Syd is watching.
She’s up on the second floor, looking down at people passing by, her hands on the rail. They’re in Division Three’s new base, the one they moved to in those panicked days after David turned. People are passing by below - soldiers, agents, bureaucratic officials - mutant and humans and some people Syd can’t even categorize.
There’s fewer people coming through the second floor. That’s where the top-secret stuff happens. Syd prefers it up here. More space to think. More space to watch.
She used to do this when she was younger: finding a place to sit in a busy public place, watching hungrily as the others go by. Watching couples, children, adults, mothers and daughters. People laughing, holding hands, kissing, going about their lives, while Syd watched, seperated.
There, walking in the door, is a soldier - a young Asian woman with her hair cropped short, her loose camo fatigues not quite covering the curves of her muscles. She looks strong, confident. There’s a little scar on her lip - was she punched in the face? Or did she walk into something?
Syd’s fingers go to her own lips, imagining what it would be like to feel that scar on her own face.
There, talking to the woman at the front desk, is a middle-aged black man with his long hair tied back into a ponytail. He’s dressed in a suit and tie, tailored to fit his slim frame. Not a soldier, then; an agent? An analyst? An engineer? He looks kind, the lines around his face creased with smile lines. As he passes under Syd, she sees that his ears are pierced.
Syd touches her ears.
There, walking along with a clipboard in her hands, is an elderly white woman with very curly red hair. She’s wearing a pale blue suit, and her eyes are distracted. A scientist, Syd guesses, or a politician. The light catches on a wedding ring on her finger.
Syd brushes her thumb over her ring finger.
“An unhappy marriage,” says a voice from behind her. “He resents her career and she chafes under his control.”
Syd whirls around, gripping the railing as if will protect her. Amahl Farouk is standing there, peering over his sunglasses at the people below them. Her eyes narrow. “How long have you been standing there watching me?” she demands.
“Watching you?” Farouk raises his eyebrows, amused, and puts his sunglasses back in place. “Nein, nein. I was watching them.” He gestures out beyond Syd, at the people passing by below them. “Just as you were.”
Syd doesn’t know what to say to this. She turns back to the railing, looking at the people. After a moment, she says, “Why are you here?”
“Why am I here, avec toi?” Farouk says. “Or why am I here, with Division Three?”
“Both,” Syd says. She turns back around to face him. “You don’t care about saving the world. And you don’t need our help to do it.”
Farouk chuckles. “You are very perceptive,
More so than your compatriots. Tell me - why do you think I am here? If it’s not out of the goodness of my heart?”
Syd snorts at that. “I think you’re here because you’re obsessed with David.”
“‘Obsessed’ is a strong word,” Farouk says. He walks up closer, and stands with his hands on the railing next to her.
“You told me he was a psychopath,” Syd says.
Farouk tilts his head, looking down at a dark-skinned man in a uniform walking across the floor below. “This word, what does it mean to you? The man with the axe in the horror movie, the man with the knife on the evening news? I think not.” He turns his head and smiles, knowingly, at her. “Remember, I was there with you, in l'asile.”
Syd looks back at him. She knows what he’s talking about. She told David what her diagnosis was, back when she thought that would scare him off. “They were wrong. They called me crazy because they didn’t understand what I am. What I can do. I was misdiagnosed.”
“Misdiagnosed?” Farouk says, raising his eyebrows. “With Antisocial Personality Disorder, when your power is to switch bodies? I think you know that is a lie.”
Syd looks away. After a moment, she says, “There were these girls at my school, who bullied me. I think they were scared of me.” He voice is flat, neutral. “Day in, day out. They made my life a living hell. I used to fantasize about hurting them. Beating them up. Or getting them into trouble . . . but there were more of them, and the teacher liked them better. I couldn’t do anything to them. But I didn’t have to be me. This guy, a big guy, in my class, he tried to force me to kiss him. And I saw my chance. I took his body, and I hit them. Again and again, until they stopped moving.” She crosses her arms on the railing, leaning over it to look down. “They never figured out what I did. But they knew I did . . . something.” She takes a deep breath. “That wasn’t the first time. Or the last.”
“So they began to suspect,” Farouk says, quietly. “Your mother, perhaps. Or your teachers, your professors. But you cannot be committed for such things, such suspicions.”
“It wasn’t that,” Syd says. “It was my roommate in college. She wanted to be - friends. And I let her, for awhile. But she wanted to - she was a hugger. And she didn’t get it. And one day we got in a fight.”
“What did you do?” Farouk asks.
“I slammed her hand in the door,” Syd says. “Two of her fingers got broken. And after that, she never tried to touch me again. I thought that was the end of it, but she went to the campus authorities. And by that time, I was - I tried to switch on my own. I took off my gloves and I went out dancing and I switched and I switched and I switched - and when they came to talk to me, I wasn’t myself. I was someone else. They thought I did it because I was crazy.” She shrugs, a little, understated, defensive gesture. “They were wrong.”
“You did it because she was nothing,” Farouk says, smiling. “She did not deserve to touch a goddess.”
Syd makes a face. “No. Ew. It wasn’t like that.”
“Then why?” Farouk asks.
“I don’t like to be touched,” Syd says, flatly.
“You must protect yourself, of course,” Farouk says, neutrally.
Syd stares out over the heads of the people standing below them. After awhile, she says, “When my mother died, the doctors thought I was supposed to be sad. That’s when they gave me the diagnosis. After that, I learned to lie to them. I was good at it. I’m good at being other people.”
Farouk smiles, slightly. “So am I,” he says. He nods to the people below them. “It is a kind of freedom, is it not? To escape one’s own skin, to slip into someone else’s life. To be close . . . for a moment.”
Syd is silent, because what Farouk is saying hits too close to home. She was close to David. For the first time in her life, she’d felt like they were - together. Like they were on the same time. Us against the world. She hadn’t been pretending, like with her mother or her roommate or the doctors.
Maybe that’s where she went wrong.
“Why not do it?” Farouk asks. “Take what you want. You could become any of those people, live their lives for a day, and then return. Tu es le touriste.”
“Because I’m not like you,” Syd says, her tone still even. “I don’t steal people’s bodies.”
“But you have,” Farouk points out.
“That’s in the past,” Syd says. “I won’t do it. Not - not just on a whim. Not for fun. Not like that.”
“And what if,” Farouk says, slowly, “You did not steal - but took what was freely offered?”
Syd looks over at him, frowning slightly. His eyes meet hers, dark and brown and hypnotic. David’s eyes are blue - but for a moment, somehow, she’s reminded of him. “What does that mean?”
“You wish to escape your own skin,” Farouk says. “Un échange. Un marché. Such a thing does not need to be forced.”
Syd studies Farouk’s eyes, searching for a hint of deceit. “What do you get out of this?”
Farouk laughs. “I think you know that, my dear.”
Syd looks back out over the first floor. She can guess. Farouk wants what she wants. The chance to be close to someone, to feel that connection that seemed to come so easily to people like David. To see through someone’s eyes and feel them around you. Like, for a moment, you weren’t alone anymore.
“It took you a long time to find that body,” she says, after a moment. “What makes you think I’ll give it back?”
“You will have to, will you not?” Farouk asks. “That is the nature of your powers. No matter where you go, you always come back here.”
Farouk leans on the railing next to her, and offers her his bare hand. Syd looks down at it.
“Take my hand,” Farouk says, softly. “I will not fight you. Not like poor Walter, not like that boy who became your weapon, not like your sleeping mother. Ich will das.”
Syd only has a few semesters of high school German to rely on, but she understands it: I want this. The words send shivers down her spine.
She reaches out, and puts her hand in his.
It’s not like it was the other times. She’s never done it like this before, has never been asked before. It’s less like an explosion, and more like a flood, like a dam breaking, all that power rushing through her fingers and up into her veins.
She looks down at her hand - larger now, more tanned, the nails cut slightly shorter. She lifts it up, and runs it down her face, pausing at the faint roughness of Farouk’s mustache.
“Syd,” her own voice breathes, and she looks down, to see Farouk looking up at her through her own eyes.
It’s a shock to find she can see it’s him. She would know anyway, of course, she understands how her powers work. But this time she can sense it, viscerally, can feel the ancient, vast, malicious mind lurking behind her own eyes.
She reaches out mentally, an instinctive gesture, and touches the darkness. Farouk tilts his head up, diffidently, as Syd slips through the outer layers, exploring. She sees cold amusement, and curiosity, and smug pleasure, and behind it all, hunger, an all-encompassing need. She presses deeper, searching for the source -
And comes up against iron resistance.
She opens her eyes, blinking down at Farouk. Farouk’s eyebrows are up, a knowing little smirk on his lips. “Just because my body is different, doesn’t mean my mind is,” Farouk says. “Having my body helps, but it’s not everything. The flesh, the genes, or whatever, that’s just half the story. The rest of it is my mind.”
Syd blinks. Normally, when people are in her body, they still talk like themselves, her own voice forming foreign speech patterns. But Farouk isn’t like that. He sounds exactly like her, her flat, matter-of-fact tone, her broad American accent. Meanwhile, her words are now faintly tinted by a Middle-Eastern accent, Farouk’s tongue not quite capable of forming the consonants the way she would have.
Farouk cocks his head. “The world’s a stage,” he says.
Syd looks down at him. “How much of it is a lie?” she asks.
“Everything,” Farouk says, immediately, and then, “And nothing.”
Syd snorts. “I should have expected that.”
“Everything’s a mask,” Farouk says. His long blond hair falls over his face. “That’s what they call it, right? ‘The mask of sanity.’”
Syd looks him up and down. Like when he was possessing David, she can’t spot the differences. There is no sign that he is not her, that he is an intruder in someone else’s skin. From the outside, her posture looks slightly stiff, her eyes cold. This is the way everyone else sees her.
He’s shorter than her, like this. Weaker, some corner of her brain says. And she can touch him now. She likes that thought.
She puts her palm on his chest and pushes him back, until he’s pressed up against the railing, pushed back, looking up at her. She could push him right over, she thinks. Would he survive the fall?
Farouk leans in, and kisses her. A pulse runs through Syd’s borrowed body, and she grabs him by the hair, pushing his head back as she kisses him roughly.
When they break apart, they’re both panting. They stare at each other.
“My room,” Syd says. “It’s just around the corner.”
Farouk doesn’t argue.
Afterwards, they lie in bed, Farouk curled up in Syd’s arms. Syd is lying back, relaxing in the rush of human contact.
“I love you,” Farouk says, lazily.
“No, you don’t,” Syd says, resting her chin on his head. She doesn’t believe that for a moment.
“No, it’s true,” Farouk says. “I was there when you met him. In his mind, in his heart. I felt what he felt. He is part of me, you know. And what he felt - I felt.”
Syd is silent, for a moment. Her chest hurts. “What did it feel like?” she asks.
“Garmaa,” Farouk says. Warmth. “Like the sun on a cold day.”
Syd snorts, bitterness casting a shadow over her face. “You told me he doesn’t love me. Like a boy loves his dog, you said.”
“That’s how you feel about him,” Farouk says.
Syd pushes Farouk away and rolls over, facing away from him. “When I was thirteen, one of my mom’s boyfriends had a dog. A really - a little yappy thing, like a Chihuahua or something, I think. And my mom got me to take care of it over spring break. But I didn’t want to. It kept trying to jump up on me, and it was loud, and I wanted to spend my break reading in my room. So, I opened the door and I let it out. I told the owner it escaped in the middle of the night. They never found it.” She runs a hand through the short, balding hair on her scalp. “So no. I didn’t love David like a dog. He was different than the others. He saw me.” She pauses. “No. What I meant was, I saw him. I thought he could - save me. Change me. Or that I could save him. He needed me. And he was so sweet . . .”
“He was,” Farouk says, quietly. “And then he left us.”
Left us. Is that how Farouk sees it? Syd wonders. As if the struggle to save David from the parasite in his mind was just a break-up. As if David had simply dumped him out of the blue. “I thought he was different,” she says, staring at the wall. “And then he turned out to be a - a psychopath.” She laughs. “I won’t make the same mistake with you, don’t worry. I know what you are.”
Farouk laughs along with her. “Everyone does,” he says, and there is a hint of bitterness in his tone.
Syd shuts her eyes, and lets herself focus on how close Farouk is, the warmth of his body next to hers. After a moment, she says, “You read minds. You know. Is that what I am?”
Farouk laughs again. “A psychopath? Une folle? A monster?”
“Yes,” Syd says, not opening her eyes.
She feels the motion of Farouk shaking his head. “Do you think our friend, Agent Clark, is he a psychopath? No. He is a normal man with a normal life. And yet it doesn’t stop him from executing fugitives and torturing prisoners and doing your country’s dirty work without guilt. He is ‘only following orders,’ after all. This thing they say we don’t have, empathy, it does not stop them. It is simply a story they tell to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ And of course, the upstanding American hero must do whatever it takes to stop the bad guys. If you are like me, then it is because of what you have done, not because of what is in your skull.”
“That’s not an answer,” Syd points out, opening her eyes.
“I do not deal in easy answers, my dear,” Farouk says. “He is going to destroy the world. And you and I will be the ones to stop him. Empathy doesn't matter. All that matters is that we - as the saying goes - ‘save the world.’”
“And that’s all that matters?” Syd says.
“That’s all that matters.”
She shuts her eyes again, and lies back flat on the mattress. “I wish I believed that,” she says. “I wish I did.”