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Time Is A Wealth Of Change

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Amahl teleports into the Division Three airship, disabling their security alarms with an absent wave. He meets a guard on the way, and sends the man to sleep. The noise as the guard’s body hits the ground makes him jump, and when he runs into a second guard, he makes sure to catch the unconscious body before he can hit the ground.

He finds his way to the door of Syd’s room, and knocks.

The door opens. Syd stares at him. "That was quick." She looks past him, checking for David, presumably. Then she walks back into her room and leaves the door open.

"Did you kill him?" she asks, as she pours herself a drink.

"No," Amahl says. He takes a seat at her coffee table, and crosses his arms. "Much has happened since we last spoke, my dear. The world has changed... And I with it.”

Syd watches him. “Does that mean you’re on his side now? Planning to destroy the world?”

Amahl raises his eyebrows, and laughs. “Why would I do that? I live here too, my dear. No. It’s more than that.”

“More?” Syd prompts, slightly annoyed with his reticence. She takes a gulp of her drink.

“We went to the future, David and I,” Amahl says.

Syd goes very still. She stares at her drink, looking like she wants to down it, but then doesn't. "You saw me again? Me from the future?"

“In a way,” Amahl says. “Not the same one, not the version of you who foretold the end of the world. She is— Gone. In her place there are others. Myriad others.”

"Gone," Syd echoes. "So you saved the world, just like that?" Now she does drink.

“The future is not a place,” Amahl says. “It is a maze, a hallway twisting and turning and winding its way to a thousand different destinations. The version of you I saw— She was one pathway. And now there are others, in her place. She wanted to change the flow of time, send it down another corridor— And I suppose she succeeded.” He lifts his glass to her in an ironic mock-toast. “Congratulations, my dear. You’ve saved the world.”

Syd stares at him again, and this time— There's a kind of horror in her eyes, in her mind. "What did it?" she asks, voice tight. "Was it saving you in the desert?"

“I don’t know,” Amahl says, studying her face. “Perhaps the moment I told him what your doppelganger told me. Perhaps the moment you told him what he had done to you.”

"No," Syd says, shaking her head, denying. "It can't be that easy. He has to die, he has to—" She cuts off, upset.

Amahl tilts his head, watching her. It’s a strange feeling. The part of him that is Amahl studies her emotions like a biologist watching the behavior of a strange animal, and the part of him that is still David wants to reach out to her, to comfort her. He wonders if it will fade with time, this sense of split perception. Will he forget what it was like to be David, in time?

“I am afraid, too,” he says, quietly.

Syd makes a face. “I’m not afraid. I’m pissed.”

“Are you?” Amahl asks. “Because I am more afraid than I am angry. I think I have been for a long time. Perhaps the entire time I have known you. When David was young— Then I was angry. I had been wronged, had been reduced. But now— I am changing into something new. And so is he.”

"He doesn't get to change," Syd says, sharply. "He—" She looks away. Looks back, determined. "He raped me."

“You know what I did to him,” Amahl says, quietly. “If there is no hope for him, then there is no hope for me. And I have to believe that there is hope for me.”

"What was it my future self said?" Syd asks, with false, brittle lightness. "Maybe we're all villains. Maybe there's no hope for anyone."

Amahl laughs. “Perhaps. If I believed that, I think, I would be a happier man.”

Syd takes a large sip. "Division 3 won't care what you say. They won't take the risk. David has to die."

Amahl waves a hand. “I don’t care what they think. Your government will do whatever foolhardy thing it wishes. Without you or I, they are toothless.” He watches her. She still loves David, he knows. Just like he does— it’s not that easy to cut David out of one’s heart. “Before I died,” he says, “I lived in a world of one, where no one mattered but myself. And then David happened, and I lived in a world of two. But, I am wondering, these days, if the world could contain more than one or two. I was in David’s mind when he first saw you, when he fell in love. I saw what he felt for you, the way you looked through his eyes. He loves you. And because of that, in a way, I cannot help but care about you.” Amahl smiles, slightly. “In the end, I am a reflection of him.”

“He betrayed me,” Syd snaps. “You betrayed me.”

“Yes,” Amahl agrees. “He did. I did. We are, I think, not good people.” He shakes his head. “I am not asking you to forgive us. Him, or me.”

Syd lets out a breath, grimacing. "So what, you want me to just— Let him go?"

“Yes,” Amahl says, meeting her eyes. “That’s what it comes down to in the end, isn’t it? Letting go.”

Syd laughs, bitter and miserable, and Amahl is suddenly, vividly, reminded of himself. “You can talk. You’re a megalomaniac. When’s the last time you let go of anything?”

Amahl laughs along with her. He is not completely lacking in self-awareness; he knows what he is, and he can see the irony in it, in this quest to be better, to save the world. After all, he is the Shadow King. “I know. I know. But I am learning. I am learning.”

“And David?” Syd asks, her eyes sharp. “Is he ‘learning?’”

“Yes,” Amahl says. “He is. He is learning, and healing.”

Syd lifts her drink to her lips, stops, sets it down, starts to pace, and stops again, her arms crossed. “He doesn’t deserve to heal,” she mutters.

“Does it matter?” Amahl asks, with a shrug. “No one gets what they deserve in this world. Or any other, really.”

“It’s not fair,” Syd snaps, and it occurs to Amahl that she’s less talking to him and more talking to herself. “He doesn’t— He never has to pay. If I let him go, there’s nothing— There’s no— Ending.”

Amahl studies her face, studies the shape of her thoughts in his mind’s vision. “If the hero does not defeat the villain,” he says, “Then there’s no end to the story. No closure. No satisfaction. After all, what is a hero without a villain?”

“Stop it,” Syd says, wrapping her arms around herself. “Stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not,” Amahl says. “You miss him, don’t you?”

“No,” Syd snaps.

“You miss him,” Amahl says, quietly. “You miss him so much that you can’t imagine your life without him.”

“Shut up!” Syd snaps.

“What will you do if you kill him?” Amahl asks. “Afterwards? Where will you go?”

“I don’t know!” Syd hisses, her hands clenched into fists. “I don’t know, okay? Maybe I’ll die. Maybe that’s where the story ends. I just have to— I just have to stop him.”

“Yes,” Amahl says, softly. “Nothing matters beyond him. I understand. In the future, I saw a world— Where David was dead, and I saw myself standing at his grave, grieving him. As if I was lost. Anchorless. Because I had nothing else, and in that moment, without him, I was— Empty. Will that be your future, too?”

"No!" Syd says, and then again, softer, “No. You're wrong. I'm not like you. I don't love him."

“I don’t believe you,” Amahl says.

Syd stares into her glass as though there are any answers to find there, and shakes her head. "I never loved him. And you sure as hell didn't. Do you think I forgot what you did to him? To me?"

Amahl chuckles, quiet and bitter. “He told me that too. My... Therapist. That I don’t really love him. Maybe it’s true. Maybe he’s right. But it is all I have. You can understand that— Can’t you?.”

Syd looks away. She lets the silence stretch, for a long moment. Finally, she says, “Yes.”

For her. Not for him.

“I found him a future where he is happy,” Amahl says, quietly. “A future worth hoping for. A world where he has a family, a life, the peace he has always wanted. I looked for a world where I had— What I wanted. And all I found was— Loss and misery down one path, and cruelty and emptiness down the other.” He draws in a breath. “As if it is only by destroying him, by tormenting him, that I can find peace. But that path— I will not accept it. So I am going away, for a long time. I hope to find peace there, away from David, away from my sins.” He fixes her with a look. “If I am forced to return, by some new threat to David’s life, you will find me most displeased with whoever has drawn my attention. Do you understand?”

“Is that a threat?” Syd snaps.

“Yes,” Amahl says, meeting her eyes. “And you know that I am not one to make threats in vain. If you hurt him, I will make you pay. Don’t forget that.”

“And if he threatens me?” Syd asks.

“He won’t,” Amahl says. “I have faith in him. You should, too.”

“I used to,” Syd says.

“I know,” Amahl says. He turns to go, and then stops. “He won’t say this to you,” he says, “So I will do it for him. I am sorry for what happened to you. You deserved better.”

Syd doesn’t respond.

Perhaps she or Division 3 will try to hurt David again. If they do, Amahl will stop them. He will ensure David gets the peaceful life he craves.

In a blink, Syd and her room are gone, and he's standing outside the commune. It's empty now, with the remaining members clustered outside with David and several of his alters, their bags in hand. He's been sending them off to wherever they ask to go, alone or in small groups, back to their old lives or on to new ones. They hug David and the alters goodbye and then vanish.

David was ready to let them go once they returned from meeting Moira. Such an easy decision to make. As if he never really needed them after all. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps, he, unlike Amahl, is complete without his victims.

Amahl is afraid. It feels like a sick reversal, seeing David brave and free and healthy, while he stands here in the corner, terrified and alone. Is this how David felt, all these years? Is this justice?

He doesn’t know. Here he is, letting go of the one person who made him want to change. Will he wind up like that other Amahl he saw in the future? Hopeless and grieving at David’s grave? Or locked up in some Division Three cell?

David hugs the last commune member goodbye. Few of them held any ill will towards him. After all, they came to him, asked him to take away their pain. There was, at least at the beginning, a degree of consent. Amahl feels a twinge of jealousy. Even after everything he’s done to corrupt him, David is still, somehow, better than him.

And then it's over. David looks out at the forest around them, then turns and looks at the building, eyes red from his goodbyes. The commune is empty now, an abandoned shell that was once full of life. Lenny and Salmon are on the porch swing, their and David's luggage at their feet. David trudges back to the porch, and after a pause the alters follow him.

"That's all of them?" he asks Lenny.

"You'd know better than me," Lenny points out.

David nods. "That's all of them." He lets out a heavy sigh. "Is it bad that— I already miss them?"

"Eh, I miss em too," Lenny admits. "But they're gonna be okay. They gotta do their thing, we gotta do ours."

“You did the right thing,” Amahl says, and there’s a hint of bitterness in his voice. He resents David for that, for so easily finding the right path.

"Thanks," David says, with less suspicion than usual. Finding some peace for himself seems to have made him— Marginally less hostile to Farouk. David touches the door to the commune, visibly longing but also— Saying goodbye. Leaving one home for another, better one.

"I'm not gonna miss this dump," Divad mutters.

"You barely left the cave," Davida points out.

"Yeah, and whose fault was that?" Divad replies.

"Eh, Moira's all right," says Daibhidh, his mood better than Farouk's ever seen. "We'll be grand."

"I think we will be," David says. He turns away from the house with a soft smile. "Ready?" he asks Lenny.

"You get the luggage," Lenny says, and helps Salmon up.

"We got it," Dvd says, and the alters each take a bag.

David turns to Amahl . "So, uh, I guess this is it."

“Yes,” Amahl says, and there’s a lump in his throat. When did he become the kind of person who cries at goodbyes? When did he become so weak, so debased? “David, I— ”

There’s so much he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to put it into words and, anyway, he knows very well that David doesn’t want to hear any of it.

"Time to blow this popsicle stand," Lenny says, stepping slightly between David and Farouk. "I'd say it's been fun but I'd be lying."

“Hah,” Amahl says. “Yes. Yes.” He shakes his head. “You have something of mine, don’t you?”

Lenny frowns at him, then understanding dawns in her eyes. "Oh yeah. Hey Hakim, get your ass out here!"

Amahl doesn’t give him the chance. Instead, he reaches out and plucks a shadow from Lenny’s temple, storing it in his jacket pocket for safe-keeping. “He will be safe with me,” he promises, his eyes on David.

"You're supposed to let him go," Lenny says, annoyed. "David, back me up here."

"Let Hakim go," David warns. "In fact, whoever else is rattling around in there—" He points at Farouk's head. "Let them all go. Now."

Amahl swallows, and looks away. He doesn’t say no. “Not all of them are good people,” he says. “Some are as bad as I am. Not all of them deserve to be set free.”

"Like I give a shit," Lenny says, upset. "No one deserves to be stuck in your head. We're not your toys."

Salmon reaches out and takes Lenny's hand, soothing her.

“It may not always be a mercy to let them free— To leave them adrift on the Astral Plane rather than anchored to me,” Amahl says.

"Hakim already said that's what he wants," David says. "He wants to be free. The rest of them— I dunno. Ask them. Treat them like— Like people, not things." Guilt and shame flash briefly across his face. "Just— Ask them."

David understands. That— Hurts, somehow, just as badly as rejection did. David understands him, and Amahl craves that so, so badly.

On an impulse, he turns to David. “Will you come with me?” he asks. “To set them free, to see them off?”

David immediately turns suspicious, but then— Softens. "Fine," he sighs.

Lenny's immediately suspicious. "David—" she starts.

"I know," David says. "Look, I'll send you two ahead and I'll be right there. I promise."

"You better," Lenny says, and gives Farouk a warning look.

In a blink, Lenny, Salmon, and the luggage are gone, teleported to Moira's island. The alters take over for Lenny in warning glares.

David rubs his face, then gathers himself. "Now what?"

“Come with me,” Amahl says. He reaches out with his mind, and the villa blinks into view. The door is still open, leaves scattered on the ground, his keepsakes knocked from their places and strewn about the floor. He looks around for a moment, regret on his face.

David frowns at the mess, but says nothing.

They walk deeper into the villa, and where Amahl’s zoo used to be, there is now— A sort of conference room, full of people milling about, confused. The only sign of their confinement is the door on the other side of the room, across from Amahl, which is chained shut.

"What the hell?" David says, staring at the crowd in surprise. "Who are they?"

“My companions,” Amahl says, lifting an eyebrow. “My prisoners. I know you know of them.”

David shakes his head. "Yeah, but— I dunno, I thought— Not this many! When did you even have time to kill all these people?"

Amahl waves this off. “I didn’t kill all of them. Some of them I simply— preserved, after they died by other means. I wasn’t born thirty years ago, you know. I had lived a full life before your father ever found me.”

"Wait, so—" David stares at Amahl, at the crowd, at Amahl. "You're telling me that all those people— When you were inside me, they were inside you? They were inside me?"

“Yes,” Amahl says, faintly annoyed. As charming as he is, David can be a trifle slow on the uptake.

David looks vaguely ill. "First the alters, now this! Is there anyone else inside me I should know about?"

“No one that you have not put there.” Making an attempt, Amahl reaches out to put a hand on David’s shoulder. “It’s over now. They are in my mind, not yours. We are free. And soon, they will be too.”

Amahl’s hand only rests for a moment before David flinches back. He walks away a few paces, then back. "Let's just get this over with."

Well.

Amahl can’t manage to convince himself he doesn’t deserve that reaction.

“Come on, then,” Amahl says, and leads the way up onto the stage at the back of the conference room.

The prisoners look up at him. Some of them defiant, some of them afraid, some of them too miserable to react at all. This is his legacy, isn’t it? These people, more of them than he can count, looking up at him. And hating him.

“I came here to set you free,” Amahl says, his voice carrying to every ear. “The way I should have, long ago. The way, perhaps, you deserve.” He chuckles, to himself. “Do you believe me? Is this the first time I have said something like this to you, or have I played with your hopes so many times that I have forgotten the extent of my schemes? What a nightmare, what a strange and long nightmare I have put you through...”

He wonders if he truly feels remorse, if that is the emotion that’s coloring his words. Or is it simply another performance?

The conference room breaks into noise. Confusion, fear, anger, disbelief. Amahl watches them, feeling distant and resigned. In this moment, he feels something like affection for them. What will he do without them? He has never been very good at being on his own. He knows it’s a paradox, for a man so disdainful of everyone around him. But he craves them, their attention, their gaze. What is a storyteller without his audience, an actor without his masks?

He looks to David for support, and is aware of the pathetic nature of the gesture— still clinging to his host, to his victim, to the only person he’s ever loved. When did he become so weak? There was a time when he didn’t care about anyone or anything but himself.

He can’t quite bring himself to miss those days.

David's expression is— Skeptical. Disbelieving. Faintly horrified. When he sees Amahl looking at him, anger pushes the other emotions away. "I'd ask what you did to them, but I don't want to know."

“You’re right not to ask,” Amahl says, and then smiles, slightly. “They should be grateful to you. After all, you are the only reason they are free.”

"Is that why you want me here to see this?" David asks. "You want me to what, pat you on the back?"

Amahl tilts his chin up, and crosses his arms. That stings, a little. “No. I want you here because you are important to me.”

"Important," David mutters, and looks away.

Zaynab steps forward out of the crowd of prisoners, her jaw set, her eyes full of determination. Amahl smiles to himself. Good old Zaynab. Always the hero. Always unbroken. He will miss her.

“If you want us to believe that you’re going to let us go,” Zaynab says, “Then prove it. Unlock the door and let us out.”

Amahl smiles at her, and shakes his head. “Very well. No more delays. No more speeches. No more lies.”

He walks ahead of her to the door, and pulls the key out of his pocket. He lifts it up to the light, examining it for a moment. It’s hard to believe that he’s actually doing this, after all these years.

He looks to David one more time. David stares back at him, expectant.

Amahl puts the key in the lock, turns it, and throws open the door, the chains vanishing into the shadows. They were made of nothing but ideas, anyway. Beyond it is a view of the sky at night, all stars and galaxies and nebulas. The way Amahl remembers it looking, when he was young, back in the last century before the world became full of lights.

The prisoners crowd around him, and their murmuring raises to a clamor. Amahl steels himself, and steps out of the way.

Shoma azadid ke berid,” he says. You are free to go.

For a moment, they stand there, paralyzed by the glimpse of freedom he offers them. And then one man, a dark-skinned man clad in old-fashioned clothes, breaks from the crowd, takes two steps forward, takes a deep breath, and walks through the door.

And then the floodgates are open, and the prisoners rush forward, out of their cells, into the next life.

Amahl steps back, leans against the edge of the stage, and watches them. To his surprise, he doesn’t feel any urge to reach out, to stop them. He’s beyond that. In a way, he feels the way they must feel: his fate was sealed a long time ago.

He sees Hakim step through the door, and then— He's gone.

"Where are they going?" David asks.

“Onward,” Amahl says. “Wherever they would have gone had I not captured their souls.”

"Hakim said he was dead," David says, and seems uncomfortable with the idea.

“Yes,” Amahl says, looking back out at the stars. “I killed him.” He wonders if David would approve, if he told him his plans for his own future. Would David give him his blessing? Or would he still ask that he follow his prisoners through that starry door?

"Why did you—" David starts, then tries again. "Why him, why me, why any of this? What was the point of— All those people—" He blinks quickly, distressed. "Did they make you feel better? Is that it? Did you need them?"

Like me, he doesn't say, but Amahl hears it anyway.

“I don’t know,” Amahl says, finally. “I think— When I am with you, I am not alone. Perhaps that’s what all this was. A way to mimic that feeling, the one I never had.”

David's expression shutters, and he crosses his arms, obviously upset.

One of the prisoners stops on his way to the door, and turns to Amahl. It’s Marceau. He looks David up and down, thoughtfully.

“Not my type after all. So,” Marceau says. “On to the next thing, is that how it is?”

“I suppose so,” Amahl says. “Are you afraid?”

“No,” Marceau says, shaking his head. He sees Amahl’s expression, and says, “I know I might not’ve been the best guy, but I always said my prayers, always went to church on Sundays. And I figure with all the time I’ve spent here with you, I’ve done my penance, too. I know what’s waiting for me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, if I were you,” Amahl says.

Marceau shakes his head, chuckling. “You always did overthink things." He turns to David and smirks. "Good to see you again, mon cher."

David tenses. "I don't know you."

Marceau just smirks, then turns back to Amahl. "Goodbye, Amahl. I hope I don’t see you in the next life.” He offers his hand.

“I think we can agree on that,” Amahl says, and they shake hands. “Adieu, mon ami.

With a last look at him, Marceau walks through the door, and fades into starlight.

Another prisoner stops on her way out. It’s Zaynab, her dark eyes unreadable.

“Have you come to reproach me again?” Amahl asks, bitterness leaking into his words.

Zaynab raises an eyebrow, and shakes her head. “You’ve kept me here for so long,” she says, “and yet you still don’t understand who I am at all. You have this story in your head, where you’re the villain, beset by sanctimonious heroes, and you can’t seem to understand that you’re the one writing that story. I’m not a hero. He— ” And here she points at David— “is not a hero. And you’re not a villain.”

“What am I, then?” Amahl asks.

“Just another man who controls and clings and won’t let go," Zaynab says, dismissive. "I know you think you’re a god or a devil. But in the end... you’re just like everyone else, Amahl Farouk.”

Amahl shuts his eyes, for a moment. “Perhaps I am,” he says, quietly.

“I’m going now,” Zaynab says. “For what it’s worth, I hope that you find a way to be a better person. I don’t know if that’s possible... But then again, I never knew if it was possible for me, either.” She looks over her shoulder, out the starry door. “Here’s to a better life, Farouk.”

And she walks out, into the stars.

Next is Robert. Amahl knew, of all of the prisoners, that Robert would stop to say goodbye.

“So,” Robert says. “This is goodbye.” He swallows, and Amahl sees unshed tears glittering in his eyes.

“It is,” Amahl says. “For what it’s worth... I’m sorry.”

Robert looks back at him, and Amahl knows they’re both very aware of how thin and weak those words are in the face of the wrong committed.

Robert looks over at David. “So. This is him?”

"Do all of them know me?" David mutters to Farouk.

“I may have mentioned you once or twice,” Farouk says, coolly.

“He visited us. After— Whatever just happened yesterday.” Robert glances at David. “It’s a shame, I suppose, that we never really got to meet each other... Maybe we could have compared notes.”

"Notes on what?" David asks, warily. "Who are you?"

Robert smiles, wry and sad. “I’m the idiot who thought he could love Amahl Farouk.”

"You love him?" David asks, recoiling. "He's a monster."

Robert gives a helpless shrug. "It doesn't matter. He loves you the way he never loved me. He loves you enough— To free me." He gives a sad smile. "Thank you, I suppose."

He looks back to Amahl. “Amahl... Do you know what’s waiting for me?”

“No,” Amahl says. “And I plan to never find out.”

“Easy enough for you to say,” Robert mumbles. He looks out at the stars. "Sometimes I think I already know." He shakes his head. “I guess Hell can’t be so different than where I’ve spent the last forty years.” He turns back to Amahl. "Goodbye, my love."

And then he walks away, into the ether.

At last, as everyone else is trailing out the door, and the conference room is nearly empty, Shaykha Arwa walks up to him.

“You know, I never thought you would be the last to leave,” Amahl says, turning to her. “The holy one, the saint...”

“I was waiting to see if you would turn on us at the last minute,” the Shaykha says.

“And where will you be going?” Amahl asks. “Jannah? Firdaws? Bihisht? Your eternal paradise?”

“Perhaps,” she says. “Only a fool is certain of salvation.”

Amahl smiles. “You are wise, as always.” He looks over her shoulder, through the door. “Tell me, O wise woman, are you still so certain of me? That I am beyond salvation?”

The Shaykha is silent for a moment, and then she shakes her head. “Perhaps God can forgive you,” she says. “Because I can’t.”

“As-salamu alaykum, Shaykha,” Amahl says, shaking his head. “And farewell.”

And then they're alone, the two of them. He and David. Soon it will be just himself. The thought is already intolerable, and yet— He must bear it.

"That it?" David asks, looking around.

"Yes,” Amahl says. “That’s it. Finis.”

Perhaps it's Amahl's wishful thinking, but David seems reluctant to leave. Despite his protestations, this separation is painful for him as well. Amahl is tempted to play on that unsaid desire. Would it work? Could he still pull the strings, still lure David back in, still—

"David?" Amahl says, gently.

"Yeah," David says, visibly pulling himself together. "Uh, guess I should—"

"In a moment," Amahl says. "I have something for you."

Instantly, David is suspicious again, on guard. "What?"

“A parting gift for you,” Amahl says, turning away slightly. “Something that is yours by right.”

"Mine?" David asks.

Amahl reaches into the shadows, and pulls out a little cardboard box. It’s a trinket that David made a long time ago, perhaps in school— Decorated with paper stars and painted in childishly bright colors. Amahl picks it up as if it was the most delicate of jewels, and weighs it in his hands for a moment, torn.

It’s not too late, he thinks. It’s not too late to turn around.

But it is.

"What's that?" David asks, even more wary than before.

“Yours,” Amahl says, at last. He wishes David trusted him. He wishes he was trustworthy.

He hands the box to David. “Your— Memories. The ones I took from you. All the moments I have stolen from you."

David takes the box, turns it, curious and uncertain. "My memories? I don't— What did I forget?"

“So many things,” Amahl says, and then he laughs to himself, small and painful. “You always said you had a bad memory... ”

"I guess I just had you," David says, sobering. He turns the box over again. "How do I—"

“You can open it,” Amahl says. “When you’re ready.”

"How am I supposed to know if I'm ready if I don't know what I forgot?" David asks, with an edge of panic. But he forcibly calms himself. "Okay. Okay, I guess— Thank you. I guess. I'm not—" He stops, rubs his face, breathes, then looks at Farouk. "Whatever's in this— It's not gonna make me want to— Be with you. Or whatever. It's not gonna make you my dad. You got that?"

“I know,” Farouk says, his lips twisting in irony. “I know. I took them away for a reason, after all.” He looks down. Is this remorse? Shame? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that right in this moment, he desperately wants to be someone other than who he is.

David looks at the box again, visibly trying to decide, and then accepts it, holds it close.

There's a quiet moment between them.

"It was a good thing you did," David says, a little shyly. "Freeing them." He clutches at the box. "I guess— This is goodbye."

Amahl doesn't want it to be goodbye. He wants to hold on to David forever, as he held on to so many people. This pain of letting go is unbearable.

Perhaps it shows on his face, because David's expression shifts to— Something like pity? Or understanding.

"It'll be okay," David says, awkwardly trying to soothe him."All those futures— You'll find a good one."

Amahl shuts his eyes. It’s too much. After everything, David is trying to comfort him. Not, Amahl knows, because he deserves it— But because this is who David is. Still the hero, after everything, Amahl thinks, and this time it’s more fond than bitter.

"Without you?" he says, quietly. He knows the answer..

"Yes," David says, certain, but then eases. "Maybe we can both change. Get better. That's what we saw, right? There were ones where you got better, too."

"Yes," Amahl admits, though none of those futures were what he wants. None of them gave him— David. "David," he starts, hating his vulnerability. He hates to be vulnerable and helpless, and yet here he is. Weakness. David’s weakness— or perhaps it was his own, all along. He reaches out for David, blindly needing.

David’s breath catches. He looks away from Amahl, and then back.And then he steps forward, and pulls Amahl into his arms. They hold each other, just for a moment. And then—

David steps back from Amahl, and turns towards the door, the one they entered from, the door that leads back to the real world, back to Moira and Lenny, to David’s real family, to the future that Amahl has no part in. He reaches for the doorknob and then stops, and looks over his shoulder. “Goodbye, Farouk.”

And then he’s gone, and Amahl is alone.

He looks around the big, echoing empty room. He has spent so many years here, in this palace in his mind. This world of his own creation, where nothing is ever real.

He could stay here. Rebuild the villa, populate it with shadows of his imagination, try to be happy again. He could even make himself a David, a simulacrum of his memories, a shell of the man Amahl loves. Imaginify himself a kingdom and rule it, alone.

Perhaps, if he’d come to this moment decades ago, when he was still the Shadow King, when he was still himself, that would have been enough. The world always seemed so empty to him, back then, like he was the only solid thing. He’d wondered, at times, if he wasn’t already trapped in his own head. If all the world and its people weren’t simply a part of Amahl Farouk’s delusion. It had made as much sense as anything.

But now he knows what it’s like not to be alone in his solipsistic cave, and he can’t go back. He can’t.

He lets the villa, all its rooms and its cages and his memories, fade away into nothingness. It was only ever a crutch, and he knows he is better than that.

The Astral Plane stretches out in front of him, and he reaches out for the one familiar mind lost in it, the one person who might still be able to help him.

He opens his eyes, and he’s standing in front of a cottage in the woods, the same one he saw in the vision of the future. He can hear laughter coming from inside. The happy couple living out their fairytale. He hesitates, on the doorstep. He doesn’t belong here, he knows. He knows that.

He knocks, anyway.

The door opens, and Oliver Bird is standing there, arm in arm with Melanie. They’re laughing, but the smiles on their faces fade as they see him.

Are they afraid? Amahl wonders. Do they think he’s come to punish them for escaping him, take his revenge, destroy their happy afterlife?

“Hello,” he says.

“Hello,” Oliver says, after a moment. “It’s been a long time,” Oliver says. “Or has it? I suppose we wouldn’t really know...”

“It has,” Amahl says. “Much has changed.” He shakes his head. “The stories I could tell you... Ahh, where do I start, my friends?”

“Start with why you’re here,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” Amahl says. He takes a deep breath. “I am here to ask for your help, Doctor Bird. I have... I have done terrible things. You know that, I know... I have done terrible things, and I am not sure if I can ever wash my hands clean again. But I want to... I want to try.” He squares his shoulders. “I have to try. And I can’t— I know, the world would not be safe, with me out there. I know. So I came here, to you.” He swallows. “Doctor Bird— Melanie— Oliver— Will you help me?”

“Why should we help you,” Oliver says, very gently, “After everything you’ve done to us?”

From anyone else, it would be an accusation, an insult to fling into his face. But, Amahl knows, Oliver means it.

“Because that’s who you are,” Amahl says. “Because I know you, both of you. You deserved so much better... ” He smiles, slightly. “You tried to help David, right to the end. You tried to understand, to see both of us the way we are— Not the way we wanted to be. Not the stories we wove for you. The face underneath the mask. I need that now. I need someone who can see who I am— Because I think I have forgotten. And perhaps, in being here, I can help the two of you remember, too. Perhaps we can start again together.”

Melanie and Oliver exchange a look, and a world of meaning passes between them.

“I can see you have a lot to tell us,” Melanie says.

“I do,” Amahl agrees.

“Come in,” Oliver says, stepping back from the door and motioning him in. “Sit down. Tell us your stories... And maybe we can tell you ours.”

Amahl walks forward, into the cottage, and the door closes behind him.

§


Picnic Future illustration by Zephyrine-gale