The cave is calm and quiet. David prefers to spend most of his time here and not— Elsewhere. Not the commune, filled with happy thoughts but so much noise and chaos. Not the outside world, all cold glares and sharp edges. He doesn't belong out there, he never did. He doesn't want the world, and the world sure as hell doesn't want him.
It doesn't matter. Soon everything will change, everything will be better. He'll be better, the world will be better, once Farouk never—
No, happy thoughts. Focus on the sounds of soothing nature, birdsong and babbling brooks and a gentle breeze through a canopy of trees. Feel the currents of happiness swirling through the commune and let them—
There's a noise from inside his house. He tries to ignore it, but there's another noise, and muffled words. He lowers his feet to the ground and marches over to the little green house, yanks the door open.
"You're not supposed to be here," David says, angrily. "Get back inside!"
It's them, of course. His dopplegangers. He's not sure what they are, except— Insanity. His madness warping reality around him, hallucinations with minds of their own.
They call themselves Legion, collectively. David's not sure how many of them there are. Sometimes it feels like his head is just like the commune, with new people turning up all the time, uninvited and demanding.
He tends to stay out of his own head, these days. Too much noise and chaos.
"We're having tea," one of Legion says, with a thick Scottish accent. They all look the same, but they act differently, talk differently. This one calls himself Daibhidh.
"You can have tea inside," David insists. He glares at them.
"It's fine," says another of Legion, one of the ones who say they're women even though they're, well— Him. She goes by Davida. "No one's here. If anyone comes, we'll hide."
"Gettin' kinda cramped in there," says Dvd.
"And whose fault is that?" David asks, tersely.
"Yours, probably," Divad smirks.
David narrows his eyes at Divad. Divad and Dvd were the first of Legion to show themselves. They helped him, at least at first. And then after his entire life collapsed in an epic disaster, they introduced him to the others.
Insanity. There's no cure for his sickness, just— Palliative care. Painkillers to keep him going so he can end the farce of this life and— Stop the sickness at its source.
"You two," he says, point at Divad and Dvd, "are supposed to keep things under control." They're supposed to be the Lenny for his mental hallucinatory commune, not— Popping out for tea.
"And you're supposed to find a time traveller," Divad says, not backing down. "How long has it been since you were even remotely sober?"
"Fuck you," David snarls. Sober's the last thing he wants to be.
"It's been months," Divad says. "We all agreed, this is the only solution. Are you chickening out on us?" He makes a clucking noise, mocking him.
David grabs Divad's teacup and throws it against a wall, smashing it. "Get. Back. Inside."
"Or what?" Divad says, boldly.
"Is there gonna be a tussle?" Daibhidh asks, eagerly. "Been a while since we had a good rammy."
Dvd intervenes. "We gotta stay focused." He pulls Divad back and shoves a fresh teacup into his hands. "Let us have our fucking tea and then we'll go back in our boxes, okay?"
"Fine," David mutters. He rubs his head. When the drugs start to wear off, he always gets a headache. Blue smoke starts exuding from his skin and he breathes it in, deep breaths, filling his lungs.
He's calm, he's fine. Everything's fine. He's the magic man.
Davida joins him, abandoning her tea for something stronger. Daibhidh sighs, then does the same. Dvd starts over, but Divad holds him back. Dvd rolls his eyes but stays put.
And then David's head spikes with fear and terror. Instantly all of Legion vanishes, teacups crashing to the floor. David clutches his head and struggles to block out the blinding psychic pain. And then he hears Lenny's mental scream for help.
Lenny. He focuses on her, and then he's there with her.
The commune is even more chaotic than usual. People are crying, screaming, running from— Familiar, black-clad soldiers.
Shit. Division 3 found them? Shit shit shit.
Why can't he hear their thoughts?
"Do something!" Lenny shouts at him, but that last hit is coming on strong. He clumsily lashes out, dissolving three soldiers into black dust, then stumbles forward. There's bodies on the floor, and blood. He takes out another group of soldiers, another, just trying to staunch the bleeding enough to figure out what's happening, and then—
There in the crowd, marching towards him— Farouk. David's blood runs cold, then hot with fury. He tries to dissolve Farouk, but of course Farouk blocks it. But a group of women slam into Farouk and push him into a room, and the door closes behind them.
Something smacks him on the forehead and the world turns upside-down. He falls to one knee, his vision distorted, and tries to pull off the thing that's attached itself to his head. In his swirling vision, he sees the glint of metal, and barely processes the sight of— Kerry? Is that— Kerry bearing down at him, her sword raised high, and then— Lenny blocks her with her cane and bodily tackles her.
The thing won't come off, so David starts trying to burn it out. He screams as he lights up with power, and he can feel the device starting to fail when—
Pain blossoms in his chest. He looks down and sees— Blood? A small patch and then— spreading—
Oh. Someone shot him in the back.
He tries to struggle to his feet, but falls against the opposite wall. Fresh pain steals his breath, and he gasps as he turns to see whatever faceless Division 3 soldier finally took him down.
But it's not a faceless Division 3 soldier. It's Syd.
It's like being shot a second time, right through the heart. For a moment, they just stare at each other, neither of them moving. Syd's eyes are cold and determined behind her orange sunglasses. David remembers— That farce of a trial, but also— Syd's eyes, hurting and disappointed but still— Having some scrap of hope for him.
There's no hope in her eyes anymore.
She racks the shotgun and raises it to fire again. This time at his head.
“Sydney,” a voice says, and Farouk steps into view. David tries to gather the strength to fight, but he can barely lift his arm. This is it. They're going to kill him, Syd and Farouk together. Of course they are.
Farouk lifts a hand and David braces himself— And then a wave of force brushes past him, and he sees Syd’s eyes widen in surprise before she vanishes.
Farouk steps towards him and pulls him to his feet. David struggles to escape, but he's too weak, and ends up leaning against Farouk just to keep from falling. "What—" he starts, rasping. The thing on his head is still working, making him disoriented, dizzy. Or maybe it's the blood loss.
“The tide of battle is turning against you," Farouk says. "We must get out of here.”
"No," David grunts. "You— You get out." He lets go of Farouk to wave his hand at Division 3's invasion force, but nearly falls and has to hold on again. He has no idea why Farouk is doing this, but— "Get them out. Then I'll—" He might be dying, but he's not leaving the commune with Division 3.
“Fine,” Farouk snaps. “All of them, then.”
The world around them blurs and warps, like melting wax, and then reforms. The Division 3 soldiers vanish and the light changes. David blinks. There are pine trees in the commune now. Big ones, growing up through the floor and out the ceiling. There are pine needles scattered across the floor.
It's beautiful. It reminds him of his childhood, and losing himself in wild nature. It makes his heart ache with longing. Or maybe that's the bullet wound in his chest.
His grip on Farouk slips and he falls to the floor, coughing up blood. Lenny, where's Lenny? He tries to call for her, but he can't stop coughing. Lenny, he calls out with his mind, and he feels her coming closer.
There are hands on his head, pulling the device off, and he feels the full force of his powers flow back in. Farouk is leaning over him, and now his hands are on the bullet wound, applying pressure, trying to stop the bleeding. David can feel the Shadow King’s mind against his, black tendrils wrapping around his thoughts.
“Focus, joonam,” Farouk says, urgently. “Find the power in yourself, and heal.”
Part of David wants to shove Farouk away and die in peace. He just wants to let go. But the other part of him is too stubborn to let go. He revolts at the feeling of Farouk's mind, the closeness of it, but grits his teeth.
"We're gods, gods don't die," Dvd says, quiet but urgent in his ear. And David feels Dvd somehow— Lending him strength. The grey edging his vision eases back, and the awful burning pain of the gunshot wound starts to lessen.
And that's when Lenny rushes up, her hammer cane raised. "Get the fuck away from him!"
Farouk looks up. “I am healing him,” he says, coldly. “She almost killed him.”
Lenny lowers her cane. "Who?" She sees David's bloody shirt, and kneels down on his other side. "Shit! What the hell?"
"Syd," David rasps. Everything still tastes like blood, but the urge to cough is fading. "Shot me."
"Bitch!" Lenny snarls. "Did you kill her?"
David knows there's no love lost between Lenny and Syd. He shakes his head, gestures at Farouk.
“She’s alive,” Farouk says, coolly. “And if she walks quickly from where I sent her, she will probably find shelter before the sun sets.”
David closes his eyes and focuses on healing. The stronger he feels, the easier it is to heal the rest of his wound. His chest glows beneath his shirt, and then— It's done. He sits up, shaky but whole. He and Lenny look at each other, and then they both look at Farouk.
Farouk lifts his head, as if he’s considering what to say. In the end, he doesn’t explain himself, but simply says, “How do you feel? Recovered?” He pulls out a handkerchief from his pocket, and starts wiping David’s blood off his hands. His sleeves are stained.
David nods, still at a loss. Is this a trick? Everything Farouk has ever done to him has been a trick. Does he know about the time travel? He must be trying to stop David from— But then why even bother saving his life?
"What do you want?" he asks, too confused to be anything but direct. "Why— All this?"
"Good fucking question," Lenny says, backing him up. She glares at Farouk in warning.
“You still think I’m your enemy,” Farouk says. “I am not.” He finishes with the handkerchief, and crumples it up. He shakes his head. “I came here to help you.”
"Why?" David asks, still suspicious.
“I told you this, before,” Farouk says, evenly. “In the cell.” He looks at Lenny as if she’s the unwelcome interloper here, not him, and then back to David. “We were one and the same for decades, my dear. I will not leave you to die, after all this time. I will not give up on you.”
David sneers in disgust. He pushes himself to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the wall. "Great. I'm alive. Now leave before I kill you." He looks around at the destruction around them, then turns to Lenny. "How bad?"
"Bad," Lenny says, unhappily.
“You could kill me right now, you know,” Farouk says, his voice soft. “Why give me the chance to leave?”
David rounds on Farouk. "Yeah, I could," he warns, getting in his face. I will, he thinks, imagining crushing Farouk's soul when it tries to invade him as a baby. His fists curl and he itches to just— Wrap his hands around Farouk's neck and squeeze.
But killing Farouk now won't undo the damage. It's a distraction he doesn't need. "Show me," he tells Lenny, and she leads him down the hall.
It's bad. There's a lot of wounded, and maybe a lot of dead, David can't tell. He opens his mind to the commune and is immediately hit with a turbulent swirl of pain and grief and horror and panic and—
It's too much. He closes his mind against it and pushes out waves of calm and peace, and the turbulence eases. When Lenny sees everyone's sudden calm she gives David an annoyed look, but starts going around the rooms, trying to take stock.
Bring the wounded to the main room, David sends to her. I'll heal them.
You bet your ass you will, Lenny thinks back.
David sighs, rubs his head. One of the wounded commune members is sitting on the floor near his feet, bleeding badly but smiling up at him. The sight makes him feel vaguely nauseous.
“I can help,” Farouk says, quietly.
A thought occurs to David. "How did they even find us?" he asks, turning on Farouk. "Division 3, how did they find me? Was it you?"
“One of the male Loudermilk’s contraptions,” Farouk says, shrugging. “I didn’t take note of the details.”
"So they can find us again," David realizes. He's annoyed that he can't blame Farouk for all this. Everything else is his fault.
“Perhaps,” Farouk says, slowly. “They are looking for the signature of your powers. Not mine.”
David gives him a very suspicious look. "Fine. You want to stay? Heal them."
Farouk smiles, and steps forward to stand next to David, one hand on his shoulder. He shuts his eyes, and a sourceless light appears, centered on the two of them, an angelic glow. The glow spreads across the floor of the commune, and concentrates on the wounds of David’s followers. It peaks, and then fades, leaving them healed.
David— Honestly didn't expect that. He scowls at Farouk and walks off after Lenny.
"You said to get everyone together," Lenny says, confused but relieved. She's with Salmon, who has blood on her hands but he doesn't think it's her own.
"It wasn't me," David grits out.
Lenny's eyes widen. "No way."
"What's wrong?" Salmon asks.
"Everything," David mutters. "Look, Farouk says— Cary's got some kind of— Detector. If I use my powers too much, they might find us again."
"And you believe him?" Lenny asks, skeptical.
"Of course not," David says. He frowns, looking at the commune members. Between Farouk's healing and David's— Mental calming, everyone's just— Going back to what they were doing, as if nothing happened. Bloodstained clothing and bullet holes aside. "Should I—" he asks, and looks to Lenny for help.
"Did he say what he wants?" Lenny asks.
David shakes his head. Farouk said something about wanting to save his life, but— If that's it, then job done. David's alive and kicking.
The scar in his chest twinges. Syd, he thinks, and it doesn't matter how healed he is, everything hurts.
"I can't deal with this," he says, tersely. "If everything's fine, then— I'm gonna go."
"You can't just drug everybody and leave," Lenny says, upset.
"That's exactly what I can do," David says, annoyed.
"We're in the middle of a fucking forest!" Lenny says. "With your asshole parasite! C'mon, man, we need you. Get your shit together."
David grits his teeth and wishes he could just— Make Lenny as happy as everyone else. But he can't. He's tried but— Her thoughts are like steel, these days. He can't change them, can't take away her pain.
And he can't take away his own.
He walks away, stepping out of the commune and back into his cave.
Farouk silently watches him go.
The truth is, Amahl didn’t expect her to pull the trigger.
Amahl is a storyteller at heart, and he knows the role Syd plays, the lovelorn heroine, the heartbroken lover. And David is— David. Amahl has worn Syd’s skin just as he’s worn David’s skin, and he understands her. In a way, she’s like him. And like him, she loves David.
He had counted on that to save David’s life, when it came down to it. He had made sure she would have access to a nonlethal weapon, and had fully expected her to use it.
He will have to recalibrate his plans.
Fortunately, he’s in a good place to do it. Amahl runs a hand posessively over the walls of David’s commune. It’s a beautiful place, full of bright colors and temptations and strange thoughts. Not unlike David himself. Amahl built a place like this, once. A temple to his own ego. But that was a long time ago, a long time... He was a different person then.
David’s followers are all concerned with each other. Under David’s power, they’ve gone right back to their nonstop party, as if nothing had ever happened. Amahl is like a ghost among them, and in that strange privacy, he runs his hands over his face, reminding himself of its lines, its angles. He wonders how long it will take him to recognize them as his own, to look in a mirror and not be startled by the strange face looking back at him.
Sometimes he wakes up at night from a dream, and it takes him a long time to remember who he is. As if he’s just some fragment of David, cast out and lost and struggling to be returned.
It frightens him. He has spent too long fighting for this, to get his body back, his life back, and now—
Nothing feels right.
Like a compass needle turning, he finds his feet leading him down the corridors of the commune, towards David. Reality bends itself around David in ways he may not even be aware of, and doesn't so much stretch thin as become something else entirely. There is the commune and all its chaos, and then—
There is a cave. Clearly a mental space, unbound by physical concerns, all smooth, warm stone and natural light. And then there is a little house, oddly built into the stone wall. Farouk can feel David inside, and quietly approaches, then stops at the window and looks inside.
David isn't alone. Or rather, he is alone with himself. There are multiple versions of David having what appears to be a tense argument. All of them have an identical bloodstain on their shirts.
"—can't let him just hang around!" hisses one of the David, in a thick Scottish accent. "Who knows what he's up to? He's probably— Putting more of those black goo things in everyone's heads!"
"We need him," says another David.
"Bullshit," says another. "It's a trick, it's always a trick with him. We kill him now, then we kill him then."
"What about Cary?" says the previous David.
"What about him?" says the third. "They're not gonna sneak up on us again."
"You think?" challenges the Scottish David. He gestures in annoyance at a fourth David, sitting on a sofa with blue smoke wafting around him. "Useless!"
And then one of the Davids sees Amahl, and all of them disappear except for the David on the sofa.
Amahl tilts his head, and considers his approach here. Best to be cautious, then. He nods to David, or, at least, the part of David that’s willing to show itself. “Guten Abend,” he says, courteously. “May I come in?”
David looks at Amahl through the haze of smoke and blows a puff at him. His eyes are glazed. "If I said no, would it make a difference?"
There is a right and a wrong answer to this question. “Yes,” Farouk says, evenly.
David snorts. "Liar," he says, blandly. He takes another breath of the smoke. "Why are you really here?"
“Would you believe me if I told you again I’m here to help?” Amahl says. He lifts a hand to push open the door, and then stops, thinking better of it. “I have been looking for you since the trial. You know that, I think. No?”
"To save my life?" David sneers. "To 'help' me?"
“Yes,” Amahl says. He takes a few steps back from the window, and takes a seat on the bench, facing the window. He considers his words carefully. “You left me behind, after all. And your abandoned pawns plotted to strike against you.”
David glares at him. "Your pawns, you mean," he declares. Then he gives a bitter laugh. "They've been under your control this whole time. Even Syd. Did you make her shoot me just so you could be the one to 'save' me?"
“Which time?” Amahl asks.
Anger flares in David's eyes, and then in a blink, Amahl is seized by David's powers and shoved off the porch. He lands hard on the stone ground, his breath knocked out of him.
David marches out onto the porch "You did that to her," he growls.
Amahl looks up. His David has grown so tall now. He sits up carefully, checking his head and his bones for damage. It would be a shame, a shame to damage this body so soon after regaining it. “Did I?” he asks. “I showed her what I had seen. And I sent her to delay you. I knew you would stop her before any damage could be done. She was never a real threat to you.” Amahl’s eyes flicker to the bloodstains on David’s clothes, where the bullet had hit him, and then away. “I didn’t imagine how far you would go.” That seems to be a running theme in his life, he notes absently.
David looks absolutely furious, and then— He giggles, high and manic. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't bash your head in with a rock right now."
Amahl isn’t so certain there’s a good answer to that. He doesn’t let that thought show on his face. “Because that is what he would do. The other you, the shadow of the future. And I know you don’t want to become that.”
"Maybe I don't care what I become," David says, teeth bared. "This world can burn. It doesn't matter, nothing matters."
Amahl laughs, soft and wry, and shakes his head. “I don’t believe that, joonam. Remember, I have been you. I know how much you care.” He looks up at David, fondly. “I know you could never be that.”
"Oh, you know me?" David challenges. "Is that what you told Syd to make her shoot me? That I cared too much?"
“No,” Amahl says, and he gathers himself to his feet, because he can see it, the contrast between what he says to David and what he said to Syd. He straightens his tie. “I told her about myself. What I saw reflected in you. What I am afraid I have made of you.”
"I am nothing like you," David declares.
“You shouldn’t be,” Amahl says. “That is what I realized— when I glimpsed him in the future, when I saw what you had done to her. You are something— different.” He takes a step closer, carefully. “Something strange and beautiful and worth protecting. And if you had let me, I would have destroyed all of that, in my arrogance, and been left with a shell.” Another step. “It’s not too late, joonam. I can fix this. I can fix what I’ve done.”
It has to be true.
"You wanna fix me?" David asks, intensely skeptical. "There's only one way to fix me, and I'm doing it. I don't need you."
“Doing what?” Amahl asks, his eyes sharp. An image of Syd’s ruined future flashes across his mind.
"You think I'm gonna tell you so you can stop me?" David asks. "I know you. I know exactly what you are."
Amahl smiles, unhappily, and steps back, shaking his head. “Do you?” And then, impulsively: “I wish you did.”
David stares at him, then turns away. He heads back to the house, but stops on the porch instead of going in, and sits. His anger fades and he looks tired, worn, like he's barely holding himself together.
The desire rises up in Amahl to reach out to him, and he’s not sure if he wants to comfort him or to feed on his pain. He feels a terrible echo of David’s exhaustion in his own chest. Is that because he’s been through everything that David has— or because he’s part of David?
Slowly, he walks towards David, and sits down on the bench across from him. “You should rest. The body does not take a bullet wound lightly, no matter what we gods—” and a small, ironic smile, because he knows David isn’t as eager to call himself that “—demand of it.”
"I'm fine," David says, though nothing about him looks fine. Aside from the bloodstain and the haze of drugs in his eyes, he looks tense and miserable, though he tries to hide it under a veneer of anger. Some flash of grief passes across his features, but it's pushed away.
“What are you afraid will happen if you rest?” Amahl asks, quietly. “Me? Or them?”
He doesn’t mean Division 3.
"Them?" David asks, warily.
Amahl nods and gestures vaguely to his temple. “Your shadows.”
David's expression grows even warier, furtive. "What are you talking about?" he lies, badly.
Amahl raises an eyebrow. “The voices in your head. Remember … I was one of them once.”
"I'm not crazy, I have powers," David reminds him. "You made me think I was crazy."
Amahl shrugs. David is no madman, he knows that. After all, the voices are real; Amahl has heard them. “Nein. But they are here nevertheless, no? You spoke to them, just now.”
"No, I didn't," David lies.
Amahl raises his eyebrow again, and just waits.
David scowls at him. "Sounds like you're the one who's crazy." But his eyes dart back and forth, like he's trying not to listen to something. Or someone.
A little smile twists at Amahl’s lips, and then is gone. “You’re not the first one to tell me that. Tell me— Why bother lying? I have seen into your heart.”
"You don't know anything about me," David insists.
Amahl leans forward, as if to say something— and then stops, and leans back. “Very well, then.” He gestures. “Teach me.”
"Teach you?" David echoes in disbelief.
Amahl nods, as if this is the most reasonable thing in existence. “You tell me I don’t know anything about you. So show me.” Something creeps into his voice, too intense, too desperate. “Make me understand.”
David stares at Amahl for a long moment, like he can't quite decide what to do. His hands curl into fists, readying for violence, but he also looks like he desperately needs to open up to someone, and maybe— Amahl is simply the first person who offered to listen.
"Telling you won't make a difference," David says, finally. "You know exactly what you did to me. And you enjoyed it."
“I know,” Amahl says, very quietly. “And now look what I have done to both of us.”
"Yeah, it must be awful, getting everything you want," David sneers. "And it's still not enough or you wouldn't be here. Is that what this is? You want another meal off of me? You wanna make me scream? I'm never screaming for you ever again."
“Good,” Amahl says, and surprises himself with his own vehemence.
"Good?" David echoes, confused out of his anger.
Amahl has to stop, and think about what he wants, about what David thinks he wants. “I have seen myself through your eyes,” he says, slowly. “The dragon to be slain, the monster under the bed.” There is bitterness in his tone, but he tries to push it away. “That is not who I am.” No. That’s not right. “I refuse to be nothing more than your demon.” He’s surprised by how difficult it is, this business of honesty. It would be easy, he thinks, if only he could reach out his mind to David’s and show him. He leans in. “Do you understand? You have changed me. You changed me, and I won’t give up on you. I won’t let you suffer the consequences of what I have done.”
"I didn't change you," David insists. "The only thing I did was get you out of my head, and then— And then you destroyed what was left of my life, you and—" He cuts off, pained. "No," he says, with gathering strength. "No, I'm not gonna let you take anything else from me." There's a crackle of power in the air.
No, Amahl thinks. And he has one of those strange moments where he seems to vanish, and he’s David, looking back at Farouk and seeing him for what he is, the Devil with Yellow Eyes, the monster, the Shadow King. He shuts his eyes and tries to block out the image. Tries to remember who he is. “David,” he says. He forces his eyes open, and leans across the table towards David. “Let me show you,” he says, urgently, his hands flat and open on the table. “Look into my mind. Take the truth from me, if you will take nothing else.”
Again, David looks caught between violence and hope. He takes even longer to make up his mind this time, and perhaps that's because of the chorus in his head. But finally, Amahl sees decision settle on his face. "One chance," David says, firmly. "You've got one chance. And if it's a trick, I'll kill you."
“Okay,” Amahl says. He offers David his hand and takes a deep breath, pulling down his barriers, leaving his soft underbelly exposed for David. David pushes into his mind, sharp and angry, and then—
Amahl shows him everything. Pain and confusion and need and a deep, all-encompassing fondness, all the things he feels for David, and beyond that, the hunger and the coldness that lie at Amahl’s heart. The way he felt, thinking David was dead, that terrible year after he vanished. The way his heart jumped when David came back. The confusion and amusement and bitter irony of seeing David’s face in Future Syd’s memories — after all these years, I am the hero? - and the terrible recognition of seeing David abuse Syd, looking at David and thinking this is me, this is what I would do, this is what I have made of him, what have I done - lashing out in anger in the cell and being left alone to stew— the feelings of disorientation, looking in the mirror and seeing the wrong face, waking up in the middle of the night from a dream where he’s David and mourning the reality. All of it.
The connection breaks, and David falls back, face red with upset and wet with tears. He bares his teeth, angry, a wounded animal cornered. He wipes his face with his sleeve and stumbles to his feet, walks away. Stops, breathes, then turns.
"I am not you," David says, voice rough and ragged. "I am nothing like, you, I will never be anything like you."
“I don’t want you to be,” Amahl says, immediately. The words come easily to his tongue. “I love you for what you are. Not for what you could be.”
David gives a disbelieving laugh. "You don't love me. You're not capable of love. You're a monster."
Amahl bears his teeth in a grimace. He knows, of course, what David thinks of him. But somehow it’s harsher to hear it said out loud, here in the physical world where everything is too solid and immutable. He shifts back, shaking his head. “I am more than that. I thought you would understand that.”
"Why, because you ate me alive for thirty years?" David asks, voice high. "You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna go back in time and make sure you never touch me again, that you never even— I'm gonna finish what my father started and then none of this will have ever happened and I'll finally be free of everything you did to me!" He stops, staring, breathing hard.
It hits Amahl like a lightning bolt, and his eyes widen.
Go back in time. None of this will have ever happened.
He could have his life back. He could go back.
It’s almost too much, a beautiful impossibility, and Amahl realizes he’s been holding himself back from even hoping for something like this. He is a cynic at heart. But David— David is a dreamer. In a way, he is more ambitious than Amahl could ever hope to be.
“You think it’s possible?” Amahl asks, finally. He knows, after all, that time travel is possible, has met time travellers before.
"Of course it's—" David starts, then frowns. "You— You want that? You want me to go back in time and kill you?"
Amahl tilts his head. “Your salvation doesn’t require my death.” His eyes light, and he feels hope start to form in his chest. “We could save each other. Create a world where you and I could both live free.”
"You don't deserve to live," David mutters, but Amahl's agreement has cut through his defenses, at least for the moment. He hesitates, then admits: "I can't— I've been looking for a time traveller. I've been looking, they have to exist, I know they're out there, Syd—" He cuts off, pained.
“I can help you,” Amahl says, too caught up in this possibility to be hurt by David’s aside. “I knew a time traveller once, a long time ago. She is no help to us now, but I know such women exist.”
"Where?" David asks, desperately. He walks back to the porch, but doesn't step onto it. "Where?" he asks again, agitated.
“She is dead,” Amahl says quietly, and he feels the weight of David’s desperation. He leans in. “But I can help you find another. We can help each other, you and I.”
David gives him a painfully hopeful, needing look— And then covers it with a distrustful scowl. "No, this is a trick," he declares. "It's always a trick."
Amahl needs David to believe him. “Read my mind. Prove it to yourself.”
David is far less eager to reach into his mind again, but he does, and— This time he doesn't push deep but just— Feels how Amahl feels now. Feels his need, his certainty, his hope that there is a solution to both their problems. Feels that despite everything, Amahl wants this.
And then he lets go, pulls away and in on himself. Amahl can easily imagine the argument happening inside of David's head, the squabbling legion of selves all grasping for an end to their pain, David's pain.
"Fine," David says, finally and quietly. "You can help. But I'm still going to kill you."
Amahl meets his eyes. “I won’t give up and let you kill me. I want to live. And I will not give up until you do, too.”
That startles David, and for a moment his guard drops and an overwhelming pain is visible in his eyes. And then he steps back up onto the porch, but walks through it and back into the house, and closes the door behind him.
Lenny stands on the commune porch and has no idea where they are.
That's not a new problem. David's always moving the commune around, putting it wherever keeps them safe. Not that it matters where they are. They could be on the moon and there'd still be food and water and power and drugs, and hell, oxygen too, because David's the magic man. Whatever he wants, the universe bends itself to give him.
And that's been fine by her. The commune's a lot of work but she loves it: being in charge, calling the shots. All bow down to the Breakfast Queen. She makes sure David gets all that secondhand love he needs and everything's golden.
But there's a worm in the apple now, an infection that needs burning out. And David's not doing his job, he's not keeping them safe. He didn't even pick this place, this forest far away from everything, so far that no one can get to them and they can't get to anywhere. A pretty little prison.
She swore she'd never let anyone lock her up again, not Division 3, not some mental hospital, and sure as hell not Farouk. And maybe pine trees aren't the usual bars but she still feels trapped and that's got her hackles raised right up.
The porch door opens and Salmon walks out, all drugged-out smiles. She walks slowly, back sore from her baby bump, and just manages to wrap her arms around Lenny's waist.
"Pretty," Salmon sighs, looking at the forest. Lenny looks down and sees dried blood on Salmon's hands. It's like she doesn't even see it.
She probably doesn't. David's like a goddamn bull in a china shop when he's upset. Lenny keeps telling him to go easy but he doesn't listen to her like he used to. How's she supposed to be his majordomo if he doesn't listen?
"Grumpy girl," Salmon coos, and snuggles against her. "Why are you sad? Everything's perfect."
"It sure the fuck isn't," Lenny mutters. "Don't you get tired of being happy sometimes?"
"Of course not," Salmon says. "Being happy makes me happy. She's happy, too."
Lenny frowns, thinking of— Vodka in a Rondo citrus soda can.
"Maybe she shouldn't be," Lenny says.
Salmon laughs. "Now you're being silly."
"She should be upset," Lenny says. "That's what babies do, right? They get upset."
"Not our baby," Salmon says, unbothered. "Our baby will always be happy, because we're always happy."
"I'm not happy," Lenny says, firmly.
Salmon lets go and Lenny turns to face her. Lenny can see that some part of Salmon is trying to be upset, fighting against David's mental command. But the happiness wins, like it always does.
"That's okay," Salmon smiles. "I'll be happy for both of us."
Lenny tastes vodka at the back of her throat. She walks away from Salmon, back into the commune. Everyone is happily milling about, oblivious to the gunshot holes in the walls and the bloodstains on their clothes.
Fuck. She didn't sign up for this. She's gotta get her house back in order, gotta do some fumigation. She grits her teeth and forces herself to look for Farouk, even though it makes her skin crawl to even be in the same building as him. She still doesn't know what the fuck he's actually doing here, besides finding new ways to torture them. Asshole.
She sees him walking out of David's little cave, and every cell in her body wants her to grab a stake and run it through his undead heart. She shouldn't have let David go off alone, not with the monster here. It doesn't matter that he's a god, he's a fucking mess, and Farouk's just gonna make him messier.
"Hey!" she calls, marching up to Farouk. "Stay the hell away from him."
Farouk looks her up and down. There is dried blood on his hands, and Lenny knows he hasn’t been mind-whammied, but he looks like he’s on his way to the country club, smug and impassive as always. Nothing ever touches him. “No,” he says, evenly, lightly, as if he’s just delivering a basic fact.
God, she wants to rip his throat out with her teeth. "Did you hurt him?" she challenges.
Farouk considers her, as if he’s deciding whether she’s worth responding to. “No,” he says, finally. “At least, no more than I already have. It is a difficult thing, no? He is all open wounds, and the slightest touch could hurt him.”
"Yeah, and whose fault is that?" Lenny says. "Why are you here? And don't lie to me."
“I’m here because you’re right, of course,” Farouk says. “It is my fault. And I am here to make amends.”
"I said don't lie," Lenny warns.
Farouk laughs. “You don’t believe me. I could have made you, back when you were my... guest. But it’s true.”
Lenny shudders, but mostly manages not to show it. "This is my house. And I don't like uninvited guests."
“But you don’t like this, either, do you?” Farouk asks. He gestures around them. “This change in him, the things he does to these people.”
"Stay the fuck out of my head," Lenny warns. She takes a step closer, her body language as aggressive as possible. "Keep pushing your luck. I've got a hotline to God."
“Perhaps,” Farouk says, smiling. “But you forget... I am God.” And the way he says it, it doesn’t sound like an idle boast. He believes that.
Lenny shudders again, and this time she can't hide it. In retaliation she bares her teeth at him, then spits in his face.
Farouk reels back, and Lenny sees his mask crack, sees rage flash over his face, and she has a moment of terrified regret that she immediately defies. And then the mask is back in place, and a wave of telekinetic force shoves her back, pinning her against the commune wall.
He regards her like an insect pinned under a magnifying glass. “I am here to help,” he emphasizes. “I will prove that to him. To all of you.”
Lenny laughs, mocking. “Is this how you ‘helped’ David just now? Pinned him against a wall?”
He looks at her, silent, for a long, long moment. And then he says, “That is what I like about you, you know. You have a way of telling me what I need to hear.”
The telekinetic force vanishes, leaving Lenny to slide back down the wall, and Farouk turns his back and walks out.
“Hey!” Lenny calls. She needs him focused on her, not finding some new victim. She follows after him. “You don’t get to walk away from me.”
Farouk turns back, quirking an eyebrow. “I have no wish to fight you,” he says.
“I don’t give a shit what you ‘wish’,” Lenny says. “I wanna know what it’s gonna take to get you gone.”
“What it’s going to take?” Farouk tilts his head, and takes a step towards her. “Very well. Help me help David. That is my price.” For the first time, there’s a note of something that seems genuine in his voice. “Help me repair the damage I have done.”
“The last time you tried to ‘help’ him, you broke him,” Lenny hisses, voice low with anger and caution. “I’m the one who looks after him. You don’t breathe in the same room as him without running it by me.”
“I did this to him,” Farouk insists, his eyes intense. “I owe him a debt. Do you understand that? I must help him.”
"How?" Lenny presses. "Tell me how."
“He plans to find a time traveller.” He looks over at her. “It is a tempting thought, isn’t it? A second chance, for all of us. A new life.”
Lenny's very aware of the plan. She's also aware that David's barely done anything to actually pull it off, not for months. She was starting to wonder if he changed his mind. "And?" she prompts.
“I have met time travellers before. I will help him find one. And yet— it will take time, no? And time travel is a dangerous thing.” He leans against one of the pine trees sticking up through the commune floor.
I will help him find one.
Lenny takes a step back. Shit, she didn't— When all this started, changing history seemed like a good idea. Everything was fucked, what did she have to live for? But that was before they found Salmon again and— And it turned out they really were going to have a little prince.
Princess, actually. Salmon's sure it'll be a girl.
"You can't," Lenny says, urgently. Shit. "You can't, okay?"
Farouk raises an eyebrow, faintly surprised. “And why not?”
The last thing Lenny needs is Farouk knowing her vulnerable spots. But the asshole probably knows them anyway, always creeping around people's private thoughts. "Because I said so," she starts, but knows that won't be enough. "Because— I don't want to die, okay? I don't want the shit life I would've had without David, stuck in fucking Clockworks for the rest of my life."
Farouk tilts his head. “You don’t know that. Perhaps you and I are capable of change on our own, without David’s interference.” His tone is carefully noncommittal, as if he isn’t sure he believes what he’s saying.
"Yeah, sure we are," Lenny scoffs. "Even if that's true—" Damn it. "If he changes the past, I lose what I've got now. And I don't wanna lose that."
Farouk eyes her, and then looks away. He walks past Lenny to stand at a window, looking out at the forest. “And what if it’s too late for us? David and I? What if there is no way to repair what I’ve done to him, except to undo it?”
Lenny hasn't talked to David about this. It didn't seem to matter when he was too much of a mess to actually pull off the plan in the first place. "Look, I got a family now," she says. "I am not saying you have a chance at being anything but an absolute piece of shit, but— I thought it was too late for me and guess what? It's not. And it's sure as hell not too late for David, I just— I dunno how to help him except for— This." She gestures at the commune, and all the happy people spilling their happiness into David, in the vain hope that it will somehow actually make him happy. Not that it's worked so far.
Farouk doesn’t turn back, his hands on the window sill. His voice is quiet. “You can’t see the damage, the way I can. I have poisoned him. I have broken him so thoroughly he doesn’t even remember me— not really. All those years, everything I did to him, everything that was done to me— He remembers only the past few years, the days I took your shape, the time I spent in Oliver Bird’s body. As if everything that came before it was just a dream.” He glances at her, over his shoulder. “Do you ever wonder if it was? Perhaps David imaginified you. The perfect friend to stand by his side— and the perfect monster to stand against. After all, that is what we were. Simply ideas in his head.”
Lenny gives a long suffering sigh. It's been a while since she had to put up with Farouk's bullshit philosophizing. She didn't miss it. "God, dude, get over yourself."
“We have destroyed each other, he and I,” Farouk says, not responding to her. He turns around, facing her. “You could leave now, you know. There is a world out there. You don’t need him— not the way I do. You could be happy with her.”
"Yeah, and how long would that last until you two made it so we never met?" Lenny says, tersely. "You're not the only people in the world who matter, you know that?"
“Aren’t we?” Farouk says, half to himself, and then: “He is suffering. And he will continue to suffer, while we search for this woman. It would be easy, to let him. You can’t imagine how much I want my life back. To feel right in my own skin again.” He looks her over, and then chuckles, his mouth an unhappy slash. “I suppose we have much in common in that, don’t we? I always knew only fools fall in love. You have as much to gain as I do. Your own body back, your life, your identity. To throw it all away for— ” He cuts off and looks back towards David’s mind-cave, wordlessly.
“For a mind reader, you don’t know shit,” Lenny says. “And you sure as hell don’t know shit about me."
Farouk smiles, slightly. “He said that to me, too. As if I didn’t know him, inside and out.” He lifts his chin, and his features harden in determination. “If he believes I do not— I will learn.”
Everything Farouk says is ominous, but that strikes Lenny as just— Off the charts ominous. "Learn what?" Lenny challenges. "How to respect people's boundaries? You need so much therapy."
Farouk’s lips curve with amusement. “Do you think that? An interesting thought... And David? Is that what you think he needs, too?”
There is a curiously neutral quality to his tone, as if he is still deciding how he feels about this.
"David needs so much therapy," Lenny laughs. He sure did a lot in Clockworks, but that couldn't do him much good when he had Farouk stomping through his head.
“That can be arranged,” Farouk says, immediately.
Lenny gives Farouk a curious look. "There's no way David's gonna go back to therapy, not after what Division 3 did."
Farouk waves a hand airily. “Division 3 need not be involved. I have my own resources. And I can keep him safe.”
"David didn't trust Syd to help him, you think he's gonna trust you?" Lenny challenges. "The last thing you are is safe."
Farouk is quiet for a moment. “She never offered to help him,” he says. “She demanded, threatened. I know better than that— Now.”
"So what, you're gonna ask nicely?" Lenny asks. She mimics Farouk's accent. "’David, my dear boy, won't you please go back to the nuthouse?’" She snorts.
“Clockworks was full of incompetents,” Farouk says, waving this off. “No, we can do better than that. Do you remember Dr. Hakim?”
It takes Lenny a moment to realize who Farouk is referring to. A lot of shit went down when she was trapped in Farouk's head, a lot of weird shit she doesn't like to think about. "Oh yeah, him," she says, blandly. "Still playing with your living dollies?"
“He is useful,” Farouk allows. “Although he lacks your way with words. He can help David.”
Lenny remembers when Hakim tried to help her. Not that talking did either of them any good. She killed herself a hundred times over, pulled out every hair from her head, strand by strand, and Farouk always put her back the way he wanted her. They were just toys to him. She still is, but she's not gonna play anymore.
"Gonna wear him as your mask so you can fuck David over again?" Lenny challenges, angry.
Farouk gives her a look, faintly annoyed. “What would be the point of that? If I can’t help him, a costume will not change that.”
"What makes you think you can help him at all?" Lenny asks. "You're the one who broke him."
“I have to,” Farouk says, flatly. “I owe him.”
Lenny's not impressed. "Is there even anything left of ol' Hakim? He's been in there a while, you probably tortured his brains out by now."
“You survived, didn’t you?” Farouk says, unconcerned. “I don’t like to break my playthings.”
"Liar," Lenny sneers. Breaking them was all he did. She resists the urge to just throw herself at Farouk and claw his eyes out.
“Why would I bother lying to you?” Farouk says, meeting her eyes. “You know as well as I do that I don’t care what you think.” He says this without rancor, as if it’s just a fact, as if she has no reason to be offended by it.
"Then I guess you're just lying to yourself," Lenny shoots back. "You're sure as hell lying to yourself about helping David. All you're gonna do is make him worse and he's bad enough already. So back the fuck off."
“No,” Farouk says, flatly. “I did this. I will fix it. Whatever it takes.”
Lenny considers her options. Farouk's obviously already wormed his way back into David's trust somehow, but their little mutual suicide pact isn't gonna work for her. "You're staying here, right? Joining the commune?"
Farouk tilts his head. “In a way. I will be staying here, yes. With David.”
"Great," Lenny says, with a forced smile. "Y'see, I'm in charge of the commune. That's how David wants it. I'm his majordomo. That means everything that happens here, I'm in charge. You wanna help David? You run it by me first. House rules."
Farouk studies Lenny’s face. Lenny’s not sure he’s ever looked at her that way, like he’s really thinking about what she says, what she’s thinking. It makes her shiver.
“And what makes you think you know how to help David?” Farouk asks.
"Because I'm his best friend," Lenny says, firmly. "Because I actually listen to what he says and he listens to me. Because I didn't torture him for thirty years, and because when he was down in the shit I was down there with him."
Farouk is silent for a moment, considering. And then he smiles. “Very well. I agree to your terms. Was there anything else you wanted?”
There are so many ways Lenny could answer that question, so many ways she wants to tell Farouk to go fuck himself. But if she doesn't get control over this situation, Farouk's gonna make sure David ends the world, or at least the version of the world she needs to keep. The version of the world where she somehow made something good happen, did something worthwhile, and she has to make sure that one good thing doesn't get fucked over before she's even born.
"Show me Hakim," Lenny says. "Prove he's not just your latest puppet."
“Are you willing to do that?” Farouk asks. “To come back into the dragon’s lair to see him?”
Lenny's blood runs cold. She wants to run the other way, but— "I'm not going in there. You're bringing him out here."
Farouk tilts his head. “How?”
Fuck. "I dunno, man," Lenny sighs. "Do what you did with me and Oliver. Astral projection, whatever. Figure it out."
Farouk nods. “Very well. I will.” He offers her his hand. “It’s a deal?”
Lenny stares at his hand, but makes no move to take it. She gives Farouk an even stare, then turns and heads into the cave.
David knows he should be happy. Farouk of all people is going to help him find a time traveller and put an end to— All of this. Make a better life, a better world. His doppelgangers are happy. Most of them, anyway. They're getting what they want. Farouk's getting what he wants, apparently.
David's still going to kill him, when it's done. Farouk doesn't deserve to live, not now and definitely not then.
But even the thought of killing Farouk twice doesn't do anything for how awful he feels. His blue might be enough for the commune, but for him it barely takes the edge off even on days when he hasn't nearly been murdered by—
It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. He just needs something stronger, that's all. Something to numb the pain until all of this is finally over and—
There's a knock on the door and his duplicates vanish, back to the refuge of his head. He doesn't need to look to know it's Lenny.
'Why does he always hide them?' Lenny wonders. "Yo, we gotta talk."
David hates those words. We have to talk. His foul mood gets fouler. He cracks the door open by way of welcome, impatient to get this over with.
Lenny steps inside. She takes in the cloud of blue smoke around him, his sour mood, and her eyes stop on the bloodstain on his shirt. She's not pleased. Annoyed, he wipes it away, heals the bullet holes. Now she can stare at something else, preferably not him.
"Look, can you be sober for a minute?" Lenny asks.
David just glares at her.
Lenny sighs. "Maybe if your head wasn't off in the clouds you wouldn't be cozying up to your fucking parasite. What the hell?"
"None of your business," David mutters.
"Hey, this is entirely my business," Lenny says. "Look, I know I was cool with the time travel plan before, but—" She visibly braces herself. "Now I'm not."
This is the last thing David needs. "What?" he asks, sharply.
Lenny looks scared, then determined. "I know you spend all your time holed up in here but I've got a family. I've got a girl and a goddamn baby and guess what, I wanna keep having 'em! You change time, they're gone and I'm back at fucking Clockworks waiting for the drool to hit the floor."
If David could change her mind, he'd stop her from ever thinking shit like this again. He feels like he's going to cry and scream and laugh all at once. Inside his head, his duplicates are doing all of that and it makes him feel like a pressure cooker about to explode. He sits up. "We agreed," he tells her, absolute.
"You're not the only one to gets to decide things," Lenny defends. "You're not the only one who matters, okay? I matter, too! My baby matters! I don't want her to be born in a fucking drug den just to stop existing because you can't get your shit together!"
David stands up, looms over Lenny, absolutely furious. The blue smoke shifts to red, and distantly he feels the commune shift with it, from languid to manic. Lenny takes a step back, then another.
"Your baby doesn't matter," David tells her. "You don't matter, I don't matter, nothing matters because none of this was supposed to happen!" He spreads his arms, gesturing at the whole rotten mess of everything, and gives a bitter laugh. "This entire world is bullshit! Syd said I was gonna destroy it? That's exactly what I'm gonna do. I'll make it right."
"It won't be right for me!" Lenny says, defiant. "Hell, maybe it'll be shit for you too! Your parents gave you away, remember? Maybe you were right, maybe that had nothing to do with Farouk, maybe they just didn't want you."
David's head is full of fury, boiling lava guttering up and spilling over. He can feel how easy it would be to wave his hand and turn Lenny and everyone she cares about to dust, to turn the whole commune into dust, the whole world— Syd shot him, she shot him twice and she was ready to shoot him again and again and she hates him, she loathes him, love doesn't matter, love is nothing, his parents never wanted him and what's even the point of trying to go back when no one will ever love him—
He's vaguely aware of Lenny's spike of fear and then—
Farouk is there, suddenly, reality warping so that it’s as if he was always there. He puts a hand on David’s shoulder, and his mind is there, against David’s, a sea of artificial calm surrounding David’s mind that he can step out and take. “Let me help you, joonam.”
Farouk. David instinctively lashes out, blind with rage. The time travel plan, their deal— None of it matters. He lashes out with his powers, slamming into Farouk and sending him flying. The noise in his head is loud with anger, grief, revenge.
Farouk is knocked back against the wall. “David,” he says, breathless, “Listen to me. You’re right to be angry, but I would not have you do anything you will regret.” He pushes himself up. “You don’t want to be alone. You don’t have to be.”
Images flood into David’s mind, sent from Farouk: Lenny and Salmon and David sitting together on a picnic blanket, playing with a baby— Farouk hugging David, his arms around him, his eyes soft— Lenny and David and Farouk just sitting together, eating breakfast, and both of them are smiling at David like he’s the light in their eyes—
It hurts. All that love hurts, stabbing into his chest and twisting to slice him up inside. It hurts because he needs it and it's nothing he can have. "The only thing— I regret—" he gasps, swaying. "—is not smashing your head in with a rock!"
If he'd just killed Farouk in the desert, everything would've— No, that's not enough. He needs to change everything. He needs to remake his entire existence or he'll always be— He'll never be—
“You will be,” Farouk says, and he’s reading David’s mind. “You will be. You can be more than this. Let me prove it to you.”
'Liar!' his head screams. 'We told you not to trust him!'
'Leave me alone!' David screams at them, sick of them, sick of everyone trying to tell him what to do. Lenny promised to help him and now she's abandoning him, just like everyone else has. Farouk's just the same, of course he is, David's so fucking stupid to even think Farouk would help him.
“We have a deal, David,” Farouk says. “I can help you. That’s what we both want, isn’t it? To change the past. To be free.”
"Yes," David says, strained and urgent.
"Hey!" Lenny says, stepping forward. David turns on her, glaring, and she steps back again.
“Sit down,” Farouk says, firmly. “Let us talk. Don’t let your fears ruin this for you.”
"I'm not ruining anything!" David says, but— As his anger fades, he feels his exhaustion. The attack, the bullet, Syd, Farouk, Lenny— It's all too much.
Distantly, he notes the red smoke is blue again, and the commune is calming.
Farouk’s hands are on his shoulders, and he’s guided to sit down on the porch. Farouk sits down next to him, and gestures for Lenny to sit across from them. Lenny gives David a worried look, but sits. She crosses her arms, expectant.
“I see no reason why we should be in conflict,” Farouk says. “We all want what’s best for you. And you are not happy, are you, David?”
David just glares at Farouk. It's too stupid a question to answer.
“Finding a time traveller will not be fast,” Farouk says. “In the meantime, there are— Other forms of help. Think of it as palliative care.”
Palliative care. David's not sure there's enough of that in the world to stop his pain.
"Like what?" Lenny prompts.
“Therapy. It can’t hurt, can it?” Farouk looks to David. “After all, this will all be wiped away...”
David recoils. "And if I don't? What are you gonna do, trap me in a bubble? Shoot me in the chest?"
“No,” Farouk says, firmly. “I will help you, no matter what. I told you: I owe you this.”
David scoffs. "I don't need therapy. I need to go back in time and kill you before you destroy my life!"
“And what will you do in the meantime?” Farouk says, raising an eyebrow. “Suffer?”
David looks away. He's used to suffering, his whole life has been suffering, and that's entirely Farouk's fault. But the bad moments keep getting worse. He looks across at Lenny and feel a twinge of guilt. He knows he's hurting her, he just can't make it stop, any of it. He's one raw nerve all the time, and everything is unbearable.
“I don’t want you to hurt,” Farouk says, softly. “There must be a way to help. All you have to do is let me try.”
"It won't work," David says, bleakly. "Whatever it is, it won't work. Nothing works." Not the drugs, not the commune's emotional high. There's only one answer, they all agreed there was only one answer. Aside from killing himself and—
He has to try to save himself, first. The version of himself that can still be saved. Not the version he is now.
Farouk’s mind reaches out to him. “There is still hope for you, you know. I believe in you.”
David gives a bitter laugh. Of course his life has come to this, the monster who tortured him and ruined his life and destroyed everything good in him still has hope for him? "Why?"
“Because I’ve seen your soul, inside and out,” Farouk says.
"Look, David," Lenny says. "I don't trust him either. I know this is crazy but— I don't wanna die. I don't want you to die. Let's just— Give it a shot. And if he stabs us in the back, then we kill him. Deal?"
She gives him a hopeful look, and David can't find it in himself to refuse her.
"Fine," David says, too tired to fight both of them. "Just do it."
“I have a doctor,” Farouk says. “A captive, of course.” He shrugs, as if to say: what did you expect from me? “But he can help you. There are treatments, therapies, ways to untangle what you have suffered.”
David immediately tenses up again. "I told you, I don't need therapy."
“You need to not be in pain anymore,” Farouk says, meeting his eyes. “No?”
David shifts, glares. "Yes," he admits, through gritted teeth.
“Then let me try. After all, if I did this, I can fix this.”
David scoffs. There's no reason a plate breaker would be any good at fixing plates, assuming they even could be fixed in the first place. And he knows he can't be, he knows it. Obviously Syd knows it. "I tried to get better. All it did was make me worse."
“Then I was working against you,” Farouk says, perfectly confident. “Now I am working with you. It will be different.”
David feels a very small twinge of hope, and hates it. At least Farouk admits everything was his fault. That alone might make putting up with all of this worth it. "So what's your doctor want to do?"
“Talk,” Farouk says. “That’s all. Just talk. You can leave at any time.”
"Talk," David scoffs. He spent years talking and it got him nowhere. "About what? About how you ruined my life and I hate you?"
“Why not?” The corner of Farouk’s mouth curls up. “I’m sure you have plenty of material.”
There's something satisfying about the chance to tell Farouk off before they both stop existing. "No shit I do," he says.
Lenny gives him an encouraging look.
David rolls his eyes, sighs. "This doctor, you said he's your captive? What, you got him in a cage somewhere?" He thinks briefly of Doctor Kissinger, left to rot in a Division 3 cell.
“A prisoner like she was,” Farouk says, glancing at Lenny. “Of the mind.”
"His name’s Hakim," Lenny says, with some reluctance. "He’s— Another toy in the toybox. He tried to help me." She turns to Farouk. "Not that anything was gonna help in there."
Farouk looks back at her calmly. There’s no remorse in his eyes. David shudders and looks away.
"So he's like Lenny was," David half-asks. He still feels bad about what happened to her, and not trusting that she was real. But he couldn't trust that she was. "One of your puppets. Masks."
Farouk shrugs. “A prisoner. Not a mask. You remember, the both of you, that day by the pool? You know the world of the mind — and its denizens — can be as real as any other.”
David gives Farouk a wary look. "How do I know this— Hakim— How do I know he's who you say he is?" Even if he was real before, there's no guarantee he's real now.
Farouk sits back in his chair. “An interesting question. How can we know anything is real?” He crosses his arms and tilts his head. “Let me make you an offer. For the duration of your treatment, my mind will be an open book to you. I will make no defense against you. Then you can find out for yourself what my intentions are.”
"Fine," David says, determined to get this farce over with. "Prove it. Let me in."
Farouk shuts his eyes, and a door opens in their minds, like a vast, ancient stone gate being drawn open to reveal the shadowy depths beyond. David braces himself and strides in, on guard for any of Farouk's sneaky tricks — or maybe a surprise minotaur — but there's nothing but darkness. He brings his hands together and makes a bright point of light. A library stretches out in front of him, elaborate, extensive, multi-layered. On the shelf nearest him, there’s an elegant, leather-bound book with golden lettering, next to a childish picture book, and next to that a stapled notebook with a scribbled scrawl for a title. David finds himself drawn to the picture book first, and touches the spine to read the memory inside it.
Lamb and chickpea soup, warm and comforting. Mother does her best to keep food on the table, even with Father gone. Amahl doesn’t ask how. All he knows is that he’s hungry. But today is a good day, because today there’s food—
David pulls his hand back and scowls at the picture book. "You want me to feel sorry for you? Fuck you," he mutters, and jabs his finger into the fancy, leather-bound book.
The sun is low in the sky and David is high, drifting on a wave of vapor. Amahl is right there with him, swept away. He hates David for doing this, for drugging him into submission so he can’t hurt David (so he can’t get out) but at the same time he craves these moments of peace—
David breaks away with a sharp breath in, and the memory of vapor lingers under his skin. He doesn't— Remember that part of his life very well, between the drugs and all the ways Farouk shredded his mind into confetti. Good, he thinks, satisfied that the drugs really did do something to stop the monster, that it wasn't just another trick. This is why he needs them now, because they help. They're the only thing that helps.
Focus. He's here for a reason. This— Hakim person. David needs to know who the hell he is. He glances at the endless bookshelves, but then turns back to the one in front of him.
The notebook. It has to be that one. He reaches out and then—
“So. What did you want to talk about today?”
The man with the clipboard is dark-skinned, handsome, sharp-eyed, in his thirties. He’s sitting in a chair across from Oliver— oO, at least, from whatever’s living in Oliver’s body.
“You’re the doctor,” Farouk says, with Oliver’s voice. “You tell me.”
“You barged in here, threatened my receptionist, and demanded treatment,” the doctor says, raising an eyebrow. “I think it’s safe to say you’ve got something on your mind.”
“Have I?” Farouk says, absently. “Perhaps it’s more about what I don’t have on my mind.”
“You’re talking about your... Host. Former host.” A shadow passes over Farouk’s eyes at those words, but the doctor ignores it. “David Haller.”
“Of course,” Farouk says, shaking his head. “It is a strange thing, no? To miss someone who never even really knew you. He saw me as a monster, right to the end.”
“You took away his memories,” the doctor says, gently. “You never let him know you.”
“I had to control him,” Farouk says. “I was trapped, a prisoner in his mind. I could control my world only insofar as I could control him.”
“You abused him,” the doctor says, evenly.
“Yes,” Farouk agrees. “I did. He was all I had. I was alone, and he was my prisoner and my jailer.”
“Did you try to talk to him?” the doctor asks.
“No,” Farouk says, and then— “Yes. Many times. But I always removed the memories, when it went— Poorly. He didn’t understand.”
The doctor lets that stand, letting Farouk sit in silence for a moment. “So you’ve given up looking for him?” the doctor asks, eventually.
“No,” Farouk says, sharply. “Never. But— It has been nearly a year.” He shakes his head. “What am I without him? I have forgotten.”
“What do you think happened?” the doctor asks.
“He must be out there somewhere,” Farouk says. “Hiding from me. Trying to escape, once again.”
“If that’s true... Perhaps you should let him,” the doctor says. “Both of you have been hurt. Let yourself heal. Stop searching.”
Farouk closes his eyes. He looks— Tired. “I think I came to love him, Doctor. Like a man in a dark cell comes to love his jailer.”
“You don’t love him,” the doctor says, very calmly, as if it’s just a fact. “You just want to control him.”
Farouk’s head jerks up. “You couldn’t understand,” he says, cuttingly. “You are human. What has passed between us, he and I, is beyond that.”
“You hurt him,” the doctor says. “You said that yourself. Is that what love looks like?”
“I had no choice,” Farouk insists.
The doctor looks at him. “I think you know that’s not true,” he says, gently.
Farouk lifts a hand, and the doctor’s lips are frozen in place. “Silence,” he snaps. He shoves the doctor back telekinetically, and stands. “This was a mistake, coming here. I was a fool to think you could help me.”
The doctor looks up at him, his eyes asking: you’ll let me go now?
Farouk chuckles. “No. I would be a fool to allow one of Division 3’s pet scientists walk away with so much information about me. No. I think— I think I’ll take you with me.”
Panic floods the doctor’s face, and he struggles against Farouk’s hold. Farouk laughs at him, and a darkness descends on the doctor, choking him.
When the cloud vanishes, the doctor is limp and unconscious.
Farouk stands, brushes some invisible speck of dust off his suit, and walks out.
David pulls free of the memory and stares at the notebook without really seeing it. It's so strange to see a moment from the year he lost to the orb. He knew Syd was upset he was gone, but— no one else cared. Except that he wasn't there to stop Farouk for them.
Not that it did any good once he got back and did it.
David turns away, angry and confused, all the wounds of that lost year re-opened. He opens his eyes and focuses on Farouk.
"That was him?" he challenges. "Hakim?"
“That was him,” Farouk agrees. If he was touched by the memory in any way, he doesn’t show it.
"He stood up to you," David says, thinking over the memory. "He told you to leave me alone, and you killed him."
“He said more than that,” Farouk says, darkly.
"He knows what you are," David says, with a sense of triumph. No one cared that Farouk's a monster, not Syd, not any of his so-called friends. No one but Lenny. But this Hakim does. "He knows you're delusional, that nothing you did to me was love."
“That’s not true,” Farouk says. “I will prove it to you.” He smiles, slightly. “With his help.”
David laughs. "What, you think he'll trick me into believing you love me?"
“How long will you persist in believing this is some sort of trick? This is me. No masks.” Farouk sighs. “If you will not trust me, will you give the good doctor a chance?”
God. "Fine," David sighs, annoyed. If it shuts Farouk up— He'll give therapy one more shot. As long as there's no 'David the zombie.' He'd rather die than go back to that.
“I wouldn’t want that either,” Farouk says, shaking his head. “You saw what it did to me, too.”
"Stop reading my mind." David scowls. "So what, you expect me to go into your head for this? Drinks by the pool with my new shrink?"
“Perhaps Lenny could ‘host’ him?” Farouk says, waving a hand to Lenny.
"Me?" Lenny says, eyebrows raised in alarm. "Hey, I don't share my body with anyone I'm not banging."
“I can do it,” says a voice from behind them. David whips around to see Salmon, standing there at the door, a hand on her stomach. How long has she been there? Since he went into Farouk’s head, maybe. “I don’t mind sharing. Room for three?”
Lenny immediately stands between her and Farouk. "Don't even fucking think about it," she warns. She looks at David, at Salmon, at David again. Then she turns on Farouk. "You wanna give your shrink a host? I'm it."
Farouk smiles. “I’m sure he’ll be the perfect guest. Are you ready?”
"Fuck," Lenny mutters. 'The things I do for my goddamn family.' "Just do it."
David watches as Farouk reaches into his own mind, and pulls out a wooden frame. It’s a bug collection, mirror-bright insects pinned to the wood— But each of them, to David’s disgust, has a human face, and he can see them struggling, impaled on the pins.
Farouk pries the pin out of one of his specimens, a large beetle, and as it wiggles free of the board, a soft light comes to life in its abdomen. The firefly flits off of the board and towards Lenny, landing lightly in her hands. As it sits on her palms, Lenny's expression softens.
"Nice to be out of that place, right?" Lenny says. The beetle seems to glow in response. "Yeah, c'mon," Lenny sighs, and then closes her hands over the beetle, trapping it. When she opens her hands, it's gone.
"Is he—" David asks, unsure.
"Yeah," Lenny says. She turns on Salmon. "Babe, what did I say about coming in here?"
"Not to?" Salmon says. "You were gone so long."
"Yeah, well, I got a lot of work to do in here," Lenny says. "You need to stay out there, okay? So I can do the work."
"Kiss me?" Salmon pouts.
Lenny walks forward and kisses Salmon, then again. David feels a pang of jealousy, seeing how much they love each other.
He knows Lenny's going to leave him. Of course she will, everyone does. He wants her to be happy, he just— She's all he has left, and the thought of losing her— He can't. He just can't.
Salmon pulls away from Lenny and leaves the cave, and Lenny walks back and up to Farouk. "Now what?" she challenges.
“Now,” Farouk says, “We begin.”
David makes two chairs in the center of his cave and positions them to face each other. He sits in one and gestures for Lenny to sit in the other. He knows how therapy works and he wants to get this over with.
Lenny doesn't get up from the porch. Instead she closes her eyes and a man walks out of her. David recognizes Hakim from Farouk's memory. He looks pretty much the same as he did when he was alive.
Hakim walks over and sits down. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, David.” He takes a deep breath, as if relishing being out of Farouk’s mind for a change. “I’m Doctor Ahmed Hakim. I used to consult for Division Three, but now, as you can see, I’m— Uh— Unemployed.”
"Yeah, that's going around," David mutters. "So now what? You pick my brain?"
Hakim shakes his head. “I want you to know that I won’t treat you if you don't want to be treated. I'm not in the business of playing— whatever mind games Farouk has planned."
David knows he could refuse Hakim's treatment. He could ignore all this and just go back to drugging himself until Farouk finds him a time traveler and all the pain goes away. But for some reason he can't bring himself to do that. "Let's just do this."
"I'll need your help," Hakim cautions. He shoots David a small smile. "I don't know how telepaths do it, but in therapy, the patient has to do most of the hard work."
"Yeah, I know how therapy works," David says, annoyed. "All I did was therapy and it got me nowhere."
“You must have had a good reason to keep trying for all those years,” Hakim points out.
David shrugs. "I thought—" He pauses as old feelings trickle back. "I still thought I could be saved."
“What does ‘saved’ mean to you?” Hakim asks.
"Then or now?" David asks.
“Now,” Hakim says.
"It means stopping him from ever getting inside me and destroying me," David says, waving vaguely in the direction of the commune, where Farouk is waiting.
“But that’s not what you wanted before?” Hakim prompts.
"No," David admits. His throat feels tight and he looks away. "Look, I know what I am. I've always known. But I thought— I thought I could get better. Obviously I was wrong."
“Why do you think you were wrong?” Hakim asks.
"Why do I—" David cuts off, unable to even find the words. It just feels so huge. The healed gunshot wound in his chest twinges, reminding him of Syd's cold eyes as she raised the gun. Maybe he should have let her— "You know, people act like— If I just take the right meds and say the right things then— What? I'm fixed? I'll never be fixed. There's no me to fix. All I am is what he did to me."
“That’s a very harsh thing to say about yourself,” Hakim notes. “‘Fixing’ is for vases. Not people. That’s not what I do.”
"Of course it's what you do," David insists. "You're a therapist."
“That’s not what a good therapist should do,” Hakim says. “I’m a physician. It’s not about ‘fixing’ people with mental illness anymore than it is about fixing people with arthritis. Does that make sense?”
"I'm not sick," David insists, even though half the time that feels like a lie. "I'm just—" Broken. Wrong. A monster. Sick, he's sick. "He broke me. I was a baby and he sucked me dry for thirty years and this is what's left."
“I think...” Hakim trails off, thoughtfully. “I think that’s what he would want you to think. That you’re nothing except for what he could take from you. But I don’t think that’s true.”
"Then what am I?" David challenges, half-needing.
“You tell me,” Hakim says, in response. “You have to find that out for yourself. I don’t think you’ve had a chance to, yet.”
"I don't need a chance," David says. "There's nothing to find. I tried to kill myself before, he tell you that?"
“I don’t know that I would trust anything he told me about you, even if he had,” Hakim admits. “How do you know there’s nothing to find, if you haven’t looked?”
David doesn't know how to answer that without— Talking about them. The duplicates. His madness, filling up every corner of his mind. He wishes the drugs stopped them like they stopped Farouk.
“What about something smaller?” Hakim suggests. “Can you tell me more about your day to day life here?”
"I dunno," David sighs. He glances at Lenny, then away. "It's just— The commune. Helping people feel better. Taking away their pain."
“How do you feel about that?” Hakim asks.
"Honestly? Jealous," David admits. "They're happy."
“You don’t feel that that— Your work here— Is something worth holding on to about your current life here?” Hakim asks.
David shrugs. "Once my life is better— I'll still be able to help them. Maybe everything will be better and no one will need to be helped."
“There’s a difference,” Hakim notes, “Between saying, ‘There’s nothing good about my life here,’ and saying, ‘My life here could be better.’”
"It doesn't matter," David says. "It doesn't matter if I take away the whole world's pain, I can't— I'm still— It doesn't undo what he did to me. Did you know—" He gives a slightly manic laugh. "Did you know I'm gonna end the world?"
“Is that something you’re planning on doing?” Hakim asks.
"Of course not!" David protests. "But apparently that doesn't matter. Apparently that's just what I do, because—" It hurts to even think about all this. "That's why they all believed him. Farouk. That's why they—" He cuts off.
“It’s all right,” Hakim says, gently. “It’s okay to talk about this. Farouk has had a lot of practice manipulating people. It’s why I thought I was safe, until I wasn’t.”
"Yeah," David mutters. He glances at Lenny, but looks away when he sees she's watching him. "Look, I was— Everything was fine, and then this orb took me. It was Syd, but from the future. She said I had to help Farouk to save the world. So that's what I did. And then she held a gun to my head and said I'm the monster that ends it! Farouk did that to her, I— I think, I don't—" He shakes his head, angry.
“That must have been— Confusing and upsetting,” Hakim says. “It certainly sounds like something he would do. It sounds like you tried to do the right thing.”
"All I ever tried to do was the right thing," David insists. "I tried to save the world from Farouk and Syd tried to kill me! I do what they want, I stop Farouk, and they put me on trial for something I never did! I try to make this whole rotten world better and Syd shoots me again!"
“Your friend Lenny also objected to your plan, didn’t she?” Hakim says, neutrally. “Why do you think they do that?”
"I don't know, ask them," David says, and glares at Lenny. She agreed, they all agreed on the plan. She can't change her mind now.
“I’d prefer to focus on you,” Hakim says. “I know Lenny has to be here, but try to focus on me.” He nods, apologetically, to Lenny. “Can you tell me more about Syd? It sounds like she was someone you trusted.”
"I loved her," David says, firmly. "I thought she loved me."
“How did you meet her?” Hakim asks.
"We were, uh, both patients," David says. It hurts to think of all that now, but then everything hurts all the time, so what does it matter? "Sometimes I think— We should have just stayed there. In the mental hospital. Then everything would have been fine."
“Were you happy with the care you were receiving there?” Hakim asks.
In the back of David's mind, Divad gives a mocking laugh. "It was fine," David insists, lies. "It was safe," he lies again. He rubs at his face. "I just— You know, I didn't want to go there, but— After all those years— What was the point of leaving?"
“Don’t you think it’s enough to leave somewhere you don’t want to be?” Hakim asks.
"I don't want to be in this life," David says, annoyed. "You're the one trying to make me stay."
Hakim shakes his head, slightly. “I didn’t say that. I don’t know how I feel about your plan.”
"Going back in time and killing Farouk will make everyone's life better," David points out.
“Maybe so,” Hakim says. “But I don’t know how I feel about the whole world changing.” He smiles, small and unhappy. “I still think I can find some way out of this, you know.”
"Well if I don't change the world, I'm gonna end it," David says. "I'm gonna kill everyone."
If that shocks Hakim, he doesn’t show it. “Why?” he asks.
"How the hell should I know?" David asks, genuinely at a loss. "Cary said it. Syd and Future Syd, they both said it. The Admiral did some— Math thing and said it, and then they tried to turn me into a zombie for the rest of my life!"
“Probability calculation isn’t infallible, I know that,” Hakim says. “What about Cary and Syd? Where did they get that idea?”
David tries to remember what happened with Cary. The whole trial was— Stressful. "Cary— He said the orb was from the future. And Syd—" David sighs, struggling. "We were in the desert. I had to find Farouk's body first so I could destroy it. But Farouk kidnapped Syd. By the time I found her— He'd brainwashed her. She said—" He can't say what she said. "She said that the Syd from the future, she only made me help Farouk to kill me."
“But you believe her?” Hakim asks. “You don’t think it was one of Farouk’s tricks? Or a mistake on her part?”
David shifts in his chair. "Future Syd— She didn't tell me what ended the world. She just said— It was bad. That Farouk was the only one who could stop it. That was the only way." His heart hurts. "If she loved me and there was another way, why wouldn't she do it?"
“It’s hard to know what she could have been thinking,” Hakim says. “But she could have been wrong, couldn’t she?”
Somehow that seems impossible to David. "She's from the future," he insists. "And everyone else said she was right."
“I’m sure people from the future can be wrong, too,” Hakim says.
David realizes that Hakim has a point, but— He can't shake the feeling that Syd was right about him anyway. He knows what he is, and now she does, too. "And if she's right?" he asks. "And if I'm doomed to become some unstoppable monster who kills billions of people?"
“Generally, people are aware if they’re experiencing a violent compulsion,” Hakim points out. “Or if they make the decision to be violent.”
David swallows. "I've hurt people."
Hakim meets his eyes. “Who?”
"My family," David admits, tightly. "My therapist, Doctor Poole. Oliver. Syd."
“Farouk told me something about what happened with Syd,” Hakim admits, “But I don’t know if I can trust him. I’d like to hear your side of the story— But I think, ultimately, I will also need to speak to Syd herself.”
"I don't want to see her," David says, his hand over his chest.
“You won’t have to,” Hakim says. “I’ll meet with her alone, if she agrees. Can you tell me more about what happened?”
David looks down at his hands. In his head, he sees Divad shaking his head, telling him he should have stuck to the plan. Everything that happened was his fault for not sticking to the plan. They all agreed.
"I don't know," David defends. "I wasn't—" He looks up. "I was trying to help her. Farouk took her and messed with her head, he— Everything was going wrong and I was just trying to undo what he did to her."
“And you had sex with her?” Hakim asks, calmly.
"It wasn't like that!" David says, upset. He knows what Hakim must have been told. "All I did was undo what he did. He took her away from herself, he made her someone else! I put her back and— And we were going to leave and get away from all of this. Just be somewhere quiet and green and— But I couldn't stand another day in that place, Division 3, Farouk— I wanted all of it to be over. So I went to her, so we could talk, so we could leave. And she just— I needed to make her happy, to give her what she wanted. It was all for her!"
“You told me you hurt her,” Hakim reminds him. “And I think you don’t want to hurt people again. Is that right?”
"I didn't know I was hurting her!" David protests. "She was happy, she wanted it. And then Farouk— I don't know what he did. But all of a sudden he was free and I was the one they wanted to kill. They said they'd kill me!"
“The first step to change is understanding what you did wrong and taking responsibility,” Hakim says, gently.
David crosses his arms and slumps, looks away. He hates this. It's like Kissinger all over again, endlessly lecturing him about everything he did wrong, humiliating him. "It doesn't matter what I did. When I change time, it all goes away."
“Wouldn’t you prefer to have the choice?” Hakim asks. “This reality, or the other one. Rather than feeling like this one is irreparably broken?”
"It is broken," David says. He's broken. "There's nothing worth saving even if it could be saved."
“Because you think you’re going to destroy the world?” Hakim asks.
"Because I am going to destroy the world," David says. "And it doesn't matter if I try to stop it, if I try to help people or be a good person. It doesn't matter because I've always tried to be a good person and all I've ever done was hurt people and there's nothing I can do to stop it!"
“You can be in control of your own choices,” Hakim says. “I promise you that.”
"I thought I was helping Syd and making her happy," David says, fighting back tears. "And instead she told me I drugged her and raped her. She hates me so much she killed me! The only reason I'm alive is because the monster who made me like him won't let me die! That's what I am."
“You’re alive because you fought him off, all those years,” Hakim says, quietly. “Because he couldn’t destroy you no matter what he did.”
"Of course he destroyed me," David says, voice rough. "Why else would I ruin everything? Why else would I end the world?"
“You haven’t yet,” Hakim points out.
"That's why I have to die," David says, firmly. "The me I am now. Syd was right. I have to die. It's the only way to save the world." He gives a strained, bitter laugh. "She should be happy. I'm doing what she told me to do. She should just stay out of my way so I can finish it."
“What if there was a third option?” Hakim asks.
"Like what?" David asks, tiredly.
“Change,” Hakim says. “Work on yourself. Work on your life. Decide not to hurt anyone, ever again.”
"Did you listen to anything I said?" David asks, exasperated. "I tried. Every time I tried, every time I let myself hope I could get better—" He cuts off. "This was a mistake. Farouk must be enjoying this, another way to torture me. Well fuck him and fuck you. We're done."
He doesn't wait for Hakim to respond. He stands up and marches past Lenny and slams the door behind him. He goes deeper into the little house where the false sunlight of the cave can't reach him. He breaks into a sob and goes into a dark corner and sits, curled up with his arms around his knees.
In the darkness, Dvd and Davida appear. They sit with him as he cries.
Farouk has his eyes shut, sitting in the center of the commune with his legs crossed and his hands resting on his thighs. In his mind, he’s hovering in David’s cave-house, near the ceiling, watching David cry.
He wonders: How is this different from before? Is this just another way to torment David for his own amusement? David is in pain now. Does it matter why?
When he was in David’s body, it all seemed so simple. It was survival mode, day by day, fighting for his life. But now he feels torn all into pieces. He wants to help David. He wants to be David. He wants to go back to his old life and pretend none of this ever happened. He wants to see David suffer for Farouk’s pain and confusion.
He can’t have everything. He’s never been good at that— Accepting less than what he craves. He is, after all, the closest thing there is to God in this world. Why shouldn’t he have the best?
He opens his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose, tired. He knows this doesn’t work like that. Life isn’t that simple. He’s old enough to understand that.
With a wave of his hand, he teleports to the room where Hakim and Lenny are staying, and has the pleasure of seeing both of them startle, pure fear rushing through them for just a moment at his appearance. Good. They should be afraid of him.
Lenny is the first to recover, full of determination and anger on David's behalf. Such loyalty, even as David plots her destruction. "Done getting your kicks?" she challenges.
Farouk smiles at her. “Oh, never,” he says. He glances at Hakim. “I told you to help him. Instead you have hurt him.”
“He needs to talk about what happened,” Hakim says. “There’s no way to make that easy.”
"Newsflash, David's a fucking mess," Lenny says. "Now what? You were supposed to give him a reason to stick with this timeline."
“I’m doing my best,” Hakim says, to Lenny. He looks to Farouk. “I need to talk to Sydney Barrett. Can you make that happen?”
"Oh, that's gonna be fun," Lenny says, unimpressed. "Might wanna take away her ammo first. Bitch's got an itchy trigger finger."
“That can be arranged,” Farouk says, dryly.
“If what he and David told me is true, she has a right to be touchy,” Hakim says. “I need her side of the story.”
"I'll tell what her side is," Lenny mutters, annoyed.
“You weren’t there, though,” Hakim says. “I trust you, but I need to hear her side of the story if I’m to help David.” He looks at Farouk, eyes narrowed. “Can you do that?”
Farouk raises an eyebrow at him. “As you well know, I can do anything I please.” He glances at Lenny, thoughtfully. “Very well. I will contact her and arrange a meeting for the three of us.”
Hakim takes a deep breath. “It would be better if you weren’t present,” he says.
Farouk laughs. “Of course you would say that, my friend. No, I have business with her too.”
He orders the fish, and digs in, not waiting for his dinner companion to arrive. She’ll be here. He knows that.
He doesn't have to wait long. Sydney Barrett has a punctual mind.
She marches up to the table. She's not pleased to see him, or Lenny for that matter. "Where is he?" she demands, angry but restrained.
“David?” Farouk asks. “Or the good doctor?” He gestures to one of the two empty seats, and Hakim fades into sight, a psychic illusion in a chair.
Syd startles, but quickly recovers. She glances around the restaurant, then sits. "I know you saved him. Where is David?"
"Like we'd tell you," Lenny says.
Syd glares at Lenny, then turns back to Farouk, ignoring her.
“Somewhere safe. I’m surprised you’re not more worried about what I might be doing to him... after all, it wasn’t so long you were racing to rescue him from my clutches.” Farouk smiles, lazily, and takes a bite of his food. “Feel free to order whatever you’d like— my treat.”
"Not hungry," Syd says, with an edge of impatience. She looks at Hakim. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
“This is Doctor Ahmed Hakim,” Farouk says. “David’s new therapist.”
“I’m here to talk to you,” Hakim says. He glances at Farouk. “He... Invited himself along.”
"Therapist?" Syd asks, warily.
“You must be aware, as much as anyone, that he needs help,” Farouk says. “Hakim here will be the one to provide it.”
"You're wasting your time," she tells Hakim, flatly. "You think you can save him? There's nothing to save."
Lenny's glare at Syd grows angrier. She stabs at her food and chews loudly, a kind of protest.
Hakim shakes his head. “It’s never a sure thing. But just like I can’t be sure I can help him, I’m can’t be sure he’s a lost cause, either.” He glances at Farouk again. “I used to work for Division Three, evaluating violent criminals. I’m used to working with— Difficult people. It’s why he sought me out.”
"Is this why you betrayed us? Betrayed the world?" Syd challenges Farouk. "You have to let him go. He's going to kill everyone."
Farouk leans in. “Do you want to know the real reason I’m helping him? Why I betrayed you, why I forced him to accept my help? It’s because if there’s no hope for him, then there’s no hope for me. That’s why. I will save him. I owe that to him.”
Syd does not look impressed. "Fine. Obviously I can't stop you. So why am I here?"
“When you work with an abuser, the most important voice is the victim’s,” Hakim says. “Right now, all the information I have is from David himself, or from... Farouk. Neither of whom are reliable sources. I was hoping you could give me your side of the story.”
"You should tell me where he is so I can save the world," Syd says, firmly. "But you're right. You can't trust either of them. They're both liars."
“He can’t tell you,” Farouk says, easily. “Because if he does, I’ll kill him.”
“I’m aware,” Hakim grits out. “I’m sorry. This is the only way I can help.”
"Fine," Syd sighs. "What do you want to know?"
“Talk to me about what happened. What did he do?”
Syd gets a look of disgust. "You've seen his little cult, all those women he's 'seduced.' That's what he does."
“Is that what he did to you?” Hakim asks, gently.
Syd hesitates, a flash of vulnerability in her eyes. And then it's gone. "He's a monster, a psychopath. He uses people. He used me. He's not capable of love. He's insane."
“I believe you,” Hakim says. “Many of the people I’ve worked with have been abusive on a large scale. Can you tell me more about what he did?”
"Fine," Syd says, visibly bracing herself. "I realized what he was. He didn't like that. He tried to make me forget. Then, when I was under his control, he raped me."
“I’m sorry,” Hakim says. “That must have been terrible. He claimed that you were under Farouk’s control previously— Was that true?” He glances at Farouk, whose face is unreadable.
"He showed me things," Syd says. "David's true face."
“And now he’s changed his mind, but you haven’t?” Hakim asks.
"Apparently," Syd says, and gives Farouk a cold look. "He said he wanted to save the world. To be a hero. And instead he's helping to destroy it. Is that what you're doing with him? He kills half the world, you kill the other?"
Farouk laughs. “Why would I want to kill everyone? I don’t break my toys. No. I want what you want. To save him.”
"And I have a job to do," Syd says. "The same job you were hired to do. The only way to 'save' David is to kill him."
'God, I hate her,' Lenny thinks. 'Smug prissy bitch.'
“I won’t be doing that,” Farouk says. “I love him. You remember what that’s like, don’t you? And beside that— You know what I am. Why would you think I am any more easily dissuaded than he? After all, we are both monsters. Do you truly think I am a better ally than he?”
"Fine," Syd says. "Division 3 will execute both of you." She turns back to Hakim. "Are we done here?"
“I’m sorry about him,” Hakim says, wearily. “Can you tell me what makes you think he’s a psychopath?”
“He abused me,” Syd says, flatly. “And lied to me, at every turn. He doesn’t even care about the truth.”
“They said you were a psychopath, didn’t they?” Farouk says, very casually. He takes a bite of fish.
"I have anti-social personality disorder," Syd says, cooly. "As I recall, you're the one who likes giving people false diagnoses."
“And that’s different from what he has?” Farouk asks.
"Shouldn't you ask your pet therapist that?" Syd replies.
“‘Psychopath’ is kind of an outdated category,” Hakim says. “But I haven’t really worked with David long enough to assign him any kind of diagnosis. It would be helpful if I could talk without interruptions.”
Farouk smiles, and conspicuously doesn’t promise to do better.
“Did someone diagnose David with psychopathy?” Hakim asks. “Farouk informed me that his diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia.”
"It was," Syd says. "Obviously he fooled a lot of people." She pauses. "He had a history of violence. He attacked one of his therapists, almost killed him."
“Ahh, did he?” Farouk says, smiling reminiscently. “I seem to recall that was me... Although of course, the lines grew so blurred at times.”
"No shit that was you," Lenny mutters.
That actually gives Syd pause, but only briefly. "He was a drug addict, a thief, a liar. He was violent. He likes to play the victim but he enjoyed everything Farouk 'made' him do. Killing all those soldiers, torturing them. He doesn't need a diagnosis."
“Can you tell me more about the lies he told you?” Hakim asks. “I’m going to need to know how much I can rely on his testimony.”
“He lied to me the entire time he was working with the— With the other me,” Syd says. “He was— Distant, I thought he was sneaking off on me, and when he told me, it was like he was— He thought I should be jealous of the other me, and I wasn’t, until he brought it up. He said we should set ground rules, no, no kissing her, no cheating. And then he slept with her, after he tried to make me jealous. And I found out that he was the one who was going to destroy the world, all along. And then he— Wiped my memories, and didn’t mention it to me, made sure Farouk wouldn’t be able to mention it to me. It was calculated.”
“He slept with the future Syd?” Hakim asks. “The one from the future he destroyed?”
“Clearly, his taste in women is dubious,” Farouk says.
“He wanted to make me jealous,” Syd says. “Try to keep me from— Seeing who he really is.”
“Thank you,” Hakim says, nodding. “I think I understand better. Is there anything else you think I should know?”
Syd meets his eyes. “Be careful. He’s very dangerous.” She glances at Farouk. “Both of them.”
Hakim shakes his head. “I know.”
“Is that what you needed to know?” Farouk asks, with faint, genteel impatience.
“Yes,” Hakim says. He puts a hand over his eyes. “You can put me back in the drawer now, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Ah, but then I’d have to remove you from our guest here. No, I think it’s time you took a little nap.” Farouk smiles, and snaps his fingers. Hakim’s specter fades away.
“What did you do to him?” Lenny asks.
“Nothing permanent. He’s still in your mind— Just unconscious, for the moment.” He glances at Syd. “I wanted to talk to you without an audience. Psychiatrists can be such an impediment to honest conversation, don’t you think?”
“You know what?” Lenny says, standing up. “I’m gonna go take a shit without an audience, while I still can. You two enjoy your Psychopath Support Group over here.” She heads for the women’s bathroom.
Syd eyes Farouk, warily. “We don’t have anything to talk about,” she says.
“Yes, we do,” Farouk says, leaning back in his chair and wiping his hands clean with his napkin. “After all, we have a friend in common. I want to make a deal.”
“A deal?” Syd says, cautiously.
“You want to save the world. I am telling you that I can do this. All I need is time.” Farouk spreads his hands. “Let me try to fix him. We both know that I did this damage. I can fix it.”
“You can’t fix him,” Syd says. “He’s a monster.”
“So am I,” Farouk says, openly. “You believed I could control him back when you were desperately trying to rid me of him. I can still control him. So, if I can’t save him, I will bring him to you. All you have to do is give me one week. Just one week without interference from you.”
“Why should I trust you when you’ve already betrayed me?” Syd asks.
“What do you have to lose?” Farouk asks. “With me gone, you have no one who could take David on. If I leave, you will be at his mercy.”
Syd eyes him. “You won’t succeed, you know,” she says. “He’s too far gone. If you wanted to save him, you should have done it while you were still in his head.”
Farouk laughs, shaking his head slowly. “Perhaps I should have. But I have to believe there’s hope. If it’s too late for him— Then it’s ten times so for me.”
“And if it is too late for you?” Syd says, meeting his gaze.
“Then maybe I will let you execute the both of us,” Farouk says. “But it won’t come to that. I have...” He smiles a little, ironically. “I have faith.”
The next morning, David wakes up feeling like shit.
His head hurts, his heart hurts. Every nerve feels exposed, stripped raw. He can't believe he let Farouk torture him again. He's so stupid, falling for his tricks every time. He doesn't need Divad to tell him that, not today.
He reaches out to the commune, and lets out a tight gasp of relief as the calm, happy feelings there flow into him. He clings to them desperately, soaking them up, trying to drown out all the bad in him with their good.
He opens his eyes. The room is empty, though he remembers Dvd and Davida and other duplicates staying with him through the night. They tried to help him. They usually do. But he probably shouldn't feel grateful to a bunch of hallucinations.
Then again, it's not like he can get any crazier.
He sits up and drags himself out of bed. He needs his morning hit. But before he can start making more blue, he freezes, sensing— Farouk.
How is this his life? God, he can't wait to kill himself.
He steps out onto the porch. Farouk is there, holding— a plate of waffles and a steaming hot mug that smells of ginger and cardamom. There’s a bottle of maple syrup floating by his shoulder.
“Sobh bekheir,” Farouk says, congenially. “There are more waffles in the kitchen.”
David wants to resist, wants to refuse anything Farouk offers him. But waffles. He grabs the plate, not saying anything. He sits on the opposite bench and then floats the syrup his way, almost empties the whole bottle onto his plate. He starts shoving the syrupy waffles into his mouth and feels— Slightly less like shit.
“I thought you might need something in your stomach before we get started.” Farouk smiles at him. “We have a big day ahead of us.”
David pauses with a mouthful of waffle. He gives Farouk a suspicious glare, then swallows. "Forget it."
“Forget it?” Farouk asks, solicitously.
"Yeah, forget it," David insists. "Whatever tricks you've got planned to torture me? I'm not interested. You wanna stay here? Get me a time traveler."
“About that,” Farouk says, still smiling. “I thought we could do some time travel on our own today. You are afraid of the future, no? Then we will go to the future.”
The waffles suddenly taste like cardboard. "No," David says. More torture, he knew it. He puts the plate aside.
“It’s her words that frighten you, isn’t it?” Farouk says, gently. “You fear what they could mean, but you don’t know why. But we are gods, joonam. We have the power to reach out to the future, to find the answers you crave.”
"I can't," David says. Not without help, without Cary's amplification tank. "I tried."
“I can,” Farouk says. “The benefit of experience, my dear. I can show you how, if you would like?”
"What's the point?" David grumps. "It doesn't matter what I do, it all ends the same way. I end the world." It won't help anything to watch himself decay, to see his madness rotting him from the inside. He suppresses a shudder.
“How do you know?” Farouk says. “You have only seen one possibility.” He looks at David sidelong. “Has it ever occurred to you that the monster who destroyed the world might not even be you? I wonder, sometimes... if it might have been me. We cannot know unless we look.”
David gives Farouk a half-curious look. "You were dead. In that future. I bashed your head in."
“You know I am a difficult man to kill,” Farouk says. “And as you can see, I am very much alive now. Do you not think that this may have changed the future? You and I, working together.”
"There's not gonna be a future," David reminds him. "Or not— Not any future from here. That's the whole point of us working together."
“Why put all your— What’s the phrase? Eggs. Why put all your eggs in one basket?”
David narrows his eyes again. "This is just a trick to stop me from killing you."
“If you— If we— Are doomed, then I intend to see that for myself,” Farouk says, meeting his eyes. “I still believe there is good in you. I will go alone, if you won’t accompany me.”
David straightens up. No way he's letting Farouk go alone to mess with his future self. He stands up and grabs the mug from Farouk’s hand. "Let's get this over with," he says, and downs the tea.
Farouk smiles. “Very well.” He shuts his eyes. “Come to the Astral Plane with me.”
David follows him.
He finds himself standing next to Farouk, in a blank white space. In front of him is an old, beaten-up car, hooked up to some sort of machinery. David blinks. It’s— His dad’s car, the one they used to drive around in back when David was a kid. They sold it years ago.
Dad. Losing him still hurts, and worse because he was stuck in Clockworks for the funeral. Of course Farouk dragged it out, or— Made this version of it. Any excuse to torture him.
This is going to be awful, David knows it. It's going to be miserable torture seeing his life spiral into complete, world-killing disaster.
“Have strength, my dear,” Farouk says. He leads the way to the machinery, and hands David a tube connected to the machinery. “Plug it in here,” he says, indicating an opening in the engine of the car.
David jams the tube into the engine and starts bracing himself for the worst. He realizes, belatedly, that seeing his future will probably also mean seeing Syd's future. Or Future Syd. Should he be mad at her? Grateful that she tried to stop him before it was too late? He doesn't think he can forgive her for Amy.
And yet here he is, working with Amy's murderer. He hates this life. Everything about it is the worst.
Farouk puts a hand on his arm and guides him to flip another switch in the engine, and then keeps the hand there, guiding him to sit in the backseat of the car with him. Farouk pulls aviator goggles down on his face— And where did those come from?— And gestures like an orchestra conductor.
The car starts up, and David feels the familiar agony of being mentally thrown through time. And then— They're suddenly standing together in a neon-lit hallway, a winding path splitting off into a thousand different hallways, all lined with doors.
"It wasn't like this for me," David murmurs, voice loud in the strange quiet. When he mentally time traveled, he focused on Future Syd and that brought him to her. "There weren't doors." There was only the one future, one path.
"This is under my control. Technology is a blunt tool. The mind is a far more elegant one." Farouk holds a glowing orb in his hand, and David peers into the light and sees— A memory of Farouk talking to Future Syd. He raises it and it lights the way. David almost asks Farouk about it, but decides not to. The orb leads Farouk through the twists and turns, and David follows Farouk.
Finally, they come to a hallway where the light is brightest, and Farouk nods, and walks straight up to—
A blank wall.
Farouk frowns, and taps on the wall, as if searching for a secret entrance. His frown deepens. “It’s— Not here.”
"Of course it's here," David says, looking around. "It's the future." He looks back the way they came. "Did we go too far? Maybe I already ended— The entire universe."
“No,” Farouk says. He lifts the memory up, and it glows bright as it touches the wall. “This is where it should be. It’s as if it— Doesn’t exist anymore.”
"Of course it exists," David says, but— His heart skips a beat. He knows it's not possible that— Obviously he's doomed, obviously. But maybe— "I guess— If not killing you— Changed the timeline— Maybe that exact future's gone."
Is Future Syd gone? Syd must still be alive in the future, but— Maybe not that Syd?
“It’s gone,” Farouk says, and it’s like he can’t decide how he feels, whether he’s pleased or despairing. For a moment, his face is unguarded, vulnerable. And then he snaps that impassive smirk back in place. “There are other futures. Would you like to see?”
"They're probably worse," David mutters. But they're already here and— He's a little curious. How much difference did not killing Farouk make? He thought it didn't matter. It sure didn't matter to anyone at Division 3. "Fine, show me."
“Very well.” Farouk pulls a set of glowing dice out of his suit pocket. "We will let fate guide us." He rolls them in his hand, then lets them fall to float in midair, but there's no numbers on the faces. The hallway around them shifts, and now a door is in front of them. Farouk gestures for David to take the lead.
David braces himself for the worst and opens the door. He steps through— And almost steps on— What he's fairly sure is cow poop. "Ugh." He walks carefully around it and looks up.
It's a farm. His powers don't work during mental time travel, but looking around it feels isolated. Pretty, though. Even if they are in the middle of a cow field.
"Not exactly— Apocalyptic," he admits.
“Pleasant enough,” Farouk says. “If rather— Rural.” He says the word rural with a faint sense of intrinsic distaste.
A door opens, and David turns to see— Himself walk out of a small cottage. His— Alternate future self is a bit rough-looking, worn clothes and stubble and he's badly in need of a shower and a haircut. But he's not—
He's not ending the world. At least not so far. It's still possible he already ended the world and now he's just— Living the dream of— A quiet farm in the middle of nowhere.
That actually is one of David's dreams, or it was. He tried to share it with Syd. He hasn't dreamed about it since.
"Hey Bessie," Future David says, voice rusty but warm. But then his face creases up with sadness. He pets Bessie, calming himself. "Had another, uh— Rough night. Nightmares. Um." He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. "Okay now. Had some waffles." He gives Bessie a crooked smile, pets her flank. "How're you feeling? Hoof still playin' up?"
Bessie continues to chew cud, and gives Future David a soulful gaze. She gives a small moo.
"Yeah," Future David says, agreeing. "I know. I should get the, uh, the doc—" He blanches, then seems to listen to the cow. "I know you hate shots. I hate shots. But you're— You need to get better. I can't—" His chin trembles. "You're all I've got, okay?"
David stares, vaguely horrified. This isn't how he imagined his fantasy farm life. He was supposed to be— Content. Not lonely and miserable and— Emotionally dependent on a cow. "What happened to me?" he says, half-asking.
Farouk reaches out to rest a hand on David’s shoulder. David registers, distantly, that he’s trying to be comforting. “A bad day, perhaps.”
David looks at his future self. Now he's hugging the cow, god. "I can't— We have to go."
Farouk doesn’t stop to say anything. He simply opens a door in thin air, and leads David back out into the hallway.
They stand there in silence for a moment, David struggling to process all that. Syd's not with him, of course not, but— Lenny's gone. The commune's gone, everyone's gone.
"Is that it?" David asks, bleakly. "I don't end the world, I just—" Lose everything and everyone? Give up on ever being happy? But he doesn't believe in a happy future anyway. Maybe just not ending the world is as happy as it could ever get for him, in this life.
Farouk squeezes his shoulder. “That is only one future. There are many.”
David pushes off Farouk's hand, takes a step away. He can't— And then it clicks. "More than one future?"
“The future is not set,” Farouk says. “It’s all a roll of the dice. You changed the future once—We can do it again.”
"Show me," David demands, needing. He needs there to be— Even if this whole timeline will be erased, he needs to know if there's a chance—
Wordlessly, Farouk presses the dice into David’s hands. David stares down at them, these little toys that somehow hold the potential for his entire life. He rolls the dice, then opens the door. And stops, suddenly afraid.
It's a familiar sight this time, a Division 3 cell. The power-suppressing crown is on his future self's head, and it looks like it has been for a long time. He's in even worse shape than he was on the farm, sitting slumped against the wall, expression almost empty.
"They caught me," David realizes. This is what happens if Division 3 gets hold of him and doesn't kill him. This might be worse than Syd shooting him in the chest.
Farouk’s eyes are narrowed. “I will not let this future come to pass,” he says, firmly.
"David the zombie," David mutters, and turns away, unable to bear the sight of this future either. He walks back through the door, feeling ill, and grabs the dice before Farouk has even closed the door.
“It won’t happen,” Farouk repeats.
David rolls, and doesn't even look at the dice before pushing through the door. He shudders in horror. "No," he gasps.
It's a mental hospital. Just the sight of one is enough to make him want to run back into the hallway. But instead of another David the zombie, his future self here is— Just David the patient. Sitting with a couple other patients and looking— Okay. He's dressed in normal clothes instead of hospital clothing. His eyes are clear, not drugged.
"Where am I?" David asks, trying to understand.
“L’asile, I assume,” Farouk says, as if he doesn’t see the difference, doesn’t see how strange this is. But it's so different.
"David," says a nurse, gently. She offers a small, familiar cup. "Time for your meds."
"Yeah," Future David says, a little sad, but also— Resolved. Like he wants this, he's choosing it. He takes the little pill cup and swallows his meds with some water. "Thanks."
The nurse smiles at Future David, and Future David smiles back. He turns back to the other patients and they're all— Relaxed and calm and— Friends. They're his friends.
David can hardly believe this. He's back in the hospital, but— He's safe, he's not alone, he's not a prisoner. At least he doesn't seem to be a prisoner. But he's a patient and that should mean—
"I don't understand," he says, struggling.
Farouk frowns at him, as if faintly puzzled. “They have lessened you,” he suggests.
"But I'm happy," David says.
“You can do better,” Farouk says, firmly.
It's hard to imagine that he can. David thinks about being happy with Syd and Lenny in Clockworks, and wonders if maybe— "Maybe I can't. Maybe this—"
“You can do better,” Farouk repeats, firmly. He puts a hand on David’s arm. “You lived free on the farm. You have companionship here. There will be a future where you have both.”
"Prove it," David says, daring Farouk to find that for him even though it's not Farouk who's choosing the futures. It's the dice. David heads back out into the hall and grabs the dice and hands them to Farouk. "Find that."
Farouk shrugs. “It’s all a matter of the dice.” He rolls, and the hallway shifts around them. Farouk opens the door for him, solicitously. David rushes through, and then—
Stops, startled. It's Syd.
"Syd?" he calls, even though she can't hear him. He never expected to see her as part of his life again, except maybe to try to kill him again.
“Stop it, David,” she says, looking straight at him. “Just— Stop it.
David freezes, certain she’s talking to him, and then another voice from behind him says, “I’m not doing anything! I’m not cheating on you.” David whirls around, and sees another David standing behind him.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re cheating on me,” Syd snaps.
“That’s not what you said earlier when you were— ”
“I need more, David,” Syd says. “I need you to be here for me. Not— Out saving the world, not lost in your thoughts or the Astral Plane, just— Here.”
Future David’s shoulders slump, and he looks down. “I get— Distracted. Confused. You know that. You knew that when you married me. I— In— In sickness and in health, right? Isn’t that what you said?” He looks up at her, pleading.
“How long have we been married?” Syd asks.
“I don’t know,” Future David says, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Eight years?”
“Nine.” Syd looks away. “That’s a long time to spend with someone who’s always— Somewhere else.”
"Nine years?" David marvels. He can hardly believe they got married at all after— He's half-tempted to pull off Future David's shirt and see if he's got the same scar on his chest. But of course he can't.
"We should be happy," he says, at a loss. He was so happy with Syd in Clockworks. They were in love. If they're together again— Then everything should be like that, but it's not?
“People change,” Farouk says, thoughtfully.
“I can— I can spend more time at home. I can— Do better, take my— Maybe there’s better meds, I can— I can do better, I swear,” Future David says, desperately.
Syd turns her face away, and braces a gloved hand on the kitchen counter. “You’ve said that before. You always break your promises. I don’t know why I even bother anymore.”
“Please don’t leave me,” Future David says, very quietly.
Syd laughs, still looking away. “You know I won’t. That’s why you treat me like that, because you know I won’t leave anymore.”
“That’s not true,” Future David protests.
“How do I know, David?” Syd asks. “You lie to me all the time. Where you are, what you’re doing— And there’s always a reason, but it’s not— It’s not enough.”
"God, this is awful," David moans. It was awful when he and Syd fought when they were living at Division 3 together, and this is a hundred times worse. Just looking at them now, it feels like this is all they have, maybe all they've had for a long time. It's more miserable than the hospital future.
He turns and walks out, not needing or wanting to see anymore.
"I don't— Want that," he tells Farouk, needing to say it aloud. Even if he has freedom and companionship here— He's not happy.
“There will be better,” Farouk promises him.
David takes the dice back and throws them, and walks through the door— And into the commune.
"Oh!" David says, surprised. All the futures have been so different, he didn't expect to see anything actually— Related to the life he has now. Somehow it's disappointing.
Not much has changed. Everyone's happy, there's blue smoke, and— Oh, there’s his future self. His clothing's changed a bit, but mostly— He looks a lot like he does now. Except— Something feels off.
“Bring in the troublemaker,” Future David says to a dead-eyed Lenny, who tips her tophat and strides out of the room. In a moment, she returns, followed by two tall mutants dragging a fourth person, a young man in chains and ragged clothes.They toss the young man down on his knees in front of David’s throne-like chair.
Future David smiles down at the man, deceptively friendly. “Now, are you ready to play nice?” he asks, fondly admonishing.
“Please,” the man says, desperately. “Just— Just kill me. Don’t— I don’t want to— Please don’t touch my mind, please, I can’t go back to that, please just kill me.”
"What the hell?" David mutters. This future is so different from the one before, and the ones before that. It's hard to believe all of them could branch off from the person he is now. And yet— Of all of them, this one seems— The most likely. At least superficially.
“You are at a crossroads,” Farouk says. “There are many paths ahead of you.”
“Stop that,” Future David tells his prisoner, chidingly. “You’ll be happy soon. I only want what’s best for you, you know.”
“Please,” the man begs. “Please don’t do this. I had a— I have a— A family out there, a life, I was building something real— Please. I don’t want to go back to the dream.”
Future David shakes his head, sadly, and gets up from his throne. The man flinches, and shrinks back. Future David pays this no mind— As if he’s used to people reacting to him like that, as if this is his life now— And comes to kneel next to the man, on one knee. “Shhhh. It’s all right. I’m going to fix you right up.” He reaches out to stroke the man’s temple, his voice, soft, deceptively comforting. “Just relax. It’ll all be over before you know it. Just let me in...”
The blue smoke swirls around him, and the man in chains chokes, and then, unwillingly, inhales.
“Yes,” Future David says, softly. “Yes, that’s right. Let me take care of you. It’ll be so easy. And don’t worry. You won’t be alone. Soon everyone in the world will be right here with us, and we won’t have to be alone anymore. Yes... Ssshhh... Sleep, my child...”
The man is unconscious on the ground. Future David stands up, smiling broadly. “He should be all right when he wakes up,” he says, to his followers. “Now, bring in the next dissenter.”
"No," David says, needing to refuse this. "This isn't right, this isn't— It's not what I do. This isn't how it works! I just— Take away their pain." His voice breaks at the end. He's not like this, he's not— He's not—
"This is ridiculous," he says, turning on Farouk. "I can't have all these different futures! They don't even make sense! I don't— I don't have a future!"
“You do,” Farouk tells him, seriously. “You are a god, my love. You make your own future.”
"I'm not 'your love,'" David sneers. He walks out and barely waits for Farouk to join him before slamming the door shut. He grabs the floating dice and squeezes them in his fist. "Don't you get it? You destroyed my life! I'll never have a happy future, not from this!" He gestures at himself, at the wreck of a human being he knows he is. The broken plate that he's trying desperately to throw away before it ends the whole damn world. "There's no point to any of this!" He throws the dice away, disgusted.
Farouk lifts a hand and catches the dice telekinetically, floats them back. “One more future,” he insists, his face written in lines of determination. “This is not who you are. I know you.”
"Because you made me into this," David says, angrily. "The best I can do is be a— A patient for the rest of my life! You know what none of those futures has? Love. Actual love. Because there is nothing in me worth being loved." His voice cracks again, and he turns away.
“I love you,” Farouk says firmly, and before David can respond, he throws the dice again. The hallway shifts, and Farouk pulls the door open.
David doesn't want to walk through, doesn't want to see another version of himself being miserable and making everyone else miserable. But Farouk walks through and David can't stand to leave Farouk alone with any of his futures. He braces himself and marches after him.
There he is, sitting on a picnic blanket in the sun. Probably plotting to eat people's brains or— Too drugged to be a danger to anyone. He's probably ruined Syd's life and now he's alone.
But he's not alone. There's— There's a toddler on the blanket with him, playing with some toy rings floating above her. David looks at his future self again, more carefully this time. He's directing the rings, and has— A soft, contented expression.
David frowns. "What, did I steal someone's baby?" he mutters. He probably stole all the babies.
But there's just the one. And then a woman walks over, carrying a picnic basket. She's older than him, and he doesn't recognize her at all.
“How’s it goin’, Davey?” she asks, sitting down. “She looks like she’s havin’ a fine time.”
"I think she is," Future David says, smiling. And then— Another Future David appears on the other side of the blanket, and takes the basket from the woman.
"What the—" David starts. Are the different futures converging, crossing? Are they breaking the future right now? Maybe this is how he ends the world.
But the other Future David seems to belong in this future. And then the woman says, "Oh, hallo, Dvd. You gave me a wee start there. Be careful wi’ the grapes, I think one of them might have gotten squished.”
"I got this," Dvd assures her. "Hey, c'mon, lunchtime!" he calls, and then— More duplicates appear. They don't all look identical to David anymore. Now that he knows who they are, he recognizes Davida, but she's grown out her hair and she's wearing a dress. And there's another duplicate with a mustache.
Moira doesn't seem upset by their presence at all. And the little girl runs right into Davida's arms, squirming happily.
"This is impossible," David tells Farouk.
“Why?” Farouk seems surprised. “They are psychic projections. You know how this works, no?”
"They're symptoms," David insists. "They're hallucinations!"
Farouk gives this some thought, and shrugs. “Perhaps everyone is,” he offers.
David scowls at him and turns back to the picnic. None of the other futures had all his hallucinations running around, talking to people. And they didn't have his future self giving doting smiles to babies.
He looks happy. He looks more than happy, he looks— At peace. Impossible.
"This is another trick," he accuses, turning back to Farouk. "You made this up."
Farouk blinks, raising an eyebrow. “Why would I make this up?” He gestures around them. “Look. Do you see me here, in this future? Do you think I would paint you a future where I play no part? No. This is reality.”
David watches as the toddler carefully picks up a piece of fruit and hands it to Future David as some kind of precious gift. Future David takes it solemnly, then pops it into his mouth and grins, and the toddler grins back and laughs, claps her hands in delight. She launches herself at him, completely trusting that he'll catch her, and he does. And then— Future David is holding this toddler in his lap, and she's hugging him.
Something in David needs that so much it hurts. And he knows it's out of reach. He'll never have what other people have, a family, a home. He's sick, he—
A trick. It has to be a trick.
"Then where are you?" David challenges. Farouk wasn't in the other futures, not that David saw, but— Farouk haunted him for thirty three years and still won't let him go. If he's still alive, he must be somewhere in this future, ready to destroy whatever scraps of happiness David manages to pull together.
Farouk cocks his head. “Perhaps we should see.” He snaps his fingers, and the scene vanishes, replaced with—
For a moment, David thinks he’s back in one of the earlier futures. They’re standing in the neon-lit Division 3 cell again, and there’s a figure lying on the floor, a spiked crown digging into its head. David takes a step closer, and realizes—
It’s not him. It’s Farouk.
He’s— Thinner. Not starving, not by a long shot. There are no bruises. David notes that someone has added a bed to the stall, and even a few books lying in the corner. But it’s the look in Future Farouk’s eyes that draws his attention. He’s lying on the ground, his eyes open, staring at the wall. He looks— Listless. Tired. Empty. As if he gave up hope a long time ago.
David reluctantly feels a twinge of pity for Future Farouk. Having just seen his own future self in the same state—
“So this is your happy ending,” Farouk says, very quietly. His eyes are fixed on the other Farouk, his jaw set. “The monster, slain.”
"Good," David says, though his heart isn't in it. "Maybe— That's where you always are. In all those futures. Away from me." Not that it helped much. "This is exactly what you deserve."
“I know,” Farouk says, flatly. He turns away and opens the door again. “Let us see another. I want to know what I could become.”
David thinks about the happy scene of this future. He's loathe to leave it, even if he's just— A time ghost here. It's not fair. What are the odds that this will actually be his future? Impossibly small. If he's lucky he'll end up spending the rest of his life in a mental hospital. That's the best he hoped for for most of his life anyway. How are any of those other futures worth fighting for? The whole world will be better off once this version of himself is erased.
He turns away from what he'll never, ever have, and follows Farouk into the hall. The door closes and David knows it will never open to that life again.
“There are a hundred possibilities,” Farouk says, quietly. “The power is ours. Remember that.” He pulls out the dice again, and gives them a grim look. And then he rolls.
The next door opens onto a sunny fall day. The two of them are standing on a dirt path leading to an open gate in a cobblestone wall. Beyond the gate, a version of Farouk is visible, standing on the path, looking at something David can’t see that’s hidden behind the wall.
“It’s been a long five years,” Future Farouk says. “It seems as if it was just yesterday that I saw you last. And yet everything has changed now.” He laughs, slightly. “At least, I hope that I have changed. Who am I to judge? But I have been doing what you would have wanted me to do, I think. I have been working to dismantle Division 3, to make the world a safer place for mutants like us. I have seen to it that the people you loved are safe. I have— I have done my best not to hurt anyone else. You would have wanted that, I think.”
David looks at Farouk, and the older man’s face is unreadable, his eyes searching for something. He steps forward, slowly, pushes the gate open and steps through. Whatever he sees there makes him stop and go very still.
Curious, David follows him through, and sees—
It’s a cemetary. And the gravestone Future Farouk is standing in front of is— His.
David Charles Haller
LOVED IN DEATH AS HE WAS IN LIFE
Something makes him look at Farouk, and he sees the stricken expression on the Shadow King’s face.
“It’s funny, no, isn’t it?” Future Farouk continues, his voice quiet and miserable. “All the power in the world, and yet I can do nothing to bring back the one person I care about."
"I thought that— after awhile, it would stop hurting," Future Farouk says. "That I could go back to being the man I was. But it doesn’t. All these years, and I still feel like part of me is missing.” He reaches out and touches the edge of the gravestone. “I wish so much you were here to see the man I have become. I like to think— I like to think you would be proud of me.” He laughs, a sad and quiet sound on the edge of a sob. “Another delusion, I know. I know.”
Farouk is frozen in place, his eyes fixed on the gravestone. With a sudden motion, he whips around and grabs David by the arm. “Let us go. There is nothing for me here.”
David wrenches his arm free. "Hold on." He walks up to Future Farouk, curious. He looks around. Future Farouk is alone. Future David is dead. There's no one here for Future Farouk to put on a show for. Unless— He knows that David sees him, in this future? If all these futures really do branch off from the same point, from this point, then—
David chafes at the feeling that he's being forced to feel bad for the monster who destroyed him. Farouk is just a monster. There's nothing good in him, nothing human. He can't get better. David knows that for a fact because—
Because Farouk made David just like him.
But then what do all these futures mean?
"Can't we— Talk to him?" David asks. "I talked to Syd. Future Syd."
“Not here,” Farouk says. “You were two minds in the Astral Plane. Now, we are minds désincarné— No— Disembodied in the physical world here.” He looks back at the gravestone. “We don’t belong here. This is not our future.”
David takes one last look at Future Farouk and his grief, and at his own death. And then he follows Farouk out of this future.
“There is better, for us,” Farouk insists, half to himself. “We are not like these fragile things that wander through their worlds without purpose. We are not merely mortal.” He takes the dice, and David thinks he sees his hands shake as he rolls them.
Another door. Another world. Farouk slams the door open, and strides through.
They’re in a waiting room. Future Farouk is leaning on the receptionist’s desk, chatting with her.
“And these?” Future Farouk says, tapping a vase full of flowers on the desk. “From some lucky gentleman, perhaps?”
The receptionist smiles. “No, nothing like that. I brought them from my own garden.”
Future Farouk leans down to sniff one of the flowers. “Hydrangeas? A lovely choice. I have some growing back home as well. The color reminds me of a watercolor.”
“Oh?” the receptionist says. She leans in a little. “And is there some lucky lady you’re bringing them to?”
“Not yet,” Future Farouk says, with a smile. “But one never knows what the future will bring, no?”
David sighs and rubs his head. All these futures are giving him emotional whiplash. But at least this Future Farouk is slightly more recognizable, laying it on thick with some random woman. Does she know she's flirting with a monster? He'd warn her if he could.
Farouk has a faintly pleased look on his face, as if this is the kind of future he expected to see, this is the way he expected to see himself acting. “A happier future, it seems,” he comments.
A man in his fifties sticks his head into the waiting room. “Amahl?” he calls, and Future Farouk shoots the receptionist an apologetic grin, and then follows the other man back further into the building.
They enter what's clearly a therapist's office. It's just like every therapist's office David's ever been in, complete with soothing wall art and abstract sculptures. David used to wonders sometimes if they were mandatory, like— Egg rolls on a Chinese restaurant menu. Maybe there's a catalog they all order from. Therapist art set number three.
Future Farouk takes a seat on the leather couch and looks back at the therapist. “Guten Tag, Doctor,” he says, congenially.
“How have you been this past week, Amahl?” the therapist asks.
Future Farouk smiles, wryly. “As well as can be expected, I suppose. No— It was a good week. I’ve taken up studying Hindi. It’s a very beautiful language. Very different from the other languages I know. It is nice to know that this passion, language, that this is not gone just because my powers are.”
Beside David, Farouk reels back, taking a sharp breath. "No powers?" David wonders aloud, and finds himself smirking. "A future where you're not a god. Just another helpless human."
“I suppose these languages, all the poetry I read, all the songs— They were also the creations of men without powers. Or women. That is something to remember,” Future Farouk says, oblivious to his past self’s shock. “Now I am like them. There are worse things in the world, no? I am, I think, content. Or I will be, soon. It will take time to recover.”
David laughs in amazement, hardly believing that Farouk is actually capable of this— Humility. "Lenny'd love to see this."
“Let’s go,” Farouk says, flatly. “I have seen all I need to see of this world.”
"Hey, I wanna see more," David says. "I wonder how you lost your powers?"
“It doesn’t matter, because this future will not come to pass,” Farouk snaps. He pulls open the door, and steps through to the hallways of time.
Another dice roll. Farouk opens the door. David follows, and finds himself in— A forest? They're in a small clearing with a quaint little cottage surrounded by a low stone wall. It's all very— Fairy tale.
"Uh, should we be on the lookout for a cow?" David jokes, mood still lifted. "Is that Oliver?" he adds, startled. That's definitely Oliver working on the wall, dressed like— Some kinda eighteenth century peasant? "I thought he was dead."
“Perhaps it’s me,” Farouk suggests, inspecting Oliver with a raised eyebrow. “Another possession?”
The door to the cottage slams open. “Baba! Baba, are you— Oh, there you are!” A small, brown-skinned boy scampers over to Oliver. “Can I help?”
"Of course, Amahl," Oliver says, warmly. "I love a good rock wall. Full of character. And repairs. But mostly character."
“That’s... Me,” Farouk says, blinking. David’s not sure he’s ever seen Farouk so confused.
“We should put down one brown stone and then one grey stone, so that they make a pattern,” Amahl decides, with all the serious authority a 10 year old can muster.
"An excellent idea," Oliver praises.
"I have no idea what's going on, but you're adorable," David says, grinning.
"Amahl?" Melanie walks out, her hands dusted with flour. "Would you like to help knead the bread?"
"Melanie's alive, too?" David says, amazed. He half-expects Amy to walk out next, and feels a twinge of grief when she doesn't.
Amahl looks torn. He turns to Oliver. “Can you do the wall alone? I really have to help Maman knead the bread. Bread is important!”
"Go help your mother," Oliver says, and Amahl runs back to Melanie. Melanie pats Amahl's head, leaving it floury, and they walk inside together.
“This is the Astral Plane,” Farouk says slowly, looking around them. “A place for lost souls…”
"Oh," David says, heart sinking. "Then Melanie and Oliver really are dead." He frowns. "And so are you!"
“Dead or… Something else,” Farouk says. “Lost. They are— Here, at least. And so am I.” He frowns. “At least in this future. But why did they take me in?”
"How about: why are you a little kid?" David counters.
“This is the Astral Plane,” Farouk says, his eyes distant. “Anyone can be anything… I am still me, I think. Simply… In metamorphosis.”
David's not sure he likes all this— Happy fresh start business for Farouk. "You don't deserve this future," he decides. "You destroyed Melanie and Oliver!"
Farouk chuckles. “You don’t think I deserve a future at all, my dear.” He looks back at the cottage, wistfully. “It is a temptation, no? This is what you want. To start over again, from the beginning... But no. I think not.” He reaches out in space, and pulls the door open. “Let us look for something better, joonam.”
Farouk gives the cottage a last look over his shoulder, and the two of them return to the hallway.
“There was a future for you,” Farouk says, as they stand in the neon-purple shadows of the hallway. “Why shouldn’t there be one for me?”
David glares at him. "I hope your next future is miserable."
Farouk laughs. “We have already seen that future, my dear.” He rolls the dice.
The next door opens on a lavish room, draped in gold and black. At the center is something that’s half-throne and half-loveseat, and above it are two oil portraits— one of Farouk, one of Syd. On the wall between them is a flag with a stylized pomegranate on it.
A door beside the couch opens, and Farouk and Syd enter.
"Syd?" David whispers, feeling a sudden chill.
“— almost got him this time,” Syd is saying. “We were lucky. He was trying to assassinate you— he still thinks that if he kills you, I’ll come crawling back.”
Future Farouk chuckles. “He always was an optimist.” They sit on the couch together, and Future Farouk puts an arm around Syd’s shoulders. “Does it bother you?”
“Does what bother me?” Syd asks.
“That he is so vehemently opposed to our regime. That the one you loved has become our worst enemy.”
Syd shrugs, as if to say no. And then, after a moment, she adds, “Sometimes. Why? Are you jealous?”
“No,” Future Farouk says, laughing. “After all, I love him too.”
David scoffs and turns away, but can't help turning back again.
“I know,” Syd says. She shakes her head. “But he could never understand what we’re doing here, you know. One way or another— this is going to have to end.”
“He kills me, or I kill him?” Future Farouk asks.
“Or I kill him,” Syd says, patting Future Farouk on the shoulder with one gloved hand. “I don’t let anyone hurt my man.”
David rounds on Farouk, furious. "You are not her man."
“I didn’t say it,” Farouk says, absently. His eyes are on the two figures from the future.
"This is bullshit," David declares. "You know what this is? You messed with her head again and I wasn't there to fix it!"
“Did I?” Farouk asks, vaguely.
Future Farouk smiles at Syd, fondly. “You always did have a protective streak, my dear.” He catches her gloved hand and kisses the back of it. “Perhaps, in the end, it’s better that neither of us managed to charm him. We’re good together. And once he’s dead, there will be nothing standing in our way.”
Farouk shakes his head, slowly. “No,” he says to himself. “No. This is not the one. This is not the future for us.”
"No," David says, refusing this. Even though it's disturbingly close to reality, Farouk and Syd conspiring against him. Maybe that's why it hurts so much. "This is over." He marches out.
Farouk follows him. They stand in the darkness for a moment, David fuming, Farouk thoughtful.
“None of these are what I want,” Farouk says, eventually. “I want a future where you and I can work together. I don’t want to be the monster under your bed, the dragon to be slain.”
"There will never be a future where I work with you," David says, even as he realizes that future is— Effectively the present. "What we're doing doesn't count. I'm putting up with you so I can get what I want, which in case you forgot is a time traveler. So I can go back in time, not forwards, and kill you."
“And here I thought you wanted a picnic with your doppelgangers and a baby,” Farouk says, snidely.
"Fuck you," David says, stung. He already knows that future will never happen. "The only future that matters is one where you're a hundred percent dead."
“You still believe you’re doomed?” Farouk asks.
"I dunno," David admits. "It's— Maybe I'm not— Obviously I don't end the world in all those futures, but—" He struggles to find the words, to even figure out how he's feeling after seeing so many possibilities. "It doesn't mean anything. Maybe your dice just can't get us to those futures because there's nothing left to find."
Farouk shakes his head. “Impossible. We were both able to contact that future before we changed our past. Ah, there may still be a similar future out there— But if it is one in a thousand, one in a million— We may not be able to find it.”
David fights the urge to hope. He's hoped before, there's no point in hoping. "I know what I am," he tells Farouk, voice full of certainty. But he's not so sure anymore.
“Do you?” Farouk asks. “Then tell me. What am I?”
"You're a monster," David says, and he has no doubt about that. "A parasite."
Farouk’s mouth twists in a bitter slant, and he turns away. “Let us move on,” he says, and rolls the dice.
"Stop trying," David tells him. "You're not gonna find what you want."
Farouk’s shoulders stiffen, and he wrenches open the door with perhaps more force than is necessary. And then his eyes widen, and, slowly, he smiles. He opens the door further, so that David can see. “Perhaps you’re wrong,” he says.
David steps forward to look, and sees—
It’s not unlike the future with Syd, a lavish mansion room with Future Farouk lounging on an expensive couch. But instead of Syd sharing the couch with Future Farouk, it’s— Future David.
Future David is clad in an expensive suit, the mirror of Future Farouk’s, and he’s lying back with his head in Future Farouk’s lap, Future Farouk stroking his hair.
"What the hell?" David says, incredibly disturbed.
“I told you,” Farouk says, intensely. “It’s possible. You and I!”
Future David blinks lazily and smiles up at Future Farouk. “I love you,” he says, his voice soft. “My phantom limb.” He reaches out and strokes Future Farouk’s arm. “You and me and the world too,” he says, sing-song, and sits up to lean against Future Farouk’s side.
Future Farouk leans in to kiss him on the cheek. “I love you too, joonam.”
"Absolutely not," David declares, loudly. "No way. This is— It's the astral plane and you made this! Anyone can be anything, you said it!"
Future Farouk pats Future David on the shoulder. “It’s time to take your meds now, you know.”
“Already?” Future David says, with a sigh. He gets up.
Future Farouk goes with him, and they walk hand in hand over to an elaborate chest, resting at the side of the couch. Future Farouk opens it, and pulls open a spider-shaped statuette and a little vial of blue. He loads it into the statuette, and hands it to Future David.
Together, they sit there on the floor, and Future David inhales the blue vapor, his eyes going soft, his muscles limp. Future Farouk strokes his hair, his face.
“It’s so much easier like this,” Future Farouk says, softly. “The drug makes your mind so soft, so pliable. Ahh, don’t worry, my dear. One day I won’t need the drugs.” He leans down and kisses Future David, on the lips this time. “Let me feed on you, let me grow strong, and one day I will need nothing but my own will to keep you mine.” His fingers go to the buttons of Future David’s shirt, undoing them, baring his chest to Future Farouk’s hungry eyes.
“No,” Farouk says, before David can. David looks over, surprised, and sees that Farouk looks pale and ill. “No, this isn’t— This is not my future. This is wrong.”
The world around them wavers, like a mirage under heat. David reaches for his Future Self, trying to save him, but of course his hands goes right through. David turns away, horrified and violated, reeling, and then—
The future shatters, and they are back in the present.
Farouk leans heavily against the stone wall, stares at the ground. “This isn’t what I want,” he says, half to himself. He looks up at David, eyes wide. “You must believe me— This is not what I want for you.”
"Get out!" David yells, his duplicates, his madness boiling with anger inside him. "We're done! If I see you again, I'll kill you!"
Farouk stares at him. David’s not sure he’s ever seen a look like that in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Farouk says, very quietly, and then— He vanishes.
Red. Red. Red. His face turned red, he chopped her head.
David's head is screaming, rioting with fury and pain, full of red, red, red. The cave light is red, the commune is red, his head is screaming and everything is screaming.
"David!" someone screams, and then hands grip him, shake him. "What the hell happened?"
David keeps screaming. He's distantly aware that he's sitting, curled up, clutching his head, but he can't— His head is screaming.
"You're the shrink, help him!" Lenny. It's Lenny talking, her hands on his arms. "Where the hell is Farouk?"
"It hurts," says someone else, a woman, voice tight with pain.
Lenny lets David go and moves away. "It's okay, sweet girl," she soothes. "Everything's gonna be okay." And then louder: "Help him!"
“David,” says a third voice, accented. “Can you hear me? Talk to me.”
David tries to respond, to stop screaming, but the pressure in his head keeps building and building, and it hurt, god it hurts, it feels like his head is going to—
—pain flashes through him like a lightning bolt and then—
The noise in his head is gone, but it's not gone because— It's outside his head. He's lying on the floor, the breath knocked out of him, and looks up to see—
His madness has escaped.
Duplicates. Dozens of them all around the cave, screaming and crying and furious and terrified. David tries to force them back inside, to hide them away, but he's weak, his mind exhausted.
Lenny sees them. So do Hakim and Salmon. They see everything.
David curls up on the floor and clutches his head, shame burning through the numbing shock.
"Holy shit," Lenny says, standing protectively over Salmon. "How many of these guys are there?"
"You know what they are?" Hakim asks, his tone carefully calm.
"I dunno exactly, but— I've seen 'em," Lenny says. "David's always hiding them."
"Not anymore," Salmon says, looking around with amazement. "This is so wild!"
Help. David needs help, he needs— "Dvd," he groans, searching for him in the chaos. Dvd and Divad and Davida and Daibhidh and— And his rational mind, where's his rational mind— They're the ones he relies on to keep control, to— To stop exactly this kind of disaster from happening.
"Kill him," one angry duplicate says to another. "We find Farouk and we kill him!"
"Not again, not again, not again," moans a crying duplicate. Another duplicate is holding him and crying too. And then another duplicate runs past them, laughing and crying.
David finally finds Dvd. He's kneeling beside two duplicates who are just— Staring, eyes filled with a kind of— Blank horror. Dvd looks upset, worried. He turns to David and meets his eyes, then turns back.
"We're not gonna kill him if we don't get our shit together," Divad says, corralling some of the angry duplicates. And there's Davida, soothing a few more duplicates, and Daibhidh giving others a talking to, and—
"I'm here," his rational mind says, appearing beside him. He rests a soothing hand on David's shoulder. "It's all under control. Just breathe."
David is distantly aware that the commune's red is fading back to blue again, matching the gradual calming of the crowd of duplicates. Lenny helps Salmon to her feet, then helps her over to the porch to sit.
"Tell them to hide," David tells his rational mind. He can't have his madness— Running free.
"They don't want to," his rational mind replies.
“David, it’s all right,” Hakim says. “This is a safe space. It’s just me and your friends here. You don’t have to hide yourself.”
"They're not me," David scowls. "They're just— Madness."
Rational David gives a long-suffering sigh. "David—"
"No," David says, firmly.
“You don’t have to hide your symptoms,” Hakim says, gently.
"I'm not sick," David insists, even though the whole cave is packed with his sickness.
"Sorry, he's always like this," says his rational mind.
“You don’t have to hide,” Hakim says again. He looks to David's rational mind, and around at the crowd. “Why don’t we talk with all of them? Perhaps you can get some peace and quiet then.”
"No," David insists. "They're not real. They don't matter."
"Gee, thanks," Dvd drawls.
"Shut up," David hisses. "You shouldn't be here! You're never supposed to be where anyone can see you!"
"Yeah, well maybe we're tired of being trapped in our little boxes," Divad says, annoyed. "It's not like you're holding up your end of the deal. We agreed on the plan. You agreed. And the plan was not jaunting off with Farouk to see a lot of shitty futures that got everyone upset."
"I think we should talk," Davida says, stepping forward. "We can't go on like this."
“He has a point,” Hakim says. “What harm can it do to talk this out?”
David looks around, but all he sees is an outright mutiny. "Fine," he mutters, glaring at them. None of this will matter once he changes the timeline. None of this will have happened. It'll all be erased, so he can let his madness destroy what's left of his life.
"So generous of you," Daibhidh drawls. He turns to Hakim, arms crossed. "What d'ya want to know?"
Hakim considers this. “Can you tell me what you are?” he asks, carefully.
"Stress responses," David's rational mind says, confidently. "Whenever David's in a— Difficult situation— He makes one of us. Or several. As you can see, ah— Things have been quite difficult."
“Stress responses,” Hakim repeats, to himself. “And how long have you been around?”
"I'm one of the newest ones, actually," David's rational mind says. "But I think— Divad and Dvd, are you the oldest?"
"Nah, but the oldest ones can't talk," Dvd says. "Too young."
“All right,” Hakim says. “That makes perfect sense. Can you tell me more about what happened today?”
Divad starts to talk, but David interrupts him. "I'll tell him," he insists. "It happened to me."
"It happened to all of us," Divad mutters.
David tries to gather his thoughts. "Look, the whole— Farouk said he could take me to the future. Find out why I end the world. But that future was— It was gone. So we looked around."
“And then what happened?” Hakim asks, neutrally.
"I dunno," David says, rubbing his face. "A lot. A lot of futures where I don't end the world."
“And that upset you?” Hakim guesses.
"Yes. No." David hugs himself. "I don't— It's just— It doesn't make sense. I can't have a— A future where I'm— Hugging a cow, and a future where I'm— Back with Syd but we hate each other and— A future where—" He cuts off. "Syd said I end the world. She was so sure I end the world that she tried to kill me over and over!"
“No one is right all the time,” Hakim says. “Not you, not me, not Syd. Maybe she made a mistake?”
"Maybe all those futures were just more tricks," David mutters. "Me ending the world, that's what's real! It has to be!"
Hakim gives this some thought. “I definitely understand why you wouldn’t trust Farouk. But do you think he would invent futures that are better than the one you expect? I’m not sure he’s that— Benevolent.”
David looks away, unable to answer that.
“How does it make you feel, the idea of a better future?” Hakim asks, gently.
David's chest hurts. And not from the gunshot wound. He crosses his arms, angry, protective. "It feels like shit."
“Why?” Hakim asks.
David huffs. "I don't need to see some— Mirage of a future I'll never have. I know what's going to happen to me and that's not gonna be— Some happy family picnic!"
“Nothing is certain,” Hakim says, shaking his head. “Not good things or bad things.”
David can't deal with this. He turns away, turns back. Rubs at his face, his neck, agitated.
“Don’t feel pressured to explain everything to me,” Hakim says. “Maybe I can talk to the others?” He looks up at them. “Would you like to talk about what upset you?”
“Oh, we'll talk about it," Divad says, eagerly.
"Divad," David's rational mind warns.
"Don't 'Divad' me," Divad tells him. He turns back to Hakim. "If we're not gonna end the world, then it's time for a new plan. A plan that avoids the future where Farouk—"
Fear and anger ripples through the crowd of duplicates.
"Don't say it!" Davida pleads.
Divad rolls his eyes. "Fine. Where Farouk— Is in control. Of us. Again. We'd be better off in a mental hospital than in that future!"
"You've been wanting us locked up for years," Daibhidh says, unimpressed.
"Because he's insane," Divad says, pointing at David.
"Shut up!" David hisses, baring his teeth.
“Please, one at a time,” Hakim says. “Divad, why don’t you tell me why you think David is mentally ill?”
"Just look at him!" Divad says, scornful. "If he ever stuck to a plan, we would be in this mess! If he just stayed in Clockworks where he belonged and took his sedatives like a good boy, the world would be just fine!"
"That place wasn't good for him!" David's rational mind says.
"Who the hell cares about him?" Divad says. "He's a little piece of shit."
"And you're a whinging prat," David's rational mind replies.
“Let’s not sink to insults,” Hakim says. “Why don’t we take a step back? We haven’t even been properly introduced. Would you start us off?” He points to David’s rational mind. “Tell us your name and a bit about yourself. Then we can go around the circle.” He sits down on the floor, cross-legged.
There's a brief commotion as the crowd of duplicates decide who's going to talk. The usual suspects take charge and drag David to sit in a circle with Hakim.
"I don't have a given name," David's rational mind says. "I'm David's rational mind. It's my job to help him clear his head and make decisions."
"Divad," Divad says, putting a hand to his chest. "It's my job to help David make the right decisions."
"It's your job to be a dick," Dvd mutters. "I look out for David. I've got his back. When shit goes down, I protect him."
"Daibhidh," Daibhidh says, shortly. "These days I'm a glorified tea boy."
"My name's Davida," says Davida. "Don't mind him. The two of us— Manage Legion. That's what we call— All of us."
“All of you, including David?” Hakim asks.
"David is David," Davida says. "We're Legion."
"You're madness," David mutters. "I don't want you. If you just left, everything would be fine!"
Daibhidh gives a long-suffering sigh. "Would if I could."
"We have— Tried," Davida admits. "But we can't."
“What does that mean?” Hakim asks. “You tried to leave?”
"You think we want to be stuck with that dead weight?" Divad says, pointing his thumb at David.
“Divad, you and David can’t get better unless you treat him with respect,” Hakim says, frowning at Divad like a disappointed parent. “At least while we’re here, I need you to stop insulting him. Can you do that?”
"I'm just telling it like it is," Divad says. "But fine. I'll play nice."
“What does escape mean to you?” Hakim asks Divad.
"I'll tell you what it means," Divad says. "It means not being stuck with him making all the decisions and then fucking them up!"
“Divad, we talked about this,” Hakim says, with resignation. He turns to the others. “Does that go for all of you? You want more decision-making power?”
The duplicates all look at each other.
"Look," Dvd says. "I love David. We all do. But things were supposed to get better once Farouk was gone and— Instead we're still stuck in the same boxes he made for us."
"We're tired of being trapped," Davida says. "We all agreed that we couldn't end the world but— If we don't then— We don't have to die." She wipes at her eyes. "I don't want to die."
Daibhidh gives her a rough pat on the back.
"You're not alive," David insists. "You're not real. You're not people! You're hallucinations! You're all the ways Farouk messed me up!"
“David, just like I asked Divad not to insult you, please don’t insult them,” Hakim says. “They’re here and they’re conscious. We’re not going to get anywhere by insulting them.”
"They're not real!" David insists. "It's all in my mind! I'm crazy!"
“You’re a telepath,” Hakim says. “You know that things that are in your mind are also real. I’m in Lenny’s mind right now— Does that make me not real? With other patients I’ve worked with who have similar conditions, they try to work towards positive system interaction. That way they can work together, instead of against each other.”
David rubs at his face, strained. "What other patients?" he asks, bewildered. "How many people did Farouk torture for thirty years?"
Hakim blinks, equally confused by this for a moment. “This kind of trauma response isn’t unique to Farouk. He isn’t as special as he thinks he is. Many kinds of early abuse can cause dissociative disorders.”
David frowns, confused. "What?"
"Dissociative disorders?" David's rational mind muses.
“Dissociative disorders are a set of symptoms surrounding a disruption of memories and identity,” Hakim says. “The kind of symptoms you’re experiencing could be a symptom of Dissociative Identity Disorder— What you might have heard called Multiple Personality Disorder— Or Dissociative Disorder— Not Otherwise Specified— Which is a broader catch-all for similar dissociative symptoms.”
Most of that flies right over David's head, but— He looks at the duplicates. They look back at him. And then all of them turn to David's rational mind.
"Multiple personalities," says David's rational mind, thoughtful. "So we're not— Merely stress responses?"
“Manifesting multiple personalities is a kind of stress response,” Hakim says, carefully.
"Yes, that does make sense," David's rational mind says. "Some of us are— Much more fully realized than others. Is that normal?"
“Yes,” Hakim says. “It's perfectly normal. For example, it's normal to have a name or not have a name. To have a specific purpose, or to just exist.”
"Very well," David's rational mind says. "And if we accept this diagnosis, what does that mean? Should we, as Divad thinks, be locked away for everyone's sake?"
“No,” Hakim says, shaking his head. “Dissociative disorders are rarely dangerous to other people. I understand that you've hurt people in the past— But that’s not the same thing as being dangerous by nature.”
"Ridiculous," Divad mutters.
"So we're not gonna end the world," Daibhidh says. "And we're not—"
"We're not monsters?" Davida asks, hopeful.
“Of course not,” Hakim says, firmly. “No one is a monster. And you’ve seen the future— you know you don’t have to end the world.”
"We never wanted to end it," Davida says. "We just want— To be safe. For the pain to stop."
"To be free of Farouk," Daibhidh says.
"We sure as hell don't want that last future," Dvd says.
"I like the one where we were free," Davida says. "I was wearing a dress! I looked so happy."
"That was a very peaceful future," David's rational mind points out. "But we have no idea who those people will be."
“But that’s true of every future,” Hakim argues. “You never know who you could become. But I know you can be free of Farouk.”
"So we can kill him?" Dvd asks.
Hakim shrugs. “I’m not here to talk you out of it. But I think what’s more important is— That you can live free from him. It doesn’t matter what happens to him. You need to focus on yourself, on your own life and your own future. Was Farouk in your futures?”
"Only— The last one," David's rational mind says.
"The worst one," Daibhidh mutters.
"The closest he got to us in the other ones was our grave," Divad says.
"It's not like the other futures were great," Dvd points out. "I mean, the hospital one wasn't awful, but— Nah."
"And we don't want to be with Syd," Davida says. "Not like that."
"I believe— If we want to achieve what we'll call— The picnic future— We need a plan. We don't know how far in the future it was, but it was probably at least a few years. So we need to identify and locate the woman." David's rational mind turns to Hakim. "There was an older woman there with us, with all of us. And we were on some kind of island, somewhere green?"
“Are you agreed, then?” Hakim asks. “The picnic future is your goal?”
Everyone looks to David.
David wants to say yes right away. But it's hard not to feel like he doesn't deserve that future. It looked so happy. He looked so happy. How could he ever be that happy?
They're wrong. He knows what he is, Syd knows what he is. Maybe he's supposed to be back with her, so she can make sure he never forgets that. It feels— Right, somehow, even though— That future was so unhappy.
"It doesn't matter," he mutters. "We'll never find her, and even if we do—" He cuts himself off. "It's not too late. We can still find a time traveler and fix all of this."
"Maybe we don't want to be fixed," Davida says. "I don't think we have to be. Right?"
"I believe she's right," David's rational mind says. "I think the picnic future is worth exploring."
"And how are we gonna find her, huh?" Divad asks. "It's pointless. David shouldn't be happy. He should be contained."
"Fuck you," Dvd sneers.
"Hey, what do you think's gonna happen?" Divad says. "He goes out there in the real world, and he's gonna fuck it up. People are gonna get hurt. Just because we don't end the world, that doesn't mean shit."
"Hey!" Lenny says, stepping forward. "I thought I couldn't change, but guess what? I did. Because I was finally free, and because—" She looks at Salmon, sitting on the porch, and smiles. "Because I found a reason to live." She turns to David. "You're just like me. We're too damn stubborn to die, no matter how much bullshit gets thrown at us. So why not give yourself the chance to live?"
David stares at Lenny, at a loss. All the usual defenses come to him: because he's sick, he's broken, he's dangerous, he's—
But he remembers how happy Future David looked, when the toddler hugged him. And he looks at Salmon, her belly huge. And he knows what Lenny found. She found a family.
He remembers sitting with Amy and telling her that was the one thing he could never have. It's Amy's eyes looking back at him from Lenny's face, asking him the same question now: Why not?
And all he feels is fear. "I'm— Afraid," he admits, tightly. "I don't— Know how."
"Because you had Farouk screwing with you the whole time," Lenny reminds him. "But he's out now. He doesn't get to decide anymore. You do. You don't need— Secondhand happiness to be happy. You need to be happy to be happy. Get it?"
David swallows. "What if— I can't?"
"Well then it'll suck," Lenny says. "But if you're not gonna end the world, then— Who knows what you can do? You're a god."
"She's got a point," Dvd says.
“I can help you learn how to— Live, like you said,” Hakim says. “That’s my job. You, and all of your alters.” He looks straight at Divad. “There’s hope for all of you.”
Divad stares back at Hakim, but says nothing.
There's a strange feeling in David's chest, and it's been so long since he felt it that it's hard to recognize. But then he does. It's hope.
Everything has been so dark for so long. But maybe— Even if it's just a tiny chance—
"Will you help me?" he asks Lenny, needing.
"You're my best friend," Lenny says. "I'm not gonna leave you. But I gotta take care of my family. Were we in that future?"
"I don't know," David admits. "We just saw— Me and— Them and— A woman and— A toddler. A little girl."
"Did you get her name?" Lenny asks, needing.
David shakes his head.
"We don't know where you were," David's rational mind tells her. "It was only a glimpse."
"Okay," Lenny says, thinking. "Okay, look. This commune? It's been a lot of fun but I'm not gonna raise my kid here."
"Lenny—" David starts.
"No, listen," Lenny says. "I say we find this chick, check her out. It's not like I've got anywhere to go, or Salmon. Maybe what's good for you is good for me, who knows?"
David takes a deep breath. "Okay," he says, even though this whole hope thing is terrifying. Giving up and— Killing himself— Feels so much safer.
“A goal we can all agree on,” Hakim says, with a smile. “Now all we have to do is help you get there.”
In Amahl’s mind, there is a villa with a pool, where the sun always shines and there’s always another glass of wine to drink. But today, a storm is coming in. The palm trees blow in the wind, and lightning strikes in the distance as clouds descend.
Amahl walks past the pool and pulls open the door to the villa. The wind blows rain in with him, soaking the fine Persian carpets and knocking the paintings askew. His perfect home, the reflection of his self, his mind, ruined. He doesn’t care.
He could go anywhere in the world, right now. He has that power. Instead, he goes deeper into his own mind, following a familiar path to his collection.
Today it’s a zoo, all elegant buildings and beautiful paths winding their way between concrete-and-metal cages. There are animals here, strange and beautiful animals, but they are all human. Ghosts from a time past, stolen from their lives by Amahl’s hand. He is a collector at heart, and minds are the most precious item of all.
He is looking for someone here, although he hasn’t yet decided who. He wanders the cages, his lips pressed into a thin line, searching the faces of his prisoners for— something. Something he needs, something he craves. Finally, he stops by one cage, old-fashioned in design, the metal worn down by time. He takes a key out of his mind, opens the cage door, and steps in.
The heat hits him first, and then the arid air, laced with sand that stings his eyes. Sand dunes stretch out before him, the familiar deserts of Egypt. This was the last place he saw her, and so this is where he put her.
He walks to where she is waiting for him. She has been waiting for a very long time, exposed under the burning sun, with food and water that never satisfy her hunger and thirst. Tortured.
"Shaykha Arwa Majid." He says her name, and she turns to him, her eyes hollow and weary, her face reddened and lips chapped.
“Amahl Farouk,” she says, in return. She is a little older than he is, clad in white robes and a deep green scarf on her head, sitting cross-legged in the sand. “How long have I been here?”
Amahl shakes his head. “You always ask me that. What good will the answer do you?”
“Nothing is eternal,” she says, “if God does not will it.”
Amahl sits down next to her. “And what does God will for me?”
The shaykha raises her eyebrows at him. “If you cared, Amahl Farouk, you would have asked that a long time ago.”
“Perhaps it took me a long time to get here.” Amahl looks off into the distance, at the sand blowing in the wind, and thinks about the anger and shock on David’s face. “Do you remember the first time we met, Shaykha?”
“You had me thrown out onto the streets,” she says, pointedly.
“Before that,” Amahl says. “You burst into my house. You told me to look within myself. To turn away from the path I was on. That there was still hope for me.”
Her lips twist. “I remember that. Yes.” She’s quiet for a moment. “It was a time of hope. The War was over, and times were good in Egypt. And then you came, like a storm cloud on the horizon.”
“That was a long time ago,” Amahl says, staring into the distance again. “I was a different man then. I was— At peace.”
“There was blood on your hands,” she says, harshly. “Men and women disappearing in the night, because they got in your way. My followers— Their wives, their husbands, their children— They were afraid. And because they trusted me, I had to do something. Can you imagine what that is like, monster? Do you know what loyalty is like?”
Amahl runs his fingers through the sand, and thinks about David again. “Perhaps.” He shakes his head. “I tire of this endless sparring. How many times have you excoriated me, stuck in the same rut, in the same rhythms?”
“You are the one who put me in this rut,” she says, flatly.
“That’s not what I want now,” Amahl says. “I want you to be who you were when I first met you. When you were full of the fire of God and you called on me to be someone else. When you had hope.”
“Why?” she asks. “So that you can tear it away from me, all over again?”
“No,” Amahl says. He straightens, and meets her eyes. “Because I need that hope now. I need to believe that I can be someone better. I need to believe I can change. I need to believe in redemption.”
She stares at him blankly, as if she doesn’t understand his words at all— although Amahl knows his Arabic is perfect.
“Redemption?” she asks, blank.
“Yes,” Amahl says. “Like you, I have been imprisoned for a long time. I found a reason to change, shaykha. I will not hurt him again. I must find a way to be better.”
She stares at him. “You— you— want to— you want to change?” And, most uncharacteristically, she cracks up. She starts laughing, helplessly, uncontrollably, loudly, and doesn’t stop. She flops back into the sand, still laughing, and now there are tears in her eyes and her laughter has become sobs, and she is curled up on the ground sobbing.
Amahl blinks at her, faintly perplexed. “I need your help, shaykha,” he tries.
“H— Help?” the shaykha chokes out, almost laughing again. “No— no— Stop. Please just— just let me go. Kill me or let me go or just let me— let me rot in my cell. I’m— I— I’m tired of these games. Let me go, monster. Let me go. Let me go.”
“I want to change,” Amahl insists. “I want to be more than a monster. Please. Help me. I need a— A way forward.”
“You are holding me prisoner,” the shaykha hisses, sitting bolt upright. “You— You’ve tortured me. For years. Is it years? It— it must be years.” She’s furious, but more than that, Amahl can see panic in her eyes. Not of him, but of another thirty, another forty, another eighty years trapped in this hell.
She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand.
Amahl slams the cage door shut, and locks it. No. Not that one. He needs someone else, he needs—
If only David were here, if only David would talk to him. If only David understood. He feels tired, and lost, and he doesn’t know why. Isn’t that what he wanted? David in his arms, totally his. No. Not like that. Not like that.
He feels nauseated, and knows that’s not possible. He is here as a disembodied mind, separated from the physical. It is his mind, then, that’s sick, just like Dr. Hakim told him. David made him that way. Or did he do it to himself?
He finds another cage door. The hinges on this one are well-worn— He’s come here often before. A familiar mind.
He wrenches the door open.
The room beyond it is expansive and elegant. The walls are lined with the stuffed heads of various rare and exotic animals— Rhinos, snow leopards, wolves, polar bears— And the floor is decorated with fur rugs. On a leather couch in the center of the room, a man reclines, drinking from a whiskey glass, the bottle sitting on a table next to him. “Ah, mon ami, Amahl!” the man says, smiling.
Amahl relaxes slightly, and returns the smile. Monsieur Marceau Dumont-Jaccoud— An old friend of his, from back in his French days. He knows Marceau will not bother him with any tiresome recriminations— After all, Marceau has done everything he has, twice over. They have always gotten along. He is one of the few items in Amahl’s collection who did not die by Amahl’s hand; rather, the French police caught wind of his activities, and he was killed in their assault on his hunting lodge. Amahl had simply chosen to preserve the man’s delightfully unhinged consciousness for his own collection. Marceau could hardly object; after all, he was a collector too.
“A glass of whiskey, Amahl?” Marceau asks, lifting the bottle of whiskey in Amahl’s direction.
Amahl sits down across from him, and materializes another glass. “Yes, perhaps I shall.”
“It’s never too early, that’s what I say,” Marceau says, pouring Amahl a generous serving. “You look like you could use a drink.”
“Perhaps I do,” Amahl says, and takes a gulp. The whiskey is only a delusion, of course, but then, isn’t everything?
“So, what brings you here?” Marceau asks. “Got another unruly little bugger for me to— Uh— Discipline?” he adds, with undue eagerness.
Amahl looks into the depths of the whiskey glass, and considers submitting Shaykha Arwa, or perhaps Dr. Hakim, to Marceu’s tender mercies. Marceau is a useful tool. A king does not dirty his hands with certain matters; that is what Amahl has Marceau for. “No,” he says, lightly. “All of my collection have been behaving as well as can be expected of them. No, I came here to talk to you.”
“What about?” Marceau asks, swallowing down his whiskey. “Here to reminisce about old times?”
“More recent times, in fact,” Amahl says, sipping his drink. “David and I recently went on a sort of... Safari. To the future.”
“The future?” Marceau asks, raising his eyebrows. “I didn’t know you could do that. How come you don’t just— Go there and stay?”
“How do you know I haven’t?” Amahl says, smiling like a shark. “After all, you only see what I allow you to... No, why would I? The future is no better than the past. Besides, there’s another version of me there. I don’t know if we would get along.”
“Then why go to the future at all?” Marceau asks.
“I wanted to see what I would become. And I did.” Amahl sips his whiskey. “Would you like to see?”
“Of course, mon ami,” Marceau says. “I don’t get a lot of variety in my view these days.”
Amahl waves a hand, and Marceau’s hunting lodge is transformed into an old-fashioned movie theatre. On the screen in front of them, in black and white, the memory of that last future plays. David and Amahl, the drugs, the kiss, the mind control. It’s easier to watch this way, just a little. Like something that happened in a movie, just another insulting depiction written by someone who doesn’t understand him. Not real. Not real.
He is struck by a sudden, bizarre fear that Marceau will judge him. It’s foolish; he has never cared what Marceau would think of him before. Marceau is pleasant enough company, entertaining in his own way, but he is ultimately just a tool, no more valuable than a good knife.
He glances over to see Marceau’s reaction, just in time to hear Marceau give a wolf-whistle. “Why’d you cut it off there?” he asks. “It was just getting to the good part.”
Involuntarily, Amahl makes an expression of disgust. “That was me,” he says. “Myself, and David. Not some sordid blue movie.”
“Well, that makes it all the better!” Marceau says, and then frowns at Amahl, as if trying to make sense of his expression. “So, you don’t like it. Why? You’ve gone off the boy? He doesn’t get your motor running anymore?”
Amahl finds himself gripped by a sudden disgust for Marceau and everything he represents. It’s as if he’s seeing the man for the first time. What a sad, repulsive creature.
“You will not talk about your betters like that,” he says, coldly. He sets his glass down, and he sees Marceau swallow in fear. It’s the best he’s felt since that terrible moment he saw his other self kiss David, and he takes comfort in it.
“Amahl,” Marceau says. “Amahl— Uh— Now, be reasonable, old chap— I only meant— ”
“I know what you meant,” Amahl says, boiling with cold fury.
“Please!” Marceau says, standing up, and then taking a step back, away from Amahl, as if he’s afraid of being burned. “This is— I didn’t— I didn’t mean any offense, mon ami, surely we’ve done things like this together before.” He waves at the screen with a trembling hand. “Why is— Why is this different?”
“Because it’s David,” Amahl snaps, and snaps his fingers. The movie theatre vanishes, replaced by a dark cell, and Marceau is chained to a chair under a bright light. On the table before him lies a variety of terrifying implements. In the shadows around them, figures shift and move.
“Recognize it?” Amahl says, gleeful. “One of your favorite spots, as I recall. Oh, and I’ve brought a few... Old friends... To keep you company.”
As Amahl vanishes, they step out of the shadows, one by one, all of the mind-prisoners whom Marceau has tortured on Amahl’s behalf.
Even as Amahl walks down the pathways of his zoo, towards the next cage, he can hear Marceau’s screams, faintly echoing.
Putting Marceau in his place was satisfying, but he still feels— Off-balance. Why didn’t Marceau understand? What a vile man. Why did Amahl ever indulge him?
When he shuts his eyes, he can still see that future in his mind, and it makes him feel sickened and hungry at the same time.
He finds his way to the next cage. This one is covered in spiderwebs and dust; it has been a long time since Amahl walked this way. But today, he thinks, he needs this. He needs to see someone who cared about him, once upon a time. Someone who loved him. He turns the key in the door and steps through.
Inside, there’s an expensive apartment— But this, too, is covered in spiderwebs and dust. The windows are shuttered, and the lights are off. There is a noose hanging from the ceiling.
“A— Amahl? Is that— you?”
There is a man sitting in the dark, in an armchair, looking up at Amahl. He’s handsome, a little younger than Farouk is now, blue eyes and blond hair frosted with grey.
Robert Cheshire. The man who fell in love with Amahl Farouk.
“It has been a long time,” Amahl says, brushing the dust off another armchair and sitting down.
“Has it?” Robert says, absently. “How long has it been? It feels like an eternity.” He looks over at Amahl, his eyes sad and wistful. “You look— Good.”
“And you look just like you did the first day I met you,” Amahl says. It’s true, of course. Amahl wouldn’t let him be any other way. That is the nature of this prison: memories, preserved exactly as they once were.
"Well, I would,” Robert says. He studies Amahl’s face. “What brings you here? You look— Upset.”
Amahl is silent for a moment. And then, “I am. Much has changed since we last spoke, mon ami. I have suffered. Been imprisoned, as you are now. My captor— He was a man named David Haller. I suppose it has been so long since my last visit, that I’ve never spoken to him of you. He is— A telepath, like me. And a dreamer, like you. For years upon years, he and I were— Entangled. I didn’t know, for a long time, where he began and I ended. It was— Like a nightmare. Thirty years, disembodied and forgetting who I was, terrified and angry and alone. And yet I— ” Amahl swallows. Robert is his prisoner here, trapped alone in the deepest parts of his mind. He can’t tell anyone what Amahl says, and so, in a way, Amahl is safe here. “Sometimes, I miss it,” he admits. “I fought so hard to escape my imprisonment, and now— I feel like my skin no longer fits right, like my face is a mask, like half of who I was has been severed. The other half is— Him. David. I thought I could— Conquer him, and walk away, and be who I was again. But that was nothing but a foolish dream. I realized that, when it was too late.”
Robert looks at him. “You love him,” he says, quietly.
“Yes,” Amahl agrees. “I do. And I have done terrible things to him. And now— Now, when it’s too late, I want to save him. He deserves better, than what I did to him. It is too late to repent of my actions, and yet I do. What choice do I have?” His hands curl into fists. “The only way back, the only way to fix this, is to erase everything that we have been to each other, he and I, and return to what I was. That is what I wanted, wasn’t it? And now it tastes like ashes in my mouth. What was I, back when you knew me? A monster? No. I was alone. That is what I was. I was like a man in a dark cave, with only shadows to keep me company. And now I have seen the world outside the cave, and I can’t go back. I need to be— Something else. Something other than the monster he sees. I must prove myself to him. I must save him.”
Robert is staring at him. “Why?” he asks, eventually.
“Because I have no other choice,” Amahl says. “I cannot choose oblivion, so I must find a way forward.”
“No,” Robert says, sharply. “No. I meant, why him? Why— ” his voice breaks. “Why him and not me?”
Amahl blinks, and looks Robert up and down.
The truth is, he had never even considered loving Robert. Robert was a toy, a plaything, and his love for Amahl was an even greater amusement. Amahl had played at reciprocating, had made a mockery of love for him. It had been great fun, watching Robert squirm, watching him try to guess at Amahl’s motives, watching him try to be better, be quieter, be more handsome, anything to meet Amahl’s constantly shifting standards. Until the end, when Amahl finally lost interest in him, and Robert couldn’t take it.
But then again, he had played such games with David, too. David had been beautiful, lost and confused and helpless in Amahl’s webs. What was the difference? What was the difference?
He doesn’t have an answer for that.
“You— ” Robert starts, and there’s tears on his face now. “I loved you. You were— Like nobody I’d ever met before, you were beautiful and powerful and strange, and I thought— I thought you could come to love me back. I thought— I saw something in there, in you, something that was— something worth saving. I thought if I— If I tried hard enough, if I was good enough, if I did everything right— That somehow I could— Be what you needed. That I could be the one person who— Who saw through the facade and loved you, despite everything.”
“The one person?” Amahl asks. “You were never the only one. There were others, before and after you... Other flies caught in my webs.”
Robert stares at him, his arms wrapped around his body, curled up in the armchair away from Amahl. “Then why?” he asks. “Why him? Why not me, why not one of the others? Weren’t— weren’t we good enough?”
Amahl looks back at him, really looks, for perhaps the first time. What could they have been, if Amahl had given Robert a chance, a real one? If not as a lover, then as a friend? Could they have— ?
“I don’t know,” Amahl says, quietly. “I don’t know anymore.”
“Get out,” Robert says, his voice trembling with rage. “Get— Get out of here. Leave me to rot in my cell like you always do. Just get out!”
And, for once in his life, Amahl does as he’s told.
The carefully constructed imaginary pathways of his beautiful collection seem empty and desolate now, as Amahl walks down them. They’re not enough, because no one here is who he wants. He wants David. He wants to look in David’s eyes and see himself reflected back, the way he really is, not an illusion or a trick he’s put there, not a dragon to be slain or a nightmare to be feared. If only David can see him, then perhaps he can remember who is. Who he wants to be.
He goes deeper and deeper into the zoo, winding his way past cage after cage after cage, until he finds himself at the oldest. The first cage, the very first.
The key is ancient and unwieldy. He opens the door, and steps in.
She is there, as she always is, sitting in the wreckage of the bazaar. Today, she’s perched on an overturned booth, eating an apple. She looks up when Amahl enters, raising an eyebrow.
Amahl meets her eyes. He sits down on a barrel next to her, and they sit there, together, for a few moments. He looks out over what’s left of the bazaar, the overturned stalls, the burnt canopies, the fruits spilling out onto the ground.
“Where do I start?” he says, eventually. “To repair something so vast, so ruined. How can it be possible?”
She was the first. The first to challenge him, the first hero to be hailed as a savior from his depredations. And they fought here, together, to the death.
That day, the villain won, and the hero died.
“It has been a long time since we last spoke,” Amahl says, and shuts his eyes for a moment. “There is another who has come to challenge me as you once did. But he is— Different. Or perhaps I am. We have been fighting, the two of us, for the past thirty years. Until both of us forgot what we could be outside of the battle. And now— He is broken. He wears the scars of my abuses in his every action. Perhaps I should be glad. I would have been, once upon a time, wouldn’t I? But I’m not. It hurts.” He clenches his hands into fists, and his voice comes out plaintive and childlike. “Why does it hurt?”
She is silent, watching him with dark eyes.
“I could fix this, once and for all. Undo what I have done— Undo what I have become. Would I be happy again, this other me?” His lips twist in bitter regret. “He would not know what else there could be. But I do. I walked through the world like a man surrounded by illusions and spectres, none of it real. He is different. Like another piece of myself I forgot. He has destroyed me, and I no longer want to be fixed. Let me be the villain, let me be the monster under his bed! What does it matter to me? As long as I have him, I am not alone. And yet— ” His voice cracks, and he recognizes David’s weakness in himself. “I saw him in that moment, hollowed out and used for my entertainment. That is not who he is, that is not what I love him for. Is that what I am to be? Someone who can only be loved by his own pawns, by his own reflection? By playing the puppetmaster and pretending to be loved?” He spits on the ground. “Pathetic. I will not be that. There must be another way. There must! So— So tell me, O hero. How do I do it? How do I save the world?”
Her expression is impassive as she listens, and then when he's done— Her lip curls in bitter amusement. "Your stories grow ever more elaborate."
Amahl shuts his eyes again. He feels exhausted. “Do not mock me. I have never been more serious.”
"Very well," she says, tolerantly. "You want to save the world? Or simply yourself?"
“I don’t know,” Amahl says. “I want to save him. I want to— Survive. I want to see myself reflected in his eyes.”
"If you want to save him, then let him go," she says, meeting his eyes.
Amahl swallows. “And then what?” he asks her. “What about me? Where do I go next? When the world is saved and the hero triumphant— What happens to one such as me?”
She shakes her head. “I’m not a hero, Farouk. You always call me that. As if this was a storybook or a legend. As if you were fighting the story you wrote in your own head. It’s not real. I am just like everyone else. So are you. So is he.”
Amahl waves this off. “Foolishness. We are not the same. There are those without power, and those with it. There are those whose destiny is to shape the world, and those who will be swept along in the tide of change.”
“Did you come here to lecture me on your vacant philosophies again?” she asks him. “Or did you come here for answers?”
Amahl looks away, wordless.
“You create these distinctions in your mind,” she says. “Hero and villain. Worthy and unworthy. But there’s no such thing. There’s just— People. And now you have finally met someone else you deign to confer the title of ‘worthy’ on, and you think that’s about him. That there’s something in him, some spark, some quality that makes him more deserving of empathy than everyone you’ve ever met. But he’s not.”
“So what?” Amahl snaps. “I should give up on him? Throw him away?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head as if he was a foolish child. “You cling to him because you’re afraid if you let him go, you will never be able to feel love again.” Amahl flinches. “But that’s not true. You are the one who refuses to see other people, who reduces them to playthings and puppets in your mind. You loved him because you were forced to, and now you want to cling to that, because you don’t want to learn how to love someone the hard way. Because it’s easier to be forced into intimacy than it is to choose it for yourself, to learn how to be vulnerable. But it’s what the rest of us do, every day.”
Amahl swallows. “And what if I can’t?”
“If you couldn’t,” she says. “You wouldn’t be here asking the question.”
Amahl shuts his eyes. “He may not forgive me. Not after what he has seen today.”
“That is your own burden to bear.”
“He may reject my help. Go on to— Whatever dark fate was foreseen for him.”
“Perhaps he will.”
“I could stop him.”
“How?” She looks up at him, one eyebrow raised. “By controlling him? By taking away what makes him himself, the way you do with everyone?”
Amahl lets out a breath, and is silent for a moment. “I am tired, Zaynab,” he says, using her name for the first time in a long time. “So tired. I never asked for any of this. To be— Not human. To be a god, or a demon, or a mutant, or whatever we are to be called.”
“Neither did I,” Zaynab says. “Neither did he. This is the way the world works.”
Amahl shuts his eyes. “I must talk to him, one last time. One last time, at least. I deserve that.”
“No,” Zaynab says. “You don’t.”
“Then he deserves it,” Amahl says. “Closure.” He stands, shaking his head. “Thank you, Zaynab.”
Zaynab’s lips twist. “If you want to thank me— You know how.”
Amahl looks away. “Yes,” he says. “I do.”
He opens the door and walks back, out of his collection, out into the cold air of the real world.
"It's okay," Lenny says, as she leads the way out of the cave and into the commune. "C'mon, no one's gonna bite. Unless you ask them to."
David's— Other personalities? Alters? Hakim explained it to them, but Lenny's not really clear on the finer points of David's new diagnosis. Whatever they're called, they're not appreciating her comedic chops. They're skittish as hell, grouping together like they're going into a war zone. Even the cranky ones who look ready for a fight, they're sticking to the pack.
They also keep looking over at David, but David's not looking back. It's kind of a mess, but what else is new?
"It's okay," Salmon soothes. "Everything's happy here. You'll love it!"
One of the alters smiles back and another frowns, but Lenny's not sure what their names are. They all look identical. "We're gonna need a lot of name tags," Lenny tells David.
David gives a non-commital grunt. He's not thrilled about all this, letting his "madness" out into the world. But it turns out all those mystery duplicates he was hiding were just parts of himself. Fuck knows what Farouk put them through.
Lenny takes it all in stride. Her life passed maximum weirdness a long time ago.
"Daddy?" Eloise says, as she sees them approach.
"Lots of Daddies," Dora says, wide-eyed.
Cynthia just giggles. Lenny rolls her eyes.
"These are, uh, David's friends," Lenny says. Better keep things simple for this bunch. They're all flying high. "Make 'em feel welcome."
The commune members come forward, and each of them pulls away one or two alters. The commune members smile and laugh and hug the alters, introduce them to the commune like they would anyone else. They even start lining up to visit Squirrel, so each alter can get their new name.
"Already got a name, thanks," one of them drawls.
"Oh," Squirrel says, visibly disappointed. But he turns to the next alter and smiles broadly. "Do you need a name?"
"Uh, yes?" says the alter, anxiously.
"We shall call you— Squid!" Squirrel declares.
The alter gives Squirrel an uncertain look, but then perks up. "Squid!" he says, with newfound confidence.
"I love squid!" says the boy holding his arm. "That's perfect!"
"Oh god," David moans, his hand over his eyes.
"Hey, it's good enough for everyone else here," Lenny reminds him.
“What’s important is that Squid likes his name,” Hakim says. “And people have gotten stranger names from their parents.”
"If they're me then I should name them," David mutters.
“If they’re you,” Hakim says, “Then you already are.”
David gives a long-suffering sigh. "Fine. Whatever."
"Look, it’s working,” Hakim says, giving him a little smile. “They’re happy, they’re getting along with people. It's good for everyone.”
The front door to the commune opens, letting daylight in and people out. People and alters.
"Shit," David says, and starts after them, but Lenny grabs his arm.
"Just chill," Lenny says. "We're in the middle of nowhere. It's gonna be fine."
Once the first few people walk out, everyone else starts to follow them. And then in no time at all, the whole crowd is outside in the fresh air, talking, playing, setting up— Picnic blankets.
Lenny meets David's eyes. "That was fast."
David starts to respond, but then doesn't.
Lenny looks for Salmon and finds her on one of the picnic blankets. One of the alters is braiding her hair. Lenny sits down, and after a pause, David and Hakim join them. David watches the crowd around them warily.
"Who you got there?" Lenny asks Salmon.
"This is Davida," Salmon says. "She's a girl."
Lenny looks Davida up and down. She looks just like David, like all the alters do. "What's the deal? You guys have to look exactly the same?"
Davida hesitates. "I suppose— It's how we've always been."
"But you're a girl, right?" Lenny points out. "No offense but like, you're not exactly passing."
Hakim shoots Lenny a raised eyebrow, faintly offended, and Lenny ignores him.
Salmon laughs. "I think she's very pretty just the way she is."
"Thank you, Salmon," Davida says. "But I guess— It would be nice— To have long hair. I had long hair in the— Picnic future. And I wore a dress. And David wasn't wearing a dress!"
Lenny thinks, for a moment, of pulling out all her hair when she was trapped in Farouk's head. And it all grew back. She couldn't control how she looked, in that place. She was Farouk's little dress-up doll.
She loathed it.
"If you wanna wear a dress, wear one," Lenny tells her. "Grow out your hair, shave it off, whatever. But fuck 'the way it's always been.'"
“You’re your own woman,” Hakim says. “You can do whatever you want.”
"I guess I am," Davida says, nervous but excited.
"And when your hair is long, I can braid it," Salmon says.
"You're so nice," Davida tells Salmon. "I really hope we have a future together."
"Me too," Salmon says, cheerfully.
"Hey, no hitting on my girl," Lenny warns.
"Lenny," Salmon chides, playful.
There's a ripple of alarm in the crowd, and then some of the alters disappear. David's expression darkens and he stands, turns. "Farouk," he growls.
Farouk walks forward, the crowd parting for him. He’s clad in his shirtsleeves, the tie and jacket gone, and his sunglasses are nowhere to be seen. “David,” he says, quietly.
David and the more aggressive alters all close in around Farouk. "I told you not to come back," David warns.
“I came to say goodbye,” Farouk says, very quietly.
"Shut up," one of the alters snarls. "We're gonna kill you!"
"You'll never touch us again!" snarls another.
Farouk looks around at all of them, David, the alters, Lenny. There is something blank and flat and crumpled in his expression. He smiles, wry and regretful. “You’re out now. All of you. It has been a long time since I met the rest of you, hasn’t it?”
David stares, shocked. "You knew about them?"
“Of course,” Farouk says, faintly surprised. “I knew all of them. You kept me company in my long imprisonment.” He looks over at one alter, then another, a sick fondness in his eyes. “Dvd. Davida. Divad. Daibhidh. All of you. My Legion… I’m sorry.” He looks back at David. “I’m sorry, David. For everything.”
David's face screws up with anger and disgust. So do the alters' faces.
"You don't get to be sorry," says one of the alters. "You get to be dead."
"Kill him!" snarls another, and then another.
"Kill him!" snarls Cynthia, her teeth bared with anger. Lenny turns to see the whole commune has been pulled along with David's anger, Legion's anger, like it has before.
"Kill him!" snarls Salmon.
Lenny turns back to David just as he lunges for Farouk. The alters lunge in too, and Farouk falls, vanishing under them. She tenses, waiting for the moment Farouk fights back, worried about what damage he'll do to David, as if there's anything in David he hasn't already broken.
But Farouk doesn't, not that she can tell. The commune swarms forward, raging at Farouk, and Salmon moves with them. Lenny tries to pull her back, not wanting her to be hurt in the chaos, but Salmon bares her teeth at her, wild.
Like David, when he's wild.
"David!" Lenny shouts, but he can't hear her. He's not listening. She turns back to Salmon, determined to get her to safety, but then Salmon cries out. "What's wrong?" Lenny asks, grabbing her.
"Kill him!" Salmon cries, but she's in pain. Her eyes— She clutches at her belly.
"No!" Lenny gasps. "No! Fuck."
Salmon whines with pain, and she's weak enough for Lenny to finally pull her away. Lenny puts Salmon with Hakim and then shoves her way into the fray, elbowing and kicking commune members and alters until she reaches the center of the storm.
It's a familiar sight: David is kneeling over a bloody Farouk, punching him over and over. All that's missing is the rock to bash his head in. Farouk’s arms are up, but instead of trying to push David away or protect himself, his hands are clenched in the cloth of David’s jacket, clinging to him.
She's tempted to just let him die. He deserves to die for what he did to her, to David, to everyone.
But she has to stop this. For Salmon, for their baby. Their daughter. She feels a twinge of unwanted sympathy for Syd and shoves it away, and then shoves her way between David and Farouk.
"Stop!" she shouts, with mind and voice, with all her strength.
David bares his teeth at her, wild-eyed, manic. It's terrifying, defying him, but that's never stopped her before.
"You have to stop!" she tells David, all of them. "You're hurting Salmon! You're hurting my baby! Fucking stop!"
"He has to die!" David rasps.
"Not like this!" Lenny tells him, still shielding Farouk. Fuck, she can't believe she's shielding Farouk. How the hell did this happen?
“It’s all right,” Farouk says, from behind her. His voice is ragged. “Eibi nadare. Let him do it.”
"Look at her!" Lenny shouts at David, pointing towards Salmon. Lenny can't see her, but the commune is still caught up in David's anger. "You're doing this to her, not Farouk! You and your bullshit mind control! That's you! You wanna get rid of Farouk? Then stop acting like him!"
David finally falters, but the alters don't.
"He deserves to die!" snarls one of them.
"You wanna have your revenge?" Lenny asks. "Fine. But stop dragging everyone else down with you!" She turns back to David. "And hey, you want that happy future? Save my daughter's life!"
David stares at Lenny, and then at Farouk for a long moment. And then he breaks away, pushes through the crowd, towards Salmon. Lenny follows him, glancing back to see the alters reluctantly calming, the commune calming.
They reach Salmon. She's on the ground and Hakim is beside her, trying to soothe her. Hakim sees them approach and steps back.
Lenny takes Hakim's place, takes Salmon's hand. "Talk to me, babe."
Salmon moans. She's covered in a cold sweat. "Hurts."
Lenny rounds on David, who's standing there looking useless. "Fix this!" she snarls.
David kneels down. He hesitates, then puts his hand on Salmon's belly. "She's upset. The baby." He softens with regret. "I didn't mean to—"
"I know," Lenny says, sharply. "Make it right."
"What should I—" David asks, uncertain. "Should I— Make her feel good?"
"No, just—" Lenny struggles for what to do.
"Talk to her," Salmon says, tight with pain but— Still her stubbornly loving self. "Let her know— You're not mad."
Lenny feels a rush of love for Salmon. And she sees how David flinches, sensing it, sees the need in his eyes. He's so desperate for love. That's why they started the commune in the first place.
She thought all that secondhand love would help him, but it didn't. It just made him need even more.
Salmon puts her hand over David's. "She just wants to feel safe."
David tries to pull away, but Salmon keeps hold of him.
"I'm not— Safe," David admits.
"Yes, you are," Salmon insists.
"You just think that because I—" David starts, and cuts off. Guilt flashes across his face. He looks around at the commune, then at Lenny.
Lenny meets David's gaze, holds it, and watches the emotions pass across his face. Regret, anger, guilt, shame— And fear, so much fear. He's always been afraid, she knows that. That's what all this is about.
"You're not gonna end the world, right?" Lenny says.
David gives a tiny shake of his head.
"So you don't have to die," Lenny continues. "So you can just fucking— Unclench. Okay?"
David looks away, and then—
Salmon's smile fades, and she starts to cry.
"Oh no," Lenny says, worried. "Let her go, asshole!"
"I did," David says, tersely. He looks at Salmon, at her scrunched up face, her tears. "This is why I— She asked me to take away her pain! They all did! Happy now?"
Salmon bawls and clings to Lenny.
"It's okay, baby," Lenny soothes. "Shh, it's okay."
"You can leave now," David says, angry and unhappy. "I know you want to. I know! So just leave!"
Lenny looks at Salmon, at David, at the commune and alters around them. And she makes a decision. "No."
"Whaddya mean, no?" David asks, upset.
"I mean no," Lenny says. "I want that future, too."
"It's impossible," David insists.
"You're the magic man, right?" Lenny challenges. "Make it possible."
"I can't!" David says, eyes wet with tears. "I don't know who she is, I don't— I'm gonna end up dead or in a mental hospital or just— Miserable. That's what's waiting for me. The one good thing I get is killing Farouk, that's it!"
"And what about us?" Lenny challenges. "What about that future?"
"I don't deserve it," David says, and turns away, looks at the alters, the commune around them. "You want me to let them go? To be miserable again? That's what they're gonna be, miserable, and then—" His voice cracks and he stops.
"It'll be okay," Salmon says. She's wiping her eyes, sitting up. David stares at her, surprised. "I just needed a good cry. Like she did." She puts her hand on her belly again. "She's okay now. See?"
She takes David's hand and brings it back to her belly. His knuckles are scraped and bloody.
"She was— Hurt," David says, confused.
"She was scared," Salmon says. "Like you. But now she's better."
David shakes his head, bewildered.
"In that future, you had a lot of good things," Lenny tells him. "That's why you want it, right?"
"It doesn't matter if I want it," David says. "I can't find it! I couldn't find a time traveler, I can't—"
“There are other futures, you know,” a voice says from behind David. It’s Farouk, leaning against the wall, his face bloodied and swollen. “That was the point of the exercise. You have— options. Your future is yours to choose. It is not a binary choice, between this future and misery.”
"That's the future I need!" David tells him.
Farouk looks him over. He looks— Exhausted. “I can help you find her. The woman in the vision.”
"You promised you'd find me a time traveler," David reminds him.
“That can be done, too. If you wish.” Farouk wipes blood out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve.
David start to answer, then stops. Thinks.
"You don't have to go back," Lenny tells David, firmly. "You're not gonna end the world. There's a future in this life that's worth living for. A future you want." She has to save this timeline, her family, her life.
"What if—" David starts, shakily. "What if we find her but—"
"Whoever she is, she loves you, okay?" Lenny says. "You just— Gotta meet her first." When David still looks uncertain, she continues. "And hey, it's not like the past is going anywhere, right? It all goes wrong, that's our backup plan."
It feels like a Hail Mary pass. She holds her breath.
David looks at Lenny and Salmon. He turns to Farouk. "Find her," he says, with at least— Some confidence.
Farouk looks up. “It will be faster with your help,” he says. “Two minds work better than one, after all.”
David grips the railing too tightly, white-knuckled but not because of the rough water or the brisk, salt-laced wind. He welcomes the thump of the waves and the cold air on his face and in his lungs. They're a distraction from what's waiting for him when the ferry reaches the island.
Them. What's waiting for them. Lenny and Salmon, snuggled together in the shelter of the cabin, and Hakim and— Farouk.
Farouk, who just walked up to him.
"Leave me alone," David mutters, just loud enough to be heard over the wind. "This is my future we're finding, not yours."
Farouk looks out over the ocean. “You have nothing to be afraid of. Not from me, not from— ” He gestures out in the direction they’re going.
"You don't know that," David says. They don't. No matter what they saw, they don't know if this— If any of this will work out.
Farouk shrugs. “If they fail you, we will find another option. It’s as simple as that.”
"You saw the other futures," David says, tightly.
“I didn’t show you these things to foretell your doom,” Farouk says, faintly adominishing. “I showed you so that you could understand that you have options. That nothing is set in stone. I told you: you are a god. You shape the future.”
"Stop calling me a god," David says, annoyed.
'We are gods,' Dvd points out, in the back of David's head.
'What we are is sick,' Divad retorts.
It's the same old argument between them and David's sick of it. He's even more sick of it now that he knows they're— Parts of himself. Still his madness but— Not the kind he thought they were.
Nothing's like he thought it was. But Farouk's still a pain in his neck.
"Leave me alone," David says again, firmly, as if that will make any difference at all, and marches away into the cabin. The sudden lack of wind makes him aware of how chilled he is. He glances through the scratchy window at the horizon, the little islands dotting the water. Is this really going to be his home? It feels like he's just voluntarily walking into another prison.
Lenny's still snuggled up with Salmon, and David's reluctant to disturb them. Salmon's been— Quieter, since David stopped soothing her mind. Lenny's worried about her, about the baby, about the future, now that they have a future.
David thinks about arriving at the island and feels nothing but dread. God, it's going to be a disaster, how can it be anything but a disaster when that's all his life has ever been?
Hakim steps towards him, and looks over at Lenny. “I think they’d prefer to be alone right now,” he says, quietly.
"Yeah, I know," David says, and wonders if it would be less annoying to go back outside and put up with Farouk. "Psychic, remember?"
“Sorry. The rest of us have to settle for guessing...” Hakim looks sidelong at David. “We should talk, before we get there.”
“The future. How you’re going to deal with this meeting.”
David wraps his arms around himself. "Got any advice?"
“Maybe,” Hakim says. “You might want to remember that this is the first Doctor McTaggart will be hearing of any of this. You’ve had a while to build up your expectations. She’s coming into this cold. Give her some time to adjust, don’t expect her to be where you are immediately.”
"Where I am?" David echoes, and hears the edge of panic in his voice. "I don't know where the hell I am. Besides— In the middle of nowhere, Scotland."
“She might be confused too,” Hakim points out. “She won’t have all the answers for you. Just let her get to know you, as you.”
"Get to know the insane, delusional mutant," David mutters. "Yeah, I'm sure she'll be thrilled."
“There’s something else I have to tell you, too,” Hakim says, grimacing.
David gives Hakim a wary look. Bad news, that's just what he needs. "Yeah?"
“You know Farouk wants me to— help you. Insofar as he even knows what that means. And that’s what I want, too. But it’s not all I want,” Hakim says, ruefully. “I have a conflict of interest here. I’m your therapist... but I’m also another one of Farouk’s— victims. I’m a prisoner. And what I’m really looking for, here... is a way out.”
David glances at Lenny. "Aren't you already out?"
“Am I?” Hakim says. “He could take me back any time he wants. And I’d like to be— not in someone else’s body, for a change.” He takes a deep breath. “If I’m— if I’m really dead, I want to be able to move on. Heaven, or hell, or wherever we go afterwards.”
"I don't know if 'dead' is a useful concept anymore," David admits. But he does understand— Not wanting to be trapped in Farouk's head. "Look, if you want to go to the astral plane, I can— Do that. If you want. Send you there."
“What about— all the others?” Hakim asks. “Farouk’s other prisoners, and even the— your commune.”
"You want me to kill them?" David asks, horrified.
“What?” Hakim asks, blinking in confusion. “No, no, I just meant, they’re prisoners too.”
"No they're not," David says, prickled. "They came to me, they asked me to help them."
“Can they leave, if they want to?” Hakim asks. He glances back towards Salmon.
David says nothing.
The boat's horn blows, and David turns to see that they're approaching the island. He walks back outside and sees they're pulling up to a small dock at the base of a rocky cliff. There's a steep path up, bolstered by stone steps and a rope handrail. At the top he can just make out a house, with white smoke puffing from its chimney.
They climb up in single file. They could teleport to the house, but they don't, for the same reason they took the ferry. They're pretending to be normal, as if any of this is normal, as if—
"Hey," Lenny says, when they reach the top and finish catching their breath. "You gonna toss your cookies?"
"What?" David says, startled.
"Just saying you look like you're gonna ride the vomit comet," Lenny says.
David shakes his head.
"It's gonna be fine," Lenny says, though he knows she's nervous too. "Want me to go first, break her in for ya?"
"Please," David says, needing. His stomach feels like one huge knot. He needs this to work, needs to find the path to that picnic future but— He can't see how it will. Despite all the different futures he saw, he's still afraid the only one he has is the one where he takes the whole world down with him.
It's not too late. He can still find a time traveler, go back in time, erase all of this. Erase himself and save the world for good. They can still—
But they're already at the door, and Lenny's knocking. And then the door opens.
“Hallo,” says an auburn-haired woman. “Are ye— ” She looks between Lenny and David. “David? An’ Lenny?”
"Got it in one," Lenny says. "You Moira McTaggart?"
“Aye, that’s me,” Moira says. She holds the door open wider. “Come on in.” She calls over her shoulder, “Jamie, put the kettle on, would ye?”
They follow Moira inside. David hesitates, but Farouk is behind him and somehow that propels him forward. The main floor of the house is an open space, bright and cozy, contrasting with the harsh seascape, and— David pauses, oddly reminded of his father's house. His adoptive father, not—
He'll never know his adoptive parents, if he changes the timeline. He'll never know Amy. But they're all gone, all except Amy's eyes in Lenny's face, and— He doesn't know his birth parents now. He'll never know them in this timeline.
He focuses on the house again, the comfortable and modern furniture, the warm colors. There's scientific equipment scattered around, a microscope on the dining table. David remembers his father covering the kitchen table with telescopes and lenses and— It makes him angry, all these reminders, all this comfort. This isn't going to work so there's no point in getting his hopes up. Moira's not going to want him. No one could want the person he is now, broken and— Sick.
In the back of his head, he feels Divad's smug satisfaction and Dvd's annoyance.
"Nice digs," Lenny says, pleased. "This is my girl, Salmon." She says it with an edge, daring Moira to show discomfort.
"Hello," Salmon says, tired but smiling.
“Hallo, you five,” Moira says, cheerfully. There is an edge of uncertainty to her tone, but it’s not directed at Salmon— her eyes keep slipping away from Lenny towards David. “Come in, sit down. Have some tea. Jamie, do we still have some of those sandwiches?”
Jamie, a brown-haired man in a long coat, is filling a kettle with water. “Sure, I think they’re in the fridge,” he says. He blinks, and suddenly there’s a second Jamie, standing next to him.
David stares and so does everyone else. Neither Moira nor Jamie seem shocked by Jamie's sudden duplication. The second Jamie opens the fridge while the first Jamie puts the kettle on the stove.
"Are you—" David starts, and his voice cracks. He clears his throat. "Is he a— Mutant?"
“Well, yeah,” the Jamie at the stove says.
“That’s what I do,” Moira says. “I’m a researcher working wi’ mutant genetics. Jamie's my assistant.”
"You know about mutants?" David asks, surprised again. And then feels a little stupid for asking because obviously she does, but— He's used to mutants being the government's dirty secret.
Stove-Jamie and Moira exchange a look. “It didn’t used to be the way it is now,” Moira says. “For mutants. I’ve heard it’s— Worse, in the States.”
David nods, barely, and looks away.
"So you're a mutant," Lenny says, pointing at both Jamies. Then she points at Moira. "And you're some kinda mutant scientist. What'dya do, experiment on em?"
“I mean, sort of,” stove-Jamie says, snickering.
Moira gives him a look. “Not without their consent, if that’s what ye’re thinking. Are ye five all mutants?”
“Some of us,” Farouk says. He’s looking around the house, slowly, consideringly, as if he’s evaluating it.
Salmon giggles. "I'm just me."
"You sure are, baby," Lenny says, fondly. She turns back to Moira. "I'm not a mutant but, uh— Not sure if I'm human anymore. And that dude's a ghost."
“Sounds like ye have quite a story,” Moira says, raising her eyebrows.
The fridge-Jamie sets a plate of sandwiches in the middle of the table, and stove-Jamie pours six cups of tea. “I’ll leave you guys to it,” he says, glancing at David and Moira. He seems to sense that this is a private matter. “I’ve got to go check on the fruit fly cultures.”
As both Jamies walk up the stairs, they merge back into one.
David takes a cup of tea and a sandwich, but he hardly feels hungry. He wraps his hands around the warm cup.
"Yeah, it's War and Peace," Lenny says. "Hakim, you wanna give her the short version?"
Hakim looks between David and Farouk, visibly trying to decide what won’t get him killed. “I’m David’s therapist. I specialize in criminal psychology, although I’m not exactly here in that role. Lenny and Salmon are members of David’s... Commune. David needs support. Using his mutant powers, we were able to get a look at his future— A possible future for him— And we saw you there.”
Moira thinks that over. “You have the power to see the future?” she asks David.
"Uh, yeah," David says. He doesn't want to explain the details, or that Farouk helped him. He doesn't want to feel grateful to Farouk at all.
“And ye saw me there,” Moira says. “Do you know why? Is the future— Caused by you seeing the future? Or was it about some kind of help only I could provide— Something to do wi’ your powers, maybe?”
"I dunno," David admits. "I dunno any of that, I just— It was the only future that wasn't—" He looks to Lenny for help.
"Some bitch from the future told David he was gonna end the world," Lenny says. "Turns out she was wrong. But most of his futures still kinda suck. But the one with you was good. So we thought we'd give this a shot."
“When ye say ‘wi’ me,’ what do you mean?” Moira asks. “Do you want to move here?"
David looks at her hopefully, but— looks down at his tea and says nothing. He can't ask her for that, he can't— Why did they even come here, when she knows the truth she's going to throw them out, it's never going to work—
'Do you want me to—' Lenny thinks, knowing he'll hear. But he just grips the cup.
Moira glances over at Farouk. “How about ye? Ye’re the only one who hasn’t introduced yerself.”
Farouk smiles, thinly. “I am here to make sure David gets the future he wants. I owe him.”
“Are ye plannin’ on stayin’ here?” Moira asks. “If David does?”
Farouk looks over at David, his eyes unreadable. “Mmm. I doubt he would allow it.”
Rage breaks through David's fear. "Never," he says, baring his teeth. The plates on the table tremble, and David forces himself to calm.
Moira blinks at David, and then back at Farouk, her eyes narrowing, curious, and then—
The back door suddenly opens, bringing in a gust of cold air and startling everyone. A heavy-set woman enters, with short, pink hair and a prosthetic leg; she sees them and stops, surprised, then closes the door. “Pardonne, Doctor, I didn’t know you had guests! I just came back in for a cup of tea.”
“It’s all right!” Moira says, setting her cup of tea down. “David, everyone, this is Xi’an Coy Manh. She’s living here while I help her with her powers.”
“Bonjour,” Xi’an says, waving awkwardly.
"How many mutants you got in this place?" Lenny asks, with a hint of challenge.
“Just the two,” Moira says, neutrally. “Jamie’s my assistant, and Xi’an is more sort of a patient.”
"Xi'an," Salmon says, dreamily. "That's a pretty name."
Lenny gives Salmon a curious look, and Salmon smiles at her. They share some silent exchange that doesn't even involve thoughts, and then Lenny turns back to Xi'an with a considering gaze. "So what's your deal?"
“You mean my powers?” Xi’an asks. “I’m a...” She looks away. “Psychic, I guess you could say. I can— Possess people.”
"You what?" David asks, startled. He turns to Moira, feeling unaccountably betrayed.
"It’s not as scary as it sounds, I swear," Xi’an soothes.
“None of us can choose our genes, David,” Moira says, faintly reproachful. “Xi’an, why don’t you take Lenny and Salmon upstairs, so that they can get a look at our lab?”
"I'd love that," Salmon says, smiling at Xi'an.
Lenny's skeptical. "Want me to stay?" she asks David.
David hesitates, then— Looks at Farouk.
“Perhaps I’ll go out for a smoke,” Farouk says, producing matches and an expensive wood pipe out of his suit pockets. “You two will be all right without me for a few moments, I imagine.” He gives Moira a passing glance, and then there's another gust of cold wind as he opens the front door and steps out.
David gestures for Lenny to leave with Salmon and Xi’an. The moment he's alone with Moira, he slumps, relieved that Farouk is at least no longer in the room. He should never have agreed to let Farouk come here in the first place, this is David's only chance for a good future and Farouk's ruining it, poisoning it like he's poisoned everything in David's entire existence—
“Hey,” Moira says softly, interrupting his thoughts. “Are ye okay?”
David gives a strained laugh. "I don't even know what okay feels like."
“I want to help,” Moira says. “I can tell ye’re going through a lot. But I can’t help if I don’t understand what’s goin’ on.”
"You know," David says. "You're— You were in my future."
“Maybe I am,” Moira says. “But I wasn’t there for yer past, so ye’re goin’ to have ta fill me in.”
"Fill you in," David echoes, voice high with tension. He gives a heavy sigh. "Okay. When I was a baby, a monster snuck into my head and haunted me for thirty-three years. And that's him out there, smoking a goddamn pipe." He gestures angrily towards the front door.
Moira looks at the door, startled. “Should we— Do something?”
"This is us doing something," David says, and wishes he felt happier about it. "We find a future for me, and then— I don't care where he goes as long as it's away from me." He crosses his arms and frowns. "He says he's trying to— Be better. Make up for what he did to me. It's bullshit but—" He looks away, then back.
“What happened in between?” Moira asks. “Ye were a child, and now ye’ve seen the future— what happened?”
"My life, if you can call it that," David says. "He tortured me. I didn't know what he was, what I was. I just thought I was crazy, everyone thought I was crazy. The voices, the hallucinations—" He swallows. "I don't know how much was him messing with my head and how much was my powers, or—" He rubs his face. "Or my mind. I thought I was schizophrenic. Turns out—" He doesn't want to say it, but he needs to tell her, he needs to. "Apparently I really am crazy. It's, uh— Multiple personalities." He gestures at his head, even though she can't see that Farouk broke it into countless pieces. "Also, uh, I'm powerful enough to end the world, so that's—" He cuts himself off, knowing he's already said too much. She's going to want nothing to do with him.
“What do ye mean by that?” Moira asks. “Powerful enough t’end the world?”
"That's what I did," David says. "In the other timeline, one of the other— I ended the world. Somehow. My girlfriend tried to kill me for that. A few times." He rubs at his chest, reflexive, then drops his hand. "I don't want to hurt anyone, I never did. I just— Want the pain to stop."
“That’s a good place to start,” Moira says. She pauses, considering what he told her. "All right. Well. Xi'an was my last patient, and as ye can see, she's well on the mend. Ye know, I think ye ought to talk to her. Her life was very different from yours, I think, but— I think in some ways it was the same. She was in a rough place when she came here, like ye, but she's done so well, getting better, learning to thrive. I believe ye can, too."
David wants to believe that, but— "I don't know. If I can— Get better."
"I used to feel that way too. So did Xi’an, I think, and others I’ve helped," Moira says, and sips her tea. "I'm no therapist, David. But I can see ye need help and I'd like t’help you. I'd like us to get to know each other. You said you have multiple personalities— that’s DID, yes?"
"Uh, yeah," David admits. He wonders— "Does Jamie—"
"Jamie's situation is a bit different," Moira says. "But his duplicates are all— Pieces of himself. That’s not so different. And he's been through difficult times as well. An old friend of mine used to say— We need to be with people who understand us. He's the one who helped me start all this."
"Oh," David says. "Is he here, too?"
"He passed many years ago," Moira says, with a touch of sadness. "I chose to continue his work, even though I'm not a mutant myself. I'd like you to stay, David. Not because of any future you saw, but because— I think together we can help you make the future you truly want."
David considers all of that, the offer of understanding and friendship and— Some kind of home. It reminds him a little of what Melanie offered him, of what Summerland might have been if— If things had gone right.
It's not exactly a chance to start over, but—
"Can Lenny and Salmon stay?" he asks.
“If they want to.” Moira smiles. "They're very welcome, too."
David lets out a sharp breath, emotions welling up. He rubs at his eyes, gathers himself. Thinks of the picnic future again, the happiness he saw, the peace in his future self's eyes. If— Xi'an and Jamie can find peace here— Maybe this is what— The person he is now needs.
"Okay," he says, even though it feels like a leap of faith over a pit full of spikes. "As long as I don't— End the world."
There's footsteps on the stairs, and they turn to see Lenny descending alone. She seems— Unusually quiet.
"Where's Salmon and Xi'an?" Moira asks her.
"Uh, talking," Lenny says. She glances upwards and David can feel that she's both worried and— Relieved?
He casts his mind up, curious, and finds the two of them sitting together, Salmon working her way through a box of tissues. She's talking to Xi'an about— Her pain. The pain that brought her to David's commune, to the drugs, to run away from her family and everything she knew. A lot of the commune members have pain like hers. David made it all go away.
Except it didn't go away. Salmon's in pain again, without his influence. Like his own pain never went away despite all the ways he tried to destroy it.
He brings his mind back down to Lenny and Moira.
"How about we stretch our legs?" Moira suggests. "Bundle up and I'll show you the grounds."
When they step outside, Farouk is there, puffing on his pipe. He turns to them, smiling his impassive smile. David wonders if he’s been listening in on them. “Have a good talk, my dear?”
"Yes," David says, slightly defiant. "I'm going to move here. Give, uh, the future a shot." He flashes Moira a brief smile.
“You’ve made your decision, then?” Farouk says, studying him. “And you will no longer need a time traveller?”
David starts to answer, then hesitates. He wants the future this place is offering him, he knows that, but—
He's thought a lot about going back, about that clean start and the life he could have with it. But that wasn't so much a new future as— A new past. A better past, without Farouk and— With his birth parents. The parents he never knew.
"I guess— I'll never know them now," he says aloud, trying to make the decision real. "My birth parents. If I don't go back—" He swallows, his throat suddenly tight.
Maybe it's for the best. They were the ones who gave him away, and if they never wanted him—
“I knew them,” Farouk says, softly. “Especially your father. I can tell you about them— if that is what you desire.”
Farouk's the last person David trusts to tell him anything, but— If it's the only way— "Okay," he says, gathering himself. "How about their names?"
“Your mother was Gabrielle Haller. Your father was Charles Xavier.”
David half-expected the names to mean something, to resurrect some buried memory from his infancy, but they don't. He doesn't recognize them at all, except— Haller?
“Wait,” Moira says, her eyes widening. “Charles Xavier? Your father was Charles Francis Xavier? The telepath?”
Farouk turns to her, raising an eyebrow. “Yes, of course.”
"You know my dad?" David asks, surprised.
“He was my dearest friend,” Moira says. “He was— he helped me start all of this, helped me fund my research. I was at their wedding, I was— they made me their son’s godmother. Except their son is— ”
"Me?" David finishes, half-asking. He's still trying to grasp all of this. "You're my godmother?"
“David, I— I think I am,” Moira says.
"Holy shit," Lenny says, and grins. "We hit the future jackpot. She's family!"
"Family?" David echoes. His knees feel weak. Moira was— At his parents' wedding? "You knew them, you— Is my mom still alive? Gab— Gabrielle?"
Moira bites her lip, and looks down. “I’m sorry, David. She never— she never quite recovered from what she endured in the war. In the camps. I went to her funeral, a long time ago. Before Charles died.”
David feels a shock of grief, even though he never met Gabrielle, didn't even know her name until now. She was in the camps? "Is that— Why they gave me away?" he asks, voice strained.
“Gaby was too sick to care for you,” Moira says. “And Charles— had his own issues. But they wanted to make sure you had a good life, had someone to care for you. And back then I was— I was with my ex-husband, and he was— I couldn’t take you. So they took you to live with your uncle and his family, your mother’s brother. They already had a daughter, so it made— sense. I heard you took to her immediately.”
"Amy," David breathes, feeling another, deeper shock. He meets Lenny's eyes, her blue eyes, and then looks back to Moira. Suddenly he has— All this history. All because they found her.
He takes a step forward, hesitates, and then pushes forward and hugs Moira.
Moira hesitates, then holds him tight, and her breath catches, and he realizes she’s crying. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were lost until I found you. I’m sorry, my son.”
David bursts into tears and a grin. "Mom," he says, and feels found.
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."
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