It’s too much, it’s all too much and he can’t, he can’t, he can’t—
Feedback screams through his head as he—
His head, oh god, his head—
Air hits his wet skin and oh god, oh god, just breathe, don’t move, don’t move at all, just breathe.
It’s over, it’s over. He’s out of it. Oh god, what did he do?
He knows what he did. He remembers and now all he wants is to forget. Again.
Syd’s voice hooks him, pulls him out of his shock. He’s not in the tank anymore, he’s in a hallway. He’s wet and naked and curled up tight, crouched precariously on one foot.
It’s been a while (a year and a while) since he panic-teleported himself out of a bad situation. At least he didn’t destroy Cary’s lab again. Probably. He should find out and apologize but right now he’s just focused on not passing out.
“I think I need to lie down.”
“Okay,” Syd says, ever the calm one in their relationship. A flash of memory makes him wince: Syd’s face older, afraid; the light spinning around her, round and round and round. Her missing arm.
Whatever happens in the future, he isn’t there to protect her. He fails her. He must or she wouldn’t—
She’s crouched in front of him, that tiny crease of worry between her eyebrows. She’s older, too, this Syd. Not as much but still older than the Syd he left behind when he was taken. When she took him from herself.
Oh god, his head hurts.
It takes too much effort to slowly bring his other foot down to the floor. His whole body is clenched like a fist, seized up. Syd is close but she doesn’t reach to help him up. She can’t, of course. He has to help himself.
He’s calm. He’s calm. Breathe in and out again, let the muscles relax. He wobbles and nearly falls into Syd, who startles backwards.
“Sorry,” he mutters, but sorry doesn’t begin to cover it.
Why did he— He shouldn’t have—
There had to be another way, but what? What else could he have done?
He stares at Sydney Barrett and doesn’t understand anything.
Syd glances around the hallway as he pushes himself upright. He covers himself as best he can, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s completely naked in the middle of Division 3. As if to rub it in, one of those weird mustache women decides this is the best moment to walk in their direction. She — it — whatever — cocks its head at him, considering — or at least it seems to consider him. It doesn’t say anything, just stares into his soul for a solid 15 seconds, then turns and walks away.
It’s not just the future and the past that’s sent David reeling. It’s also the present, assuming this is actually his present reality. If he isn’t still in the orb, screaming, or in Clockworks, or a coffin in his own mind, or the astral plane, or—
He’s not going to scream. He’s not going to scream.
“Um, is it okay if I?” He leaves the question unfinished, but Syd nods anyway.
In a blink he’s left her and the hallway behind. She showed him their room earlier, this room with his bed that he’s never slept in. He still can’t believe he was gone for a whole year. Even with some of his memories back, it feels like he’s barely been gone a day.
Of course, now he knows it was one of the longest days of his life. It’s also in the running for the worst, but the competition is stiff.
He takes refuge in the bathroom and tries to pull himself together.
You have to tell her, he thinks at himself.
I can’t, I promised, he replies.
What if that wasn’t even her? I bet it was a trick.
No, it was her. He knows it was her. She’s his Syd, no matter where or when. If he doubts the Syd he met in the orb, what reason does he have not to doubt the Syd who told him she found a grey hair and likes cherry pie?
He can’t cope with any of this. He turns the shower on, as hot as he can stand, and puts himself under the spray.
He hears her enter the room while he’s drying off. She doesn’t announce her presence, just sits down and hurts for him, because of him.
Tell her the truth, he tells himself.
He wants to, god he wants to. But he can’t. Not just because she begged him to keep it a secret (her trembling finger touched to her lips) but because—
He forces himself to step out of the bathroom, forces on a smile that feels utterly fake and he knows she can tell. He can hear her distrust of him, the confusion and pain in her thoughts. She’s waiting for him to lie to her and the worst part is that he will.
He looks away from her and she thinks he’s looking at the bed. His bed, supposedly, but it’s covered in her things.
He was gone for a year. She thought he was dead. He failed this Syd, too, even if there was nothing he could have done to stop what happened. He wasn’t there for her.
“I'll clear it off,” she offers.
He’s been back a whole day and she didn’t clear it off. There’s a worm of fear in his heart that she can’t forgive him for being gone. That she shouldn’t forgive him.
“No, that’s—“ This is his mess, he’ll clean it up.
“There's clothes for you in the lockers,” she says. Tell me. Trust me. Help me understand, she thinks loudly, to him and not to him.
He turns away, grateful for the excuse not to face her. But there’s no escaping the inevitable.
“So, any luck finding Farouk?”
For a moment he’s confused, then he remembers that that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the tank. Not recovering the memories they all assumed he was hiding from them. They need him to find Farouk, track him down, stop him before he finds his body and nothing can stop him.
You’re supposed to kill Farouk, not help him!
“No, I— I couldn't see him.”
Liar, he tells himself angrily. He feels sick. He starts pulling on his clothes.
“What's it like in there? What did you see?”
“Eh, nothing, really, just— just a lot of random things. Just noise.”
Liar. Liar. Liar.
He laughs nervously, shame like a rock in his stomach. He has to tell her. He can’t.
“You're keeping secrets.”
“What?” His protest is pathetically weak, even to his own ears.
“I know you. I used to. There's things you're not saying.”
Used to. He already feels like shit but that— she’s the one who’s changed, who changed twice and he’s just trying to keep up with her, none of this is his fault. She did this to both of them but she’s still blaming him. Like he’s ever had any control over his own life, even for a minute.
“Syd, it's—“ he sighs, frustrated, wounded. He sits down, but not near her. She doesn’t understand. “I— I know it's— I know it's hard. You know, so much time has passed for you, and for me, I just saw you yesterday, so try to remember: I'm the same. You're the one who's—”
That pisses her off, but he doesn’t need her angry glare to stop himself. He regretted the words before they even left his mouth.
This isn’t her fault. This Syd. She’s not the one who took him away, not the one who begged him to betray himself and everything he knows.
“You know, maybe you're right.” In a gesture of apology, he moves closer to her, to the other bed; to his bed, still covered in the year he wasn’t there for her. “This is— I— This, this is all— This—“ He sighs, and for a moment the only thing he can be is honest. “This is a lot to process.”
Tell her. Tell her!
“It's the second time,” she says, breaking his train of thought.
Syd is staring at her feet, toeing the floor. “That you left. There was Amy, the rescue. Remember? You promised me you wouldn't, and then you did.”
“That was Lenny, Farouk,” he protests, because that’s just not fair. “I— I wasn't in control. They—”
He’s never been in control, not with Farouk in his head his whole life, shaping his every move, his every thought. Has he ever made a decision by himself? Has he now?
“So I'm just wondering... How long till you leave again?”
She meets his eyes, and he realizes that it doesn’t matter, none of it. The simple fact is that she’s suffered and he never wants to be the cause of that. He never wants to leave her alone, to be taken away from her, because he loves her and she loves him.
The simple fact is that he was gone and she couldn’t find him. If only she could have...
Oh. Maybe she can. Maybe she can always find him.
“Close your eyes,” he says. “Come on.”
A few days ago, when they were all still in Summerland and he was flying high, savoring the knowledge that he was alone in his own head, he told her that reality was a choice. He felt so free in that moment, so unbounded and capable of anything. The path forward was clear. They would be together, they would be happy. They would leave all the shadows behind them.
The path forward is nothing but shadows now. He might be free to choose but he doesn’t know which way to turn. What he needs is something to guide him, a true north he can always point to.
He can’t have that, but he can be hers.
The metal is cool against his palm as he wills it into existence. He stands up, steps back, dangles the compass by its chain.
“Okay, now look.”
She follows after him, puzzled how he pulled it out of thin air. “Where did you—“
“I had Cary make it when I was in the tank,” he lies, but this lie flows easily. She trusts Cary more than she trusts him right now, and that’s okay. He needs her to have it as much as she needs to be able to find him.
“It's beautiful,” she says, warily, and takes it.
“It's no ordinary compass,” he says, moving around to demonstrate. “Watch.”
She gasps as the little red arrow of north follows him. “How did you—“
He can feel how happy she is, how much this means to her. “Just head in the direction it’s pointing and I'll be there.” What was it she said, that night in the white room? “If we get lost, we get lost together.”
He likes the sound of that. So does she.
She faces him with a shy smile that warms him all over.
“You promise,” she says, and puts her finger to her lips like a kiss she can’t give him. “No secrets.”
The image comes to him again, the memory: Syd older, sadder, the light swirling around her. She presses her finger to her lips. Something gold glints around her neck, and he realizes, he recognizes—
She’s wearing the compass, the same— Had he— Was this— Did she—
“No secrets,” he lies, and the worm turns in his heart, gnawing.
She still doesn’t trust him, not the way she used to, but she’s appeased enough to let it go for now. They clear his bed and push both beds together, lining the crack between with long pillows just in case.
He feels too guilty to ask for it himself, but when she asks him to bring them to the white room for the night, he can’t refuse her and doesn’t want to. Neither of them is in the mood for sex; instead they lie together, skin to every inch of skin, wallowing in the illusion of physical touch that their real bodies can never have.
When she’s asleep, he leaves her there. He doesn’t deserve it.
He lies awake, hunched into himself without even the comfort of covers, and remembers again and again. He tries to tease out every last detail, to find reason for what he did. For what he has to do now that he’s in too deep.
There’s still gaps in his memory, but he should be used to that. Lenny, Farouk, whatever — what they left behind is a confusing mess. His life as he knows it is full of skips and tears, ragged edges, memories that aren’t real. He’s not sure he can trust these new ones either.
Syd, the orb, that’s the clearest memory. It’s also the most painful. And then after she disappears into darkness, then what? Trees, a rooftop in the city, and then—
A man with red marks on his forehead. He was chasing him, needed him for— something. Something to do with the body. But then Oliver was there, and the Shadow King, and they—
Danced. Fought. Enticed.
He remembers again.
A battle of the minds. Confusion at first, a struggle, and then despite himself, despite every instinct screaming for him to stop, to run away as fast as he could, he gave himself back to the monster that nearly ate him alive.
He didn’t want to, he didn’t. But he did it for Syd. She begged him, her eyes full of pain. He loves her. He trusts her. He thought she was his true north, but now—
Maybe he gave her the compass too late. He’s already so lost and he doesn’t know if she can find him. If she should. There’s this dread he can’t shake, some fear or knowledge that he’s responsible for what happened to her, what will happen.
He can feel him, the Shadow King. Wherever he is. The distance doesn’t matter. They’re connected and they always will be. He didn’t want to believe that, he wanted the monster to be amputated cleanly, at worst just a phantom limb. But it wasn’t clean.
Maybe this is how the world ends. He was tricked once already, as Syd reminded him tonight. He let Lenny take him over and once he gave up control he couldn’t get it back. He was trapped, forced to watch as he slaughtered people, forced to feel the Shadow King’s delight and joy in so much awful destruction. Forced to listen as his own mouth was used to say cruel things to Amy, to his friends.
He asked Clark where Amy was, and was told that she’s safe, hidden somewhere so Farouk can’t find her. He wants to see her again but he doesn't dare. He’s tainted, now. If he knows where she is, if Farouk reads his mind—
Maybe they’re right not to trust him. He doesn’t think he can trust himself.
Maybe everything that Syd is asking him to do is what takes him down the path to disaster. Maybe he’s making all the wrong turns and doesn’t know it. He’s lost in a maze and every way through leads to a dead end.
Tell her the truth, he begs himself, desperate.
But he can’t. He can’t betray one Syd he loves for the sake of the other. But he already did, for her. He let the monster back in, for her.
He’s drowning again, but this time there’s nothing he can do to escape, to save himself. No matter where he goes, the Shadow King will be in his head and Syd will be in his heart. All of them are pulling, pushing, blindfolding him and spinning him around.
He doesn't know what else to do, so he remembers it all again. Again, again, again, lost in the maze until sleep takes him.