even agree with itself, much less with what Cary told her when they made the meal plan. She wrote down all her questions but she didn’t like how they made her confused again about something she had just figured out.

The magazines about the world and countries and politics were just— she didn’t even try to understand any of those, she just wrote down pages and pages of questions, like David’s pages and pages of his name and the word NO.

At least all of this writing is giving her a reason to practice writing. She has to write carefully because she’s never had much need to write even after Cary made her learn. But she needs to because one day he’s gonna die. Even if she isn’t alone, she needs to be able to do all the things he’s always done for her, so she needs to practice writing. She need to understand the world so she can be in it the way Cary is in it, the way all their friends are.

She’s reading one of the magazines about people now, and it’s— It’s so bewildering that she can barely even come up with questions to write down.

"I don’t understand any of this," she declares, frustrated.

David looks over, startled from whatever he’s been thinking about all this time. "Any of what?"

She hands him the magazine. "Cary gave me these to read. I’m supposed to write down what I don’t understand, but it doesn’t even make enough sense to ask questions about."

David flips through the magazine. "I used to read this in Clockworks. They have a good crossword. And sudoku, but I usually couldn’t solve that."

"I don’t care about the puzzles," Kerry says. "It’s all the other stuff."

David flips back to the beginning and reads the table of contents. "Relationship advice, beauty tips, celebrity gossip? Yeah, I can see why it’s not your thing. It wasn’t really my thing but—" He shrugs. "I learned a lot about makeup. Sometimes I thought it would be nice to do that for a living: help people feel pretty. Help them feel good about themselves, I don’t know."

"That’s not what that stuff is about at all," Kerry protests. "It’s all just— It’s mean, it’s all mean and ugly."

David frowns at the magazine, then at her. "It is?"

"Yes," she insists. "Everything’s—" She huffs, trying to finds the right words. "The whole thing is about how you’re ugly if you don’t do what they tell you to do. But they’re the ugly ones, whoever wrote that. It’s mean and ugly and I hate it. And they’re all like that, even the ones about science."

She grabs the other magazines and shoves them into his hands, startling Matilda out of his lap. Matilda gives herself an affronted shake and walks over to Syd and meows for food.

David looks at the other magazines. "Well, that’s—" He thinks. "I guess you’re right."

"I am?" Kerry didn’t expect to be right. She thought she was misunderstanding things again. "But that’s stupid."

"Yeah," David agrees, and gives a resigned shrug. "The world’s— It is ugly, a lot of it. And this is all— It’s advertising."

Kerry frowns. How had Cary described advertising? "That’s how everyone knows there’s something they can buy. How they know what it's for."

David scrunches his face. "Some of it. Most of it just tries to make you feel like you have to buy what they're selling. It’s like— emotional blackmail. Drink this beer or no one will love you."

Kerry hasn’t tried beer, and she doesn’t like someone telling her she has to drink it. "Cary loves me no matter what I drink."

"That's how it should be. No one should care what anyone drinks. I don’t think anyone does, really, except the people selling the drink. They just want our money."

Ugh, money. She’s going to have to learn about money, too. "The world is stupid," she declares. "There’s no way it’s worth all this work if it’s full of people being mean."

"I’m probably not the best person to argue against that," David says, "since I’ve spent the past week trying to leave the world. But that’s not the world’s fault, it’s mine."

"It’s completely the world’s fault," Kerry says. "I’ve been listening. That’s what Ptonomy and Syd and everyone keeps telling you. No wonder you’re so sick if you spent all those years in the hospital reading advertising." She says the last word like Dvd says ‘shit beetle.’

David takes a breath, then closes his eyes. "Advertising didn’t torture me. Well, okay, maybe it is a kind of torture, but— Just because there’s terrible things in the world, that doesn’t mean it’s— You can’t just throw the good out with the bad. Or you can, but— It’s— It’s not something you should do."

He goes silent and frowns.

When he keeps staying silent and frowning, she takes back the magazines. That makes him open his eyes and look at her again.

"I'm not throwing out anything," Kerry says. "This is-- I'm-- It's something I have to do. Like eating. I have to understand the world so I can understand myself."

David gives a panicky laugh. "I'm really the wrong person to be having this conversation with. I thought I understood a lot of things and-- And I was as wrong as it’s physically possible to be. Just completely-- And I don't-- I can't even remember anything to understand it. So you should probably talk to Syd, or Cary, or-- or anyone but me."

"I'm already talking to Cary about it," Kerry says. "He gave me all this stuff to read and told me write down all my questions. And I am, but--" But what? Cary should be enough. Cary's always been enough. But--

"But Cary's not enough," she realizes, as she says it. "I want to talk to you about it."

"I can't help anyone," David says, bleakly.

"You're helping me," Kerry tells him, because he is. He already has, a lot, and he can't see it even if she can. But David can't see a lot of things, even when people tell him about them over and over. So she has to tell him and be really clear about it so he can't misunderstand her. "You-- All the stuff I said to you about-- About how scary living is. You're the only one I ever said it to. Not Cary, not Melanie, not anyone. Because no one ever-- I never saw anyone who felt what I feel. But you do."

Maybe there are other people who feel what she feels. Maybe there always have been. But she couldn't see them the way she saw David. She had to get right up close to him to keep him safe and once she did, she couldn't look away. David doesn't hide how he feels the way everyone else does. He shows everything, he screams his pain so loud that even she could hear it.

She doesn't need to hear his thoughts like Divad and Dvd and Ptonomy. She just looks at him and she knows, like she knows when Dvd or Divad are controlling his body and not David.

"You shouldn't--" David says, looking at her with those pain-filled eyes. "You shouldn't feel the way I do."

"Well, it's not up to you," Kerry tells him. "And it's not-- I don't want to die. I’ve never wanted to die. But-- I've been scared for a long time and I didn't know it. I thought I had everything figured out and I don't know anything. I don't have someone else inside me but I have me inside me and I don't know who I am, like you don't know who you are. And nobody did that to me because I did all of it to myself, like you keep hurting yourself even when we're all just trying to keep you safe. And-- And I only know any of that because you showed me. So don't tell me you can't help anyone because you're helping me."

David stares at her like he stared at her two days ago when she told him this before, like he's starving for every word. But David needs to be told things over and over, so she'll just have to keep telling him over and over until he really listens. Until he doesn't just look at her words like they're a glossy photo of a cake in some magazine, but puts the actual word cake into his actual mouth and chews and swallows and lets it into his throat and lets it sit in his stomach so his body can actually use it.

Except he shouldn't eat any cake, not for a while. He needs nutritious food so he can get better. He needs-- He needs nutritious words, too. Nutritious ideas, so his mind can digest them and use them to make itself strong.

"Oh," David says. "That's-- Um."

She can see that he still doesn't understand. He still can't let her words go into his throat. But it took her a while to force herself to eat even when she was so hungry she thought she might die. Cary had to drag her to the cafeteria and force her to eat shaomai, and she hated eating them so much. But it got easier, chewing and swallowing and all the rest of it. It got easier and now she only has to force herself a little. There are even things she likes eating, like cream soda. And eggs are okay, because she doesn't have to chew them much.

They all have to keep giving him nutritious ideas, like Cary kept giving her food. He's hungry for them, she can see that. He just doesn't know how to eat them. Cary said David doesn't know how to eat, that he doesn't know how to take care of himself because he's been sick and because people hurt him, and it's hard to take care of yourself when you're in pain.

"We're gonna get better together," she tells him, confidently. "Both of us. But also everyone, because we're all complicated people who need support. That's how this works. We help you and you help us, and everyone helps each other until everyone's better. Okay?"

She waits for David to answer.

"Um, okay," David says, and now he's the one who's bewildered.

That's okay, she doesn't mind. Every time she helps him, she helps herself get better, too.

She pulls the magazine about people out of the stack and hands it to him. "You said you like the crossword?"

"Uh, yes," David says. He opens the magazine and finds the puzzle page. He looks around. "I need a pen."

Kerry hands him hers. She's written down enough questions for now. Maybe it's David's turn to write and her turn to look out the window and think about things. She likes that idea. It feels very nutritious.

Chapter Text

Oliver is back and so is the relay.

Ptonomy and Cary have both tried to convince him to stop looking for Melanie until they can come up with some kind of plan, but the best they could do was to get him to agree to not stay away too long. David doesn't think Oliver cares whether or not he gets stuck on the astral plane again, since that's where Melanie is, lost somewhere among billions of subconscious minds. But for some reason, Oliver is willing to come back to his body to help David. Because they need him present in the lab to help David get better.

David thinks that Oliver shouldn’t waste his time.

Not that he wants Oliver to get stuck. David got enough of a taste of that to never want it again for himself, much less anyone else. If he’s the excuse they need to keep Oliver alive and present and eating, so be it. At least that’s something good he can do for someone, even if all he’s doing is being hopelessly lost to keep someone else from being hopelessly lost.

Apparently that’s what he’s good for now, from what Kerry said. Showing everyone else what suffering is so they can suffer less themselves. He doesn’t know what he feels about that. He doesn’t know what he should feel.

Mostly he just feels numb. The more he rests to recover from the memory work, the more numb he feels.

Cary and Kerry come back with dinner, and everyone comes together. There aren’t enough seats around the table, not for all of them, so they bring over two more chairs and make room anyway.

The two chairs are for Divad and Dvd, who can’t be heard by half the room, can’t be seen by anyone but David, and can’t be touched by anyone but each other.

David understood giving them seats for the group therapy. It’s his therapy and he’s the one hallucinating them. But this is just— Insane.

He doesn’t say anything, and no one bothers to reply to his thoughts. He already knows what they’d say to him, because it’s the same thing they keep telling him. Divad and Dvd are real people and they all need to treat them like real people, even if they’re not visible or tangible.

He doesn't want to go over it again. He doesn't want to talk about anything. He lets the conversation flow around him and eats what he's given, like he always does.

"David. David. David."

David looks up. It's Ptonomy's voice coming out of the Vermillion.

"Do you feel like talking to Amy yet? Or Lenny? They’d both like to talk to you."

Amy.

Lenny.

"No," he says, shaking his head. He can't-- He can't talk to them, either of them. He can't face them without--

He can't.

"Amy really wants to talk to you," Ptonomy urges, gently. "She wants to help you."

David looks back down at his plate. Did he eat all that already? Apparently he did.

"No," he says again, because that's all he has the strength to say.

Maybe he should just ask Divad to make him sleep again. Maybe he should ask to sleep and never wake up, like Oliver wants to do.

"Perhaps you should take a walk, get some fresh air," Oliver replies.

"I can't," David says. "I'm not allowed to leave the lab."

"We never said that," Cary says. "You're not a prisoner anymore, David. You haven't been since we brought you out of that cell."

David looks up again, startled. "I'm-- I'm not?"

"Of course not," Cary insists. "You've just been in such a terrible state, and us all being together here is the best way to take care of you and each other. You shouldn't go anywhere alone, of course. But as long as at least one of us is with you, we can take you anywhere in Division 3."

"How about the rooftop garden?" Kerry suggests. "I was just there with Cary. It's pretty nice. We can all go."

David can't get over the fact that he's not a prisoner. "Maybe you shouldn't let me up there," he says, hearing the shock in his own voice. "I might throw myself over the side." Like the monk. God, he forgot about the monk.

"Don't joke about that," Kerry says, sternly. "And anyway you're not gonna do that. You wouldn't do that to us, right?"

It takes David a while to answer, but he does. "No. No, I wouldn't."

“Then it’s settled,” Oliver declares. “White mist in old October, over the billion trees of Bronx, sunset red. While I’m here, I’ll do the work to ease the pain of living.”

§

The garden is lovely and full of flowers.

It's getting late, so the day is cooling down, but the sun is still above the horizon and the concrete benches hold on to the heat they absorbed from being baked all day. The sounds of the city rise up from all around, but there’s not many trees and definitely no mist.

The last time David sat in a garden was after Ptonomy told him about La Désolé. He'd gone outside of Division 3 to think and talk to the voices in his head so they could help him figure out what to do. And then he went to Cary's lab and they helped him make their plan.

It feels like a lifetime ago. It was only days. Only a week and a half, with all that wandering in the desert. So little time for his whole life to change, and somehow not to change at all. But that's been the story of his life for all of this madness, for everything since Clockworks. Everything changing and changing, so much change he can't keep up, and then somehow at the end of it nothing has changed at all.

He didn't think--

He didn't think he'd ever be outside again.

Clockworks never let him outside. They had a garden, but it wasn't-- It wasn't real. It was just another cruel joke, all those fake plants pretending to be something alive, something that could sustain life by making the air sweet and pure. A real garden was just another thing he wasn't allowed to have, like fresh air and sunshine and--

He remembers loving his mother's garden. He doesn't know if he really did, if Farouk made him think he did. But he remembers it. The soil under his hands, under his nails. The tomato plants all in rows. Watering them so they would grow and thrive. The burst of cherry tomatoes in his mouth in the heat of summer, sweet and tart and juicy.

He remembers being loved. But that wasn't real either. Nothing was real, none of it.

What did Philly say to him? He didn't have a past. There was no evidence of his past, no photos, no favorite toys, no keepsakes. She couldn't have known but she did. She knew the truth even though she barely knew him at all. The flimsy lie that Farouk constructed was obvious to everyone but himself.

He's just paper-thin, covering over the absence of who he used to be. Who David used to be, whoever David was.

He looks at the railing around the garden wall. He thinks about the monk, running too fast to be stopped. Falling, falling, and then— That terrible sound, and far down below, his body. His head was full of madness, too. Contagious madness, chattering teeth, mazes, memories of bodies hanging like rotten fruit in the monastery. Everyone seeking oblivion, negation, so much death at every turn.

David takes a breath, lets it out. He needs to keep his feet steady. He went too fast today, and now he needs to go slow or he’s going to put his foot down, all the way down in the wrong place.

He tries to look away from the railing. He tries. He’s trying.

Oliver is talking to Cary, saying something about luggage. He focuses on that. There are bees dipping into the flowers. He focuses on that. Real bees. Real flowers. A real garden, outside, where he’s sitting.

He shouldn’t fall apart from something so small. He has to get better. He’ll never get better if he keeps falling apart.

Someone takes his hand, holds it. Kerry. He grips it back tightly, too tightly, but she’s strong. She’s a mutant, like him.

“We can come out here whenever you want,” she tells him. “Just the two of us. Well. And Divad and Dvd. The four of us.”

She’s been so kind to him. They barely talked before Division 3 imprisoned him and now he doesn’t think he could stay alive without her. She’s the only one who somehow makes him feel just a tiny, tiny bit normal. She gave him a crossword puzzle. She kept him company for hours today. She told him that she feels the same things he feels. She shouldn’t feel what he feels, no one should feel what he feels. But she said she feels it anyway.

They were talking about her magazines. Cary gave them to her to learn about the world. And she said— What did she say? She said if the world was so mean, it couldn’t be worth the work. And maybe it’s not, but—

If he jumped, he wouldn’t be able to sit in the garden, and he only just found out that he could. He wouldn’t be able to hold her hand and feel—

Loved. She makes him feel loved.

Him. Not-- Not whoever he used to be. Not the David-that-was. Not even the David of two weeks ago, when he was still deluding himself that he could be a hero or even just a person. She came to him when he was at his lowest and she hasn't gone away, even though he all he's done is fall apart and fall lower. And now she's holding his hand.

She shouldn't. He's not worth the work she's putting in, not worth the quarters she's poured into his broken head. But he doesn't want to let go and he doesn't want her to let go of him.

She doesn't make him talk. She just keeps him company and holds his hand while the sun sinks down and the sky turns brilliant red and orange. The others talk around them, a soothing chatter, and David holds Kerry's hand and stays alive.

§

When they get back to the lab, Clark is waiting for them.

David nearly walks right back out the door, but that would mean letting go of Kerry's hand and he doesn't want to. Kerry stands in front of him, protecting him, and he's grateful.

"I'm not here to drug you," Clark says, holding up his empty hands. "Ptonomy's in charge of your treatment. I'm just here to bring you this." There's a cardboard box on the counter beside him. He picks it up and holds it out.

Kerry takes it, letting go of David's hand. She looks at it suspiciously, then pulls open the flap and looks inside. Her posture relaxes. She turns to David and holds it out for him.

David looks inside. It's his blue rocket lamp.

He's almost afraid to touch it, but he reaches in and pulls it out.

It's been a year since he left it behind, but it's exactly same as he remembers. The shade is still bent out of shape, and the ceramic rocket is barely held together by the aging packing tape. He remembers fitting all the pieces of it together, remembers wrapping the tape around and around in a desperate attempt to make it whole because he didn't know where Amy kept her glue and he didn't want to wake her or Ben up to ask.

He remembers the lamp. It's real and he remembers it so much. He's had it since before he can remember anything and he kept it in his bedroom until the day he packed it away because he didn't want to risk bringing it to college where someone might break it.

He broke it anyway, when he got out of Clockworks. But then he tried to fix it. He couldn't fix it, but he did what he could. And now it's here and he's making a new memory of it. A new, clear, untouched memory, almost painfully vivid. He picked it up and held it and now he remembers picking it up and holding it.

"Thank you," David says, distantly. He didn't think he would ever thank Clark for anything after Clark drugged him. But he's thankful for this.

He expects Clark to leave now that he's done making his delivery. He knows how much Clark is afraid of him, how he's always been afraid of him. Clark acts nice to David, to the others, but he doesn't mean it, not on the inside. They're mutants and he considers them all to be a threat to humanity. Powerful mutants like David especially. He doesn't like having to work with them, he doesn't like what they are, but he puts up with it because that's his job. David can't read his mind anymore, but there's no reason why Clark's thoughts aren't the same as they've always been.

But Clark doesn't leave. The kettle whistles and Clark walks over to it. "I was just making some tea, do you want some tea?"

David doesn't answer, but Clarks puts teabags in two mugs and fills them with hot water. He carries them over to the table and puts them down.

David looks to the others in confusion, but they're not much help either. Except Syd.

"It's okay," she tells him.

David doesn't see how any of this is okay, but he's curious enough to sit down. He puts the lamp on the table and wraps his hands around the mug, warming them. It was chilly outside, after the sun went down.

Kerry sits down next to him. Clark doesn't offer her tea and she doesn't ask for any. She crosses her arms and waits.

"I want you to know that your treatment is a priority to Division 3," Clark says. "If there's anything you need to help you get better, like your lamp, then we'll provide it. You just have to ask."

David stares at him. "Let me go," he says, finally. He doesn't know if he means to let him leave or let him die. Maybe both.

"Except that," Clark says, and he sounds apologetic but it's probably a lie. All of this is probably more lies. Just because Clark found his lamp, it doesn't mean anything. If anyone would be thrilled that David wants to kill himself, it's probably Clark, considering how many times Clark has threatened him and outright tried to murder him.

Farouk only threatened to torture David's friends. Clark hardly qualifies as a friend. At best he's a-- A frenemy. No, not even that, because he's working with Farouk. Farouk was supposed to be the one on trial but instead David was, and Farouk was the one orchestrating the whole thing. David's been so busy trying to die and not die that he forgot about how he ended up here in the first place. Like how he forgot about the monk.

Well, he's not forgetting that ever again.

"You do remember that I can hear your thoughts, right?" Clark says. He taps the tech embedded in his ear.

Shit. David forgot that, too.

"You're right, I'm not your friend," Clark says. "And for obvious reasons I'd prefer to keep it that way."

"Then why--"

Clark picks up his mug, blows at the steaming water. He takes out the teabag and sets it aside. "Division 3 has been listening, which means I've been listening. We owe you an apology. Not for taking away your powers and forcing you into treatment. It's clear that we made the right call. But--" He makes a face. "We made mistakes. We've made mistakes with you before. It's clear that-- Things could have been handled without resorting to-- Cruder methods."

Cruder methods. Cruder methods! "Is that what you call abducting me and drugging me and trying to electrocute me in a swimming pool?!"

"The swimming pool was a bit much," Clark admits. “Your situation wasn’t what it appeared to be.”

That is an astonishing understatement.

"We didn't hurt you to be cruel," Clark tells him. "We hurt you because we believed you were a threat. You killed a fellow patient. You sealed the other patients into their rooms. We know that wasn't you now, but we didn't then. And--" He actually looks regretful, but David doesn't believe it. "It was before my time, but I'm sorry for what we did to you as a child."

"Division 3 never found me," David says. He can't remember one way or the other, but if Division 3 had tracked him down, they would have taken him, and his life would have been very, very different.

"We may be the reason your parents had to give you up," Clark says. "Regardless of Farouk. Our policies at the time were-- Aggressive. Extremely aggressive. The people who set those policies are gone, but that doesn't undo the actions they compelled."

It's all very polite, careful wording. David doesn't know what happened back then, but he can guess, if Division 3 was aggressively hunting for mutant children, if they were aggressive towards mutants generally. He knows enough about the atrocities humans have done to other humans to guess what humans did to mutants.

There are words for that. Genocide, for one. Until last year, Division 3 still wanted to wipe mutants off the face of the earth, and David doesn't care if they changed their policies from horrific to politely horrific.

"That's not our goal anymore," Clark says. "We have a new goal and new policies. Possibly too new. As an organization, we're used to being aggressive. We still need to be, in some cases. We applied force unilaterally. We're learning how to be selective."

Clark sips his tea while David takes that in.

"I don't know why you're telling me this," David says, struggling. "What, do you want me to accept your apology? Fuck your apology!"

"My son was adopted," Clark says, out of nowhere.

"I know," David says, because of course he knows. He's heard Clark thinking about his husband and his son plenty of times. Usually he thought about how much he missed them because he had to spend so much time at Division 3 to stop Farouk and protect the world.

"Most people, when they adopt, they ask for a baby. Something cute and moldable, so they can pretend it's really their own. We asked for an older kid. A kid no one else wanted, who'd been hurt by the world and didn't know how to trust it. We did it because someone should give those kids a chance, and we have the resources to do that."

"So what?" David asks. Adopting one kid doesn't undo murdering however many mutants Clark has murdered, no matter how politely he murdered them.

"So if I could tell my kid that the reason his parents gave him up was because they were afraid for his life and needed to put him somewhere safe, I would. I can't do that. So I'm telling you."

David takes that in.

Clark takes one last sip of tea and stands, leaving the mug. "Good luck with your therapy. It sounds like you need it." He nods goodnight and then he's gone.

"You okay?" Kerry asks, putting a hand on his arm. "Clark's such a jerk."

Is he okay? No, he's not okay, not remotely. But not because of Clark.

Before, Ptonomy said-- He said David gave them the opportunity to change Division 3 into something better. And apparently he did. He had no idea what he was doing and blindly fumbled his way through the whole thing, but somehow he did it anyway.

That's--

It's good. He did something good.

He didn't change Division 3 directly. He wasn't there for that. He missed the year Division 3 changed, like he missed the year Syd changed. But if he hadn't existed, if he hadn't put himself between Summerland and Division 3 and told them they all had to get better, a lot more people would have been dead when he came back at the end of that year. Maybe everyone would have been dead, given how badly Summerland was losing the war when they found him. Given how desperate Melanie was for his help.

He did something good for the world. He actually did.

"David?" Kerry says, concerned. She's looking at him like he's doing something strange.

He realizes that he is. He's smiling. He's-- He's happy. He forgot what it was like to smile and be happy. He can't even remember--

No, no. He's not going to overthink this. He's not going to ruin something so precious. He's just going to sit here and drink tea with his friends and be happy.

Chapter Text

Lenny’s getting real tired of waiting around in other people’s heads.

Okay, technically this time she’s in a computer, not someone’s head. But it sure feels like being back in David’s head when his thoughts and the thoughts and voices of the other two Davids are echoing around her, a torrent of David rushing through the data streams.

She gets that they’re, like, other people? They sure don’t think or talk like David thinks and talks, and she’s hung out with him and inside of him long enough to be an expert on both. But they sure as hell still sound like David, and Lenny’s had her fill of ambiguity.

It’s not like it matters what she thinks about them anyway. She’s barely even talked to David, much less Divad or Dvd. It’s been a whole day since she helped him out of his freakout, and he hasn’t asked for her.

To be fair, David is clearly dealing with some shit. Like, some shit. She hasn’t seen him this bad in years, and she watched the highlight reel with Amy, she knows he was even worse before they pulled her out of her cell and killed her. He was worse than his worst. He sure wanted to die in Clockworks — sometimes they all did — but he wasn’t, like, actively making the effort twenty-four seven.

Farouk raped him hard, is what she’s saying, and Lenny had a front row seat for the raping. For her own rape and for David’s and even for Syd’s, at least the first one. This whole thing is a hundred levels of fucked up that Lenny really does not want to think about. She wants to get as high as balls and stay there and shove her mouth into as much drugged-out pussy as she can. She wants the Caligula shit she got a taste of when she got out of this hellhole the first time.

That’s the thing. David’s dealing with some shit and she gets that, but she’s been dealing with some shit that’s a hundred levels of fucked up on top of that, and as usual no one cares.

David would probably care if he wasn’t busy trying to figure out if he even exists. But she was trying to exist when he visited her in Oliver’s head, and he ignored her like she didn’t shoot herself in the head and hang herself right in front of him, just because he didn’t think she was real. The ultimate cry for help, and he wasn't listening.

Fuck real. Real is goddamn overrated. She hasn’t been real for over a year but does she care? Not a goddamn bit. She doesn’t need to be babysat like Amy. She can take care of herself, and that’s exactly what she’d do if they’d just let her the hell out of here.

She wants David to get better. She doesn’t want him to kill himself. He’s her only friend, the only person who’s ever given a damn about her. It would be a tragic waste if she dragged herself through all that octopus-desert-giant-plug-bullshit life-saving just for him to throw himself away. But he hasn’t done a whole lot for her since the first time she died. He only busted her out of jail for his own sake. When she begged for his help, all he did was tie himself up in knots wondering if she was really herself when that’s the last thing that fucking mattered.

So yeah, she’s done. She done with all of this, with being stuck in other people’s heads and the wrong bodies and drawers and computers and all of it. David doesn’t need her anyway. He’s got loads of people helping him and she’s got nothing. She lost her body because his friends didn’t want him to have to deal with Amy being shoved up inside her. She doesn’t care that it used to be Amy’s body, it was her fucking body and she was using it!

The fact is David owes her. She saved his life twice and he didn't save hers even once. He owes her, so it's time she got what she's owed and got the hell out of this hellhole a second time, this time for good.

Lenny looks around the mainframe. Ptonomy is busy communing with a wall, surfing that information superhighway, and Amy is obsessively watching the video wall that’s showing Division 3's Davidcam, as usual. Nobody gives a shit about Lenny and right now that's just dandy. She presses herself against the wall beside her and reaches through the data streams until she finds the Vermillion that's sitting dormant in the lab.

After all the body-hopping she's done, controlling a robot is a breeze. Amy still hasn't figured out how to do much more than talk, and Ptonomy's only getting the hang of it after a week, but Lenny slips into it like it’s a suit. It's still weird as fuck because all the sensory inputs are wrong, but she's had weirder trips and come back for more.

Everyone in the lab is asleep. They're all lined up together like they’re at a summer camp, or at least how she imagines summer camp: Cary and Kerry and Syd and David. And then there's Oliver, but he's not at home because she can't hear David's thoughts anymore. And Melanie, but she's just an empty body.

Hmm. Maybe she should take Melanie's body. Nobody's using it. She's probably all shrivelled up inside but it's better than nothing. Maybe Lenny should do what Farouk did and hop around until she finds something that fits her.

Ugh, maybe not. She might not be a good person, she might be owed a body, but she's not a monster like him. She's not gonna take someone else over. What she needs is her own body back, and if she can’t have that, she needs a new version of her old body. And there's only one person here who can give her that.

She creeps over to David's bed and gives him a shake.

"Psst, David," she whispers in his ear. "C'mon, man, wake up."

She gives him another shake, another, and he opens his eyes.

"Finally," Lenny sighs. David's always had trouble sleeping, probably from all those nightmares, but he sleeps like a rock here. "It's me, Lenny. We gotta talk."

"What's going on?" David asks.

"You gotta get me out of this mainframe," Lenny whispers. "Before, what I said, I was just-- I had to say everything was okay because they were watching. Division 3. They're evil. They killed me and it hurt, like, a lot. So you gotta get me out of here. You gotta make me a new body." When David doesn't say anything, she continues, impatient. "You owe me, man. I saved your life twice. Now you gotta save mine. You're god, right? So make me a body. Use your powers."

"I can't," David says, and points to the crown. "And even if I could, I wouldn't. Because you're lying to David."

Shit. Shit.

"Which one are you?" Lenny asks, leaning back.

"Both," David says. "We've always shared everything. Ptonomy!"

In the mainframe, Lenny opens her eyes to see Ptonomy walking towards her, looking furious. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Lenny stays pressed against the wall. She's not letting go of the Vermillion, not until they make her. "I'm getting my body back and getting the hell out of here."

"That's not gonna happen," Ptonomy says.

"What, you're arresting me again? Gonna throw me in another cell?"

"If I have to," Ptonomy warns. "But you're not getting out because none of us are getting out. Not until it's safe."

"Safe?" Lenny laughs. "Whatever, man, I don't care about safe. Farouk's done with me. None of you give a shit about me, you only stuck me in here because you had to get her out." She nods her head at Amy, who's caught between watching the Vermillion talk to David, and watching Lenny talk to Ptonomy. "You know what? I'll just take the robot."

"The Vermillion doesn't belong to you," Ptonomy warns.

On the video, Syd and Kerry wake up, disturbed by the noise. Kerry shakes Cary awake and he puts on his glasses.

"It's Lenny," says David, or rather the Davids. "She lied to David and asked him to make her a body."

None of them are happy about that. Well, Lenny's not happy either. She switches back to the Vermillion so she can yell at them in person.

"Yeah, that's right," she tells them. "You chuckleheads killed me, so I'm getting my body back."

"You're really not," say the Davids.

"Let me talk to David," she demands.

"Why, so you can lie to him? So you can blackmail him into helping you? Not a chance."

"I wouldn't have to blackmail him if he would just help me!" Lenny says, angrily. "But I don't get helped because I'm not real. Well, fuck real! David's barely real and you're all helping him. Amy's a fucking ghost and you're helping her. But not me, right? Not the Cornflake Girl. You wanna help David because he tried to kill himself? Well, I blew my brains out and hung myself right in front of him, and what did he do? The fucker ignored me! I saved him and he just left me to rot and let Division 3 kill me. So David fucking owes me a body and you're gonna take that thing off his head so he can give it to me!"

Everyone stares at her in both planes of reality.

"Whatever," she says, shoving her feelings back down where they belong. "I don't care how I get out of here, but I'm out. I'm done. You all have fun with your group therapy gangbang and I'm gonna go dive into a mountain of drugs and everybody will be happy. Dig me?"

"You think Farouk's done with you?" Ptonomy asks. "Well, think again. If David kills himself, Farouk will torture everyone David cares about for the rest of our lives. That includes you."

"David doesn't care about me," Lenny sneers. "I'm not real, remember?"

"You know that's not true," the Davids say. "David wanted to help you, but he was afraid you were just another trick. Farouk used you to hurt him, he didn't know what to do. And David didn't abandon you after the desert. We were going to come for you. But his friends-- our friends captured him so he could get the help he needs. He was a prisoner just like you until we made them bring him here so he can actually get better."

"I'm sorry for the way we treated you before," Ptonomy says. "We were just like David, we didn't know if you were just another trick meant to hurt him. And in our defense you were. But that doesn't make what we did right."

"I don't give a shit," Lenny sneers. "If you don't think I'm real, then let me leave. Lemme walk out of here and I promise you will never see me again."

"Oh, we know you're real now," Ptonomy says.

That makes Lenny pause. "What?"

"We scanned both you and Amy when we uploaded you. You're both clean."

Well, fuck.

She doesn't care if she's real or not. She exists, that's enough for her. But-- Okay, maybe she had her doubts. She was Farouk's puppet and he shoved her in a drawer when he didn't need her. And then he pulled her out and shoved her into Amy and sent her to David. Yeah, Lenny's not stupid, she knew something wasn't right about that. She knew she was being used. David even said he couldn't tell the difference between Farouk's thoughts and her thoughts.

And now, after all that? She's finally just Lenny again?

Shit. That's-- Shit.

"Fine, great, we'll throw a party," Lenny says. "I still want out."

"There is no out," Ptonomy says.

Lenny groans. "I can't get out of the mainframe, I can't escape Farouk. What am I supposed to do?"

"Help David get better," Syd says. "That's what we're doing. And we can help you, too, if you let us."

"Not a chance," Lenny says, rounding on Syd. "He owes me, remember? Besides, I don't need anyone else messing with my head. I just got it back."

"This isn't Clockworks," Syd says. "We--"

Lenny is so furious about that she almost loses control of the Vermillion. "Shut your goddamn face. You were there for a year and you were a white. You have no idea about the shit reds like me and David went through, none!"

"David was a yellow," Syd says.

"Only at the end," Lenny counters. "And they still treated him like a red. You don't know shit about Clockworks so don't you dare."

"We do," say the Davids.

"What?"

"We were there for all of it. All six years. Farouk wouldn't let us talk to David but we experienced everything he did. We know what you went through, both of you, because we went through it with you. We tried to protect David and you and everyone there, as much as we could."

"Protect how?" Lenny asks. She went through hell in that place, and she doesn't remember David ever doing much to help her, if only because he was going through hell right alongside her. Company was the most he could offer her, but in Clockworks that meant a lot. It meant everything.

"We couldn't stop all of them," the Davids say. "But we stopped the worst of them. The orderlies who-- Who hurt us. The ones who raped you, raped the other patients, tried to rape David. We made them pay and we made sure they never came back. But if we did too much, David paid the price. Solitary, sedation, straightjackets. They knew he was a threat, but they could never figure out how he did it. So we only hurt the ones we had to. We're sorry, we wish we could have done more."

Shit.

Shit.

In the mainframe, Amy looks like she's about to faint. Good. She deserves worse for what she did to David, putting him in that place. She deserves worse than losing her body and being trapped in her own head.

"That can't be true," Syd says, shakily.

"It's true," Lenny says. Shit, that explains so much. As bad as things were, as bad as some of the orderlies treated them, the really bad ones never stayed long. As soon as word started to get around, as soon as she warned David to be careful around an orderly, within a few days that orderly would have a really bad time and quit. If David got drugged and shoved into a padded room afterwards, she never made the connection because they did that to him at random anyway just for wearing red. And who would have thought David was capable of tying his shoes, much less taking out a rapist?

"Why do you think Farouk made Amy so mean in that fake Clockworks?" Lenny tells Syd, and savors the grief on Amy's face. "She put him there. Whatever happened to him in there, it was her fault. So he made her like them, the ones that hurt us."

"Yeah," the Davids agree, and then they turn to Lenny. "So don't be angry at David for not protecting you because we're part of David and we've protected you. If we'd known you were-- David wanted to believe you weren't just one of Farouk's tricks, but he couldn't. Not after what Farouk put him through looking like you. Not after what he did to you and Amy. David didn't believe you were real but he trusted you anyway, and he doesn't even trust himself. He doesn't know how. That's something else Farouk took away from us."

Lenny groans. "God, enough! You've made your point. You don't have to rub it in." Shit. Now she feels bad about trying to blackmail him. It's like kicking a puppy dog. She's not a good person but she's not the kind of monster that kicks puppies.

"Lenny, come back to the mainframe," Ptonomy says.

"All right, all right," Lenny says. But before she does, she tells the Davids: "David never hears a single word of this, you get me?"

"Not a word," the Davids agree.

Lenny slips back out of the Vermillion and pushes off from the wall.

Ptonomy is crouched next to Amy, who looks like she's been hit with a brick. Lenny has no sympathy.

"David thinks he deserved that place?" Amy asks, and breaks into sobs.

Ptonomy comforts her, hands her a box of tissues from out of thin air, and then stands up and walks over to Lenny. "We need to talk about David's treatment."

"Oh no," Lenny says. "I told you, I'm not spreading my legs for your therapy gangbang."

"And you don't have to," Ptonomy says. "But none of us are going anywhere and David has to get better. If you want to help us with that, you can. Or you can stay in the mainframe and wait this out. But I can't have you getting in our way."

Lenny's taken aback by his aggression. "Excuse me, did you not just hear all that? And fuck, why does David have to get better? The guy's been through enough. Just find somewhere quiet and green to put him and let him chill out for a while."

"We can't do that. We literally can't. If David stops getting better, it's extremely likely that Farouk will take matters into his own hands."

"Then stop him!" Lenny insists. "Break your stupid deal with him and tell him to go away. Why are you even letting him hang around?"

"Division 3 didn't understand what kind of monster Farouk is when we made the deal. Farouk was bad before, the head of a crime family with mental powers and an unkillable body. But when he lost his body, when he went into David-- We think the whole experience broke him. He's obsessed with David beyond all reason, he wants to use him to end the world. And right now we have no way to stop him. Division 3 had plans for a weapon to kill him but it was never built. It will take months or years to build it now and we don't have that time. The only one with enough power to stop Farouk is David."

"Then just take off the crown and let him kill him!"

"If we take off the crown, it's more likely that David will kill himself. And even if he doesn't, he's incredibly fragile and unstable. He's in no condition to go up against Farouk. Farouk will win again and he'll take David away and go back to torturing him until he breaks the way Farouk wants him to break. And then David will end the world."

Now Lenny's the one who feels like she was hit with a brick.

"I'm telling both of you this because the three of us are part of the mainframe. That means our minds can't be read. It's up to us to find a way out of this, to save David so he can save the world and himself. The others can't know, especially David. If any of them hears any of this, Farouk will know immediately, and we'll lose David."

Lenny runs her hand through her hair. "Can't we upload David?"

"The mainframe isn't a long-term solution. If Farouk really wants to get to us, he'll find a way. He almost killed the Admiral once already. If we bring David in here, Farouk will stop at nothing to get to him. And killing David would mean losing our only weapon against Farouk." Ptonomy sighs. "We want David to get better because he deserves to be happy. But he has to get better because we need him to stop Farouk."

"That's fucked up," Lenny declares.

"It's a fucked-up situation," Ptonomy admits. "We're facing off against an omniscient monster, but the only thing Farouk really cares about is David's pain. That's the one thing we have going for us. He's been back in his body for a week and all he does is sit and watch David suffer. He watches everyone else suffer, too, but that's just a bonus for him. So we need David to continue to suffer to keep Farouk happy."

Lenny gapes, horrified. Dvd was right, what he said in the highlight reel. "You really are torturing him for Farouk."

"We're walking a fine line," Ptonomy explains. "We need David to get better quickly, but getting better is incredibly painful for him, and that pain is exactly what Farouk wants. We have to be careful. We have to keep pushing David forward, but if we push him too hard, he'll break. If he breaks, Farouk might decide to just take David away. But if we don't push him hard enough, Farouk might decide to do that anyway."

"That's brutal."

"This is war," Ptonomy counters. "And the only way we're going to win is to outthink someone who can read everyone's minds. We can't play his game. We have to play our own game around his and let him think we're playing his."

Amy stands up and walks over, wiping her eyes. "So what happens when David gets better? What will Farouk do to him?"

"We have some breathing room," Ptonomy says. "But at some point he's going to start trying to define what better is for David. That's something we'll have to deal with when the time comes. That's why we need your help, both of you. Once Farouk starts trying to get his claws back into David, we'll be locked into a battle for David's soul. Either we help David get strong enough to kill the monster, or the monster breaks him again and turns him into a world-killer. Or David realizes what's happening and kills himself before Farouk can succeed, and we're all tortured for the rest of our lives."

"So no pressure," Lenny says.

"We can't let David know any of this," Ptonomy insists. "He needs to focus on getting better, on his therapy."

"His torture," Lenny counters.

"His therapy," Ptonomy says, firmly. "If you can't work with us, if you can't keep your mouth shut, the Admiral will lock you up in the mainframe and you won't speak to David again until this is over. Farouk is always watching and always listening. Division 3 is, too. But there are things Farouk can perceive that we can't, and vice versa. Everyone's staying together because that's the safest way to ensure none of us can be singled out. He's already attacked Syd twice and tried to convince her to give up on David. He's gone after her before because he knows she's a threat to him. He killed me, he killed Melanie, he took Oliver. He killed both of you because you're threats to him, too. He tried to use us to kill the Admiral but David stopped us. We're all threats to him because we can help David."

"So what?" Lenny asks. "You want us to pretend that everything is fine? That this is just David getting help?"

"This is David getting help. The Admiral believes that if David gets enough help, he can defeat Farouk. As powerful as Farouk is, David is-- He has the potential to be something more."

"Farouk's a god," Lenny says.

"Farouk thinks he's a god," Ptonomy says. "He's convinced himself he is one. But that doesn't actually make him a god. He's just a very powerful mutant with mental powers and an invulnerable body."

That sounds like a god to Lenny. "So what's David?"

"That's what we're all going to find out together. Including David. So how about it? Do you want to help save the world again?"

It's not really much of a choice, but Lenny pretends to consider it. "Do I get another gun?"

"Probably not."

Well that's bullshit. "Ugh, fine. But once the monster's dead, you're getting me a body and I'm out of here."

"It's a deal."

"Ptonomy, I don't--" Amy says, voice strained. "I don't think I can do this. I can't hurt David."

"You can," Ptonomy says, evenly. "You already have."

Ouch. Lenny's no fan of Amy, but that was cold as ice.

"I'm sorry, but we can't afford any illusions about this or ourselves. Farouk uses the truth as his weapon. We need to face the truth so he can’t use it against us. The truth is that you have hurt David, and you did it because you were trying to help him get better. All we're asking is that you do it again, but this time because it will genuinely help him. This isn't us being cruel. We don't want David to suffer. This really is just therapy. He would have to go through all of this even without Farouk, but in an ideal world he would do it over years, even decades, with plenty of time to process what he’s been through. We don't have that kind of time. He has to get better as fast as he can, and that's going to hurt him and it's going to hurt us. Which is why it's exactly what Farouk wants us to do, which is why we have to do it so we can stop Farouk and take him out for good. The way David's father should have done over thirty years ago."

"Do you-- Do you know who his father is?" Amy asks. "Maybe he can help."

"We don't. But whoever he is, he didn't do the job right the first time, he abandoned his son and let him be tortured for thirty years and did nothing to stop it. He failed. We don't need him." Ptonomy puts a comforting hand on Amy's shoulder. "With all of us working together, I believe we can win. We just have to help David, really help him the way he should have been helped from the start. Can you do that for him? For all of us?"

Amy nods. "I can."

"Then welcome to Division 3. You're both officially employees."

"Uh, what the fuck?" Lenny says. "I'm not joining your evil army. Division 3 killed me!"

Ptonomy smirks. "Too late. I’ll give you the new employee orientation."

Lenny makes a finger gun and shoots herself in the head. “Bang,” she says, and follows Ptonomy and Amy deeper into the mainframe.

Chapter Text

Once it's clear Lenny isn't coming back, the alters join Syd on her cot, and Cary joins Kerry on hers. They sit facing each other, trying to absorb what they just learned.

"I didn't know," Syd says, helplessly. She didn't know. When she first got to Clockworks, she couldn't stand for anyone to be near her, much less touch her, much less-- She would scream if anyone got within arm's reach. And then David was always with her, sticking to her like glue, and Lenny was usually trailing behind, though she always had a casual excuse to be near them. At the time Syd had wondered if Lenny was jealous of her. Even though Lenny’s gay, she was always so possessive of David.

No, not possessive. Protective. Because as far as anyone knew, David couldn’t possibly protect himself. He was the perfect victim, just what Farouk wanted him to be. Unaware of his powers, unaware of himself, drugged and defenseless and so, so vulnerable. All the other monsters must have been drawn to him like flies to vinegar. If he didn’t have the alters and Lenny looking out for him—

“Was David trying to protect me in there?” Syd asks. “How much did he know?”

“Too much,” say the alters. “We couldn’t stop all of it, not without making everything worse for him. We couldn't get him out. We weren't strong enough to stop Farouk, and Clockworks was where Farouk wanted him to be.”

“Was he— Was he raped?”

“There were attempts, but we always found ways to stop them, even if all we could do was create a distraction so he could run to the common room. The attempts were upsetting enough. He couldn’t make himself forget and Farouk didn’t want him to forget, but he tries hard not to think about those moments, like he tries not to think about a lot of things. He mostly suppressed them, but— I think what happened between you, and in the white room—“

“What about the white room?” Syd asks, but she already knows the answer. She wishes she didn't.

“Farouk was inside of David when you first— He wasn’t controlling David, not directly, but he was influencing him, he was very— present in him, in the form of Lenny. David tried to suppress that, too, because he didn’t want to give up what the white room gave the both of you. It didn’t bother him much when he thought Farouk was Lenny because of how much he trusted her, but now he knows the truth. Now it’s all coming back, all of it together, tangled up. He’s been trying to force it back down but he can’t stop it. Not after what he did to you.”

“He has to forgive himself,” Syd says. “The guilt is going to destroy him, never mind Farouk.”

“If we knew how to make him stop hating himself, we would have done it years ago, decades.”

“God. How’s he ever going to get better? He’s been through so much.”

“We’re not giving up on him,” the alters insist.

“I don’t understand,” Kerry says, distressed. “Why would anyone do that to David?”

Cary puts his arm around her. “Last year, when Walter attacked you. It was very much the same. People like Walter and Farouk and those orderlies, they hurt people because it makes them feel strong. It’s a lie they tell themselves. They’re not strong at all, just weak and cruel. I should have been there to protect you, like Divad and Dvd were there to protect David. I’m so, so sorry I failed you.”

Kerry leans against him, silently forgiving him. Then she looks to Syd and the alters. “I don’t understand rape. Why— what’s the point? Why do they want it so much? Sex is so— weird and gross and— I don’t understand why anyone would want that.”

“Rape isn’t sex,” Syd says. “It’s violence.”

“But it’s sex,” Kerry insists. “It’s a man doing— that. Sex things, but— Violent. I don’t— I don’t understand how David could have done that to you. Even if Farouk made him. He wouldn’t.” Her chin crumples. “I hate Walter so much. I was glad when he died, all squished up in a ball. I don’t want to hate David.”

“David isn’t anything like Walter,” Syd says, and she’s so glad that that’s true. She’s so glad she was wrong when she thought that he was a monster, on that terrible day a week ago that brought them here.

God, this is complicated. How can she explain this in terms Kerry can understand?

“What David did,” she begins. “It wasn’t the same as what those orderlies did. He didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to do. But— he made me forget what happened that day. He wasn’t trying to hurt me but he still hurt me. He thought that if I remembered what Farouk made me believe, I wouldn’t love him anymore, and that scared him so much. But he was wrong. If he had let me remember and told everyone what had happened, if he had given me time to come back to myself, I still would have loved him. I still love him now. I forgave him for making a mistake. But he can’t forgive himself. As bad as he hurt me, what he did to himself was worse. That’s why Farouk made him do it, to make him suffer.”

Kerry wipes her eyes. “So he didn’t—“

“David had sex with me,” Syd says, gently. “He shouldn’t have, but he didn’t force me. He didn’t mean to hurt me. He didn’t do it because he thought he had a right to my body. He was just so afraid that— That he hurt me the same way he hurts himself when he’s afraid.”

“I guess he does that a lot,” Kerry says, and she’s calmer now. “It’s hard, being afraid. It’s— It’s really scary.”

“It is,” Cary agrees. “We’ve all made mistakes when we’re afraid. Sometimes we can even hurt people by protecting them too much, because we’re afraid. But we learn from our mistakes and we grow and we try not to make the same mistakes again.”

That seems to help Kerry even more. “That’s right,” she says, confidence returning. “It’s never too late.”

Cary gives her a loving smile, and she smiles back.

Syd slumps in relief. That’s one crisis averted. She looks at the alters and a new question comes to her. “You’re both Divad and Dvd at once, right?”

“Yes.”

“So how does that—“

“We share,” say the alters. “We used to share all the time.”

“But you’re still two people?”

They nod. “David needed us a lot to function. Not just to protect him from the monster. Over the years, he got worse and worse. We had to pick up the slack. We got him through school, into college, even on a scholarship. We had to cheat, but—“ They shrug. “David needed us.”

“And then Farouk got between you,” Syd says.

“When he decided to take David away from us, when he made David forget us and himself— We think he had to do it that way, because if he’d just taken us away, David wouldn’t have been able to survive on his own. So he made David forget almost everything, made him think he’d had a normal childhood. There wasn’t much left, but there was enough, along with the memories Farouk constructed out of half-truths.”

“Is it true, what you keep telling him? Is he still himself?”

“It’s the truth. David has always been David.”

“It’s hard to imagine that anyone could survive what he has and not be—“ Syd thinks about what she asked Lenny and Amy the night she went to their cell, utterly drunk. “How did you do it? How did you keep David David?”

“You’ll have to ask him that,” the alters say. “He did that himself. We’re— we’re very grateful that he did.” They sit back down on David’s bed. “If it’s all right, we need to let David rest. And please don’t tell him about any of this. He’s not ready.”

“This whole night never happened,” Syd promises.

“It’s our secret,” Cary promises, and Kerry nods.

“Um,” say the alters, and they’re staring at the Vermillion that Lenny left standing by the bed. “Can someone move this thing?”

§

Syd lies in her cot, wide-awake while everyone else sleeps around her. She wishes she had an alter that could make her sleep the way Divad can. Or a relationship as close and healing as Cary and Kerry’s.

She misses David. She misses lying in his arms in the white room. She misses the way he smiled for her. She misses his sweet, uncomplicated joy.

She feels like the biggest idiot in the world.

She knew Clockworks wasn’t a good place. She knew. But she didn’t know, not really, because she was just a white. She was only a visitor. David and Lenny were there for life. They were never getting out. They were reds, which meant they were targets. All the bad things in Clockworks were reserved for people like them. The victims no one would believe. The ones that the system gave permission to hurt, because they were too broken for society to consider them worth protecting.

Syd thought she knew what it meant to be a victim, a survivor. She knew nothing.

It’s worse, somehow, all of this. It’s worse than Farouk. He’s just one man. A powerful, monstrous man, but he’s— Finite. Contained. If he’s killed the right way, he’ll stay dead, presumably.

Clockworks and the systems that support and feed places like it? They can’t be killed. They exist because society needs them to exist, so society can throw away its broken people with a clean conscience. Its broken plates. That’s what David calls himself, a broken plate, and he has every reason to believe that’s true, because that’s how the world has treated him. He cracked and the world threw him away, over and over.

Until Summerland. Until Melanie.

God, she misses Melanie. They’re probably never going to get her back, and she misses Melanie so much. They used to talk, late nights after long days trying to save lives, and they would talk about— Nothing. Everything. Oliver and David. The dream of making the world safer, better, kinder.

The world got a lot less kind when Farouk took Melanie away from them. Syd hates Farouk for an enormous list of reasons, but destroying Melanie is right at the top. Right after all the ways he reached into David’s guts and shredded them and left him bleeding out, slowly dying in agonizing pain, for years. For decades. He’s been dying for decades, and she was so blind to his truth that she got mad at him for loving her too much.

Maybe David shouldn’t forgive himself, if forgiveness means letting her back into his life. She pushed him away and punished him because of her own fears, even before Farouk got to her. And now he can’t even look at her without his eyes filling up with guilt and sadness and self-loathing.

He can’t even look at her. In Clockworks, all he did was look at her. He kept his eyes fixed on her like she was the only thing that mattered in the whole world.

And she was. She was the only thing that mattered in his whole world. She knows that now because she’s finally starting to see all the darkness around her that made her shine so bright to him.

His world was so, so dark. Pitch black, so even her little light must have shone like the midday sun. It’s no wonder all he wanted to do was look at her and bask and smile. She must have made him feel so warm.

But that wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more from him when he was already giving her everything he had. She tried to change him to suit herself, like Farouk changed him. She hurt him and confused him and took away the things he needed to survive. And when he couldn’t give her any more because he was empty, she turned against him, she blamed him for not saving the world, because if he didn’t save the world it meant he wasn’t saving her.

And then she broke him. Farouk put the words in her head but she thought them and said them to him. She raised the gun at him and pulled the trigger.

She forgave David because what she did to him was worse than what he did to her. It was easy to forgive him when she realized that. She asked David to forgive himself, but the truth is that she hasn’t forgiven herself either. She doesn’t know if she can.

God, what a pair they make.

She needs to fix this, somehow. She needs to help him recover, however much it’s possible for anyone to recover from the things he’s been through. Reading about her diagnoses helped her, so she’s been reading and highlighting and making notes so he can read about his diagnoses and—

She just wants him to get better. That’s all she’s ever wanted for him. She never realized how huge of a demand ‘getting better’ would be. It’s no wonder he fought against it so hard.

She’s been reading about trauma for days, about the deep, permanent trauma that makes a child’s mind fracture. About the neurochemical underpinnings of anxiety and depression. About the mechanisms behind lost and recovered memories.

She got so deep into the hows and whys of his sicknesses that she forgot about his heart. But that’s nothing new for an Untouchable Barrett. Hearts aren’t something her family does. She and her mom were both all head; cold, analytical thinkers who kept the soft, messy parts of love at a distance.

David is nothing but soft and messy. That’s why she fell in love with him, but it’s also why she kept hurting him. It’s why she couldn’t just be happy he was back, no matter how hard she tried. She needed him to make sense but there’s nothing sensible about him.

If David was sensible, he would never have survived. He would never have been able to love her the way he loved her. If he was sensible, there wouldn't be any hope for him. The last thing he should ever be is sensible.

She knows that now. She just wishes she knew it from the start. She wishes she knew so many things before she tried to help him and only made him worse. Just like Amy did. Just like Divad and Dvd did, according to Ptonomy. He keeps them all updated on the things he learns that they can't hear, because not knowing the truth about David is what got them here in the first place. She doesn't like violating what's left of David's privacy, but if they don't all know the truth they can't save his life.

The truth is-- The truth is everything. It's awful and it's painful and everything she learns she wishes she could forget. But not knowing is worse. Not knowing is how Farouk was able to do so much damage right under their noses. Not knowing is how they hurt themselves and each other. So they have to know, they to open David up and pry into his heart.

Maybe she should be doing some prying into her own heart. Farouk won't leave her alone either, and not just because he can use her to hurt David. He left that music box for her. He was in her head, and as brief as that was, it left a permanent connection between them. He's used his knowledge of her to push her buttons again and again, to make her do exactly what he wants her to do. Just like he does to David.

So what does Farouk want to turn her into? What destruction is hidden inside her, waiting for the catalysts of his alchemy?

She already has the answer, just like David does. Her dark future self, cozying up with Farouk, allowing Amy to be killed, stealing David from the people who love him and then setting him against himself. That future feels no more true to her than the world-killer feels true to David. But the orb was sent from decades in the future. She and Cary were somehow still alive after all that time. That means Farouk doesn't need to break them now. He can break them the same way he's been breaking David all along: a little at a time, chipping and chipping away for years, and then stealing them away from themselves all at once, making them into monsters, making them empty the world so the world is only monsters. So the world is only Farouk, and he is its god.

As immediate and horrible as all of this has been-- The truth is that this is only the beginning of what he wants to do to them. It's only the beginning of how he plans to mold and carve them into his masterpiece of a sunrise. For all the damage Farouk has done to all of them, it's nothing more than the first few drops of rain before a hurricane. His cruelty is so immense that it's not enough for him to torture David for every moment of his life. He wants to torture the whole world, and the only way he can have enough power to do that is if he makes David his instrument.

Syd thought she was one of the only things standing in the way of that. Farouk attacked her twice to keep her from helping David. But he used her, too. He used her to break David in the desert. He used her to escape David's body. He allied with her future self and thanked her in the cafeteria for her invaluable assistance. She can't imagine ever turning against David to help Farouk, but she already has, more than once, and just like David, she's afraid that Farouk will make her do terrible things again, no matter how much she doesn't want to do them.

What was it that Divad told Ptonomy? That David is afraid he's tied to the tracks, and the future is a freight train that's going to run him over. He's terrified that he won't be able to stop any of it, no matter how hard he fights, no matter how loudly he screams NO.

She's starting to realize that she's been tied down to the tracks beside him. Farouk's future is coming for her, too, barrelling down with just as much awful inevitability. But she's not tied as tightly and the train is still far away. There's still time to get herself free and get David free, too. She has to, she has to, or Farouk will use them both to end the world.

He'll use them both.

Oh god, she's going to help him end the world.

She gets up and runs to the sink and throws up. There's plenty coming out of her this time, all that healthy food Cary's making them all eat, so David and Kerry can learn how to eat. There's so much. She rinses the sink, rinses out her mouth, and leans over the counter waiting for the worst of the nausea to pass. She bends over the sink and throws up again, but then she's done. She rinses again and leans over the counter, exhausted, hurting, terrified.

"Syd? Syd, what's wrong?"

It's Cary. He puts on his glasses and hurries over to her.

"I'm okay," she says, and feels like David, always insisting he's okay when he's so painfully, obviously not.

"I don't think you are," Cary says. "What's wrong? Was it the food? I can adjust the meal plan if there's something that disagreed with you."

"It's not the food," Syd says. She grabs a paper towel and wipes the sweat from her face. She has to sit down. She wobbles away from the counter and Cary reaches out to help her, but stops before he touches her. She sits down at the table and tries to calm her stomach.

Cary fills a cup with water and brings it over to her. He sits down beside her and gives her time to settle.

She sips the water.

"It's not just David," she says, finally. They have to know the truth or Farouk will win. "It's not just David we have to help. We have to help me."

She meets his eyes. He's confused, of course.

"Syd--"

"No, listen to me," she tells him. "That me in the future that told David to help Farouk. That's-- Farouk's going to use me. He's going to turn me into that and use me to turn David into a world-killer."

"We don't know that," Cary soothes.

"We do," Syd says, certain. "We tried and convicted David of ending the world because of her. And I'm not her but-- But there's something in me that will become her. There's some-- monster inside me, and he's going to carve everything else away until that's all I am. Not right now, he's so patient, but he's going to keep carving until he finds it. Until he gets what he needs so he can turn David. He's going to use me to hurt David the way he already has, and I won't be able to stop myself."

Cary doesn't want to believe it any more than she does. But his testimony was the other thing that convicted David.

"Okay," he says, accepting it. Accepting the truth, even though it's awful, because they have to accept every truth. "We'll tell Ptonomy, assuming he hasn't already heard all of this."

On cue, the Vermillion springs back to life from where they left it propped against a wall.

"I heard," says Ptonomy, as he joins them at the table. "And I think you're right. So how do you want to proceed?"

Syd rubs at her face, tries to think. "I had weekly sessions with Melanie for a while. Then things got busy, and then--" And then they lost Melanie.

"I should be able to find her notes," Cary offers. "Ptonomy can use them to catch up."

"Do you have any ideas about what you need to work on?" Ptonomy asks.

"A few," Syd sighs. "But I think-- Whatever it is, it's going to take work to dig it out."

"That's what therapy is for," Ptonomy assures her. "We'll find it. We'll help you get better. You're not going to end the world and neither is David."

"I hope you're right," Syd says. God, she hopes he's right.

Chapter Text

They're having eggs again for breakfast, and Syd keeps yawning.

"Late night?" David asks.

"I was up late reading," Syd says, and yawns again. "Sorry."

"Perhaps you should take a nap," Cary suggests. "Then you'll be rested for later."

Cary looks a bit underslept himself, but then things have been stressful for all of them. David's just glad he's been sleeping so well, he'd probably be even more of a mess if he wasn't.

"What's later?" David asks. He knows he has his session today, more memory work with his alters. Yesterday's memory work was rough, extremely rough, but after last night he feels ready to face the next round. He got to go outside and held Kerry's hand, he got his lamp back and remembered it and fell asleep watching it turn. He realized that he'd actually given back to the world and helped people, even if it took him a while realize that was what he did.

"Ah, I'm starting therapy myself," Syd admits.

"You are?" David asks, surprised.

"Yup. I've realized that-- I have some issues I need to work on. So I don't become something I don't want to be."

"But you don't-- You said you were better about-- About touching. About your antisocial-- I don't understand, you didn't do anything wrong."

Syd gives him a look. "David, therapy isn't a punishment. Is that what you think, that therapy is a punishment?"

It's not, he knows it's not. But-- He shrugs.

"Well, you're wrong," Syd says. "And you're also wrong about me. I did do something wrong. I hurt you, remember?"

David looks down at his eggs and pokes them with his fork. "Do I have to?" For all the work he's doing to find a good memory, for all that he's impatient to remember that, he's really sick of remembering other things.

"Not right now," Syd allows. "But I do. I need to work on why I did that. Why I believed what Farouk told me to believe."

"He made you," David says, stubbornly, to his eggs. "It's not your fault."

There's a pointed silence. David hates it.

He's not going to forgive himself. He doesn't care how many times they tell him or lecture him or sigh at him. He's just-- Unforgivable, as a person. If he's a person. That's just what he is. They can all move on to helping him fix his giant list of other mental illnesses and psychological problems. They'll still be busy until the heat death of the universe.

"Okay," Syd says, letting it drop. She turns to Cary. "I think I am going to take that nap." She finishes the last of her breakfast and walks away from the table.

She's mad at him now. David hates it when she's mad at him. He especially hates it when she's mad at him for something he can't do anything about, like being abducted and dropped off a year later. By her.

Okay, maybe she did hurt him. Future Syd and Now Syd, or past-Now Syd. Maybe she hurt him a lot. He just doesn't want to think about any of that stuff when all that does is make him hurt more. Like Amy and Clockworks. Like Lenny and-- He just wants to let all of it go and move on with his life, whatever that means anymore. Whatever life he even has left. He doesn't know why he can't just let it go.

"That's why you need therapy," Divad points out. "So you can work through all of that and process it and deal with it. Ignoring it won't make it go away."

Ignoring Divad certainly isn't making him go away.

"I heard that," Divad says.

"I know," David replies. "Are you going to be visible all the time now? Both of you?"

"Yup," Dvd says. "We're not going anywhere. Period. So get used to it."

"No one else can see you," David reminds them. "Even when Oliver's awake. Syd sat on you," he says to Dvd.

"Eh, it didn’t hurt," Dvd shrugs, then smirks. "I bet you'd like Syd to sit on you."

David rolls his eyes. He wonders how he wasn't immediately thrown into the nearest mental hospital when he was a kid, if these two have always been with him, talking to him.

Divad and Dvd don't like that thought. And then David realizes why.

"Sorry," he apologizes. What Amy said yesterday, about him talking to people that weren't there, about that being one of the reasons they thought he was schizophrenic. He created them to protect him, but their existence hurt him, too. Even if Farouk made everyone think he was crazy in other ways -- and he's not looking forward to learning what those other ways were -- it’s no wonder they didn't want anyone to know that they existed.

David can tell today is going to be great. He’s already pissed three people off and he hasn’t even finished breakfast yet.

“At least he’s finally thinking of us as people,” Divad says to Dvd. "Baby steps?"

"That must be one tiny baby," Dvd replies. "Like, not even a preemie. An embryo."

David gives the finger to Dvd. Dvd gives the finger back to him.

"Oh, very mature," Divad sighs, but smiles.

David lowers his hand. It always feels weird when he falls into their dynamic, or into something like what it must have been with the David-that-was, with Past David. Like Future Syd was a different person than Syd. They had a whole dynamic with Past David, and they keep pretending that if they recreate it with David, it will make him into Past David again. And it won't. It can't. He's not that person, even if technically he is, and he still has nothing to prove that he is.

"We have the lamp," Dvd points out. "We remember that lamp perfectly. We share a lifetime of memories of that lamp. How is that not proof you're the same person?"

It's a fair question. David doesn't have a good answer to it, except that it isn't. "It's not enough," he says. “It’s just a lamp.”

“You love that lamp,” Dvd says. “You looooove it.”

David grits his teeth. Is this what it’s like to have brothers?

“Yes,” Divad says, firmly. “We’re your brothers. That’s exactly what we are.”

“First you’re real people and now you’re my brothers?”

“Yup. Amy said so. We’re triplets.”

“Well, if Amy said it,” David mocks, but if Amy said it— No, this is ridiculous. “We are not triplets.”

“Three identical brothers,” prods Divad. “I don’t see what else we could be.”

“No one can see you at all! And— And when did you talk to Amy?”

“When he took our body when you were asleep,” Dvd says. “We should talk to Amy. She wants to talk to you, remember? And I haven't had a chance to talk to her yet."

"Ptonomy said I don't have to talk to her until I'm ready," David says. "I'm not ready. Besides, shouldn't you be angry with her? She put us in Clockworks."

"Oh, I'm pissed," Dvd says, brightly furious. "Why do you think I want to talk to her? I can't wait to tell her off for everything she put us through."

Okay, now David is definitely not going to talk to Amy. At least not while Oliver is awake.

"You want to yell at her, too," Dvd says to Divad. "Don't pretend you don't."

"We don’t want to hurt her," Divad defends. "She didn't know what Clockworks was like. We didn't tell her."

"She didn't care," Dvd insists. "She dumped us and then acted like visiting us for 15 minutes once a month was some kind of gift. She lied to us and told us we'd only be there for a few weeks. David has every right to be angry and so do we! You're the one who needs to stop pretending. David needed help, fine, but not-- Not that place."

Dvd goes quiet, and so does Divad. They both look at David like they're waiting for him to react. David raises his eyebrows at them.

"Anyway," Divad says, changing the subject. "If we're not gonna talk to Amy, we should read Syd's book."

Even the idea of reading it makes David squirm. "No."

"What are you so afraid of?" Dvd asks. "It's just a book. It's not gonna bite us."

"It's not--" David stops, tries again. "I already know what's wrong with me. Reading about it is just-- Salt in the wound. It's just me hurting myself more. It's-- It's humiliating."

Like therapy. It's all a humiliating punishment, all of it. All the 'work.' Even if he has to do it, even if it's good for him, he hates it. It's torture. He's been tortured his whole life by doctors and therapists and books and he knows it's never going to stop any more than Farouk is ever going to stop but he's not going to subject himself to it even more than he already has to.

"Sorry," he says, preemptively, because he knows Ptonomy just heard that, wherever he is in the mainframe. He doesn't want to piss off Ptonomy, too.

"Ptonomy says your apology is accepted," Oliver says. "And he says Syd's right and you should read her book."

"Maybe I should take a nap," David grumbles. He's wide awake, but he knows Divad could make him sleep if he wanted to. He glances over and sees that Syd is already tucked into her cot with a sleeping mask and earbuds. His heart hurts every time he sees her sleeping. His heart hurts every time he sees her. Sometimes he wishes she would go invisible so he wouldn't have to see her, but that makes him feel even worse.

He felt so much better last night. He just wants to hold on to that happiness, but he can't because no one will let him have any peace. They all just keep pushing him, trying to help him whether he wants to be helped or not. But isn’t that the story of his life? People hurting him to help him, and he just has to take it.

“Ptonomy says you’ll be talking to Amy when we do the memory work,” Oliver relays. “It might help to talk things out with her before you learn more about your past.”

Of course. Of course. “Is there a reason I can’t talk to Ptonomy directly right now?” David asks.

“He says he’s busy.”

Busy! What else could he possibly be doing? He’s stuck in a computer!

Damn it. David’s going to have to talk to Amy now so he doesn’t mess up his memory work later. God, he hates his life.

“Fine,” he grits out. “Just let me finish my breakfast first.” At least that will buy him a few minutes to brace himself.

§

As soon as David agreed to speak to Amy, he realized, belatedly, that of course he and his alters had already been speaking to Amy all morning. She just couldn't speak back.

He was right. He should have gone back to bed.

But there's nothing he can do to take back all of that now. It's said, it's done. He just has to take what's coming to him.

"Amy," he greets the Vermillion. "Hi."

"Hey," Amy says, the way she used to greet him when she sat down across from him in the visitor area in Clockworks.

There's still a barrier between them, this one even more impassable. The more his life changes, the more it stays the same.

"Sorry about, um. All of that." David winces.

"No, it's-- It's all right. All of that was true. And the truth is important, right? For your therapy. For our therapy."

"Our therapy?" David asks. Kerry and Syd and now Amy, too? Apparently everyone really is inspired by his disaster of a life to make their own lives better. He hopes they don't expect him to be happy about that.

"I'd like us to get better together, if we can," Amy says, sounding hopeful. "I don't-- I never wanted to hurt you. Ever. I'm so, so sorry that I did."

"I know," David says. He knows she's sorry. He knows she didn't mean to hurt him. That's what makes all of it so much worse.

He trusted her. He trusted her when he couldn't trust himself. He trusted her to make the right decisions for him because he wasn't capable of making them. He signed his life over to her so she could make those decisions. And she decided. She decided to lie to him. She decided what was best for him was to be locked up for the rest of his life in a place that would hurt him. It would keep him alive but it would hurt him every single day in so many different ways. And she visited him and smiled for him and lied to him every single time, because he'd always ask if he could leave soon, and she would always tell him she would talk to his doctor about it, and she didn't. If she talked to Doctor Kissinger at all, it was to make sure he stayed right where he was.

"You're right," Amy says, quietly, her voice tight with grief. "I was-- I didn't know how to help you. You tried to kill yourself. I was-- I was so scared you would try again and-- Everyone said you would try again. And look at you now. They were right. I needed a way to save you and Clockworks-- I didn't choose it blindly. I went there. I talked to the doctors. Everything seemed fine, I didn't-- If I'd known what was happening, I would have taken you home. David, I would have. Why didn't you tell me?"

Why didn't he tell her?

Because he heard things, saw things, things that weren't real. He didn't know what was real. He couldn't trust himself to judge and he still can't. Amy thought Clockworks was where he needed to be, and he trusted her more than he trusted himself. By the time he realized that it wasn't all in his mind, that there really were terrible people hurting him, that he was being abused, that the fear he felt was grounded in something real and it wasn't just his usual free-floating terror--

He'd already been there too long to speak up. Too many bad things had happened and he didn't want her to know about any of them. He was ashamed and he let his shame silence him. Because that was where he belonged, wasn't it? So whatever happened to him, it was what he deserved.

"Oh, David," Amy says, and she's crying. He can hear her crying. That's why he never wanted to tell her any of it. Because of this.

"You should have told me," Amy says, and now she's angry. At him, at herself? He can't tell. "I cried anyway, in the car after-- It doesn't matter if I cry. It matters if you're safe. It matters if you're being hurt and I can do something to stop it. You have to tell me if you're being hurt. I'm your big sister. You have to tell me, okay?"

David can't answer that. He trusted her and she hurt him, but-- But it was his fault, because he didn't say anything. He thought he belonged there. Part of him still thinks he belongs there, now more than ever. If he'd never kissed Syd, if he'd just stayed where he was put, maybe Farouk would never have used him to hurt anyone else. It would have been enough to just hurt him and hurt him and hurt him while Farouk swelled up like a tick on his power, the feast making him fat and lazy and contained. But David wanted something he couldn't have, something he didn't deserve to have. He wanted to be loved, and because of that, Farouk wanted more, too.

And Farouk got what he wanted. Of course he did. He made sure David got what he wanted, too, and then twisted it all up into a noose and strangled him with it.

"You deserve to be loved," Amy says, fiercely. "You never deserved what that place did to you, what that monster did to you. Listen to me, David, please. If you trust me more than you trust yourself, then trust me when I tell you that I know what you deserve and it isn't this. It isn't. You are not-- You're not unforgivable, okay? Trust me, please."

He wants to. He wishes he could. But he trusted her and she hurt him. She lied to him so many times. She put him in that place and left him there and he accepted it because he trusted her.

And Farouk showed him. He showed him Amy laughing. He showed him Amy's cruelty. He showed David the truth he didn't want to accept, stabbed him in the gut with it and savored his pain.

David knows that Amy didn't mean to hurt him. But she hurt him so much.

"I'm sorry, I have to--" He stands and turns away. "You can talk to her now," he tells Dvd.

"I think you said enough for both of us," Dvd says. "C'mon. Let's go--" He looks around. "Let's go sit by the window, okay?"

"Okay," David echoes, and follows him.

Chapter Text

"Is this seat taken?" asks Ptonomy.

David looks up. It's the Vermillion, standing next to the seat Dvd is sitting in.

"Um," David starts, but Dvd gets up.

"I think he can help you more than I can," Dvd says. "I'll let you two talk." He walks away. David doesn't look to see where he goes.

David gestures for Ptonomy to sit down. The Vermillion sits. Its posture isn't quite so unnatural anymore. It feels a little more like it's actually Ptonomy in there. Not that it isn't, but-- It's hard, sometimes, remembering that. It's hard to remember all the people inside the mainframe, listening, waiting.

"You have trouble remembering," Ptonomy says. "I've noticed, hearing your thoughts, observing you. Remembering is hard for you in general."

"I don't have many good things to remember," David says, bleakly.

"It must feel that way."

"It is that way," David says. "Apparently most of my life was so awful that the other parts of my mind don't even think I should remember it."

"Maybe," Ptonomy says. "But the other parts of your mind are traumatized, too. Just as much as you, in their own ways. Even if their memories are better, their judgement isn't perfect. They've both admitted to making mistakes. You need to make that decision for yourself. You should remember, if that's what's right for you."

"You said I shouldn't remember either," David reminds him.

"I don't think you're in any condition to remember those things right now, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Dissociative amnesia doesn't have to be permanent."

David doesn't remember getting that diagnosis before. "Dissociative amnesia?"

That's when he notices the book tucked under the Vermillion's arm. Syd's book. Ptonomy pulls it out and opens it, flips through the pages until he finds what he's looking for. He holds it out to David.

David really doesn't want to take it. He takes it anyway.

The chapter heading is 'dissociative disorders.' David expects it to be about his identity disorder, but that's not where it starts. Syd highlighted part of the introduction:

Dissociation is a word that is used to describe the disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other. Dissociated experiences are not integrated into the usual sense of self, resulting in discontinuities in conscious awareness. In severe forms of dissociation, disconnection occurs in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception.

"Dissociation seems to be your primary defense mechanism," Ptonomy says. "Not just your DID. There's a wide spectrum of dissociative behaviors. Sometimes it's as simple as putting your attention somewhere else, like daydreaming. The more extreme the stress, the more you pull away from yourself. Yesterday, after the memory work, you cut yourself off almost completely. All that pulling away leaves you vulnerable. It makes you confused. You forget things you need to remember because remembering them upsets you. Like the fact that Amy is in the mainframe with me and Lenny."

Lenny. He hasn't talked to her since she came back.

"No, you haven't," Ptonomy says. "She's not happy about that. But we'll deal with that later. We know why you don't want to think about Amy. We need to talk about that, too. But why don't you want to think about Lenny?"

"I don't know," David says, but he-- He doesn't want to think about Lenny.

"Don't pull away from how she makes you feel," Ptonomy says. "I know it's painful, but ignoring it won't make it go away."

David shifts in his chair, restless. "I can't."

"You can," Ptonomy insists. "What's happening here-- As hard as it is, it's an opportunity like no other. The memory walks I used to do? They were an incredible therapeutic tool. They allowed people to confront their pasts from the perspective of the present. But telepathy allows me to understand your thoughts themselves. The patterns they fall into, the ways you sabotage yourself and the ways you survive. After barely two days, with the help of Oliver and your alters, I understand you better than you understand yourself."

"That's not a high bar," David points out.

"And the reason for that is in part because of how much you refuse to understand yourself," Ptonomy replies. "Dissociation is a survival tool, a powerful one. But it hurts you, too. It traps you in the very trauma you're trying to escape, long after the trauma is over. It blocks you from processing your emotions and memories and moving on. You need to learn new skills that will allow you to do that. You need to learn to stay present and engaged with the good parts of your life."

"What good parts?" David asks.

"Your family. Your friends. The work you can do to help others. And small things, too, like going out to the garden, being in nature. Things that trigger good memories, like your lamp. I know you want to be part of the world, David. And you are, even in here. You don't need to be physically outside to be part of the world."

David wraps his arms around himself. Ptonomy wasn't kidding about knowing him. David could read minds his whole life and he doesn't know anyone as well as that.

"That's because of Farouk, whether he made you forget or prevented you from learning," Ptonomy says. "Between his influence and your misdiagnosis, you've been made to question yourself at every step. You've been taught not to trust your own thoughts, your own instincts. Even once you could hear people's thoughts and know them for what they were, you didn't trust them either. You were afraid to."

David's starting to wonder if Ptonomy is secretly another one of his alters.

"I'll take that as a compliment," Ptonomy says, warmly. "You're what's been keeping me busy, David. Understanding you, going back over your thoughts and the things you've said, reviewing the footage Division 3 has of you. Reviewing your case notes from Clockworks and all your old therapists and doctors. A lot of those notes are wrong because they were made under the assumption that you were schizophrenic. But I can read between the lines, knowing what I know. I can see what they couldn't. I can see you, and because of that I can see what will help you get better."

David looks away from the Vermillion, looks back down at Syd's book. Under the heading for dissociative amnesia, she highlighted:

Dissociative amnesia does not refer to permanent memory loss, but rather to the disconnection of memories from conscious inspection. Thus, the memory is still there somewhere, but cannot be reached.

She underlined "the memory is still there" with strong penstrokes.

He should be relieved. The memories are still there, at least some of them. But--

"But?" Ptonomy prompts. "Finish the thought. You can do it."

David grips at his arms. His heart beats faster, even with Divad keeping him steady. "I'm afraid," he says, tightly. "I don't want to remember."

He doesn't want to. He already hurts so much, he doesn't want to remember all the things that made him hurt when it's only going to make everything so much worse.

"That's how you feel all the time, isn't it?" Ptonomy asks, gently. "It's automatic. I think that's what happened when we found you in the club, and you woke up and couldn't remember."

David looks up, startled.

"Back then I thought you were lying, but you were telling the truth," Ptonomy says.

David nods. "I couldn't-- There were flashes, but--"

"I saw," Ptonomy says. "But you remembered later?"

"Some of it," David says. "The amplification chamber. I remembered-- Dancing. Fighting, or-- Some kind of--" He closes his eyes and tries to make sense of it, for the hundredth time. "I remembered being taken. The orb, Future Syd. She told me to help Farouk. And then I was on a rooftop, and-- And I reached out for him and I found him. I went to the club. Oliver was there, Farouk, Lenny, I--" He swallows. "I remember her-- him. She--"

A flash of Lenny embracing him while he held utterly still, unable to move. Her mouth over his.

"I didn't want it," David says, urgently. "I didn't-- He--" He can feel his panic, dulled and held at bay. He doesn't want to remember. He doesn't want any of it.

"Stay with the memory," Ptonomy says. "What did Lenny do?"

"It wasn't her," David insists.

"Farouk was still using her face," Ptonomy says. "That's why he killed her in Clockworks. He needed Lenny to manipulate you. Because you trust her more than you trust yourself."

David opens his eyes and looks at the Vermillion.

"That's what he does, right?" Ptonomy asks. "He takes the people you trust and uses them against you. That's what he did to Syd. That's what he did to us, after the desert. He made us turn on you so we would finish what Syd started."

David can't even nod. But it's true.

"That's what he did to Amy," Ptonomy continues. "He didn't make her put you in Clockworks, but he made you so sick she had to put you somewhere. He used her image to hurt you in the hospital fantasy, and then again after her death."

He pauses to let David confirm that, but he can't. He doesn't need to and he can't.

"I understand why you wouldn't want to remember those things," Ptonomy soothes. "I don't think anyone would want to remember that kind of pain. But forgetting hurts you, too. Because the memories aren't gone. They're still there inside you and so are all the feelings you don't want to face. And until you face them, until you work through them, they're going to keep hurting you. Farouk is going to keep hurting you for the rest of your life unless you make the pain stop. The only way you can do that is if you let yourself remember. Maybe not the worst things, but the things happening to you now. You're here now and all of this is happening and we need you to accept that."

He pauses again, but David still can't reply.

"I know you're scared," Ptonomy says. "But remembering is what lets us learn from our mistakes. It's what helps us get better. And I know you want to get better. You don't want to lose the good things. You want to stay with us. So stay with us."

David wants to. He doesn't want to lose the good things.

"Good," Ptonomy soothes. "That's all you have to do right now. Just stay with us and try not to pull away. When you're hurting, talk to us. Don't go away. Don't try to disappear."

David doesn't want to go away. He doesn't.

"So what will help you stay?" Ptonomy asks. "What's a good thing that will help you?"

David knows the answer right away. "Kerry," he says, throat painfully tight. He needs Kerry.

Kerry comes right over. She stands in front of him, and then she leans down and hugs him. He holds her back and buries his face against her shoulder, and her hair brushes his cheek. He hugs her so tight he pulls her down onto his lap, but she just keeps hugging him. She’s really good at hugging. It must be all the practice she has with Cary.

Holding her, being held. Syd was right, it helps. It helps so much. Being touched, feeling the warmth and life of another person against him, body to body. It pulls him back to himself, grounds him. His heartbeat slows. He’s okay. He’s okay.

He eases his hold on Kerry but doesn’t let her go. He still needs her. He feels selfish, needing her, but— But he needs her anyway.

“It’s not selfish,” Ptonomy says. “It’s human. It’s the same thing everyone needs. Everyone.”

David used to go to Amy when he was upset. She would hug him and make everything better, at least for a while. He can’t hug her anymore. He could never touch Syd, even though— And Lenny—

He’s not ready to think about Lenny.

But Kerry’s here. She’s here and she’s alive and she can hold his hand and hug him.

When he finally lets her go, he wipes his eyes. “Thank you,” he says, though it feels inadequate.

“You don’t have to thank me for a hug,” Kerry says. “I need them, too. They’re— They’re nutritious.”

David laughs at that, just a little. “I guess they are.”

He feels so much better. He can’t believe how much better he feels. He notices that Syd’s book fell to the floor and picks it up.

“What’s in there is nutritious, too,” Ptonomy says, warmly. “Why don’t you take the morning and read some of it? Sit with us. I’m sure you’ll have questions.”

“You can write them down,” Kerry suggests. “You need a new notebook, right? You filled up the first one.”

Cary brings over a fresh notebook and a new pen. “You know,” he says, in a mock whisper. “Kerry’s not the only one who likes hugs.”

David hesitates, but he remembers Cary hugging him in the cell. David stands up, leaves the book on the chair, and takes a cautious step towards him.

Cary hugs him, and he still gives the best hugs. Kerry clearly learned from the master.

“I’m sorry I’ve been keeping my distance,” Cary says. “I didn’t want to get in the way. But you’re my friend, too, just as much as Kerry’s. We’re both here for you.”

Cary holds out the notebook and pen, and David takes it.

“You know,” Cary says, “I’ve been thinking what this lab needs is something more comfortable than chairs. And Clark did say he’ll give us anything we need to help you get better. Let’s give him a call.”

§

When Syd wakes up, she sits up and pulls off her sleep mask. Then she wonders if she’s still asleep. She pulls out her earplugs and stands up.

She must have been out cold, because while she was napping the lab was rearranged again, and now there’s a big, comfortable sofa against the wall by the window. There’s a coffee table, two overstuffed bean bag chairs, two loveseats, and the furniture is arranged around the coffee table. Cary and Oliver are in one loveseat, and Kerry, David, and the Vermillion are on the sofa. Everyone is reading. David is reading her book, and he’s making notes in a notebook. Kerry and David are sitting so close that their arms touch.

“What did I miss?” Syd asks, astonished.

David looks up. His eyes fill with pain when he sees her, like they’ve done for days, but he doesn’t look away. “Um, you know me and my rough mornings,” he says, and tries to smile. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s better than him breaking into tears. “Ptonomy got me to start reading your book.”

“I guess I should nap more often,” Syd says. She takes a few steps closer. “Can I join you?”

David visibly struggles. But he nods.

She goes to sit down in the empty loveseat, but Ptonomy stops her. “That's already taken,” he explains.

Oh. Divad and Dvd must be there. She doesn’t want to accidentally sit on one of them again.

“I can make room?” Ptonomy offers, sliding over.

“That’s okay.” Syd sits in one of the beanbag chairs. She sinks down into it. It’s pretty comfortable.

“Actually,” she says, pushing herself back to her feet. “I should freshen up first.” She feels a bit grungy after her nap. She looks at the clock. It’s almost lunchtime. She turns to Cary. “I could pick up lunch. They’ve got our order, right?”

“They do,” Cary says. “Do you need help?”

“I’ve got it. I’ll just be—“ Syd gestures at the bathroom and walks over to it. She closes the bathroom door and leans back against it.

She wasn’t—

She wasn’t ready for that. For David— She wasn’t ready.

She’s relieved. She’s happy. She is. But— She missed it. Whatever just happened, whatever small miracle made him feel so much better. They didn’t wake her up. Not that they should have woken her up. She barely got any sleep last night after Lenny showed up. She was so tired at breakfast.

But—

God, it’s stupid. It’s so stupid. There's no reason for her to feel excluded. David's therapy is everyone's priority, hers included, and if the others found a way to move him forward, that's what's important.

But she wanted--

She wants to be the one to help him. She needs to make up for hurting him, for maybe hurting him again if she can't stop herself from doing it. She spent days with that book, making it for him, but he wouldn't take it from her. He took it from Ptonomy.

It doesn't matter. The important thing is that he took it at all. He's reading it. He's even taking notes, instead of just staring at it like it's made of poison or might physically attack him. And he's--

He's sitting with Kerry, so close they're touching. Arm to arm. David won't let Syd touch him without him breaking down, but Kerry can touch him.

David didn't even talk to Ptonomy or Kerry before all of this. He talked to Syd. If something was wrong, if he talked to anyone at all he talked to her. He turned to her for everything.

That was what she didn't want, wasn't it? That was why she kept trying to make him stand on his own, to be strong. That was why she trapped him in her head for hours and hours, teaching him what ended up being the wrong lessons.

But it's still--

Maybe she did want it. Maybe she wanted both things. She wanted David to be strong, but she wanted David to need her, the way he needed her in Clockworks, the way he needed her in Summerland. She wants to be the strong one, the one he turns to, the one who helps him get better.

And now he's getting better, and she's--

She's the one who needs help. She's the one who's afraid of what's coming for her. And she doesn't have him. She doesn't have anyone, not like-- Not like Cary and Kerry have each other. Not like David and Divad and Dvd have each other. She's just the Untouchable Syd Barrett, alone the way she's always been. The way she always will be, according to the future she saw in Farouk's labyrinth. She was still wearing David's locket in that future, decades from now, long after she lost him. She'll always be alone, because the only love she ever had was David, and she's going to help destroy him. She already has.

She can’t let that future happen. She can’t let Farouk win. She can’t let him use her again. She can’t let him take David away from himself, even if she couldn’t stop him from taking David away from her.

She can still stop herself from taking David. Not in the past, but in the future. She can still protect him, still save him. She just has to save herself.

Chapter Text

David can only read about a half a page of Syd's book at a time.

Once all the furniture was delivered and everyone settled down to read together, David braced himself and opened up the book. He didn't go back to the chapter on dissociation. He wasn't ready for that. He thought it would be easier to start with the diagnoses he already knew about. His anxiety and depression, his suicidal impulse, his PTSD.

They're not easier.

He wants to blame the book, for laying everything out in such stark, undeniable language. But it's not the book that made him sick. It's not the book that--

It's not the book.

There's a lot of overlap between all of his diagnoses. His diseases. Anxiety is a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Suicide is a risk factor for depression. Symptoms of everything include insomnia and poor self-worth, feelings of hopelessness, emotional instability, inability to function, disrupted relationships. As he reads, a minute at a time, and then five, ten, fifteen minutes holding Kerry's hand, it all blurs together into one tangled mess.

Even the treatments are the same. Psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, drugs. Some of the same drugs he was forced to take when they thought he was schizophrenic. Not that they ever helped him, but he did have a parasite in his head actively stopping anything from helping him, so it's not the drugs' fault either.

But he's really glad that-- That he doesn't need the drugs. He's glad he has Divad and that Divad has mutant emotional regulation. That Divad helps him sleep and keeps away the nightmares. He hasn't had a nightmare in days despite having every reason to wake up screaming. He's had nightmares ever since he was a kid, even though he usually couldn't remember anything about them except that they were terrifying. Before Clockworks, after he was expelled from college, he tried to stay high all the time, to get as far out of his own head as he could, trying to make the nightmares stop, trying to make everything stop.

Maybe getting high is just another form of dissociation. Or suicide. Maybe suicide is just the ultimate form of dissociation. Maybe dissociation is a mild form of suicide.

Kerry suggested writing down any questions he has, but he doesn't have any questions. He's lived with all of this for so long, he knows the bones of it even if some details are new. But he does write down the pieces that match him. Each diagnosis is really a cluster of different diagnoses, grouped together for convenience and simplicity. Like how his schizophrenia wasn't schizophrenia at all, but a combination of symptoms that formed the illusion of it. Like painting white stripes on a black horse and calling it a zebra.

He reads the chapter on schizophrenia a half a page at a time. He doesn't write anything down from that. He can reject it completely and so he rejects it. It was never his and he doesn't want it.

And then Syd wakes up, and it's time for lunch, and David is glad for the excuse to take a break. Even if that means facing something else that he can only take a little at a time, holding Kerry's hand.

He should probably let Kerry have her hand back so she can eat.

Besides, he needs to be able to-- To be present. With Syd. With Amy. With-- Everyone. He needs to practice staying, even when he feels the urge to-- To dissociate. To go away. He doesn't want to go away. So he has to practice staying.

But when he looks at Syd, she’s the one who looks like she wants to be somewhere else.

It's probably him. Him being present. He hurts her, that's what he does: his actions, his existence. But-- Syd's been trying to get him to stay with her for days. She touched him. She highlighted and underlined and made margin notes for him. So as hard as it is to think about Syd, he thinks about Syd.

She's starting therapy. To work on her issues, whatever they are, so she doesn't become something she doesn't want to be.

It's like what he's doing, in a way. He doubts she's worried about being turned into some kind of crazy god who ends the world, but-- He's trying to not become something he doesn't want to be either. Trying to not become it again. Trying to figure out who he even is, if he's not what Farouk made him into. If there's anything to find.

Okay, he's not gonna be able to let go of Kerry's hand for a while. She'll have to eat with her left hand. He should eat, too. He picks up half his sandwich and takes a bite.

Syd. He needs to concentrate on Syd. She's starting therapy. It's always-- It's always stressful, starting therapy, no matter how many times he's done it, even though he doesn't so much start therapy as continue it forever while his therapists hand off his patient notes like a baton.

Syd's had therapy before. Private and group sessions in Clockworks. That's how they met, she was talking about-- About living on a cartoon island with a single palm tree. That was her happy place. And she said-- She said the things that made them crazy were what made them who they were. So he asked if she would be his girlfriend.

She said yes, even though he was-- Completely certified, institutionalized, heavily medicated, schizophrenic and a dozen other things. She didn't know he had powers. She barely knew anything about him, but she probably knew he was never going to be released from Clockworks. She still said yes.

He still doesn't know why she did. He didn't know then, either, but he was so surprised and delighted that he didn't want to question it. He didn't want to risk popping whatever miraculous bubble had descended and surrounded him. He knew it would pop, it couldn't last, nothing good ever lasted, but-- He just wanted to be happy, to forget everything else and be happy.

Maybe falling in love is a form of dissociation. Maybe falling in love is a form of suicide. He wanted to let who he'd been die and become someone else with her. And for a while it worked. For a year, he was happy, he was someone else, he was-- He was the David he thought she would love. And she loved him, her David.

The bubble popped. Her David-- He died, when she shot him, when he-- And now he doesn't know who he is, much less why she's still here, still-- Helping him. Touching him. Being kind to him, like he's worth being kind to.

He wasn't worth being kind to before. He couldn't give her anything. He couldn't even hold her hand, but she didn't want that from him anyway. She didn't really ask anything from him except to be with her. To make her smile, even though it was only because of her smile that he was able to smile for her at all.

He was the single palm tree on her island, providing shade and the occasional coconut. Something to lean on, if only metaphorically.

Maybe that's why she's starting therapy now. Because she's on an island without a single palm tree. That sounds very-- Lonely.

She looks lonely.

He should say something to her. He should-- Try to make her less lonely. He's not her palm tree anymore, he's not her David. He's not anything. But she still keeps trying to make him stay. And he's trying to stay. He's trying.

"Um," he starts, looking at her. Making himself look at her. "How's your sandwich?"

Stupid. She's eating the same thing he is, that they're all eating. That's the best he can do? He's so--

She stares at him, surprised, though she doesn't show it much. Syd's never been showy.

"Good," she says, still staring at him. It's starting to make him self-conscious.

"Mine's, um, good, too," David says, and god, he's just crashing and burning here. "Not as good as cherry pie, but--"

He shouldn't have said that. Now she looks even more upset. He can't do anything right, why did he think he should talk to her?

"I'm sorry," he says, because he's been awful and apologizing awfully for days, so he's just apologizing automatically now so he doesn't become a villain. Not that apologizing is going to save him from becoming a villain. If only it was that easy. His life is never that easy.

"Are you apologizing for talking to me?" Syd asks, and when he looks up she's-- Still surprised, but-- Amused? Disbelieving? Both?

It feels like a trick question. "Yes?" he tries, even though that means he just talked to her some more, so he should probably apologize again. "Sorry."

He can't actually apologize for talking without talking more. This isn't going to end well. He takes another bite of his sandwich to keep his mouth from making things worse.

“You can talk to me,” Syd says, somewhere between exasperated and concerned. “It’s— I want you to.”

David swallows his food. She does? Of course she does. She’s been trying to talk to him, he’s the one that keeps running away. Dissociating. Now that he knows that’s what he’s been doing, it feels like that’s all he’s been doing. He should probably finish reading that chapter.

He wants to run away now. He keeps holding Kerry’s hand instead. Kerry’s really going to regret it when she realizes David has permanently attached himself to her arm.

He doesn’t know what to say. His mind is devoid of safe topics. His mind is a void.

“You don’t have to,” Syd says, softer. “If it upsets you that much.”

She’s hurt. She’s trying to hide it, but he knows when she’s hurting.

“No, I— I want to,” David says, even though he hurts, too. Everything hurts, being alive hurts, but he wants it anyway. He’s not going to let his stupid pain make him hurt Syd again. “I’m sorry I’ve been— Running away and— I’m sorry.” He has to stop apologizing or he’ll be trapped in some kind of apology loop forever. "Do you-- If you want to talk about-- Your therapy? You don't-- I mean, if you don't want to--"

Syd talked to him about a lot of things in Clockworks, but she never talked about her therapy sessions with Kissinger. He would tell her about his, but-- When she talked, when they talked together, they would complain to each other about how useless Kissinger was, or about the cafeteria food or how they only showed the same old movies over and over. And Lenny would--

It's terrible to think that he was happy there. When Syd tried to save him from Walter's bullets and he pulled her into the white room and the monster came for them, he screamed and screamed and time slowed to a crawl and he pulled everyone into the safest place he could think of.

Clockworks wasn't safe. His fantasy of Clockworks might have been if it was only his fantasy, all of them trapped in the bubble of happiness he shared with Syd. But the monster was fully in control of David's mind and body, and Farouk twisted it like he twists everything: with the truth. He made Amy cruel because she was cruel. He took away David’s schizophrenia because he was never schizophrenic. He made David not want to leave, because as awful as Clockworks was, in that last year of it he didn't want to leave. He wanted to stay in that bubble with Syd forever. He would have been happy to live day by day, growing old with her in a mental hospital. That was the best future he could imagine for himself, for them together.

The monster couldn't change Syd. It couldn't make her want to grow old with him in a mental hospital with all the other freaks. Syd always wanted to leave. She might not have asked anything of him, but she still wanted more. She wanted him to get better so he could be out in the world with her, but— He doesn’t belong in the world.

Ptonomy told him not to hold himself separate from the world. This morning he told David that he’s part of the world even if he’s not outside. David's trying to accept that, but he doesn't-- He doesn't know if he should.

Syd never wanted his happy endings. She didn't want them in Clockworks and she didn't want them in the desert. She would never have wanted to run away with him to a farm. She's a city girl, raised on the thirty-first floor. He could never have made her happy in any future. What makes him think he could make her happy now? What even gives him the right to try?

Nothing. Nothing, like what he's worth.

"Okay," Syd says, casually. Like she said okay when he asked her to be his girlfriend.

"O-okay?" David asks, surprised.

"Yeah," Syd says. "I know all about your therapy. You should know about mine."

"Are you-- Are you sure?" David asks. Syd's so private about everything. He's the one who spills his feelings all over her. She doesn't spill hers. She just tells him what she needs him to hear, very calmly even when it's awful, or shows it to him in loops he can't escape.

"Yes," Syd says, confident now. "No secrets, right?"

David stares at her.

Syd stares back, challenging.

"No secrets," David says, because it's the only thing he can say. It was always the only thing he could say. He doesn't have any secrets left anymore, so at least now he can say it and mean it.

Except it's Syd who means it.

Did he-- Did he dissociate and miss something? Because he is definitely confused. But he looks to Dvd and Dvd shakes his head and shrugs.

David turns back to Syd. "So-- So what are you--"

"Future Syd," Syd says, very calmly. "Farouk turns me into her so I'll make you destroy the world. I don't want to do that to you or the world. So I'm going to kill Future Syd."

David leans forward, alarmed. "You-- You can't--"

"Not literally, David," Syd says, patiently.

"Oh. Right." David leans back, relieved. He runs his hand back through his hair, and realizes suddenly that he let go of Kerry's hand. He doesn't even remember letting go, but he did. And he's-- He's still here. He's staying. He's talking to Syd and he's staying.

"How's the book?" Syd asks, and takes a bite of her sandwich.

"Awful," David says, honestly. "But, um. Helpfully awful. I still haven't-- I haven't finished it yet. My chapters."

"What's left?"

"Dissociative disorders," David admits. "Saved the best for last."

Syd considers this. "Maybe we could sit together while you read it."

David swallows. He looks back at the sofa, at the window behind it. At the book waiting where he left it. He looks at Syd and her calm, expectant expression.

"Okay," he says, feeling-- Feeling-- Confused. Hopeful. Uncertain.

It's not-- This isn't a bubble. Whatever just happened, whatever-- It's not a fantasy he's escaping into. It's too painful and messy for that. Syd's going to sit with him while he reads about all the things that are wrong with him. About his identities and his amnesia and whatever else is waiting for him in that chapter. He won't be able to hide because she already knows what's in it. He won't have any secrets from her.

He has every reason to want to run away from that. But he wants to stay.

§

David and Syd sit down together on the sofa. Just the two of them, a safe distance apart but still close. It’s so much like before, like nothing has changed, except everything has changed.

David opens the book and finds the chapter on dissociative disorders.

He can do this. He's doing this.

He re-reads what he already read. Dissociation is the disconnection of things that should be connected. His consciousness, memory, identity, and perception. Stress, trauma -- he can't take them so he pulls away from them. He pulls away from his memories, from his emotions, from his sense of himself as David Haller. He forgets and dissociates and becomes someone else. He becomes two other people who can keep him safe, or try to.

He turns the page and looks at the section on dissociative identity disorder.

He reads the first part. Most of it is highlighted. There's several underlines.

Dissociative identity disorder reflects a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness into a single multidimensional self. Usually, a primary identity carries the individual's given name and is passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed. When in control, each personality state, or alter, may be experienced as if it has a distinct history, self-image and identity. The alters' characteristics—including name, reported age and gender, vocabulary, general knowledge, and predominant mood—contrast with those of the primary identity. They may be hostile, controlling, or self-destructive. Certain circumstances or stressors can cause a particular alter to emerge. The various identities may deny knowledge of one another, be critical of one another or appear to be in open conflict.

Syd crossed out 'deny knowledge of one another.' She underlined 'a primary identity carries the individual's given name and is passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed.' She underlined 'hostile,' 'controlling,' and 'Certain circumstances or stressors can cause a particular alter to emerge.' She underlined 'critical of one another' and 'open conflict.'

Passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed.

He wants to cross that out. He wants to set the book on fire. But he keeps staring at those five words.

How can-- The people who wrote this book, how could they-- How could they know him? How could they know his life? How could they sum up so much of him in five words when he's struggled for so long to even acknowledge those truths?

How dare they-- How dare they know him, when they don't know him.

Syd waits silently beside him, watching. She read this and she highlighted those words and then she went back and underlined them because she knows him, too. She knows what he is. If she knows what he is she should-- She should be physically sick. She should walk away. She should find someone else to help, if she wants to help so much. She should know he can't be saved.

Passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed.

He's depressed, obviously he's depressed. He knows that. He knows he's-- Passive, dependent. Even before Clockworks. He tried to be in the world and he failed in every way. He wasn't cut out for real life. That's why he ended up with an extension cord around his neck. Not just because of the voices and the hallucinations he couldn't stop, not just because of the nightmares and the fear, but because he took and took from everyone around him and gave nothing back. Because no matter how hard he tried, he was never going to get better. He was never going to be worth all the things he took from Amy and Philly and his parents and the world.

And of course he's guilty. He's hurt everyone, all he should ever be is guilty.

But none of that is why it's in the book. The people who wrote it couldn't have possibly known that. They couldn't know about any of the things he did. So why did they write it? Why is it here?

"Why--" he asks, voice tight with upset. "Why is this here?"

Syd looks at where he's pointing. She reads the sentence she's read before, read again, highlighted and underlined.

"Why shouldn't it be?" Syd asks.

He looks at her. "Because it doesn't have anything to do with-- With anything."

"Is it wrong?"

"No," David admits. "But that's not the point. It shouldn't be-- It doesn't have anything to do with-- With having other people in my head."

"They think it does," Syd says, reasonably. "The authors. They looked at the whole history of people with DID and that's what they saw. It's not a judgement. It's an observation."

David looks back down at the book. The alters' characteristics contrast with those of the primary identity. They may be hostile, controlling, or self-destructive.

Divad and Dvd. They're not just people in his head. They're other parts of him. They're--

They're other parts of him. He's the self-destructive one, but they're-- They're hostile and controlling and self-destructive, too. Both of them, in different ways. They try to protect him with violence and hostility and control, but they hurt him, too, because all the parts of him are traumatized and he hurts himself. He's hostile to himself. He tries to control himself.

And he's passive and dependent. And he's guilty.

All of that should be-- It should just be him, that feels that way. No one else should feel the way he feels.

But so many other people feel it, they had to put it in a reference book.

He's a unique case. No one else has been through what he's been through. But there are pieces that match, the same way there are pieces of his anxiety and depression and suicidal impulse and PTSD that match.

He's the primary identity with David Haller's name. He's passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed.

It's not enough. The people who wrote this book didn't know about mental parasites that can reshape memories from within like they were soft clay. David still has nothing to prove that he's anything more than a paper-thin copy of Past David.

But even if he's just a copy, the person he's a copy of must have felt the same things he does. Because that's what primary identities feel. So that's what Past David felt. Past David and Now David felt the same things.

It's another thread, like the lamp. It's not enough, but it's another thread just barely tugging them towards each other.

David reads on, not just the highlights. He reads all of it.

Particular identities may emerge in specific circumstances. Transitions from one identity to another are often triggered by psychosocial stress. In the possession-form cases of dissociative identity disorder, alternate identities are visibly obvious to people around the individual. In non-possession-form cases, most individuals do not overtly display their change in identity for long periods of time.

People with DID may describe feeling that they have suddenly become depersonalized observers of their own speech and actions. They might report hearing voices, and in some cases, these voices accompany multiple streams of thought that the individual has no control over. The individual might also experience sudden impulses or strong emotions that they don't feel control or a sense of ownership over. People may also report that their bodies suddenly feel different, or that they experience a sudden shift in attitudes or personal preferences before shifting back.

Individuals with DID may have post-traumatic symptoms (nightmares, flashbacks, and startle responses) or post-traumatic stress disorder. As this once rarely reported disorder has grown more common, the diagnosis has become controversial. Some believe that because DID patients are highly suggestible, their symptoms are at least partly iatrogenic—that is, prompted by their therapists' probing. Brain imaging studies, however, have corroborated identity transitions.

More than 70 percent of people with DID have attempted suicide, and self-injurious behavior is common among this population. Treatment is crucial to improving quality of life and preventing suicide attempts.

Syd highlighted 'possession-form cases' and 'most individuals do not overtly display their change in identity.' She highlighted 'depersonalized observers,' 'hearing voices,' and 'multiple streams of thought' and 'impulses or strong emotions that they don't feel control or a sense of ownership over.'

She highlighted and underlined 'highly suggestible' and 'corroborated identity transitions.'

She highlighted the entire paragraph about suicide and self-injurious behavior and circled it.

"I'm highly suggestible?" David asks. He thought it was just Farouk. He thought he was just—

"That's what the book says," Syd replies. "I think-- Dissociation is a kind of self-hypnosis. You're putting yourself into a state where you'll accept a version of reality that doesn't match what your senses are telling you. But that means it's easy for other people to make you accept things that you might not want. Dissociation makes your personal boundaries... permeable."

David thinks of Lenny-- Benny. Benny telling him to rob Doctor Poole's office. David didn't want to. He liked Doctor Poole. He didn't want to hurt him. But he did because Benny told him to, and he trusted Benny.

Benny told him to do a lot of things. So David did them. Future Syd told him to do things he didn't want to do, but he did them anyway. Because he trusted her and she said he had to. He accepted his life in Clockworks because Amy told him he had to. Syd told him that life was war and he had to hold on to his pain and his anger and his despair. So he did.

That's what he's been doing. Even after he thought he'd lost her forever, he still did what she told him to do. He's still doing what everyone has told him to do. Because he's been telling himself to do things for so long he just lets anyone tell him to do anything.

Farouk didn't even need to be inside his head to control him. He didn't need to be inside his head to tell him what to do, how to feel, what to see. Because dissociating meant David let all their ideas go right into him.

He's been doing it to himself. He thought he was helping himself but all he did was leave himself wide open to being hurt again and again.

"I need to stop," he realizes, looking to Syd. "I have to stop dissociating."

But Ptonomy said-- Ptonomy said his identities couldn't be put back together.

He looks for the end of the section, for the treatment guide.

Psychotherapy is generally considered the main component of treatment for dissociative identity disorder. In treating individuals with DID, therapists usually use individual, family, and/or group psychotherapy to help clients improve their relationships with others and to experience feelings they have not felt comfortable being in touch with or openly expressing in the past. It is carefully paced in order to prevent the person with DID from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, risking a figurative repetition of their traumatic past being inflicted by those very strong emotions. Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of cognitive behavior therapy that emphasizes mindfulness and works on helping the DID sufferer soothe him- or herself by decreasing negative responses to stressors.

Mental health professionals also often guide clients in finding a way to have each aspect of them coexist and work together, as well as developing crisis-prevention techniques. The goal of achieving a more peaceful coexistence of the person's multiple personalities is quite different from the reintegration of all those aspects into just one identity state. While reintegration used to be the goal of psychotherapy, it has frequently been found to leave individuals with DID feeling as if the goal of the practitioner is to get rid of, "erase," or "kill," parts of them.

He can't put himself back into one piece. Just like his lamp. He was shattered and-- And he can't unshatter himself. But he can learn to coexist with Divad and Dvd. They can-- They can get help. They can stop dissociating in all the other ways they dissociate. They can stay with the people who care about them and work through their memories and emotions.

Divad and Dvd can't go away. But the three of them can get better together. Like Syd wants to. Like Amy and Kerry want to. They can get better together.

The book goes on about treatment methods, but David skims them only briefly before closing the book and setting it aside. He has a lot to think about, a lot to understand and accept. He trusts his friends to help him get better. Maybe he shouldn't trust them so much, maybe he needs to learn to trust himself more than everyone else, but--

That's what he is. Right now, that's what he is. He needs help and they're helping him, and he wants to get better. He's ready to get better.

"Thank you," he tells Syd, genuinely. "For the book, for--" For everything. For everything. It's too huge to say and he wishes she could hear his thoughts but he hopes she understands him anyway. He hopes she can see it in his face, in his eyes, how grateful he is to her for not giving up on him even though all he's ever done is give up on himself.

Syd smiles for him, sweet and tight-lipped. "I'm glad I could help you. I'm glad you-- You chose to stay."

"I didn't," David says, because he would have killed himself if he could. If anyone let him. He tried to. He might try again. The feeling is still there, even if it's blunted and further away.

"You did," Syd says. "I talked to Amy and Lenny and Divad and Dvd and that's what they all said. They couldn't save you, but you saved yourself. David saved himself. I know you don't believe that's who you are. But you are and you did."

David wants to believe that. He wants to.

"I guess we'll find out," he says. He's sure Ptonomy will want him to take a break and clear his head before the memory work, but he's ready. Whatever's waiting for him in his past, he's ready to face it with Divad and Dvd and Amy and Ptonomy. With his family, with his friends, with Syd. He's ready.

Chapter Text

It’s one thing to talk to Syd, to let her sit with him while he reads about himself in her book. David owed her that much for everything she’s done to try to save him. The two of them have— He’s not sure what they are now, except that they’re not what they were, but— He thinks they’ve made a start, even if he doesn’t know what it is that they’re starting.

But talking to Amy is—

He needs to talk to Amy. For the memory work. He needs to listen to what she has to say so she can help him piece together the truth about his life, or Past David’s life. He can’t do that if every cell in his body is screaming for him to pull away from his memories and emotions as fast as possible.

He thought he was ready to stay. He’s not ready.

David grips Kerry’s hand tightly. At least this time he’s holding her other hand. If he never lets go again, she’ll still be able to hold a fork and write.

“You’ve already done a lot today,” Divad soothes. “If you need more time, we can do the memory work tomorrow.”

“No,” David insists, even though that’s what he said yesterday and look how that turned out. “I need to know.”

“You need to go slow,” Divad says. He glances at the Vermillion sitting in the loveseat and rubs at his neck. “Okay, how about this. If you can talk to Amy without— Without dissociating, we can do the memory work today. Ptonomy?”

“That’s reasonable,” Ptonomy agrees. “Remember what the book said. If you get overwhelmed, you’re just hurting yourself with the very trauma we’re trying to work past.”

They’re right. David knows they’re right. And he should be able to do this. It’s Amy. She’s his sister. She loves him. She’s always—

She’s always loved Past David. She put Now David in Clockworks and left him there. Maybe she knew the truth like Philly did. Maybe on some level, she knew he wasn’t her brother at all, and that made it easier for her to throw him away.

“I think it’s only fair to tell that to Amy if you also let her answer you,” Ptonomy says. “She’s ready if you are.”

David thought it, he didn’t say it. He didn’t choose to let everyone hear his thoughts.

“Amy didn’t choose to be uploaded,” Ptonomy replies. “She didn’t choose to be killed and trapped in her own mind. She’s hurting just as much as you and you need to remember that. She’s trying to help you just like Syd. Just like all of us.”

Well, now David feels terrible in a completely different way. At least guilt is something he’s never needed to pull away from. He can wallow in guilt all day without needing to hold anyone’s hand.

“We’ll have to talk about that,” Ptonomy says, because of course they will.

“Can I talk to Amy now?” David asks, strained. At least he only has to deal with one of them at a time.

“I’m here,” Amy says. “David, I don’t— You’ve always been my little brother. I didn’t care that you were adopted. I don't care that there’s three of you, I don’t care if there’s been two different Davids. You’re my Davey. You always will be, okay?”

When he doesn’t even think a reply, she sighs.

“I know I can never make up for what I did to you,” Amy continues. “I know you can’t forgive yourself. But I hope you can forgive me. Not for my sake, but for yours. I know how much you’re hurting, I can hear it all the time and— You’re punishing yourself. You can’t do that if you want to get better.”

He’s punishing himself?

Ptonomy told David to stop punishing himself, and he thought he had. But apparently it wasn’t as easy as that after all. But then he hasn’t forgiven himself either. Maybe he’s able to resist some of the ideas other people keep trying to put into his head.

“You were always stubborn,” Amy says, sad but fond. “Even if you don’t remember the truth, I do. You were always the most impossible, difficult little brother in the world. That only made me love you more.”

David’s grip on Kerry’s hand eases. “What was I like?” he asks. He thought he was normal, but he knew about his powers, he didn’t stay put even if they locked the doors. He was sensitive and cried too much. He must have been—

He must have been the most difficult, stubborn little brother in the world. But Amy loved him anyway. She loved him more. Even though he was adopted and strange and did impossible things all the time.

“Let me tell you?” Amy asks, and she sounds like she’s smiling.

§

David’s back in the white room, and he pulls Divad and Dvd in with him. The furniture is still gone and the astronomy posters are still on the walls. Dvd sees them and looks pleased.

“You should add something,” he tells Divad.

“Now really isn’t the time for decorating,” Divad says, but he looks contemplative.

Ptonomy’s voice floats in through the open sliding doors. “David, are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” David says. “Is Amy going to start again?”

“She’ll join in, but we’re focusing on your memories now. What you remember, real or not. Let’s pick up where we left off. You remember being a normal little boy.”

David closes his eyes and thinks back. He remembers Amy, his house, the forests and fields and the shore beyond. He remembers being loved, but he can’t remember his parents with any great detail. They’re gone, like Benny is gone, though not as completely.

What else does he remember about his earliest years?

A dog barks in the distance. He opens his eyes. He’s standing in the long grass, like he did in the memory walk, but this moment is earlier and he’s seeing it from his perspective as a child. A young Amy is there, maybe eight or nine years old, and she's holding a leash. On the end of the leash is King, his beagle.

King. The Shadow King. The first form Farouk took when he went into David, at least as far as David has been made to remember.

“Oh, we remember him,” Dvd says, angrily. He looks like he wants to march over to the dog and kick it into orbit. Divad puts a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.

“It’s just a memory,” Divad soothes.

“Nothing the monster did was ever just anything,” Dvd says, turning to David. “He tricked us. When you first made us, you still thought King was real. We didn’t know any better, so we thought he was real, too.”

“When we realized King was part of the monster,” Divad explains, “you wouldn’t believe us. You loved King too much to believe us.” Hurt flashes across his face. “That’s how it started, him pulling us apart. That’s the first time he got between us.”

David remembers an idyllic childhood. He remembers King as his constant companion for years, always with him wherever he went, by his side day and night. He remembers loving King with all his heart, and King loving him back.

But that’s not what happened. Or it is, but only parts of it, only half-truths, quarter-truths.

“We always knew King wasn’t real,” says child Amy. “But he made you happy. We decided to play along so you could have your imaginary friend. But—“

“But what?” David asks.

“King started to scare you,” says child Amy. She’s holding King’s leash short so the dog can’t reach David. “Not all the time, not at first.”

“He only scared us when David was asleep or went away,” Divad says. “He wanted us to know what he was, but not David.”

Right from the start, Farouk used David’s love and trust against him, used them to manipulate him and isolate him. From the outside, David would have alternated between adoring his imaginary dog and being terrified of him, making him look even more unstable. And from the inside—

“That shit beetle hated us,” Dvd declares. “We were in his way and he couldn’t get rid of us. He wanted you all for himself.”

“Amy, you said ‘not at first,’” David says. “What happened to King? I don’t remember him dying, or—“ In the false memories, King was his constant companion until one day he wasn’t anymore. If King was a real dog, he could have run away or died, but Farouk didn’t bother with that. He didn’t make David remember bringing King to the vet for shots or care. He didn’t even make David remember when he first got King as a puppy. King was just there, ideal and eternal, until he wasn’t anymore.

“Farouk got bored with that game, so he started scaring you, too,” Divad says. “He terrified all of us all the time and no one else could see what he was doing. No one else could stop him. So we stopped him.”

“We used our powers together,” Dvd says, proudly. “We killed it.”

David shakes his head. “King was just an illusion. A mask.”

“We killed it and it didn’t come back,” Dvd insists.

"One day, you stopped talking about King," child Amy says. "We asked you about him, but you didn't want to talk about him. You just said you never had a dog. And you didn't, so--"

David kneels down and looks at King. The dog -- the illusion of the illusion of a dog -- looks back at him placidly. "Was it another trick?"

"We didn't care," Dvd says. "King was gone and the monster couldn't hurt us with him anymore."

David stares at the dog. His memories of King are so strong. Farouk needed that love. He needed it before David made the alters and then he used it to divide them. And then when he couldn't do that anymore, he must have given up that mask so he could make other masks to terrify them with.

When Farouk ripped out David's memories, he put King back. All that unconditional love and trust a boy has for his beloved dog. He put it all back and made it part of the foundation of who he wanted David to be.

David knew there was a monster. Farouk broke him with fear when he was still so young, that's why David made his alters in the first place. So King wasn't the first mask Farouk used, not at all. But he was the first mask that Farouk used to make David love him.

David thinks about Farouk in his cell, telling him that David was his baby. Telling him that he tried to make David love him and failed. David felt sick then, hearing those words, and he feels sick now.

The sight of King makes his skin crawl. All that love and it was never anything but-- It was just another violation of his heart and his mind and-- David doesn't want it anymore. It was never his and he doesn't want it.

He doesn't even close his eyes. He just stares and then King is gone, leash and all.

He stands and walks a few steps away, his stomach turning. It's not just King. It's his whole childhood, all these false memories he's relived again and again. All the happiness and love he clung to when things were so dark and hopeless, they were just-- It was all just another trick, another manipulation, another way for Farouk to--

David's wide-eyed puppy act. That's what Divad called it. Farouk wanted him that way, he wanted David to love and trust unconditionally the way he loved and trusted King. It wasn't just the dissociation and how it makes him suggestible. And even all of that combined wasn't enough. Farouk couldn't make David love him, like David couldn't make Syd love him after the desert, like the monster couldn't make Syd want to stay in Clockworks.

Syd said he saved himself and he still doesn't know if he did. But--

Even if he's just a copy of Past David. Farouk couldn't make Past David love him, and he couldn't make Now David love him either. And-- Farouk would have, if he could. He's been trying for so long, he must want it so much. He must need it.

Farouk is a monster. But David was a monster: in the desert, after it. That's what Farouk turned him into, someone cruel who took what he thought he deserved. David thought he deserved Syd's love. And Farouk--

Farouk needs David's love. He thinks he deserves it. And when he couldn’t get it—

When he couldn’t get it—

Oh god.

He feels—

He feels faint, he feels—

“David.” Divad is there, suddenly, holding his arms. “You’re going away.”

“David, stay with us,” Ptonomy says, urgent. “Dvd, get him out of there.”

“We’re out,” Dvd says, and then David is back in the lab, sitting on the sofa, and Kerry’s holding his hand and Divad’s trying to keep him calm but David can’t breathe, he can’t— He feels sick, his whole body feels hot and sick and—

Cary comes over and holds his arm, rubs his back. "Stay with us, David. Don’t go away."

He’s trying, but— He feels so— He feels—

And then Syd is in front of him, and she-- She takes his other hand. She puts his hand between her gloved hands and holds it. "David, stay with us. Stay with me.”

He looks at Syd. She holds him with her hands and with her eyes.

He has to— He has to stay. He doesn’t want to go away. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to.

Kerry’s holding his hand and Cary’s touching his back and his arm and Syd is holding his hand and looking at him and he’s—

He’s not going away. It’s passing: the sickness, the heat, the overwhelming, annihilating fear. It’s passing. It’s going away and he’s staying. He’s staying.

He can’t think about— He can’t think about it.

“You don’t have to,” Ptonomy soothes. “Not right now. Just stay with us. Be here now. That’s all you have to do.”

§

When David was missing for that long year, all Syd wanted was to find him so she could hold his hand. She didn't know if that was why he was gone so long but she knew how much he needed it. She knew he'd never ask it of her, he'd never take it, so he couldn't have it unless she gave it to him.

Whatever else David took from her, in his broken madness, he didn't take that. So she's still able to give it to him: her hand, her touch. She's finally holding his hand so he'll stay.

This wasn't what she had in mind.

David's staying, but that's about all he can manage to do. They got him to lie down on the sofa with his head on Kerry's lap, but he won't let go of Syd's hand, so she's sitting on the coffee table.

"No, not yet," Ptonomy says, then turns to them. "Divad asked if he should make David sleep. I don't think that's a good idea right now." He turns back to the empty space where Divad must be. "David's working hard to stay present. He'll sleep when he's ready and you can help him then."

Ptonomy listens some more, then nods. "We'll take it a little at a time."

It's still so strange to Syd that David can somehow be three separate people at once, that one of those people can be nearly catatonic while the other two hover around him trying to figure out how to help him, but that's how David works. Even Farouk couldn't change that, and he changed so much.

"I guess we'll have to wait until tomorrow for my first session," she says to Ptonomy. Not that she doesn't want to get started, but David's attached himself to her hand pretty firmly.

"No, we'll do it tonight after dinner," Ptonomy says. "We'll see if we can get David to eat, and by then he should be ready to sleep. I was hoping he'd be up to helping us, but it's probably better to use Divad and Dvd."

"What do we need them for?"

"You never met Future Syd," Ptonomy says. "You only saw her image. Only David and Farouk were able to project their minds into the future to talk to her. Fortunately for us, Divad and Dvd experience everything David experiences. So they can tell us everything David knows, and we don't have to put him through that. At least not for now."

"So I have to do a group session with two people I can't hear?" Syd asks. That feels-- It feels unfair, to have testimony given against her future self when she can't defend against it.

That's probably how David felt, trapped in a cage while the Vermillion read out the evidence against him. Farouk really did set them up to hurt him as deeply as possible. He didn't even have to brainwash her to make her hurt David that time, he just sat back and watched the fireworks.

"I'll help," Oliver volunteers.

Syd looks over, startled. Oliver's been mostly quiet, letting the telepathic relay flow through him, occasionally saying something or quoting poetry. They've been keeping him busy all day and so he hasn't been able to leave his body to search the astral plane for Melanie. Not that he's had any luck so far, but if there's any chance Oliver can find her--

"You don't have to," Syd says. "David's in no shape for anything else today, you should go look for Melanie."

Oliver seems to consider this. "I used to do this, I think. Help people. A long time ago."

"You did," Cary says. "You were-- You helped a lot of people get better."

"And then I dreamed," Oliver says, closing his eyes. "Real as a dream. What shall I do with this great opportunity to fly? When I'm in awakeness what do I desire? I desire to fulfill my emotional belly. My whole body, my heart in my fingertips thrill with some old fulfillments." He opens his eyes, looks at them, his eyes more clear than they've been since he came back to them for the second time. He looks to Cary. "You said it was my dream to help people. Melanie carried it without me. She tried to help David, but-- He’s her last, unfinished dream. The least I can do is help finish it for her."

Syd smiles for him. "I think she would have liked that."

Oliver nods. "For the world is a mountain of shit: if it's going to be moved at all, it's got to be taken by handfuls."

"A little at a time," Ptonomy agrees. "We'll get that mountain moved."

Chapter Text

David’s tucked into bed and Cary’s taking his turn holding his hand. Even with Divad helping him sleep, David holds Cary’s hand tightly. He needs their help to stay connected to the world so he’ll come back to it when he wakes.

But Syd has to focus on her place in the world right now. Or what it will be in the future.

"This won’t hurt at all," Oliver says, reaching up to touch her forehead. "I’m just going to do a thing."

Syd pulls back from his hand. "A thing?"

Oliver pauses. "I’m going to put a telepathic antenna into your mind so I can relay David’s thoughts to you."

"And what about my thoughts?"

"I’ve always been able to hear your thoughts. I can hear everyone’s thoughts. I can relay yours to Ptonomy if you’d like?"

Syd hesitates. She probably should, given how powerful telepathy is as a therapeutic tool. But no. "No," she says, firmly.

"All right," Oliver says. "Ready?"

Syd braces herself. "Ready."

Oliver's fingers touch her forehead, and— And nothing. She doesn't even feel it, what he does to her. She can't feel him reach into her mind and change it.

She wasn't awake when David did it, but she probably wouldn't have felt it if she had been. Farouk was right about one thing, mind readers are too powerful to trust.

"We shouldn't all be tarred with the monster's brush," Oliver says. He says it with his usual equanimity, but there's a hint of force behind it. "Otherwise why should any mutant be allowed to live?"

"Sorry," Syd says, chastened. She spent a year helping Melanie convince Division 3 not to classify all mutants as threats just because they had powers. She and Melanie had to teach them that lesson again and again until it sank in. Maybe she needs a little teaching herself.

Still. She understands why David is always complaining about having his thoughts overheard. Knowing her mind is being read, her thoughts listened to, it's incredibly disconcerting. She didn't think about it much with David because he rarely mentioned what he heard. He knew it made her uncomfortable so he didn't say anything. She told him her boundaries and he tried hard to respect them.

That's who he is, no matter what Farouk used her to make him do. She knows that's who he is, even if he doesn't.

"Sending you the relay now," Oliver says, as he settles back in the loveseat.

"-esting, one two three," drawls a David-like voice from the empty space her right. It's Divad.

"This is gonna be fun," says a David-like voice from her left. Dvd.

"We're here to help Syd so she can help David," chides Divad. "Don't get carried away."

"We're here to finally tell everyone what a piece of shit Future Syd is," Dvd insists. "If Syd doesn't like it, she can—" He stops. She wonders if Divad is glaring at him. She's been getting pieces of their dynamic and she thinks that's what's happening.

'Dvd better not mess this up,' says Divad, but he's not saying it from her right. It sounds like he's saying it inside her head.

'Blonde bitch,' grumbles Dvd, and that's inside her head, too.

"The relay includes their thoughts as well as the thoughts David believes he is vocalizing as them," Oliver explains. "You get used to it. Telepaths learn to prioritize vocalized information and tune out the unsaid."

"We can't afford to tune out David's thoughts or the thoughts of his alters," Ptonomy adds. "So it's gonna be noisy."

"You're listening to our thoughts, too?" Dvd asks, alarmed. 'I knew they couldn't be trusted. Bunch of spies.'

'I am so not comfortable with this,' Divad thinks. "It's fine. They're helping David get better. That's all that matters."

"Yeah, he's looking real better," Dvd grumbles. 'I should be holding David's hand, not these people. We're David’s brothers but he doesn't even want to remember us. I hate this, I hate all of it.'

"Let's focus on the task at hand," Ptonomy says. "We're helping Syd understand her future self so that we can help her avoid that fate. Just like we're helping David avoid the future he shares with her. No one wants the world to end, right?"

"Right," Divad agrees.

"Right," Dvd sighs. 'Jerk. Kiss our ass.'

Syd doesn't expect Dvd to apologize for his thoughts the way David does. Clearly Ptonomy doesn't either. Divad isn't thinking about anything, but he is the part of David with mutant emotional regulation.

"Let's start at the beginning," Ptonomy says. "David was in Summerland and Cary's orb appeared. It took him. What happened next?"

"David freaked out," Dvd says. "We couldn't break free."

"We wanted to get back to Syd," Divad says, pointedly. "But then all of a sudden, Syd was in the orb with us. She was in some kind of black space, a mental projection."

"She couldn't talk," Dvd says. "She had this weird light wand thing, she wrote with it."

"She told us she was from the future and that time was running out," Divad says. "She wrote that Farouk was trying to find his body and that we had to help him. She told us not to tell anyone, and then she was gone."

"Did you notice anything else about her?" Ptonomy asks. "Any physical differences?"

"She was older," Divad says. "But not old. She was missing her left arm. She was wearing a locket."

"That's what I saw in Farouk's visions," Syd agrees. She can't help but touch her left arm, reassuring herself that it's still there. Then she thinks about the necklace. She pulls it off and looks at it. "David said Cary made this while he was in the amplification tank." She opens it and the compass needle points right to David. She holds it out for everyone to see.

"Cary didn't make it," Dvd says. "We made it. But we knew you didn't trust us. We heard you thinking it, and then you told us it was our fault we got taken even though it wasn't."

"David was very upset," Divad says. "We lost a year, and when we came back no one trusted us. He remembered lot of bad things at once in the amplification tank."

"And then you said it was our fault," Dvd says, again, angrily.

"He was afraid of losing you," Divad says. "He was scared of being taken again. He was scared that if it happened and you thought it was his fault, you wouldn't want to find us."

Dvd snorts. 'We don’t need to be found. I'm the one who saves us, not you.'

Syd closes the compass. It really is the same one she saw in the vision, but David made it after he remembered seeing her future self wearing it. "Did he know this is what she was wearing? My future self?"

"We saw the necklace," Divad says. "We didn't know it was a compass. David didn't even think about the details when we made it, he just needed the necklace to exist and our mind filled in the blanks. I think— He thought if he gave it to you now, that meant you wouldn't stop loving us, because you were still wearing it in the future."

"Future Syd said she loved us," Dvd says, bitterly. "She drew a heart for us. What a liar."

"Why didn't he just tell me?" Syd asks them. It's the same question she's been asking herself for weeks.

"We did tell you," Divad defends. "We told you on the roof."

"Not all of it," Syd insists. "David always told me everything, but then he came back and he was different."

"We weren't different, everyone else was different," Dvd says.

"He lied to me," Syd insists. "He looked me in the eye and lied to me."

"You told us it was our fault we got taken!" Dvd says, loudly. "You didn't care about us. We were taken by you and when you let us go, everyone made it perfectly clear that the only thing they cared about was our powers. Help Farouk, David. Kill Farouk, David. How were we supposed to know what to do?"

'Bitch,' Dvd's thoughts snarl. 'You did this to us! I hate you!'

"Blame isn't going to help anyone," Ptonomy says, firmly. "David drowns himself in blame and you've all seen for yourselves how much that doesn't help. So don't make the same mistake."

Syd nods. No one says or thinks anything.

"Let's get back on track," Ptonomy continues. "Future Syd took David from Summerland. She told him that she was in danger and that he had to help Farouk in order to save her. She told him she still loved him but she put him back a year late. It's possible that was a mistake, but I don't think so. She did that on purpose."

"She wanted to disorient him," Syd suggests. "To isolate him from us." That's exactly what Farouk would do, but she did it.

"It gave Farouk a head start," Divad says. "He got to search for his body for a whole year without us getting in the way."

"But he still needed David's help to find it?" Syd asks.

"He didn't," Dvd insists. "Farouk never cared about that. It was just an excuse to keep us coming back."

Divad gives a thoughtful hum. "Farouk did try to convince us not to help Future Syd. He said if we did, it would be like helping her kill herself."

"Farouk was following the monk." Syd thinks back. "Just like us. The monk was the only one who knew how to find the monastery. David said Farouk needed his help for that because the monk was hiding in Division 3. But the monk only came to Division 3 to find the weapon we were supposed to have. When we didn't have it, he killed himself."

Syd hadn’t known that was what happened just before David entered her mind. She didn’t know what was happening outside of herself at all. She'd been trapped in a mental maze like everyone else.

"Even if Farouk did need help with the monk—" Ptonomy says. "I think you're right, all his actions were meant to keep David close, to make him culpable so he’d be afraid to tell us the truth. Even if Future Syd wanted David to help Farouk, Farouk didn't need the help."

"He did," Divad says. "Because she said that in her timeline, we killed Farouk in the desert."

"When did she tell you?" Ptonomy asks.

"The second time we saw her," Divad says. "After Farouk stole the genetic gun, we asked Kerry and Cary for help looking into the future. Multidimensional perception. We went into the tank and projected our mind into the future. Future Syd wasn't— She was surprised to see us."

"We couldn't read her mind," Dvd says. "We tried but it hurt."

"We confronted her. We helped Farouk get into Division 3 and Farouk killed people. He hurt Cary and Kerry. We needed to know why we had to help the monster. She said— 'It started like any other idea, as an egg. And then the few of us who are left went into hiding. But we don't have long. It's coming.'"

"That's it?" Syd asks. "That's— vague."

"She said she would need Farouk when things turned," Divad continues. "That Farouk kills a few but this thing kills everyone."

"Farouk's the reason we end the world in the first place," Dvd says, angrily. "What kind of stupid plan is that?"

"She must not have known," Syd says, feeling the need to defend herself, even if she agrees with Dvd. "None of us knew what was happening to David until we captured him because he kept so many secrets."

"I think we can all agree that secrets are what got us here," Ptonomy says. "That's why we need to understand the truth. Divad, what else happened?"

"Future Syd said we were sweet," Divad admits. "That we were like we were before. She didn't say before what. But David liked that, he offered to come back."

"Of course he did," Dvd grumbles. "That's what Syd does. She pretends to love us, lowers our defenses, crawls inside our head."

"I never pretended," Syd says, insulted. "I love David. If she's me, she must have loved him, too."

"She loved us so much she stole us for a year?" Dvd shoots back. "She loved us so much she made us help the shit beetle? She's the one who was messing with time so David would kill himself. You were trying to kill us! Again!"

"I'm not her," Syd insists, even though she is. Even though the whole point of this is to not become her simply by letting time pass.

"Did you see her again?" Ptonomy asks.

"She sent us a psychic message," Divad says. "With the light writing. It just said ‘hurry,’ and we saw flashes of her in some kind of danger. But when we saw her again, she was fine."

"That was when we were looking for the monk," Syd recalls. She remembers the way David kept wincing with pain. "Hurry to find the monk?"

Ptonomy gives a thoughtful hum. "You saw her again?"

"One last time," Divad says. "We—"

"Syd told us to," Dvd interrupts. "We didn't want to but she made us."

"I didn't make you do anything," Syd says, irritated. How does David stand having Dvd in his head all the time? "David was upset after what happened to Amy. He wouldn't talk to me, so I thought maybe he would— Talk to me. Future Syd must have known about what happened."

"She did," Divad agrees. "She apologized but— She didn't care. She kept pushing us to help Farouk. When we pushed back, she guilted us about it. And—" He hesitates. "She asked if we could say goodbye."

"What does that mean?" Syd asks, but she thinks she knows the answer.

"We had sex with her," Dvd says, proudly.

Syd was right. She saw them together in Farouk's visions, and she’s still not thrilled about it. "You hate Future Syd, why are you so happy?"

"Because unlike you, I actually care what David wants," Dvd says, angrily. "Even when he couldn't hear me, even when he didn't know who I was, I was always there for David. All you did was jerk him around and hurt him. I'm happy because making David happy hurt you."

Jesus. Syd can't believe Dvd is part of David. Dvd is nothing like David. David is sweet and gentle and in his right mind he'd rather hurt himself than anyone else. Dvd's angry and bitter and defensive to the point of violence. He's furious at the world and thinks everyone is out to get him and he wants to hurt them before they can hurt him.

He's—

He's exactly what someone like David should be, after everything he's been through. But that's so much anger, and even if it's righteous and earned, David doesn't want it. He takes all of those feelings and puts them somewhere else. He dissociates from them so he doesn't have to feel them, so he's Dvd when he feels them. The alter that's strong and powerful and saves David from the things that hurt him. The alter that uses anger as his fuel.

Dvd is bitter and angry so that David can be sweet and gentle. Dvd is hard so David can be soft.

Syd was right. She does know who David is. But David is only the parts of himself that he wants to keep.

Dvd might be irritating and arrogant, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. That doesn't mean his feelings aren't real. Because they're David's feelings even if he doesn't want them. Dvd was right about how they treated David before, imprisoning him and making him worse. He was right that they threw David away even as they tried to help him.

David feels like he deserves to suffer, so he can’t refuse the pain that he’s given. Dvd defends David when David can’t defend himself. It’s not just about physical threats but also emotional ones. Dvd stands up for David whether the threat is from the world or Divad or David himself.

If Dvd is angry with Syd, if he feels hurt by her actions, then that’s because David feels that way, because Dvd is part of David. That’s how Dvd speaks about them, as a collective whole. As three parts of one person with one body. Divad does the same, though he makes more of a distinction, maybe for David’s sake, since David still hasn’t accepted that he’s part of their system.

She told David once that the things that make them crazy make them who they are. Maybe she wouldn’t phrase it that way now, but— She can’t claim to love David if she only loves one-third of him. If she does that, she really is the same as Future Syd, and no matter how much she thinks she’s acting out of love, she’s only going to hurt him.

She turns to her left and looks at the empty space where it sounds like Dvd is coming from. "Dvd, you're right. I'm sorry."

There's a pause, and then a suspicious "What?"

"About Future Syd. If she loved David, she wouldn't have done those things to him. To you. She wouldn't have hurt you. I wouldn't have hurt you. I said I loved you, but I hurt you. I'm sorry."

Syd wishes she could see Dvd's face. She can't hear anything from him.

"You have every right to be mad at me," Syd continues, not sure if her words are helping or making things worse. "And if— If you truly think I'm hurting David by being here, I'll go. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of everything you're doing to help him heal. You and Divad know David better than anyone, even himself. I trust both of you to make the right decisions for him."

'It's a trick,' Dvd thinks. 'She doesn't mean it.' But he doesn't sound convinced, even in his thoughts.

"Come on," Divad whispers, sounding as if they're some distance away. "She's making an effort."

"So she can lower our defenses and crawl back inside our head," Dvd whispers back. "I'm not gonna let her hurt us again."

"We can't send her away," Divad whispers. "Then we'll be the ones hurting David."

Dvd makes a frustrated sound. "This whole week has been nothing but torture. Fuck that shit beetle. If we ever get this crown off our head, we're gonna torture him, see how he likes it."

"Let's not," Divad drawls. "That didn't work out so well last time."

"Thanks for the reminder," Dvd grumbles. "Fine," he says, his voice close again and directed at Syd. "You can stay. But if you hurt David again, you're going right to the top of my 'To Torture' list, you got it?"

"Got it," Syd says. She braces herself. "You know, now that I can hear you, maybe we can talk."

"About David?" Dvd asks, suspicious again.

"About you," Syd says. "Or about anything. Do you— Do you have any hobbies?"

A long pause. "My hobby is keeping David alive."

"That would keep anyone busy," Syd admits. "But you have help now. So maybe you have time for a hobby. If you want one."

Another pause. "Divad and I play cards."

'We do now that we're actually talking to each other again,' Divad thinks. "We could deal you in, but you can't see the cards."

"Maybe there's something else we can do. Something you used to do with David, when he was younger? When you weren't so busy saving his life?"

"We were always busy saving his life," Dvd insists. "But— We'll think about it." He sounds reluctant, but reluctant is better than furious.

Syd looks to Ptonomy. "Sorry, I think we derailed my group session. We're supposed to be working on Future Syd."

"Anything that improves your relationship with David is us working on Future Syd," Ptonomy says. "Dvd's right, whatever Future Syd claimed, she didn't love David. Maybe she thought she did, but everything she did pushed David right into the future she claimed to want to avoid."

"We still don’t understand why she did all that to us in the first place," Divad says.

Syd considers everything they discussed. "She was from decades in the future, but we have no idea what happens between now and then."

"Farouk died in her timeline," Divad points out. "Maybe him being alive means that timeline is gone."

"Farouk being alive could never be good," Dvd insists. "Even if the timeline has changed, that just means he can make everything worse. And now he knows he can get exactly what he wants."

That is a sobering thought. Farouk was already dangerous when he was just hoping he could use them to end the world. Now he knows he can do it and he’s glimpsed enough of the future to narrow down the possibilities. He can take a shorter path to his sunrise, the direct route, and it won’t take him decades to get there.

She was wrong. Farouk might be patient, but he’s hungry, too. He’s not going to wait decades, not now that he’s had a taste of his feast.

"I think— She didn’t know," Syd decides. "She didn’t know Farouk was the one behind everything. Farouk died in the desert, so in her original timeline— David wasn’t taken. He joined Division 3 with us and hunted for Farouk. It still took us a year to find the monk, but— A year is a long time. A year gave David time to get better, to get stronger. But also to get worse, because we didn’t know the extent of his trauma and he was never forced back into treatment. And then— the monk came to Division 3. Maybe he died, maybe he didn’t. Farouk’s plan was the same. Farouk killed Amy. He sent Lenny. He killed Ptonomy, he tried to kill the Admiral, he took Melanie. Farouk took away the people David relied on and made him unstable. Then they both went to the desert and David smashed Farouk’s head in with a rock. And then at some point, David figured out that Amy was still alive, trapped inside of Lenny, and— And he had to choose. He made the choice and—"

Who would David choose, if forced to choose between his sister and his best friend?

David would choose Amy.

"David killed Lenny," Syd says, and she has no evidence either way but she knows it’s true. "Farouk was long gone but he still made David do it. David gave Amy back her body, but— By then the damage was done. And that made him even worse. I must have— Future Syd must have watched him getting worse and worse, becoming violent and so unstable and so, so powerful. When the time came to stop him, she took him in the moment he was still weak and vulnerable and she put him as close to the end as she could. She didn’t need David to help Farouk. She needed David to be weak enough to lose when he went to the desert. She took a risk, sending him to Farouk, thinking that Farouk would keep David weak, but— She didn’t know Farouk was why David was unstable in the first place, that he was behind everything. She thought she was being merciful, ensuring a quick death, but Farouk used her to create the very future she was trying to avoid."

She pauses, reeling from her own revelation.

"But Farouk’s plan failed," she continues. "He took a risk, too. He needed us to be convinced that David had to be captured and forced into treatment, because that’s what David fears most: being forced back into a place like Clockworks. And David did need help, that was true, that was— That was the rabbit on the hook for us, for me. We took it and it almost worked. If David had been able to break free and he’d taken Lenny with him—"

She doesn’t continue. She doesn’t need to. The damage would have been done, and when it was over, there would have been no one left to save David. And Farouk would have still been alive, ready to close in for the kill. Ready to make his sunrise.

"He’s watching us now, watching us figure out all of this. He’s using everything he learns to make a new plan. Every path we close off, he can just keep finding new paths. But we have to get David better, we all have to all get better, because if we don’t, all the truths we can’t accept will become his weapons."

Syd doesn't want to become the dark future she saw, but there are so many possible dark futures and Farouk is patiently mapping them out, one by one. He’s sated now, bloated on David’s suffering just like he was in Clockworks. But when David wakes up from his pain, so will Farouk.

It’s terrible that she doesn’t want David to wake up. He’s in so much pain, but that pain is like the crown: it’s the only thing keeping him safe and alive. Like Clockworks kept him safe and alive. But this can’t go on. David can’t suffer forever, he’s already taken too much. So he has to get better. But getting him better means sending him straight into Farouk’s waiting arms. Just like Future Syd did. David will be weak and vulnerable and Farouk will close in for the kill.

"There’s no way out," Syd says, bleakly. "We have to keep going." They have only one choice and it's no choice at all.

"I don’t think I’m gonna have time for that hobby," Dvd says.

Syd can only nod in agreement.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, in a calming voice. "As bad as all of this is, it’s nothing we didn’t already know. It doesn’t change what we have to do. Our priority is still David’s treatment because that’s the only way to keep him from ending the world. And Syd’s treatment will keep her from being used to make that happen. We have to stay focused on the work."

"You’re right," Syd agrees. They have to do the work. The therapy, the memory work, all of it. It’s the only weapon they have. "We can’t afford to get distracted."

"We’re doing what Farouk wants," Ptonomy says. "He told you that. But it’s what we want, too. It’s what David needs. We have to stay focused on what David needs, what you both need. We’ll have another session tomorrow and we’ll work on you. Not Future Syd. We’ll work on you as you are now. So don’t worry about Farouk. Focus on David and focus on yourself."

He’s right. She has to stay focused. They have time before David gets better because David is still so broken. He nearly left them again today because he’s so broken. They have time. Farouk is watching but they have time.

Chapter Text

"Fuck, that was close," Lenny says. "Hey, maybe we should bring Syd into the mainframe. She can help us figure this shit out."

Ptonomy doesn’t deign to answer that. "It was close. Syd’s smart and she understands how Farouk thinks. That’s why Farouk keeps targeting her. We need to keep her focused on helping David and herself so that she doesn’t think about the bigger picture. We need to keep her attention on their pain, just like we’re keeping Farouk’s attention on their pain."

"I wish she could help us," Amy says. They’ve been trying to figure out how to save David so he can save them, but it’s not easy.

"She is helping us," Ptonomy says. "She’s helping David accept his diagnoses. She's helping him stay with us and work through his trauma. David can’t get better without her."

"It still hurts him every time he looks at her," Amy points out.

"Everything hurts him right now. But Syd— I think Syd and Lenny are the only way we’re going to get him through what’s waiting for him."

"What do I have to do with it?" Lenny asks.

"Everything. You were the face Farouk wore when David learned about the monster. You were inside him when Farouk possessed him. He used David’s love and trust for you to abuse and control him."

"Hey, I didn’t do any of that," Lenny protests. "I got killed and snatched and then I got raped, over and over."

"And every time Farouk raped you, he raped David using you," Ptonomy replies. "He violated both of you and he used you to make you hurt each other. That’s what he does. If you can’t accept that, you’re going to keep hurting David and you’re going to keep hurting yourself. You’ll be playing right into his hands."

Lenny groans in frustration. "I’m not gonna let you torture me."

"You’re already being tortured," Ptonomy says. "Farouk’s already torturing all of us because we care about David, and we’re torturing David because that’s the only way to help him survive a lifetime of Farouk’s torture."

"It’s not a therapy gangbang, it’s a torture gangbang," Lenny mutters.

"It is," Ptonomy admits. "But it’s working. David is getting better. So what are you gonna do?"

Lenny glares at him, baring her teeth. "Fuck you," she spits, and stalks off.

Ptonomy sighs and rubs his head. He sits down on a bench-sized transistor and slumps. Amy watches Lenny go, then sits down next to Ptonomy.

"You’re carrying so much with all of this," Amy soothes. "You need to rest."

"We don’t sleep anymore," Ptonomy says. "We don’t have bodies that get tired."

"Minds get tired, too," Amy says. "You’ve been going non-stop for days, working so hard to save everyone. You need to rest. It— It’s always helped me, to put my mind somewhere else for a while."

"Dissociation runs in families," Ptonomy says, automatically, then he looks at her. "Sorry, I know David was adopted."

"See?" Amy says. "You do need to rest. And David— I think he needs to rest, too. Today was—" She looks at the screen, at David holding tight to Cary’s hand. "He’s still working so hard to stay. We can’t push him any further without setting him back."

"Maybe you’re right," Ptonomy admits. "I still need to prepare for Syd’s session but— David needs a day off. Maybe we all do." He rubs his face and sits up. "But we need Lenny. If we’re going to save David, we need Lenny. I have to talk to her, get her to understand—"

"I’ll talk to her," Amy says.

Ptonomy gives her a look. He’s obviously trying not to seem skeptical, but she sees it anyway. She’s spent her life trying to understand David so she could help him. She failed, but—

Being dead has changed her. She feels calmer here in the mainframe, without her body. She can see things that were hard to see before, because her body made them hard to see. It got in the way, it made her anxious and afraid.

It’s still hard, being in this place. She’s never been any good with pain and even if her second death wasn’t physically painful, it still hurt. Watching David suffer hurts, even worse now than it did before because now she knows the truth. She was tortured by Division 3 a year ago but that was a paper cut compared to this. A few leeches are nothing compared to what she did to her baby brother, her Davey.

Six years. She left him in that place for six years so she could pretend to have a normal life with Ben. David accused her of wanting him to be normal, and it's true, she did. She wanted him to be normal because he insisted that he couldn't be happy as long as he was sick.

She didn't want to believe that, but she believed it anyway because David believed it, and-- She's always tried to play along with the things David believes. Whether that meant carrying around an empty leash or throwing a stick that an imaginary dog could never bring back. She tries to see the world as David sees it so she can help him survive, so she can reach through his fear and hold his hand and help him carry his pain.

But it was too much for her, helping him alone. It's too much for anyone to carry all that pain. It's too much for David and that's why she has three little brothers instead of just one. It's too much for Ptonomy to save them all by himself, but that's why he has her now, her and Lenny.

Lenny hasn't had anyone. That's what she said, that she's been alone. She doesn't even have David anymore because David can't stand the pain she gives him. It's so bad he can't bear to exist if he thinks about that pain.

Amy knows what that feels like. She knows what it's like to lose the person you love most because he can't bear to think about you. Syd understands it, too, but-- Syd needs to stay focused on the work she has laid out for her. And Lenny's already been horrifically used by Farouk. If anyone deserves to have their most private thoughts protected from the monster, it's her.

So Lenny needs help and that help has to come from inside the mainframe. Ptonomy has to focus on the work he's laid out for himself. So that means Amy has to be the one to step up and help. Even if Lenny hates her for what she did to David by putting him in Clockworks and leaving him there for six years. Lenny needs her like David needs her. Amy might not be a therapist, she might have made mistakes with David, but she wants to learn from those mistakes so she doesn't make them again. Maybe helping Lenny will help her, too. And then they can both help David, and David can finally stop the monster so it will never hurt any of them ever again.

§

Amy gives Lenny some time before she goes to find her. David needed that, sometimes, the space to calm himself before he could let anyone else come close. Now she knows that he must have been letting his alters calm him. Or maybe David wasn't David at all at those times, maybe he was Dvd or Divad or both, pretending to be David so no one would know anything was wrong.

Everyone always knew something was wrong. Like Syd, she wishes David had just told them. But-- He did try to tell them. He tried to tell Syd what he was feeling, what he'd been through. He tried to tell Amy and their parents that there was a monster inside him, hurting him. He tried to tell them that King was scaring him, that the imaginary, ever-present dog had changed from adoring to menacing. He tried to tell Amy that he was unhappy at Clockworks, because every time she saw him he asked if he could please, please leave.

David tried to tell everyone a lot of things. He blames himself for not saying more, but-- They didn't want to hear the things that he did say. They had their own ideas about him and if the things he said disagreed with them, well-- He was sick. He was unstable. He kept secrets and that made him a liar. And he knew. He heard their thoughts about him and all that did was make him blame himself more. Because he trusted them more than he trusted himself, so obviously they were right. Obviously he-- He deserved whatever he got because that was what everyone believed about him.

She only knows any of that because she heard it. She's been so close to David all his life, and she only understands him now because she was finally forced to listen in a way she couldn't deny. The mainframe and Oliver's relay make it impossible not to listen. She hears all of David's thoughts and she's watched all the recordings and--

She's thought a lot about her mistakes, and the biggest one of all was that she just didn't listen. She didn't hear him, she only heard-- Her version of him. Her David was her sick baby brother who couldn't take care of himself. He needed her to take care of him, to support him, to decide what was best for him. But she could never have made the right decisions for him because she didn't know what he needed because she didn't know anything about what was actually going on inside his head. It was all-- Invisible. Private. Unknowable, even, because without telepathy, how could she understand what he was experiencing when it was so beyond anything she'd experienced herself?

He tried to tell them, but he was too sick to explain his sickness. He was too afraid to explain his fear. It trapped him the same way she was trapped inside her own head, unable to reach the world, unable to tell anyone what she was going through.

She couldn't save herself from what Farouk did to her. David can't save himself either. He never could, even though he tried so hard he split himself in three. They'll get him out, she believes that, she has faith in him and in what they're doing. And when he's not trapped anymore, he'll save them and finish saving himself.

But they can't save him without Lenny.

It's easy for her to find Lenny. She just has to follow the music. Navigating the mainframe isn't easy for her, but Ptonomy helped her practice enough that she can get around. She reaches into the data streams and concentrates, searching the local signals, tuning through the channels bands.

Lenny listens to a lot of music. Her tastes are-- Eclectic. Sometimes it's frothy pop, sometimes it's harsh, ear-splitting metal. There doesn't seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to it, except that she never listens to anything sung in English. She only likes music in other languages. It could be anything from anywhere and Lenny will listen to it, as long as she can't understand the words.

Lenny was in Clockworks even longer than David was. Maybe music was how she travelled the world when she couldn't even go outside.

That's the thing about Lenny. Whatever David went through in Clockworks, Lenny went through it, too. But she didn't have mutant alters who could protect her. She didn't have a sister visiting her every month. She was there before David got there, and she only got out because she died and had her soul taken by the monster.

Amy doesn't know if Lenny blames herself the way David does. She doesn't know if Lenny thinks she's a broken plate that was thrown away. She can't hear Lenny's thoughts. She only knows the little she does about Lenny because she knows it about David.

So she's going to have to ask to learn the rest. And more importantly, she's going to have to listen.

Assuming she can get Lenny to talk to her at all.

She finds Lenny lounging in one of the mainframe's countless, nearly identical rooms. Memory blocks, Ptonomy called them. They exist in the computer's virtual space where processes and data are copied so they can be used. This particular memory block is almost vibrating from the sound of a driving rock beat and what sounds like young girls singing intensely in Japanese. Lenny is lying on the floor with her legs propped up against a wall. She has her eyes closed and she's slapping the floor with the beat.

"Hey," Amy says, leaning over Lenny.

Lenny opens her eyes and glares at her. She lifts one hand and raises her middle finger, then goes back to listening to the music.

Yeah, this is not going to be easy. Lenny might have gone through a lot of the same things David did, but they're almost nothing alike. Amy understands why Ptonomy was skeptical. But she still has to try to get through to Lenny. David needs her to try.

Amy sits down on the floor next to Lenny. She listens to the music. It's-- It's not the kind of thing Amy would ever voluntarily listen to. Amy's always liked soothing music: classical pieces, folk music, people singing quietly about their feelings. This is-- loud and grating and dissonant. It's the opposite of relaxing, but Lenny's enjoying it. Lenny's using it to feel better.

The song ends and something else starts playing. She can't even pin down where it's from, but it sounds-- French? And German? It's dance music, with a heavy bass that goes right into her. It's less grating than the Japanese song, at least. She can kinda get into it. Not that she's ever been much for dance music.

The next track comes on. Another shift, this time to-- something Spanish? No, Latin American. Male voices and drums and acoustic guitars. It's pleasant and easy. She closes her eyes and sways with the beat.

The music stops. She opens her eyes and Lenny is sitting up and staring at her. Amy looks back, calmly.

"I know what you're doing," Lenny says, annoyed. "I heard you talking to Ptonomy."

Of course she did. The mainframe isn't built for privacy. "I want to help, if I can."

"You can't," Lenny says. "Not unless you can get me out."

"I want to get out, too," Amy admits. She doesn't bother to say the rest. They both know that even if they find a way to download them into new bodies, that will only put them right back in harm's way with everyone else. They both know that until Farouk is dead, no one will be safe, that even the mainframe isn't really safe. And they can't wait for Division 3 to build a weapon, even assuming Farouk would let that happen now that he's back in his body and not trapped in David's head. He might be distracted by David's suffering, but he's not stupid.

There's only one way they'll ever get out. There's only one person who can save them. He's the last person who should have to fight the monster. And Lenny's the last person who should have to save him so he can do it.

Amy reaches out and touches the wall, brings up the feed of David sleeping in the lab. Syd's sitting with him now, holding his hand while Cary and Kerry sleep, and David's holding on like he'll die if he lets go. Syd looks tired, worried, determined.

Lenny looks at the feed and then turns away. Amy reaches out to turn off the feed, but then decides to leave it up.

"It's not fair, what happened to you," Amy says. "None of this is your fault. You were killed, and-- And you shouldn't have to bear any responsibility for what happened after that."

"No shit," Lenny says. She glances at the screen, then looks back at Amy, challenging, wary.

"Do you want to--" Amy begins.

"No," Lenny says. "I am done talking about anything. I did my time. You wanna use me as some kind of prop? Get in line."

Lenny's angry. Amy makes herself listen to her anger and not react to it. Of course Lenny's angry, she has every right to be angry. Farouk used her as a prop to hurt David and everyone else. She doesn't want to be used that way again, even if it's to save herself and the world.

The mainframe isn't built for privacy. They both heard what Syd said about the other timeline, they had no choice but to hear it. Farouk used them both as props, and if Ptonomy hadn't killed them, David would have had to choose. Syd thinks he would have chosen Amy.

She's right. He would have chosen her. He would have killed Lenny. He didn't, but he would have, if he had to choose.

Farouk wasn't even alive in that timeline, and he still found ways to hurt all of them so much. That timeline doesn't even exist anymore, that never happened and never will, and it's still hurting them.

"He should have chosen you," Amy says.

Lenny narrows her eyes.

"In the other timeline. David should have let you keep my body. He should have put me out of my misery and let you live."

"None of that happened," Lenny says, dismissive.

"No, but Ptonomy and Syd still killed you to save me," Amy says. "To save both of us, but-- They wouldn't have put you here if it wasn't for me. It's my fault they killed you, that David would have killed you. I'm sorry."

Lenny looks at David. "It's his fault," Lenny says. "The shit beetle."

"And it's mine," Amy says. "And it's David's and Ptonomy's and-- Farouk used all of us to do terrible things we didn't want to do. I thought I was doing the right thing by putting David into Clockworks. And it was and it wasn't and-- I know that in that timeline, David didn't want to make that choice. But he felt he had to. Whatever happened-- He couldn't let me suffer the way he suffered. He had to get me out, he had to try to save me. But it must have been too late to save me. I'm-- I'm not good at prisons. I can't-- If I had to go through any of what you have gone through, what David's gone through, I-- I wouldn't have survived. Not the way you and David survived."

She wouldn't have. She would have been--

"I helped end the world," Amy realizes, her throat tight. "David saved me and I made him end the world." She doesn't have any proof and she doesn't want any, but she knows it. She knows how much it hurts him to see her upset. She knows he can't bear it. He couldn't tell her any of the awful things that happened to him because he didn't want her to cry. He blames himself for so much. If all of those terrible things happened, if he killed Lenny to save her and then she was-- Broken and mad and--

It would have destroyed him. He would have been-- He would have lost control in his grief and pain, just like he did when Farouk killed her, but it would have been so much worse. He would have wanted to make everything go away, to dissociate the entire world from himself, and that's what he did.

"Shit," Lenny curses. "Don't cry all over me."

"Sorry," Amy sniffs. She tries to remember how to make a tissue box, the way Ptonomy showed her. She can't remember.

Lenny sighs and makes one for her and hands it over.

"Thank you," Amy says, and wipes her eyes, blows her nose.

"This is all so fucked up," Lenny says, frustrated. "I'm tired of being his doll. That's all we are to him. We're not real. We don't exist. If he doesn't need us, we're just-- Things in drawers he can take out and use and put away. He doesn't even care about David. He's obsessed with him but David's just another doll. I'm not gonna let him use me again."

"Then don't," Amy says. "Help us save David."

Lenny gives a bitter laugh. "That's what he wants us to do. David's right, what's the point? You think this time is different? I know that monster better than anyone and trust me, sister, this ain't different."

"It has to be," Amy insists. "If it's not-- Then what should we do? Let David kill himself, and kill ourselves too so Farouk can't torture us for the rest of our lives?"

"We're already dead."

"That didn't stop him before."

That makes Lenny go still. "Shit. Shit. Goddamn it." She kicks the wall and presses her palm against her forehead. "Fuck!"

"Yeah," Amy agrees.

Lenny kicks the wall again. She stands up and kicks it and kicks it. But it doesn't so much as scuff the virtual walls of the mainframe. Nothing in this place is real. They're not really in a room, they're not really alive. They're--

"We're dead," Amy says. She stands up and Lenny stops kicking the wall to look at her. "But we're real, we exist, we-- We're not going to let him use us to end the world. You're right, Farouk hasn't changed. He'll never change. But we can. And if we change, we're the ones who make this different."

"Don't ever pep talk me again," Lenny says, crossing her arms. But she's wavering. She just needs a little push, like she did with the blue octopus and the desert.

"Don't do this for David," Amy says, realizing the words as she says them. "Do this for yourself. Make sure you'll never be his doll again."

Lenny doesn't answer that. She still has her arms crossed defiantly. But-- Amy lived inside of her head, just for a while. She knows a little bit about how Lenny works that doesn't have anything to do with David. And she knows what it looks like when Lenny changes her mind. She's glad she can see it from the outside this time, instead of the inside.

Chapter Text

There’s someone holding David’s hand.

That’s the first thing he’s aware of as he surfaces from sleep. His hand aches, the muscles overtired, but he doesn’t want to let go.

The second thing he realizes is that the hand he’s holding isn’t human. He cracks opens his eyes. It’s the Vermillion.

“Ptonomy?” David asks, muzzy from sleep. How did he end up holding Ptonomy’s hand? The last thing he remembers— What’s the last thing he remembers?

“Morning, sleepyhead.” It’s not Ptonomy’s voice coming out of the Vermillion, it’s Amy’s.

“Amy?”

The memory work. King and— David’s eyes open wide. He almost went away. He— He didn’t. He touches his free hand to his chest, feeling his body. He’s still here. How did he—

It’s fuzzy, but— He remembers being touched, being— Held. Anchored. Kerry and Cary and— Syd. He remembers Syd looking at him, holding his hand.

He sits up, suddenly, and a wave of dizziness stills him. He looks over anyway and sees that Syd is sleeping in her cot beside him.

Oh, he feels— He need to lie down.

“Take it easy,” Amy soothes, helping him back down. “Everything’s okay. Just rest.”

David has a thousand arguments against that, but he doesn’t have the strength to voice them. He doesn’t need to voice them anyway, not when Amy can just hear his thoughts.

But Amy doesn’t react.

Amy?

“Oliver’s asleep,” Amy says, quietly, reacting not to his thoughts but to his confusion. “Everyone’s asleep. It’s just us early birds.”

Early birds. That’s what she would call them when he came into her room before her alarm and woke her up. Except— Did that happen? If Amy remembers it, it must have happened. Or some of it happened, somehow.

He feels very— Insubstantial. Despite the fact that he’s still in his body and present in it. He should think about the memory work and King and— But he doesn’t want to think about any of it, not right now. He’s not sure there’ll be anything left of him if he digs any deeper.

Amy can’t hear any of what he’s thinking, not until Oliver wakes up. He never thought he would miss that but he does. There’s so much that feels impossible to say aloud, especially to her. Saying it aloud makes it— Real. Not that his thoughts aren’t real, but—

Are his alters asleep? Do they need to sleep? If he’s three separate people all the time, they must need to sleep. Unless it’s only his body that needs to sleep? He knows they can be awake when he isn’t. Maybe it’s like astral projecting. He’s been outside of his body for days at a time and didn’t experience sleep. Did Oliver not sleep in his ice cube for twenty years? No wonder he lost his mind.

“We’re awake now, noisy,” says Divad, from over on the sofa. “We nap when we can. We don’t need much.”

Dvd yawns, still slumped over in one of the loveseats. “Can’t let down our guard,” he mutters, but he puts his head down and closes his eyes.

“Don’t worry about us, talk to Amy,” Divad says.

Amy. Right. He hasn’t said anything aloud for minutes and she’s waiting. What was she talking about? Oh right, early birds.

“Did we catch many worms?” David asks.

Amy gives an amused huff. “We did when Dad took us fishing. You remember that, right?”

He does. He remembers holding the rod, waiting and watching the water. He remembers Amy beside him. He remembers their father towering above them, the sun silhouetting his face. He thinks of Philly complaining that he didn't have any photos of his family.

"Amy, do you-- Are there any pictures of us? Family photos?"

"Of course," Amy says. "They're back at the house, but-- I'm sure Clark will get them for us. You used to have some, you took them with you to college. Did you--" She hesitates.

"I don't know," David admits. "Farouk must have-- He must have made me get rid of them, somehow." He waits for the alters to correct him or expand on what happened, but they don't. They didn't want to talk about what happened in college before, either. It's probably-- Bad. Very bad.

Probably best not to open that particular can of worms right now. Or ever.

"Well, once we get them back we'll look at them together," Amy says. "Maybe they'll help you remember the good things. There were a lot of good things, David. I promise."

"They weren't real," David says, though he shouldn't. He doesn't want to upset her, but-- He's already upset her. She's heard everything he's been thinking, so many awful things. But she's still here, holding his hand, trying to help.

"They were," Amy insists. "I remember. I have so many photos of you, of us. Of our family together, being happy. I'm sure there's a picture somewhere of us going fishing. You were always so proud when we caught a fish, even if it was too small to keep."

David remembers-- Holding a net. The way the fish would flap around in it, trying to get back to the water. He feels bad for them now. It feels cruel, pulling them out of everything they knew, confusing them and trapping them and--

He knows what Amy is doing. She's trying to help him reconnect with who he used to be, if that was who he used to be. But even the good memories are poisoned. Farouk only left them behind so he could use them against him, so he could manipulate him and trick him.

"I can't," he says. "I can't remember."

"Of course you can," Amy says.

"I can't," David insists. "They were-- They're a trick. I relied on them to survive but all that did was make me worse. I can't-- I can't rely on them if I want to get better." Philly was right. He doesn't have a past. The person he is now never had a past. He shouldn't look at the photos, he shouldn't try to salvage the unsalvageable. There are things he's lost that he's never getting back, and he's never getting back any of that. Trying to remember is just-- It's just erasing him. He has so little left and he loses another piece of himself every time he tries.

"Okay," Amy says, accepting. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to today. No memory work, no sessions. We're just going to spend the day together. Can we still do that?"

She asks it so-- He doesn't want to remember anything but-- She asks it like she always asked him, when he was upset. If it was okay to be with him, if she could-- If she could hug him. In the memories he can't trust and in the ones after college and now. She's his only constant, the only thing he knows is real through his entire life.

And she's-- He can't see her, he can't touch her. She's barely here at all, just like him. But they're both here and she's holding his hand. It's not her hand but she's still holding him with it. She's suffering just as much as he is and she's holding on for him.

He reaches for her and she doesn't need him to ask. She hugs him and he hugs her back. Her body is hard and artificial but-- It feels more like she's really inside it, the way she's holding him. The way she's always held him.

It doesn’t undo anything. It doesn’t change the fact that she hurt him or that she died because of him. But he needs her and he doesn’t want to be angry and— She know how he feels and— She still loves him, she’s still his sister, he still loves her.

He doesn’t want to lose her. There’s so little left of both of them. They can’t afford to lose each other and— The past doesn’t matter, whether it’s real or not, it doesn’t matter. They’re here now and he doesn’t want to lose her, not to Farouk and not to himself.

When he finally lets her go, he wipes his eyes and tries to smile for her. It’s wobbly but it’s a smile. The Vermillion smiles back, and it’s not natural but— He knows she’s trying. He knows she means it.

“How about we go get breakfast for everyone?” Amy suggests.

“Can we— Should we do that?” David asks, uncertain. It was one thing to be escorted to the garden. He’s not sure if he should— They probably shouldn’t trust him with any kind of responsibility, even if it’s just carrying some trays. They said he wasn’t a prisoner anymore, but— He still is, maybe not to his friends but to everyone else here. He’s not a prisoner of the lab but he’s a prisoner of Division 3. Clark made that clear. He doubts they want him roaming around.

“Ptonomy said it's fine," Amy assures him. "As long as one of us is with you, and I'm with you."

She is.

§

They are early birds, even for Division 3. David's grateful for that, that there aren't many people around to gawp at him. There are soldiers on patrol and a few scientists still bleary-eyed before their coffee fix, but none of them do more than give him a long, curious glance. And then of course there's the Vermillion. It's weird seeing the other Vermillion now. He knows they're just androids, just extensions of Admiral Fukuyama's mainframe mind, but-- It's hard not to see Ptonomy and Amy and-- And Lenny inside them.

He still hasn't talked to Lenny. She lost her body and he can't face her. She probably hates him for that. He deserves her hate. So many terrible things have happened to her because of him. She shouldn't have taken pity on him when he showed up in Clockworks. She died twice, she was tortured in-- He doesn't know how many ways. She was trapped in his head and then she was trapped in Oliver's head and-- He knows why she ran away, when he freed her. They saw that she would run away. He and his alters, they made the plan that way because they knew Lenny would want to get as far away from all of this as she could, and they knew she would get as far as the blue octopus. So they sent Cary and Kerry to her.

They should have let her go. He would have lost, but-- She would have been free and alive and-- And now she's trapped again and just as barely there as he is, as Amy is. That's what they all are: ghostly prisoners of one thing or another. Insubstantial.

And speaking of insubstantial, Divad and Dvd are enjoying walking through said soldiers and scientists and Vermillion. Everyone passes through them like they aren't there at all, because of course they aren't. The alters walk through the glass walls of the cafeteria ahead of them and walk through the tables.

"Stop it," David hisses under his breath.

In response to that, they walk into the curving counter and stand in the way of the lazy river. The little boats of food pass right through them.

"That's-- That's unsanitary," David whispers at them, and a man sitting in a corner table glances up at him.

"It can't be unsanitary if none of it is touching us," Divad points out.

Dvd crouches down through the counter and opens his mouth. A waffle boat passes through his head. "Mmm, delicious. We should get some waffles. Hey Amy, get us waffles.”

Amy can’t hear him. She walks up to the service window and speaks with the cafeteria staff. Then she walks back to David.

“It’ll just be a few minutes,” Amy tells him. “Let’s sit down.”

They sit at a table, Amy on one side and David on the other. Dvd sits next to David and David scoots over.

“Ah, could you?” David asks Amy, motioning for her to make room for Divad.

“Oh, of course.”

And then they’re all sitting together. “The Haller family,” David says aloud, feeling utterly ridiculous. His not-dead digital sister and his hallucinatory, imaginary identical brothers. And he’s not any better: an amnesiac, mentally-damaged torture victim who can’t remember two of them and is afraid to remember the other.

"I think it's nice," Amy says. "It would be nicer if Oliver was awake. I want us to be able to sit together and talk. We are family, David. With Mom and Dad gone, we're all we have left."

David picks up the salt shaker and stares at it. There's rice mixed in with the salt. He thinks it’s to keep it from clumping. "I know," he says.

He still feels terrible about missing Dad's funeral. Even if-- Especially if he had a better relationship with his father than he remembers. His adoptive father. He has no idea who his real father is, and-- He doesn't know if he wants to know.

Farouk knows who his father is. They fought on the astral plane and then Farouk looked for him, and instead of attacking him he took his revenge on his father's defenseless infant son. David's real father must have been too powerful for Farouk. He was too powerful for him. He defeated Farouk even though he had his body, and everyone said Farouk would be unstoppable once he had his body back.

Except he was stopped, once, by David's mysterious and powerful father. Not completely, he didn't finish what he started, but--

It probably doesn't matter. David can't even use his powers, and if Lenny hadn't been there to shoot the Choke, Farouk would have won in the desert. They saw that when they made the plan. Farouk's never been afraid of David's powers. He wasn't afraid when they met face-to-face for the first time, and he wasn't afraid when they fought in La Désolé. Even if David has more raw power, Farouk's been mastering his powers for centuries. David's never been able to stop Farouk, even in the life where he did know there was a monster inside of him, where he knew about his powers from the start and used them. He and his alters couldn't even kill a fake dog.

"We did kill it," Dvd insists. "King never came back."

"That was just another trick," David says, grumpily. Like how his entire childhood is just another trick. His entire life, really.

"What was?" Amy asks.

David finally looks up from the salt shaker. "It doesn't matter," he says, not wanting to talk about King or any of his memories and not-memories. "I'm sorry, I'm not very good company."

"We don't have to talk," Amy says. "I'm just happy we're together again. I missed you when you were gone. I missed you when you were in Clockworks. I-- You know, when you showed up at my house on Halloween-- Ben wanted to send you back right away. We knew they didn't actually let you out. But--"

David meets her eyes, the Vermillion's eyes.

"I promised Ben I'd call the hospital and tell them where you were, but only if-- Only if you were in danger of hurting yourself or anyone else. I thought maybe-- You'd been so much happier, that last year, calmer and-- I thought maybe we wouldn't have to bring you back."

David stares at her. "You wanted me to stay?" he asks, his voice small.

"Of course I did," Amy says. She reaches one of the Vermillion's hands across the table, and he takes it, hesitant. "I never wanted to send you away in the first place, I just-- I didn't know what else to do."

He looks down at their hands. "I heard your thoughts. You were afraid." He didn't know that they were really her thoughts, not then. He didn't trust the things he heard. He didn't know he was a mutant and a mind reader. He thought he was crazy. He's still crazy, just-- Not the same crazy.

"I was," Amy admits. "I wish Mom and Dad had trusted me. I wouldn't have told anyone. I would have protected you. Not knowing-- It was like living in a haunted house, sometimes. I didn't want to admit to myself that-- That things were wrong. We were already dealing with so much, with you and Mom both being sick."

"Mom was sick?" David asks. He doesn't remember that.

Amy goes still, and then her grip on his hand tightens. "David, Mom was-- Don't you remember anything about her?"

David looks to his alters. Divad and Dvd look back at him, and it's obvious from their faces that they don't want to have to be the ones to tell him any of this, whatever he's forgotten.

"Apparently not," David says. "Maybe you shouldn't. If it's-- Upsetting. Maybe you shouldn't tell me." Not that he feels any better knowing he's forgotten even more. He's not so much a five-hundred piece puzzle with only fifteen pieces as a box with three puzzle pieces and one of the pieces is from the wrong puzzle.

"Okay," Amy says. "We don't have to talk about Mom. You don't have to do anything you don't want to today."

David knows she wants to tell him. He doesn't have to be a mind reader or even see her face to know that. It hurts her to not tell him. But he can't-- He can't take anything else. He has to say no, even if it hurts her. If he wants to get better, he needs to stop hurting himself.

The bell rings at the service window. "That's us," Amy says. She slides through Divad before he has a chance to move out of the way.

She's upset. She wouldn't have done that to Divad if she wasn't upset, even though she can't see him or hear him. David should have just let her tell him and taken whatever suffering was coming for him. He'll have to find out the truth eventually. It's going to hurt no matter what. He's putting her through this for nothing.

"She said you don't have to," Divad reminds him. "It can wait. You need to take it easy, you're still not recovered from yesterday."

"You know what it is," David says, annoyed. "You both know. Just tell me so I can get it over with."

"We're here to protect you, not hurt you," Divad says. "No memory work today. That includes this."

David turns to Dvd. "You never agree with Divad. You don't like Ptonomy. You don’t even like Amy.”

Dvd makes a face. "They've got a point. You nearly went away."

"She's my mother," David insists. "Adoptive mother. I should know about her."

"You should know about us, too," Dvd says. "It hurts us that you don't, but we put up with it because we know you're not ready. Amy will be fine. If you keep trying to remember everything, you'll go away again and we do not want you to go away, you got it?"

"David?" Amy calls, from the window. "Can you come give me a hand?"

David glares at his alters, and then deliberately slides through Dvd. Dvd makes an affronted noise, but David ignores him and goes over to Amy.

"One tray for you and two for me," Amy says, cheerfully.

David knows her false cheer when he hears it, he's heard it enough over the years, whether the memories were real or not. But he also knows they're right, all of them. He can't take any more shocks right now, no matter how bad he feels about not knowing. He's insubstantial enough as it is. If he finds out anything more, the puzzle box will be completely empty and then what?

That doesn't bear thinking about either.

They carry the trays back and no one says anything. Divad and Dvd don't walk through anyone. David tries very hard not to feel like everyone's bad mood is his fault, but it's completely his fault. He really does find all kinds of new ways to ruin everything.

David follows Amy into the lab, eyes on the tray to make sure everything stays steady. And then he looks up and the tray slips from his nerveless fingers.

"Whoa there," Ptonomy says, catching the tray before it falls.

It's Ptonomy. Not Ptonomy in a Vermillion. It's actually Ptonomy in a dressy suit. David gawps at him, unable to speak.

Ptonomy puts the tray down on the table. He takes David's limp hand and pulls him into a chair. Ptonomy's hands are cold and hard, like the Vermillion's hands.

"The Admiral had this made for me," Ptonomy explains. "It came in early this morning."

David sees now that Ptonomy's skin, his eyes, his hair— They're his, but-- Artificial. Convincing but unnatural.

"I like to think of it as a custom suit," Ptonomy says, and smiles. It really looks like his smile. His voice still sounds filtered, but it's not musical anymore. "They're making ones for Amy and Lenny, too. They'll be ready soon. I prefer my mustache with a beard and I'm sure they'll be happier looking like themselves. Having three identical androids in the lab at once would be confusing."

"Three?" David echoes.

"Three," Ptonomy says. "Not yet. When you're ready. You don't have to do anything you don't want to today. But it's not fair for us to leave Lenny on her own, right?"

"No," David agrees, faintly. He can't stop staring at Ptonomy. It's really like he's alive again. He’s not, but-- It really feels like he is.

Amy sits down in the chair in front of him. "I'll have mine soon," she says, and now her happiness is real. "You'll be able to see me."

He'll be able to see her. Not her her, but-- It'll be like she's alive again, like Ptonomy is alive.

He reaches for her and she doesn't need him to ask. She hugs him and he hugs her back. This body isn't hers and the new one won't be either, but-- It will feel like she's really inside it. She'll be alive and she'll hold him in her arms, her arms, the way she's always held him.

Chapter Text

Ptonomy’s alive and everyone is so happy to see him. Cary and Kerry hug him warmly, and even Syd makes an effort, though hugging clearly doesn’t come naturally to her.

They know he’s not really alive, that his new body isn’t a living body. But the illusion is convincing and they want to be convinced. They want to have Ptonomy back the way they used to have him. Ptonomy wants it, too. Amy knows all of this has been so much harder for him than he’s let on. So she’s happy for all of them.

They’re all happy to see her, too, even though the Vermillion’s appearance keeps them at a distance. Amy understands. It’s very strange for her. All of this is far beyond the life she knew but she’s trying to adapt. Not just for David, but for herself.

She lost her life, she lost Ben. Her old existence is as dead as her old body. But now she can be with them: David’s friends, her friends. She was only just starting to get to know them when David was taken, and then she lost touch with everyone but Syd during her year in witness protection. It’ll be easier once she gets her own custom android body and looks like herself again, but for now she can be with them and talk to them, and that’s more than she’s been able to do: exiled from the lab by David’s treatment, unable to do anything but watch.

“So you’re staying with us now?” Cary asks.

“We are,” Amy says, gladly. “We’re still in mainframe, of course, but— Ptonomy said it would be better for all of us to be together as much as possible.”

“Absolutely,” Cary agrees. “And you’ve been through so much. I’m so sorry about all of it. Losing Ben and— Everything you’ve suffered.” He reaches out and takes her hand, gives it a comforting squeeze. “‘I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you.”

Amy glances at David, but he’s distracted, eating his breakfast and staring at Ptonomy like he’ll vanish if David looks away for too long.

“You did the best you could,” Amy says, forgiving them. If she could go back, she would have insisted on staying with them. She wouldn’t have tried to go back to her old, normal life, even as she was forced to give up her home and her job and her friends and move far away to the desert. The monster could have got to her no matter where they put her. If she’d stayed, she could have helped somehow. She wouldn’t have been alone.

Ben wouldn’t have liked it. He didn’t want anything to do with David’s strange new mutant friends. But Ben is gone. He’s never coming back. He didn’t have his soul ripped from his body and then shoved back inside it too deep to be found. He’s just dust that’s been blown away.

Grief catches her unprepared. In the mainframe, her face crumples, but the Vermillion remains impassive. She can’t hide her tight, pained gasp, and David turns to her.

“Amy?” he asks, immediately concerned.

“I’m okay,” Amy assures him. She doesn’t want to give him anything else to be upset about. He isn’t even well enough to hear about their mother.

God, she can’t believe Farouk made him forget their mother. Amy is horrified that she didn’t realize it sooner. David changed when he was at college, he got so much worse, but they didn’t talk about Mom. They stopped talking about Mom after she died.

Amy’s starting to realize that there were a lot of things their family didn’t talk about.

David looks at her, searching the Vermillion’s face for all the ways Amy’s face used to give her feelings away. But he doesn’t find them. She doesn’t know how to put them there and she doesn’t want him to see them. His fear of her pain has stopped him from telling her so much. It’s better for him if he doesn’t see it.

He’s so— It breaks her heart, seeing him suffering. Even without hearing his thoughts. He’s— Haggard, from everything he’s been through, everything they’re putting him through. It’s taken so much from him. He’s trying to hide how terrified he is, but he can’t. David’s never been able to hide his feelings. He might have kept the reasons for his feelings secret, but he couldn’t hide the feelings themselves. They’ve always been undeniable, no matter how much they all wanted to deny them.

Amy smiles for him and the worry eases from his eyes. It doesn’t go away; he won’t stop worrying about her until she’s back in a living body and safe from the monster. But none of that is going to happen right now. He smiles back as much as he can.

Her Davey. Her sweet little brother. They have to save him, the way they should have saved him.

Amy suddenly feels someone staring at her. It’s Kerry. Amy never really had a chance to talk to Kerry before. Amy was just a puppet Farouk controlled in the fake Clockworks, and then when they were freed, Kerry was standoffish, in the middle of some kind of fight with Cary. And then David was gone and the monster was free and Amy had to leave.

Amy knows a little about Cary and Kerry. She knows they’re— Twins, somehow. That they share a body and that Cary was on the outside until Farouk changed them. Ptonomy caught her up on that and she’s seen Kerry talking to David, bonding with him. They’ve been good for each other. Amy’s grateful that Kerry helped David when no one else could.

None of that explains why Kerry is staring at her now, in a strange, silent mix of curious and hostile.

“Kerry, is something wrong?” Amy asks her. She has plenty of experience with strange, difficult people. Sometimes the best way to help them is to get them talking. She wishes she’d got David to talk more. Maybe if she had—

“No,” Kerry says, like an accusation. She looks at David, then stares at Amy again.

Cary turns to Kerry, concerned. “Kerry, don’t be rude. Amy’s David’s sister and our friend.”

“I know,” Kerry says, defensive.

“Kerry?” David asks, worrying about her now.

Kerry settles, smiling for him. “I’m okay. It’s just, um— The lab’s kinda full. I’m not— Used to so many people.”

David looks around the table and so does Amy. Oliver’s asleep — not that Kerry could hear the alters anyway — and the only new person at the table is Amy.

David looks to Amy, realizing the same thing. He’s confused. He has no idea why Amy’s presence should upset Kerry.

Amy looks at Cary, and she sees him realizing the answer as she realizes it herself.

“Kerry, why don’t you go take a break?” Cary suggests. When she hesitates, he says: “David will be fine.”

“I know that,” Kerry huffs. But she looks at David again, and it’s obvious that she doesn’t know that. She shows her feelings as guilelessly as David, and she’s very worried about him because David is extremely far from fine.

Kerry looks to Cary and he gives her an encouraging smile. “If you need a break, you can go. It’s okay. We’re all here with him.”

Kerry looks up at the loft where the exercise equipment is. She looks at the door to the hallway. She looks at Amy and David. “I’m gonna stay,” she decides, crossing her arms.

“Okay,” Cary agrees. He puts down his fork and gives an exaggerated stretch. “I could use a walk after that breakfast. Amy, now that you’re not stuck in the mainframe, how about we stretch our legs?”

Amy is still very much stuck in the mainframe, but she plays along. “That sounds lovely. You can show me around.”

“All the glorious sights of Division 3,” Cary jokes, warmly. “We won’t be gone long,” he assures Kerry.

Kerry shrugs. “I’ll keep everyone here safe,” she assures them, but she’s looking at David as she says it.

Amy gives David a reassuring touch to his shoulder, then follows Cary out of the lab. They walk until the lab door is out of sight, then he stops her.

“I’m sorry about that,” Cary says. “Kerry’s— She’s not used to having to share.”

“David means a lot to her,” Amy says. “He has that effect on people.”

“That he does,” Cary admits. “He means a lot to all of us. But that’s no excuse for her being jealous of your presence. She of all people should understand the importance of sibling relationships.”

“Maybe that’s the problem,” Amy offers. “From what I understand, you were all she had. If she’s treating David like he’s you—“ She thinks about how hard it was to let David leave for college. How hard it was to let him walk into Clockworks, even though it was the only way she had to save his life.

“She’s been— Dealing with a great number of difficulties,” Cary says. “Our physical ages are— Circumstances mean our time together is limited. Perhaps she’s— Attaching herself to David to prepare herself for my absence.”

“I’m sorry,” Amy says, because that’s all she can think to say.

“Oh, I’m healthy as an ox,” Cary assures her. “And according to the Admiral, I’m still alive decades from now, so really there’s no cause for concern. But Kerry will be alive for many decades more, god willing. She doesn’t want to face them alone. David is— He’s the first friend she’s ever made. The first she’s made for herself and not simply because— Because that person was my friend first.”

“And she doesn’t know how to share,” Amy echoes. “She’ll have to learn. David needs both of us. And David— She has nothing to worry about. He’s not going to ignore her just because I’m here.”

“I think she knows that,” Cary says. “She used to be very jealous about me, but she learned that I would always be here for her. She could always go inside me. With David— She doesn’t have that connection, that certainty. She doesn’t even have it with me anymore. She’s trying to embrace being outside, but— It’s a difficult time for her.”

“Is there any way I can help?” Amy asks. "I don't mind. I can't just-- Sit around waiting for David to need me." She's doing much more than that in the mainframe, but Cary can't know about any of that.

"Possibly," Cary says, thinking. "Kerry's never really had a-- Female influence in her life. Our mother was-- Kerry didn't come out when she was around. Melanie helped, but-- She was our therapist as well as our friend. That made things--"

Amy gives an agreeing hum. "David's had a lot of therapists. Some of them were better than others, but--"

"Melanie cared a great deal for Kerry," Cary assures her. "She was the first person Kerry trusted enough to come out for. Melanie changed our lives. But she wasn't Kerry's friend. Perhaps-- If you're willing--"

"I'd love to be Kerry's friend," Amy says, warmly. "If she'll have me. I'd like to get to know everyone better now that I have the chance. When I first met everyone, things were so crazy, and-- I'm afraid I wasn't ready."

Cary's expression shutters. "Because we're mutants?"

Amy hesitates. "I-- I didn't even know what a mutant was until David told me. I don't-- I suppose it wasn't what you were so much as-- What you weren't. I just wanted-- Things had been so difficult for so long. I just wanted things to be calm and normal and-- I knew I wouldn't be able to have that if I stayed." She gives a bitter laugh. "Not that I had it anyway. I just-- Fooled myself into thinking I did. And Ben--"

God, Ben. He's dead, he's really dead. She starts crying. She doesn't want to but she can't help it.

"Oh, Amy," Cary says, and opens his arms for her. Even though she just said he wasn't normal, that she didn't want to be part of his world, he opens his arms for her.

David was right. He is the best hugger. Even through the Vermillion she can feel that.

"I'm sorry," Amy says, not wanting to add to his troubles.

"No, don't apologize," Cary says. "I'm sure you don't want to talk to David about what you've been through. He probably couldn't handle it if you did. But I'd like to be your friend, too. We all would. And you can always talk to your friends."

"I'd like that," Amy says, wiping her eyes in the mainframe. "I'm sorry I said you aren't normal."

"Oh, we're nowhere near normal," Cary says, wholeheartedly. "But I think that's a very good thing. It's difficult, sometimes, but-- Being different can make us stronger, if we let it. And no one is really normal. We just happen to be a little less average than the average."

"You should tell David that," Amy says. "He-- I tried to encourage him to-- To not be afraid to want things. I think he tried, but-- He was so convinced that he didn't deserve to have anything good in his life because he was sick. That it somehow made him-- Undeserving of love or kindness or-- Anything."

"Did he always feel that way?" Cary asks.

Amy thinks back. "I don't know when it started. David was always unhappy, but-- I don't know when he started to believe that. I wish we knew what happened to David in college. We need to talk to Divad and Dvd, but-- They're very protective of him. And now they're guarding their thoughts."

"I'm sure Divad will tell us," Cary says. "From the little I've heard from him, he understands how important David's treatment is. You can talk to the alters directly from the mainframe, without David knowing, right?"

"When Oliver's awake," Amy says. "Dvd hasn't wanted to talk to us at all, but Divad has kept us updated on David's progress and given us guidance. I don't think either of them wants to talk about what Farouk actually put them through."

"That's understandable," Cary says. "But their trauma is David's trauma. They're going to have to open up eventually."

"I don't envy Ptonomy that job," Amy says. "It's hard enough helping David with all of our help. The alters are-- They really are trapped in David's head."

"Once David has access to his powers again, that could change," Cary says. "But that's not an option as long as David is still suicidal. He's better, but-- He's far too delicate."

"He is," Amy agrees. She knows exactly how easy it is for David to backslide. Without the crown, he could kill himself with one bad thought, and none of them would be able to do anything to stop him, even the alters. "Maybe--"

"Yes?" Cary prompts, when she doesn't continue.

"Oliver put a telepathic antenna in Syd's head so she could hear Divad and Dvd during her session," Amy says. "It was only meant to be temporary, but-- You and Kerry are now the only people who are physically unable to receive David's relay. If the two of you are willing to let Oliver help--"

Cary considers this. "I certainly trust Oliver, and so does Kerry, even if Oliver barely remembers us. I think the bigger problem is David. I understand that we won't be able to hear the alters without also hearing David's thoughts?"

"Oliver said that the alters' voices are David's thoughts," Amy explains. "They're thoughts he thinks his other identities are saying aloud, as well as thoughts he thinks they're thinking. So there isn't really any way to separate them."

"David's upset enough about having his thoughts relayed into the mainframe," Cary says. "And he understands that's necessary for Ptonomy to help him. I can't see him agreeing to letting me and Kerry and Syd hear his thoughts all the time, even if it means we can hear Divad and Dvd."

"Maybe Syd could help convince him?" Amy asks. "David did think about wanting her to hear his thoughts."

"Maybe," Cary says. "But that could be dangerous for both of them. Syd's-- She's afraid of what she's capable of. She's only just starting therapy."

"Let me ask Ptonomy." Amy closes the Vermillion's eyes and reaches out in the mainframe to tap Ptonomy's arm.

"Ptonomy?" Amy calls. When he looks at her, she continues. "What do you think?"

Ptonomy pauses, reviewing her conversation with Cary. "I think having everyone able to hear Divad and Dvd would help David accept them. But he's going to resist having his privacy violated further."

"What about Syd?"

Ptonomy considers. "Let's wait until after Syd's session today. She won't let me hear her thoughts, and I need to figure out if her hearing David's thoughts would help or hurt. I could have Oliver relay her thoughts to me anyway, but-- I don't think Oliver would want to go against her wishes and it would probably backfire. Farouk could use any deception like that against us."

"Right," Amy agrees. "We did tell David he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to today."

"We did," Ptonomy agrees. "And we don't want to violate David's trust either. That's happened enough to him already. But-- It's a good idea and I think it's necessary. Look for a way to make the trade-off acceptable to David."

"I will," Amy says, and she returns her attention to the Vermillion and opens its eyes. "Ptonomy says we need to give them both time. David isn't ready yet and Syd probably isn't either."

"Of course," Cary says. "I suppose Divad and Dvd will have to wait. Ptonomy really does have his hands full. Do you think we should bring in someone else? We did have other specialized therapists in Summerland, we could reach out to them. He doesn't have to do all of this on his own."

"I don't think we can ask them to put their lives at risk," Amy says. "Ptonomy has help. He has us. He's confident that's enough, as long as we all keep helping each other."

"He is in charge of David's therapy," Cary says. "And David is getting better. It feels slow but the work he's already accomplished is enormous. It reminds me of the way Melanie and Oliver used to work together. They were a powerful team, using telepathy and psychotherapy to help people work through all kinds of trauma and mental illnesses. After he was lost to us, Melanie was always looking for someone else with Oliver's abilities. Not just to help search for Oliver, but to help her continue their work. Ptonomy worked with her the longest out of all of them. Memory walking wasn't quite the same as mind reading, but it was also incredibly effective. I'm not sure we'll ever find anyone with that mutation again. I think-- David is so powerful. Melanie wanted him to help stop Division 3 and find Oliver, but she also hoped he would be able to become part of the team at Summerland."

"Do you think he'd be able to?" Amy asks. David is so fragile. She can't imagine him being able to tolerate other people's trauma on a regular basis. He can't even tolerate his own trauma.

"There is no more Summerland," Cary says, sadly. "But-- Maybe one day. Maybe there'll be a place for us again, and maybe David will be well enough to help others."

Amy thinks of the lab and all the work being done there. "I think Summerland is wherever you are," she says, smiling for him. "You and Ptonomy and Kerry and Oliver. I didn’t know Melanie well, but-- I think she would be proud of what you're doing here."

Cary looks positively touched. "What we're doing here," he corrects. "You're a part of our team now, right?"

"I guess I am," Amy says. "Maybe there'll be a place for me in that dream of yours, when this is all over."

"It's not my dream," Cary insists. "It's Oliver's."

"Oliver barely remembers who he is, much less what he wanted decades ago," Amy says. She doesn't know Oliver well but she knows that much. "Maybe it was his at the beginning, but-- You made it yours. So did Melanie, she must have."

Cary's the one with tears in his eyes now. "I hope she did. She was-- She was a lot like Syd. She took care of herself so no one else had to. Or could. That's how we-- We missed it. When he took her."

Amy holds out the Vermillion's arms and hugs Cary. She might not be able to hug the way she wants to in this body, but David didn't mind and Cary doesn't seem to either.

"See?" Amy says, in the same gentle tone she uses with David when he's upset. "We're helping each other. Just like Ptonomy said."

"So we are," Cary says. He pushes up his glasses and wipes his eyes. "Thank you. It's been-- It's been a difficult time for me as well. Kerry helps me, of course. We've always helped each other, but--"

"You're the oldest," Amy says, understanding.

"We're the same age," Cary insists.

"You're still the oldest," Amy says. "Mom was always sick and Dad worked long hours. I had to be the one to take care of David, even when-- Even when he got taller than me. Even now. That's just how it is."

"I suppose that's how it's been for Kerry and I as well," Cary says. "Our parents were-- Unavailable. And Kerry-- She's very strong and brave, she protects me now, but--" He gives a wry smile. "I'm the oldest."

"Little brothers and sisters," Amy sighs. "They're just so much trouble all the time."

Cary chuckles. "That they are. You help me with mine and I'll help you with yours?"

"It's a deal," Amy says.

Chapter Text

Kerry doesn't need a break. She doesn't need to go for a walk, she doesn't need to leave the lab.

"I need to stay here with David," she insists.

"Kerry," Cary sighs. "David will be fine."

Kerry ignores him and keeps staring at David. David's not fine, she can see that, anyone could see that if they just look at him. He had to force himself to eat his breakfast, and Kerry knows when people are forcing themselves to eat. He slept all night but he looks like he didn't sleep at all. He hasn't even noticed her staring at him. He stares at Ptonomy and he stares at the Vermillion with Amy in it, and when he's not doing that he just-- Stares at nothing. Like he's not even there, like the Vermillion when no one's inside it.

They're supposed to be making him better, but he's worse. She knows he's worse. She's been watching him very carefully all week to make sure he doesn't hurt himself, and sometimes he's better but mostly he's worse. She blames the memory work and Amy's part of the memory work. Kerry doesn't like that Amy's going to be around all the time now. Even though she's David's sister and hugging her helps David feel better-- She makes David cry, too. It's been hard enough keeping David alive without someone new coming in and messing things up.

When Kerry helps David, he gets better. She understands him and he listens to her, even if he isn't very good at listening. She holds his hand and hugs him and it doesn't make him upset to do those things the way it does with Syd and Amy. He doesn't have to make himself touch her the way he has to make himself touch them, the way he forced himself to eat. Kerry is nutritious. They're-- They're waffles. David thinks he needs them but they're making him worse.

But they're the ones who are staying in the lab with David and everyone else is supposed to leave.

"Kerry," Cary says, switching from pleading to firm. "We all need to take some time for ourselves. We have to take care of ourselves or we won't be able to take care of David."

Kerry finally looks at Cary. "Is this part of the body stuff?" she asks, suspicious.

"It is," Cary says. "Before, I could rest for you. Now you have to do it."

Kerry sighs. It's been weeks since they were changed and all this body stuff just keeps getting more complicated. But-- She does feel-- Tired. Like-- When she trains too much and her muscles hurt, but-- It's her whole body that's strained. Tense.

“We’ll be back soon,” Cary assures David. “We’re just going to take care of a few things. Syd and Amy will be with you, and if anything happens Ptonomy will know right away.”

Cary's right, as usual. He's always right about body stuff, no matter how much she wishes he wasn't. She stands up, but before they leave she goes to David and hugs him. He startles out of his daze and hugs her back, tentative and then accepting. It's a good, nutritious hug, and she hopes it will be enough to keep him going until she gets back. Cary gives David a hug, too. At least he understands that David needs them, even if they have to leave.

She follows Cary out of the lab and up to their room. She doesn't see what the point of coming here was. She's come back to their room plenty of times this week. She leaves the lab for stuff all the time. She should go back, but--

Cary finishes puttering around their room and gathers up the laundry. He hands her one of the laundry baskets and takes the other. "We'll get these started and then we'll go outside with Ptonomy. Apparently his new body is quite advanced. He says it feels just like the real thing."

"Does that mean he has to eat?" Kerry asks, as they walk into the hall, because that's the first thing she thinks of when it comes to bodies now.

"Well, no," Cary admits. "It's still an android after all. But it's-- aesthetically accurate, in the sense of appearance as well as sense perception. He can feel touch, smell things, see and hear the way he would with his own body."

"He didn't feel anything before?" Kerry hits the button for the elevator. The laundry room is on the fourth floor.

"The Vermillion were never meant to house a human consciousness. They're an interface to gather and convey data and sensor information, to allow the Admiral to interact with the world, but-- Indirectly, autonomously, from dozens of points at once. These new bodies that Ptonomy has and that Amy and Lenny will have, they're designed to embody a single human mind, for their minds specifically. It's the best way they have to be alive in the world again. Ptonomy wants to be in the world, now that he can be. Just like you do."

The elevator arrives. She pushes the button for the fourth floor, then waits as the elevator brings them there. They walk to the laundry room and Cary gives her the detergent to put into the machines. She used to only have a few outfits but now she has more, because she has to change what she's wearing every day. Cary got her more of the ones she already had, but David always wears something different. So does Cary. So does everyone, really. She never really paid attention to that before.

Ptonomy's new body has a suit. Ptonomy's always worn a lot of fancy clothes, all of them really different. She did notice that, it was impossible not to notice that. Maybe Ptonomy can help her figure out what to wear. She hasn't really talked to Ptonomy much. It would probably be weird to ask him, and he's really busy helping David, but--

"Kerry?" Cary asks. "What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing," Kerry says. She takes the laundry basket from him and fills up the machine. "Clothes, I guess." She hesitates. "People wear a lot of them."

"We do," Cary says. He closes a machine and starts the program. Water rushes into the machine and fills it up. "Would you like to go to a clothing store when we go outside? I'm sure Ptonomy would enjoy that."

Kerry shrugs. "I guess." If she has to do all of this body stuff, at least this way she can get a lot of it done at once.

§

Ptonomy stands on the sidewalk and feels the sun on his skin. He listens to the sounds of passing cars, of people walking and talking. There are pigeons pecking at the cracks in the sidewalk, looking for crumbs of dropped food. He never really appreciated pigeons until this very moment. He thought of them as rats with wings, but they're actually beautiful, their feathers iridescent like butterflies.

And he's not even going to remember it, not the way he used to. His perfect memory died along with his body. A few weeks ago, he was trapped in a maze where he dreamed of eternal forgetfulness. He didn't actually remember it, but he looked at Cary's memory of it and remembers it through that. In Cary's memory, he looks perfectly at peace.

The reality is-- Disconcerting. He's able to use the mainframe's memory to record the memories he doesn't want to lose, but he has to make the effort. He has to remember to remember, where before it took no effort at all to remember everything.

His new memory isn't bad, it's normal. It's what everyone else has. For all his pride in his powers, for all their usefulness, there was always a part of him that wanted them gone, that sought relief. That's why the monk's virus made him forget everything but the singular moment of now. But it took dying to make Ptonomy appreciate his now, to see it as more than an illusion. Now wasn't real, it was the way his brain masked the millionths of a second it took to process what he was seeing into information his body could react to. Now was just the way he got the past into his memories with his powers, and he lived in that past.

His new brain is a lot different from his old one. He's still in the mainframe, but he's here, too, standing on the sidewalk, feeling the sun on his skin. That's an illusion, too. Life is an illusion, as far as he can tell, being neither dead nor alive but still experiencing life. If he ever does get back into an organic body, he wonders if it will even fit him anymore, all that flesh and blood and bone.

He closes his eyes. From inside the mainframe, he looks at the video feed of the lab. Syd is making tea. Amy's trying to engage David in conversation, but David can't muster much of a response. Amy was right, David's still working hard just to stay present. The mental and emotional strain that compels him to go away must be enormous, and staying means he can't hide until it passes. They might not be saving any time by keeping him with them, but more dissociation isn't what David needs. Even if he isn't up to much interaction, just being with Amy and Syd will be good for him and help him feel comfortable with them again. Their relationships with him are vital, and healing them is vital to his recovery.

"Ptonomy!"

Ptonomy opens his eyes to see Cary and Kerry approaching. He smiles, enjoying the experience of smiling, and walks forward to meet them.

"It's a lovely day," Ptonomy says.

Cary squints at the sky. "It's quite sunny. Did you have anything particular in mind for our morning?"

"Not really," Ptonomy admits. Despite what he said to David about being part of the world from anywhere, Ptonomy really needed to get out of Division 3. Now that he has a body, he needed some part of himself to be physically outside, even if his mind is still as trapped as ever. He hopes that the lunch they have planned for later will help David in the same way. An afternoon in the garden with his friends should be very beneficial. Hopefully it will be beneficial enough for David's therapy to resume tomorrow. They still have a long way to go.

"Perhaps we could go shopping," Cary suggests. "Kerry would like some new clothes."

"Is that right?" Ptonomy asks.

Kerry shrugs. "It's body stuff," she says, like that explains everything. Then she meets his eyes, uncertain yet assertive. "You're the clothes guy. Or-- Are you still the clothes guy?"

"I am," Ptonomy says, glad that he can say that. The first thing he did when he got his new body was go back to his room and try on half his wardrobe trying to find the right outfit to celebrate in. Today is definitely a day for celebration. He chose something bright and colorful, a contrast to the mourning black of the mainframe. "Do you have something in mind?"

Kerry shrugs again. "Cary always got me new clothes for my birthday. That was fine, but--" She trails off, uncomfortable.

"It's not enough anymore," Ptonomy says, understanding. "Choosing what you like, figuring out how you want to present yourself, that's a lot."

Kerry frowns. "Present myself?"

"Fashion's about a lot of things," Ptonomy explains, feeling very much in his element. "There's comfort, wearing what feels good on your body. There's your personal style and how that represents who you feel you are. There's trends, which can be good or bad."

"I just need to be able to kick ass," Kerry says.

"Then that's part of your style," Ptonomy says. "I like my suits tight, but not so tight I can't run. We like chasing people, right?"

Kerry can't resist smiling at that. "We like catching people."

"Then how about we chase some fashion?" Ptonomy says. "Don't worry about catching anything yet. Just see what you like. See what draws your eye."

Kerry looks to Cary, then some tension in her relaxes and she looks resolved.

§

There's way too many clothes in this store.

Kerry thought there would be, like, a couple dozen outfits she could choose from. Like her closet except bigger. But this is a whole building full of clothes, and they're all awful and ugly and they don't even fit right. What if this means she'll never be able to find her style? What if she has to wear the same clothes forever?

"I came as fast as I could." That's Amy's voice coming through the bathroom door. What's she doing here?

"You're supposed to be with David," Kerry says, angrily, even though she didn't want Amy to be with David in the first place.

"David's taking a nap," Ptonomy's voice assures her. "Syd's with him, she'll make sure he's all right."

Kerry very much doubts that. She knew she should have stayed in the lab. She knew this whole fashion thing was a bad idea. Everything is a bad idea.

Her life used to be so simple. She stayed inside of Cary except when she didn't. She went outside of him for training and fighting so she could save mutants who needed help, so she could protect them like she protected Cary, but otherwise she stayed inside. If she was tired, if she got hurt, if anything else was wrong at all, she went inside of Cary and he took care of everything. He's the one who ate and slept and went on errands and picked out clothes and taught her things and took her wounds away and healed them. And now it's like-- It's like he's already dead, even though he's standing on the other side of the locked bathroom door worrying about her. It's like Farouk killed him when he changed them because he was so much of her and now she has to be herself without him.

She doesn't know who she is without him. She's been trying so hard to figure it all out, to be brave and independent and eat things and choose things and understand things, but the world is too much for her. It's too confusing and there's too many choices and it's like the cafeteria except a billion times worse and even the guides are confusing.

She just wants to go back inside him. It's not fair that she can't go back inside him. She thought she could be more than just a passenger, but she can't. It's too much.

She hears them talking on the other side of the door, and then someone puts a key into the lock. Kerry grabs the handle and holds the door firmly shut.

"Kerry," Cary sighs. "Please open the door."

"Go away!" Kerry shouts. She doesn't want Cary to go away, she wants to be inside him, but she can't be inside him ever again and seeing him just reminds her of that. So she doesn't want to see him, she doesn't want to see Ptonomy, she doesn't want to see the Vermillion and she certainly doesn't want to talk to Amy.

"She won't listen to me," Cary says to someone. "We picked out some clothes, she tried them on, and-- She got very upset. She wouldn't say why. I think she's just-- Overwhelmed, by all of this."

"I'll see what I can do," Amy says. "I think you and Ptonomy should go. Let me talk to her alone."

"I don't know," Cary says, sounding unconvinced.

"If she's overwhelmed, she needs some space," Amy says. "That's how it was for David. Just give her some space, okay?"

Cary sighs. "We'll be-- There's some chairs by the changing room."

Kerry listens. She hears the sound of Cary and Ptonomy walking away. Then she hears the key being pulled out of the lock. She tenses but the handle doesn't turn.

"You can lock it now," Amy says.

Kerry locks it. She sits back against the door, determined to keep everyone out. She hears movement through the door, and it sounds like Amy is sitting down on the other side.

"Hey," Amy says, her voice at Kerry's level. "No one's going to come in, okay? I won't let them. I've got the key so no one will try to come in."

Kerry doesn't respond to that. It's stupid. It's not like Amy is strong enough to stop anyone from getting in, even in a Vermillion. She's not a mutant, she's not even alive. She can barely move around. And so what if she has the key? Not having a key never stopped anyone. Kerry saw an axe in the wall with the fire extinguisher outside the bathroom. Someone could grab the axe and break the door down. She should have grabbed the axe before she locked herself into the bathroom. And the fire extinguisher. Anything that heavy makes a great weapon.

"Cary said you were trying to find something new to wear," Amy says. "Did you see anything you liked?"

"No," Kerry insists. "It's all ugly and stupid."

Amy chuckles. "Clothes shopping can feel that way sometimes. It's hard to find what we like. It's even harder to find something we like that fits us."

Kerry's clothes always fit perfectly. The ones Cary gets her does, anyway. They fit perfectly and she can run and fight in them and she looks badass in them. But none of these clothes are like that. They're not meant for her and that makes her feel--

It makes her feel like running away and locking herself in a bathroom.

"David didn't like clothes shopping either," Amy says.

"David has lots of clothes," Kerry insists. He wears different things all the time and he enjoys it. Of course he likes buying clothes.

"He does now, but not when he was young," Amy says. "He had a lot of trouble going anywhere when he was young. Places like this, with a lot of people and-- They were very hard for him. He locked himself in bathrooms, too."

"No he didn't," Kerry insists. There's no way David ever locked himself in a bathroom over clothes. He wants to kill himself all the time but not because he's scared of clothes. He loves those fashion magazines. He likes all that stuff, just like Ptonomy does, even if David's clothes aren't nearly as nice as Ptonomy's.

"He really did," Amy says. "David was-- He was so scared all the time. And I didn't know why. I didn't--" She stops talking, and then it sounds like she's crying. "I'm sorry," she says, but she keeps crying, soft and tight sobs that remind Kerry of how Cary would cry when he was young and afraid but didn't want anyone to hear him. When he was the physical age that Kerry is now, when they were forced to stay in the hospital and take all those drugs. Kerry hid for a lot of those years, and here she is, hiding again.

She's hiding again. Cary's probably sad, too, even though he doesn't cry much anymore.

If David was scared when he was young-- They know why David was scared and it wasn't clothes. Amy didn't know then. She should have known, she was his sister. She should have known what was wrong with him.

But even though they were brother and sister-- They didn't share a body. David couldn't hide inside of Amy, he was the one with other people hiding inside of him. So he had to be strong for them the way Cary had to be strong for her, even when he was afraid. And now Kerry's the outside one and she has to be strong for Cary. But instead she's the one who's upsetting him, like David upset Amy.

It's very-- Complicated. All this hiding and helping and who's supposed to help who. It's not simple the way it used to be. For a long time, she didn't even protect Cary. She just hid and let him do everything for her. That was just how they worked. But they don't work that way anymore and-- Now she has to do all these things for herself and go places and talk to other people. She has to help David and let other people help him. And now Amy is trying to help her but instead she's crying on the other side of the door. Amy's not even somewhere safe. It's bad enough crying, it's worse to cry where other people can see you.

"Amy," Kerry says, uncertain. "Do you-- Want to come in? You can cry in here if you want."

Amy cries a bit more. "Okay," she says.

Kerry stands up and opens the door. The Vermillion isn't crying, it doesn't make tears, but Amy sounds like she's crying. The Vermillion gets up from the floor and comes inside. Kerry closes the door and locks it. She watches the Vermillion not crying. It's almost like-- The Vermillion is like Cary, and Amy is like Kerry. The way they were. One person inside of another, even if the Vermillion isn't actually a person.

"It wasn't your fault," Kerry decides. "Not knowing about David. I didn't tell Cary a lot of things, but-- I knew he wanted to protect me. I knew he loved me."

"Of course you did," Amy says, tearfully.

"But Cary was already--" Kerry feels upset again and she doesn't want to cry anymore. But she has all these feelings that need to come out of her. Like she needed to come out of Cary. Like Divad and Dvd need to come out of David. None of them can hide anymore. "He says-- I was always there for him. But that's a lie. I let him-- I hid and-- Bad things happened to him because I didn't want them to happen to me."

"Oh Kerry," Amy says, kindly. "You were afraid. You must have been so young."

"I would have been older," Kerry admits. "If I'd come out with him from the start, we'd be the same age. We are, but-- We're not. Because I hid. So it's not-- It's not your fault, about David. It's not Cary's fault about me. So neither of you should cry."

The Vermillion awkwardly smiles. "It's okay for all of us to cry," Amy says. "When things are scary and sad, even when we're supposed to protect someone we care about. It doesn't have to be one or the other. It can be-- Good, to cry together. If you don't want Cary to feel alone."

"Cary doesn't cry much anymore," Kerry says, but-- Amy cries a lot. And Amy's like Cary. She-- Kerry's been watching Amy closely and Amy tried not to cry in front of David over breakfast. But she's crying now, in front of Kerry.

"You can cry with me, I guess," Kerry decides. "You can-- You can hug me, if that helps. Hugs always help--"

Kerry doesn't even get to finish the sentence before the Vermillion pulls her into a hug. The android isn't soft, it's hard and kinda awkward, but-- Kerry can tell how much Amy means the hug. She can feel the hug that Amy's trying to give from inside the Vermillion.

Amy can't be all bad if she gives hugs the way Cary gives hugs. Maybe she's not so waffley after all. Maybe she'll be nutritious once they get the syrup off of her.

The Vermillion lets her go. "Thank you," Amy says, sounding better. She's stopped crying, and Kerry doesn't want to cry anymore either. "I'm so glad you're David's friend. And I'd like to be your friend, too, if that's okay."

Kerry shrugs. "Yeah, I guess so." She still doesn't like the Vermillion, but soon Amy will be out of the Vermillion and in a body that actually looks like her. It'll probably be easier to like Amy then. It's a lot easier to have Ptonomy back, even though he's still dead, too.

"I could help you look for some nice clothes," Amy offers.

"I'm kinda done with clothes," Kerry says. "I just-- Wanna go back. We shouldn't leave David alone with Syd. She's waffles."

The Vermillion gives a confused blink. "She's waffles?"

Kerry nods. "David thinks he needs her, but she's bad for him."

"That's--" Amy says, but she stops. "Okay. Ptonomy and Cary are coming now. We'll go back. I'm sure everything will be fine."

§

"Everything's fine," Ptonomy assures Kerry, as they walk out onto the street. "I'm watching them now. David's still asleep. Syd's sitting with him. Everything's just fine."

Kerry continues to be unconvinced. Ptonomy continues to be impressed by her intuition. For someone who spent her whole life hiding, she has a sharp eye for behavior when she actually lets herself engage with her environment.

The truth is, Syd is a problem. That's why Ptonomy left her and Amy there together. Either one alone would be stressful for David, but put them together and they balance out. But they needed to pull Amy away to help Kerry, so now Syd is alone with David. Thankfully David's still asleep. Syd can't do any more damage while David's asleep. Unless she decides to practice touching him again. For someone who prides herself so much on her personal space, Syd has no respect for David's. But Syd's treatment of David is something he's been planning to talk to her about today anyway. He just needs the right opportunity to pull her away so they can have her session without David overhearing.

They all need to be open and truthful with each other to protect themselves against Farouk's inevitable mind games. But the truth can be as destructive as lies, if it's not handled right. David is in no way ready to face the truth about his relationship with Syd, not when he has so many other things that take priority for his recovery. Syd's barely ready to face the truth herself, but her denial has to end if she doesn't want to keep making the same mistakes. If she doesn't want to help end the world.

When they reach the compound, David is still asleep. Syd is sketching in David's notebook. She didn't ask permission before she did that, either. That notebook is essential to David's recovery and the rebuilding of his identity, but she thinks she can just write all over it. She thinks she has the right to do a lot of things.

Ptonomy has been very tempted to make her leave. But David loves and needs her, and she loves and needs him. Forcing her to leave would make David worse and it would make Syd even more vulnerable to Farouk. Better to have her inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in, as his dad used to say.

They all head to the laundry room so Kerry and Cary can move their laundry to the dryers. Amy helps, continuing to bond with Kerry. He's glad. Amy and David, Kerry and Cary-- They have strong sibling bonds, but they've each been isolated despite that. Now all four of them are connecting with each other. They're all very compatible people, compassionate protectors at heart. They'll be good for each other and good for David, especially together.

Ptonomy watches from inside the mainframe as David wakes up from his nap. He stills again as Syd finishes drawing him. David asks about Amy and Syd's first therapy session and mentions the alters are asleep nearby. Ptonomy tenses as Syd starts talking about the session, and David tries to get her to stop, but--

"We'd better get back," Ptonomy says. But as he walks out of the laundry room, he knows it's already too late. He sighs in frustration. Syd, all you had to do was let him rest, he thinks, angrily, as he watches the disaster unfold. He wonders if there's a version of his dad's military aphorism about people being inside the tent and pissing in it anyway. If not, Syd is inventing it right before Ptonomy's digital eyes.

Chapter Text

The past week has been the most intense therapy of David’s life. It’s only now that everything has stopped that he can see it, that he can see how hard they’ve been driving him at every turn. Not just the sessions and the memory work, but every moment of his time that wasn’t spent sleeping or catching his breath, someone has come at him with something to push him forward. It’s been everything at once for days: the things he’s done and the things done to him, his diseases and his alters, his memories of the past and the people with him now, all to prevent a future he doesn't know how to avoid.

He can’t think about any of it anymore. There’s nothing left in him to do any work, to talk about anything. He barely had enough energy to get through breakfast.

Everyone else has to catch their breath, too. Helping him, worrying over him, it’s all taken a toll on them, he can see that despite his exhaustion. He still feels like they’re hurting themselves for nothing, but— It’s what they want to do. They believe he can be saved, that he’s worth saving, that he’s somehow worth all of this. He can’t, but— He can let them believe for him.

He’s the only one who can’t leave, but they’ve all been keeping close, cooped up in the lab with him. So of course now that they don’t need to stay to help him, they all want to leave.

"We’ll be back soon," Cary assures David, and assures Kerry, who refused to leave until Cary talked her into it. "We’re just going to take care of a few things. Syd and Amy will be with you, and if anything happens Ptonomy will know right away."

Kerry and Cary hug him, and then they're gone. He can feel the memory of their embraces even after they're gone.

Ptonomy‘s not the only one who will know if anything happens. Division 3 is always watching. But these days that’s equal parts reassuring and disturbing. Clark might not be David’s favorite person, but— He didn’t have to say what he did about David’s birth parents. He didn’t have to bring the lamp himself. Kerry’s right, Clark is a jerk, but— He’s a jerk with a heart.

David tries not to care about Clark too much. He doesn’t want him to be tortured for the rest of his life. He doesn’t want Clark and his family to suffer because of him. That probably means they will. Farouk is always watching, too, always listening so he can savor David’s pain and figure out the best way to make more of it. That voracious appetite has to be fed.

David’s too tired to care about the monster or even to be scared. There’s barely anything left of him anyway. If Farouk tried anything now, the last wisps of air from that popped balloon would just vanish, dissipating into nothing. And what would be the fun in that? If Farouk wanted that, he could have just let David kill himself to begin with.

Farouk doesn't want him to die. David thought he did, he went to the desert thinking that, but— Farouk has never wanted him to die.

David doesn't want to think about the monster. He thinks about Oliver. Oliver is still asleep, astral projecting to search for Melanie. That's how he's spending his day off from David's therapy. David's tempted to do the same himself. Not to search for Melanie, though he'd help if he could. But just to be outside of his body, to get relief from living. It wouldn't be like before, the last thing he wants is to go away again. He could— He could spend time with his alters. They're playing cards again, he could play cards with them.

But—

Amy and Syd are sitting on the sofa, talking to each other while Syd drinks tea. They stayed to keep him company and he doesn’t want to leave them. He spent so much time running away from them, from everything, from himself. Dissociating. He needs to be present. He needs to stay.

But staying is about all he can do. He doesn’t have it in him to talk, after spending days talking about everything. He’s too well-rested to nap but too mentally fried to concentrate. He’s bored but doesn’t have the energy to attempt anything interesting.

He wanders around the lab, aimless, and spots Kerry’s magazines. He feels a pathetic thrill as he flips through the stack. It was always a Clockworks highlight when new issues arrived. He takes the ones about fashion and beauty, including the one he did the crossword for. He doesn’t have the brain power for puzzles. He sinks into one of the beanbag chairs, feeling pleasantly unable to escape the chair’s deep embrace, and opens the first magazine. The pages are fragrant from the perfume samples. The bright colors and stylish photos are the perfect combination of stimulating and soothing. He reads contentedly, his mind soaking in a warm bath of frivolity.

He missed this, he truly missed it. It’s one of the purest, simplest joys of his entire life. He could do this forever.

He zones out and wakes up sometime later, one magazine spread across his chest and the others fallen to the floor. The sun has moved higher and Amy isn’t on the sofa anymore. Syd is still there, and she’s writing in his notebook.

He feels slightly less mentally fried. Maybe he did need a nap after all. Or maybe it was the magazine.

He rubs his face, bleary, and Syd looks at him.

"Hey," she says, and stops writing. "You moved."

"I moved?" David echoes.

"You’re not supposed to move. Close your eyes."

David musters a curious look, but closes his eyes. He lies still for a while, his head cradled by the beanbag. Then he opens one eye. "Why am I not supposed to move?"

Syd is focused on the notebook. "I’m drawing you. I'm almost done."

Syd used to draw him in Clockworks. He would sit and she would sketch. He would let his mind drift to the sound of her pencil scratching against the page.

He closes his eye.

The lab is quiet and his mind is quieter. His mind is so quiet: no powers, no voices, he doesn’t even hear his alters. It’s awe-inspiringly quiet. He tries not to think about anything so he doesn’t disturb it. He listens to the sound of Syd’s pencil and it’s just as soothing as it always was.

He’s almost drifted off again when the scratching stops.

"Done," Syd declares. "Wanna see?"

David opens his eyes. Syd leans forward and put the notebook down on the the coffee table. David picks the magazine from his chest, stretches, then swaps the magazine for the notebook.

Syd’s very good, as always. She’s captured him in detail: He’s slumped in the beanbag, dozing, the crown on his head and the magazine across his front. His face is— tired, vulnerable. He looks like he needs a dozen more naps. Is that what he looks like? It must be. Syd always saw him clearer than he saw himself.

"It’s very good," David compliments. "Where’s Amy?"

"With the others. They’ll be back soon. We’re having lunch in the garden."

A picnic. That sounds— Really nice.

He looks around and is surprised to see his alters asleep, each curled up on a loveseat. It's— Strange, seeing them sleep. Seeing himself sleep. They look— tired, vulnerable. Like they need a dozen more naps.

He doesn't want to wake them. He needs to keep his thoughts quiet, calm. They've— They've been working hard to help him, too. To protect him when he couldn't protect himself. To remember the things he can't and shouldn't ever remember. They were right about that. They do know what's best for him after all. At least he's finally realized that.

He can't think about himself. He should talk to Syd. What should he talk about? She had therapy yesterday, or she was supposed to.

"Did you ever have your therapy session?" David asks her, keeping his voice quiet so he doesn't disturb Divad or Dvd.

"Why are you whispering?" Syd asks, matching his level.

David points to the loveseats. "They're asleep. My, uh, my alters."

Syd looks, but she can't see anything but empty furniture. "Should we move?"

David considers this. They're his hallucinations, so— "Probably not?" he whispers. Whatever he can hear, they can hear. He still doesn't understand how his brain can be three separate people at once, but also all himself. But that's too confusing for him to figure out even when his brain is working, which it's currently not. Or at least his part of his brain isn't working.

It's really confusing.

David must be thinking too hard, because Divad stirs. David stops thinking and Divad settles again.

"Um, it went well," Syd says, when David is quiet for too long. "My session. We figured out a lot about— About Future Syd. Why she did what she did to you."

"You did?" David asks. He couldn't figure it out, but— If anyone could do it, it would be Syd. "So why did she—"

Syd grimaces. "You don't want to know. And you shouldn't think about that. Not today. But— Your alters helped me, so you wouldn't have to."

"Helped you?"

Syd taps her forehead. "Oliver put in a— A telepathic antenna. So he could send your relay to me. Only for the session, don't worry. I can't hear anything now. Well, even if Oliver was awake, I still wouldn't hear anything."

David doesn't know how he feels about any of that. If he thinks about it he'll wake up his alters, so he can't think about it. They need to rest, like he needs to rest. They all need a dozen more naps and no shocks.

David looks down at the sketch of himself. Of course his alters look just like him, but— It's like Syd drew them, too, apart from the crown and the magazine. It's like she drew all of them at once.

"David?" Syd prompts, concerned.

"It's—" David stops, tries again. "Can we— Not talk about this right now?" They have to, of course they have to, but he can't talk about this right now.

"Okay," Syd soothes. "Do you want to talk about something else?"

He shakes his head. He needs Amy. He needs Kerry. He needs Syd, but— He can't think about Syd, not without thinking about what she just told him. "When is everyone coming back?" he asks.

Divad and Dvd both wake up. Damn it.

"David?" Divad asks, concerned.

"It's under control," David says, and it is. He's calm. He's not thinking about upsetting things. He just— Wishes the others were back.

"I'm sorry," Syd says. "We didn't want to put you through that. It's my therapy, not yours."

"But they are me," David insists. He was asleep and they did things to him, again.

"All we did was talk to Syd," Divad says, reasonably. "She's the one who let her head be changed by Oliver. All we did was let you rest. You needed to rest, like you need to rest now. Stop stressing yourself out."

"Stop telling him not to feel things," Dvd defends. "You're supposed to help him stay calm, not erase him."

"Oh, don't you start with that, too," Divad says, annoyed. Then he calms himself. "We're not arguing about this. Not today."

Dvd slumps back in his loveseat, displeased.

"I guess they're awake?" Syd asks.

"Yeah," David says, pressing his fingers to his face. "Syd?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't think one day off is gonna be enough."

Syd tilts her head sympathetically. "We'll get you through this, okay? We're all gonna get through this together."

When he doesn't respond, she looks thoughtfully at him, then comes over and sits down in the other beanbag chair. She sinks down into it, mirroring him. And then she holds out her hand.

David looks at it, uncertain.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," Syd says, genuinely. "I'm sorry I— I didn't ask you. We should have asked you."

He shouldn't take her hand. He shouldn't hold it. He's the one who hurt her, who did things to her, unforgivable things. But— Yesterday, she held his hand. She looked at him and took his hand and didn't let go. He doesn't even remember letting go. His hand still aches from holding on to her, to Amy, to all of them.

He doesn't deserve her forgiveness. She shouldn't be kind to him. She should hate him so much.

"Please?" Syd asks, reaching out. "For me?"

She wants him to take her hand. He can't refuse her, he never could. But he doesn't deserve to hold her hand. But she wants him to. But he shouldn't.

But he— But he needs her. He needs her like he needs Amy and Kerry and— He needs her.

He shouldn't. He doesn't deserve her. But— She already held his hand. She already touched him, she— She's touched him a lot. But she did it for him, so he could have— So he wouldn't be— Touch starved. So he could feel— Safe. Nurtured.

She just wants— She just wants to keep him safe. She just wants him to get better. It's— It's part of his treatment. So he'll get better. If he refuses his treatment, he's just— Punishing himself. Hurting himself. And if he hurts himself, he'll never get better.

She wants him to get better. He wants that, too. So he just has to— He just has to reach out and—

He takes her hand. He takes it and she holds him and— It's okay. He's okay. Nothing terrible happens. He's just— holding her hand, like he held Amy's and Kerry's and— Like he held Syd's hand before.

It’s what he always wanted for them: to sit together and hold hands. There’s no ‘them’ anymore, they’re just— Two separate people. Patients in therapy. "It's like we're therapy buddies," he says, because she can’t read his mind. Because Oliver's asleep. Because he doesn't want her to. So many people are listening to his thoughts all the time and he just needs something for himself, some tiny corner of his mind for himself. Even if that corner is in someone else's mind.

Syd smiles. She keeps holding his hand. "What's a therapy buddy?"

David tightens his hold on her hand. "It was— I don't know if it was real, but— When I started therapy, when I was diagnosed as— I was pretty young. So they matched me up with another kid with schizophrenia, seeing the same therapist. To help me— Open up. Feel— Less alone. Like group therapy, but— A very small group."

"Did it help?" Syd asks.

"Obviously not," David says. "But that wasn't his fault. Nothing helped. I had a monster in my head making sure nothing would ever help."

"You did," Syd says, calmly. "But now the monster isn't in your head. So the things that could've helped, they can help now. Like having a therapy buddy."

He loosens his hold, but she doesn't. She holds on to him.

"So what did you do with your therapy buddy?" she asks. "How does it work?"

"Um. We were supposed to talk to each other. Share our problems. Find, uh— The things that matched. I wasn't very— Talkative. I remember being so— Angry, all the time. I don't even know why." He doesn't know if any of that was real, but he felt angry all the time for years. Even after college, he just felt so angry, no matter what he took, no matter how hard he tried to be calm. It only stopped when he tried to kill himself. It was like— He killed the anger instead of himself. Or maybe it was just the numbness of the aftermath, and then he spent six years so drugged he could barely feel anything at all. But the anger didn't come back when he got off the meds. Maybe by then the drugs had killed that part of him for good.

He tries not to think that they should have doubled his dose, tripled it. They should have—

"I'd like that," Syd says, smiling for him, oblivious to the awfulness in his head, the way she should be. "We can help each other. Talk to each other. Hold hands."

She shouldn't hold his hand. God, she shouldn't. But she is and— He doesn't want to let go. He doesn't want her to let go.

"Okay," David says, holding tight again.

He doesn't say anything else. He can't, and she— She just stays with him, quiet and calm. He always liked that about her, her calm, her solid steadiness. After Clockworks, when everything was chaos and madness, she was the one thing he could rely on, the one person he could turn to. Until she was two people and both of them—

"I'm sorry," Syd says, out of nowhere. "I know you're not ready to talk about Future Syd, but— I'm sorry for what she did to you. What I did to you."

David glances over at Oliver, but Oliver is still asleep. But then Syd never had much trouble figuring him out even without telepathy.

"You didn't—" David starts, but she did. He can't— He can't deny that she did.

"She was me," Syd insists. "She had her reasons, but— She was still wrong, to do all of that to you. I was wrong. I want to apologize to you for what she did. What I did. And— I'm sorry for what I did when you came back."

"You don't have to—"

"I do," Syd insists. "You were taken against your will, again. And I— I blamed you. I put that on you when you were scared and that made you feel like— Like if it happened again, if you were taken again, I wouldn't find you. That's why— That's why you made this for me." She grips the locket she's still wearing, despite everything.

It takes a moment for David to register all of that. "I didn't—" he lies, automatic, defensive. He'd told her Cary made the compass. "How did you know I—"

Divad and Dvd suddenly look away.

"They told you," David realizes. This is why he would never have agreed to let them talk to Syd. He can't— They're him but they're not him and he can't control them, he can't stop himself from saying things he shouldn't say. They know everything about him, even things he doesn't know, and he can't stop them from telling everyone everything.

He can't stop them anyway, not from talking to the mainframe. But he doesn't want them to talk to anyone else. He doesn't want that.

"That's not fair," Dvd says, angrily. "We've always shared everything, that's how we work."

"Don't," Divad warns.

"No, he needs to hear this," Dvd says. "David, do you think we're happy, trapped like this? We spent years trapped because Farouk wouldn't let us reach you. And now you can hear us, but you're doing just what he did. You won't let us share our body, and fine, I get that. He fucked you over and he knew, that shit beetle knew that if we ever got you back, you'd never let us be together, not like we were. All he ever did was try to tear us apart and he couldn't, but— But you are!"

"Dvd, stop," Divad warns again.

"Shut up," Dvd says, showing his teeth. "I've been there for you every single moment since you made us. No matter what. That's what I'm for. That used to mean something to you. But he took that away and now you don't even want to remember what we had. You don't want to be our David again. You don't want to be anything. Do you have any idea what it does to us every time you think about killing yourself? Do you even care that you'd be killing us, too? No, you don't, because you still won't accept that we're as real as you, that we're all real." He stands up, distraught and furious. "Amy called us brothers. I want that. But you know what? I can't do this anymore. You don't need me and I can't do this. I'm out."

And then he's gone.

"Dvd!" Divad shouts. "Dvd!" He groans in frustration. "I'll talk to him." And then he's gone, too.

"David?" Syd asks, cautious. "What just happened?"

David stares at the empty loveseats. "They're gone."

"What do you mean? They're invisible?"

"No, they're— They're gone." David can't feel them anymore. They're just— Not there. He's alone.

That's what he wanted, wasn't it? To be alone in his own head? He should be happy, but happy is the last thing he feels.

"They can't be gone, they're permanent," Syd says.

David shakes his head. "Dvd said— He said I didn't need him so— He left. And Divad went after him, but—"

This is his fault. Dvd's right, of course he's right. David's so fucking selfish he didn't even think about the fact that killing himself would mean killing the two other people in his head. The people who protected him since he was a child. The people who— Who he created to save himself, and in doing so trapped them with the monster, trapped them with the monster he is now.

They shouldn't come back. Wherever they went, they shouldn't come back. They can't save him and it's only hurting them to try.

"David," Syd says, and she's in front of him now, worried. She's holding his hand in both of hers, but he's not holding her back. "Stay with me, okay?"

David shakes his head. He's not going away. He deserves to feel this. It's his fault. He's crying, but he shouldn't cry, not when it's his fault.

Chapter Text

Some therapy buddy she makes.

Syd watches David sit slumped over the picnic table and tries not to blame herself. Kerry and Amy are sitting with him, keeping him company and trying to cheer him up and encouraging him to eat. But this is bad.

"You can't blame yourself because they left," Ptonomy says, even though he can't read her mind. "David's whole situation is precarious. Even an apology has the potential to wreak havoc, but that doesn't mean the apology shouldn't have been given. It's my fault. I started the group therapy for them to avoid this, but we got distracted by the memory work."

"This would be a lot easier to fix if we had Oliver back," Cary says, regretful. "We shouldn't have given him the day off."

"He'll come back," Ptonomy says, confident. "He wants to be here to help David because of Melanie. When he can't find her, he'll come back."

"What if he gets lost again?" Cary asks. "We've just lost both our methods of knowing David's thoughts. This won't work without telepathy, not at the speed we need to go."

"I keep telling you, this isn't a race," Ptonomy says. "It's therapy. It goes however fast it goes. David has thirty years of intense trauma and broken relationships, not to mention the extensive amnesia and false memories. None of that is going to heal overnight. We're making good progress but it hasn't been easy and it's not going to be easy with or without telepathy."

"It's going to be even worse if Divad doesn't come back," Syd says. "He's David's emotional regulation."

"Dvd's the one we need to worry about," Ptonomy says. "Oliver and Divad will both come back on their own. Dvd— I wish we knew what he said, but— I think we've heard enough hints. He has good reasons to be angry and upset. I'd talk to him, but we won't have any way to reach him until tomorrow morning."

"Where did they go, anyway?" Syd asks. "How can they be gone?"

"It's quite normal for alters to vanish," Cary says. "It's similar to how Kerry and I can disappear inside each other, but— More like a deep form of dissociation. When I went inside of Kerry for the first time, I was— I saw myself back in our childhood home. David must have something similar. It's typically known as an inner world or a headspace."

"Maybe you really do have DID," Syd says, wondering. Kerry's hiding, Cary's distraction and his strong focus on his work to the exclusion of other parts of his life— Syd's learned enough about dissociation to recognize those as dissociative behaviors. And their childhood was traumatic, even if the apparent reason for the trauma was a result of their powers. Maybe their dissociative split was in the womb.

"It's quite possible," Cary admits. "I meant what I said to David. Our situations are very much the same, even if the details are different. Kerry manifested externally, or perhaps I did. David's alters are only internal, at least at this point."

"All of which is interesting, but how does it help us resolve this?" Ptonomy asks.

"I don't think we can," Syd says. "We just have to hope Divad can convince Dvd to come back."

"And we need to make sure David doesn't get any more upset until Divad comes back," Cary adds.

"Nobody make any sudden apologies," Syd mutters.

"I think—" Ptonomy starts. "I need to do some more research."

"On what?" Syd asks.

"On David and what’s wrong with him."

"There’s something else?" Syd asks, horrified.

"Not something new, exactly," Ptonomy says. "I have access to a lot of current psychological information through the mainframe. I’ve been focused on David and his history, but— I need to look around, see what’s helped others with his symptoms. The truth is, when this started we had an incomplete picture of David’s trauma. We still do. But David’s hitting a lot of roadblocks, more than I hoped he would. There’s something deeper here, even deeper than his dissociation. I’ll be busy for a while figuring that out. I’ll leave my body sleeping in the lab, if that’s all right."

"Of course," Cary says.

Syd watches Ptonomy go. That’s four of David’s helpers gone and four remaining. "So much for a day off," she sighs.

"David’s had setbacks before," Cary assures her. "He’ll be okay."

"It just feels like he’s getting worse, not better. And he was already—"

"Sometimes that’s how it goes," Cary says. "Sometimes getting better means getting worse, at least for a while. If healing was easy, there wouldn’t be so many people in pain."

Syd knows that, she does. But she can’t help but be afraid. She just wants her David back, but every time she thinks he’s close, he slips further away. She wants to save him from his pain, but everything they do seems to push him deeper into it. David is so fractured and now his identities are tearing apart. Can he even survive that? What would happen to all his dissociated feelings if Dvd never comes back?

"Cary, can you— Is there a way for me to look at those mainframe resources?"

"I don’t have access to that, but you could ask Clark," Cary suggests. "The mainframe is a sensitive resource, but maybe the Admiral can set you up with the psychology databases Ptonomy is using."

"I think I need them," Syd admits. Her book was a start, but the truth is that she doesn’t know anywhere near enough to help the way she wants to. She didn’t even finish college. She’s always been a fast learner and her mother taught her a lot, but— The truth is that she was a mental patient, not a therapist. She worked with Melanie in a political position, not a therapeutic one. This isn’t a situation she can feel her way through. David’s life is at stake, and so is her’s, and so is everyone’s. She has to stop making mistakes with him, making him worse. Otherwise she really is getting in the way of David’s recovery.

"Will the three of you be all right?" Syd asks.

"We’ll be fine," Carry assures her. "Go help David. We’ll keep him safe."

§

Divad walks in through their bedroom door. "You have to—"

"Save your breath," Dvd says. He’s sitting in their rocking chair, his rocking chair. If David's going to keep claiming their things for himself, so is Dvd. "I'm not coming back. And don't even think about trying to emotionally regulate me."

"If I could, I’d have done it decades ago," Divad says. He closes the door and sits down on their bed. "You do know you just did to him what you're always telling me off for doing."

"Everything makes David suicidal," Dvd grumbles. "He's got loads of people keeping him alive. He'll be fine."

"He won't be," Divad says, like he knows it for a fact. Divad doesn't know anything, he just acts like he does.

"He doesn't care about us," Dvd says, in no mood for Divad's manipulative crap. "He cares about Syd and Amy more than us. They're the ones who hurt him and he took them back before us! Well they can have him."

"He doesn't remember us," Divad says. "He remembers them. Of course he took them back first. If we'd been able to find a good memory—"

"That's bullshit," Dvd says, because it is. "He remembers the lamp. We have the lamp, but is that enough for him? No, it's not."

"It will be," Divad insists. "Look what happened with Syd's book. That almost got him to accept that he's still himself."

"Close is for hand grenades," Dvd says, waving his hand in dismissal. "He doesn't want to accept himself. He doesn't even want to remember the things he can remember. We're never going to get him back and I'm sick of trying."

Divad shifts back against the pillows, leans against the headboard. He looks at the stars turning across the walls.

Dvd picks up the lamp. Their lamp is still intact, unlike that other lamp. If David remembered them, they could share their lamp again. They brought David here after Syd tried to kill him, but David still thought they were hallucinations. He still thinks they're hallucinations. Fuck hallucinations.

Dvd throws the lamp against the wall and it shatters.

"What the hell did you do that for?" Divad says, actually upset for once.

"It felt good," Dvd says. "What do you care? It's not real, right? We're not real, this bedroom isn't real, David isn't real, so what does it matter if it all breaks?"

"It will matter to David," Divad insists.

"Bullshit," Dvd sneers. "You know what I think? I think it matters to you, but you won't admit it, because you never admit anything. You always know what's right for everyone, and that means you're never wrong."

"Oh, and you're right?"

"I'm always right," Dvd insists. "It's the world that's fucked-up. It's the world that's fucked up David and fucked up us. It's all completely fucked and nothing's ever gonna un-fuck it."

"Eloquent as always," Divad mutters.

"We should have told David to run right after Syd shot him," Dvd insists. "That was our one chance to get him back and we fucked it up."

"Oh, so now it’s not the world’s fault? It was your plan. You’re the one who told him to make Syd forget, you’re the one who insisted we make sure the monster died."

"You went along with it!"

"David wasn’t listening to me," Divad defends. "I thought he’d calm down once he got Syd back. Syd always calms him down."

"She used to," Dvd says. "And then she turned on us and made us do things. She’s the last thing we need. And Amy, too. Fuck that bitch. She makes a sad little smile with a robot face and David just rolls right over. I bet she can’t wait to lock us up again."

"We don’t know that, not without our powers. We can’t read them, any of them."

"That’s why we can’t trust them," Dvd says. "I tried. I tried to play along and make nice for David. But David’s not coming back. He’s never coming back and— Whoever this Fake David is, I wasn’t made for him. He’s on his own."

"So what?" Divad challenges. "You’re just gonna hide in here forever? With our broken lamp?"

"Fake David has his broken lamp, now I have mine. Get your own."

"You are such a child."

"Bite me."

Divad gets off the bed and heads for the door, but stops and turns around. "No. I’m not letting you tear us apart, too. You wanna be mad at David? Be mad at him! But be mad at him to his face. Don’t run away and pull this— Second-grade bullshit."

"So eloquent," Dvd sneers.

"I mean it. Either we go back together or we don’t go back at all."

"Better get comfortable," Dvd tells him.

Divad sits back down on the bed. "I’m very comfortable," he warns, and crosses his arms.

"Aren’t you worried about Fake David?" Dvd sneers.

"He’s not a different person," Divad insists. "Don’t buy into his delusion."

"Whatever."

"You’re supposed to be the one who never gives up."

"I never gave up on David. Fake David doesn’t deserve me. Only David deserves me and he’s gone." Damn it. Dvd isn’t in their body, but his throat is getting tight. Fuck the shit beetle for doing this to him, to all of them. Fuck the shit beetle for killing David. And fuck himself for thinking there was any hope of getting him back.

Dvd’s been doing exactly what the monster wants him to do. He’s been torturing himself with hope, with memories. That’s what’s happening to Fake David, too. Maybe Fake David has the right idea and they should all stop remembering forever. The monster never let him forget, but maybe he should, now that he can. Remembering hurts so much and he remembers everything.

Divad sighs. "This is why we need David’s friends. Even if we made him leave right from the desert, he still would have been— He didn’t have us for so long. Farouk took away his memories and stuffed him full of delusions. We couldn’t protect him before and we can’t protect him now."

"You’re the one he needs," Dvd says. "You should be loving this."

"Do you think I want David to be upset?"

"I think you love it," Dvd taunts. "You get to be the one in charge. He can’t survive without you and you love it."

"You’re just jealous because he doesn’t need you," Divad shoots back. "Oh, it’s too hard just sitting around, watching David be hurt? That’s how I’ve felt for years and you can’t hack it for one week!"

That stings. "Yeah, well— Well, I’m not you. I can’t turn off my emotions like some kinda robot. I feel things. And right now I’m feeling done."

Divad actually shuts up for a whole minute. Then he says: "Then I’ll have to do your job for you. I’ll be the one who protects David from being hurt. And you’re the one hurting David right now, so— You want to stay here so bad? We’re gonna stay here."

Dvd narrows his eyes. "What’s that supposed to mean?"

Divad gets up and locks the bedroom door, cutting off the sound of Fake David's thoughts. "It means we’re not going back."

Dvd riles, then sits back in his rocking chair. "Nice try. I’m not gonna fall for your reverse psychology tricks."

"It’s not a trick," Divad says. "David believes we’re the ones who made him worse. Maybe he’s right. We should let David be with his friends so he can be part of the world. We’ve never been part of the world. We pretended that we were, but we were being David, not us."

Dvd rolls his eyes. "You’re not gonna trick me into going back."

"And I'm not letting you leave."

"Then I guess neither of us is going anywhere."

§

It doesn’t take as long as Ptonomy expects to find what he’s looking for, but he doesn’t hurry back to his new body. He reads on, looking at essays and case studies. At the stories of extreme child abuse and Holocaust survivors and people so broken that most believed there wasn't any hope for them, especially themselves.

When they first rescued David, he seemed—

They knew he'd been misdiagnosed. Most of the people they helped had been misdiagnosed with something, and usually that misdiagnosis was a result of their powers. And there was also real trauma from those powers: from being misunderstood, from using them without guidance, from using them to hurt others and themselves. They didn't just rescue mutants from mental hospitals. They found them in abusive conditions or living homeless on the street. They found them in juvenile detention centers and prisons. Most of the mutants who needed help were good people in bad situations. With a little push, with the right support and plenty of therapy, they could turn their lives around and start giving back.

But some of the mutants they rescued didn't want to be helped. Some of them were like Walter: violent sociopaths who enjoyed using their powers to hurt people. Some were just greedy and amoral. Years of experience helped them filters those people out, but sometimes they still slipped through. And something about David set Ptonomy's instincts off right from the start. There was something— Not right about him. Ptonomy thought David was hiding things from them: his memories, his truths, his understanding of his powers. Something about David felt like a lie.

Ptonomy's instincts were right, but for the wrong reasons. The David they found in Clockworks was a lie, his past a construction of his mental parasite. Ptonomy doesn't know if he should believe the alters' insistence that David is still the same person he was before he was so drastically remade. There is reason to believe they're right, but— Even if they are, even normal life experiences can change who a person is. People are always changing. David's past is important — his real past and his fake past — but what matters more is who he is now and who he wants to be.

When they rescued David, they knew he'd have trauma. That's what the memory walks were for, to help him process his trauma and recontextualize it, to face the past from the perspective of the present and use the experience to heal and move on. But David's memories weren't real memories and they confounded at every turn. By the time they realized that there was another mutant inside of David, manipulating him and controlling him, Melanie was convinced that that was the answer to all of it. They knew he didn't have schizophrenia, but they didn't think about what else he might have. They didn't look past the parasite to the damage it left behind, because David seemed fine, he seemed remarkably functional.

Maybe if Future Syd hadn't taken him so soon, they would have realized something was wrong. But Ptonomy thinks Syd is right and they would have missed it. They would have let things lie and in doing so let David's trauma fester. Because the alters came back once Farouk was gone, and the alters would have covered for David the way they always covered for him. And David did keep secrets, from others and from himself, because he didn't want to acknowledge his trauma either. It would have been an incredibly toxic combination for David and for everyone else, and the perfect combination for Farouk.

Future Syd accidentally did them a favor. She spared David that extra year and gave Summerland a second chance to save David from his trauma, and in doing so save the world. Ptonomy just wishes she'd done it any other way. But she didn't know the extent of David's trauma either. She believed he was beyond help and that the only option left was death. Euthanasia. But how to kill a mad god? With another mad god who seemed a little less mad. In her timeline, Farouk didn't live long enough for his monstrosity to be understood by anyone but David's alters. And David's alters might have shared everything with David, but they didn't share anything with anyone else.

After the desert, they all knew David was sick, but they didn't know why or how. They'd searched for him for a long year, and then David just turned up one day and didn't remember anything. It was deeply suspicious, but Ptonomy has to own his mistakes. He didn't trust David because he'd never trusted David, and the amnesia was simply too convenient for anyone to believe. But he'd looked at David's memories and David didn't remember, just like David couldn't explain the gaps and rips during his memory walks.

And David was keeping secrets. He was secretly helping Farouk, secretly working against Division 3 in service of Future Syd, who was secretly working to destroy David by pitting him against Farouk when there was still a chance for Farouk to win. It's been a lot to untangle. Farouk pushed David until he snapped, and the Admiral thought that David's delusions could be treated quickly because they were new. They hadn't had time to grow into monsters. A timely intervention could save the world, and if it failed, they could simply kill David the way Division 3 had always planned to kill him. And they could use David's therapy to control Farouk until they could find a way to kill him, too. Ptonomy agreed with the plan and set out to execute it.

But once they had David in therapy, once they found out about the alters— That's when Ptonomy realized this wasn't going to be easily resolved. That these new delusions were nothing compared to the delusions that have grown inside of David for decades, nurtured and fed by Farouk's torture and manipulations, and now they’re so big and all-consuming that they threaten to crack David open like an egg.

Ptonomy shudders at his own memory. His memories aren't as vivid here, aren't as immersive without his powers of perfect recall and memory walking. But even reading them from a hard drive is— Unpleasant. If he had any time to deal with his own trauma, he would. But he can't. He has to do what David does to survive: repress and avoid the memories. He's not in denial about the necessity of treatment, but if he fails, they'll all have a hell of a lot more trauma to worry about than one sudden and horrific death by insanity monster.

David doesn't believe he is a person. He describes himself as non-human, as a broken plate, as garbage. He thinks of himself as contaminated and evil, regardless of the reality of his actions. Like most main identities in a DID system, he's passive, guilty, depressed, dependent.

A lot of the research on post-traumatic stress has been done on soldiers. Otherwise healthy people go into a terrible situation, and then when they come out of it, they're different. The trauma has changed them in a fundamental way, left deep scars that may never truly heal. But as terrible as their suffering is, it's confined. The source of it is focused on specific events and actions. David's trauma from his possession, from Farouk's attack on Division 3 to rescue Amy, from the events in the desert — they’re war trauma. But they’re not why David hates himself. David has always hated himself, according to the alters. But David was just a child when he made the alters to protect him.

He was just a child. Farouk got into his head when he was a baby and became his world: his inescapable, omniscient abuser, who used different faces to terrorize David in different ways, and even to make David love him. And for all that Farouk made him forget, he left the trauma behind, the decades of scarring fear. That's the most convincing evidence that Past David and Now David are the same person, but it's also the reason why David can't accept that they are. David is still trying to dissociate from his trauma even as he works to face it. Ptonomy doesn't know if any telepath has ever observed the formation of a DID identity, but that might be what they're seeing now. With enough suffering, David might actually split again, and make Past David into a separate person to keep that trauma contained.

They have to keep that from happening. David's three identities have been remarkably stable, but David has been retraumatized again and again by his therapy. Some of that is necessary, inevitable, but it wouldn't be this bad if they weren't pushing David so hard. If Farouk wants David unstable, intense therapy is a perfect way to do it. Ptonomy thought they were being smart, helping David get better, but Farouk knows David from the inside. He can read everyone's thoughts. He needs David tortured in order to make him unstable, and they are torturing him.

So they have to rethink this. They have to be smarter than the monster. All this time they've been playing catch-up, learning what Farouk already knows, digging deep into David's trauma so they can find the heart of it. They've forced David to heal his broken relationships so that he can have the support network he so desperately needs. They've tried to reconstruct his real past so he can process it and move on. All of that was necessary and important but all of that has made him worse.

Ptonomy knows what's wrong with David now. He's looking at it summed up on a page. Complex trauma disorder. It's also known as developmental trauma disorder, because it describes the consequences of repetitive, prolonged trauma involving sustained abuse to young children as well as adults. It's a relatively new diagnosis. In the textbooks, this type of trauma is still treated as a subset of PTSD, as a footnote.

They are similar, but the differences are vitally important. Prolonged abuse can't be treated with the usual methods. Prolonged feelings of terror, worthlessness, helplessness — especially when applied to a developing child, they deform the sufferer's identity and sense of self. Complex trauma disorder is why so many main identities are the way they are.

Everyone missed it in David because Farouk disguised David's powers and his trauma as schizophrenia. They missed it because the alters helped David mask his symptoms. They missed it because Farouk changed his memories and gave him the illusion of a normal childhood.

Ptonomy hoped that they could work at David's trauma from the outside in. Start with the manageable things, the recent things. Encourage him to heal his relationships so the people who care about him can help him, too, so they can make peace and find forgiveness. But complex trauma disorder can only be treated from the inside out. It's not about guilt over mistakes, it's not about who did what to who. It's about who David believes himself to be, deep in his heart. It's about the shame he feels for his mere existence. They thought it was guilt but it's all shame, and the difference between those two emotions is vitally important, too.

Shame is what makes David hurt himself and punish himself. Shame is what drives his need to kill himself, regardless of the external reasons compelling him at any given moment. That overwhelming shame is a monstrous delusion, growing larger with every mistake David makes, big or small; suffocating him with self-blame and poisoning everything he sees and feels and thinks. Shame is why David can't forgive himself for anything, even as he denies the pain others have made him suffer and forgives them for hurting him, because shame is why he feels he deserves to be hurt.

Cary got the closest of all of them to the truth. He saw that David had accepted the world Farouk made for him, that he integrated his suffering into his sense of self. The suffering became a punishment, and the worse the punishment, the more David believed he must deserve it. And the suffering was severe and prolonged and unimaginably cruel. Syd was right, too: what's remarkable isn't that David is sick. What's remarkable is that he survived at all. Even accounting for the support of his alters and his powers and Farouk's memory revision, David's survived things that no one else could. For all his pain and shame and suicidal ideation, he's still trying with everything he has to live, to connect, to be with the people he loves and to be part of the world and give back to it.

He just needs the right kind of help. He just needs them behind him, pushing him forward in the right direction. He still needs to confront his trauma, to remember his past, to heal his relationships, but— He can't do that and survive if they don't treat his shame first. There's no pill for that, no neurochemical imbalance that Divad can manage. There are techniques they can teach David that will help, and they'll teach him those. But the only true antidote to shame is compassion. The compassion of others, the compassion of the self. That's the only answer anyone has found.

Ptonomy hasn't had enough compassion for David. He judged him from the start and found him wanting, without any real evidence to justify it. They've all withheld compassion for one reason or another, accepting David's delusion that he's unworthy of love or care. Division 3 couldn't see him as anything but a threat until David's therapy forced them to empathize with him. The world saw his brokenness and wrote him off, and that made the delusion grow as swollen and monstrous as Farouk's bloated form on Division 3's psychic filters.

Maybe that's a lesson for all of them. Summerland's purpose, noble as it was— It drifted into something else, by the end, compelled by their desperation to survive Division 3's attacks. It became more about what their patients could do for them than what their patients truly needed. Ptonomy nurtured that delusion himself, with all his talk of war and acceptable losses. There's nothing acceptable about taking traumatized people and turning them into soldiers. That's exactly what Division 3 did and Summerland was supposed to be better than that. They were supposed to be about making the world a kinder place. They were supposed to be about compassion, but they forgot that, just like Oliver did. They used David the same way Division 3 used Walter: as a weapon they could fire at the enemy. It's to David's credit that he resisted being fired, that he refused to cause any more bloodshed. It took love to turn David into a weapon, into a world-killer: love for Syd, love for Amy, love for Lenny. Farouk weaponized that love, poisoned it with shame, but they can save it. And if they save love, they just might be able to save the world.

Chapter Text

The lab is quiet as Syd sits at one of Cary's computer terminals, scrolling through articles on dissociative identity disorder. She's alone here but also not alone. There are three empty bodies lying in apparent sleep: Melanie, Oliver, and Ptonomy. Melanie's soul is trapped on the astral plane and Oliver is outside of his body looking for her. And Ptonomy is back inside the mainframe, except that he never left it.

DID truly is the most normal thing in her life right now.

She's learned a lot, but the main thing she's learned is that every DID system is unique. There's no standard way for a system to be. Even the nature of their members can vary. Some systems have many temporary identities. Some identities are lifelong. Some become more dominant than the supposed main identity. Identities that are fully realized people are known as members of a system rather than alters. She wonders if she should suggest to David that he call Divad and Dvd members instead of alters. Maybe that will help, if they ever come back. Assuming they ever come back.

She shouldn't have talked to David about her therapy session. It's his day off and she knew that and she should have kept her mouth shut until he was recovered from the memory work. But she wanted to apologize to him the way she apologized to Dvd. She wanted him to know she understood him. She thought it would help, but it made him worse. It made David's system unstable, which is probably even more dangerous than David being unstable.

She's pulled from her reading by a motion out of the corner of her eye. She turns to see Ptonomy is back in his body and sitting up.

"I'm glad you're back," she calls to him. "I have some questions about David's system. Do you think—"

"It'll have to wait," Ptonomy interrupts. "It's time for your session."

"Oh," Syd says, surprised. She thought that Ptonomy would be busy with David until late, like yesterday, but now is probably as good a time as any. "Everyone's still in the garden. It's helping David stay calm."

"I know," Ptonomy says. He moves to the sitting area, claiming one of the loveseats. "Amy will keep everyone there so we're not interrupted. Come sit down."

Syd leaves the computer and sits down on the sofa. She looks to Ptonomy expectantly. They talked about Future Syd last time, but she's not sure what they're going to talk about now. Ptonomy seems very focused, so she decides to just follow his lead.

"Before we begin," Ptonomy says, "I want you to understand how this is going to work. We're just going to talk, but it's going to be like the memory work we did back when we first found you. I'm going to tell you some things about yourself and you'll have the chance to react to that."

"Okay," Syd says, but she's not sure what that means.

Ptonomy sees her uncertainty. "You haven’t given permission for Oliver to relay your thoughts to me and we’re respecting that," he explains. "But I have studied you the way I’ve studied David. I’ve reviewed all your old patient files as well as the surveillance footage of your time in Division 3, including your sessions with Melanie and especially the footage since David’s return. I have recordings of the things you’ve said publicly and privately, as well as the things David and his alters have thought and said about you. This means I’m aware of things you’ve thought in their presence when they were able to read your thoughts. Are you willing to proceed with that understanding?"

Syd wants to physically recoil, but she keeps perfectly still. She has to do this. If she doesn’t, Farouk will find some way to use her to make David end the world, and she doesn’t want to be used for that or anything else ever again.

"Yes," Syd says, accepting.

"Good. I want you to tell me about two events I don’t have a clear picture of. What Farouk did to you in the desert and what happened to you and David when we found you on the roof after the monk’s death. You can start with whichever of those you're most comfortable with."

Syd's very glad that David isn't around to hear any of this. "I'll start with the roof," she says, and braces herself as she thinks back. "David and I were looking for the monk. He'd told me about Future Syd and that she needed him to help Farouk find his body. The monk was in Division 3. We split up, I went up to the roof, and then—" And then?

"The virus trapped us all in our heads," Ptonomy finishes for her. "We constructed realities where our core desires were realized. Do you remember your maze?"

"I— Don't know," Syd admits. "I was— I knew something was happening to me, but I couldn't do anything to stop it. And then there was an intrusion in my mind."

"David."

Syd nods. "I felt him. I didn't know who he was, not at first, and then—" Her mind wasn't clear, not until the virus lost control of her after the monk's death. "I was angry that he was there."

"He entered your mind without permission," Ptonomy agrees. "He entered my mind and Melanie's mind without permission. He did it to protect us, but it was still a violation because we couldn't consent to it. We didn't give him or Cary consent to know our core desires, to enter our minds and change them. They were trying to help, but that help hurt us."

It did. And that made her angry. She remembers sitting in the gallery when he approached her, and she was so angry with him for daring to enter her mind, for daring to think he knew who she was and what she wanted.

"A few days ago," Ptonomy continues, "you said you wanted to teach David to be strong. That you showed him over and over how to hold on to his pain and use it. You did that when he was in your head. Tell me about that."

"I didn't—" Syd begins, and falters. "I wanted him to be strong. He said I told him that the world was going to end, that we had to stop that from happening. And he was— I knew he couldn't do it. I thought Future Syd needed Farouk because David wasn't strong enough. So I tried to make him stronger. I know that was a mistake, I know that now. Love was how he survived and I shouldn't have tried to take that away from him."

"I'm glad you recognize that," Ptonomy says. "Love is exactly what David needs to survive. But it's not just about him. You wouldn't have taught him that if you didn't believe it about yourself. You believe love makes you weak."

Syd grips at her arms. She's watched Ptonomy work on David for days. She knows their situation is desperate enough that he can't pull any punches. But they're just getting started and she already wants to stand up and walk away. She pulls her pain tighter around her heart and keeps going.

"How did you teach him that?" Ptonomy prompts.

"I showed him my life," Syd says, calmly. "My childhood, my adolescence. The things I did to survive. I wanted to teach him to survive." David thought he knew who she was, so she taught him who she was. She taught him over and over, trapping him in her head even though he begged her to let him out, because she couldn't let him out until he accepted that he needed to be strong enough to save the world.

But she didn't make him strong, she made him weak. She made him worse, she made it easier for Farouk to break him in the desert. She did that to him all on her own.

"We should talk about the desert," Syd insists.

"All right," Ptonomy says. "I know David's side of things. I told him about La Désolé and he went there to find Farouk's body. He left you a note. You had the compass. But you didn't go after him right away."

"No," Syd says. "I was angry. He left me behind, again."

"Not 'again'," Ptonomy corrects. "You know that's not true."

It still feels true, even though she knows it's not. Even though she always knew it wasn't. David didn't leave, he was taken. He was taken and he was afraid and he needed her to save him. That's why he made the compass and gave it to her. So if he was taken again, she would save him.

But he wasn't taken when he went to the desert. He left her. He absolutely left her and she was furious. She had the compass, she could have gone after him. But he didn't need her, so why should she have? He told her he wasn't going to save the world for her. The only thing he cared about was revenge.

"I can't hear your thoughts," Ptonomy says. "So you need to tell me what you're feeling right now."

They're her thoughts. She doesn't have to tell them to anyone but herself. But— She already is. She's telling them to Farouk right now. She's giving him everything he needs to use her again. God, she hates him so much.

"I was angry," Syd grits out. "David already told me that he was going to stop helping Future Syd. He was going to destroy Farouk's body. He cared more about revenge than about saving the world." She doesn't want to say this, she doesn't, god she hates this. "He didn't care about me."

"You just told me that you didn't want David to depend on love," Ptonomy points out. "You wanted him to be self-reliant, like you are. Wasn't he just taking your advice?"

"He promised me that he would never leave me behind," Syd insists. "If we got lost, we got lost together. That's what he said to me."

"True," Ptonomy allows. "And we know why he broke that promise. Because Future Syd could have saved Amy's life and she chose to lie to him. She didn't have to let Amy die to save the world. You think she tried to give David a quick death, but if she just wanted that, she could have put him back after Farouk had already found his body. She could have taken him when he was a baby and saved him from Farouk. Future Syd wanted revenge. She wanted to hurt David the way he'd hurt her. So she let Amy die, she let all of us suffer, because our suffering meant David's suffering."

"No," Syd denies. "I wouldn't do that."

"That's exactly what you did. Maybe that's not what you'll do now that the timeline's changed, but the potential for it is still inside you. I know some of the things you've done to survive. I saw some of those things myself during our memory walks. If someone hurts you, you hurt them back with interest. You always have."

Syd holds herself very still. "I see we've moved on to the part where you tell me things about myself."

"I'm not telling you anything you don't already know," Ptonomy says, firmly. "You're very smart and very self-aware. But you rationalize your pain and your violence so you can protect yourself with them. Those are coping mechanisms that you learned to survive, but now all they do is hurt you and hurt the people around you. And you have used them to hurt David again and again. You hurt him with them today."

"What are you talking about?" Syd didn't do anything to David. "Dvd’s the one who upset him. I know I shouldn't have talked about the session, he wasn't ready, but—"

"I'm not talking about the session," Ptonomy says. "I'm talking about making him hold your hand."

What? "I was trying to help him. I did help him."

"And you hurt him."

Syd can't believe this. "Is this about how I practiced on him? Because I apologized for that."

"It's not, not directly."

"Then what?"

Ptonomy gives her a long, level look. "Then this is the part where I tell you things about yourself. You're going to be angry about them. You're going to want to hurt me and hurt David. And I'm telling you now that if you choose that path, you are gone. You will not be a part of David's therapy and Division 3 will do everything in its power to make sure you are never a part of David's life again, and Division 3 has that power."

Syd stares, astonished. "What kind of monster do you think I am?"

"You're not a monster, not yet," Ptonomy says. "But if you don't change, you'll become one. You'll become a woman willing to let innocent people die out of pure spite. I was that person, too. I let innocent people suffer because I was angry at Division 3 for killing people I cared about. I let people die and called them acceptable losses, and I'm sure Future Syd thought that Amy was an acceptable loss, too. My anger was as justified as yours and it was just as wrong. I want you to understand that what we're doing now is not about punishment or revenge. This is about making the right choices with our lives so we can make the world better instead of worse."

"All right, then," Syd says, coldly. "Tell me. I want to hear it."

"Do you?" Ptonomy asks. "I want you to remember what I said."

"Tell me," Syd insists.

"Okay. What I have for you is a new diagnosis. We already know about your antisocial personality disorder. That still stands. You have a clear history of aggression and disregard for social norms and for the rights of others. You made progress on those with Melanie, as well as on your haphephobia. In her notes, Melanie had her suspicions, but she wasn't sure. I'm sure. Your fear of abandonment, your impulsive anger, your black-and-white thinking, your manipulative behavior to David, all of these strongly indicate a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder."

Ptonomy was right, she is angry. She's furious. This is like the fake Clockworks all over again. She’s not like David. She knows who she is and she’s not going to accept a diagnosis that isn’t hers.

"Bullshit," Syd spits. Ptonomy doesn't respond, and that only makes Syd angrier. "I'm not going to let you change me just because you think you know who I am."

"Isn't that what David said a week ago?" Ptonomy says, cooly. "He didn't want us to turn him into something different, something easy and clean. He couldn't face what he did to you, what he became, and you can't face what you've done to him and what you've become. But neither of you is so far gone that you're willing to let yourselves become something worse. This is his chance to turn his life around, and it's your chance too. You can do it together."

Syd gives a disbelieving laugh. "You just told me that all I do is hurt him. You threatened to keep me away from him if I don't get help."

"We threatened to kill David if he didn't get help. Maybe that was wrong, maybe it made him worse at the start, but Division 3 made the right call in forcing him into treatment. Your situation isn't as dire. You don't have omega-level powers. You don't have DID and crippling trauma. Do you think David would be better off if we left him alone with all three of those things? Do you think you'll be better off if you let your trauma and disorders fester, ignored and untreated? You have what David doesn't: the choice to walk away. Maybe Farouk will force you back, maybe he won't. But he'll never, ever let David walk away. Never. I believe that you truly love David and that he truly loves you, but you both brought toxic issues into your relationship and if you don't both work on those issues, they're going to keep controlling you. They're going to keep making you do things that you don't want to do. They're going to keep making you hurt people and then one day they're going to end the world. And all Farouk will have to do is sit back and watch the fireworks."

Shit. Shit.

He's right. She knows he's right. She's still furious and wants nothing to do with this diagnosis, but— She doesn't want to be the kind of monster that let Amy die. She doesn't want to end the world. She doesn't want Farouk to be able to use her ever again.

And she doesn't want to hurt David. She loves him. But somehow she keeps getting angry at him and hurting him despite that love. And— She doesn't understand that. She doesn't understand why she does that, why she'd want it.

"Fine," she says, the word forced out of her. "What does any of that have to do with me hurting David by holding his hand? I helped him stay. I had to pry my hand free so Cary could take my place. David needs me."

"He does need you," Ptonomy agrees. "It's important to you that David needs you."

Syd narrows her eyes. "David needs a lot of help. He's sick."

"But you need to be the one to help him. You needed to be the one to help him by teaching him how to survive. You needed to be the one to help him accept his diagnoses."

"Now my book hurt him?" Syd asks, disbelieving. "You're the one who got him to read it."

"And that makes you angry. You wanted to be the one to get him to read it."

"It helped him," Syd insists.

"It did help him. I was able to convince him to read it by piquing his curiosity about something he needed to understand. He chose to learn about his dissociation and opened himself up. You tried to force it on him, just like you forced your coping mechanisms on him. Just like you forced him to take your hand today."

"I didn't force him to do anything. You weren't there, you can't even hear David's thoughts, not with Oliver gone."

"Division 3 is always watching, which means so am I," Ptonomy says. "I saw David's face. I didn't need to read his thoughts. You saw his face, too, but you didn't care. You let him suffer because that meant getting what you wanted from him. You know he feels like he doesn't deserve to be touched by you, you know it upsets him, but you put all that work into your haphephobia and you thought that earned you the right to touch him. You thought you deserved his love so you manipulated him into holding your hand."

Syd feels sick. "That is nothing like what David did to me."

"It doesn't have to be. There's all kinds of violations. Not every death is first-degree murder. But Future Syd forced him into intimacy, too."

"I did not," Syd insists. "David chose to have sex with her."

"That's not what Dvd said."

"Dvd always takes David's side, no matter what," Syd points out. "David and I talked about Future Syd and his feelings for her. We set boundaries and he agreed to them. He made a promise to me and then he went ahead and broke it. Again."

"And why do you think he did that?"

Syd huffs. "I don’t know, ask him!"

"I’m asking you. Why would David agree to boundaries with you, then have sex with Future Syd?"

"I wasn’t there."

"Dvd was," Ptonomy says. "Dvd can hear David's thoughts. He knows exactly why David slept with Future Syd, but you'd rather be angry than face the truth, so I'll remind you. He said they confronted Future Syd about Amy but she wasn't sorry. She kept pushing David to help Farouk so Farouk would kill him. When that didn't work, she used guilt to negate David's anger and make him vulnerable again. Then she asked if they could say goodbye. What would David do if you asked to say goodbye to him? Do you really think he could refuse?"

Syd could easily imagine David’s reaction to that even if she hadn’t seen it for herself. Wasn’t that what she loved about him, that he would do anything for her? Isn’t that why she was so angry with him in those last days, because he wouldn’t save the world for her?

"He should have known that I’m not her," she insists anyway.

"I was thinking about that," Ptonomy says. "From David’s point of view, you’re both Future Syd. He was taken and brought into the future twice, first in the orb meeting her, and second when he woke up in Division 3 and met you. How should he be able to differentiate between you from the future and you from the future?"

"The missing arm is a hint."

"In the surveillance footage, David repeatedly expressed difficulty in differentiating your two states. He told that to you and to the monk. In fact, you enforced that belief by telling him you trusted your future self because she was you. And I quote: 'If I said that you should do it, then you should do it.'"

Division 3 really is always watching. "Okay, so she’s me. And David will do anything I ask him to, except when he won't because I told him to do something else."

"In a healthy relationship, both partners should be able to make the right decisions for themselves. You don't want to take no for an answer, and David would rather hurt himself than refuse you. If he can't give you what you want, you punish him for it. And when he threatens you, you're willing to do anything it takes to make him suffer. Do you know what that sounds like? It sounds like Amahl Farouk."

Jesus. "If I'm that far gone, maybe Division 3 should kill me. Maybe I should kill myself."

"And what do you think that would do to David?" Ptonomy says, and that's even worse. "You're not a bad person. You don't deserve to die. You deserve to have love and happiness, just like David does."

"Does this mean Farouk has BPD, too?" Syd asks, dryly.

"I'm sure he does," Ptonomy says. "He's also a sadistic psychopath. You're not. You care about other people. Your relationship with David is mutual. His relationship with David is not. There's a term for what David is to both of you, actually. It's called a favorite person. That's someone that you obsess over, that you're emotionally dependent on. It's needing someone so badly that it's physically painful when they leave you, so you'll do absolutely anything to make them stay, including hurt them."

Shit, maybe she does have BPD. Every time David leaves her, it's so painful she can't stand it, and that what makes her angry. That what makes her punish him so he won't ever leave her again. That's why she can't stop hurting him.

"You win," Syd says, accepting her fate. "I have BPD and I need help. You don't have to lock me up with a crown on my head. Is there anything else wrong with me, while we're at it?"

"There is, but to understand that I need you to tell me what happened in the desert."

Syd doesn't know if she can. "Can we save it for our next session?"

"I wish we could, but we have to deal with this now. David desperately needs a safe environment. There are things we can't change about this situation, but the only people I'm allowing to be part of David's treatment are people he can trust. People he can rely on to keep him safe and put his needs first. People who love him and accept him as he is."

"And I don't?"

"Tell me about the desert," Ptonomy says. "What happened the morning after the storm?"

Syd sighs. "I woke up, went out and looked around. There was a giant hole in the ground." God, this part is embarrassing. "And then someone threw a rabbit out of it."

"A rabbit?"

"On a hook. I know, Farouk was— Messing with me. As usual. The rabbit was still alive, so I picked it up and pulled out the hook. And then Farouk reeled me in." She flexes her hand. The wound from the hook is still healing inside. She never had it treated properly after they got back. She's never liked letting doctors touch her body, so she's always taken care of herself. She probably should have let Cary stitch her up, but instead she has two new, livid scars. But no infection, so it's fine.

"Down into the labyrinth," Ptonomy prompts.

"Yeah," Syd says, remembering. "Melanie was there, acting weird. She kept going on about men and love. She said— David never really loved me. That I was just— A thing for him to possess." God, it still hurts so much. She'd believed those words when they captured David, and everything she saw that day was filtered through them. "She said you can't convince someone they're wrong by giving them the facts, but a good story will do it every time."

"And that's what Farouk did?" Ptonomy asks. "He gave you a good story?"

"He said David had a gift and a curse. That Farouk was the gift, and the curse is that David's insane. I didn't believe that, not at first, but— He showed me things. Images of David, of the things he's done. Everything was— Confusing, out of context. It was hard to think straight. I think he was— Doing something to me. Forcing me to open my mind. I couldn't keep his ideas out of my head."

"He was," Ptonomy says, his voice softer now than it's been through the whole session. "What ideas did he force on you?"

"That David enjoyed what Farouk made him do," Syd says, feeling the pain she felt then believing those ideas and the pain it gives her now to have accepted them. "He showed me that David was torturing Oliver to find me. I knew it wasn't his fault, I knew David was being tricked, but— He was so— He wasn't my David, he was angry and cruel and he was enjoying it. He wanted revenge and he thought he was getting it and— That wasn't the man I loved. And then— Farouk showed me David and Future Syd together, and I was so angry at him. He broke his promise, he lied to me, and he wasn't trying to save the world, he didn't care about me, he didn't care about the world, he only cared about himself. And then I saw Future Syd talking to Farouk, and they said that David was the one who ends the world. That I needed Farouk so I could stop him, so I could—"

She cuts herself off, on the verge of tears. She holds her pain so tight around her heart, but it's been broken for a week and the tightness only makes the broken pieces rub painfully against each other.

"Farouk said—" She says, forcing herself to continue. "He said David had too much power. That he was tricked and abused and driven insane. That he tried to kill himself because he knew he was a monster. That it wasn't his choice, that it's just who he is, and— And all of that—" She looks to Ptonomy. "It was the truth. I knew it was the truth. And it's still the truth now, but— It's the monster's truth. He made me believe his truth and gave me a gun and told me to be the hero who kills the monster. And I went and I took that gun and I pointed it at David—"

And she fired. She believed all of that so much that she fired a bullet at his head.

She doesn't know if it would have killed him. Maybe David's powers would have come back in the nick of time and saved him. Farouk obviously wants David alive, but if he hadn't set her against David, David would have killed Farouk. So maybe Farouk was desperate enough to take the risk of losing his favorite person if it meant his own survival.

"Do you think it's true that David has too much power?" Ptonomy asks.

Syd opens her eyes. She doesn't know when she closed them. "I—"

"You said it was true," Ptonomy says. "I agree with most of that story. Farouk tricked and abused David and broke his mind. David tries to kill himself because he's ashamed of what he is. David never had any choice because the monster in his head took away his choices. But the monster didn't give David his powers. David grew up able to safely control his powers despite everything Farouk did to him, until the monster erased his memory so he couldn't control them. David's powers are the one thing that you shouldn't be afraid of. But that's what scares you the most."

"I never said that," Syd insists.

"You said it yesterday," Ptonomy says. "Mind readers are too powerful to trust."

"I didn’t say that," Syd says, angrily. "I thought it. You said Oliver wouldn't relay my thoughts to you."

"No, but he's allowed to tell me if there's something that worries him. That worried him. And he was right to tell me. You’re a very private person and telepathy breaks through every defense you have. When you met David, when you chose to be with him, neither of you knew what he was. By the time he was aware of and able to control his powers, he was taken and we didn’t get him back for a year. You did a lot of thinking over that year. You put a lot of effort into finding him and giving him a reason to stay. But I think that year also gave you time to realize that the David you fell in love with wasn’t the David you were trying to find. That the two of you weren't who you were anymore. That’s what you said to Clark."

"God, I hate this place," Syd mutters.

"You hate having your words overheard and recorded. How do you feel about having your thoughts overheard? If David manipulated your thoughts, could you defend yourself? Would you even know if he changed you? Could you love someone with those powers? Could you trust them? Or would some part of you always believe that the existence of those powers made him a monster? That's the truth you couldn't refuse. That's the part of you that pointed a gun at David and pulled the trigger. And I think that's the reason Future Syd decided to destroy David rather than save him. Because she could have saved him. She could have done so many other things than what she did, but she didn't believe he should be saved. Do you believe that David should be saved? Do you believe he's worth saving? Or is it too late for him, like it was too late for your mother, and the kindest thing to do is—"

"Shut up," Syd spits, teeth bared. "Of course he should be saved!"

"That's the reaction I was hoping for," Ptonomy says, leaning back.

"God, you're a bastard," Syd says, furious. She feels like she's been stabbed in the heart, like he cut through all the pain she guards herself with. Her heart was already broken and now it's bleeding.

"I'm a lot of things," Ptonomy says, calmly. "Right now you need me to be a bastard, because gentle isn't going to work for you the way it works for David. You don't listen to gentle. You don't allow yourself to be soft. We have a lot of work to do to get you better and we can't do that if you won't listen. So I'm not going to make this easy for you, but if you let me help you, I'll help you. We both know you don't like letting people help you, you don't like opening up. You barely opened up to Melanie and she's the person you trusted most, which is why Farouk used her against you. But that's another problem you have. David trusts too much, but you don't trust anyone but yourself, so Farouk used Future Syd against you, too. Because she is you." He pauses. "You need to trust me and you're going to need to trust David. If you love him, if you want to be with him, if you want to stop hurting him, you need to open up and trust."

"Those aren't things I do," Syd says, tightly.

"Then you're going to have to learn. We’re done now, by the way."

"Thanks," Syd says, bitterly.

"You’re welcome," Ptonomy says. "Your homework is to stop researching David’s problems and start researching your own. You think you understand yourself but you don’t, not yet. Put your energy into yourself."

"What about David?" Syd asks. "Should I leave? I don’t— I don’t want to get in the way of his treatment." She truly doesn't. She wants him to get better, even if that can only happen without her.

"He needs you here for that. So stay. Be with him, but don’t push him. Let him come to you. He’s just learning how to make choices for himself. Let him make them. Stop trying to be his therapist, he already has one. Be his friend instead. I did hear he needs a therapy buddy. He asked you to be that. That’s a big deal for him, to ask you for anything. He thinks he doesn’t deserve you. He’s afraid of losing you, just like you’re afraid of losing him."

"David doesn’t like other people telling his secrets," Syd reminds him.

"I don’t think those are secrets to anyone," Ptonomy replies. "I messed up too, not getting David’s permission to discuss his experiences before our first session, but Dvd and Divad have the right to be treated as more than just parts of David. They’re the ones who should have asked David for permission to share his thoughts. Dvd and Divad are used to things working a certain way with David, and now their relationship is different. But different can be better. For you and them and David. Build your new foundations together."

"I don’t know if you noticed, but those parts of David hate me," Syd says. "And they’re right to. They’re not going to want to share."

"They’re used to sharing," Ptonomy points out. "When we get them back, maybe David will let you talk to them."

"I very much doubt that."

"Maybe," Ptonomy allows. "But trust is a two-way street. If you open up to David, maybe he’ll open up to you. You’ll never know if you keep shutting him out. If you’re always in control, what you’re doing is making sure he’s always powerless. Let him take care of you sometimes. Let him give back. That’s all he wants to do."

It is. She knows that because David told her, standing in the woods in Summerland. He just wanted to be useful and help and contribute something to the world he felt he took so much from. But David’s world has always been the people around him, the people he loves. He wanted to give back to them. He wanted to be useful to them, but no one let him because he was sick. So when they finally turned to him for help, he couldn’t say no. He couldn’t refuse them, even as they told him to do things that hurt and confused him. He owed them all so much and he wasn’t worth any of it so he had to do anything they asked. Anything she asked.

But she didn’t ask him. She told him. She forced him. Anyone else would have pushed back and Syd would have stopped. But David couldn’t say no and she loved that.

She really is like Farouk. She doesn’t want to be anything like him, but she is. It’s no wonder he used her so much. She made it so easy for him. He didn’t have to turn her into a puppet because she already wanted to do the same things to David that he did.

And she's afraid of David's powers. She's afraid he'll use them against her and she won't be able to stop him. Farouk knew that even when she didn't. He made that fear a reality. He knew it would destroy them both, and it did. The love she had for David, for the David she met in Clockworks, for the sweet, gentle, helpless, sick man she thought she knew — It was already dying, but Farouk destroyed it.

But that love was unbalanced, like David was unbalanced without his alters. It was Syd taking more than she should and David giving too much, both of them so afraid of losing the other that they made that loss inevitable. Syd doesn't know how to be any other way than she's always been, but— She hasn't been happy with herself for a while. She's wanted to be better, but— For all the work she's done, she hasn't done enough. She's barely started.

"We'll have our next session tomorrow?" Syd asks.

"We will," Ptonomy says, warmer in response to her cooperation. "I'm not sure what time. It depends on what happens with David and Dvd and Divad. It's not good for them to be apart. If they're not back by the morning, once Oliver's awake, we'll try to reach them."

"I hope we can," Syd says. Her research didn't give her any reassurance that Divad and Dvd aren't gone for good. Identities can change, they can disappear for months or years, they can die and be replaced. The mind is a strange and fluid place for people like David. Maybe for everyone.

Syd's never thought of herself as someone who needs certainty in her life, but she needs to be certain about herself. She thought she knew exactly who she was, but she didn't. Not as badly as David, and thank god for that. But there are things that match between them.

Maybe she'll make a good therapy buddy for him after all.

Chapter Text

The lab feels emptier without Divad and Dvd in it. It shouldn’t; when they insisted on staying visible, he insisted on ignoring them as much as he could. Not that it was easy. They were very— Persistent. Loud, argumentative, opinionated. It was hard not to get pulled into interactions with them even though he knew that was the last thing he should do. He’s spent his whole life talking to things that weren’t there and it did nothing but hurt him.

They’re not here now, and now that they’re gone—

They’re gone. They’re not coming back. David can’t feel them anywhere. Dvd was so angry, and Divad— He must have realized that wherever they went was better than staying here. That David will never be Past David, he’ll never be what they need him to be. His own mind knows he can’t be saved.

He’s trying hard to stay calm, to stay steady on his own. The garden helped; Amy and Kerry and Cary help; meditation and deep breathing and all his old tricks help as much as they always did. It’s not as though he’s had a chance to stop practicing any of them. The stress of the past week has been enormous. Divad only kept him steady, he didn’t take away David’s emotions or his thoughts. He didn’t erase them, despite or because of how much David was afraid that he would.

It’s selfish to miss Divad now. Divad gave and gave but David gave nothing back. He has nothing to give. He can’t remember Divad or Dvd and he shouldn’t and trying only made him worse. They were trapped in his head and he tortured them with his thoughts. He knows how tortuous his own thoughts are, and Divad and Dvd had to hear them all the time. At least when Oliver isn’t awake, the mainframe doesn’t have to hear his thoughts. He’s glad they can’t hear them now. He doesn’t want anyone to hear what he’s thinking.

Farouk can still hear them, but David doesn’t care anymore. He can’t even feel angry about it. He just feels numb.

He’s dissociating, he knows that, but it hurts too much to feel anything. If he lets himself feel, it will be so, so easy for him to put his foot all the way down in the wrong place. He knows that because it’s starting to feel like the right place again. So it’s probably best for everyone if he stays numb. He’s not allowed to die and he doesn’t deserve to live. He doesn’t want anyone to be tortured. If he doesn’t feel anything, it’s almost like he’s not being tortured either. It’s an efficient solution, for now. Until the shit beetle gets bored of David being numb and makes him scream again.

He can’t stop that freight train from running him over. He just wishes it wouldn’t run over anyone else. He’s going to suffer no matter what — none of this will ever be over — but he wants to be the only one to take that pain. It doesn’t matter how much there is, his whole life has been pain. Even the love he thought he had was illusions, tricks to disguise more suffering. Divad and Dvd believed their purpose was to protect him, but David knows now that his own purpose was to be— What did Farouk call him? His victim, his prey. His hero, but that’s just another one of his cruel jokes. His sun, but that doesn’t make any sense at all. The sun is— Warm and strong and life-giving. David just takes. He’s a black hole, sucking the life out of everything around him, destroying everything he touches. If he gives off anything, it’s just— Radiation. Friction from matter pulled in and ripped apart.

When they brought him back to the lab, they sat him down on one of the loveseats and wrapped a blanket around him. David curled up and thought about how the alters had looked sleeping here. He’s hurt them so much. He hurts everyone so much.

He watches the others move around the lab, changing the bedsheets and cleaning. The spray bottle makes the air smell lemony. He watches it all like it’s far away. He feels very far away.

Someone comes over. Sometimes people come over and check on him, and then they go away again. This time it’s Ptonomy. David’s glad that he’s mostly alive again. Ptonomy deserves to be all the way alive.

"David," Ptonomy says, gently. "Is it okay if I talk to you?"

David swallows, blinks. He manages a small nod.

"I’m sorry today didn’t go very well," Ptonomy says. "It was supposed to be a chance for you to rest and recover. That’s not what happened. I promised you wouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want to today, and I meant it. But— I do have a way to make you feel better. All you have to do is listen. Is that okay?"

David gives another small nod. People are always talking at him anyway. He can’t stop them. He can’t stop them from trying to save him, even though there’s nothing to save.

If Divad was here, he’d pull David back from that cliff. If Ptonomy could hear his thoughts, he would tell David he has to keep working hard to stay with them. David’s trying, but— That steep drop calls to him like the ocean, promising relief in its depths.

Ptonomy’s so much more himself now that he mostly has a body. He’s so expressive. Was he always this expressive? Did he always furrow his brow and make the skin between his eyebrows wrinkle? Did the people or machines that made his face study the way the corners of his mouth curved when he frowned? It’s been almost two weeks since Ptonomy died. Maybe he looked different before but they all forgot, and now they just think he always looked like this because it’s how he looks now.

David never saw Ptonomy look at him kindly before he died. How would he know to compare? Maybe it’s just the illusion of kindness.

"I can’t hear your thoughts today, but I’m pretty sure you’re thinking a lot of terrible things about yourself right now. They must feel absolutely true."

Ptonomy waits for David to respond. David just looks at him. Of course he is, and of course they’re true. They’ve always been true.

"But they’re not true," Ptonomy says, answering himself. "They’re caused by a delusion that’s been growing inside you your whole life: the delusion that what happened to you happened for a reason."

He pauses again. David almost musters a response, but— There’s no point. There’s no point in any of this, in the entire concept of trying to get better. He’s better off broken. The whole world is better off with him broken and numb because every moment he’s that, he isn’t being broken again and turned into something even more monstrous than he already is.

"I’m going to tell you some things that won’t feel true to you at all. They’ll probably make you upset. I’m sorry for that. But they’re things you deserve to hear. They’re good things."

David doesn’t deserve good things. Whatever they are, they’re not for him. Good things are lies and tricks. True things are painful. Farouk taught him that over and over. He’s nothing but scars from all the times Farouk stabbed him with the truth, and David’s thick, he’s a slow learner, but he finally understands. This is his life. This is who he is. It’s what he deserves.

"You are the strongest person I have ever met," Ptonomy lies, because that’s such an obvious lie. David almost laughs at it, but he’s so numb.

"What you’ve endured," Ptonomy continues. "It’s unimaginable. It’s so unimaginable that we couldn’t imagine it. We couldn’t imagine the kind of absolute cruelty required to torture an innocent, blameless baby for its entire life. When we can’t understand something like that, we look for explanations. For reasons. There must have been a reason for it. We tell ourselves we suffer because we need to suffer, because we’ve earned it, somehow. And everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, and being in pain makes it incredibly hard to avoid mistakes. And every mistake— That’s proof we deserved the pain in the first place. That feeds the delusion, helps it grow bigger and stronger. That delusion won’t allow any other ideas to flourish. It eats them so they can’t nourish you. It’s a parasite, keeping you weak so it can gorge itself on your strength."

A parasite. David knows all about parasites. He was full of one and David is a parasite, too, taking and taking and causing so much pain.

"We got Farouk out of you," Ptonomy continues. "But we missed him at first. Everyone missed him for a long time. Parasites are really good at hiding. They have to be, because the truth is that they’re weak. They can’t survive without their host. They can’t reproduce, they can’t exist independently as a species. They lay eggs in their hosts and those eggs start out so small. Even if the parasite is big enough to see, its eggs aren’t. They latch onto us from deep inside and there’s nothing we can do to stop them because we don’t even know they’re there. We just think they’re part of us. We can’t imagine there’s something else growing inside of us, so we look for other reasons. We’re tired because we’re weak. We’re slow because we’re stupid. We’re in pain because we’re being punished because we deserve to be punished.

"But that’s what the parasite wants us to think. That’s its disguise. If we could recognize our symptoms for what they are, we would know something is making us feel that way and try to stop it. We’re tired because something is sapping our strength. We’re slow because something is taxing our minds. We’re in pain because something is hurting us very badly, for its own benefit, not ours. When we got Farouk out of you, we missed his egg. We missed the delusion he put inside you and nurtured at your expense. We thought you were clean, that you didn’t need any more treatment, but we were wrong. Now we know what’s inside you and we’re ready to give you the help you need. We have a way to get that delusion out of you, to weaken it and kill it before it kills you, but we can’t do that without you. We need your help. Just like when we got Farouk out, we can pull but you need to push."

That finally compels David to speak. "I didn’t," he says. "Syd got him out. He tricked her into— Into getting him out of me." He wasn’t saved. The monster always gets what he wants. It was just another part of his plan, leaving David’s body like that.

"He had to trick her," Ptonomy says. "He was dying. He was desperate. He threatened your life because he knew Syd couldn’t let you die. If we’d had more time, we might have been able to get him out of you safely, but we never got that chance."

"So what am I supposed to do?" David asks, with no enthusiasm. He won’t have a choice about it anyway. He’s just the patient being operated on. They’ve cut him all the way open and reached inside him and tried to fix him, blind to the fact that he’s too broken to fix, that every part of him is warped and cracked and irrevocably broken. Even if Farouk makes him forget, he’ll still be broken.

Maybe he is himself after all. It doesn’t matter. Past David didn’t deserve to live either.

"You’re already doing it," Ptonomy says, in those gentle tones. David misses the way the Vermillion made them musical. "You’re staying with us and you’re trying to listen. You’re trying to stay alive. It must be incredibly difficult to do those things. It must take everything you have just to keep breathing. Because that delusion is huge and strong and hungry, and it’s been feeding off you for a very long time. That’s why I said that you’re the strongest person I know. You’ve had two ravenous parasites growing inside you since you were a baby, and you’re still alive. You haven’t given up. You haven’t let them kill you."

David shakes his head. "I didn’t do anything."

"You’re alive," Ptonomy says. "You’re here with us and you’re getting help."

"He kept me alive," David says. "He won’t let me die. He made sure that— That no one will let me die. I’ve tried— I’ve tried so hard to die." That’s why Amy put him in Clockworks. That’s why Division 3 took his powers away. Because he’s sick and suicidal and can’t be trusted not to kill himself. Maybe that’s how he ends the world. He tries to kill himself and fails and kills everyone else instead. That makes sense. He can’t do anything right, he ruins everything, so of course he ruins his own suicide.

"You’re in unimaginable pain," Ptonomy counters. "Of course you want to die. Death must feel like the only way to make the pain stop. But that’s what the parasites want you to think. They don’t want you to fight back. It’s another disguise, another trick. They don’t want you to see how strong you are. They want you to make it easy for them to eat you alive."

That’s— A horrifyingly vivid image, one David knows all too well. He shifts in his blanket cocoon, unsettled.

"We can’t let them eat you alive," Ptonomy insists. "You don’t deserve that. No one deserves that. Right?"

David doesn’t know. No one else deserves that, but— He’s a parasite, too. He’s Farouk’s son. He’s what the monster wants him to be. The baby that the monster possessed, that baby isn’t him. He’s just— A delusion. He’s a delusion.

"David," Ptonomy says. "You have to keep fighting. I know it’s hard. The delusion inside you— We’ve fed it, too. We helped it grow. We tried to help you but we hurt you, we made you worse. I made you worse. Division 3, Syd, Amy, we’ve all made mistakes with your treatment. But everyone makes mistakes. They shouldn’t define us. We’re more than our mistakes, and we always will be as long as we let ourselves learn from them. As long as we love ourselves more than we love our mistakes. That’s what we do, when we obsess over our mistakes, when we make them our world. We love them, we give them everything. But they’ll never give us anything back. They can’t. If we nurture them, we make our own parasites. We eat ourselves alive."

That’s a horrifying image, too. David must be— Riddled with parasites. There can’t be anything left of him. He must have been eaten alive a dozen times over by now. He’s just— Shit that’s been eaten again and shat out again. No wonder Dvd calls Farouk the shit beetle. David is the ball of dung that the scarab rolls around and eats and lays its eggs in.

Ptonomy looks at him for a while before he speaks again.

"Would you like to hear about one of my mistakes?" he asks. "The biggest mistake I’ve made with you was forgetting you’re not safe. That’s the first rule of trauma recovery. You have to get the victim into a safe environment. They can’t start to heal if they’re still being terrorized. And you aren’t safe. Farouk stays away from us because he wants us to forget that. But you know that he can’t stay away from you, that all of this is— It’s another trick to hurt you. It’s torture. And it is. I tortured you for him and I’m sorry for that. That was my mistake. But what isn’t a mistake, what was never a mistake, is why he uses us to hurt you. Why he used Amy and Syd and Lenny to hurt you. He uses us because we love you. For all our mistakes, we love you. And for all your mistakes, you love us. Don’t ever let anything make you forget that. Everyone in this room loves you and you love them. That love is what makes you strong. It’s what keeps you alive no matter what the parasites do to you. That love is who you are. Not your mistakes. Not your pain. You are love, David."

He’s love?

That— That doesn’t— It's impossible, obviously. It’s another lie, like the lie that he’s strong. Like the lie that he can be saved, that there’s anything left of him to save.

"You don’t have to believe that now," Ptonomy says. "We believe it for you. Amy’s believed it for you your whole life. She loves you so much. And Syd loves you. She’s here because she wants to save you, because she believes you’re worth saving. And me and Kerry and Cary, we’re your friends and we love you, too. We know what happened to you wasn’t your fault. We know you love us and want us to be safe, too. That even when you make mistakes, you make them out of love. Because that's who you are. David, you are love. And you don’t have to believe that now but you have to try. You have to try to love yourself. It’s going to be hard, maybe the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But I know you can do it because you have so much love for everyone but yourself. You have so much compassion for everyone but yourself. You don’t want anyone else to suffer the way you’re suffering. I know because I’ve heard you think those thoughts. You want to spare everyone else from the pain you feel. You made Dvd and Divad to try to save parts of yourself from that pain. And you did. You saved two pieces of yourself. You just have to save the rest. You have to save David."

"They’re gone," David says. "I didn’t save them from anything. I trapped them and I hurt them and—"

The numbness must be fading, because David’s crying again. He shouldn’t cry. He doesn’t deserve to cry when he’s the cause of someone else’s pain. But it hurts so much. When he hurts them, he hurts himself. He hurts right along with them.

"You’re in constant, indescribable pain," Ptonomy says. "You’ve always done the best you could, and you’ve done amazing things. You help people. You make the world better. You make us better, you make Division 3 better, you fought the monster and won. You’re fighting in a long war but you’ve won battles and every battle counts. The monster wants you to dismiss those battles, but they happened. They were real and his losses were real. Your victories were real. Every victory is real. Even if you lose ground, that was ground you held and you can win it back. You can win it for good.

"But you have to fight his delusion. You have to learn to love yourself so you can see how strong you truly are. How brave and kind and heroic you are. You are a hero, David. You’re a hero every time you choose to keep breathing, every time you stay with the people who love you. Every time you cry, you’re crying out of love. Your sadness and grief are born from love. You wouldn’t feel them if you didn’t love so much. You wouldn’t care about any of us at all if you couldn’t love. We’d just be things to you, objects to own and use and throw away. I know your thoughts, and I know you don’t believe that any person deserves to be treated like an object. The delusion makes you think you’re not a person, but you are a person. You deserve love just like everyone else. You deserve to be safe and loved. And I wish we could keep you safe, but what we can do is love you. We can love you so much that you can’t help but love yourself."

David stares, bewildered. "I don’t— I don’t know what that means."

"It’s new for me, too," Ptonomy admits. "But that’s the best treatment for people like you. So we’re going to learn it together. There are a lot of other people like you, David. Too many. The world has been an indescribably cruel place to so many people. None of them deserved their pain either. They didn’t deserve to be taken from their families or for the people they trusted to hurt them. They didn’t deserve to be rejected by society and hunted by the world. They didn’t deserve to be tortured. They didn’t deserve to be—" He pauses. "They didn’t deserve any of those things or anything else that was done to them. Because they’re people. And you’re a person, too."

David isn’t a person. He can’t be a person, because all those things were done to him but he deserved them. He knows he deserved them. "I deserved them," he insists, aloud.

"You were a baby," Ptonomy points out. "How could any baby deserve that?"

"I— I don’t know," David admits. "But I— I know I did. He must have— Seen something in me. Something just like him."

"So he punished you for it? For being like him?"

"I don’t know," David admits.

"It’s hard to think the way a monster thinks," Ptonomy says. "It’s healthy to be horrified, for your mind to pull away. But when you pull away from the truth, you make yourself vulnerable to ideas you should reject. Like the idea that the monster loves you. Like the idea that you’re just like him, because you were born wrong or made wrong by him. Those are his ideas, not yours. They’re the monster’s truths, not your truths. Tell me your truths."

David stares, unprepared. He hasn’t thought about his foundation in a while. "Um. That David is still David. That I didn’t— I didn’t want what happened to me. That it wasn’t my choice."

"Good," Ptonomy says. "Now what truth did you learn today? What is David? How did David survive the monster?"

"He didn’t," David says.

"That’s the delusion," Ptonomy insists. "That’s you pulling away from the truth. You just told me your truth is that David is still David. David has always been David. You have always been yourself. You have always kept fighting no matter how much it hurt to stay. You have always been part of the world and the people who love you. So how did you do that? How did David survive?"

"I—" David— How did he survive? Did he survive? He can’t be sure. He doesn’t— it could all just be another trick. It’s probably another trick. He— He couldn’t have survived. Who survives being tortured for thirty years? He must be someone else. He must be. But—

Amy loves him. She’s always loved him. Even though she made mistakes, she made them out of love. She didn’t want him to die. He’s her Davey. She doesn’t care that he's crazy and a mutant and three different people. She loves him anyway.

And Syd— He hurt her so badly, he ruined everything, but— She’s still here. She still loves him, somehow, even though she shouldn’t. She held his hand. She wants him to get better. She’s always wanted him to get better.

And Lenny— She’s suffered worse than anyone, because of him. He can’t even face her. But she’s here. She talked to him when he was sitting on the floor. She’s getting a new body soon. He’ll be able to see her again.

And Kerry. She’s been so kind to him. She’s brave and direct and naive and she sees something in him that makes her want to be more. He made her want to be in the world, to stop hiding.

And Cary is— He’s the one who got David through his diagnosis. One of the darkest moments in his incredibly dark life. Cary’s words have helped him survive all of this. There’s so much love in him.

There’s so much love in all of them. And Ptonomy must love him, too, to work so hard to save him. To fight the monster. And Dvd and Divad— they love David. Maybe he’s their David. He— He wants to be David. He wants to be— Himself. Whoever that is. He wants to— To love himself. If he can. Because everyone else loves him and— And he loves them, even though it hurts so much to love.

"David is— Love?" David tries. It feels— Unnatural to say those words. It feels wrong. He can’t be love. There’s nothing good in him. There never has been. He’s disgusting and sickening and a monster. He should be killed, not loved. He should be loathed and punished.

But Ptonomy says that’s the delusion. The parasite. That the parasite believes those things and he’s not the parasite. He’s David. David isn’t the parasite, he’s the host. He’s— He’s being eaten alive, but that means he’s still alive. And if he’s alive— If he’s alive, maybe they can save him. Maybe they can get the parasite out. They got the first one out.

"David is love," Ptonomy confirms. He picks up the notebook from beside him and opens to a blank page. He holds the notebook out. "Write that down."

David pushes back the blanket and reaches out. He takes his notebook and he takes the pen Ptonomy offers him. He brings the pen to the page.

David is David, he writes. I didn’t want what happened to me. It wasn’t my choice.

He pauses, takes a breath. Takes another.

It feels like a lie and he can’t put lies into his foundation. But— It doesn’t feel— not true. That doesn’t make any sense. Either something is true or it’s a lie. It can’t be both at once.

He doesn’t believe he’s love. He can’t possibly believe that. But the parasite doesn’t want him to believe it and everyone else does. He doesn’t want to believe the monster. He wants to believe Amy and Syd and Kerry and Cary and Ptonomy. He wants to believe Dvd and Divad. If he ever talks to Lenny again, he’ll want to believe her.

He trusts them more than he trusts himself. He probably shouldn’t. But he does.

David is love, he writes. David survived.

He looks at the words he just wrote. David is love. David survived.

They’re not his truths, not yet. But they’re definitely not the monster’s truths. He can start with that. He can try to believe them. For the people he loves, if not for himself. Because he does love them. And they love him, even though they shouldn’t. It would be— Monstrous, to deny that. He doesn’t want to be a monster.

Tears fall on the page.

"David?"

"I made them leave," David says, and he realizes that he’s grieving. He barely knows Dvd and Divad but he’s grieving them. They’re parts of him. They have been almost all his life.

No. They’ve always been parts of him. He just made them into people. He made them separate from himself, but they’ve always been parts of him. He made them into— Into his brothers. And now they’re gone. He barely knew that they were his, and now they’re gone.

They’re better off without him. But he wants them back. They’re loud and stubborn and hostile and controlling. But they’re parts of him. They’re his brothers. He would have done anything to get Amy back, but the monster took control and all he could do was watch and scream. He would have done anything to keep Amy safe, but he didn’t know she was in danger until it was too late. He tried to find her in Lenny but she was hidden too deep. And now she’s in the mainframe and he can’t help her.

But Divad and Dvd are parts of him. They’re inside of him, not the mainframe, not Lenny. And if they’re inside him— He must be able to go wherever it is they went. Because they’re identities and he’s an identity, too.

"I have to find them," David tells Ptonomy. "I have to apologize. But— I don’t know how to find them."

"Divad and Dvd?" Ptonomy asks. Because of course, he can’t hear David’s thoughts because Oliver isn’t here. But how will they find his alt— How will they find his brothers without Oliver?

"Can you help me find them?" David asks, desperately. "I need to find them."

"Of course we will," Ptonomy says, smiling. "We'll find them together. We’ve always been good at finding people. That's how we found you."

Chapter Text

Take a break. Clear his head. If Ptonomy tells him to do that one more time, David will— He doesn’t know what he’ll do. Probably nothing, but it will be a very annoyed nothing.

He’s ready to find Divad and Dvd, to bring them back from wherever they went. They’re his brothers and he’s going to save his brothers. But no, he has to rest and have a snack. He has to write his foundation again. He doesn’t have to fill up his notebook but he needs to fill up a page. He was neglecting his foundation for all the memory work and that made him worse so from now on he has to work on his foundation at least once a day. At least three times a day, like meals. Kerry came up with that idea. David glared at her but she just smiled proudly.

David is David. I didn’t want what happened to me, it wasn’t my choice. David is love. David survived.

It’s a lot to believe. He alternates between believing some of it, believing none of it, and wanting desperately to believe all of it. But however much he believes or doesn’t believe them, they’re his foundation. They’re his truths, David’s truths. Not the monster’s, not the delusion’s. His. Whoever he is.

Whoever he is, Amy is his sister and Divad and Dvd are his brothers. They’re the Haller family. Amy said that she wants them to be a family and sit together and talk. They’re all they have left. They’re all parts of him and he doesn’t want to lose them. Not just Divad and Dvd. Amy is a part of him, too, and he’s a part of her. They’ve shared their whole lives together, even when they were apart. Sometimes siblings are apart, and then they’re together again.

Amy came up with that idea. He didn’t glare at her for that; he hugged her Vermillion instead. She’s going to get her new body soon and it’s hard to wait for the moment he can see her face again. But he’ll get their brothers back and Oliver will come back and then Amy will be really back and they’ll be able to sit together and talk.

He hopes.

He’s not sure because they haven’t come back. He thought that maybe, while he was doing the work to take care of his mind and his body— Maybe they would come back on their own and he could apologize straight away and everything could go back to how it was. Not that he wants to go back to how it was. He wants them to be— Not what they were. He still doesn’t know how they used to work, before Farouk tore them apart. He never asked and they didn’t tell him.

It doesn’t matter. They haven’t come back so he has to go to them. He has to find them wherever they’ve gone, somewhere deep inside himself. Like Amy was deep inside of Lenny, but— He hopes it’s not like that for them. He hopes they haven’t trapped themselves that way, so they’re forced to watch the world but can’t reach it. It must be different, whatever it is, because David was already torturing them with that and that’s why they left. Or part of why they left.

David is David. I didn’t want what happened to me, it wasn’t my choice. David is love. David survived.

He finishes the page and resists the urge to keep going. If he keeps going he might never stop, and he has to stop thinking about himself so he can— Think about himself. His system. His brothers. His selves.

Even with his part of his mind semi-functional again, it’s still all really confusing.

"All finished?" Cary asks, sitting down on the sofa beside him. He looks approvingly at the full page, very big-brotherly, the way he does when Kerry finishes all her food without having to visibly choke it down. David has noticed Kerry and Amy together and feels vaguely like Cary and Amy decided to merge the Haller and Loudermilk families when David and Kerry weren’t looking.

Why not? If David is going to accept his hallucinatory fractures of himself as his siblings, why not Kerry and Cary? Why not everyone? If they keep it up, they can even adopt Clark and his husband and their adopted son. They can all be one big happy adoptive family.

He means to think it sarcastically, but it comes out— Wistful.

He shakes it off and closes his notebook, puts it on the coffee table. "All finished," he agrees. "Now can we find them?"

"Now we can find them," Cary agrees. He waves Ptonomy over and Ptonomy and Amy take a loveseat. Kerry joins them, too, and sits on David’s other side on the sofa.

Syd hangs back. She’s been reading her book again, highlighting and making notes, but if it’s about one of his diagnoses she hasn’t mentioned it to him. She’s barely talked to him at all since Dvd and Divad left. Not in a standoffish way, like it’s because of something he did. She just seems— Focused. Internal, the way Syd can be sometimes. She’s dealing with something private and that’s always been— He isn’t allowed into that space. He wasn’t when they were together and he certainly isn’t now.

"Syd, would you like to join us?" Ptonomy asks.

Syd looks up, surprised. She closes the book. "Um, okay." She comes over and sits in the other loveseat. Her posture is neutral but tense. Syd’s never given much away, but David always did his best to understand her, to know her, as much as he could. As much as she allowed. He didn’t really notice how little he was allowed until now, because he was drugged senseless in Clockworks and then spent five weeks being turned in circles and tortured and generally run into the ground. The sixth week hasn’t been a holiday either, but— He got to know everyone else better. Acquaintances turned into friends, he rediscovered his family, he just has so many more people he’s close to all at once than he’s ever had before. And none of them are like Syd. They’re not all as open as Kerry or as loving as Amy, but even Ptonomy is more open with him than Syd, and Ptonomy used to hate him.

He can’t read Syd’s mind anymore. He tried not to once he could because he knew it made her uncomfortable, but he couldn’t truly avoid hearing her thoughts and he relied on them to understand her. Not that they helped him much, obviously. But without them, he feels like it’s hard to know her at all. Maybe she never wanted him to in the first place. Maybe—

"David," Ptonomy says, drawing him back. "It’s time to get started."

"Right," David says, bracing himself. "What do I have to do?"

"Nothing yet," Ptonomy soothes. "First I think we should talk about what happened this morning."

"But—"

"We’ll help you find them," Ptonomy assures him. "But it’s also important for us to understand why they left. They need our help but we haven’t helped them. We couldn’t see them and that made it easy to forget they were there."

"I could see them," David admits.

"You could," Ptonomy agrees. "And they could have asked for help, but I don’t think they know how. We all made mistakes, but that’s okay because we’re going to learn from them and try not to make them again."

It all sounds very— Reasonable, when Ptonomy puts it that way. When Divad and Dvd left, it felt— Catastrophic. Final. Proof that David was every single terrible thing he’d ever thought about himself.

A lot of things have felt catastrophic and final. It was all so undeniably true.

But when he thinks that way, it’s the delusion thinking for him. It’s the parasite tricking him into letting it eat him alive. He doesn’t want to be eaten alive so he has to fight back. He has to— Love himself. Somehow. It feels wrong, very wrong, but he’s trying.

He reaches to his left and Kerry’s hand is right there. She squeezes back and it helps. He’s steady. He can do this. He nods to Ptonomy.

"I know Syd said some things that upset you," Ptonomy says, in that calming tone. "We’re not going to talk about that now. But you were upset. Did you think something that upset Dvd?"

"Yes," David admits. He tries not to think about Syd, even though she’s right there, watching him, sitting perfectly still. "I was angry and— I didn’t want them to talk to anyone. Not when I can’t—" He stops, struggling already. Divad isn’t here to keep away the panic and he can feel the edge of it. He takes Cary’s hand, too, and holds tight to him and Kerry.

"They shared your private thoughts without your permission," Ptonomy says for him. "They’re parts of you that you can’t control. They know everything about you, but you can’t read them. That’s a very unbalanced relationship."

"I have an unbalanced relationship with myself?" David asks.

"Your relationship before was— It formed in crisis. It was shaped by the pressures around you and your need to survive. From what I understand, that relationship became dysfunctional."

David stares. "What?"

"It’s difficult to say, because you can’t remember your past and Divad and Dvd are extremely reluctant to share any information they don’t have to. Their whole lives have been defined by the absolute secrecy they felt was necessary to protect you. But Dvd has made it clear that he protects you from Divad. And Divad has been verbally abusive to you."

David feels like this is all getting out of hand. "Dvd’s the one who was angry. Divad only— He left because— He said he’d calm Dvd down."

"But he hasn’t come back," Ptonomy says. "When he couldn’t help Dvd, he should have come back to help you. He must have known how upset you’d be. But he hasn’t come back."

"Maybe they can’t," David defends. "Maybe they’re trapped. That’s why I have to find them."

"This isn’t a rescue mission," Ptonomy says. "They’re not being held captive. Their lives aren’t in danger. You had a fight and they stormed out. Like— Like the fights you had with Philly."

Philly. He and Philly had a lot of fights. She was always trying to help him, but he resented her help. She was always trying to make him into something he wasn’t. She couldn’t accept that he was sick and broken. She couldn’t accept that he couldn’t be saved.

Their relationship was a disaster, but David always blamed himself. He was the one in a drug-fueled downward spiral. He was angry all the time and he took it out on her. He never understood why she kept coming back. If he hadn’t hung himself after that last fight—

"David?" Ptonomy prompts. "What are you thinking?"

David swallows. "Do you think— Maybe I shouldn’t— All we did was fight, and— That’s all I do with them."

It’s not a rescue mission. They left because he hurt them. Forcing them to come back, it would be like Philly coming back. He’ll only hurt them again. That’s what he does.

Is that— Is that the delusion thinking that? Or is it him? How can he even know? It’s like— When he looked into Lenny’s mind and couldn’t tell the difference between her thoughts and Farouk’s thoughts. It’s hard to know he’s here at all when there’s been so many other things inside him, thinking for him.

"That’s not really an option," Ptonomy says. "They’re parts of you. They can’t leave and neither can you. You need to work together and build a healthy relationship."

A healthy relationship. Is that even possible? It’s not like he’s ever been healthy enough to have one. He’s sick and everything he does is tainted by his sickness.

That’s probably the delusion again. But if the delusion is thinking all of his bad thoughts, there can’t be much left of him. It’s been eating him alive for a very long time, according to Ptonomy. How can he fix his relationship with Divad and Dvd if he’s too sick to fix himself?

"David?" Cary calls, concerned. He puts his other hand over David’s heart. "We love you and we’re here for you. You’re doing so well. We know how much you’re hurting and your pain is real."

David looks at Cary. Cary’s face is kind and his eyes are full of compassion. His hand is solid and warm against David’s chest.

Kerry touches him too, her hand on his arm. "We love you. You’re not weak or bad or wrong. You’re really strong, just like me. We’re gonna fight that delusion together. It’s not gonna win."

David looks between them, uncomprehending. Then he remembers what Ptonomy said: that they were going to love him so much he couldn’t help but love himself. That’s how they’re going to get the delusion out of him. With love.

He doesn’t deserve love. That certainty is so overwhelmingly strong, it makes it hard to even breathe. It makes him want to stop breathing because he’s such a shameful thing and he should never be loved. But he’s breathing despite his shame at every breath. Cary and Kerry are holding his hands and touching him and telling him they love him. And each breath gets a little easier and easier until the shame subsidies.

He feels like he ran a mile. He slumps back against the sofa, exhausted, and Kerry and Cary remove their free hands.

"David?" Ptonomy prompts. "Tell us what just happened to you."

David tries to find the words. "It was like— A panic attack. But— I wasn’t afraid. I was—" He stops, struggling. "Ashamed."

"A shame attack," Ptonomy says, thoughtfully. "And Cary and Kerry helped?"

David nods. He feels— It’s hard not to feel ashamed about that, too. Not because they gave him love, but— Because he accepted it and he shouldn’t have accepted it. But their love— It helped. He feels better for letting them love him, even if he feels bad about it, too.

"Shame attacks are a part of your developmental trauma," Ptonomy explains. "They’ve been as big a problem for you as your panic attacks, but no one gave you any tools to manage them. I didn’t recognize them for what they are until I learned about the disorder. I heard your thoughts but I didn’t understand them."

A shame attack. He has tools to deal with panic attacks: breathing exercises, self-soothing techniques. So much of his existence has been about managing his emotions. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that his shame can’t be controlled either.

"How do I—" David starts. "What should I do about them?"

"Shame attacks are similar to panic attacks. There’s some kind of trigger, an emotion or a memory or both. There are tools to manage the symptoms, but the only long-term solution is to deal with the source of the emotion. All of these attacks— Think of them as time capsules of emotion. You take a path that leads you to one, and when you open it, all the painful thoughts and feelings rush out and overwhelm you. You buried those time capsules yourself when you couldn’t survive what they contained. It’s part of your dissociative amnesia, too. You tried to forget but the memories and feelings don’t go away. They’re just hidden, and then you’re not prepared to deal with them when something makes them come back."

The minefield. Farouk might have buried some of those land mines, but David buried the rest of them himself. The thought of digging up all those buried memories is absolutely overwhelming. He can barely stand to remember anything at this point. But suppressing everything is why he can’t manage his emotions. God, he’s such a disaster.

"I know you’re scared," Ptonomy soothes. "Healing from developmental trauma, from complex trauma— it’s painful. Facing the truth about what happened to you— Confronting it means reliving it, including the things so terrible you dissociated from them when they happened. It’s not going to feel good to do that. Processing and grieving hurts. But what hurts more is staying unhealed. You are strong enough to heal, I truly believe that. You’re an incredibly strong person to have survived this far and if you put that strength into your healing, you will succeed. You will get to the other side of that journey and you will heal. And on top of that, you have all of us, ready to help you and give you the love you deserve. Because you absolutely deserve love, David. You deserve love. There’s no shame in love."

There’s no shame in love. David likes that. He doesn’t want to forget it so he grabs his notebook and writes it down. It’s not a part of his foundation, but he has other important words. His mantra. He takes a moment and writes it out, revises it again. He needs to remember it, repeat it, just like his foundation.

There are things I lost that I’ll never get back. But I’m here and I’m not alone. I’m loved and there’s no shame in love. I’m strong enough to heal.

Cary looks at what he wrote and makes a small noise of surprise. "What’s all this?"

"Um, my mantra," David admits. He’s thought these words so many times, but he’s never written them down. And of course Cary’s never heard his thoughts. "I’ve had mantras before, and— After you came and— You helped me a lot. Um. Thank you."

Cary looks deeply touched. He pulls David into a hug. "I’m so glad my words helped you. Thank you for staying with us."

"Can I see?" Ptonomy asks. David hands him the notebook.

"They’re not— Truths, exactly," David explains. "More like reminders. When I’m feeling— When it’s hard to keep going."

"This is excellent," Ptonomy says, smiling. "I really like this version. I’m sure we’ll find more good things to add to it."

David hopes so. They’re not much, his foundation and his mantra. But they’re hard-earned. He got them from the people who love him. They’re— They are their love for him, the pieces of it he’s been able to accept. Seeing it all together like this in his notebook, it’s— It’s more than he realized.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe the new part of his mantra is true. Maybe he really is strong enough to heal, if he did all this when everything felt so hopeless. Maybe he really has been fighting all along.

Maybe he’ll be able to get his brothers back and build a healthy relationship with them.

David takes a deep breath and lets it out. Whatever terrible things happened to the three of them, however Farouk twisted them all up— He wants to help them the way everyone else has helped him. They didn’t deserve what happened to them. Even he didn’t deserve what happened to him.

He didn’t deserve what happened to him.

They’ve been telling him that but this is the first time he's ever actually believed it.

"I need—" He reaches for the notebook and Ptonomy hands it back.

David pauses before he writes. Should this go in his foundation or his mantra? Is it a truth about himself or is it something he needs to remember? Maybe there’s not much difference between the two when it comes down to it. But they feel different. They help him in different ways. He looks at them again and makes a decision.

David is David. I didn’t deserve what happened to me, it wasn’t my choice. David is love. David survived.

Yes. That feels better. He feels— Lighter, for writing that. For believing it, for as long as he's able to believe it.

He shows the others. He's not ready to say it aloud. It's too fragile a truth for that. But even if the delusion fights back and retakes that ground, he knows he won it, if only for a moment. It was his and he can take it back again. One day he can take it back for good.

"Very good," Ptonomy says, impressed. "I think we're almost done. I want to give you one more thing before we move on. It's a compassion exercise. It's a way for you to help yourself when we can't be with you."

"Okay," David says, paying attention.

"When you feel a shame attack coming on, don't fight your emotions. Don't dissociate from them. Stay with them and put your hand over your heart, just like Cary did." Ptonomy puts his hand over his heart. "And then I want you to say something kind to yourself. That could be your mantra or your foundation or anything you feel able to say with love. Say it to yourself, just like Cary and Kerry said things to you. Keep doing it until the attack is over."

David puts his hand over his heart and practices. I didn't deserve what happened to me, it wasn't my choice. David is love. David survived.

"How does that feel?" Ptonomy asks.

David tries it again. It feels— New. Awkward and a little strange. It doesn't feel as good as when Cary and Kerry did it, but— It does feel good. "I think it'll help," he decides.

"I think so, too," Ptonomy says, warmly. "Do you feel ready to go talk to Divad and Dvd?"

David nods. It's not a rescue mission. No one is in any danger. But he does need to help Divad and Dvd the way he's been helped. He needs to bring them back so they can be part of the world, too, however much that's possible. They have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but he wants them to get better. He wants them to get better together.

Chapter Text

"Kerry and I have spent our lives able to go inside of each other," Cary explains to David. "That's how our system works, and we believe that's how your system works as well. There is a place inside of you and Divad and Dvd were able to go there."

"What's it like?" David asks, looking to Cary and then Kerry. If anyone should be the expert on being inside someone else, it's Kerry. "Being inside Cary, what was it like?"

"It was a lot of different things," Kerry says, considering. "Most of the time I was just in his body with him. That's when I was— A passenger. I watched and I talked to him and he talked to me. If I wanted to do something myself, I brought my body out of him."

"When I first went into Kerry," Cary says, "it was quite traumatic. I couldn't— I didn't know how to be inside her that way. So I pulled back. I went deeper, and I found myself in our childhood home."

Kerry nods. "That's where I went sometimes, if things were really scary. Just— Deep inside, where nothing could touch me. If I went deep enough I couldn't even hear Cary." She reaches for David's hand and takes it, and David gives her a comforting squeeze. It feels good to be able to help her the way she helps him.

"So that's where they are?" David asks, looking to Cary again. "Some— Imaginary version of my childhood home?"

"The inner world of a DID system could be almost anything," Cary explains. "But generally it's a place of safety. Identities in a system are traumatized and need a way to survive the same conditions that formed them. They need a refuge from the world. The inner world is the ultimate refuge. It's a form of dissociation so deep that the identities inside can cut themselves off completely. It appears that Divad and Dvd can't hear you or your thoughts or they surely would've come back by now."

David's not so sure about that. Dvd was furious, and Divad— David's not sure why Divad won't come back. Philly never left for long after their fights. If Divad is similar to anyone in David's life, it's Philly. He doesn't need to remember their past together to recognize that. But that doesn't give David any great confidence that he can get Divad to come back and build a healthy relationship. Or that he should.

"Could I hear them there, if— If I had my powers?" David asks. "Could Oliver hear them?"

"I believe so," Cary says. "Oliver was able to hear Kerry. That's how he knew she was real even though she wouldn't come out in front of anyone but me. He listened to my thoughts and heard two people thinking instead of one."

"Listening to my head must keep him busy," David says, lightly even as he realizes how true it is. He only hears himself but it's no wonder Oliver keeps calling his thoughts loud when he has three people's worth of thoughts at once. What was it he said they were? A resounding burble.

"Do you have any idea what your inner world looks like?" Cary asks. "Farouk made you forget, but perhaps you've seen it since we got him out of you?"

David's not sure, but— "In the desert, after Syd— I was knocked out and I woke up in my childhood bedroom. That's where I first saw Divad and Dvd." He doesn't want anyone to fire another bullet at his head, but— "Do you have to knock me out? Sedate me?" Maybe it's like the memory walk where they needed to lower his defenses.

"I don't think that will be necessary," Cary says. "Your inner world is a part of you. All you have to do is— Dissociate."

David shifts, tightens his hold on Kerry's hand. "Dissociating isn't good for me. It makes me vulnerable." Dissociating himself into some altered mental state— It sounds too much like going away, and he doesn't want to go away.

"It does," Cary admits. "But it's a powerful survival tool. It's how your system works. Dissociation will always be a part of your life because you are always dissociating as Divad and Dvd. I dissociate sometimes and so does Kerry. Not as drastically as you, but— That's how we learned to be when we learned to be people. Denying that means denying who we are. That's never healthy. What's healthy is accepting ourselves. That helps us to figure out what we need to thrive."

David tries to process that. Self-acceptance and being healthy and thriving— That all sounds impossibly out of reach. And now he has to accept his dissociation, too, just when he learned that he needs to avoid it. It's all more than he can deal with. He needs to focus on finding his inner world, so he can focus on helping Divad and Dvd.

"How about instead of dissociating, you meditate?" Ptonomy suggests. "Many main members say that the best way to reach their inner world is through meditation. How about we give that a try?"

David relaxes and nods. He can handle meditation. That's always helped him feel better anyway. He shifts into a lotus position and makes himself comfortable. "Okay. Now what?"

"Think of your childhood bedroom," Cary says. "Visualize it. What's a strong image that you can focus on?"

That's easy. "My lamp."

"Syd, can you bring over the lamp?" Ptonomy asks.

Syd brings it over and puts it on the coffee table, and they plug it in. The motor creaks to life, casting stars from its blue shade. David watches it turn. He already feels calmer, safer, more relaxed.

"Keep focusing on the lamp," Ptonomy soothes. "Think of how it makes you feel. Think of how safe you felt watching it in your bedroom. Let your memories of it guide you and pull you deeper."

David lets his eyes close and listens to the lamp turning.

"Very good," Ptonomy says, his voice soft and lulling. "Now think about Divad and Dvd. Reach out to them. Feel where they are. See them in your bedroom. See them with the lamp."

Divad and Dvd. They're inside him. They're in his bedroom. They're with the lamp. He remembers them in the inner world, Dvd sitting in the rocking chair, Divad standing against the wall. He didn't know what was happening or who they were but he accepted all of it, he let them help him. He has to accept them so he can help them. He has to reach them.

He feels almost like he's falling asleep, like he's drifting away from his body. But the sound of the lamp carries him along. It's like astral projection, but inside his own mind. He should have thought of that sooner.

He opens his eyes. He's sitting on his childhood bed.

Dvd is sitting in the rocking chair and staring at him in complete surprise. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"David?" Divad asks, turning around. He's sitting at David's childhood desk. "You shouldn't be here."

"Get the hell out, Fake David," Dvd says, angrily.

And then David is out. He opens his eyes and sees the lamp.

"David?" Cary asks, concerned.

"They kicked me out," David says, shocked. "Dvd— He called me Fake David."

"That can't be good," Cary says, worried.

Dvd's always been so insistent that David is the same person as Past David. Does this mean he changed his mind? Did he find some memory that proved David isn't Past David, the opposite of the memory that was supposed to prove they're the same?

That should make him panic, but it just makes him angry.

"I'm going back," David says, and closes his eyes. It's just like astral projecting and he knows how to do that. He opens his eyes and he's back on the bed.

"Dvd—" he starts, but Dvd is already standing and glaring and—

David opens his eyes and he's back on the sofa. "He did it again," he says, exasperated.

Cary is at a loss. "I've never dealt with anything like this," he admits.

"Dvd is strong," Ptonomy says. "But you're strong, too. You have just as much right to be there as he does. Don't let him push you out. Make yourself stay."

David could think about the irony of having to work hard to stay in a deep dissociative trance, but he's too annoyed for irony. It's his bedroom and his inner world and no one's kicking him out of it.

He closes his eyes and projects himself back again, and this time he's barely inside before he feels a force pushing him back. He pushes against it, determined to make it through. Dvd is strong, but David's strong, too. He has to get through to them because he can't fix their relationship if he can't talk to them, and he can't talk to them if he can't get through.

And then suddenly the pressure stops and David is back on the bed. Dvd is grappling with Divad, trying to get free of him. David hurries off the bed and over to them. "Please stop," David begs them, trying to figure out how to get between them. He grabs Dvd's arm and Dvd elbows him hard in the chest. David staggers back, gasping.

"Now look what you did!" Divad hisses.

"It wasn't my fault!" Dvd protests, but his anger subsides into grumpiness. "He's not David anyway, stop fretting over him. It's a waste of our time."

David sits down on the bed, holding his sore chest. It's the same spot where Cary put his hand when he said loving things to help David through his shame attack. If it bruises here, will it bruise on his actual body? Probably not.

David might be holding his hand over his heart, but he's not feeling ashamed and he's definitely not feeling very loving. "I'm here to get you back," he says to them, angrily. He winces and rubs his chest. It really feels like it's going to bruise.

"Not interested," Dvd says. He sits back down in the rocking chair and crosses his arms defiantly.

"David, you shouldn't be here," Divad says, standing over him. "You should be with your friends. How did you even get here?"

"My friends helped me," David says, pointedly. "And I thought you said they were our friends."

"He was lying," Dvd says, with a cold smirk. "We were both lying. They're not our friends, they'll never be our friends, and we don't want them anyway."

"You're not helping," Divad says, exasperated.

"Pretending isn't going to bring David back," Dvd says back. "He's dead. It's over. And I'm done fooling myself that this thing is anything like him. Take that delusion and cram it up your ass."

David suddenly understands why Ptonomy insisted on all that extra love therapy before allowing him to go after Divad and Dvd. If he'd just gone here directly, he'd be a wreck already. Dvd's words hurt worse than his chest, but David has his foundation and his mantra and his heart is full of his friends' love. These are his brothers and he's not going to give up on them.

"Oh, now we're your brothers?" Dvd sneers, furious. "You will never be my brother. My brother was David. You're not David and you never will be."

"Stop that," Divad scolds.

"You're still pretending," Dvd says back. "Give up. You know I'm right, I'm always right. You just shove the truth down so you can pretend you're right. You shove everything down and it's pathetic. It's bullshit. You've never been honest with David a single day in our life."

"I thought he wasn't David," Divad points out.

"Fuck you," Dvd snarls. "You've never been honest with anyone. I'm always honest. I tell people exactly how I feel and if they don't like it, that's their problem."

"It sure is," Divad drawls. "You're everyone's problem. And just because I don't see the world in black and white, that doesn't make me a liar. David's different, of course he's different, we're all different than we were. But it's a delusion that he's someone else and somehow I'm the only one who can see that."

"Um," David says. "I— Might be me?" He's not sure, he still doesn't have any proof, but— He feels more real and more like a person than he did before. It’s hard not to feel real when he feels so much love.

Divad smiles. "David, that's great! Your friends did that?"

"Yeah," David says, and thinks about Cary and Kerry's loving words, about Ptonomy's kindness and his determination. "They're— They've really helped me. I couldn't see it until now, I was—" He couldn't see past the pain, past the delusion. Everything they tried to give him, all the nutritious ideas Kerry said he needs, the delusion ate them so he couldn't. That's what parasites do, they starve the host so the host will be weak and helpless.

Divad sits down beside him. "That's why you can't be here. That's why you need to stay with your friends."

"You need them, too," David insists. "Both of you need them. You need help, just like I do. You're sick."

"Wow," Dvd says, rocking back in his chair. "They really did a number on you." He looks to Divad. "I told you they'd mess him up."

"What do you care, you don't even think he's David," Divad points out. "David, we don't need help. We're the ones who help you. We protect you and we know what's best for you."

"No," David insists. "You were tortured, too. You're traumatized, just like me. You have to come back so Ptonomy can help you, so all our friends can help you the way they've helped me."

Dvd rolls his eyes. "Oh please."

Divad looks less certain. "If Dvd thinks something's the wrong idea, that usually means it's the right one."

"You agreed that staying here was the right thing to do," Dvd challenges.

"Not for the same reason."

"Forget it," Dvd says. "I'm not going back there so they can pick our brains. Group therapy for David was one thing. But that's not David and no one touches this." He jabs at his head with a finger.

"Why did you want to stay?" David asks Divad. Dvd's angry, he understands that. Dvd has good reason to be angry. But that doesn't explain why Divad didn't want to come back.

Divad doesn't answer.

"See?" Dvd says. "That's what I've had to deal with. The moment things get real he just shuts down. Oh, he'll come up with a good story, and it will just sound so logical and reasonable. It's probably even true. But it's just the kind of half-truth bullshit the shit beetle uses."

"You take that back," Divad riles.

"Not a chance," Dvd says, smugly. "I don't care if that thing isn't David. At least someone else can finally see the real you. I don't have any brothers. I'm the only real one left. He's a delusion and you're a shit bee—"

Dvd doesn't get to finish because Divad stands up and socks him across the jaw. David gapes as they start fighting again, really fighting. If he can't stop them, they're going to kill each other. His mind is— It's tearing itself apart right in front of him. He doesn't know what to do. He could go back to his friends and ask for advice, but they can't do anything. They can't trap Divad and Dvd and gas them and put crowns on their heads until they agree to cooperate. They're literally just pieces of David's mind.

There's only one option. He has to make it so they can't hide. He has to force them to be outside, like Kerry was forced to be outside of Cary. That helped her, it has to help them. That means— David has to kick them out of himself and keep them out. He doesn't know if he's strong enough to do that, but he has to try.

All of this, it's all in his mind, his mind. And in his mind, he decides what's real and what's not. Just like the white room. This is just another white room, and if he can make a white room, he can unmake one. If he can bring his brothers into a white room, he can take them out of one and keep them out. They're all identities but he's the main identity. He's the one whose name is the same as the name attached to his body. He created them to protect himself. It's time he returned the favor.

He stands up and raises his hands and the room starts to shake, like the rooms shook in the memory walks that went wrong. David steps on something hard and looks down to see his rocket lamp is shattered on the floor, ceramic fragments everywhere. They broke his lamp?

Okay, now he's pissed.

The room is really shaking now and books are falling off the shelves. Divad and Dvd finally stop beating the crap out of each other long enough to look up and see what's going on. Their eyes widen with realization, but it's too late.

And then David is back on the sofa between Kerry and Cary. The inner world is gone. Dvd and Divad are both sitting in the beanbags, wounded and scruffed from their fight and staring at David in shock. David imagines himself as a fortress, like Division 3's compounds, with thick steel and concrete walls, impenetrable and guarded.

"You're here and you're going to get help," he tells them both, to the surprise of everyone else. "You're going to talk to Ptonomy and you're going to get better. We're all going to get better. Is that clear?"

Dvd struggles out of the beanbag chair and stands up. "Fuck you, Fake David." He storms off but he can't leave the lab, because Dvd can only go as far as David's senses allow him to go. David can't actually astrally project so Dvd can't leave the room. Dvd kicks the wall in frustration and sits in the farthest chair so he faces away from everyone and sulks, furious.

"Fine," Divad says, coldly. "I'll talk to Ptonomy and he'll see that I don't need anything, except maybe to not have to listen to either of you for the rest of my life."

David prays for strength. He has no doubt he's going to need it.

"Ptonomy," he says, turning to look at him. "I have two new patients for you. They're invisible and you can't hear them and they both hate me and I can't let them into my body. Is that going to be a problem?"

Ptonomy visibly considers this. "Not a problem. Though it’ll be easier to help them once Oliver gets back."

"Oh, thank god," David says, and slumps back against the sofa. He hopes Oliver gets back really soon.

Chapter Text

David's body is a fortress. His mind is the only one allowed inside it, his mind and his alone. Nothing can enter him and nothing can pull him out. His mind and his body are one. They are unified and inseparable.

There's still an arm sticking out of his chest. The hand's middle finger is raised at him.

"Will you please stop doing that?" David pleads, strained. It’s very hard to concentrate when he has a rude arm sticking out of his chest.

"It's my body, too," Dvd insists. "I'll put whatever I want in it and you can't stop me."

"Gross," Divad snickers.

Dvd continues to move parts of himself through David. A leg, an arm, his head. It's incredibly disturbing and obnoxious, which is the point. That's why David is meditating, or trying to meditate, so he can ignore all of this nonsense and keep his brothers here so they can get the help they need.

At least he still has his rocket lamp. They can't break this one because they can't touch it.

"Oh, I’ll break it," Dvd promises, his head sticking out of David's shoulder. "As soon as I'm back in my body, I'm throwing this one against the wall, too. And then I'll stomp on all the pieces so no one can ever put it back together, ever."

David gives up trying to meditate. He stands up from the sofa and walks away, not that it will make any difference. His brothers go wherever he goes. Trapping them here means he’s trapped with them, too. And now that he’s done with his sulk, Dvd is taking the opportunity to remind David of that. Constantly. It’s torture.

"Torture is listening to your fake, suicidal thoughts sixteen hours a day," Dvd snarls. "Torture is listening to you tell us over and over that we’re fake, that we’re hallucinations. Well fuck you, Fake David. You’re the fake one and I’m gonna torture you until you actually do kill yourself because apparently that’s the only way I can stop listening to you."

Divad is less entertained by that. "I’m mad at him too, but don’t you think that’s a bit much?"

"If you don’t want to hear my thoughts, then don’t," David says, tersely.

"You think we never tried?" Divad says. "This is how we work."

"We had our bedroom," Dvd says. "When it was too much, that’s where we could go. We could lock the door and keep everything out. But Fake David couldn’t stand that. Fake David had to destroy the only home we’ve ever known."

"It was my bedroom," David defends. "It was just a white room."

"It was our home," Dvd shouts, furious. "You want us here so badly? You got us. And I’m going to dedicate every second I’m stuck here to driving you out out of what’s left of your fake mind."

"That’s enough," Divad says, getting between them. "David isn’t fake. Stop punishing him!"

"I haven’t even started yet," Dvd says, with a maniacal grin. "You got to yell at David for years. Now it’s my turn. Good luck keeping Fake David safe from me. I was always stronger than you and no one gets in my way."

David sits down at the table and puts his face in his hands. This is— It seemed like a good idea at the time, forcing his brothers to accept treatment just like he was forced to. They were killing each other, he didn’t know what else to do.

"I wasn’t gonna kill Divad," Dvd says, leaning over him. "But I’m absolutely gonna kill you. I won’t even have to touch you. I’ll just do what Divad always did. You’re a piece of shit, Fake David. You ruin everything. You’re hurting our parents, you’re hurting Amy. You’re a mess and you’re destroying our life. Do everyone a favor and hang yourself, Fake David."

"Hey!" Divad shouts, furious himself now. "That’s not what I said."

"That’s what you meant," Dvd shouts back. "That’s how David felt and you knew it, but that didn’t stop you. You wanted him to kill us. Well I’m finally on your side. Let’s do it. Let’s kill this delusion once and for all."

Divad lunges at Dvd, but David doesn’t try to break up this fight. He can’t touch them, not without leaving his body, and if he does that he won’t be able to stop them from going back inside him and never coming out again. Even if the inner world is gone, he can’t stop them from making another one. He only got them out before because he caught them by surprise. He can’t— This was all such a mistake. He’s so stupid, why did he think he could help them?

"Hey," Ptonomy says, sitting next to him. "What just happened? You said you’d be our relay until Oliver gets back."

"Nothing worth repeating," David says, even though his throat is tight and he’s on the verge of tears. "Dvd wants me to kill myself. Now they’re fighting again." He wipes at his eyes. "I shouldn’t have— I hurt them again. I ruined things again. I’m sorry, I know— I know I have to be strong, but—"

He tries to do the compassion exercise, to give himself love. He tries but he can’t. It feels like lies and it makes him feel worse for even trying. He thought he was doing the right thing and he ruined everything again. God, why doesn’t he ever learn?

He deserves to be eaten alive by his delusion parasite. Maybe if it eats what little is left of him, his body will be an empty shell and Divad and Dvd can share it. They’ll finally be free of him that way.

"Whatever he said, I know Dvd doesn’t mean it," Ptonomy soothes. "He has a short temper and you set it off. He’ll cool down, he just needs time."

"No," David says. "This was a mistake, I can’t— I’m not strong enough to help them."

"That’s because you’re trying to do this on your own."

"You can’t talk to them without Oliver."

"We can all talk to them," Ptonomy says. "They don’t have to listen but we can talk. You just have to be our relay and tell us what they’re saying. Let us help you so you can help them."

"Right now they’re not saying anything," David says, glancing over at his brothers. "They’re just tearing each other to pieces again." Because of him, he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t need to. All of this is his fault on every level. He made them, he trapped them with him, his thoughts tortured them just like the monster did, and now he’s forced them out of the only refuge they had so he can torture them with his thoughts again. And he can’t even stop himself from thinking all that despite knowing it hurts them to hear it. Forget his apology loop, this is— This is a torture loop. Farouk must be absolutely delighted. He turned David into a— A perpetual torture machine.

It won’t take long for Dvd to make him want to kill himself. It’s not like David ever really stopped wanting to, he just hasn’t been able to do anything about it. Dvd doesn’t care if all of David’s friends are tortured for decades. Dvd probably doesn’t even care if killing David kills his brothers, too. Suicide-by-proxy would probably be a relief.

"Okay," Ptonomy says, mouth set in a firm line. "Point to where they are."

David looks and points. They’re grappling with each other and their legs are going through the cot supports.

Ptonomy stands up and walks over to the cots. "Divad! Dvd! You’re supposed to protect David. Instead you’re making him worse. He’s trying to help you and this is how you treat him?"

"Fuck off, robot," Dvd snarls, catching Divad in a chokehold. "I’m not letting you crawl into my head."

Ptonomy looks to David.

"Dvd said he doesn’t want to talk," David says.

"You’re paraphrasing," Ptonomy says. "I need to hear his exact words."

David winces and complies. "Sorry," he finishes.

"You’re just their relay, like Oliver has been. We know it’s not you. Just keep relaying and tell us what they’re doing and where they are." Ptonomy turns back to Dvd and Divad. "Right now your head is the last thing I care about," he says, coldly. "What you’re doing to David is cruel. He hurt you by mistake. You’re doing it on purpose. David said you called Divad a shit beetle. Who’s the shit beetle now?"

David gapes in awe. He hasn’t heard Ptonomy this furious since— Since the Summerland memory work. And he’s angrier now.

"You take that back!" Dvd snarls. He lets go of Divad and gets up into Ptonomy’s face, even though Ptonomy can’t see him.

"You’re pathetic," Ptonomy spits. "You’re a bully and you’re weak, just like the monster. You want to make David break down? He’s already broken. We just managed to make some real progress while you were gone, and the moment you get back you’re hard at work taking all of that away from him. Farouk is a sadistic psychopath. What’s your excuse?"

Dvd is actually speechless for a moment. Then he riles. "I’m not doing anything to him that he hasn’t done to us."

David relays that, despite how horrified that makes him feel. If that’s really the truth—

"You’re saying you want to kill yourselves?" Ptonomy asks, tone softer but still firm.

"Of course we do," Divad says, standing up and straightening his rumpled clothes. "But we have to stay to keep David safe or alive or— We have to try."

"Why didn’t you tell me?" David asks them, after relaying their words.

"You used to know," Divad says. "And since we got back— We couldn’t keep you safe, we couldn’t protect you. The least we could do is not make you worse, and we can’t do that either."

David forces himself to relay before replying. "Everything makes me worse. All I am is worse." God, he really has been doing to them what Dvd was doing to him. "I’m so, so sorry, I—" He swallows. "I shouldn’t have made you come back. If you want to go back, I’ll— I’ll make a new bedroom, a whole house, anything. All of this is— It’s my mess, not yours. Please, you should— Some part of me should be safe."

David can’t say anymore. He sobs and turns away, trying not to cry and failing, as usual. He can't kill himself; he has to stay alive so they can live. He should do that for them. If they stay in the inner world, it won’t matter what happens to him, they’ll still be safe. Farouk needs him alive so David won’t be allowed to die no matter what he does to the world. Farouk must have hated them having a refuge. He would have destroyed it if he could. He couldn’t, just like he couldn’t get rid of Divad and Dvd, but David could. David doesn’t want them to leave, but— He won’t force them to stay. They don't deserve any more suffering.

"Neither do you," Divad says. He sits down next to David. "Maybe Dvd’s given up on you but I haven’t. I didn’t want to come back because— Because your friends have been able to do everything I couldn’t. I thought I could save you because I knew what was best for you and— That was my delusion. You can’t— You can’t say you’ll stay alive and give up on yourself at the same time."

"I can do a lot of impossible things," David says, tightly. "It doesn’t matter what I want. You know that. It’s not up to me. You have a choice. You should take it while you still can. All of this— It’s not going to last. Nothing good ever lasts. Please let me save you."

Divad doesn’t reply, and David thinks that’s that. He lets down all his mental guards so they can go back inside him. The inner world is still gone but it should be easy to make a new one for them. It’s like the mainframe. Amy and Ptonomy and Lenny are safe in the mainframe. Divad and Dvd will be safe in the inner world. He still has to worry about— About Kerry and Cary and Syd, but— There must be a way to save them, too. And Clark and his family. If Benny is still alive somewhere, and Philly— He can’t think of anyone else, but— If there’s anyone left that he ever cared about, anyone Farouk would hurt just to hurt him, he’ll do everything he can to save them. He can’t save himself but he can try to save them.

"That’s the kind of stupid, self-sacrificing crap David thought all the time," Dvd grumbles, sitting down at the table. "It never worked then. I don’t know why you think it’ll work now."

"Does that mean he’s not a delusion?" Divad asks.

Dvd makes a noncommittal noise. "If he is a copy of David, he’s a pretty good copy. I’m not saying I won’t take him up on that offer. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to stick around for a while. See if we can find that memory."

"Was I— Did I— Try to save everyone?" David asks. He doesn’t know. He can’t remember ever doing anything good for anyone. He can't remember anything.

"You tried to save us," Divad says. "Did you forget that’s how you made us?"

David wipes his eyes. "If that was me saving you, I did a terrible job."

"Now you know how we feel," Divad says. "But you tried. You always tried to protect us even though we’re supposed to protect you. And you did, in your way. You made our bedroom for us. You— You took a lot of pain for us. Too much."

"Not enough, if you—" David swallows. "If you want to die, too."

"It was too much for all of us," Divad admits. "Maybe— We do need to talk to Ptonomy. Losing you was— I don’t want to tell you how bad it was. You don’t need to know."

"You know everything about me," David counters. "It’s not fair if— If you don’t share back. It’s— Unbalanced."

"It’s not supposed to be balanced," Dvd says. "We know, you don’t. That’s how we work."

"How’s that fair to you?" David asks. "How’s it fair to me? Can we— Not work that way anymore?"

"We tried," Divad says. "We can’t stop hearing your thoughts. That’s why we went to the inner world. If things were too much for us, we could leave. But you couldn’t. The monster wouldn’t let you. That’s why you would go away instead. That was your escape: catatonic oblivion. At least Dvd and I had each other in our bedroom. You didn’t even have yourself."

No wonder they were so surprised when David showed up in their bedroom. The only reason he was in it before was because they brought him there to help him, once they finally could. And he destroyed it before he even understood it, before he knew it was a thing he could have. Again.

"I think—" Divad continues. "I think that’s what gave him the idea. He took us away from you and then he took you away from yourself."

"In college?" David asks. "Please, tell me what happened."

"No," Divad says. "You’re not ready. We’re not making you worse."

"It doesn’t matter," David insists.

"It does," Divad says. "Your friends are right. We have to go slow or we’ll hurt you. We hurt you enough today already."

"It doesn’t matter," David says again. It doesn’t matter if he suffers. He’s supposed to suffer. Maybe that’s the delusion thinking for him, but it feels so true that either it’s true for both himself and the parasite, or there’s nothing left of him and he is the parasite.

"What’s this parasite?" Dvd asks, suspiciously. "The shit beetle’s gone. Gone from our body, anyway. He’s definitely gone."

"It’s more of a— Ptonomy, can you explain about the parasite?"

"Of course." Ptonomy sits down in an empty chair. He must know where Divad and Dvd are sitting just from watching David talk to them. David forgot to relay again. He hopes it wasn’t too confusing, only hearing one-third of the conversation. Everyone must be used to it by now.

"David has something called developmental or complex trauma. That's why he hated himself even before he made the both of you. Young children in abusive environments, they accept the world around them. David's world was— Horrifically abusive. But accepting that world meant believing there was a reason for everything in it. That meant the terrible things were happening to him because they were meant to happen, because he deserved it. That's the delusion, the parasite that's grown inside him for decades. That's why he wants to kill himself. It's eating him alive. It's eating you, too."

"Excuse me?" Dvd says, and David relays. "We did not deserve to be tortured."

"David was very young when he made you. None of you knew the world could be any other way. You believed what he believed, just like you believed King was real. And you are parts of David, the parts he tried to save. Dvd, you're the part of David that uses anger to protect himself. But you still accept that your abuse and the world are inseparable. Instead of blaming yourself like David does, you turn your anger on the world. And Divad— You're the part of David that suppresses his emotions to deny his pain. You turn to logic to protect you, because if you could only make the right decisions with a clear head, the bad things would stop happening. But you can’t control everything, and when bad things keep happening you lose control and your anger controls you."

David looks at his brothers and they look back. For once, they all feel the same way. David doesn't need to hear their thoughts to know that. He can see it on their faces. He can see it on his face.

They're three separate people, but— They're the same person. They're him. They're his anger at the world for hurting him and at himself for deserving to be hurt. They're the coping mechanisms he uses to survive. He can't control his emotions because Divad has all his control. He can’t stay angry because Dvd has all his anger. His shame matches Dvd's fury and his fantasizing matches Divad’s logic.

They're all him and they're all infected. The parasite is eating them all alive and it's been tearing them apart for so long. It's what tore him apart in the first place. The delusion that he deserves his suffering is why— It's why he dissociated so much he broke into pieces. Because he deserved to suffer but he needed to save himself, and that was the only way he could do both at once.

Or try to. He might have been able to help himself, but there was a monster in his head, making sure nothing could ever help him. Keeping him from the refuge of his inner world. Preventing anyone from believing him and creating the illusion of schizophrenia so anyone who tried to help him would only hurt him. And then the monster found a way to cut him off from the parts of himself he needed to survive and stole his memories and his self-knowledge so he couldn't defend himself at all, so he'd be completely helpless, weak and docile and trusting and drugged, turning David Haller into the perfect victim, the perfect feast laid out on the table to be consumed.

But the monster is gone. The delusion isn't, but the monster is out of his head. They got him out.

"Yeah," Dvd says, roughly. "They got him out. Your friends."

"Our friends," Divad says. "Tell Ptonomy— Tell him thank you for understanding us."

David relays for both of them, for himself. He tells Ptonomy everything he just realized. He doesn't just think it, he says it, and that makes it real.

"I could still be a copy," he continues, forcing himself to say it aloud. "Farouk could have— Deluded me into thinking I'm David. But— Even if I am, I'm still— I'm still David, because David is David Haller's— Shame. I'm David Haller's shame."

Anger saved Dvd and denial saved Divad. But David couldn't escape his pain so he accepted it, and it just kept coming and coming and—

"David, you are so much more than shame," Ptonomy tells him. "You're love. You're joy. You're grief. You're every emotion and feeling a person can have, because you are a person. Divad and Dvd are people too, not just parts of David Haller. You're all real and you all deserve to be more than the ways you've survived. You never deserved what happened to you. You never deserved to be victims. You don't have to be victims anymore, not if you let us help you. All of you, not just David. You can become survivors. You can learn how to thrive."

"How?" Divad asks, and David relays. "What do we do?"

"What I already showed David," Ptonomy says. "The only thing that will kill the delusion is love. It's compassion for yourselves and each other. It's the love you share and the love of the people around you. Love is how David felt strong enough to find you and try to help you. Love is how you two were able to fight so hard to protect him. All three of you had ways to escape what was happening to you. David could have gone away. Divad and Dvd could have stayed in the inner world. But you didn't abandon each other or anyone else. You love too much for that, no matter what the monster did to you and no matter how much he made you hurt yourselves and other people. David Haller's love survived. You are all David Haller's love."

David looks at his brothers again. Dvd's violent and hostile, Divad's controlling and critical, and David's— Passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed.

But— Ptonomy showed him before. Cary and Kerry showed him. Being loved— It weakened the delusion, if only for a while. It's hard to believe that any part of David Haller deserves to be loved at all. But they love David Haller anyway. Amy's always loved them. Syd loves them. His friends love them. Even if they gave that love to David, they gave it to all the parts of David Haller. They didn't only love one part of him. Amy said— She said it didn't matter if he was two different Davids or three separate people. He was her Davey.

Dvd frowns. "She didn't know we were there."

David relays that, and Ptonomy says, "She knows you're here now. Amy, can you join us?"

The Vermillion sits down next to Ptonomy. "Hey Dvd," Amy says. "I was just telling David how much I wanted us to be able to sit down together as a family. You and Divad are my brothers. Even though I couldn't see you, you've always been my brothers and I have always loved you. Just like I've always loved David. I love all three of my baby brothers."

Dvd crosses his arms, but it looks more protective than defiant. "You're just saying that. You don't mean it. You're lying."

"I wish you could read my mind," Amy says, responding to David's relay. "I want you to know exactly how much I love you. But there's so many things stopping that. So you have to trust me, and I know it's really hard for you to trust anyone. I haven't been very good at trusting people either. When you're the one who protects, when you have to be the strong one all the time, it's really hard to let anyone help you. Especially if—" She turns to David. "Especially if you think that's the only way to protect the person you're helping."

"Amy?" David asks, worried.

"I'm not okay, David," Amy admits. "I'm dead. I died, I— I was trapped and afraid and I thought I would be like that for the rest of my life. I'm still trapped and afraid. My husband is dead. My life is— Everything is gone except you. You're all I have left and I'm so afraid of losing you. I'm afraid I'll lose you because you won't tell me when you're being hurt because you don't want to see me cry. And that's— That's so selfish, David. It's so selfish of you to do that to both of us." She takes a shaky breath. She's crying. "I'm selfish, too. I thought I knew what was best for you and I was wrong. I didn't listen when you asked for help. I didn't know how to help you, and so— I stopped trying. Divad and Dvd never stopped trying. They did so much more for you than I ever could because they're closer to you than anyone will ever be. And I'm— I'm jealous of them. Even when Oliver lets me hear your thoughts, we're still so far apart. The three of you will always be together. Nothing can pull you apart. Nothing can kill the people you share your life with."

David reaches out his hand and the Vermillion takes it. Amy's right, there's so much between them. There's always been too much between them, too many walls and barriers and silences.

"I'm sorry," David says, meaningfully. "I'm so sorry for everything."

"I know you are," Amy says, and it sounds like she's smiling through her tears. "But I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to talk to me. I want to be able to talk to you. I want Divad and Dvd to be part of our family the way they always should have been. You three are my family. I love all three of my brothers, and I hope— I hope all of my brothers can forgive me for hurting them. I hope we can all love each other."

David looks to Divad and Dvd, hoping they're ready to forgive Amy for Clockworks, too. But they're not.

"They're not ready," David says for them, regretful. "But— I forgive you."

"David—" Amy starts.

"I know," David says. "I know I feel like I deserve to be hurt and that makes it easy to— To forgive. But I gave all my anger to Dvd and my denial to Divad so— I just have to accept. What happened. What I am. I can't keep— I'm trying to not punish myself because— It hasn't helped me. It makes me worse. I don't want to be worse. I love you and it was everyone's fault and— if I have to forgive everyone to have you back, then I forgive everyone. I forgive Doctor Kissinger and the staff and you and— And even myself. Or I'm trying. That's— That's all I have to do, right? I just have to keep trying to get better."

It's the hardest thing he's ever done, getting better. Not that he can remember to know the difference, but it's breathtakingly hard. He's trying to get better anyway. With everything he has, he's trying. And he knows— He knows that Divad and Dvd are trying, too. Because they're parts of him and they never give up, they're too stubborn. Amy said he was always stubborn. He was always the most impossible, difficult little brother in the world, no matter which part of him was looking out through his eyes.

"That's all you have to do," Ptonomy says, warmly. "That's all any of us can do. Divad and Dvd, I hope you'll stay with us and try, because you don't deserve to be in pain any more than David does. You've been alone for a long time but you're not alone anymore. You have David again. You have us. Together we will do everything we can to make sure that this time is different. This time the monster won't win. I know that must be difficult to believe. But you don't have to believe it if you let us believe it for you."

David looks to Divad and Dvd. They're both so resistant. They can't believe that this time is different. David barely believes it himself. But a tiny part of him does. A tiny part of a part of David Haller has hope again, so that means all of David Haller has a tiny bit of hope again.

"I'll try," Divad relents, but he doesn't look thrilled about it. "If only because Ptonomy figured out how to make you accept that you're actually David. If he could do that—" He shrugs.

David relays that, then looks to Dvd. Dvd doesn't look back. His crossed arms look defiant again. "No," he says, firmly, and sets his jaw.

David looks to Ptonomy and tells him.

"Okay," Ptonomy accepts. "Divad, thank you. I truly believe we can help you. And Dvd, I hope you'll reconsider. But this has to be your choice, just like it was David's choice and Divad's choice."

"Do you want to go back to your bedroom?" David asks.

"No," Dvd says. "You destroyed it. If you make a new one, it won't be the same."

"Dvd," Divad says, concerned.

"Leave me alone," Dvd says. "Just— Leave me alone." He stands up and walks over to the door to guard it. "You two do whatever you have to do. I'm the one who keeps us safe, so that's what I have to do."

David relays to Ptonomy, and Ptonomy nods. "Cary, can you put a chair by the door? Dvd needs to sit there."

"Of course," Cary says, and brings one over. David directs him to place it where Dvd is standing. Once Cary stands back, Dvd rolls his eyes but sits down in the chair. He doesn't say anything, but he does look a tiny bit less defiant.

"You wish," Dvd mutters, hearing his thought.

"What now?" Divad asks, and David relays.

Ptonomy looks at the clock. "Now we have dinner. Dvd, would you like to join us?"

"I don't need to eat," Dvd says.

"Neither do I. Neither does Amy or Divad. We'd still like your company."

Dvd pointedly doesn't respond.

"Kerry and I will go get our order," Cary says. He turns to Dvd. "You keep everyone safe while we're away, okay?"

Dvd gives him the finger. David tactfully declines to relay it to Cary.

Chapter Text

This whole therapy thing is a bad idea. Everything is a bad idea.

Dvd watches everyone sitting around the table together, eating and talking, and he knows it's all bullshit. They're all in denial, pretending that Farouk isn't peering into their minds, prying inside them for weapons he can use to hurt them and hurt David. The whole idea that any of them can help is such a joke, and when the punchline comes, it's going to be on him and Divad and David, like it always is. David can't remember, Divad doesn't want to, but Dvd always remembers. He knows a disaster when he sees one and everything is a disaster.

The world is totally going to end. Dvd has no doubt about that. None of them can stop it. Even dying wouldn't stop it, or Dvd would have done the merciful thing already and killed their body. Farouk wouldn't let David die while he was inside him, and yeah, Dvd's glad of that, because killing themselves would have ended the pain but death is bullshit, too.

Dying didn't save Lenny. It didn't save Amy or Ptonomy. It didn't even save Melanie, and the fact that she's breathing doesn't make her any less of a corpse.

He wasn't really going to make David kill himself. He just wanted David to suffer the way they've suffered. He wanted David to share the pain they used to share. He wanted David to be David again, instead of this— Fake. Trick. Mocking illusion.

Dvd's such a liar. It's a lie that David is a different person and it's a lie that he'll ever be the same. Seeing him, hearing his thoughts— Even if David wasn't suicidal, even if David truly accepted them, it would still be torture because the David they knew is never coming back.

Dvd just— He needed to get away. He needed to make it stop. He needed to be somewhere else, somewhere safe, and now the one safe place he had is gone because Fake David destroyed it. And Dvd can't even be mad at him about it because Fake David tried to make it up to them just like Real David used to. He thinks the same thoughts as he always did. Because he is the same person, even though he'll never be the same.

Dvd could have said yes. David would have made a new bedroom for him. Dvd knows he would have made it and it would have been just like it was, and that David would have let Dvd go there and never come back. Because that's what David was always trying to get them to do: go into the bedroom and stay there until it was safe to come out again, until the latest horror was over. But the horror is never going to be over and they promised to never make him face it alone.

He won't leave David to face this horror alone either. He won't break his promise even if David doesn't even remember that they made it, even if they couldn't keep it for a decade. Maybe that makes Dvd the stupid one, maybe that's his delusion: that if he keeps remembering the way David used to be it will keep him alive. Maybe that's just the latest torture the shit beetle is putting him through. Memory has always been the monster's favorite weapon, and making David forget and Dvd remember has always been his favorite way to use it.

But like most of the monster's tortures, Dvd's doing it to himself. He's staying even though it's agony because it would hurt even more to leave. He's sitting here, pretending to guard the door when doors don't matter to the monster. Only David matters. So he's guarding David and he's considering Farouk's armory.

They're all weapons, all these friends. Everyone who gets close to David is a weapon whether they want to be or not. Even Dvd is a weapon. Divad is definitely a weapon, but Dvd's been keeping a close eye on him for a long time. He knows exactly how Divad can hurt David and he knows how he'll hurt him again. He's a known quantity.

It's everyone else that needs evaluating.

Sometimes Dvd thinks Divad was right, yelling at David to give up wanting things and loving people. All these people, all these relationships, all these complicated emotions. They think they're helping but David's never been more vulnerable because every single one of them is a knife pointed at David's heart, waiting to be shoved deep and twisted.

Syd's the obvious place to start. She's been quiet since she fucked things up, but it's only a matter of time before she fucks things up again. She should keep reading her stupid book instead of staring at David with all that quiet regret. Quiet regret never did anything for anyone. He shouldn't have let Divad talk him out of making her leave, but— Her leaving would bring David to his knees, and then Farouk could really get his claws in deep before he sent her back to hurt David even more.

Kerry's watching Syd, too. Kerry has a mean right hook and sharp feet and not a single clue how dangerous their situation is, but she knows a threat when she sees one. She could be useful if Syd needs to be taken out. But she's a weapon, too, and even if she punched him and kicked him, Dvd doesn't want her to suffer, but more than that he doesn't want her pain to happen to David.

Ptonomy is a lot easier to read now that he has a real face. He doesn't trust Syd either. He hides his feelings — probably because he thinks that will help him outwit the shit beetle — but he's just kidding himself if he thinks he can outwit an omniscient monster. It doesn't matter that no one can read Ptonomy's mind. The shit beetle can read everyone else's mind and that's more than enough. What happened in the desert is proof that having a secret plan doesn't mean shit.

Ptonomy does play his cards close to his chest, Dvd will give him that. He keeps everyone busy with all this therapy and helping. He keeps them distracted. So Ptonomy is definitely up to something in that mainframe. The shit beetle must know it, too. So Ptonomy better watch his back because the moment he's a real threat, he's gone. The fact that he's still here is proof that he's doing exactly what the monster wants, even if he is dead. Death doesn't mean shit. The monster doesn't need Ptonomy to have a body to torture him forever.

Dvd doesn't see Cary as much of a threat. The shit beetle barely bothered with him before now, but he was just the lab guy to David, poking and prodding him like every other lab guy in the history of lab guys. Making Cary and Kerry swap was the kind of evil the monster loves: easy to make happen and absolutely agonizing for everyone else to live with. The shit beetle is so fucking lazy, always making everyone else do his dirty work for him. He thinks he's clever but he's lazy, parasite-lazy, living off everyone else's hard work.

Whatever. Fuck the shit beetle, fuck him.

Where was he? Oh yeah, Amy.

Fuck Amy, too.

Don't get him wrong, he's glad David made up with her. Just like he's glad that David's making up with Syd. Whatever stops David from torturing himself with grief and regret is fine by Dvd. But none of that has shit to do with Dvd. Amy didn't know he existed until now and that was fine. It was better that way. Dvd's job is to keep David alive, and Syd was wrong, all these extra people only make his job harder. It was easier when they only had one or two of them to deal with at a time. Their family was always there like background radiation, eating away at David with their sadness. But all three of them knew the safest thing was to avoid getting close to anyone but themselves. David forgot that, so there was Benny and there was Philly. There was Lenny and there was Syd. Now everyone who's left is together at once, and there's new people. Kerry and Cary. Ptonomy. Oliver and Melanie.

Melanie's a corpse, but death doesn't mean shit. The shit beetle has her soul tucked away somewhere, just like he had Amy's soul tucked away. He'll bring her back when he has a use for her. He'll probably use her against Oliver. Oliver's barely here as it is. He doesn't seem like much of a threat but that's the kind of threat that's the most dangerous of all. Oliver's a powerful telepath but his mind is weak. The shit beetle's already lived in his head and knows it from the inside. Not that the monster needs Oliver's powers now; he's got his own body back and nothing can touch him. But he's still a lazy parasite who won't do anything himself if he can make someone else do it, so Dvd's keeping an eye on Oliver, too. Dvd wouldn't mind if Oliver never came back. Dvd needs to think if he's going to figure out how to keep David safe, and it's hard to do that when he has to guard his thoughts from the mainframe.

Lenny's still tucked away in the mainframe, staying out of the way, but she's absolutely going to be a problem. She's been a hell of a weapon for a long time, and there's no way the monster is giving her up now.

And then there's this place. Division 3. They're playing with them again, sending Clark to say nice things to David to lower their defenses. Dvd's not falling for it. He fell for it with Syd but he's never falling for it again, especially not with these murderous psychos. When people say nice things he knows they're doing it because they want something from David. They want to use him and hurt him. They're all parasites, all of them, too lazy to do their own goddamn dirty work so they make David do it for them.

David won't say no. He hasn't been able to say no since college, not to anyone he trusts. He just rolls right over no matter what they tell him to do. It drove Divad absolutely insane having to watch that. It drove them both insane having to listen to David's twisted rationalizations, his thoughts tying themselves into vicious knots as he desperately tried to reconcile his blind faith in everyone around him and the terrible things they told him to do. They thought they were asking but they were telling because the monster made sure David trusted everyone but himself.

David even trusted Benny. David can't remember Benny anymore. If he did, he wouldn't want to save him from the monster. Benny was an absolute piece of shit who took advantage of David at every opportunity. He stole David's meds and his money and anything of his that looked worth trading for drugs. Philly did her best to stop it and so did Amy, but they blamed David, thinking it was the drugs that made him stupid. It was the shit beetle that made him stupid. The drugs were just another way he made David hurt himself.

If Dvd could go back in time, he would go back to the first time David saw King and he would launch the dog monster right into the sun. Those stupid memories— Dvd's so furious about the memories it makes him want to end the world himself. They didn't know exactly what the monster did to David. They knew he forgot a lot, almost everything. Forgetting Dvd and Divad and his powers meant he had to forget almost everything. But they can't see David's memories like they can hear his thoughts. They don't know what the monster left behind unless David thinks about it. David's thought about his memories a lot, but— In those memory walks, the memories were wrong. They were changed or pieces were missing. But they'd have to be, because David's real memories were full of his powers and his brothers, and Farouk took those away.

The monster didn't like David looking too closely at his memories. He really didn't like anyone else poking around in David's head. Dvd saved them by getting them out but they kept going back in. Idiots. They should know when they're being saved from a monster. They should be grateful and then they should get the hell away before it's too late for them like it's too late for every single person in this room. In this building. On this planet.

That's one of the reasons why, even if the rest of this therapy stuff is pointless, Dvd is willing to help with the memory work. Not just so he can find something that will help David remember them, but because if the shit beetle didn't want them poking around, poking around is exactly what they need to do as much of as possible. Which is why it's frustrating on top of frustrating that David swore off remembering. Dvd doesn't want David to remember all that pain, but— The truth is that David needs to remember. David needs to remember if he wants that tiny bit of hope he has to actually mean something, instead of meaning shit.

The shit beetle is listening, but all he can do is listen. As much of a disaster as their system has become, it's theirs again. For the first time, really. The shit beetle was always getting in the way even before he got in the way. He was always trying to pull them apart even though he knew he could never truly pull them apart. He'll never stop trying, Dvd's absolutely sure of that. Which is why Dvd's sticking around even if sticking around is torture. The worst torture would be if he let the shit beetle win.

David thought he could guard himself from Divad and Dvd. He still doesn't understand how they work or he'd know that Dvd is the one who guards him from everyone else. He'd know that Dvd is the one making sure nothing gets in. Even with the crown, he's making sure of that. Their powers are still here. David doesn't realize that because he barely understands their powers anyway. If he did, he'd know he couldn't make the white room without their powers. He'd know he couldn't destroy their bedroom without their powers. He'd know that Divad couldn't emotionally regulate him without their powers. He'd know that's how Divad and Dvd are visible to David. They're not hallucinations and they never were.

But Dvd isn't going to tell David that their powers still work. If David figures that out, he'll do something stupid again, like he stupidly destroyed their bedroom. He'll do something stupid like killing their system. These friends of his don't understand their powers either if they think the crown is doing anything to keep David from killing their body. All the crown does is stop them from using their powers outside of their body. That's why they can't read minds or make the world do what they want it to do. They're trapped inside their head, but that doesn't mean they're trapped, except that the whole world is a trap.

The crown can't keep David from stopping their heart with a thought. But he thinks it can, which is good enough for Dvd.

Dvd can't stop the shit beetle from prying into their thoughts. It would almost be worth getting the crown off and risking David doing something stupid just to keep the monster from listening in. But the monster doesn't need to hear their thoughts to know what they're thinking. Let the shit beetle know exactly how much they all loathe him. Let him know they're all plotting against him. He knows it anyway. He can listen all he wants but he can't get inside. He can't touch a single one of David's memories anymore. He can't touch Divad or Dvd. They're not safe but he can't touch them. He'll find some way to hurt David, and that will make David hurt them. That's how this works, that's how the shit beetle operates.

The monster made David forget, but Dvd remembers everything. And even if he doesn't, he remembers enough. He's not letting down his guard for a moment. He wishes he could. He'd let David make him a new bedroom and he'd go there and sleep for a month. He'd have David make him a whole house and a garden and Dvd would spend all his time there alone, growing vegetables. Dvd didn't care if they went to live on a farm or not, but all of them loved the garden. They loved being with their mother in her garden.

They didn't know David forgot about their mother. They knew David forgot a lot of things but it wasn't like they could ask. David couldn't hear them for years. They got expelled and their life fell apart and David hung them and they ended up sedated in a mental hospital. The doctors barely asked David about their mother, even though her death devastated them. That was fine, Dvd didn't want David to talk about her to them anyway. Kissinger was a creep. Dvd was glad when he saw that Division 3 had locked him up. Good riddance.

Ptonomy is a lot better than Kissinger, Dvd will give him that, too. David really was the burning, toxic disaster he thought he was when Ptonomy started on him, and now David is— At least no longer actively on fire. Still a toxic disaster, but that's nothing new. His whole explanation of their system was— Shockingly accurate. Dvd knew all of that already but hearing it all summed up like that from someone who isn't even part of their system was—

No one's ever known them like that, no one. Not their parents or Amy, and certainly none of the idiot doctors who did nothing but torture David and make him worse. But Ptonomy figured them out. More than that, he figure out things about them that they didn't know.

Dvd's still not sure what he thinks about this whole delusion parasite. It's not a literal parasite, not like the monster was, but— It helps David to think of it that way, as a living thing they have to fight. It's a vivid image, that's for sure, and one Dvd's not going to forget anytime soon. Dvd's creeped out just thinking about it. He doesn't buy the rest of it. They want to die because their life is fucking miserable, what other reason do they need? Same with the rest of it. The world is a shitty place full of victims and monsters. That's the truth. David's the delusional one,