In the corner of the cloth tent laid the bones, still curled around each other where David and Syd had left them, forever unmoving and undisturbed. They, distinguished only by skin and organs and flesh and lifeblood running through their veins, laid sleeping beneath the covers of the mattress, oblivious to the chaotic world swirling around them, unaware of the harsh wind that blew across the desert ground, invisible in the night. It curled around their tent like fingers beckoning to draw the sleeping lovers out of the comfort of their dreams.
Protected by blankets and the blanket of darkness, David, still sleeping, turned his head to face Syd, as though drawn by an invisible force - the same invisible, captivating force that had lured him to her at Clockworks. Her gloved fingers twitched not a moment later, and she stirred beside him, her arm moving between them, her gloves fingers coming to rest by his chest. Even asleep, their bodies still yearned to be near each other.
This desert, though it aimed to trap them and run them around in circles, would never be able to contain the anger David held inside himself. He had come here of his own accord, riding the wave of a bolstered resolve to kill Farouk for what he had done. No more killing. Promise. He should never have trusted Farouk’s word. Even then, he hadn’t fully trusted him not to kill anyone. He would never fully trust the parasite that took over his body for thirty years of his life, who tortured and terrified him, who erased parts of his memories and left him as an imperfect version of who he could have been. There was no room for it, with someone like that.
But he had made Farouk promise. And Farouk had broken that promise.
And now, David was angry. He needed all the help he could get, he knew, in order to stop Farouk: Cary and Kerry at the perimeter, to keep their eyes out for Oliver; Clark and the Vermillion, to transport the Choke so that, when the time came, David could walk right up to his defenseless asshole parasite, knock him down, and glare into his eyes as he tortured him right out of Oliver; Lenny in the corner with the rifle in her hand, playing the safeguard at his back - they both deserved a piece of him.
Syd had never been part of the plan, part of the equation. Sure, she had powers, but he wanted her safe, and the desert was too dangerous. He wanted her back at Division Three, just so that he knew, in the back of his mind, as he fought this monster off once and for all, that she wouldn’t be hurt. Besides, she would never be able to come close enough to Oliver to touch him. He and Farouk would sense her, and they would snap her neck before she came within five feet of them. If that happened, David would never forgive himself.
But they were together now. She had come to him after that note. Gone to kill the monster? We definitely had a fight. That was his Syd. Always wanted to be part of the fight, never wanted to be left behind. At this point, he probably should’ve known that.
She had inserted herself into the equation whether or not David liked it, and now she had to be counted and accounted for, or else they would never control their monster problem. It was a hard pill to swallow, but David accepted that. If she was angry, she was angry. She wanted in, she deserved to be in.
But this wasn’t the plan.
As they slept, David’s powers nudged at Syd’s mind, and their dreamless consciousness tangled, intertwining themselves together in a misty dance that no one but they could share in. Even then, this was nothing conscious, nothing they could see, and nothing they could ever know. One flash in the minutes and hours they slept, and they were there, hours into their astral reality, curled in each other’s arms like the bones of their other selves in the corner of their tent. Those were out in the real world, where time passed normally and ticked vaguely past. Here in the astral plane, nothing was real. It was all an illusion, and yet, for David, it was the most real that anything ever was for him, where he was in control, where he knew what was happening.
He watched her, and she watched him, light smiles touching their cheeks. Those smiles belonged on their faces, and they belonged here, together, where nothing come hurt them anymore. He pulled his arm from around her, reaching up to run his fingers along her cheek and finding her skin soft, unmarred, and perfect. Her body was a hallowed ground no one else had touched this way, and he liked that: liked knowing that he was the only one who had touched her this way. He was the only one who could touch her this way. Swore his fingers would instill in her all the love he had in himself for her.
But things had changed. He knew they’d changed, but that was in her mind, not his.
“Syd.” His voice was soft, almost a sigh. In their white room, silence was sacred, and he hardly wanted to break their sleepy respite by speaking too loudly.
Her smile grew wider. It was her name that she wanted from him right now. She drew in a breath, moving her hand up so that she could wrap her fingers lightly around his wrist. Touch was something she had learned to live with here. It never felt like the ants crawling underneath her skin, clawing and tearing at the surface to be let free. David’s perfect world had made room for her; she belonged here. Her answer was just as quiet. She didn’t want to disturb this either. “Hmm?”
“What did you mean? When you said to prove you wrong?” His eyes were wide open and vulnerable and charitable.
“When did I…?”
“When we found the tent.” He ran his thumb across her cheekbone, touching the pad to the side of her nose so lightly that it tickled him. “When we found us. Not us us, but - the bones. Our… bones. You said that, when the time comes, I should prove you wrong.”
Her fingers tightened around his wrist. She remembered that, and she wasn’t angry. In fact, she was even pleased that David had asked about it. If he was confused about it, he should ask about it. She wanted him to ask about it, she realised. It reminded her of the David she had met at Clockworks. Open, honest, confused, but willing to talk. It was just the matter of confusion that gave her pause. “Do you remember when we were trapped inside my mind? All that running around, trying to make sense of what I was telling you without me actually telling you?”
For a moment, David’s eyes flashed with worry. She was asking him something, and he didn’t know what it was. “Yeah.”
“That’s part of it. You always read those stories about girls who get bullied and have to find some thing in their life to change so that they can live like everyone else. So that they can live better than before. My story was full of girls who bullied me for what I was and what I wanted and what I didn’t want. Who I was. I thought that would change when they saw what would happen when they did that to me. But it didn’t. All the games I played never ended up the way I wanted them to.” She frowned and shook her head, releasing her grip on David’s wrist and letting it slip down to his forearm. “And with you, in Clockworks. I thought getting Farouk out of your head was all we had to do. You were so… fragile, so confused and…” His head was so loud. Every voice, every vision - the monster in the corner of her eye, standing in the crowd, staring at her with those yellow eyes. “We had to save you. And then we did. And it wasn’t over. Farouk was in Oliver, and then you left, and -”
“- Syd, I didn’t leave -”
“- You were taken. And then you were taken, and we moved to Division Three, you were gone, for a year , and you didn’t know it. And the teeth chattering.” Her eyes were sad. “And then you leave to kill the monster. Babe, it’s so hard… to know what’s going to happen. When it’ll be over. If it’ll ever really be over.”
“It’ll be over.” David scooted closer, moving his hand back up her cheek. His fingers played at a stray strand that had falling over her hairline, moving it back behind her ear. Her soft hair was a comfort as it brushed across his skin. Back in Clockworks, he’d never thought he would ever have the chance to touch her like this. Now look where they were. “I promise, it’ll be over. It’s because of him - because of Farouk. He’s the one causing all the problems.”
She didn’t look reassured. “We tried once, and it didn’t work. He just ended up in someone else. What if it happens again? What if we get him out of Oliver just so he can move into someone else?” Shaking her head, she let out a bitter breath through her nose. “That’s all your asshole parasite ever does, right? Use people, confuse people. What if we’re doing the wrong thing?”
The answer David had in his mind was exactly what Syd didn’t want to hear. Then we’d go after him and stop him. Whatever it takes. How much would it take? Until they were so tired they couldn’t chase after him anymore? Until the Shadow King made them shadows of their former selves, sucked their hope out? That was what he’d almost done to David. That was what he’d do to everyone else. Maybe Farouk was planning something bigger, like taking over the world. Destroying everyone. If he could hurt David for thirty years, steal people’s faces and use them against him, kill who he said he wanted to kill -
“What’s the point?”
David raised his brows, looking back at Syd.
She pulled away and sat up, and David’s hand fell against the mattress. “I mean, what what happens after we find Oliver, get Farouk out of him, and bring him back to Division Three?”
When she was little, she had wanted nothing more than to feel someone’s protective arms around her; the warm, familiar touch of someone’s chest against her back. As she had grown older, she realised that she would never be able to have that, as much as she hated touch. She had always thought something was wrong with her, for wanting things she didn’t like. Then she’d learned about her powers - learned that she couldn’t touch people without something bad happening - and decided she would never hope for that again. There was no touching anyone out of love. Only on accident. The five-year-old girl on the sidewalk with the loud father and the shrill-voiced mother, the street performer with the tight-fitting costume and his penchant for always running late. They never knew her - only her soul, for a few hours.
And then she’d met David, and he’d loved her. He didn’t care that she didn’t want him to touch her. He’d loved her, he’d respected her and never been angry with her, he’d never come any nearer than she wanted him to, he’d never tried to touch her, and he’d definitely never asked her for a kiss. Their love was good, fast, exciting - everything she had never had before.
Something just felt… different now, as difficult as that was to admit, sitting together knee-to-knee, face-to-face, hands intertwined. “Maybe he doesn’t know the difference,” she had told Clark, “between things real and not real. Between right and wrong.” Maybe something had changed between them, in the year he had been absent. Maybe something had changed David. And if he’d changed, then what would be the point of any of this?
She didn’t want to end up like Melanie and Oliver. Melanie could hardly stand to think of Oliver without a comment about his inconstance, his frivolous thoughts - and Oliver hardly stood to think of her at all, anymore, not the least of which because he’d forgotten her in the astral plane. They’d found him after two decades and brought him back, and then he had left again... and this time, he wouldn’t come back. “Melanie’s not the same anymore, and neither is Oliver. She told me that. Would they be the next problem? Their relationship? All they’ve been through?”
The suggestion sent a flare of impatience through David. “Don’t say that.” He mirrored her, pushing the blanket back and sitting up. He felt a certain sympathy for Oliver, given that they’d both been accused of leaving when it wasn’t their fault. The only difference was, Oliver had left because he’d drifted; David had left because Farouk was in control. “It’s not his fault. It’s Farouk. He’s been pulling the strings, with the… the monk, and the insanity, and -”
“And Lenny,” Syd murmured.
“No, not Lenny,” David fired back. He looked down at his hand, tinged in cool blue light, his fingers curling into the sheets. “She’s not part of this. He used her, just like he used me. You know that. You know that.”
Maybe the desperation in his voice caused her to change the subject. Maybe she just didn’t want to answer what she really thought. “Every story ends the same. You get rid of one villain, another one’s going to pop up. You get rid of that one, and a new one pops up.”
“How do you know that?” He looked up to find Syd staring at him.
She watched him because she felt something in her mind that shouldn’t be there. Something not right. A thought she wanted to be heard - to be corrected . “You can’t have one without the other, right? Good and bad, heroes and villains. You can’t be right without someone else being wrong. Eventually, someone else is going to end up the bad guy, and we’ll have to go through all of this again.”
David frowned. “I don’t think that’ll happen to us.” He reached across the sheets, covering her hand with his own.
She didn’t pull away, but her fingers twitched beneath his touch. He was warm, and he felt safe. This room felt safe. Maybe that’s why she felt like she could be vulnerable here. “How can you be sure?”
“Because I know things now. Things I didn’t used to know before.” A faint smile pulled at his lips. He squeezed her hand lightly. This was a question he could answer. “I thought I was sick for so long . Hearing voices other people didn’t hear, seeing things other people didn’t see, thinking things were happening that other people knew weren’t happening. My mom and dad thought I was sick, Amy thought I was sick, Benny thought I was sick, my therapists thought I was sick.” He took a breath. “And then you came along, and you woke me up. You showed me that there were people out there who had powers. That I wasn’t making it up when I thought I could control things with my mind. And now I know - I know I have all these powers, I know how to control them, I know what I have to do. I can help everyone. I can help us .”
David sounded so certain that Syd had to smile, if only faintly. “You’re sweet,” she whispered, lifting her hand. Before David could move his off, she flipped her palm and caught his wrist, tugging lightly and scooting nearer to him. Both their legs were crossed, and their bare knees touched.
“The point is,” murmured David, sliding at hand up his leg, across their knees, and over her thigh, “we have to stop him. Stop Farouk. Before he finds out some way to take over the world, or kill everyone, or…” Because that was what he’d do: take over the world. If David hadn’t gotten him out of his head in time, that was exactly what he would have done. “The Vermillion told me Farouk would be unstoppable if he ever found his body. It won’t burn, it won’t drown, it won’t just die by itself. We can’t let him find his body. Even if there’s some… even if another bad guy comes along someday, at least it won’t be Farouk. At least we’ll know we saved everyone from him .” In David’s mind, he was the worst villain a person could ever imagine. Amahl Farouk was the standard.
He continues. “You said it yourself. Love won’t save us. It what we have save. And we have to save everyone else before we can save ourselves, right? We have to fight. Just this. And then, when this is all over, we can get a place in the country. Start a farm, grow old together. Die together.” He squeezed her thigh gently. “I’ll prove you wrong. Our story isn’t going to end the same.”
The hesitant, nervous, confused man she had met at Clockworks was gone now. In his place sat confidence - conviction. Maybe things had changed - but maybe they had changed for good. Maybe she was wrong, to think that David didn’t know what he was doing. He sounded like he knew exactly what he was doing. She shook her head, gazing into his blue eyes. “Do you promise?”
A beat. David’s gaze softened, and he leaned in, pressing his hand to her chest, right above her heart. “Do you love me?”
Syd smiled. “Yes.”
“Then there’s nothing else to say.”