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A Doe Follows Her Nose

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Casey was of the firm belief that the sky should always be cloudy, and the world should always be cloaked in gray.

Yellow sunshine, green earth, and blue skies made no sense to her. They didn’t belong, the color shouldn’t have been able to exist at all. At least not in the world she lived, not with the life she had.

Casey stared out the window of her uncle’s truck and watched a rainbow of hues fly past them.

Maybe they didn’t belong to her, after all. Maybe they were just going fast enough that she was able to catch glimpses of what others saw before the color drained at her approach. Maybe her world was gray, but it was so vibrant for everyone else, that it took time for it to dull.

Did they appreciate it, the people who were able to live in this world? Or did they take it for granted, the thought of overwhelming gray never even entering their minds?

Her uncle’s truck rolled into a parking lot before stopping at the entrance of a building bursting with life. She caught sight of golden strands and a wide smile. At least she wasn’t late.

A heavy hand landed on her thigh, the heat burning her flesh through her jeans; branding her.

She refused to take her eyes off the outside world.

Fingertips dug deep enough to bruise. “You’ll be home by 6.”

The scent of his smoky anger warned her against arguing but the taste of oil that settled at the back of her throat let her know exactly what would be waiting for her when she got back.

Still, she nodded obediently. He let her go. She instantly slipped out of his old truck and quickly made her way inside, trying to desperately steady her breaths.

“Happy birthday, Claire,” Casey greeted the happy blonde. Her voice was still a bit breathless, but she doubted Claire would notice.

“Casey!” Claire’s eyes widened, clearly not having expected her to show. “It’s good to see you.”

Casey accepted the lie with a painted-on smile and made her way further into the restaurant. She saw a few of her other classmates gathered around one of the long tables in the center of the room.

Casey settled into a seat at the very end and turned her attention back to the outside world, waiting for the gray to close in on her once again.

When the laughter and the voices grew louder at her back, Casey chanced a glance towards them. She watched as these strangers, most of whom she’d known for years, teased one another and talked with such easy comfort soaking the room with the feel of sunshine.

Casey turned her attention back to the world beyond the glass, her gaze taking in the pure blue sky. It didn’t belong to her, but it did to the people at her back and while she was here, perhaps she’d be able to pretend it was hers too. At least for a little while.

You could leave. The sky won’t turn gray if you leave.

The thought flashed in front of her eyes as she spotted a bus slow down and stop only a few feet away from her.

Her uncle wasn’t expecting her for hours. She could be far enough away by the time he noticed that even if he did call the cops it would still takes at least a day, hopefully two to find her.

She could hide for two days. She didn’t have much money but that even if she had to hide in an alley, she could.

That’s all she needed, just two days and then she was 18. All she needed was two days and then her uncle’s legal claim crumbled.

All Casey had to do what get to her feet and walk out the door.

She felt the ghost of his fingers on her thigh and her stomach rolled.

Casey dug her nails into her palms. No. His bruises might be on her skin but they weren’t brands. The weren’t. He didn’t own her. She wasn’t his.

Casey clenched her teeth and prepared to get to her feet. She was leaving; it was time.

“Hey, Casey?”

Casey’s attention snapped towards Claire, reminding her of why this opportunity was even available to her in the first place.

“The party’s over,” Claire continued, annoyance bitter like the bite of a lemon radiating from her. Yet she still gave Casey a smile. “Is your ride on its way?”

“I’ll call him right now.” Casey replied, getting to her feet and stepping away from Claire.

Casey grimaced as she saw the time already read four.

She had been lost to the outside world too long and her opportunity to escape was rapidly slipping through her fingers.

Casey brought the phone to her ear and stared at the bus stop. She didn’t know at what time the first one had come but if it was already four then the next should be on its way.

She’d have a two-hour head start. She needed one and a half to get as far as possible and the other half she’d spend looking for a hiding place.

Casey nodded to herself, determination steeling her bones.

She put down the phone and made her way to where Marcia, Claire, and her father were waiting.

“The car broke down.” She smiled apologetically at Claire’s dad. “I’m just going to take the bus.”

“You’re not taking a bus.” He shook his head immediately. “I’ll drive you home.”

Casey stiffened at his kindness.

“Claire has almost saved her half of the money she needs for a car. Isn’t that right?” he asked with an overly indulgent smile towards his daughter. “This’ll be one of the few times left I can drive you guys around. Huh?”

Casey could’ve cried.

He was being sincere, she could see it in his eyes and feel it in his smile. His compassion wouldn’t accept anything but acceptance.

She was trapped. Yet, Casey hesitated, searching desperately for an alternative.

“You won’t be able to hear my dad tell jokes that only he thinks are funny for an entire car ride unless you come.” Claire piped up, cutting off Casey’s feeble attempt at arguing. “You don’t really wanna miss that.”

Casey’s eyes looked over them, she could feel that the world was just a little brighter on their side. A cold stab of envy dug between her ribs as the taste of oil came back to her mouth.

She forced a smile and nodded.

Their world was so completely removed from hers that they’d never understand exactly how cruel their generosity was at that moment.

They’d never understand how close she’d been to freedom and how much she hated them for taking it away from her.

Casey bit her lip and followed them meekly back to their car, resigned to her fate. At least for one more day.

 


 

 

“We should fight him.” Casey tensed at Claire’s words, her heels continuing to clink on the floor as she paced around their room. “We should drop a crazy-ass bomb on him.”

“I saw him carry one of you and lay you on the bed like you weighed nothing.” Casey responded. Her eyes traced the wooden door as her mind focused on the man beyond. The man that reeked of bleach and control so strongly she didn’t have the slightest idea what he was feeling. But she did know strength, and he had that too.  “One punch from him would knock one of us out.”

Didn’t Claire remember how easily he’d dragged Marcia away last time? Hadn’t she notice he struggled because he didn’t seem to actually want to hurt her, just contain her? Hadn’t she noticed? Or was paying attention just another scrap of victim shit?

“I took six months of Kenpo Karate class.” Claire told her, her voice that same tone she used during class when they had a group project and she had declared herself in charge. “You distract the assailant with pain.”

Casey bit back her laugh and looked at Claire in disbelief. “Everything is so easy for you guys. You do one thing, you can predict the next.” Reality wasn’t anything like that. People could be damaged and they weren’t always stable. And when pain was thrown into the melee- “Its not the way its going to be in this situation.”

If they fought back, they’d make everything worse, Casey was certain.

Claire scowled at her, frustration like pepper in the air as her voice grew louder with every word. “We’re not getting out of here easily. Are you’re saying that you’re not gonna fight with everything in you to get free?” Casey bit her tongue. Claire’s voice dropped. “You know the only chance, the only chance we have is if all three of us go crazy on this guy. We have to hurry. He’ll be back soon, you know he will.”

Casey remained silent, wondering where she would be if had managed to catch that bus. She wondered what day it was. How long had they been sleeping? Could two days have passed since Claire’s birthday?

“We need you, Casey.” Marcia’s voice brought Casey back. She could hear the tremble in her words and the desperation, already so thick in the air, almost suffocated her with Marcia’s proximity. “Claire’s smart. Let’s listen to her. I’ll do it if you’re gonna do it, too.” She heard Marcia’s thick swallow. “We can win.”

“He’ll hurt us.” Casey hissed, staring at Marcia’s watery eyes. Casey shook her head and Marcia left her with hunched shoulders. “No. Shut up. Both of you.”

Why didn’t they understand?

Claire stomped to her feet and walked to the end of Casey’s bed. Her brown eyes glowed with anger and words left her through clenched teeth. “You’re gonna pick your miserable self up and help us get out of here.”

Casey didn’t hold back the hollow laugh that escaped her this time. “Blow me.” She told Claire, watching the smoke of anger change into embers of hate. “And your six months of karate at the King of Prussia mall can blow me, too.”

Claire’s hands clenched and Casey caught the current of disgust that radiated from her. “Why do you do this?” Claire asked, voice soft with disbelief. “Why do you always do this? Why do you act like you’re not one of us?”

Casey met Claire’s eyes. There was strength in her gaze, the type of strength that is reinforced by affection and devotion. The type of strength that creates confidence and surety.

The type of strength that has never been tested because its never truly been needed. The type that fueled reckless decisions.

“I’ll tell you when I hear something that makes sense.” Casey told her, hoping Claire would listen. Hoping Claire would stop and think before she did something stupid that would end up hurting them all. “We don’t even know what this is, yet.”

Claire scoffed. “After what he tried to do to Marcia, how can you honestly not realize what this is?”

“Because we woke up together,” Casey snapped. “Because we’re still wearing our clothes and aren’t wearing chains. Because there’s fresh flowers on our beds and in the bathroom as if we’re important.” Because she wasn’t choking on the too familiar taste of oil and strangers’ hands weren’t leaving new bruises on her skin.

“You think you’re smarter than us, don’t you?” Claire mocked. “You think you’re better.”

“You’re not going to get away like that.” Casey tried to make them understand. “It’ll just make him angry and then he’ll hurt us.”

“At least we’ll have tried.” Claire bit out before turning her back to Casey and going back to the bed she shared with Marcia.

Casey felt her heart race as Claire and Marcia began to whisper to one another.

Why wouldn’t they listen to her? Pain made you unpredictable, even to yourself. It could make you furious, it could make you dangerous, or it could make you freeze.

 


 

They heard the outer door open with a snap and the jingle of keys.

Casey’s eyes shot to the other bed. Claire was already on her feet, moving to the side of the door and gesturing for Marcia to get in position as well.

“Don’t do it.” Casey whispered.

Claire’s narrowed her eyes at the door as she ignored Casey.

Marcia looked at her hesitantly.

Casey shook her head, uncurling herself from the bed, her fingers digging into the covers.

Marcia’s brow furrowed.

Then, the door was opening, and it was too late.

Before the tall man cloaked in gray had fully stepped into the room, Claire had launched herself at him, teeth and nails bared like a feral cat. Marcia, having decided to fight after all, ran straight towards him, her hands brandishing one of her heels like a weapon.

Casey just sat on her bed and watched.

It took only a few seconds for the man to wrap one of his arms around Claire and lock her in his grasp with her back high on his chest and a few more for him to rip Marcia’s heel from her hand and throw it behind him.

Claire continued to struggle, her nails trying to dig into his arm while her legs flailed while as she attempted to kick him.

Marcia ran at him again. He pushed her shoulder, almost halfheartedly and yet Marcia still flew backwards and landed on the ground, her head smacking into the bed’s metal railing with a painful cry.

That’s when Casey jumped to her feet. She moved towards Marcia without realizing the man had moved forward, too. Marcia must have noticed him but not her, because when Casey’s hand touched her shoulder, Marcia’s fist greeted her.

Casey drew back from her in shock, hand flying to her lip.

“Casey,” Marcia gasped, wide eyes horrified.

“That’s enough.” The man’s deep voice echoed around the room and even Claire froze at the sound.

He didn’t even sound out of breath. Casey looked up to find him watching her, the furrowed brow and even scowl still ever-present, but there was something new in the air that made her shift uneasily.

She took a deep breath, trying to place the newness that hid beneath the bleach.

“I’ll be back.” He told her, voice calm, before turning, Claire still in his arms and walking out of the room.

Casey heard Claire begin to struggle. She heard her begin to cry and her broken voice begin to beg.

Marcia and Casey stayed silent as the second door closed and Claire’s voice faded.

Marcia curled into a ball and began to sob.

Casey made way into the bathroom and closed the door behind her with a soft click. She leaned against the door and looked down at her shaking hands.

She knew that almost sweet scent that tasted like basil. Had caught it on her tongue before and had tried to hold onto that warmth even when she knew it didn’t belong to her.

Nobody was ever concerned about the girl that didn’t belong after all. At least not until now.

Casey looked up at the yellow flower on the sink and wondered, once again, why they had been taken.

 


 

 

When Casey was a tiny daring four-year-old, she tumbled down the oak tree in her back yard, sliced open her arm, and witnessed blood staining her skin for the first time in her life.

Casey hadn’t cried. At least not until her father had rushed to her side, panic thick in his eyes and fear so heavy in the air she still remembered the taste of charred salt and basil on her tongue. He had been so careful as he picked her up off the ground, despite his shaking hands, and the supposed calming refrain of “You’re ok, baby. You’re ok,” made her realize that she actually wasn’t. That’s when the tears came, heavy and drowning her sight with sobs so deep it became hard to breathe and cloaked her in an unsettling silence.

Casey couldn’t remember the pain, no matter how hard she tried in the years that followed. A part of her, the part that became intimately aware of what pain felt like, was certain that the scratches and the deep gouge provided more wonder than harm.

But her brave daddy was terrified, the world was closing in around her, and she was suffocating. She did what any child would, she cried. She cried and she sobbed and hiccuped through tears while her father’s hands continued to tremble and his eyes stayed open too wide.

She didn’t stop crying until a woman smelling of vanilla and kindness wiped the tears from her eyes with gentle fingers while a cool cloth soothed cuts she hadn’t realized had begun to burn. She could still see her daddy behind the lady, feet taking him from one side of the room to the other and hands twisting her blue jacket into knots so tight the seams were set to burst. His gaze met hers and he tried to giver her a smile but the clouds in his eyes didn’t let her feel the fuzzy warmth she was used to.

The clouds didn’t go away until he’d chopped down the young oak and Casey’s arm was free of bandages. Then the sky blue returned. Her daddy was back and so was the singing heat in her belly.

But Casey had learned what fear was and had realized her invincible daddy knew the feeling, just like her.

He always kept Casey safe, so she decided it would be her job to keep him safe, too.

Casey stared at herself in the mirror, her jaw tinged blue and red dripping from her lip. She wished she could say her reflection was jarring, that the image showed a stranger she’d never met.

What a lie that would be.

Casey knew this version was the real one, the one that held faraway eyes and a vacant expression. The version that knew how long it took bruises to fade and how many colors they held between days. This is who she was. This is who she had been for a very long time.

Would her daddy look at her now the way he had when she was four? With fear and worry born of love? With clouds in his eyes and unsteady hands but words of comfort so desperately given?

At four, Casey had promised herself she’d protect him and make sure he never had to feel that way again.

She hadn’t been able to keep her promise. Even before his death, the taste of bitter worry had mixed with his sunshine scent and the clouds always drifted along his edges.

After he was gone…

Casey took a deep breath and released it with a sigh. She turned on the tap and using a bit of toilet paper wiped the blood from her lip and her chin.

Her eyes caught the shock of red against the pale skin of her neck and she hesitated to wipe it off, finding the sight almost cathartic.

Casey had failed her father. He might not be there to see it, but Casey knew if he could, he’d be soaked in that charred salt scent. She hoped basil would be there as well, but… Whether her father would be afraid for her or of her, Casey couldn’t even say.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she had failed him in the end.

Then again, he’d failed her, too, hadn’t he? Years before he’d died and so many more after, he’d failed to keep her safe.

Casey roughly scrubbed the skin of her neck clean before throwing the stained paper away.

Claire had called it victim shit, as if she knew what being a victim actually felt like. She’d said they needed to fight as she reeked of superiority. She had refused to listen to Casey when she’d argued because she thought she knew.

But Claire had never been a victim a single day in her life. She didn’t have to live in fear and pain and look a razor’s edge with desperate need. She thought she knew but she didn’t have a single clue. She should have listened to Casey.

Because Casey wasn’t just another victim, despite what her reflection told her and her nightmares whispered. No, Casey was so much more than just a victim; Casey was a survivor.

Chapter Text

By the time Casey heard the outer door opened again, Marcia’s sobs had calmed to whimpers and Casey had curled up on her bed, waiting for the sting of adrenaline to fade from her veins. Exhaustion pulled at Casey, but she kept her eyes on the door.

The man had said he’d be back and the thought of being asleep and vulnerable while he hovered over her caused her heart to skip and her breathing to stutter. She’d rather be awake to deal with whatever came next.

Although, when the outdoor clicked and she heard unfamiliar steps in the room beyond she wondered if the oblivion of sleep wouldn’t have been better than the panic forming a knot in the center of her chest.

The jingle of keys sounded beyond the wooden door. Casey stood. She had no idea what the man wanted, he’d been too far away and there had been so much more going on that she hadn’t had a chance to figure out. Still, it was obvious he’d been angry when he’d left, and Casey knew anger usually preceded pain.

“Good evening, girls.” A cultured feminine voice greeted them.

Marcia pulled her head from her knees and with a gasp jumped to her feet.

Casey felt her own eyes widen at the sight.

Standing just a step in their room stood their captor… and yet… it wasn’t him.

The lines of his face had smoothed leaving only an upward curl at the corner of his lips. His head wasn’t weighed down by thick glasses, instead his nose rose in the air and ramrod stiff shoulders had rounded and relaxed under flowery fabric. He was even wearing different clothes. Instead of his solemn gray attire, soft burgundy wrapped around his chest and up his throat while a midnight skirt delicately floated down to his ankles.

Their captor, it had to be him, didn’t it?, gestured Marcia forward with a twitch of her fingers.

Marcia didn’t move.

Their captor’s brow rose slightly. “Come here, dear, I just need to check your head.”

Marcia trembled as she did as she was told and took cautious steps towards the woman who wore their captor’s face but who Casey was beginning to believe was someone else entirely.

“Turn around.”

Marcia obeyed, wrapping her arms around herself and looking at the ground.

The curl lifted on the woman’s lips as she began to run her fingers through Marcia’s hair. Marcia flinched at the first touch and Casey could see her begin to shake. The taste of terror was so heavy in the air, Casey had to repress the shiver that threatened to break through on her skin. Casey wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop herself once it started and she suspected the feeling would shatter her like glass.

“Dennis told me you soiled yourself when you arrived.” The woman mentioned conversationally. Marcia’s face reddened and her knuckles whitened on her arms. “You know, he was bringing you a change of clothes when that… unpleasantness occurred.”

Casey watched as tears began to shine on Marcia’s cheeks but knew there was nothing she could do. Even across the room, Casey caught the scent of smoke.

Despite the man’s obvious strength, there was something unsettling about the way the woman smiled so softly while her eyes stayed hard. Casey knew then, without a doubt, which of the two was the most dangerous and which one she needed to watch.

The woman withdrew her hand and Marcia instantly tried to get away from her. She didn’t get more than a step before the woman caught her arm and caused Marcia to yelp. “Your head is fine, girl, but you’re still wearing those filthy clothes.” She lifted her other hand and held out a plastic bag Casey hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. “I suggest you go change.”

The words didn’t sound like a suggestion and Marcia had no choice but to grab the bag. The woman released her and in an instant Marcia was closing the door to the bathroom.

Casey could hear Marcia’s sobs again, rattling and soft as if she were desperately trying to keep them quiet.

The woman turned her attention towards Casey.

An instinctual part of Casey shouted at her to run; fast and far and now.

Casey stayed still. Human predators were different from those in the wild. They were much more persistent than any animal and they knew how to make the pain last for so long you’d wish for oblivion. There was no hope of a quick death with this hunter and Casey knew this woman would make her regret every breath if she pushed her.

The woman moved away from the door and glided towards her. The shawl around her shoulders spread behind her like wings and her eyes, a clear absolute blue, locked onto Casey’s.

With every step closer, Casey felt like a breath was stolen from her lungs and by the time the woman paused, she felt lightheaded from the lack of oxygen.

Her eyes ran over Casey’s face before she tsked. “That bruise looks awfully painful.”

She brought out a white bundled cloth from one of her pockets and she gently pressed it to Casey’s jaw.

Casey took a deep shuddering breath as the cold soaked into her skin.

Air filled her lungs and with it so did the woman’s scent.

She tasted like red wine; deep and dark and heady.

Casey’s mother had died during childbirth and she knew it broke her father’s heart. Even as a child she knew that he missed her.

It was in the little things he did, like the fact that her pictures still sat delicately on their mantle and that every year on her mother’s birthday, he’d spend hours cooking a feast for the two of them.

Casey remembered sitting on the counter while her father worked over the stove. It was one of the few days he’d talk about her mother and Casey was glued to his side the entire time. The scent of food and the sound of his voice warming her blood with contentment.

It was during one of those days that her father had told Casey how the wine that was always on the counter with the funny name had been her mother’s favorite. That it’d been the wine they’d had on their first date and the same one they drank the day he’d proposed.

Casey had asked to taste it and when her father hold out an almost empty cup for her, she’d held it between her hands almost reverently gazing at the dark liquid in awe.

She had inhaled the strange scent before taking a very careful sip. She had instantly scrunched up her nose and grimaced in disgust.

Her father laughed as he took the cup away and admitted that while her mother loved the wine, he had never been a fan.

Casey had then watched as he poured the same wine into the pan. She made a face, the unpleasant taste of it still present in her mouth.

He turned and winked at her, promising she’d like it much better when it was cooked and mixed with other flavors.

Casey had been hesitant but had tried it when her father finished. He had told her the truth, like she knew he would. The bitterness of the wine had been dulled by the sweetness of the sauce and the taste had almost sang on her tongue when it was soaked in the chicken.

Fingertips tipping her chin up caused Casey’s eyes to snap open and away from the memory.

The woman was gazing at the cut on her lip as her hand grazed the unblemished side of her jaw.

“It’s a shame you got hurt.” The woman murmured before her eyes narrowed. “Dennis shouldn’t have let that happen.”

Casey swallowed, the scent of smoke that had seemed to fade suddenly filling the air once more.

“He didn’t hurt me.” Casey whispered.

The woman’s lips curled again. Her anger diminished and the scent of wine too rich grew stronger, mixing with the taste of curiosity and a hint of… honey?

“Oh, little doe, if Dennis was the one responsible, you’d have a broken jaw not a little bruise.”

Casey stiffened.

The woman’s hand cupped Casey’s cheek. Casey would’ve bet that this woman’s hands would be soft and freezing, had she thought about it earlier. Instead, her hands were rough, fingertips calloused and palms warm. It didn’t fit who this woman was, and the juxtaposition caused Casey to frown.

“No, he’s not allowed to touch you.” The woman continued, the curl fading completely. “From what I understood it was the dark-haired girl who hurt you. She attacked you after you tried to help her. After she and the blonde attacked Dennis.”

The smoke was turning to rage. Casey could feel the heat in the hand on her skin and wondered how the ice didn’t melt through the woman’s fingers.

Casey heard the bathroom door open but couldn’t stop staring at the woman who wore such crystal-clear eyes. There wasn’t even a hint of clouds in them, not a touch of doubt or remorse. Casey didn’t think she’d ever felt as afraid of another person as she did while she stared into those eyes.

“Your friend will be kept separate.” The woman spoke and Casey knew the words weren’t directed at her. “If you misbehave again, we’ll find a closet for you, too.”

Casey nodded.

The woman’s hand drifted down to the collar of Casey’s flannel top. “There’s blood on your shirt,” the woman murmured. She sighed. “Would you please take it off, little doe? Dennis isn’t well and if he sees the stain, he’ll… get upset.”

Casey hesitated before remembering the way the man had cleaned Mr. Benoit’s car when he got in and the way he’d dusted his chair when he came into the room the first time. The man clearly suffered from a compulsion and Casey didn’t want to think of what he’d do if he saw a stain on her shirt.

She shrugged out of her flannel and held it out to the woman.

The woman smiled at Casey as she laid it over her arm. “Don’t be afraid. Dennis listens to me. He understands what you’re here for. As long as you behave, you won’t be hurt again.”

She withdrew the ice pack from Casey’s cheek and turned, taking Marcia’s bag with her dirty clothes. She glided towards the door but paused before opening it.

 “You’re meant for something wonderful; something far greater than you could ever realize.” Her eyes jumped from Casey to Marcia and back.

The woman smiled once more, more ice in her gaze than before, and walked out.

 


 

 

Casey collapsed on the floor the moment the woman left, the rush of adrenaline leaving her body weak.

Marcia lay back on her bed, her sweatpants clad legs hanging off one side.

“Do you think he’s just messing with us?” Marcia murmured.

“No.” Casey shook her head, still staring at the door as she compared images of the man and the woman. It had to be the same person, at least physically, but mentally they acted so different from one another even their scents changed drastically. There was no way they could be the same. “I don’t think he is.”

Casey had no idea what was going on. It seemed the longer they were here, the stranger things became. Figuring out how to escape would be impossible if they didn’t understand what they were dealing with.

Much too soon for her nerves, the door opened once more.

This time, the man walked through. He carried a bucket slung on one arm and a familiar white bundle in his hand.

He made his way towards the bathroom, ignoring them completely. The heard him groan a distressed “No.”

The man stepped out and gestured towards the bathroom with a look of disgust. “Please keep your area neat. The bathroom is unacceptable.” He swallowed and held up a bottle from his metal bucket. “I’ve brought these. To make it easy, I’ve color coded them. Blue is for the floor and pink is for the ceramic surfaces. Don’t mix them up.”

When Casey and Marcia didn’t react the man sighed, took a step back, and held up the bucket full of cleaning supplies.

Casey scrambled to her feet.

She grasped the bucket’s handle and went to walk into the seemingly pristine bathroom when she was pulled to a stop. The man hadn’t released his grip the way Casey had expected, and Casey worried she’d misinterpreted his intentions.

His gaze, a darker clouded blue so remarkably different from the woman’s, locked onto hers.

He held out the white cloth. “For your jaw,” he grunted, the scent of embarrassment and basil layered above the thick scent of disinfectant that clung to him.

Casey reached out and carefully took the offered ice.

The man released the handle and Casey stepped into the bathroom, Marcia a half step behind her. Casey settled on the floor with the blue bottle and Marcia took up the roll of paper towels.

The man stood at the threshold. He put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the light fixture above the mirror. “Patricia has reminded me that I was sent to get you for a reason.” His voice stoic and the words stiff as if long rehearsed. “You are sacred food.”

Only bleach struck her senses, everything else too soft to recognize. Casey wondered if he believed his words.

He paused, his eyes running over Marcia before focusing on Casey and settling on the cut on her lip. The line between his brows deepened. “Use the ice before it melts.”

Casey dutifully set the ice against her jaw, the cold already beginning to numb her fingers. She caught the scent of disinfectant on the cloth and felt her shoulders relax, comforted by the familiar. It was harsh but it was clean, and it meant always meant safety when she was in her uncle’s house. Her uncle would leave her be when she cleaned and with the burning scent dulling her senses, she could almost pretend she was safe. For a moment she could pretend her uncle didn’t watch her the entire time.

“Throw the cloth away once you’re done.” The man ordered. He waited for her nod before turning on his heel and walking out.

The snap of the lock sounded, and they were alone once more.

“Maybe he’s going to feed us to his dogs?” Marcia wondered, her voice hoarse.

The thought of the overly clean man having a dog caused a bubble of laughter to stick in her throat. The only way she could imagine it was if he walked behind the poor animal with a vacuum and a bottle of air freshener the entire time. Casey swallowed her amusement and cleared her throat to force it away. “I don’t think he has a dog.”

“Do you think Claire is alright?” Marcia asked, her gaze still on the door, and voice growing watery once more.

Casey sighed, the urge to laugh fading with the sharp reminder of their reality. The woman had said Claire would be kept separate which meant that she was at least alive. More than that, however-

“He said we were sacred food.” Casey repeated. “And the woman said we were important. They want us for something, and I don’t think they’ll hurt us before then.”

Marcia shuddered. “What if that freak tries to eat us?”

Casey flinched and her fingers dug into the softening ice in her palm.

“Oh god.” Marcia groaned turning a disturbing shade of pale, hands going to her mouth.

Casey moved out of the way as Marcia lurched towards the toilet. She left the bathroom as the sound of Marcia being sick echoed in the small space.

Casey knew she should help Marcia. She knew she should be in there, even if she had to hold her breath, and at least hold back Marcia’s hair. She should explain that she didn’t think either the man or the woman would cannibalize them. That they both spoke in a way that made it obvious that while the woman was in charge, even she deferred to someone else, something else. That it wasn’t Marcia’s theory that had provoked the flinch but the word she’d used.

Freak.

It bellowed in her ears, drowning Marcia’s sounds and forcing her mind to recall all the times she’d heard that word. All the times that word was used to describe her. All the times it was said with scowls and upturn noses.

“What a freak, it like she likes detention or something.”

“The only thing that freak is good for is getting into trouble.”

“What did the school freak do now?”

“Who invited the freak?”

“Oh please, as if anyone gives a shit about a freak like you.”

“Ugh, the freak is here.”

“Stay away from me, you freak!”

“Freak.”

Freak.”

Freak!”

The word dripped with disgust and anger. It was soaked in hate and ridicule. It was a word they all used for her, a word that had become synonymous with her name to the point that when someone mentioned “the freak,” everyone knew who they were talking about.

Casey dug her shaking hands in her hair and fought against the tears that scratched at her eyes.

It was just a word. It was just a stupid five-letter word.

She had been kidnapped, was locked in a room, and had been called sacred food by a captor that could switch between personalities.

This should not be what made her cry.

This stupid, uncreative, fucking word, that hadn’t even been used against her, shouldn’t be what broke her.

It couldn’t be. Casey clutched her strands between her fingers. She sucked in her lip and dug her tooth in the cut willing the sting of pain to calm her. She bit down until the cut reopened and she tasted blood, but it wasn’t enough. Her skin was too cold from the ice and the wound throbbed but there was no real pain. She needed more. She needed it to sing across her skin the way her razor did.

The way her blade had less than a week ago.

Casey untangled one of her hands from her hair and buried it under the neck of her jacket and the shirt underneath. Her fingers skimmed across the raised skin of her right shoulder and stopped as they found the newest scab. Casey dug her nails into her flesh, healing undone beneath them as the scar awoke and pain shot like lightning through her nerves. Liquid began to bloom against her fingers, warm and alive, and Casey was finally able to force back her tears.

She closed her eyes and counted between breaths. She willed her heartbeat to slow and starting naming colors and shades.

Casey couldn’t break. If she was going to survive, she needed to be strong. She needed to keep her senses open and her mind clear.

Casey didn’t know what was going on, but she wouldn’t be able to figure it out if she let an insignificant little word break her.

Casey opened her eyes and stared at the soaked cloth on the floor and the ice that lay scattered around it.

She drew her hand from her shoulder and drops of red mixed with the ice and painted the floor pink.

Casey got up and went to retrieve the cleaning supplies from the bathroom.

She couldn’t leave a mess.

 


 

 

“Casey.”

Whispers of warmth and the taste of laughter and oranges began slipping through her conscious as Casey stirred.

Casey.”

The hiss cut through her dream with the scent of charred salt and Casey blinked open her eyes to the sight of Marcia huddled on her bed.

Marcia’s eyes caught hers. She looked towards the door.

Casey followed her gaze. The first thing she noticed was that door was wide open and she could see into the room beyond for the first time. She saw towels hanging by hooks near an eclectic mess of posters and exercise equipment. There was a sink of some sort on the door’s other side and a rack stuffed to bursting of clothes beside where their captor sat, staring at them with an excited smile on his face.

Casey sat up with a start, her mind finally registering what had been the reason for Marcia’s whispering.

The grin on his face widened at seeing her up. “My name’s Hedwig.” His teeth caught his tongue on every “s” and the childlike sound struck Casey. “I have red socks.”

He folded his arms in his lap and tried to hide his smile, like a kid hiding a playground secret. “He’s on the move.” Hedwig whispered, eyes lit with mischief.

“What?” Casey asked, still fighting through her dream to understand the sudden boyishness of their captor.

His grin grew. “He. Is. On. The. Move.” He spaced out his words deliberately and said them slowly. If Casey hadn’t been struggling with reality, she may have felt offended by the insinuation.

“Who?” Marcia asked from her bed.

“Someone’s coming for you,” He told her, smile still uncomfortably big, “and you’re not gonna like it.” He shook his head at Marcia, gleaming eyes wide. “Not at all.” He scrunched his nose. “You guys make funny noises in your sleep.”

“Who’s coming?” Marcia asked again, voice barely above a whisper.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” Hedwig said, turning his face away from them. He quickly turned back, his expression fighting between the exaggerated frown on his lips and the glee in his eyes. “But Miss Patricia, she said you were bad. She said you tried to hurt Mr. Dennis. She says that when he comes, he’s gonna do real bad stuff to you, first. Etcetera. I have blue socks, too.”

Marcia sucked in a shaky breath.

“How old are you, Hedwig?” Casey asked, sliding to the floor and inching a little closer to him.

“Nine.” He grinned at her proudly, teeth fully on display.

“Where are Mr. Dennis and Miss Patricia?” Casey asked carefully.

“Miss Patricia is getting everything ready and Mr. Dennis fell asleep.” he shrugged. “So, I took the light. I just ate a hotdog.”

“What light?”

Hedwig rolled his eyes. “The one in the middle.”

“In the mid-“

“I’m not supposed to be talking to you.” Hedwig repeated cutting off Marcia’s question and hopping to his feet.

“Wait!” Casey shouted, getting to her knees.

Hedwig brow shot up, hand already holding the doorknob. “What?”

Thoughts chased one another as she scrambled to find something that would make him stay. He was young, at least mentally, and knew why they were there. He didn’t have to be near her for her to know that he was also naïve, which meant he’d be gullible and the easiest of the three to trick…

She just had to get him to stay and keep talking. What had she wanted when she was nine? What would’ve made her stay?

A friend.

“Do you have paper and crayons?” she asked him.

Hedwig let go of the doorknob. “Why?” Casey wasn’t sure but she thought she caught the scent of oranges and the softness of jasmine.

Casey shrugged, “I wanted to know if we could draw together?”

Hedwig twisted the bottom of his jacket and entered their room, jasmine growing stronger with each step. “You like to draw? Etcetera?”

Casey nodded.

Marcia shifted in her bed and Hedwig’s eyes jumped to her. He froze and took a step back.

He shook his head almost violently. “No! I’m not stupid! Mr. Dennis told me you’d try to trick me, and Miss Patricia said I couldn’t make any more silly mistakes or she’d get mad.”

“I’m not trying to trick you, Hedwig,” Casey replied, trying to make her voice sound as sincere as possible. “There’s just nothing to do here and I really wanted to draw with you. If you wanted?”

Hedwig shifted on his feet as his gaze kept fixing on Marcia before slipping to Casey.

“I’m not going to trick you.” Casey repeated, trying to coax him to stay. “I just want to draw.”

He wavered but something was still holding him at the door.

“I didn’t hurt Mr. Dennis. You can trust me.” Casey told him. She felt Marcia’s eyes burn into the side of her head. Casey ignored her.

Hedwig scoffed but his shoulders relaxed. “Mr. Dennis wasn’t hurt. He’s way too strong for them to hurt him.”

He narrowed his eyes at Casey. “You’re really not trying to trick me?” He asked, voice high and hesitant.

Casey shook her head solemnly. “I promise.”

Hedwig grinned. “Stay!” he shouted before slamming the door behind him. They heard him running down the hallway, a cacophony of noises left in his wake.

“What are you doing?” Marcia hissed.

Casey wondered if she was referring to asking Hedwig to draw or about the way Casey had insinuated Hedwig couldn’t trust Marcia.

“We need to figure out what’s going on.” Casey answered, waiting for the newest facet of their captor to return.

Maybe she’d finally get her answers.

 


 

 

Casey found that drawing with Hedwig was surprisingly soothing.

They had settled on the floor between their beds and the door, papers and crayons spread in a sea around them.

Hedwig lay on his stomach, half in and half out of their room with his legs running in the air as he concentrated on his drawings. Casey mimicked his pose across from him and Marcia sat with her legs folded and a blank piece of paper on her lap and a yellow crayon in her hand.

“What’s your favorite place?” Casey asked Hedwig as she worked on finishing the drawing of a cowboy Hedwig had requested.

A steady stream of requests had poured out of him the moment Casey had shown him her sketch of a stag and he’d looked at her in amazement. He already had a half dozen sketches beside him of the animals she’d drawn and Casey had a few next to her of the one’s he’d made for her.

Casey indulged his requests and praised his artwork while she asked seemingly innocent questions.

In the time they’d been drawing, Casey had found out that there were many more identities waiting in the back of her captor’s mind. She’d found out that Hedwig was special among them since he could control the light at will and take it from anyone he didn’t want to have it. Hedwig had beamed when he’d told her that someone named Barry used to be in charge but now he was stuck in his chair. Hedwig had told her that he, Miss Patricia, and Mr. Dennis were in charge.

Hedwig had let slip about The Beast when he’d drawn a large black figure on one of his papers, scribbles of red all around him in an eerie representation of blood. He’d told them he was “like if he punched a wall, the wall would cry” strong, he was “so big, he won’t be able to walk through the doorway without it breaking,” and could run “fast enough to catch a cheetah from like across the country! Etcetera.”

Casey wasn’t sure what to believe. There was no way a creature like that could exist and yet, children embellished but they ever outright lied. She wondered if maybe there wasn’t a bit of truth to Hedwig’s words. She was terrified at the thought of meeting The Beast, but a perverse part of her couldn’t help but want to see him. To see how a child’s myth held to the reality of flesh and bone.

What made Casey almost need to see him, were simple words uttered in earnest belief: “The Beast is gonna protect us. Nobody is gonna laugh at us anymore once he comes.”

Something had twisted in Casey’s gut when she heard him. She hated to admit it, but she understood him, deep down. If she could trust someone to protect her and truly believed in their strength… What wouldn’t Casey do for them to feel safe and accepted?

Casey hadn’t probed further, guilt beginning to build inside her. Still, Hedwig continued to talk. Stories and secrets the other probably wouldn’t want shared spilled out of him as blank paper and a big box of crayons distracted him enough to not realize.

It was while Casey drew a cheetah and Hedwig colored in a lion that he’d revealed Mr. Dennis had watched Marcia and Claire for four days to make sure they were what The Beast wanted.

Marcia had stopped pretending to draw then and Casey wondered if she was in shock, her scent so dimmed it was easily overpowered by Hedwig’s vibrant citrus and jasmine.

“My room. It’s got my hamsters and my drawings and all my toys.” Hedwig told her, tongue sticking out as he concentrated on drawing the mermaid Casey had requested. “It’s also got my CD player, right under my window, and I got a buncha music for it.”

Casey heard a snap and turned to see the yellow crayon in Marcia’s hand broken in two.

Hedwig looked up at Casey eagerly, purple crayon still in hand but momentarily forgotten as his mind found a more interesting diversion. “Do you like to dance? Kanye West is my main man and I like to play his music real loud cause that’s when it’s really good for dancing.”

“W-we could dance with you.” Marcia spoke, hand crumbling the paper in her hand. “If you show us the- your CD player, we could dance together.”

Hedwig looked at her. His lips turned down. “You’re not supposed to leave your room. Mr. Dennis said so.”

“Come on,” Marcia smiled shakily and leaned forward, “I thought you said you liked to dance? We can dance for just one song. Mr. Dennis doesn’t have to know.”

She was practically crawling towards him, smile still too hollow and eyes too intense.

Hedwig started backing away, eyes widening the closer Marcia got. “I-I don’t-” he shook his head.

Casey didn’t know what to do. She had heard what Marcia had. Hedwig’s room had a window. She could feel the hope of escape finally within their reach, but Marcia’s desperation was too much and Casey could tell Hedwig was getting scared. Even his orange scent was fading and was being replaced by-

Bleach.

Casey stared at Hedwig as his eyes began to slowly grow darker and his shoulders widen.

Dennis was coming.

Casey reached out and placed her hand on Hedwig’s arm while she gestured Marcia back with the other. “It’s alright, Hedwig,” Casey told him softly, trying to calm Hedwig enough that he’d stay in the light. She didn’t want him to leave. She didn’t want to be stuck in this room with her dark thoughts and the fear stained air always hovering around her. She just wanted to keep drawing for a little while longer and pretend everything was alright.

“Marcia just really likes Kanye.” She tried. “I don’t really listen much to his music, though, so I don’t get it.”

Hedwig, with eyes that were still innocent and clearing by the moment, gaped at her. “You don’t listen to Kanye?”

Casey shook her head.

Hedwig scrunched his nose. The bleach was still too strong, but his shoulders had relaxed and he was now sitting comfortably in front of her. “What do you listen to if not Kanye?”

“Brittany Spears.” It was the first name that had popped into her head and Casey almost laughed at Hedwig’s reaction

His expression twisted in horror. “You listen to Brittany Spears but not Kanye?”

“Her music is catchy!” Casey defended, a smile slipping through as oranges bloomed and bleach faded to a whisper. It was still there but it was no longer a threat.

At least for a little while longer, it seemed, Hedwig would stay and Casey could keep pretending.

Chapter Text

Patricia brushed Casey’s hair with long, slow strokes. The mixture of Patricia’s rich wine scent and the brush's steady rhythm was strangely hypnotic, and Casey found herself being lulled into a half-forgotten memory.

Her father would brush her hair before bed, every night. He’d sit behind her, the same way Patricia was now, and his warmth would wrap around her like a blanket made for burrowing into. Every night, he'd used an old silver-handled brush that had little roses engraved in a pretty pattern on its back while he murmured stories and lullabies that caused her eyes to close.

She’d asked him once, half asleep after a full day of helping her father in the garden, where he got the brush.

Her father had told Casey that her mother had found it in an antique shop when she was eight months pregnant. He told her that she’d burst into tears in the middle of the store the moment she’d laid eyes on it. She had felt the rumble of his laugh against her back when he’d admitted that he had absolutely no idea what to do when his very pregnant wife cried her eyes out and cradled a brush in her hands. He told her that the owner of the shop, a stooped, tiny man older than the shop itself, had patted his shoulder to calm him down before talking down Casey’s mother, as well.

They’d found her crib in that shop and the man had asked for only half its original price while throwing in the silver brush still clutched in her mother’s hands. They hadn't had much, both too young and ill prepared for the new addition to their lives, and her mother had teared at the gesture and the next day, Casey’s mother had demanded to go back, this time having him carry at least four dozen cookies as repayment for his kindness.

He’d made Casey laugh when he told her, voice fond and adoring, that her mother had had a talent for getting things with nothing but a smile and a mountain of sugar.

After that, Casey had asked him if she could keep it in her room. He’d agreed and she had treasured that silver brush, even learning how to polish it to keep the silver shining.

She still had it, but it was so well hidden that it had been years since Casey had last seen it. She knew the silver was tarnishing, day by day, dulling its shine and corroding its color.

At least it was safe, hidden in the loose floorboard in the back corner of her closet. The same corner where she stacked all her books as high as she could. She couldn’t risk her uncle finding it, it was the only safe place in the house, and it hid among her most valuable possessions.

Her lips twitched at the irony. The most important things in Casey’s life were kept in a hole in the ground, just like the most important people.

The bristles disappeared and were replaced with gentle fingers.

“You have such lovely hair.” Patricia praised, her hands running across the strands.

“Good, isn’t it?” Patricia asked. Casey stayed silent, hoping the question had been directed at Marcia. Casey wasn’t sure what she could say if the question was for her. She wasn’t sure she could lie well enough to fool Patricia but telling her the truth seemed a more dangerous option. “It’s got paprika in it.”

Casey gave a silent sigh of relief. Patricia had been talking to Marcia.

Casey looked down at the sandwich in her lap and felt her stomach gnaw at her in response. How long had it been since she’d eaten? The last meal she remembered had been a yogurt for breakfast the day of Claire’s birthday. How long ago had that been?

Casey went to grab the sandwich when she caught a whiff of smoke. She gasped as her head was painfully jerked back by her hair.

“Sorry, little doe,” Patricia replied serenely, not a hint of regret in the air; only wine, smoke, and honey. “I think I’ll put a pretty little flower in your hair.”

Casey felt her carefully place a spring of baby’s breath behind her ear before getting off the bed. Casey watched as Patricia took the two steps to Marcia’s bed. Smoke lay heavy around them as she stroked Marcia’s cheek before putting another spring behind her ear. “It’s to show that you’re important.”

Marcia flinched. Casey wondered if she could smell the smoke or if Patricia’s words were just too real a reminder of why they were here.

“Come along,” Patricia’s heels tapped against the concrete floor as she walked to the door. “We’ll have a proper meal.” She smiled conspiratorially over her shoulder before unlocking the door and holding it wide open. “Just us girls.”

Casey got off the bed and walked towards her, using ever second to absorb the details of the second room.

There was so much stuff, it was overwhelming. There were sketches of animals, designs, and pictures on the walls. There were shelves bursting with a bizarre mix of oddities and everyday objects. There were clothes, an almost dizzying amount of clothes. Clothes filled the rack she’d seen before, they crowded the pegs on a side wall, and erupted from a hamper on the floor. There were pill bottles and an ironing board, toys and cleaning supplies, and so many more things scattered around every corner.

Most important of all, was what sat on a tidy, organized desk and made Casey’s heart swell; a computer.

She caught it at the corner of her eye but acted as if she hadn’t. Casey could feel Patricia’s amused gaze watching her too closely. “We do the best we can.”

Patricia opened the second door and gestured them into a long, bare hallway. She grabbed Casey’s wrist and a yelp from Marcia made it obvious she’d grabbed hers, too.

They followed her into a kitchen with concrete block walls the same hue as the hallway. Casey took a seat at the small table and Marcia settled beside her while Patricia leaned on the back of Marcia’s chair.

“Do you like it?” Patricia asked while she hovered what had to be uncomfortably close for Marcia.

Casey took a bite of her sandwich and nodded sincerely. The sandwich was plain, but the promise of real food finally filling her stomach made Casey take another bite almost desperately.

“I’ll make you a second sandwich.” Patricia winked at Casey before moving to the refrigerator.

“Could Claire come eat with us?” Marcia timidly asked, hands crumbling her own sandwich.

“No,” Patricia replied curtly, the refrigerator door closing with a snap. She reached over and flicked on the stereo set above the stove. The sound of whining string music filtered through the room. “I heard Asian people’s music aides digestion,” she explained, closing her eyes briefly in contentment before sighing and turning her attention to preparing more food.

Casey munched on her meal while she observed the new room.

She wondered where they were. The raw cement walls in their room and the almost dingy air of the rest of the place made her feel as if she were underground. She would’ve sworn they were in a basement, but there was just so much space here. The hallway outside their room had seemed to stretch out a long way and with another door at her back, it was obvious the place spread out even further.

Hedwig and his window popped into her head and she stared at the walls in confusion. Why would only Hedwig’s room have a window?

“Did you know,” Patricia’s voice brought Casey’s attention back to her, “a family of lions can eat 35 pounds of meat a day?”

Patricia observed them expectantly.

Casey swallowed her mouthful. “A buck can lose 30% of its weight during mating season, chasing does around.” She offered.

“They’re crepuscular, right?” Patricia asked with a raised brow.

Casey nodded, finishing the first half of her meal.

“It means they travel during dusk and dawn.” Patricia told Marcia, who’s gaze kept jumping between the two of them. Patricia focused on Casey, smile full of pride. “Good for you.”

Patricia turned back towards the counter.

Marcia tapped Casey’s arm.

Casey looked at her.

Marcia shifted her eyes from Casey’s own to the door behind her and back.

Casey shook her head.

Marcia’s gaze paused on her lip before she lifted her chin.

No. Casey mouthed, shaking her head frantically.

Marcia hands clenched.

Casey took a deep breath.

“I don’t know if you know,” Patricia spoke again, “but tigers have only 30 teeth. That’s 12 less than a dog.” Her voice was lighter and almost relaxed. “I thought that was a fun fact.

Marcia was such a mixture of emotions that it took Casey a moment to sort through them. There was charred salt and terror, smoke and pepper, and most dangerous of all, she caught the scent of jasmine tinged with desperation.

Marcia rose to her feet slowly.

Casey’s hand shot out and gripped Marcia’s wrist.

Pepper stung her nose as Marcia’s eyes narrowed. Marcia tried to yank her arm away. Casey held fast.

Smoke filled the air, but Casey refused to let go. Hadn’t Marcia realized the first time that attacking their captor head-on wasn’t going to work? Hadn’t she realized that Patricia was in the light now, and there was no doubt she would be more dangerous than Dennis?

The jasmine would betray Marcia. Casey knew better than most what a dangerous emotion it could be.

Hope made you act blindly and recklessly. It made you forget to think before you jumped. It made you believe there would always be a soft landing when common sense shouted it would hurt, that you would break and bleed.

Hope was a fantasy. They weren’t going to escape on hope. They’d end up in pain and dead, instead.

“Were you planning on going somewhere?”

Marcia spun with a gasp to face Patricia.

The woman’s lips curled softly below eyes of frozen steel.

It wasn’t just smoke in the air, it was rage.

And it didn’t belong to Marcia.

 


 

 

“Why are you so obedient?”

Casey didn’t move from her supine position on the bed. She knew this was coming. She could taste the gasoline that now poured out of Marcia’s very skin. Her fear and her anger had coalesced as she paced from one end of the room to the other before backtracking to the beginning.

Casey hadn’t known the taste of gasoline until then, but she knew it would be brutal and that it would all be aimed at her when Marcia finally spoke.

“You’ll argue with a teacher when they ask you a question. You’ll fight with any girl because she makes a joke. But not with him. No, not with the guy that kidnapped us and is planning on feeding us to some animal. No, with him, you just sit there like a good little girl and do what he tells you.”

“You wouldn’t have escaped,” Casey replied.

“You don’t know that!” Marcia shouted. Casey heard her breaths quickening, “The door was right there, Casey. It was right there, and he had his back to us. I could’ve made it. We could’ve made it together!”

“We have no idea how big this place is.” Casey reminded her. “We have no idea if there’s any more locks between us and the outside world. If we attacked Patricia and failed, any possibility of escape would’ve disappeared.”

Marcia scoffed. “Yeah, because I’m so much better off now, right? That psycho is out there ‘deciding what my punishment will be.’”

“I don’t think you know what that word means.” Casey pointed out.

Who fucking cares?” Marcia screamed in frustration. Casey wondered if pepper could ignite gasoline. “He’s crazy and he’s going to kill us. What don’t you get about that? Why are you acting like his little puppet instead of trying to get out? Why are you drawing with him and sharing animal facts, and cleaning when he isn’t even here?”

Because you needed to understand the predator that stalked you, or else you’d never survive. You could fight, you could yell, you could do everything in your power to escape, but will alone wouldn’t get you far.

Casey had more than a few scars as testament to how failing was.

But she kept her mouth shut. Marcia was beyond listening to her now.

Casey heard Marcia drop on her bed. “Claire was right. You think your better than us, don’t you?”

Casey couldn’t help but turn towards her then.

Marcia’s eyes were red-rimmed and watery, but the usual softness the dark brown held had faded and only disgust remained.

“I know what it takes to survive.” Casey finally admitted, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference but treacherously hoping she’d understand. Casey hoped someone would understand, even if the end was near. She hoped and knew it was foolish to do so.

Marcia sneered, an expression Casey had never expected to see on the mild-mannered girl. “I wish he would’ve taken just you. You’re perfect for that freak.”

Casey stiffened, anger and embarrassment heating her blood. She sat up on her bed and narrowed her eyes at the brunette she’d once considered sweet. “And you’re perfect for The Beast, right? You were the one chosen for it, after all.”

Marcia paled.

Casey stood and walked towards the bathroom, ignoring the way Marcia’s shocked expression was twisting into fury.

She closed the door a second before glass shattered against it.

Casey opened it in confusion only to find a yellow flower at her feet, broken among glass shards and water.

Casey had forgotten that she’d moved the vase that was originally on the sink into the room. She’d forgotten she’d left it on the floor between their beds while she'd cleaned.

She looked up at Marcia.

Marcia was staring at the door to their room, eyes wide and jaw fallen.

Casey followed her gaze.

Dennis was standing on the threshold, arms crossed over his chest and face drawn into a scowl.

“Clean it up.” He growled.

Casey spun on her heel and grabbed the bucket from below the sink before dropping to her knees.

No.”

She froze, her heart beginning to pound in her ears at the rage in that single word.

“Don’t touch it.” Dennis ordered Casey, his glare never leaving Marcia. “It’s your mess. You clean it.”

Marcia nodded shakily before nearly tripping in her hurry to reach the bathroom.

Casey handed her the bucket before sitting with her back to the bathtub. She might not be able to help Marcia, but she didn’t want to be alone with a furious Dennis, either.

Despite her shivers, it didn’t take Marcia long to clean up the mess the tiny vase had made. When she was finished though, neither she nor Casey were ready to leave the bathroom.

But Casey had heard the anger in his voice, making him wait would make things worse.

She stepped over Marcia and into the room.

Marcia followed her lead and Casey couldn’t help but find Marcia’s sudden change of heart amusing. It was like Marcia had completely forgotten she was angry at Casey. She didn’t even smell gasoline anymore.

There was only rage from Dennis and terror from Marcia.

“We’re underground,” Dennis told them, voice still holding too much of a growl for comfort, “with at least six locks between you and the outside. Hedwig’s ‘window’ is a picture he drew and is very proud of.” His eyes drilled into Marcia. “There was no way you were gettin’ out. You should’ve listened to her.”

Casey saw Marcia deflate beside her and only the taste of ash lingered on her tongue.

“Since you can’t behave,” Dennis continued, “you’re being put in a separate room.”

Dennis turned his focus towards Casey. He studied her, his scowl softening to a frown but the line between his brows remained carved deeply.

Dennis ran his hand over his head and let out a sigh. “You, uh, you’ve got a crumb.”

Casey scrunched her nose and leaned forward, not sure she'd understood. “What?”

“On your jacket.” Dennis gestured towards her, his voice getting shaky. “It’s dirty.” He ran his tongue over his bottom lip. “Take it off.”

Casey instinctively wrapped her arms around her herself and took a step away, her back hitting the wall behind her.

Dennis continued to stare at whatever he imagined stained her jacket, his hands held into fists at his sides.

Casey forced her arms to unwind, reminding herself that she still had another shirt underneath. She still had another layer of protection. Her fingers trembled as the began to pull down the zipper of her hoodie. She shrugged out of it and held the black fabric to her chest.

She expected Dennis to grab the jacket from her. She expected a sigh of relief or even one of annoyance to find she wore another shirt.

She didn’t expect the sudden intensity of his eyes, or the quick steps he took until he was standing in front of her, basil and bleach soaking the air around him.

More than anything, Casey didn’t expect his hand to gently push the fabric of her white shirt off her shoulder.

When the fabric clung to her a moment before separating with a sting, Casey realized what had happened. She’d stained another of her shirts with blood during a moment of panic and Dennis didn’t like stains.

Casey started to shake. The wall she was leaning against the only thing that kept her from collapsing.

She held her breath as he continued to stare at the scars she’d kept hidden for so long. She didn’t want to know what he was feeling while his eyes traced each one and a blank expression blanketed his features.

Casey?”

Marcia’s horrified whisper seemed to snap them both out of their daze.

Dennis let go of her shirt, the stained fabric hiding her skin once more, and took a step back.

Casey took an unsteady breath, basil and sage filling her lungs.

She kept her gaze on the floor. She didn’t know what sage meant but she could guess and she refused to look up and confirm the emotion on his face.

“Casey?” Marcia called for her again, this time placing her hand on Casey’s arm.

Casey flinched at the touch.

“Are yo-”

“Let’s go,” Dennis snapped.

Casey jumped, strangling the jacket that was still in her hands.

“Come on,” Dennis ordered Marcia, voice softer than Casey had heard before.

“I’ll behave, I promise.” Marcia protested. “Just let me stay with her.”

Casey saw Dennis’s hand reach out and grab Marcia's arm.

Just like the first day, he dragged her crying out of the room.

Unlike then, though, Casey let herself fall to the floor, curl into a ball, and cry.

Even here, Casey couldn’t escape her uncle’s torture. What made her think she’d be able to escape him out there?

Maybe Casey wasn’t a survivor, after all. In the end, her scars screamed at her, she was just another victim and nothing more.

Chapter Text

Casey had tried to tell people about her uncle. She had tried to get it all to stop.

Casey had told her daddy first. In her clumsy six-year-old way, she’d asked her daddy not to invite her uncle on their hunting trips anymore.

Her daddy had clouds in his eyes, and he’d tasted of bitter worry and confusion. He’d asked why.

Casey had been so young, she didn’t know what to say. Her uncle was just playing games with his niece, the way all uncles did, right? But they hurt Casey. They made her shudder at a casual touch and her skin feel gross, like it wasn’t clean enough. His games made her have nightmares where she couldn’t breathe while oil filled her lungs and she’d wake up crying and shaking, but always carefully quiet so her daddy wouldn’t worry.

Still, “family always comes first.”

She told her daddy she wanted the trips to be just the two of them. She said she just wanted to spend the time with her daddy and no one else.

Her daddy said ok, and Casey’s nightmares finally stopped and her skin felt clean.

Then her daddy had died, and the nightmares escaped the woods and followed her home.

The second time Casey had told someone, it had been her teacher. Casey was ten and the reality that not all uncles played those types of games with their nieces had shaken her to her core.

She’d stopped talking in class, almost overnight, and no longer cared about assignments and quizzes. She had loved to draw and write but words held lies and blank paper filled with images too real. She couldn’t open a book or pick up a pencil. She just sat in her seat and tried not to think. She tried not to feel.

Her teacher had asked her to stay after class one day, basil thick in the air. Casey had stayed and there was such warmth in her teacher’s eyes and vanilla married basil around them that when she asked if Casey was alright, Casey hadn’t immediately lied.

Instead, her eyes became watery and she’d taken a deep breath to make her strong enough to speak, to show. She’d lifted the sleeve of her shirt, revealing blue bruises on her forearm.

Her teacher had gasped and had asked Casey who had hurt her, pain in her voice sounding as if she understood.

Casey prayed she did. The truth was on the tip of her tongue when her uncle walked in.

He saw her arm uncovered and the concern on her teacher’s face, and he’d rushed into the room, wrapping Casey in his arms and asking her what happened, asking who had hurt her.

His arms were steel, and he reeked of smoke despite his eyes being watery and his voice ever so gentle. The same gentle voice that dripped poison in her blood.

Her teacher said that she thought Casey had a bully.

Casey hadn’t argued.

She let them talk. She let them try to help, knowing her chance had gone. Casey had suffocated in her silence.

She didn’t even cry that night when her uncle’s fists turned to sickening caresses and he whispered how no one would believe her. How they’d all look down on her if she ever said a word. When he told her he loved her and “family always comes first,” she didn’t shed a tear.

Casey hadn’t said a word, but she’d found relief in a razor for the first time.

She prayed the crimson would take the poison with it.

Casey had told the world, that third and final time.

She had finally stopped believing that “family always comes first.” She was thirteen and broken and knew that family only mattered if they loved you in that warm sunshine way her father had. That family only came first if they accepted you and build you up, made you stronger and gave you peace.

Family didn’t matter at all if they were the ones that hurt you and tore you to pieces so small, sometimes you wondered if you existed at all.

So, Casey gathered her courage and told the world.

She did it online, under a different name, but she told them all the truth, unfiltered and whole.

Maybe she should have expected the responses. She was intimately aware of the cruelty the world was capable of.

But when her heart broke at the harsh, punishing words, she realized how naïve she had been. They called her a liar, they called her twisted and sick, they ranted and raved, and proved her uncle right. The worst ones, though, were the ones that wanted more details with hunger burning between words and that reminded her too closely of the touches she was trying to escape.

Casey erased her story and deleted every trace she could find that tied it to her.

She didn’t try to tell anyone else.

That was the first night she took matters into her own hands and tried to run away. If no one would help her, then she would help herself.

Casey made it two miles before her uncle caught up with her. That was the night she also felt the burn of a cigarette against her scarred skin.

There were other times in all the years that followed when Casey knew she could say something. When her uncle’s bruises were so dark that she could see his very handprint, she knew if she told and showed them, they wouldn’t be able to deny it. There were times when the scent of basil and soft eyes looked at her, that she knew, help was there if she was willing to take it.

By then, however, Casey had lost her naivety.

If they did help her, then what next?

Her uncle was the last of her family and her father’s friends had stopped reaching out years ago. She didn’t have any friends of her own or know of any people kind enough that would willingly take in a teen as troubled as her.

She’d end up in the foster system.

If she were lucky, maybe they’d place her in a home where no one cared, and she could just take care of herself. But when had Casey ever been lucky? Chances were good she’d end up with someone else like her uncle. Maybe she’d even end up with someone worse.

Casey had learned how to survive in her uncle’s home. She knew that being outside the house, in detention, school events, or even birthday parties where she could show a clear invitation, kept her safe. She knew he always played the doting uncle when they were outside his four walls and any affections would have to appear as such. He was always so worried about the way the world perceived him.

She knew that cleaning and cooking held him back until she was done. She knew if she handed him enough beers he’d pass out on the couch before she went to bed. She knew he hated her scars and didn’t like looking at them, so she was always safe when her shower was on.

Casey also knew that sometimes, despite everything, he could completely lose control and that she’d wake with bruises the next day and a soreness between her thighs she tried to forget. She knew that being passive made it hurt less but made her hate herself more. She knew fighting back made him angry enough that she’d be in pain for days, but she’d be able to breathe when she looked in the mirror knowing he had only used his fists and cigarettes and nothing else.

Casey knew her uncle.

She stayed, kept her lips sealed, and counted down the days when she’d turn 18 and could escape without being forced back. Casey began to steal money from uncle’s wallet and section off a part of the little amount he gave her for school. She hid her secret savings in the flour, knowing he’d never look there. She kept a backpack filled with the essentials she’d need once she was on her own, hidden under her bed. She planned the layers she’d wear that would keep her warm and placed them in plain view on top of her dresser. She tested her class schedule and learned which teacher wouldn’t call her uncle if she missed

Casey prepared and planned. When the time came, Casey would need ten minutes, and not a second more, in that house before she’d be ready to leave it all behind. Just ten minutes past her 18th birthday and Casey would never need another reason to see that place again.

Casey kept her secrets and waited; while restlessness snarled at her heels.

She had been as thorough as possible. She would escape.

But the world reminded her, if Casey didn’t have bad luck, she wouldn’t have any.

 


 

 

Casey heard the door open.

She remained with her arms around her knees and her face hidden.

Quiet steps made their way towards her.

They stopped at her side and Casey knew it was Dennis by the scent that surrounded him.

“Get up.”

Casey didn’t move. Her limbs felt like lead around her and the tears that had refused to stop weighed her down even further.

He sighed.

She heard another step echo by her ear and the rustling of fabric. Suddenly arms slipped below her knees and around her back and Casey’s breaths left her body as she was lifted in the air.

Casey stiffened. Her nails dug into her legs as she was placed onto the bed.

She felt him pause and a sob bubbled out of her.

Had they decided that the scarred girl wasn’t important anymore? Had they decided she was no longer good enough to be “sacred food” so they’d have to find another purpose for her? Her uncle had always said she was good for at least one thing, even if she’d ruined her body.

Casey felt calloused fingers gently slip beneath hers and pry them from her legs. She felt her blood freeze as his hands unwound her arms and settled them beside her. She felt the shivers begin again as he hooked his hands beneath her knees and pulled her to the edge until her legs had no choice but to fall to the floor.

Casey stared down at the jacket in her lap and didn’t move. She didn’t fight or release another sob. She just let her tears fall from her eyes and wondered what the point of fighting even was?

Fate had woven her threads for Casey, and no matter what she tried, she knew this is where she would end up. Maybe the face of tormentor would change, but she wouldn’t.

She’d been marked for pain and nothing she did would make that change. There was no escape, after all.

She closed her eyes when she felt the bed dip at her side and held her breath when he pulled aside the neck of her shirt. He could hurt her, that she was used to, but she didn’t want to smell basil or bleach while he did. They’d been important to her before. She knew they’d be forever tainted after today, but she wanted to hold on to the illusion of safety and caring for as long as she possibly could.

Casey gasped when she felt a sting as something wet ran across her shoulder. She caught the smell of rubbing alcohol and couldn’t resist turning her head just enough to see him run another wipe across her shoulder. She shifted further, staring as gloved hands efficiently wiped down the blood on her shoulder before strong fingers lightly pressed a bandage across the split skin.

She followed the hands as they retreated and watched as they picked up the bloodied wipes and ripped packages before the gloves were snapped off and bundled the trash within. The hands then fisted around one another and settled on a gray covered lap.

They didn’t move and neither did the rest of their owner. He just stayed beside her, silent and surrounded by the scent of basil and bleach with that undercurrent of sage still confusing her nose.

They were both still and unmoving for so long that Casey felt her tears dry and her shivers still.

“Thank you,” Dennis’s rough voice startled her enough that her eyes jumped to his face. His own were trained on the floor in front of the bathroom door and she wondered if he was searching for any spots Marcia may have missed. “For being kind to the boy.”

Casey had no idea what to say, so she remained silent.

“He’s a good kid,” Dennis continued, “but it’s difficult to find someone that’ll indulge him and not make fun of him or judge him just for being himself.”

Casey didn’t doubt that to be true. Their disorder, whatever it was, had to be hard on all of them but especially for the nine-year-old stuck in a grown man’s body. And, as Casey knew, the world wasn’t just unkind, it was cruel.

“I like Hedwig,” she admitted softly. It was the truth, despite the curl of fear she felt when the woman or the man where near, with Hedwig and the taste of oranges, she felt almost relaxed.

She saw Dennis’s lip lightly twitch, “He likes you.”

Casey almost smiled.

Dennis sighed and finally turned towards her. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

Casey raised a brow at him. “It wasn’t exactly my choice.”

Dennis ran a hand over his head. “That was my mistake.” He returned his gaze to the bathroom. “The Beast will be here soon. After that we’ll let you go.”

“You’ll just let me go?” Casey repeated slowly, doubt obvious in her voice.

Dennis looked at her shoulder and the scars still visible beside the bandage. Casey forced her hands still. He’d already seen them, it was too late to hide. “The Beast believes that scars make us strong. He believes they make us powerful. He says they make us special.”

Sage surged in the air and it made her breath stumble as she finally realized what it meant.

She bit down on her lip to stop it from trembling. What wouldn’t she give to believe him? To believe she was strong, to believe she was special…

Casey brushed her fingers against the scars on her bared shoulder. She felt the raised edges and the too smooth skin. “They don’t feel special.” They felt ugly and disgusting and they were reminders of things she wished she never knew.

“They never do.” Dennis nodded, understanding so clear in his dark gaze that Casey wondered how many scars marked his own flesh. “But they are. They’re proof that we’ve suffered but survived and that we see the world the way it truly is. They’re proof we’re powerful. They’re proof we’re extraordinary.”

Casey felt as if her heartbeat was too deep. She felt as if it echoed in every pore and pounded at her scars as if agreeing with his words. As if it wanted desperately to believe him.

She wore her scars like a warrior, for they’re a reminder she’s alive.

The phrase ran across her mind like a brand, an unknown voice engraving them deep in her heart.

Casey had scoffed at the phrase, the first time she read it so long ago, but with eyes an intense blue staring into hers; she let herself begin to believe them.

Casey tore her gaze away, the sage making her dizzy and lightheaded. She stared into the pure white bathroom and tried to focus on reality. She tried to focus on the here and now and forget the fantasy that had tried to envelope her with his words.

“What will happen to Marcia and Claire?”

Tension rose between them. “They’re impure.” Dennis answered, words falling like iron on concrete, unforgiving and unmovable. “They’re blinded to the world by their privilege and they’ll become like all the others, just another monster to break us and cause us pain.”

Casey frowned and looked at him again, “You don’t know that.”

Dennis focused on her split lip.

Casey’s hand rose to cover it. “That was an accident.”

“Isn’t it always?” Dennis asked in resignation. “Just like her words don’t mean anything because she was just upset.”

Casey’s protest froze on her lips. Marcia hadn’t meant it, Casey knew that. But she didn’t think there was anything she could say that would make Dennis believe her. Nothing that wouldn’t sound like an empty excuse they’d both heard before.

Dennis sighed again and rose to his feet. “I’ll bring you a clean shirt.”

Casey watched him leave and wondered which thought was more dangerous: That the impure deserved to die? Or that she was special?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The smell of fried bacon and cooked eggs pulled Casey from her sleep. Her stomach already aching with hunger as she remembered she hadn’t even been able to finish her first sandwich the night before.

Casey blinked open her eyes and her hunger vanished when she noticed the long legs crossed an arm’s length from her nose.

She took a breath and tried to ignore the scent of the food set on the wooden stand. Casey focused on the taste of wine and wasn’t sure if she should be relieved not to find smoke, or afraid not to find honey. Only wine greeted her, layered and potent.

Casey ran her eyes up the black shirt and the prim hands folded neatly over her knee, up past the dandelion yellow blouse with its silver locket hanging low, to the soft smile and the clear blue eyes already watching her.

“I’ve always been torn between the red-tailed boa and the lion.” Patricia told her, answering a question Casey had never asked. “They’re so different but there’s something remarkable about each. Take for example, the way they feast.” Casey felt as if there should have been a hiss at the end of the word, with the way Patricia’s eyes gleamed. Yet her voice remained casual and composed. “There’s more kindness to the red-tailed boa. The way it holds down its prey with its teeth before winding its body, round and round, and tightening its hold, bit by bit, until blood stops flowing and ribs push against frantic lungs. The prey’s brain dies before their body suffocates to death.” Casey’s heart raced and her mouth had gone dry. “Then its just simple mechanics. The boa unhinges its jaw and swallows up its meal in a smooth movement. It can usually take around 4 to 6 days to fully digest, depending on the size of the boa and the prey, of course, but it absorbs its nutrients in an almost seamless movement and is left sated for a long while.”

Patricia paused. Casey kept herself still, barely daring to breathe.

“Then there’s the lion.” Patricia continued, gaze locked unflinchingly on Casey’s. “They’re a pack animal and use cunning and planning in a more effective way than many humans. They’re general method for taking down prey is quicker than the boa since they have so many more mouths to be feed, but it’s a much more savage process. The females are the primary providers. Did you know that? The male is in charge and he protects his pride from other predators, but it’s the females that do the hunting that keeps their pride strong. They’re ruthless when they catch their meal. They wait and watch, picking out the weakest or slowest of a herd. They trap their prey and most of the time lead them straight to their deaths. Then, they use their claws and fangs and rip apart the prey’s flesh in minutes. Its so quick, the prey isn’t always dead before their meat is already begin digested by the pride. They’re both graceful and powerful and its awe-inspiring watching them both hunt.”

Patricia’s lips curled in an almost teasing manner. “You understand my dilemma in choosing.”

Casey didn’t understand at all, but she knew better than to speak before Patricia was ready.

“Dennis, of course, never learned to appreciate either.” She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “He’s remarkably squeamish when it comes to watching the animals eat. I’m not sure if it’s his belief that is it unclean or if it’s the act itself that disturbs him, but he always looked away during those moments.”

Patricia reached over and pushed a strand of Casey’s hair behind her ear. Casey fought back a shiver and stayed very, very still. She wished she’d sat up when she noticed Patricia there, but it was too late now. She had the eerie sense that one false move would cause Patricia to attack. “He’s a good boy, but I’ve always known his weaknesses, despite how hard he tries to hide them from everyone.”

Patricia stared at Casey, her smile soft while her eyes grew colder the longer they looked at one another.

“Dennis says you’re pure.” The scent of roses wound around her words.

Casey tried to keep her breaths shallow.

It wasn’t any rose, she caught, but the same scent that clung to the vibrant pink roses her father and her left on her mother’s grave every year on their wedding anniversary. They were earthy with a scent that stung while they tasted of pain and disappointment.

Casey didn’t like the flowers, but she always insisted on carrying them. The blooms were so heady and unruly in her arms that they always tickled at her nose, despite how hard she tried to hold her breath. But she did it for the mother she never knew and didn’t once complain.

Her father would wipe the dirt from her mother’s headstone, take away the weeping roses and replace them with the bright ones in Casey’s arms. Then they’d stand in silence in for a moment that never seemed to end while the smell clung to Casey’s clothes.

She hated the scent of roses.

“Dennis wouldn’t tell me why he believes that, only that you were no longer meant for The Beast.” There was ice in her eyes now and steel in her voice and Casey wondered who the roses were for. “So, little doe, why don’t you tell me why you’re wearing his shirt?”

Casey’s fingers knotted into the soft cotton that swamped her and smelled of detergent and disinfectant. “Mine was stained.” Casey answered, voice nothing but a whisper.

Patricia’s brow rose.

“My cut opened.” Casey tried to explain but the roses choked her, her nerves had her on edge, and words made no sense.

Patricia stared at her lip. Her smile grew but didn’t warm. “Try again, little doe.”

The endearment suddenly sounded like a threat. A reminder that Casey was prey and Patricia was the lioness ready to bring her, bleeding and torn to pieces if need be, to the waiting lion’s jaw.

Casey couldn’t speak, her heart was pounding in her throat and her tongue sat invasive and clumsy in her mouth. Making a sound felt like making a hasty movement, both things that would call a hungry gaze her way before fangs took hold.

Patricia waited and the smell of roses spiraled around the room until Casey felt their thorns surrounding her and locking her in place.

Casey broke Patricia’s stare. Her hand slowly and oh so cautiously lifted to her should and carefully tugged at the collar of Dennis’s shirt, ignoring the way the other side dug into her neck and the sound of threads splitting, until a white bandage beside thin pink lines became visible.

Sometimes nothing needed to be said, even if it twisted her insides to have another person see.

A calloused fingertip ran over one of the scars almost hidden beneath Dennis’s shirt.

“What is this?” Her uncle looked at her in horror while his hands shook too badly to touch her, although his hand still hovered close enough she could feel the brand of his touch. “Casey-bear, what did you do?

“You did these.” Patricia commented, tracing each scar. “The lines are never straight when it’s your own work.”

The razor was so sharp she almost didn’t feel it. It wasn’t until after it had passed and blood began to run that the pain would follow. Sometimes she cut too deep, needing the pain to come quicker, and the throbbing would follow her for days.

Patricia’s finger circled a cigarette burn. “These, however, belong to someone else.”

“I told you to stop!” He snarled into her face, pulling her hair back so far her neck began to ache. “I told you I don’t like looking at them.”

He’d caught her trying to run away and then he’d caught the razor in her hand. She should’ve stayed quiet, but anger and impotence warred within her. She let it guide her and snarled right back. “Fuck you.”

Rage roared around her, smoke bursting into flames at the sound of two little words. He reached for the cigarette wasting away on the table. He didn’t bother to flick off the ash, instead burying the entire thing in her shoulder, right over the raw, healing skin of her latest cut. She screamed and her skin hissed.

“There are more, aren’t there, little doe?” Patricia’s voice was soft.

“Your daddy would be disappointed in you if he saw what you were doing.” Her uncle shook his head, eyes avoiding her newest scar.

“My daddy is dead.” She replied, thinking of the razor hidden in her cabinet.

The feel of a thumb brushed against her cheek.

Casey looked up at Patricia through watery eyes.

Patricia’s smile had fallen and her eyes had lost their ice, but roses still lay around them.

“I know what its like to feel trapped.” Patricia murmured, voice almost distant. “I know what’s its like to exist but not be given permission to live. To be a thought without a body, without choice. Sometimes, pain is our only escape. When you do escape,” she sighed, hand soothing back Casey’s hair, “you’ll make whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure you’re never imprisoned again.”

Casey sniffled and felt her body relax as she realized the roses were for her. She contemplated the sad reality that she felt safer with the promise of death than the threat of freedom.

 


 

 

“Hey there, Dr. Fletcher!” Dennis grinned at the woman, his smile too wide and the cadence of his words too quick.

She smiled in greeting, warmth in her too watchful eyes. “Hello, Barry.”

“I brought my newest sketches,” Dennis continued, acting as if he hadn’t heard her pause on the name, “there’s this one in there that I think you’re gonna absolutely go nuts for.”

“I bet. Your sketches are always divine.” Dr. Fletcher laughed as if she believed him and settled herself in her usual chair while Dennis slouched in the one across from her, handing over a black sketchbook in the process.

Dennis forced his shoulders to drop low and his legs to stretch out in a way that looked casual but felt uncomfortable.

Dr. Fletcher scanned the pages of the sketchbook and Dennis made sure to give a comment on every page.

“That’s going to be made of chiffon!” He acted gleeful as he pointed out a dress. “That way it flows when you walk, and you look all ethereal and goddess-like.”

“That one!” Dennis gave a dramatic sigh. “That is going to be absolutely stunning when its finished. There’ll be this embroidery on that side there that will sparkle in the light and be amazing.”

“Oh!” He crossed his legs and grinned extra wide. “Those there, that entire group is gonna be this combination of silk and wool that sounds like it won’t work but it absolutely will! Just image the top of that skirt, the real fitted part, being warm, sturdy wool while the bottom is soft, shimmery silk.” Dennis held his arms to his chest. “It’s gonna be exquisite!”

Dr. Fletcher nodded and smiled. She made little sounds of delight and gave him words of praise and Dennis knew they were hollow.

He knew she was looking at him more often than at the sketchbook and the look in her eyes was almost a dare. How long are you going to pretend? They asked him.

Dennis gave her Barry’s smile and launched himself into another enthusiastic description of something he could care less about.

Barry loved his designs. He spent hours sketching and creating and even more enthusiastically telling the others about them. Telling them about his newest inspiration, his newest idea, and the type of person he believed would look best in it.

It might have been years since Barry had spoken directly to him, but that didn’t mean he didn’t overhear. That didn’t mean he didn’t remember everything. That he didn’t grasp at any conversation like a man dying of thirst. He’d been out of the light for so long that any mention of the outside world had him shifting to the end of his seat and listening obsessively.

All of Barry’s talking and Dennis’s listening had made it easy to lie to the doctor as if he had created the sketches himself. It made it easy to pretend he was someone else. As if he was someone who could smile without it feeling unnatural and laugh without thinking the sound was too loud. As if he was someone who belonged and could just be, without having to justify his existence.

Barry was so fucking lucky, Dennis wished he could hate the bastard.

“Can I guess that you emailed me in the middle of the night,” she started suddenly, closing Barry’s sketchbook, being delicate with the papers inside and set it on the table beside her, “due to garden variety issues?”

Dennis laughed. He gave her an unconcerned shrug. “I was down so I emailed you. Then I woke up and I feel better.” Her peaceful expression remained unfazed. “I feel better.” He repeated, smile now wide in desperation.

Dr. Fletcher smiled benignly. “I had a thought,” she began. Dennis tilted his head as if he were interested and tried not to replace his smile with the scowl that itched at his lips. “I want to talk about the incident at work.”

Dennis brow raised, he hadn’t expected her to bring that up.

“It’s okay, Barry.” Dr. Fletcher assured. “You’re safe. I just want to bring the details back. We’ll just talk about the details.” She said as if the details weren’t the problem.

Her voice was soft and so annoyingly soothing that Dennis had to actively fight against the surge of memories.

“A high school from Camden, New Jersey was on a field trip at your place of work,” she began.

Dennis felt himself being drawn in. He remembered how Jade had complained about the scheduled field trip for days beforehand. She ranted that even though the little ones made a mess at least they respected the adults, unlike teenagers. Barry had laughed and reminded her that he would be the one at work to deal with them, not her. But when Barry was in the light, he always let all the others see. Even if they weren’t in control, they were aware of what was happening. Jade had asked if he could shut them out this time so she wouldn’t have to deal with the second-hand headache.

Barry had just told her to look away if she didn’t want to deal with them.

Dennis knew Barry regretted not having listened to Jade, this once. Some things were better kept private, even from the others, Dennis understood that all too well.

“And two young ladies came up to you.” Dr. Fletcher continued. The image of the giggling blonde and the dark-eyed girl with bad intentions in her gaze ran through his mind. “And one took your hand and put it under her shirt and on her breast and the second one did the same. Then they just ran off laughing to their friends.”

They’d flirted with Barry first, teeth in their smiles. He remembered shifting uncomfortably in his chair while the images played before them. Luke had noticed and called him a pervert. But that hadn’t been the reason he’d been uneasy. They wouldn’t have understood if he’d tried to explain, though. They were all so blissfully ignorant they didn’t realize cruelty could wear a pretty face.

Barry had been polite as he’d shrugged off their attention and tried to get back to work. Then the blonde had pouted to her friend and said, in a too loud voice that frayed his nerves, it was a shame Barry was gay since he looked like he’d be able to make a girl scream in bed. The dark-eyed girl had smirked, never looking away from Barry, and said she could easily fix that.

They’d all felt Barry’s annoyance at their assumptions and indignation at their belief he needed “fixing.”

Barry was usually more in control, but he’d been ready to snap a reply when his hands were suddenly being pressed against soft flesh.

Barry had frozen and malicious laughter echoed in the stunned silence of their minds.

Dennis was the first from his chair, rage pulsing through his veins. Patricia was at his side, settling a shaking Barry in his seat while Dennis took the light and forced himself to finish the rest of their workday. He had kept his gaze lowered, had done was needed, and ignored the voices of outrage, pity, and fear that circled the room in their mind.

Dennis began adjusting the gloves Barry favored so that the seam lay centered and parallel to his palm and tried to give the doctor an unconcerned smile.

Before he had been able to get back to work, he’d spent twenty minutes in the bathroom with scalding water and a full container of antibacterial soap before he began to feel his hands were clean again.

“You surmised that it might be on a dare. You said they were 17 or 18. You said it upset you for days.”

Upset wasn’t what they had felt. Violated and traumatized were the feelings that had radiated around the room as the events had begun to sink in for the others.

Dennis had always taken control before any of the others had to suffer, but enough of them knew the signs. Enough of them had glimpsed the beginning and had noted the resulting scars, that such an unexpected and unwanted sexual touch had shaken them. Even if nothing else came from it. After living so long with Kevin’s mother, their very flesh started associating touch with pain and fear became instinctual.

After Barry had gotten a hold himself, he’d insisted they were just a couple of mean girls playing a prank. He’d insisted it hadn’t meant more than that and had tried desperately to soothe them, despite the way his own voice still shook.

“It was just a teenage prank,” Dennis grinned stiffly, Barry’s words choking him. It hadn’t been a prank. They had meant to cause pain and had succeeded. There was nothing childish in that act. “I get that now.”

Dr. Fletcher pressed her fingers to her forehead. “And see, that’s my mistake.” She smiled apologetically. “I believe that I went over this incident with you too fast. Although you said you were fine, and the other identities I met with said it was fine,” Barry was always so good at convincing everyone they were always fine, some of the alters began to believe him, even while his heartbeat still raced when another high school field trip was announced or when the sound of giggling made him break out in a cold sweat. “I believe that this brought up issues from when you were a child and abused.”

Dennis jaw dropped and he twisted his expression into exaggerated disbelief.

He was surprised Dr. Fletcher had realized the truth and it made him wonder exactly how much of the abuse Barry and Kevin had shared with her. Kevin had had to live on his own for the first few years of his life, but it had been at the beginning. His mother’s sadism hadn’t truly taken root until years after Dennis had arrived. By the time Barry came, Dennis had learned how to take the light at the first flinch or sudden stillness, and he made sure that the others only had to deal with the echoes of their childhood while Dennis alone had to live with the memories.

There were a lot of they could have told her, he supposed. They could have told her about the scars and the nightmares and might have even tried to piece together stories from the combination. Dr. Fletcher was a clever woman, she’d probably been able to realize more of what had happened with the fragments then they had themselves.

Dennis hoped if she had, she’d kept it to herself. They didn’t need to know.

“Sometimes another incident of abuse can cause suppressed personalities to take the light.” Dr. Fletcher explained and Dennis shook his head, smile still on. “Dennis,” she emphasized his name, “if this is you, I completely understand why you felt the need to take over and protect the others.”

“Please!” Dennis laughed, frustration bleeding into the sound. He was getting so very tired of playing this game. There were things that needed to be done and spending his time in this cluttered room was beginning to feel more and more pointless by the second. “Doctor, not this again.”

She ignored him. “The others told me that you and Patricia told the group about this Beast. And I told them that these are just scary stories that Dennis and Patricia tell the others to scare them. How this Beast can crawl on walls, like the best rock climbers using the slightest friction and imperfections to hold his body close to seemingly sheer surfaces. How his skin is thick and tough like the hide of a rhinoceros.” She paused. “Do you really believe the stories about The Beast?”

Dennis pursed his lips and shook his head, because he knew that’s what Barry would do. Barry didn’t believe. Barry lied to himself enough to believe he was fine but refused to see that there was a way they really could be. That there was a powerful being lurking inside their very skin in the shadows of their mind that could protect them all. That it could make the world safe enough that Kevin could exist without having to live in constant fear.

“If this is you, Dennis,” Dr. Fletcher repeated his name, daring him to deny it again. “I understand why Kevin needs you. You are strong and disciplined. You are precise and you will not be taken advantage of. You can trust me.”

Dennis’s hand rose to rub against his head. The reminder that that wasn’t one of Barry’s habits, made him pause and his fingers twitched against his neck.

“For example, I do have the ability to use Kevin’s full name and bring him forward as he has in the past.”

A frown slipped through at the threat. His heart began to race. She couldn’t call him forward. Not yet. The world wasn’t ready. If Kevin came forward, now when everything was still so unsafe… And calling his name would bring him into the light soaked in terror from the memories it invoked. The world wasn’t ready, Kevin wasn’t ready, she couldn’t-

“But I wouldn’t do that,” Dr. Fletcher was quick to promise. “I know that that would be chaos for all of you. Everyone would grab the light. I don’t want to hurt any of you that way. You don’t have to hide. I know you are someone who cares for Kevin. You are not evil to me. You were necessary.

He blinked back his confusion.

Evil? Is that what the others thought of him? That he was evil? So, he wasn’t just a useless, unwanted part of them that needed to be suppressed, he was evil, too? There had to be a reason Dr. Fletcher chose that word. She wasn’t a careless woman. Who-? No, how many of the others saw him that way?

Dennis grit his teeth at the thought. They didn’t know what evil was. He’d protected them all from that reality and now they threw it back at him as if he meant nothing.

Dennis wished he believed the doctor’s other words were how the other’s saw him as well. He wished he could believe they saw him as more than just a series of faults, but he wasn’t deaf and he wasn’t Barry. He couldn’t lie to himself the same way. Words shouted in anger and disgust were all he heard as they banished him from the light. He could see it on their faces, that the words had always been on the tip of their tongues, just waiting for an opportunity to be let loose. Dennis was the most shattered of Kevin’s broken pieces, so of course they believed the worst in him. He supposed in their minds, evil wasn’t that far off of what he was.

Maybe it was his fault. Maybe he had sheltered them from so much that asking them to understand was simply beyond them.

The doctor, as imploring and tempting as her words may be, was the same. She would never understand because despite everything, she had never had to suffer the way he had.

He thought of the pure girl with haunted eyes and scars that showed her strength. He thought of the way she wore the bruise on her jaw as if it belonged there and how the cut on her lip refused to heal.

The dark-haired girl had called her Casey.

She’d sobbed that name as he locked her in her closet and begged him to let her stay.

Dennis knew better than to believe the girl’s concern. He’d heard the things she’d shouted at Casey before he’d entered the room. He’d seen her cause the bruise on her jaw and had caught her as she threw the glass vase, fully intending to cause the girl more pain.

Dennis had picked two girls that had closely resembled the ones that had attacked Barry. He’d watched them and saw that their lives were easy and all they had to do was smile to get what they wanted. It was obvious that neither had ever known pain, that they were impure and would be the perfect sacrifices for The Beast.

Casey had been a mistake.

She was pure. The sight of her scars, ranging in age, proved it. She hid beneath layers, the way Kevin had when he was a boy before he started giving the light away, little by little. She watched them with eyes that had already seen too much. She thought before acting, because life had taught her that was the only way to survive.

Of course, she was pure, how had he not noticed sooner? How had he not noticed the signs he’d seen in Kevin reflected in her face?

Dennis had had doubts, about The Beast and about Patricia’s plans. He had been hesitant and reluctant to move forward in such a drastic way. Then the girls had hurt Barry and he realized Kevin wasn’t the only one he needed to protect.

“Dennis, is that you?”

Dr. Fletcher’s voice called him.

Dennis stared and knew their game had ended. There was no use in pretending anymore. He shifted in his seat until he was settled in the middle and his spine was parallel to the backrest. He let his shoulders broaden and acknowledged the strength beneath his skin. He finally let go of Barry’s smile and his frown found him once more.

“They keep calling us the Horde.” He hadn’t meant to admit that, but the nickname given by Orwell tasted bitter in his mouth and the words had already been held back for too long. “The others, you know? Miss Patricia and I, we are ridiculed.” And treated without an ounce of respect. Treated as if they were forever unwanted and in the way. The others saw them and piled on hate as if they were to blame for every annoyance in their lives. “Now, we’re not perfect, but we don’t deserve to be ridiculed. We’re struggling. They have to admit that.”

Dr. Fletcher wiped tears from her eyes and Dennis felt a longing for kinship. She knew them and had done so much to help Barry and the others. Maybe she was capable of understanding? Maybe she had seen enough suffering that she wasn’t as blind as the rest of the world? She smiled and reached out to him. “I am pleased to meet you, Dennis.”

Dennis took her hand and gently shook it. “You, too.”

“I assume you don’t know who emailed me for the emergency sessions?” She asked.

He shrugged. He had an idea, but it didn’t matter. “One of the others.”

Dr. Fletcher nodded. “Are you in charge?”

“Yeah, we’ve taken charge.” Dennis revealed, figuring the question might as well have been rhetorical. The doctor already knew his answers. “We’re the only ones that can protect Kevin.”

“We’re all here to protect Kevin.” She argued, voice gentle.

She was trying to understand, but he could tell she couldn’t, not quite.

“Do you believe in monsters?” he asked, trying to help her.

Dr. Fletcher stilled. He saw her force a questioning smile onto features that had grown stiff. “I’m sorry?”

“Monsters.” Dennis repeated, beginning to wonder if she was legitimately trying or if she was just humoring the “evil” alter.

“Are you asking about fantasy monsters like The Beast?” Her words were ever so careful. “Or real ones like Kevin’s mother?”

The Beast was meant to protect them, not hurt them, but she wouldn’t understand that, it was obvious. She thought he was just a scary story.

“The ones that hurt us,” he told her instead.

Dr. Fletcher’s thoughtful eyes studied him. “I believe bad people exist. I believe there are those out there that have been hurt and hurt others in return. I believe there are those that are sick and cause pain because they don’t know how else to exist.” She paused and shifted forward in her seat the smallest amount. “I believe there are stories that haunt us. There are stories we create because they personify our fears and sometimes that’s how we let them go. I believe there are stories we tell others that are meant to hurt and scare because they hurt and scare us. But they’re just people, capable of monstrous things maybe, and they’re just stories, terrifying and nightmare inducing perhaps, but monsters aren’t real.”

Dennis thought of the pure girl and the scars on her shoulder. She was young, that much was obvious, but some of her scars looked old and the look in her eyes spoke of years of pain. He’d watched while she played with Hedwig, a wistfulness surrounding her in those moments that spoke of a stolen childhood. He’d seen her eyes light up before he’d had to come to see Dr. Fletcher, when Hedwig gave her a half-used notebook and a CD he’d insisted Dennis buy during his lunch. Dennis could tell from her smile that even that small act of kindness was foreign to her while dealing with the angry dark-haired girl had been so common-place she hadn’t once raised her voice.

He thought of Kevin, who couldn’t even dress himself because it meant he would see his own scars. Dennis had been born when Kevin was three, but not when the pain had started. Despite how many more memories Dennis blocked so Kevin wouldn’t see, a part of Kevin always seemed to be able to read the pain in the new marks on their skin. Kevin broke down each time they were exposed and would sob for hours when he noticed a new one until Patricia’s singing would soothe him to sleep. He thought of the way Kevin’s body always seemed to cave into itself and how he hadn’t seen Kevin smile for years and hadn’t heard him laugh for so much longer. He remembered the feeling of agony and helplessness that had swept through them all when Kevin bit down on the barrel of a gun and how Dennis had barely managed to take the light in time.

Dennis thought of the scars on his body. He knew every single one. He remembered how they hurt and ached and knew how long it had taken each to heal. He remembered the hands that caused them; hands that were supposed to protect and nurture but who’s purpose had been lost in madness. He remembered threats of pain and hungry eyes from those who tried to take advantage of the broken boy. He remembered sleepless nights and restless dreams and lying between both while his ears stayed perked in case of a whimper.

“That’s the problem, Dr. Fletcher,” Dennis sighed, disappointed in himself for hoping she’d comprehend when he already knew she wasn’t capable, “you can’t protect Kevin when you don’t believe.”

The Beast was coming tonight.

Dennis had his doubts, but the blood on the pure girl’s scars reminded him once more. There were too many monsters out there. The only way to protect Kevin and all the others was for them to unleash their own.

Chapter Text

Hedwig had told her, when he’d given her a notebook and pens “borrowed” from Barry’s desk, that they were going to have a dance party after Mr. Dennis came back from the doctor lady’s place and she had felt anticipation sing in her veins the eternal time she was been kept waiting.

Dennis came into the room first, bleach and indulgence made his steps almost light as he set up Hedwig’s CD player on the wooden foldout table between the beds. She swore, for a moment, she saw the corner of his lips lift in the ghost of a smile that tasted like lavender. Then his frown was pulling down his features and his hand was resting heavy on his head.

“Please try to keep the room clean.” He practically begged her, handing her a new roll of paper towels and a neat bundle of bags.

“We’re just going to listen to music,” Casey told him as she took the new supplies from his hands, “we won’t make a mess.”

Dennis’s brow lifted only a fraction above his black frames. He shook his head and walked out of his room, leaving behind dust in the air that tickled her nose.

Then Hedwig was racing into the room, arms overflowing with toys he unceremoniously dumped on her bed before running out again. He came back a few minutes later, tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth, laden down with snacks. He was more careful dropping them on the other bed, but Casey still ended up corralling the runaway sodas, before Hedwig was gone again. Then it was CD cases in one arm and finger paints in the other that mixed with the plastics and plushies on her bed before he disappeared once more.

On his final appearance, Hedwig tripped into the room dragging a thick cheetah print comforter and pillows stacked so far above his head, he bumped into the door frame twice before finally making it through.

Casey's once clean and bare room was suddenly bursting with chaos and oranges, and the dust of resignation and the earnest request from Dennis finally made sense.

A laugh escaped Casey and she let herself fall into the mountain of pillows dumped at her feet, immediately deciding she’d worry about the mess later.

Hedwig settled beside her with a grin stretching his lips and pride lighting fireworks in his eyes.

They built a fort between the beds, piling the pillows on the floor and then stretching the comforter above their heads. It was uneven and Casey’s side kept slipping low since the toys weren’t the best anchors, but it was fun and the feeling felt foreign in her chest.

Hedwig insisted on a snack break and they ate crushed chips through handfuls and drank exploding sodas with less care then they should have. Casey threw paper towels on the puddles and decided they’d be dealt with later.

Casey asked Hedwig about his toys and he excitedly crawled out of their hiding place before sitting cross-legged on the bed and giving her a vivid story about each and every item on the bed.

He explained the plastic Godzilla missing an arm had been a gift from Mr. Pritchard and had to be treated with care. “He’s big and scary but Mr. Pritchard said its only to people who pick on me.”

He showed her the pink hippo with only one eye that Luke won on accident during a carnival game. “The big dummy thought he was playing ring toss when it was knock the bottles down! Jade made fun of him all day.”

The long green snake that could wrap around his shoulders and had a fuzzy pink tongue poking out had been a bribe from Barry “for being extra good at work. It was so boring, Casey, I just wanted to scream! But Barry said if I was good he’d give me a present and let me eat ice cream.”

Jalin had given him a jump rope with kangaroo handles that held deep scratches and Ansel gave him plastic weights of neon colors, so Hedwig could work out like some of the “grown ups” liked to.

The turtle who’s shell held a bundled blanket was a gift from Samuel, meant to protect Hedwig during thunderstorms and the soft white hood with round ears and ends that could be used for gloves, was from Felicia and protected him from blizzards.

Hedwig showed each with care and the warmth of family and affection that surround him, glued a genuine smile to Casey’s face.

When Casey asked him if he missed the others, Hedwig had shrugged and replied, “Miss Patricia says it’s the only way Kevin’ll wake up.”

Then he’d held up a couple of action figures, gifted by Mary and Ian, and insisted it was time to play.

They started a game of tag between her camo wearing scowler and his bare-chested snarler and raced around the room, climbing treacherous bed railings and leaping across giant pillow to giant pillow.

Casey bargained for some rest with the promise of drawing their action figures in the middle of a grand adventure.

Hedwig had sprawled out under their fort and Casey sat beside him, leaning back against her bed and turning on the neglected CD player.

Hedwig let out a long, pained groan at the first note, realizing she’d put on her new Brittany CD, but kept his place and didn’t try to turn it off. Casey was still working on sketching the imagined scene when she noticed Hedwig’s sneakered feet moving to the rhythm and his hands slamming the ground to the beat.

It didn’t take long before Hedwig was moving around the room, pounding his head to the music and making exaggerated motions with his arms.

Casey took a break from her drawing and twirled with him for the next few songs.

Brittany was replaced with Kanye, music turned up to the highest setting, and Hedwig’s dancing took a drastic turn as his movements became more aggressive and outrageous. At one point, Hedwig was red faced and upside down with his legs shaking in the air while the next he was doing such enthusiastic hand gestures his shoulders seemed to spasm.

“Wow,” was all she could say when the song ended and he stood expectantly in front of her.

“I know.” He nodded, expression completely serious.

She cleared her throat. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen dancing like that.”

Hedwig gasped. “I can teach you!” He shouted excitedly, already bouncing on his feet.

The brief image of Casey and Hedwig both standing on their heads slipped in her mind and Casey couldn’t contain her laughter. She smiled at Hedwig, trying to assure him that she wasn’t laughing at him. “I’m positive I don’t have that level of skill.”

She rose to her feet and held out her hands for him. “How about I teach you a dance my dad taught me?”

Hedwig scrunched his nose, “Is there more twirling?”

Casey grinned, knowing Hedwig hadn’t found her rusty ballet moves very impressive. “Only a little.”

His brows dropped low and if it wasn’t for the pout, she’d be sure Dennis was coming through.

“Its only the fun kind,” Casey implored, wiggling the fingers in her outstretched hands.

Hedwig sighed and slipped his much larger palms over hers. “Ok, but we keep listening to Kanye!”

Casey nodded and drew him closer until their linked hands dangled loosely at their sides.

It was the oddest sensation, leading Hedwig through her father’s old dance, Kanye’s thumping rhythm in the background.

Hedwig might have the mind of a nine-year-old, but his body was that of a man. He towered over her and his wide chest, even hidden beneath his loose jacket, blocked her from the rest of the room, like a protective wall. His hands were large and warm in her own and sunshine replaced oranges in her mind.

She was reminded of Sunday afternoons when the windows were thrown wide open and a cool breeze wandered in and played with the streaks of sunlight. Her father would take her hands, set her on his feet, and dance around the living room while Casey laughed in happiness. She had felt invincible surrounded by his strength and warmth and in those little moments the rest of the world ceased to matter.

Casey smiled up at Hedwig as he concentrated on their simple two step dance and she let her father’s memory fade into oranges and joy.

It was a feeling very similar to the one she had with her father, but almost reversed. She was guiding him and a wave of protectiveness washed over her for the child. While Hedwig’s body might belong to a man, he was a child, through and through and she felt safe and comforts in the realization.

She wished he was smaller and she could let him step on her feet to guide him like her father had.

A memory of dizzying delight caused a grin to form. She let go of one of his hands and clumsily twirled him with the other, stretching high on her tiptoes to reach over his head.

Hedwig snickered and suddenly their two steps became a competition of twirls and of who can spin the other faster.

They fell on their fort, the comforter bundled beneath them, and tried to catch their breaths between giggles while they waited for the world to stop moving.

“Casey?”

Casey hummed, her eyes still closed.

“You’ll come back and visit, right?”

She peeked at the little boy at her side and felt the ache of sympathy in her chest at his hesitant voice and the taste of sadness dulling his brightness.

Being eternally young sounded more and more like a curse, the longer she spent with Hedwig.

Casey grabbed his hand. “You’re my friend, Hedwig.”

Oranges blossomed and Casey felt guilt well inside her.

She hadn’t lied. Hedwig was the first friend she had since before scars lined her skin, but there were roses in her future, Patricia had practically sworn as much. Even if she felt safe enough to return in the future, she wasn’t all that certain she’d get the chance.

“Can I kiss you?”

Casey’s eyes widened and she dropped his hand.

“I forgot to bring you flowers,” Hedwig frowned to himself. He wriggled from their nest and searched through the toys that now littered the floor.

Casey sat up and watched him warily. She wondered if maybe someone else had taken over and we’re hiding beneath the oranges.

Hedwig shouted and held up a yellow pinwheel in triumph. He kneeled down next to Casey and held it out for her, pink painting his cheekbones and eyes lowered.

There was embarrassment and shyness in the air, but not a hint of darkness. It was just her and Hedwig here.

Casey watched his blush and realized his entire face was decorated in freckles. It was so easy to imagine a little nine-year-old with freckles down his nose, shyly asking a girl for a kiss underneath the monkey bars.

A smile tugged at her lips. She reached out, took the yellow pinwheel and lightly pressed her lips against his before she could overthink the impulse.

The kiss was chaste and friendly, but Hedwig’s eyes grew wide and pink became scarlet and the taste of peppermint filtered through the air.

Casey grinned feeling heat press against her own cheeks. “Thank you for the flower, Hedwig.”

 


 

Casey had no desire to leave her comfortable nest.

She wanted to keep the easy glowing feeling alive in her chest for as long as possible and she knew that if she moved, it would start to fade.

A paper towel caught her eye and she sighed. She had told Dennis she’d try to keep the room clean and she had a feeling he’d be coming to check on her soon since Hedwig had just gone.

Casey took a deep breath of the lingering happiness Hedwig had left her and got to her feet.

Hedwig had been a glorious distraction but it was time Casey remembered that she was a prisoner here with numbered days. It was time that she stopped feeling sorry for herself and started thinking of a way out.

It didn’t matter that Patricia and Dennis had seen her scars, she’d had them long before she met the two and would have them long after.

Dennis’s sage might terrify her because she would never understand how he could admire a girl as broken as her, and Patricia’s roses might bring her grim comfort because at least she was familiar with that feeling of regretful disappointment, but Hedwig’s joy reminded her that there was still a reason to live.

Casey might be scarred with pieces inside of her broken beyond repair, but she could still feel. She had numbed herself for so long. She had cloaked her own world in gray to protect herself, that she hadn’t realized how much harm she was doing, how much she was letting herself forget.

The world was cruel and people like her uncle existed around every corner… but it was also bright with innocence shinning between cracks and warmth just waiting to be embraced.

A little time with Hedwig reminded her of that. A little time with laughter and oranges and Casey knew that while roses on an unmarked grave might lie in wait, she wasn’t going to let it happen without a fight.

 


 

Dennis arrived a few minutes later than Casey had expected but since he was carrying another bucket of cleaning supplies and a broom nestled in the crook of his arm, it wasn’t hard to figure out the reason for his tardiness.

He stopped in the doorway of the room, took a look at the floor littered with toys, the messy beds, the comforter and pillows piled in the middle with crumbs glaringly obvious on the fabric, and the pile of snacks sloppily laying on the bed, and he sighed.

Dennis set his supplies down and leaned his broom against the wall. He methodically undid the buttons on the wrists of his sleeves before rolling them up his arms to his elbows. Then, with sharp movements, he began picking up the scattered toys.

Casey held out a half-filled trash bag for him. “I figured they’d be easier to move this way.” Casey explained when he frowned at her.

Dennis looked at her in surprise. “Smart.”

Casey smiled. “It’s been known to happen.”

Dennis dropped the toys into the bag and she caught the ghost of his smile. She breathed in the scent of bleach and amusement but was relieved to note that no lemon taste was to be found.

Dennis might not like the mess but either he was too used to Hedwig’s chaos to be annoyed, or he was just relieved it hadn’t been as bad as he had thought.

They were surrounded in a comfortable silence, twisting and slipping between one another, as they worked to bring about order once more.

Casey caught him watching her, more than once, frown set deep and the taste of confusion and cotton candy lingering with his stare.

She ignored the looks, ignored the fizzing sweetness on her tongue, and focused on cleaning everything, all the time letting her mind take diligent notes as she began to plot her escape.

She knew her time was running out.

Hedwig’s visit, while exactly what she needed, felt like her last meal.

The Beast was drawing closer and Patricia’s threat loomed over her like a guillotine just waiting for a clear sight of her pale neck.

While Dennis might have said she could leave, she’d always known he wasn’t the one she had to fear, despite what Claire and Marcia had believed, which meant he also wasn’t her key to freedom.

But he smelled of sage when he saw her scars. She paused and looked over to see him sweeping across the room, the rhythmic movements causing the muscles in his shoulders to pull against his gray shirt. It wasn’t just sage, either, it was understanding she had caught.

Casey wondered again how many scars Dennis had. She wondered if sometimes colors faded for him, too.

Dennis was shifting her bed to the side when he caught her staring. He paused and returned her gaze.

Had Patricia convinced him that she couldn’t be set free? Or did he have no idea what Patricia was really planning?

“Where did you want me to leave these?” Casey asked, referring to the pillow cases she’d removed and carefully folded, and the bare pillows now piled on the second bed.

Dennis’s frown returned, along with the effervescent taste of wonder, as he continued to stare as if he couldn’t figure her out and hadn’t decided if he liked the feeling or hated it.

“I’ll wash them after I’m done.” Dennis finally answered.

“I can finish sweeping while you throw them in the washer now?” Casey offered, hoping he’d leave her for a little while. It was one thing to get friendly with Hedwig, who was nine and naïve, and a completely different thing to start feeling sympathy for the man who had originally kidnapped her.

Dennis hesitated and then gave a stiff nod.

By the time he returned Casey had finished cleaning the room and was unplugging the power cord of Hedwig’s CD player and carefully winding it up.

“Leave it.”

Casey frowned. “Doesn’t Hedwig want it back?”

Dennis avoided her eyes as he began picking up his cleaning supplies and setting them outside the room. “He’ll get it back but not tonight. You should keep the music on, tonight.”

“Why-“ Casey’s confusion froze on her tongue as she was struck with realization. “He’s coming tonight?” she asked, hands strangling the black cord in her hands.

Casey had known it would be soon, but tonight?

Casey wasn’t ready. She didn’t have a plan. She had the makings of one and a wispy outline, but nothing solid or concrete. Nothing she could risk her life on.

“You’ll be able to leave in the morning.” Dennis replied, voice gruff and eyes still not meeting hers.

She caught the ghost of roses and shivered.

“Don’t do this.” Casey whispered.

Dennis stilled, his back to her.

Casey dropped the cord a took a step towards him. Dennis was her last hope. “I know you think they’re bad people who only know how to hurt, but that’s not true. They’re young and sheltered but they’re not evil.” She saw his shoulders tense, his scent of bleach threaded with smoke burning her nose with each inhale. But she couldn’t stop. She took another step closer.

“Claire, the blonde girl, and I have been going to the same school since elementary. She’s spoiled, that true. She was born lucky, but she always, always, invites me to all of her parties and whenever we have a group assignment she’s one of the few people who doesn’t make a face when I’m her partner.” It sounded so pathetic when she said it, but it was the truth and she knew Dennis wouldn’t be swayed by anything less. "And Marcia… I know you think she deserves to be judged for what she said, but she was terrified and so out of her depth. As long as I’ve known her, and it hasn’t been as long as Claire, but it has been close, she’s always been kind. Even though we’re not friends and even though we don’t really talk, she still compliments my art in class. She still reaches out and asks for my help with posters and signs at school.”

Wax began to clog her throat, tasteless and soft but all-consuming, and she felt hope stir inside of her; Dennis was beginning to doubt. “I know it doesn’t seem like much and I know that sometimes their kindness if fueled by pity, but those little things matter to me because it shows I matter. Yeah, sometimes they chafe and sometimes I hate them for having so much more than I do, but its still kindness and it still matters.

Casey stopped behind him. Smoke and charred salt warred with one another, wax and trepidation tangled beneath. “Just because they haven’t suffered doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means they’re ignorant.” She continued. She was so close. “They just need time. They’ll learn the world isn’t as small as they believed. They might even be like your doctor lady.” She wished she remembered the name Hedwig had let slip during one of his rambles. “Hedwig says Barry sleeps better after seeing her. He says she tries to help. She’s impure, isn’t she? But she tries. Isn’t that what we both want? Even if they’re no help at all, don’t we just want them to try?”

“Please,” she pleaded softly, “let us go, Dennis.”

“I can’t.” He bit out, emotions spiraling to the point she wasn’t sure if it was anger or fear or even annoyance in his tone.

“We won’t say a word,” Casey tried again, trying to knock out any possible resistances he might have. “I swear. They won’t say anything. If you let us go I know I can convince them. Please.

He turned towards her then, shoulders wide and scowl at full force. “No.” he growled, voice holding a tone of anger while his scent remained twisted in turmoil. “We need The Beast. Kevin needs The Beast. I can’t just-“

“Yes, you can,” Casey cut him off, hands clenched into fists. She focused on the wax that still coated her mouth. “The Beast can still come but he doesn’t have to hurt innocent people to protect Kevin.”

Clouds crowded his dark gaze. His scowl became pained. “They’re not…” he shook his head.

“They’re two innocent teenage girls, Dennis, who haven’t had a chance to learn better.” Casey replied, the pain in his scowl mixing with his doubt into a rock of dread that crumbled on her tongue.

Dennis ran his hand over his head and his breaths became shaky.

“Dennis. Please.” Casey repeated gently. He was her last chance. She needed him to listen.

Storm blue eyes met hers. Bleach surged in the air.

Then it was gone.

It disappeared in an instant, the taste of bleach replaced raspberries so fast it made her dizzy.

“Fuck yeah! Way to go, Barry!”

Casey took a step away from whoever had taken over.

“Holy shit, that pervert is blind as a bat.” They complained as they took off Dennis’s glasses and rubbed at their eyes.

Their vivid blue gaze blinked at her. “Fuck. You’re one of the girls, aren’t you?”

Casey hesitated. “Who are you?” Hopping she knew who they were from the stories Hedwig had shared.

“I’m Jade.” The girl winked as she started patting down the pockets of Dennis’s gray slacks, “and don’t you worry, Dollface, we’re putting a stop to this fucking mess.”

Hedwig had complained that Barry gave Jade the light more than him. He’d said Jade said a lot of words that made Miss Patricia mad and got him in trouble. She gave him a stuffed pickle pirate named “sea cucumber” he said liked to steal candy.

Jade had been “scary” angry when Hedwig had put her on her chair and hadn't let her take the light anymore. She called Patricia and Dennis names and made fun of Hedwig.

Jade hadn’t agreed with them at all.

“Motherfucker!” she groaned. “Where did that anal son of a bitch leave the damn phone!”

Jade paused, her eyes going distant. Pepper and annoyance and a hint of spiced apple flowed around the sweet tartness of raspberries.

“Of course!” Jade shouted and ran to the outer door, pulling the keys from her pocket before rushing forward.

Jade left both doors wide open in her scramble.

Casey was left staring down the long hallway, her heart racing as she wondered if Jade was her savior or the guard who walked her to the guillotine.

Chapter Text

I’m really, really sorry, Mr. Dennis.

Hedwig apologized for the hundredth time as Dennis made his way out of their apartment and towards the gate to the outside.

“It’s fine, Hedwig.” He repeated. “They probably worried Dr. Fletcher, but they didn’t tell her anything.”

It was still very irresponsible of you, Hedwig. Patricia’s voice sounded, immediately contradicting him and scolding the already worried boy. He’s coming tonight and we can’t risk anything else going wrong.

Yes, Miss Patricia. Hedwig answered, voice small. Dennis heard him sniffle and knew Hedwig was holding back tears.

There wasn’t anything he could say, however. While he didn’t like it when Patricia was hard on Hedwig, she was right. There was no room for error. Not tonight.

Just like there was no room for doubt. They’d already gone too far. There was no turning back.

They’re innocent.

Dennis’s steps echoed across the empty zoo streets. He focused on the sound and forced himself to ignore Casey’s words.

They were impure. They weren’t innocent. They were-

-it’s still kindness.

Dennis ran his hand over his head, trying to wipe away those damn words that lingered in his mind.

The two impures weren’t the only young ones. Casey might be pure, but she still held too much hope in people.

Still…

“Patricia,” Dennis murmured, drawing the attention of the older woman, “about those girls-”

They’re perfect for The Beast, Dennis. Her genteel voice reassured him. You made a wise selection.

Dennis remained silent. Her words were a reminder that he, and he alone, was the one responsible for choosing the girls. Patricia had told him to look for a suitable impure to sacrifice and that was where her part ended.

He had chosen the girls. It had been him who decided to choose two and it had been his choice to take the third when the opportunity presented itself.

Patricia had only ever asked for one.

Casey’s no good for The Beast since she’s pure. Hedwig lisped happily, his earlier guilt already forgotten. I’m glad you got her though. She’s my girlfriend now.

Dennis felt his brow rise. “Really?” he asked, his lips twitching in amusement.

Yep. Hedwig’s replied, voice popping proudly. We ate and danced and I gave her a flower and she kissed me. Mr. Heinrich says that’s the perfect first date and he says that if the girl kisses you then that means she likes you and she’s your girlfriend. Etcetera.

Patricia scoffed, somehow making even that sound strangely delicate. Mr. Heinrich has never even been on a date. If he had, he’d know an innocent peck isn’t enough reason to claim someone is your girlfriend.

It wasn’t a peck! It was a kiss! Mr. Dennis, you believe me, don’t you? Hedwig whined.

At some point Dennis had stopped walking. He stared at the darkened polar bear cage and frowned. “She kissed you?”

Yeah! After I gave her the flower! Well, it was a pinwheel but it was yellow and looked like a flower so I think that counts. Hedwig told him. She kissed me right on the lips. She didn’t peck me. She’s not a chicken.

“A peck is also a quick kiss.” Dennis explained absentmindedly, his hand brushing his lips. Casey had kissed them? Dennis had avoided being near the light when Hedwig and Casey played since he knew the mess they’d create would force him to take over.

He suddenly regretted that decision.

Oh. Yeah, that’s what she did.

Boys, Patricia sighed, annoyance making her tone sharp, we have more important things to focus on.

Dennis shook his head and shoved his hands into his coat pockets. Patricia was right. He could wonder about Casey kissing them afterwards. Tonight was about them, The Beast, and their future. It wasn’t about Casey.

Casey said she’ll visit. Hedwig continued, ignoring Patricia. Can we have another dance party when she does?

Patricia tsked. You won’t be seeing her again, Hedwig. You know that.

But she promised.

Dennis narrowed his eyes. “We’re letting Casey go after tonight. If she wants to come back, afterwards, it’ll be her choice.”

Dennis. Patricia warned.

“She’s pure, Patricia.” Dennis replied just as sharply. “She’s like us.”

She’ll come back. Hedwig grinned.

Patricia stayed silent and it put Dennis’s nerves on edge.

He’d promised Casey she’d be free after The Beast came. Dennis wasn’t going to break that promise, even if he had to hover by light while The Beast… feasted.

Dennis’s fingers clenched around the yellow handkerchief in his pocket.

The white rags are usually on special.

Mr. Pritchard’s warm chuckle echoed in their mind when Dennis had voiced his complaint about the yellow piece of fabric Mr. Pritchard had bought for Dennis. “Not everything is about convenience, dear boy. Sometimes little things have meaning.”

Doesn’t yellow mean you’re into watersports? Luke’s obnoxious comment intruded in their conversation. The alter laughed. Dennis, you freak! I didn’t know that was your kink.

I like swimming, too! Hedwig grinned. Can we go play watersports today?

That’s means something completely different than swimming, Hedwig. Polly added, amusement thick in her tone. Also, it’s usually a bandana, not a rag, but Luke is actually right about the meaning.

Is it like those water bikes? Hedwig asked. Those look really fun!

Goddammit Luke, BT groaned, ignoring Hedwig, please tell me you’re not into that. The idea of someone… all over us… BT gagged. Dude, please tell me you showered with Clorox afterwards.

What are you guys talking about? Hedwig piped in again, voice growing frustrated.

Hey! Luke protested. Just because I know stuff, doesn’t mean I do stuff.

That’s true. Jade snorted.

Oh yeah, because you’re so much better.

Mr. Pritchard sighed. “If any of you would just watch a couple of classics, life would be much simpler.”

What exactly is the meaning of the yellow rag? Dennis asked cautiously, deciding to ignore Luke and Jade’s bickering and Hedwig’s childish confusion. He wondered if he’d need to dispose of the material the moment he took the light.

“It’s a yellow handkerchief, Dennis.” Mr. Pritchard delicately corrected. “It’s a reminder of a delightful movie I saw many years ago. It had its issues, as all movies do, but I quite enjoyed it. As for the actual handkerchief, let’s just say it’s a sign of hope.” He chuckled again. “And one that you can use to keep the world neat.”

He traced the sown edge and wondered what Mr. Pritchard had seen in him that made the professor believe he needed a sign of hope.

It had been before his banishment, before Kevin was forced to sleep, before Patricia’s whispers began to make sense, before Barry met two cruel girls and they decided the time had come.

“Hey lady, the place is already closed.”

Dennis paused, cloth covered hand on the outer gate while his other held his ring of keys.

Dr. Fletcher waited on the other side, waving off the worried cab driver with distracted reassurances.

This isn’t exactly a surprise. Patricia reminded him.

They had woken up with the phone in their hands, after all, nearly two dozen emails sent to the doctor. Her appearance was an inconvenience but, Patricia was right, it wasn’t unexpected.

The doctor really did seem to care.

“I’ll deal with it.” Dennis murmured too quiet for the doctor to hear. Patricia and Hedwig both faded from the edges of the light to let him focus.

“Hello Dennis,” Dr. Fletcher approached him, her smile cautious. “One of the others emailed me just now.”

Dennis let out a frustrated breath. He unlocked the gate and stepped through, making sure to lock it again behind him.

“Is everything alright?” Dr. Fletcher asked, stopping a couple of steps away.

“We’re fine.” Dennis snapped, carefully folding his yellow handkerchief and stowing it back in his pocket.

“Dennis,” Dr. Fletcher repeated his name in her soft voice. Dennis wondered if she did that to all her patients, repeating their name as often as possible. He couldn’t remember if she’d done that when he’d pretended to be Barry. “Kevin is really lucky to have you. You are quite extraordinary.”

Dennis bit his tongue and looked down the street, he didn’t have to time for her false flattery. They needed to get going.

“I just don’t want you guys to get hurt.” Dr. Fletcher continued, her earnest voice willing him to believe her.

Dennis paused. That was the thing about the doctor; she cared.

They were used to being judged and pitied. They’d all suffered uncomfortably long stares and eyes that completely avoided their own. No one thought they were anything more than broken and sick. No one had ever treated them as if they were special or worthy of a second thought. No one cared if they were hurt, not until they met Dr. Fletcher.

It’s what made the others reach out to her, at every chance. It was why he had to fight against himself to keep his mouth shut when he was around her. It was why he desperately wanted her to understand.

“I like you, Dennis.” She smiled gently. “May I come in? And we can talk?”

Dennis’s hand reached for his keys before he remembered he’d told Casey to turn the music on.

If he took the doctor into their apartment, Dennis knew she’d grow suspicious.

“I was going for a walk around the block.” Dennis told her, instead. “Would you like to join me?”

Dr. Fletcher nodded again with another patient smile. “I’d love to.”

Dennis gestured her forward, pretending he hadn’t noticed the slight narrowing of her eyes. He shoved his hands in his pockets once again and they began their stroll surrounded by an uncomfortable silence. If it had been anyone else, he would’ve made an excuse and left her standing there. Dr. Fletcher cared, however, and there was a part of him, too big to ignore, that cringed at the thought of being rude to her.

“Was there anywhere in particular you were headed?” Dr. Fletcher asked.

“I like walking at night.” Dennis responded without answering. “It’s quiet.”

Dr. Fletcher frowned. “Do you have any idea why one of the others would email me?” she asked.

Dennis shrugged. “They don’t like us having control of the light.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“They mean it when they call us undesirable, you know.” Dennis told her, the word worse than a curse in his mind. The way it was repeated, time and time again, with such anger and disgust from the only people who mattered to him, always left him feeling as if his skin had been scraped raw. “They always act as if we’re less. It’s so easy for them to forget why we were needed in the first place.”

“What is it they forget, Dennis?” Dr. Fletcher asked. A few hours ago she’d asked him how he came to be. He hadn’t responded then, but a piece of it slipped out now.

“I remember everything, Dr. Fletcher. Everything Kevin’s mother did to him. Everything she tried to do.” Dennis kept his gaze forward, trying to ignore the leaves scattered on the sidewalk that crunched underneath their feet. “It was my job to protect him, and them. It’s made it easy for them to pretend they don’t remember and act as if it wasn’t them that needed protecting.”

“You did a wonderful job keeping them safe, Dennis.” Dr. Fletcher assured him. Dennis felt some of the pressure lift from his chest at her sincerity. None of the others liked to acknowledge him, much less show any sort of appreciation for what he had done. “But Kevin’s mother has been gone for years now. You don’t need to keep protecting them the same way you had to before.”

“She’s not the only one they need protection from.”

Dr. Fletcher remained silent and he wondered what story she was setting up in her mind. People always made up stories from half-truths and he’d learned that a nod or a word would be enough to satisfy their curiosity. They were always more interested in proving themselves right then knowing the truth. “Earlier you said that I couldn’t help Kevin if I didn’t believe in monsters.” She started slowly, carefully choosing her words. “Has something happened that has made you believe there’s another monster out there Kevin needs protection from?”

Dennis wondered what to say.

He could tell her the truth. Barry had told her about the two girls, he could explain that that was the catalyst. He could explain how there were so many other people just like them out there, waiting.

He could tell her about The Beast. He could tell her that he wasn’t a story, Patricia had assured him, and that he was meant to make the world safe. He could reassure her that they wouldn’t be the ones that were hurt…

No, she wouldn’t believe him. He knew that. But the temptation to tell her was so strong and the ever-present doubt that had begun to sound like a certain scarred girl was getting louder and louder in his head.

“How do you know if you’re doing the right thing?” Dennis asked her.

Dr. Fletcher stopped walking. Dennis paused beside her.

“Do you mind if we sit?” she motioned towards the bus stop bench.

Dennis nodded. He took out his handkerchief and wiped down the bench before carefully sitting down.

He stared at the empty road as Dr. Fletcher settled beside him.

“You’re a good person, Dennis.” Dr. Fletcher began. Dennis didn’t comment. He doubted she’d still think that way if she knew what he had done; if she knew what he was going to do. “If you have doubts about something, there must be a reason for it. Will you tell me what’s on your mind? We can figure it out together, Dennis.”

Dennis crossed his arms over his chest and kept silent. He shouldn’t have said anything to begin with.

“Dennis?” Dr. Fletcher prompted. “You can trust me.”

He wished he could.

Don’t we want them to try?

Dennis swallowed down his growl and ran his hand over his head.

“We met a girl with scars,” the words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop himself, “like Kevin’s.”

“And that’s when you and Patricia decided to take over?” Dr. Fletcher guessed.

“If nothing changes, Kevin won’t ever be safe.” Dennis explained. “He’ll never be able to come back to the light.”

It’s why they were doing everything, after all. It was for Kevin. They all wanted him to wake up. They all wanted him to be safe and to smile without shadows in his eyes the way he had when his father would read him a bedtime story or when his mother would make them a big breakfast Sunday mornings before church. They just wanted the little boy they had only caught glimpses of to stand proudly in the light. They’d even settle for hint of him. Anything to prove he hadn’t disappeared along with his father.

That’s all they ever wanted. None of the others could deny that.

“And how are you planning on changing things?” she asked him, caution heavy in her voice.

Dennis hesitated.

“This story of The Beast you and Patricia tell the others, do you believe it?”

Dennis sighed. “It’d be easier if he were real, wouldn’t it? Kevin could finally have the protector he needs, and the world would be forced to change.”

“The story says he needs to feast on impure young, doesn’t it?”

Dennis turned towards her at the subtle shake in her voice.

“That’s how the story goes.” He admitted.

Dennis caught a flash of fear in her eyes. She quickly reigned it in and gave him a look of controlled serenity. “Have you decided now is the time for the world to change?”

Dennis knew he was revealing more than he should and the more he said the more worried Dr. Fletcher was becoming.

“I don’t think The Beast is real.” He told her, the lie tasting too much like truth on his tongue. “I just wish he was.”

He felt the doctor relax beside him. “You know, Dennis, there are certain volunteer programs that you and the others could sign up for.” She offered voice lighter. “It’s not something drastic and it won’t cause the world to change overnight, but there’s a lot of good that can be done, and it does make a difference.”

Dennis turned back to the empty black asphalt of the road. “Maybe.”

“And perhaps you and Patricia can allow the others back into the light, so that they have a chance to also help.”

Dennis nodded.

“Why don’t we meet tomorrow, Dennis?” She asked him, smile warm for the first time that night. “It’s your day off, if I’m not mistaken. We can discuss this further and figure out a realistic way to make the world better?”

“That sounds like a good idea, Dr. Fletcher,” Dennis responded, feeling himself go numb as he let her believe his half-truths. He’d said the right word for her story, and it was enough for now.

They talked for a bit longer, the doctor remaining blissfully unaware as she set up their next appointment.

He called her a cab and waited beside her until it arrived.

Dr. Fletcher paused when Dennis held open the backdoor for her.

She stared at him intently. “I really do believe you are a good person, Dennis.”

Doubt tied his tongue.

“Good night, Dennis.”

“Good night, Dr. Fletcher.” He choked out.

She slipped into the cab and Dennis watched them disappear.

He tucked his hands into his coat pockets and continued on his way towards the train station.

Maybe everyone was right, and they were crazy. Maybe they did deserve to be locked up and put away.

But it was already too late. Dennis had made his choice the moment he’d decided to listen to Patricia. He’d sold his soul the second he’d locked three girls in their apartment.

There was no going back now.

He just hoped The Beast was real.

Chapter Text

“Come on.” Casey cursed, her hands growing stiff as she worked the thick iron scissors between the door and its frame.

She had no idea what Jade’s plan had been when she ran out of the room, but she was certain it had failed.

Casey had tried the computer, when she'd been left alone, only to quickly realize it held no connection to the outside world. She had just started her search for something useful when wine swam in the air.

Casey had automatically grabbed the heavy iron scissors nestled between the pens on one of the shelves and had returned to her room just as Patricia returned.

Patricia's regal brow rose as her gaze searched the room.

She didn’t mention the lit screen of the monitor or the way Casey stood tense with her hands held behind her back.

Patricia just said, “Good night,” with a smile full of roses before locking her behind her wooden door once more.

The click of the door as Casey was finally able to jam open the lock made her grin in triumph.

She pulled it open and rushed into the outer room, immediately heading towards the desk and continuing her search.

With so many of them coexisting in one body, it didn’t make sense that they’d only have a single set of keys. Dennis's character screamed contingencies neatly organized. There was no way he wouldn't keep a spare in case Hedwig or one of the others misplaced the originals.

And what better place to keep backups and extras then in their catchall room?

She rifled through the papers and notebooks in the drawers, pushing aside pens and knickknacks, in her search.

There had to be another set of keys here. There had to be something she could use to get out of this room.

There just had to be.

 


 

 

Dennis wasn’t a stranger to pain. He’d been born under the feel of a scorching iron branding his back while he choked on bloodied sobs.

He’d learned to ignore the sting of bleach on open wounds before he’d learned the name of the liquid itself and learned how to bandage open skin in a futile attempt to not make a mess before realizing bandages made the pain less.

Dennis knew the difference between a hanger and a spatula by the way they struck his skin and knew how to force his bruised body to move even when every bone ached with fatigue.

Dennis thought he knew pain.

But the feel of his flesh being torn from the inside as it stretched to accommodate muscles he hadn’t earned, the ache of his jaw as his teeth sliced his gums, the sting in his eyes as his vision became strained and then too sharp, and the feel of acid in his blood, burning through his veins and changing him into something unnatural and inhuman, proved he had been wrong, all along.

The agony in his body shattered his already broken mind and held him on the precipice of blissful darkness while still refusing the relief.

Then the pieces began to form a new design, a new shape, a new creature.

Dennis’s last thought before he was lost was the realization that The Beast was real.

And he had arrived.

 


 

 

A scream tore viciously through the air.

Casey froze in her desperate search of the outer room. She dropped the jacket in her hands and walked to the door, pressing her forehead to the thick cold metal. She closed her eyes and strained her senses.

She needed to figure out what was happening beyond her cell.

Casey thought she knew terror. She thought she’d already been exposed to it in this place and had already felt it twist her own insides after years beneath her uncle's roof.

She was wrong.

True terror, the type that crushed the soul beneath pure helplessness, sat like curdled milk inside of her. There was no hope in this. There was no silver lining, no maybe or could be. This was the realization that death had arrived, and it would be brutal and unforgiving as it snatched her last breath.

Casey scrambled away from the door, the sickening scent trying to follow her with its tentacled reach.

She took up the heavy iron scissors she’d abandoned on the desk and gripped them tight between her shaking fingers.

Casey had survived through too much for too long.

She wasn’t going to die tonight without a fight.

 


 

 

Casey found the set of keys hidden beneath a gray knit beanie.

Hope trembled within her as she reached for the silver key ring that held her freedom.

The screams had died long ago and curdled milk still sat heavy in the air, slowly absorbing the taste of copper and death. She felt the countdown to death's arrival in the frantic beats of her heart.

She pressed the keys to her chest, willing her heart to slow, and turned to the door. She was ready for this all to be over.

Casey didn’t care anymore where she ended up, she just needed to get out. At least out there, she would have a future to worry about.

The doorknob began to move before her hand touched it and Casey stared at it blankly, too stunned to understand what was happening.

The sharp snap of the lock breaking brought Casey back to her senses. She tripped over her feet and tumbled to the ground, eyes glued in growing horror as the door open.

There he stood, dressed in blood and an unsettling calmness, with black veins running under broad muscles and eyes dark and contemplating.

The Beast had come.

He stepped into the room, feet silent on the concrete floor.

Casey scrambled to a stand, letting the keys fall as she wrapped both hands around her scissors. Freedom didn’t matter if she didn’t survive.

The Beast took another step.

She bared her teeth. She wasn’t going to die today. She refused to.

The Beast tilted its head. Copper and curiosity danced around her.

Long fingers reached for her.

Casey sliced at the outstretched arm, wielding her scissors like a knife. The dull end slipped uselessly across him, leaving nothing but a clean line on his otherwise bloodied flesh.

His hand, heavy and burning, trapped her wrist, and his dark eyes narrowed in warning.

Casey pulled her arm away trying to shake off his steely grip without success.

Her breathing quickened as his hold tightened. She rushed into his side with her unwieldy scissors held out and put every scrap of strength she could into her attack.

The damn iron slid once more, not a single pink scratch left on his scarred chest. Her hand shook as she clumsily stabbed at him again and again, never managing to break skin, until the hopeless scissors slipped from her grasp and clattered to the ground.

Warmth at her hip made her realize The Beast had moved his other hand.

Casey lashed out. Anger gave her the strength to rip her wrist from him and panic, the dexterity to slide beneath his arm and away from him.

Reality caught her by the back of her t-shirt and pulled her back to The Beast. He flipped her around, leaned close to her face and bared his teeth, sour lemons tainting the air.

Casey snarled back, tears of fury and fear welling in her eyes. She was so fucking tired of being the victim.

She caught a hint of sage and amusement in his copper and it sparked her own annoyance.

Casey stomped her heel into his uncovered toes and dug her nails into the arm that held her shirt in a knot at her side.

Her nails broke against his skin and he didn’t so much as waver when her boot came down. She lost her balance due to the awkward angle and The Beast steadied her with his hand at her side, once more.

Casey’s breaths came in gasps, the taste of copper filling her lungs until she had to swallow back the bile that rose to her throat. Hopelessness began to grow in her chest. She wondered if Claire and Marcia had felt the same way before they had died. She wondered if she would taste of curdled milk.

The Beast watched her, waiting.

Casey met his gaze.

There was hunger in the blackness of his eyes. A soul-deep need that made her afraid to look away and terrified to keep searching.

Casey heard the sound of tearing fabric, felt the coldness on her exposed upper body, and she knew what came next. She stared at the center of his chest vacantly, feeling herself grow numb, and waited for the taste of oil to fill her mouth. It was cruel of life to make the last emotion on her tongue be the same one that she had been forced to live with for so long.

Whiskey soaked sage made her look at his face.

The Beast had his teeth bared once more, this time in a feral grin, and tears made his eyes shine as he stared at the scars on her stomach.

“You are pure!” His deep voice rang through her mind like a gong, making her thoughts stutter.

He dropped to his knees before her and his large palms glided over the memories engraved on her flesh. “The broken are the more evolved.” He whispered reverently. “The broken are the enlightened, the marked, and the powerful.”

The Beast’s hands pressed against her back and drew her forward, nuzzling his cheek against her stomach. The blood on his chin softened the prickling of his beard against her bare skin and made the gentle scratching feel almost soothing.

Casey felt wobbly and frail, drunk on whiskey and fear.

“You are pure.” The Beast sighed, breathing sage against her and arms settling comfortably around her hips. “You are protected.”

 


 

 

At some point Casey's hands had settled on The Beast’s wide shoulders and her body, she was ashamed to admit, had relaxed at some point into his warmth as he continued to snuggle against her.

Whiskey had always tasted like freedom; the way it burned down her throat, stroked fire in her belly, and ignited her mind with endless possibilities.

Whiskey with copper, however, layered feelings of freedom, power, and pride and felt like sunshine on her soul. It woke the heart she’d encased in ice and whispered promises of safety and choice. It promised light in a future she'd always been afraid would remain dull.

The Beast had said she was protected.

Dennis had said the same, but bleach and whiskey were opposites. Both might soak her senses, but while bleach had always kept her safe, it kept her tied to her bleak reality. Whiskey existed in fantasy and in the lies she had to tell herself to remain alive.

Casey had tasted it once, at a party she hadn’t been invited to with people she had never met.

Her uncle had gone on a hunting trip and had said he wouldn’t be back until late the next day. The rare opportunity had almost convinced Casey to attempt another run, but she’d craved a different escape that night. She’d craved an escape from herself.

Casey still couldn’t remember where she had heard about the party or even from who and that had been part of its appeal. It was a complete unknown.

It took place in a two-story house bursting with music and laughter that could be heard a block away and while Casey could feel she didn’t belong from the first sound, no one else knew and that was what she needed.

She pretended to be someone else that night. She pretended she was like everyone else. She pretended bad intentions didn’t have a taste she knew too well and that the clumsy bumping of shoulders didn’t rattle her bones. She pretended she wasn't well acquainted with smiles made of plastic that badly hid pity and were too good at hiding pain. She pretended she didn’t know what it was like to be broken.

Casey let fermented wheat dull her senses and imitated hollow laughs and off-tune songs as if they belonged to her. As the alcohol ran through her blood and the prickling of independence brushed her skin, she let her deceptions become her reality.

She shared a square glass bottle with a dark-skinned stranger who had whiskey on her tongue and whiskey in her eyes.

Their lips brushed accidentally from a misdirected secret and they laughed. Their lips met with curiosity and adventure with a shared shrug and mischief in their smiles. Their lips sealed with heat, and hands wandering above her scars sobered Casey in an instant.

Casey had rushed back to her uncle’s house, memories snapping at her heels and desolate reality welcoming her home. She had cursed herself for being foolish. She should have known any sort of escape was impossible with the truth written so plainly on her skin. It was hard to pretend she wasn’t broken when she felt the scrape of her pieces dig at her beneath her skin.

Still, that night, Casey fell asleep with whiskey in her thoughts and the promise of a future where she didn’t have to lie.

Her aching fingers traced the raised edges and smooth crevices on The Beast's shoulders and her gaze caught more thin white lines splattered with the same shade of freckles Hedwig had on his nose. The Beast pulled her closer and a soft rumble burst from his chest and reverberated against her thighs and lower stomach.

The buzzing sensation almost made her laugh, but the scent of copper choked the sentiment before it was realized.

Casey wished she hated him. She wished she hated all of them. But it was difficult to hate someone who saw her; the real her.

Hedwig knew she was damaged but looked at her with glee and declared them the same. Patricia traced gentle fingers over her scars, the knowledge in her words darker than potent wine. Dennis bandaged her wounds with care, while the ghost of his smiled tasted of sage and understanding. And The Beast, a creature of unnatural ability and strength, kneeled at her feet, saw her weak and broken, and still called her powerful with unfeigned pride in his eyes.

Casey didn't have to hide when she was with them, she didn’t have to pretend, or play her designated role. They saw her, naked and tarnished, and still sincerity sang in their words when they said she was special and strong.

She wished she could hate them for what they did, but it was impossible to hate the only people to believe she was worthy of existing.

A couple of her broken nails had slit her fingertips and she watched as she painted faint streaks of crimson among his scars.

They saw her. And Casey couldn’t pretend she didn’t see them.

"Did you kill Marcia and Claire?"

The soothing rumble stopped.

The Beast rested his chin against her and gazed up into her eyes.

"I feasted on their flesh, but the impure are already dead: walking like zombies in a world they do not see, a world they do not touch, and cannot hear."

Casey’s vision grew blurry. She’d heard the scream. She had already known, but the casual admittance…

The Beast frowned. "The impure serve no purpose but to cause pain. For Kevin and you to be safe, they need to be eradicated."

She noticed the blood on his chin and on her skin and realized it belonged to Claire and Marcia. Her stomach twisted. She swallowed the lump in her throat. They were the first, but they wouldn’t be the last.

Casey pushed at his shoulders. He backed away slightly, arms lazily slung around her and frown tasting of confusion.

"Not all impures cause pain." She protested, voice unsteady.

The Beast got to his feet and Casey felt tiny as he surrounded her. She was caged between the arms settled on her ribs and the chest that walled in her vision. She lifted her chin to meet his eyes, up and up and so much higher than she had to even when Dennis had the light. How could he share the same body as the others and still seem twice their size? "Enough of them do."

"What about the ones that don't?" Casey asked.

The Beast narrowed his eyes. He released her. "The world will not change unless we force it to."

"Then go after the ones that break us." Casey suggested, too quickly. She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to shiver. She tried not to wonder if she missed his heat or if it was the yearning she heard in her words that made her feel suddenly cold. "Hurt the ones that create the pure, don't just go after a bunch of stupid kids that got lucky in life."

The Beast tilted his head and traced her scars with his gaze. Rage boiled bellow the whiskey and copper. Casey felt herself warm at scent. "Who broke you?"

Casey hesitated, the truth on the tip of her whiskey-coated tongue. "What will you do to them if I tell you?"

"Punish them." The Beast growled.

Casey felt herself relax, the same way she had when a different sound rumbled through her.

She licked her lips. "I'll tell you," The Beast’s copper sparked with satisfaction, "if you promise not to hurt more people who don't really deserve it.”

The air around The Beast stilled, holding its breath. His dark eyes studied her.

“There are enough monsters out there,” Casey whispered, her scars screaming against her skin, “you won't go hungry."

The Beast’s hands settled heavily on her shoulders, only the tattered remains of her t-shirt prevented him from silencing her scars with blood. She tensed underneath him, her crossed arms the only thing that stopped her heart from trying to escape.

He leaned into her and let his nose trace from her clavicle up the line of her neck to the hollow at the back of her ear. She heard him inhale deeply as he burrowed his nose in her hair and caught honeyed whiskey and furious copper on the skin too close to her own.

Images of teeth ripping through muscle and gnawing on collar bones flashed before her eyes.

Casey kept still, arms locked and useless before her. The survivor in her cursed her recklessness and stupidity, shouting that she should’ve kept her mouth shut. While the victim inside mourned the life she could have lived and lamented her death would be brutal, like everything else about her.

All of her knew she couldn’t fight him off. She had already tried and failed and trying again would only bring more pain.

She felt his breath, hot and humid, against her before porcelain teeth settled over the vulnerable skin of her neck.

A whimper escaped her.

Casey closed her eyes and waited. It would hurt, but she prayed it would be over quickly.

She wished she could hate them. She wished she could hate The Beast.

But they saw her, and she saw them.

It made her chest ache because she understood why he did what he did.

Casey understood their anger and fear, and guilt pooled heavy in her stomach because she knew she wouldn’t be much different if she had his power at her disposal.

Her prey would just be different.

A sharp pinch on her neck made her gasp.

Casey opened her eyes to an empty room.

She lifted her hand to her neck, shocked to find he hadn’t torn her throat out and her flesh was fully intact.

Casey stared at the door in a daze, the scent of copper and amusement her only companions.

Chapter Text

Casey absently rubbed her thumb across the bandages on her fingers as she stared at the partially open door.

The thought of leaving had roared through Casey when her shock had flared to annoyance at The Beast’s amusement. Casey had picked up the keys from the pile of discarded clothing they’d been abandoned on and had every intention of marching out of her underground prison. The urge had faded with the sting of pain as her fingers remained wrapped around the silver keyring. It was a stark reminder that she’d ripped her nails apart against his skin when she’d attacked him. She’d thought of the scissors lying innocently on the ground behind her. While they might have been dull, they were still heavy and should have been enough to hurt him in some small way. Yet, she vividly remembered the desperation she’d felt each time she pulled back and there hadn’t been a single scratch on him.

She concluded that acting on annoyance wasn’t exactly a smart decision when it came to dealing with whatever The Beast was. Casey had decided to clean her injured hands while she logically considered her next step.

She had caught her reflection in the clear oval mirror above her sink and had frozen. That was the second time she had thought of escaping.

The remains of her t-shirt settled like a tattered vest on her shoulders and her dark green camisole was bunched beneath her breasts leaving her torso almost completely on display. The exposed skin should have been what made her nervous, but it was hard to even see it beneath the blood. She was completely covered in it. Slashes of crimson ran across her ribs where The Beast’s fingers had held her, it painted a sun on her stomach where he’d revered her scars, it lay heavy on her shoulders where his hands had trapped her, and dripped in streaks along her neck where he’d bitten to play but not to kill.

Casey saw herself dressed in blood and didn’t feel horrified or even the slightest twinge of disgust. She was too used to the sight, that the excess just left her curiously intrigued.

What caused terror to pool inside her, were the eyes that stared from the other side of the glass. They were settled too alert in her pale face, abnormally bright and untamed and alive.

Casey hadn’t recognized those eyes as her own familiar empty gaze. These eyes didn’t belong to her.

They belonged to The Beast.

Casey had wanted to run. She had wanted to get out and get away and forget everything that had happened since Claire’s birthday. She wanted to disappear from the person that resided in her reflection and cloak herself in gray and denial.

She had taken two steps out of the bathroom when the sight of a yellow pinwheel and the lingering promise of whiskey made her pause. Fear wouldn’t get her far either.

Casey had grabbed one of the towels by the outer door and returned to her bathroom, hoping she’d be able to think when the blood had been washed away.

Casey hadn’t hesitated to disrobe and step into the shower. She’d nursed her fingers and had been distracted by the sting of soap in the open cuts, but she’d still let herself soak in the clean scent and heat until the water began to cool and she’d decided it was time to get out.

Casey had realized as she wrapped the towel around herself that she hadn’t flinched and her hands hadn’t shaken as they ran over the raised edges on her flesh. She returned to the mirror and the sight of her scars on her reddened skin didn’t threaten to drown her in self-loathing and sorrow the way they always had.

The broken are the more evolved.

Casey had taken the first aid kit she’d found in one of the desk drawers and trimmed her broken nails before bandaging the ones that had slit skin. Then she’d dressed in a nylon jacket that she smelled of oranges and her own black pants that she didn’t feel comfortable replacing, before brushing her wet hair with the same brush Patricia had used on her.

Casey had felt guilty staring as she stared around the outer room and realized she’d made a mess while she searched for her hope of freedom.

Casey took her time dusting the clothes she’d thrown on the floor, replacing all the misplaced items, and organizing the drawers before wiping everything down with the cleaning supplies she knew belonged to Dennis.

Then she’d hung the key ring back on its hook and returned the gray beanie to its place.

Now, she stared at the door, trying to convince herself to walk out.

Casey was free to leave. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she was absolutely certain that if she walked out, no one would stop her. She could leave immediately and never have to see this place again. She could walk out, find the nearest person, and tell Claire and Marcia’s families their daughters would never come home. She could give them closure and point them towards The Beast to let them have their justice.

She could do that. She should do all of that.

Casey had no intention of leaving. Not yet, at least. She knew she wouldn’t turn The Beast in, either.

She couldn’t hate him and she couldn’t betray him. Not while there was still hope she could change his mind.

Casey took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped into the hallway. 

 


 

While Casey had expected to find The Beast lurking down the hallways, she was glad to realize it was Dennis who held the light.

Casey found him in one of the closets past the empty kitchen on his knees, iron scrubber held between blue-gloved hands as he viciously scoured pristine concrete.

The scraping sound dug at her ears and caused the hair on her arms to stand on end but she remained on the threshold. She watched Dennis, wondering if The Beast’s disappearance meant he had rejected her bargain.

If he had Casey would be forced to make a choice she wasn’t positive she was capable of. She would have to live with blood on her hands or betrayal in their eyes.

When he took Marcia, Dennis had told her she was getting her own closet. Was this where she had died? Where a scream had been ripped from Marcia so painful and potent it still made Casey’s blood freeze? Or had this been Claire’s room? Had she tried to fight The Beast the same way Casey had? The same way she’d tried to fight against Dennis? When The Beast tore into their flesh, had they been numbed with shock? Or had they been forced to feel every bite?

Casey took a step back, shaking arms wrapping around herself.

They were dead. Marcia and Claire were dead and the sharp reality of that fact was only now starting to sink in.

The Beast himself had told Casey they were, but there had been something almost unreal about the entire encounter. She blamed the whiskey.

There wasn’t any whiskey here. There was only Dennis and bleach and his futile attempt to scrub away the scents of copper and curdled milk that clung to the walls like stomach-turning syrup.

The Beast didn’t just kill, he feasted. He devoured “impure” flesh and she knew the statement was literal.

Casey’s fingers knotted into the front of the nylon jacket. She wondered if The Beast still had their meat between his teeth when he’d rubbed Marcia and Claire’s blood on her stomach.

Casey would never again get a welcoming smile from Marcia when she rushed in late to class. Claire’s shrieking laughter would never again bounce against the art room walls. Casey wouldn't see them, untroubled and surrounded by friends walking down the school’s hallways. She wouldn't feel that sting of envy and wistfulness when their doting parents arrived and took their daughters home.

Marcia and Claire were dead.

And The Beast had marked Casey with their blood. Casey remembered the fascination she felt while she stared at her reflection. She remembered the lack of disgust and felt it well inside of herself now.

The Beast had slaughtered and eaten Marcia and Claire and, Casey, instead of taking the silver keys and running as fast and as far as she could, had stayed. She had taken a shower, put on Hedwig’s clothes, and cleaned. She played with her kidnapper as if they had been life-long friends and confidently offered a deal to a murderer and a cannibal without a second thought.

What was wrong with her?

Casey shook as she took another step back.

Was she really so damaged?

Casey needed to leave. She needed to get out, whiskey be damned. She needed to get away from The Beast and all his alters. She needed to move, across the fucking sea if necessary. Casey needed to get away before she got sucked into their world and decided she preferred it there.

Because, Casey knew, despite what they had done, they gave her the one thing she wanted more than anything: a sense of belonging and safety.

Casey had to run before she embraced what she saw in her reflection.

Dennis cursed.

Casey jumped.

Dennis leaned back on his heels, his back still to her, and ripped off his gloves with annoyance.

Casey watched, frozen in place, as he threw the blue plastic stained red into a trashcan at his far side and slipped on another pair before returning to his scrubbing. She frowned. The floor was already clean. Why would his gloves be bloodied?

Curiosity prodded Casey into the room, her steps quiet.

Desperation and sawdust choked her, pouncing on her from beneath the bleach, the moment she drew close.

Casey dug her injured fingertips into her palms, the stab of pain helping her breathe past the suffocating air. She retreated to the hallway, clarity returning as she put distance between herself and Dennis.

It seemed Casey wasn’t the only one suffering from a cold dose of reality. The ghost of wax in her throat reminded her that it was she who had shaken Dennis and his beliefs.

Her fists tightened, warmth slipped between as she opened one or more of her wounds. Casey ignored it.

She could breathe again and think.

Casey had offered The Beast a bargain so no more innocent girls would have to die.

She knew there was an undercurrent of selfishness to her offer, but the point of it still remained the same. If The Beast accepted, then Claire and Marcia would be the only innocent deaths on both of their heads.

Casey could live with that, couldn’t she?

An echo of both girls laughing as they talked about some boy in the back of Mr. Benoit’s car filtered through her mind.

Casey shoved the memory away.

“Dennis?” she called out, deciding her focus was better off on something else.

He blinked up at her, his usual frown softened by disbelief. “Casey?”

“We should bandage your hands.” Casey answered. Dennis’s eyes narrowed and mouth opened to protest. She spoke before he could. “You’ll never finish cleaning if you’re the one making the mess.”

Dennis stiffened. He looked at the iron scrubber, dripping pink liquid on the clean cement. He hesitated.

Casey extender her hands, showing him the stained bandages around her fingers that had been pristine only moments before. “You can fix mine first and then I’ll fix yours?”

Dennis inhaled a sharp breath between his teeth. “When did you get hurt?”

“When I met The Beast.”

Dennis was suddenly on his feet before her, charred salt and basil swimming between them. “You met The Beast?”

Casey nodded.

Dennis’s eyes flickered to her hands. His lips thinned into a frown. “Those bandages are filthy.”

“There’s more in the first aide kit.” Casey offered.

Dennis dropped the iron scrubber into the bucket of water. He gestured her forward.

Casey led them back to her room.

With a sense of déjà vu, they settled on her bed, Dennis’s newly gloved hands expertly undoing the bandages on her fingers before re-wrapping them with clean cloth.

“The doors are unlocked.” He told her, voice rough and words low.

“That doesn’t seem safe.” Casey replied, watching as he finished one hand and turned his attention to the other.

“I left them open so The Beast could come in without breaking them” Dennis explained.

Casey thought of the broken lock on the outer door. “Smart.” She wondered if Dennis had noticed it yet.

“I didn’t lock them again after I took the light.” Dennis repeated.

Casey kept silent.

“We’re under the zoo.”

“That explains why Hedwig likes animals so much.” Casey responded.

“It’s almost morning. People will start arriving any minute.”

Casey hummed, watching as he carefully tucked in the corner of her new perfectly set wrappings.

“The second door in the kitchen leads to the living room and the front door.”

“I’ll make sure to lock it when we’re done.”

Sour lemons surging through the air. “Casey.”

Casey looked up into the clouded blue of his eyes.

“Those girls are dead.” Dennis told her, scowl twisted in pain. Sawdust burned her throat.

“Take off your gloves.” Casey ordered.

“Casey-” Dennis’s voice shook.

Casey grabbed his wrist. He tensed, muscles feeling like iron under his skin.

“I need to clean up your hands, too.” She murmured, gently peeling off the blue plastic. She flinched in sympathy at the raw skin revealed.

Casey carefully took out the alcohol wipes and cleaned his palms and fingers, feeling them relax under her touch. She opened the sterile gauze before wrapping his hands in the same shade as hers.

Dennis swallowed thickly. “I killed them, Casey.”

“I know.” Casey focused on winding the bandage between his already bound fingers and across his palm.

“I could’ve stopped it,” Dennis admitted, self-disgust growing in his voice and staining the air with the scent of burnt rubber, “but I didn’t. I should’ve stopped it. They were impure but- Now they’re dead.”

“Yeah.” Casey nodded, running the bandage up across his wrist. They were lucky the bandages were so long, Dennis had large hands and almost every inch of the underside had been scraped from his cleaning. “You should have.”

“You need to leave.” His voice hardened.

Casey finally looked at him, “I can’t leave yet.”

Desperation wound around burnt rubber. “Those girls-“

“-are dead.” Casey acknowledged solemnly. “And you, and Patricia, and even Hedwig are just as responsible for their deaths as The Beast.”

Sawdust flared in the air and drew more clouds to his eyes until the pure blue became murky and shrouded.

“But I can’t leave until I make sure they’ll be the last.” Casey tied the bandage and kept his palm between her hands, comparing his perfectly neat work against her clumsy skewed effort. Casey supposed she could consider it a success that at least it stayed on.

“Patricia is already talking about getting a bigger group.” Casey’s head snapped up at Dennis’s revelation. “She says The Beast needs much more and she told me to start searching.”

Casey’s grip tightened on his hand. “Did The Beast say he wanted more or did Patricia just assume he did?”

“The Beast is sleeping.” Dennis frowned. “Why wouldn’t he want more?”

Casey sighed in relief. The Beast hadn’t rejected her offer, not yet.

“You’re wearing Hedwig’s jacket.” Dennis’s frown deepened, basil making its return and tension stiffening his body. His fingers folded over the hand on his palm, his grip surprisingly gentle. “How exactly did you get hurt?”

“I think The Beast wanted to make sure I was pure.” Casey calmly explained. She knew his panic and anger was waiting beneath the basil. “He didn’t hurt me. I hurt myself when I attacked him.”

“You attacked The Beast?” Dennis asked slowly, brow raised above the dark frame of his glasses.

Casey huffed. “I wasn’t going to just let him kill me.”

The corner of Dennis’s lips lifted in his ghostly smile and sage sparked between them.

Casey’s own quirked in response.

His fingers tightened over hers.

Casey glanced at their covered hands, twined so comfortably together. Both of hers wrapped around his while his larger one easily enveloped hers. The tender touch made her feel at ease. She took in the rest of his skin, noting with amusement how freckles painted every part of him. He had his sleeves folded to his elbows and Casey realized that she wasn’t the only one who hid her scars.

Casey ran her bare thumb across his exposed wrist and the thin white lines engraved there. Patricia was right. Self-inflicted lines weren’t perfectly straight or even, one end was raised while the other seemed almost faded as if the blade had dug with purpose before being pulled across in a rush of desperation. There was a slight curve to some speaking of hesitation and shaky line of another spoke of hopelessness. Casey wondered if those were the first or the last.

“I made a deal with The Beast.” She murmured, still stroking the soft skin of Dennis’s wrist. “I’ll tell him who broke me if he doesn’t hurt any more innocent people.”

Casey turned her gaze back to his. The blue threaded though his clouds, the intense color struggling to break through. She caught honey and sage and longing on her tongue. Her thumb stilled.

Dennis tore his gaze away and ran his hand over his scalp, a long breath escaping through his teeth in a hiss. He released her captive hand and settled his patiently on his knees. His scent shifted once more, bleach drowning everything out.

Casey marveled how Dennis could hide so much of himself behind an ever-present frown and the smell of disinfectant. She wondered if he even realized how efficiently he drew on his cloak.

 


 

 

Dennis watched Casey sleep, hands tucked below her pillow as she lay curled on her side.

He was supposed to be sleeping, too.

Dennis wasn’t sure how she had done it, but while they had finished tidying up the closets, Casey had convinced him that he needed to rest and why didn’t he just take the empty bed beside hers since it was closer?

He had laid down, fully intending to let the exhaustion in his body drag him into oblivion, but every time he closed his eyes, the image of his bloodied hands flashed though his mind while the taste of rust haunted him. There wasn’t enough boiling water, disinfecting soap, or mouth wash that could make them go away.

Dennis flexed his bandaged hands, the perfect snow white a stark contrast the filthy crimson from his memory. He noted that the dressings were looser than they usually were when he wrapped them himself and the lines displayed not quite even. He itched to correct it, yet he couldn’t bring himself to undo Casey’s work.

Dennis turned back to the girl. No one had ever bandaged any of his wounds before. It was Dennis's responsibility to fix everything so the others wouldn't be forced to. It was his duty to make sure that when another took the light, they wouldn't have to deal with his mess. And it wasn't as if there was anyone else who cared...

The memory of her thumb lightly running over Kevin’s scars made his blood heat.

Dennis swore and turned his attention to the ceiling. He crossed his arms and forced himself to focus on the perfect square panels lined up neatly with equally spaced nails holding them in place.

He wondered what The Beast had done with the bodies of the two girls. The only evidence of what had happened in those rooms was the blood on the ground and the stains on his skin.

Dennis wondered if The Beast had sliced up their bodies into pieces and stashed them around the apartment. If the next time he opened the fridge, he’d find the dark-haired girl’s head above the yogurt and cheese waiting to be devoured.

Dennis clenched his jaw in annoyance. Damn Luke and his stupid horror movies. There were too many gory pictures in his head, and he could blame them all on the obnoxious alter with a big mouth.

The fact that the last twelve hours had shared a nauseating amount in common with those movies wasn’t lost on Dennis.

Dennis had gotten exactly what he had wanted: their monster had been freed.

He couldn’t help but turn his head towards Casey, once more.

She’d made The Beast an offer.

And The Beast hadn’t refused.

Dennis admired Casey’s bravery and strength, but her bargain had been foolishly desperate. She had to have realized that?

The Beast protected the pure, but what would he really have to gain from killing her abuser and abstaining from his chosen prey?

The Beast hadn’t immediately rejected Casey’s offer and Dennis couldn’t help but dread the reason why.

Dennis closed his eyes and forced himself into the back of his mind, where the others waited.

Dennis needed to speak to The Beast and find out exactly what he planned for the pure girl.

He felt responsible for Casey’s safety and he had no intention of letting her down.

Chapter Text

Barry had no idea when everything had gone to hell, and he took full responsibility for the negligence.

When Hedwig had stolen the light and The Horde had taken over, Barry would’ve sworn it had happened in seconds. One minute he was working on embroidering the sleeves on a white dress shirt he’d designed, and the next he was back in his chair, Hedwig’s snicker ringing in his ears while Dennis sat comfortably in the light.

Barry remembered laughing, nerves on edge but remaining as carefully cheerful as possible when he’d asked Hedwig what was going on.

“Miss Patricia and Mr. Dennis said it was time.” the young alter had grinned with those shadows in his eyes that always unsettled Barry.

“Time for what, Hedwig?” Barry asked. The tension in the room had grown thick enough that the silence almost buzzed. Everyone was watching, waiting for an explanation.

But they should have known.

Barry should have known.

It’s not as if he hadn’t noticed that Patricia’s whispers had become more incessant or that Dennis had been watching them all more closely. It’s not as if Barry wasn’t fully aware that Patricia sang to Hedwig most nights or that Dennis didn’t push the boy away when he started on one of his rambles. It’s not as if he hadn’t always known Hedwig preferred Dennis’s company or that he always did his best to do what Patricia told him to.

Barry had seen everything. None of them bothered to hide.

He just hadn’t paid attention. At some point it had become almost second nature to ignore the three of them. It became more of “at least we don’t have to deal with them” careless shrug than a “what’re they doing?” narrowed gaze.

To him, to all of them, Patricia and Dennis didn’t matter. They’d been banned from the light for good reason and the others knew that it was best to keep their distance. Hedwig, with his childish behavior and frustrating ability to jump into the light at will, could be hard to handle and Barry had become dependent on Felicia or Bernice to keep him entertained enough that he wouldn’t give them trouble. Hedwig had just become someone they needed to keep happy, without caring if he actually was. When he became Dennis and Patricia’s responsibility, none of them had considered it a bad thing.

They should have.

Barry was in charge. He was the one responsible for who took the light. He kept them employed and safe. He tried to make them better with Dr. Fletcher’s help and tried to do what he could to make them happy.

Barry had failed. The Horde had taken over and The Beast had been set loose, death and devastation already being left in his wake.

And the blood they spilled and the pain they cause would rest on his shoulders, because Barry hadn’t even realized they were in any sort of danger.

The Beast created from Patricia’s horror stories sat on the floor with his back resting against the side of Kevin’s chair and bowed head curtained by his long black hair while his thundering snores thrummed through the room. Barry wasn’t sure if the creature was even made of flesh and bone like of the rest them, but he was definitely, frighteningly real.

The Beast was a killer who was now a permanent part of them.

Everyone had been silent when The Beast had emerged from the shadows around them. They had all watched in astonishment as Dennis roared in pain when The Beast stepped into the light with him. They had stared, their collective shock turning to revulsion as they saw The Beast grin, vicious and cruel, before the growl of a successful hunt slashed through the room and their new reality sank in.

They’d failed. What was worse, Barry had to admit, was that they hadn’t even tried. Not really.

Yes, they had been quick to steal the light from the first sign of Hedwig’s heavy lids and had sent the doctor dozens of emails. They argued with Patricia, tried to reason with Dennis, and did everything to bribe or scare Hedwig to their side.

They hadn’t been passive in any way, but Barry knew they hadn’t tried as hard as they should have. He knew none of the others had really believed there had been any threat. He certainly hadn’t.

They should have called the cops. They should have done something drastic.

Instead, Barry had insisted they reach out to Dr. Fletcher because she knew how to get through to Kevin if necessary. He convinced the others that if they could just persuade the doctor something was wrong, then everything would be fixed. They could free the kidnapped girls and Dr. Fletcher would be able to explain to the authorities the it hadn’t been all of them who were responsible, just a few. That the group as a whole wasn’t dangerous, at all.

Barry had sworn that if they just got a hold of the doctor, everything would be fine.

Barry hadn’t thought The Beast was real. He would’ve bet all his sketchbooks and every yard of fabric in his room that The Beast was just a figment of Patricia’s imagination and nothing more.

The snores quieted. Shadowed hollow eyes lazily met Barry’s from across the room. Barry tore his gaze away.

He would have lost that bet.

Whispers sounded around the room while heads looked pointedly away from The Beast, before their curiosity drew them back. No one outside The Horde had believed in The Beast, and seeing the creature resting so comfortably beside Kevin, drew their morbid interest. The Beast was a part of them and it was disgusting but it was fascinating to see how far from human their body could transform.

The Beast stood, his body uncurling like a snake. The sudden penetrating silence of the room made the hair on Barry’s arms stand on end.

The Beast wound around their chairs until he reached the one where Hedwig lay curled in sleep.

Barry straightened in his chair, fingers gripping his seat.

The Beast crouched in front of the slumbering boy and lifted him into his arms.

“Hey!” B. T. shouted, already on his feet, fists clenched as he glared at The Beast. “Put Hedwig down.”

The Beast regarded B. T. and B. T. took a half step back in response. He puffed out his chest and lifted his chin, feet planted firmly. Barry had to admit he’d never felt held more respect for the alter then he did at that moment.

Patricia tsked from her chair. “Stop being so rude, B. T., he isn’t going to hurt him.” Her lilting voice was edged with annoyance.

B.T. hesitated.

“Still’ll feel better if he puts the chap down.” Luke added voice uncharacteristically grave. He was leaning forward in his chair, elbows almost casually settled on his knees while tension strung his wide shoulders.

“I’ll take him.”

Barry turned away from Luke at the familiar baritone. He found Dennis beside The Beast, arms outstretched, and customary frown settled on his otherwise impassive face.

Barry hadn’t even realized Dennis had walked out of the light and from Kat’s surprised yelp at his side, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

It was disconcerting, seeing Dennis and The Beast standing side-by-side.

Dennis was the strongest and the most powerful alter who lived in Kevin’s body. His very presence of complete control tended to blanket those around him and made even the most iron willed readily defer to the man.

It had always been a constant point of shared irritation between Barry and Jade.

Standing before The Beast, however, forced Dennis to look up and his arms held out seemed almost supplicating despite the uncompromising expression he wore so naturally.

Dennis didn’t seem powerful anymore. Suddenly, he seemed so small and weak, Barry had to bite his tongue to stop himself from hissing a warning.

The two stared unflinchingly at one another while everyone in the room held their breaths.

Hedwig passed between their arms and Barry heard the sighs of relief. Despite how they might feel about Dennis, he was still one of them and they knew without a doubt that Hedwig was safe in his arms.

They couldn’t say the same about The Beast.

Dennis turned towards Hedwig’s chair.

“Put him in the light.” The Beast’s unnatural voice echoed, turning Barry’s blood cold while fear smothered the room. “We have an offer to discuss.”

The way Dennis’s eyes narrowed the slightest amount caused dread to pool in Barry’s stomach. The feeling wasn’t stilled as Dennis did as he was told before settling in his chair with crossed arms. Barry couldn’t quite tell exactly what it was, but while he sat perfectly unyielding in his seat there was an almost tangible nervousness surrounding him.

“An offer?” Patricia asked, ankles crossed demurely beneath her matronly black shirt.

The vague memory of an ever-present gold and ruby rosary twisted around her long fingers spun behind Barry’s eyes. He couldn’t recall if she or the rosary had been banished first. Annoyance dug at him. It certainly didn’t seem like the right time to shuffle through his memories for the answer.

The Beast grinned at Patricia, deadly fangs on full display. “The pure girl has offered us the life of her violator in exchange for a change of game.”

“A change of game…” Orwell repeated slowly worry thick in his voice.

The Beast began to wander behind their chairs, his muscles flexing with each move and his silent stride unnaturally fluid. Tension rose in his path and relief trailed his heels with each step. “The feast will remain,” he explained, “but the meal will be different.”

Barry swallowed down the bile that rose to his throat.

“Listen to this fecking holy joe, as if munching on one is better than the other!” Mary scoffed, her normally steady rhythm shaking in time with her bouncing knee.

“Who did she suggest as a replacement?” Patricia asked, brow raised and empty hands primly folded.

“Those that break.” Dennis’s rough murmur responded. Barry saw his frown trained on The Beast as he moved at the edge of the darkness. “Like Kevin’s mother. Like the one that gave Casey her scars.”

“Yeah,” Luke piped in, tone heavy with doubt. “see that don’t exactly make it a hog-killin’ time. Like Mary said, eating people is still eating people, aint it? Now Hannibal Lector might’ve gotten away with it, even killing those yellow bellies that kept trying to take him down, but real life isn’t exactly a movie.”

“The bargain isn’t about stopping the cannibalism, Luke.” Rakel’s solemn voice pointed out. “It’s just about which lives we’re willing to take.”

Sickening realization dawned on Barry. “You want us to choose so we’ll be a part of it.”

He felt nauseous. It wasn’t enough that their very flesh had been responsible for the deaths of those girls now The Beast wanted their souls to be just as tainted?

“You don’t have to choose.” The Beast continued his prowl. “I won’t go hungry, either way.” He answered, something disturbing and almost light in his voice making Barry think he was amused.

He would be. It was left unsaid but it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. They either made a choice or they’d be kept from the light.

“Why are you doing this?” Felicia squeaked. Barry saw her shoulders hunch as The Beast’s gaze settled on her from across the room.

“Oh, sweet girl, haven’t you listened to any of my stories?” Patricia taunted. She held her hand to her chest in mock-offense. “He’s here to show the world how powerful we are, of course.”

“Can’t he just join cross-fit or some shit?” B.T. shifted in his seat and cracked his knuckles anxiously. “Is the killing and the ingesting of body parts really necessary?”

“The impure are so blinded to the world they live in that the only ways to make them see must be extreme.” The Beast responded, words ringing with passion. “They need to suffer to come to life.”

“You know, if making people suffer gets your engine revving, there’s like a million goddamn torture methods out there that don’t involve guzzling down human liver.” Jade pointed out, nose scrunched in distaste. “Just fucking google that shit and leave us out it.”

“Yo!” B. T. rose his hand. “I vote for torture over eating.”

The Beast bared his teeth in his gruesome grin. “We must consume that which is weaker to grow stronger.”

An uncomfortable silence washed over them.

Barry studied the thick cords of muscle that threaded underneath The Beast’s abnormally long arms and saw how each breath seemed to make his bare chest expand to twice its size. There was no denying The Beast radiated strength and there was just enough surrealism to his existence that the thought of him needing to eat others almost made sense.

The awareness that it was making sense caused Barry to look away. He'd never had the strongest stomach.

Polly cleared her throat. Barry focused on her, begging for a distraction. “The world isn’t perfect, but there are other ways to change it that aren’t so… brutal.”

“No.” The Beast retorted with conviction. “There isn’t.”

Polly’s rose-dyed lips turned down. “You can’t be sure of that.”

The Beast didn’t reply, but the expression on his feral features spoke volumes. Polly broke his stare, fingers twisting in the green silk of her dress.

“Take the deal.” Jalin spoke. He sat angled in his seat, arm draped almost casually across the back of his chair, jean-clad legs outstretched.

“Jalin!” Mary snapped at him, other angry voices mixing with hers.

“Fuck it. I’m with Jalin.” Jade declared. Barry looked at her in horror. He’d always thought Jade was sensible. She was his friend. How could she make such a choice?

Jade felt his gaze and turned towards him. She rolled her eyes. “Come on, Barry, don’t be stupid. That cocksucker is going to kill, one way or the other. If he takes the girl’s offer than you know people aren’t going to be all gung-ho for our head the same way they’d be if we kept slaughtering their precious brats.”

“It doesn’t make it right, Jade.” Barry argued.

Jade shrugged. “No, but at least this way we have a chance to actually survive this shitfest and I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting locked in the dark again.”

“I agree.” Norma added. She smiled wistfully as she reached over and brushed the hair from Kevin’s forehead gently. “Who knows, maybe it really will make a difference and he won’t be afraid to wake up.”

Melancholy settled around them. It always did whenever they turned their attention to the boy forever sleeping fitfully in his chair. He was the reason they all existed and for too long, it felt like they did so without him.

“For Kevin.” Felicia whispered, shining eyes hopeful behind her round glasses.

“Yeah.” Luke grunted, pulling his cowboy hat low so the shadows covered his face.

“Wait-” Barry protested, panic chasing his heart.

“It’s been two years, Barry.” Mr. Pritchard cut him off. He sighed. “This isn’t what any of us would have chosen, but nothing else has worked.”

Barry shook his head. “Kevin wouldn’t want this.”

“We’ve never been good at giving him what he wants,” Goddard shrugged, the grim smile on his face a mockery of his usual sincere one, “why start now, right?”

No. Barry felt his breathing quicken.

“We’re with them.” Ian’s dry voice chimed in.

“We do not.” Mary protested, scowling at her twin.

“Mary.” Ian replied calmly.

Mary shook her head vehemently.

Ian continued to keep his heavy-lidded gaze locked with his sister’s.

Barry never failed to marvel at their silent conversations, wondering how the two could say so much with a glance and how they could come to a complete agreement without saying a word when they’d been tearing into each other a moment before.

Barry saw Mary’s watery eyes lower. He heard her sniffle.

Ian reached over and took his sister’s small hand. “We’re with them.” Ian repeated.

Their ability wasn’t so marvelous at a time like this.

Voices began to slowly sound in agreement.

Barry got to his feet, fists clenched at his sides. They couldn’t do this, they couldn’t. He turned towards The Beast in fury. “You’re supposed to be Kevin’s great hope? You?” he snarled. “You’re supposed to make the world safe?”

The Beast watched him, shifting on his heels so that his stalking steps led him to Barry.

Barry didn’t care. “You’re putting our lives in danger! They might not come after us as harsh if we kill sickos instead of innocent kids, but they will come after us.” Didn’t they understand? Didn’t any of them realize where encouraging The Beast’s actions would lead them? Didn’t they see that even if Kevin came back to the light because of this, he’d be coming back to his death? “There’s seven billion goddamn people in the world. You can kill as many as you want, it’ll never be enough. And when they realize what you’ve done, they’re gonna lock us all up if they don’t shoot us first. There’s no other way this ending. What type of protector are you?”

The Beast stood before him, his enormous body hovered unsettlingly close. Barry had never felt punier in his life. He felt his body tremble, the remnants of his anger shifting into terror. He swallowed thickly and refused to stand down.

He might have failed the group once already, but he wouldn’t let it happen again.

“I’m not your protector.” The Beast growled, low and threatening. “That role is already taken and, when allowed, it is suitably filled. I was born to punish the unworthy in the way all of you have craved but have never had the courage to act on. I was born from your hate and your fear and I’m bound to all of you because of it.” The Beast leaned forward, his breath hot against Barry’s face. “I know your pain and I’ve heard your dark desires. Death may come, but until then, we’ll live and be free of regret.”

Barry’s knees gave way and he collapsed onto his chair, stuttering gasps threatening to break apart his lungs. He hid in his hands and fought against the memories that were drawn forward with The Beast’s words.

Cruel curses and jeering shouts still looped in his mind from playground bullies too sheltered to realize they hadn’t been taught better. They tore him down and ripped him apart with their teasing that broke skin just because he talked a little different then them and because his movements and mannerisms were more fluid.

Masks of scandalized ridicule painted on faces he was supposed to admire and trust were stamped behind his eyelids. They were like their children, only so much worse because they should have known better. Instead the chorus of you’re a boy and boys like metal and wood. Boys aren’t entranced by the swish of fabric and the brightness of color. You’re a boy, you can’t do this. You’re a boy, you should do this. You’re a boy, you’re a boy, you’re a boy- and nothing else about him mattered.

The ache in his chest remain carved beneath his sternum at the all the lost smiles he’d had to endure from people who promised he belonged, only to turn their backs a moment later. Easy laughter and casual conversations became side-eyed glances and whispers beneath breaths the moment he told the truth. He was a part of a group, and the group was a part of him. The ache reminded him that it wasn’t him who was wanted in the end, it was the façade he showed them they adored.

Revulsion still sat beneath his skin and he was too afraid to ask why. Touch equaled pain and it made sense to their scars but not to the yearning inside. He craved, he wanted, he needed. His skin remembered and it refused and a knot of loathing settled in his stomach for Dennis, for their mother, for the others, for himself.

But Barry always grinned. He acted like it didn’t bother him because he knew it wasn’t supposed to. He laughed and gave a teasing wink and played as if he didn’t feel rage in his veins because he was different and broken. People found different a curiosity and tried to fix what was broken with confidence born ignorance. Both together became a chore too great and he was left staring at blank pages wondering if things would change if he did. He acted like he didn’t notice while he wept inside, drowning in loneliness while he sat surrounded by the others.

Barry couldn’t deny that in his darkest moments he’d prayed for Dennis’s strength and Patricia’s conviction so he could show the world he didn’t need them. Just for a moment so he could finally erase the memories that haunted him with his hands and their blood.

A feather-light touch rested on his shoulder. Barry drew his watery gaze up to find frail little Kat by his side.

There was pain in her eyes, like there so often was, but her bony fingers stayed steady on his shoulder.

“The offer.” She called to the others, words clipped and nearly silent.

Barry clenched his eyes shut. Kat squeezed his shoulder.

Barry gave a sharp bob of his head.

“Orwell?” Patricia’s asked almost sweetly. Of course, she’d be sweet then. She’d already won. “I don’t believe we’ve heard your decision, yet.”

Barry stared numbly at Orwell. So, everyone else had made their choice, then.

“I have a question.” Orwell began, brow furrowed, and lips thinned as he watched The Beast. The Beast paused in his stroll and gave his undivided attention to the alter. “Patricia’s story always says you need to feed on impure young. It’s a particularly disturbing refrain, in fact. You say it is because they are weak, and it will make you stronger. Why are you changing your stance now? What exactly are you getting out of this agreement?”

The Beast chuckled, the growling sound sending a weak shiver through Barry’s exhausted body. “A partner.”

Barry frowned, not understanding. Didn’t The Beast already have The Horde? Why would he ca-

“No.”

Barry’s blinked at the severe tone.

Dennis sat rigid in his chair, knuckles turning white as his fingers dug into his biceps. “I promised her she could leave.”

“Casey?” Patricia’s gaze narrowed. She turned towards The Beast in disapproval. “You plan to keep the pure girl as a pet?”

Barry’s eyes widened, mind slowly linking the pieces together.

“Our pure, powerful partner will be free, and she will choose to return.” The Beast decreed. He leaned his head back and a look of almost bliss crossed his savage face as a satisfied rumble unfurled from his chest and spread across the room. “She will choose us.”

For a moment, Barry pitied The Beast. Barry had learned from experience. The only reason the girl was still there was self-preservation. If they really gave her her freedom, they’d never see her again, Barry was certain.

He felt oddly disappointed at the thought. He would have liked to see what type of girl was unlucky enough to catch both The Beast's and The Horde's attention.

Chapter Text

There was someone new in the kitchen, wearing dark jeans with a bright yellow apron tied into a bow at the center of their back.

Casey watched as they moved around the small room to the rhythm of the music blaring from the radio that had played Asian music what felt like a lifetime ago. It wasn’t playing the same haunting melody this time, it was playing something far different, something that stirred her blood.

A smoky voice orchestrated the pounding of drums, the hail-like rattle, the sharp shout on brass, and the thrumming of chords with ease and a controlled chaos that made it too much and not enough. The beat had drawn her from her sleep and led her to the kitchen door, but it was the voice that held the siren’s call. It tempted her to move in abandon, to pivot and sway and embrace the rhythm and its promised freedom.

To follow the example of the other person in the room.

Their dance was effortless as their steps instinctively followed the beat while their hands remained occupied shifting from the stove, to the counter, to the fridge, and back. Their feet moved while they stayed in place, their shoulders mimicked their steps, and their head bobbed to keep time.

Hedwig loved to dance, but there was a precision with the stranger that didn’t match Hedwig’s frantic energy. They were too unfettered to be Patricia and there was too much spontaneity for it to be Dennis.

It definitely wasn’t The Beast.

Casey took a deep breath. She’d feel more comfortable with the stranger if she knew at least something about them. The air smelled of blueberries in batter and potatoes sizzling in butter. Her mouth watered as the phantom taste of vegetable rich omelets hit her tongue and the juice of fresh fruit slipped down her throat.

There was too much in the way and Casey could tell none of it was specific to them. She cradled her elbow indecisively.

The choice was made for her when the person froze mid-spin, knife glinting in their hand. Their gaze widened as they spotted her in the doorway.

“You’re up!” they grinned. The action fell short of their eyes.

They waved her in. “Come on in, breakfast is about ready!” they shouted above the music before turning back to the counter.

Casey hesitated.

The person looked over their shoulder to see she hadn’t moved. They reached over and lowered the music until it was nothing but background noise. They leaned against the sink, knife abandoned with what looked like mushrooms on a wooden cutting board. “You’re Casey, right?”

Casey nodded.

“I’m Goddard.” He replied, motioning to his chest with a bandaged hand. There was a vivid red mark across the left side of the palm and Casey was immediately standing before him, hand outstretched to take his.

Goddard gasped and pressed his back into the sink, charred salt making Casey blink.

Casey looked up into wide blue eyes, hand frozen mid-reach.

Tomatoes. Beneath the fear and uncertainty, she caught the rich taste of ripe tomatoes. It was sweet and savory and full of life. It was almost delicate taste…  one that in no way reminded her of bleach.

Casey felt her face redden as she took a few stumbling steps away.

Goddard remained tensed, watching her warily.

“I-I,” she struggled to explain. She gestured uselessly at him. “I thought you hurt your hands again.” And the rush of concern at the thought still left her unsettled.

Goddard unclenched his hands from the counter and stared at them with surprise. “That’s tomato juice.” He murmured, spotting the same stain she had.

“Oh.” Casey replied dumbly. She felt her face heat even more and knew she probably looked like a tomato herself.

“You were worried.” Goddard breathed. He sounded almost dazed by the thought.

Casey shrugged and stared at the floor. She wondered if she could just escape back to her room. She could wait until Hedwig inevitably had the light again and she could just start this day over.

Her stomach growled. Casey closed her eyes in humiliation. It seemed that while she had forgotten about the food sizzling on the stove, her stomach certainly hadn’t.

Goddard chuckled and Casey was relieved to taste only cotton candy and amusement without a lingering hint of charred salt. “Why don’t you sit, while I finish up?”

Casey looked up at him.

Goddard grinned, the blue of his eyes shining with warmth.

Casey smiled in response and took a seat. She could live with a little embarrassment.

Especially if pancakes were involved.

 

 


 

 

“The Beast left the decision up to the group.”

Casey paused, sponge in one gloved hand and sudsy dish in the other. She finished scrubbing clean the plate before passing it to Dennis, shoulders and arms brushing against one another. He methodically rinsed the dish before drying it with a white cloth and returning it to its cupboard.

She had had an amazing breakfast with Goddard where she’d happily accepted a third helping despite her protesting stomach and had caused him to beam with absolute pride.

Goddard, she found out, wasn’t as talkative as Hedwig but he laughed just as easily and didn’t mind sharing little pieces of himself. He told her how he liked their place, he really did. It fit the most of them the best, but he would love a huge kitchen. Somewhere he could play and experiment and find new flavors and seasonings.

He told her how the omelet she was eating was Jade’s favorite and how he would sometimes add a few chocolate chips to the pancakes so Hedwig would eat them without complaint. Goddard admitted Polly and Barry loved fruit to the point he’d created an entire menu just for them. That Ansel was the designated shopper since he had the best eye for fresh ingredients. He chuckled, that warm rumbling way that reminded her of a drumbeat, and told her that if he let them, Norma would just have tea for all her meals and Samuel would survive on nothing but a cup of coffee.

It had been relaxed and easy… until they’d finished eating. Then Goddard had grown silent and stared at her with a furrowed brow and the bitter taste of worry that salted the memory of his blueberry pancakes.

“Be careful?” he’d implored tentatively, brows knit in a desperate expression.

Casey had nodded and then Dennis had taken over the light to clean up after Goddard.

“They all agreed.” Dennis revealed, taking the washed silverware she handed him.

Casey stilled, her heart raced. “They agreed?”

Dennis turned towards her. The same bitter taste from Goddard sparked on her tongue. “Every last one agreed to your deal.”

Casey should have felt relief, but instead her nerves were on edge, and she knew the while the worry she tasted was a part of it there was more to it.

She had never really believed The Beast would take her deal.

Family always comes first.

“John Cooke.”

Dennis’s brow rose.

“He’s my uncle.” Casey explained. She needed to tell him before her thoughts grew too loud and guilt held her tongue. “He’s the one that hurt me.”

Casey smelled fire and tasted hatred and there was a darkness in Dennis’s eyes that reminded her too closely of The Beast.

“You’re uncle.” Dennis repeated, voice carefully controlled and expression stoic. His body was so close to hers she could practically hear it hum with rage. “Where is he?”

Her father’s words became a litany in her mind. Casey had thought she’d shredded that phrase years ago. She had thought she’d long ago learned the lie in it and had banished it from her mind. Yet, they sand in her ears as if they had never left. As if they were an unshakable truth.

The Beast had promised her uncle would be punished. He deserved to be punished. He had taken a little girl’s trust and perverted it. He had taught her there was more than one type of pain and sowed her lips shut with blame. He had abused her and told her enough lies that she believed it was her fault.

Her uncle had broken. Day by day, her uncle had carved her to pieces before shattering them apart while he whispered he loved her and she was such a good girl.

Casey clenched her shaking hands. Basil wrapped around her.

The broken are the powerful.

Casey lifted her chin and met Dennis’s gaze. The rage and hatred were still there, but he gave her his ghostly smile threaded with sage and she saw the promise of whiskey in his eyes.

Her un- no. She wouldn’t call him that anymore. That title wasn’t going to keep holding her hostage.

John Cooke deserved to be punished. He deserved to die and every person like him deserved the exact same fate.

The Beast and the others had made their choice. So had Casey.

She told Dennis his address.

 

 


 

 

“We can’t kill the uncle tonight.”

The shadows of Dennis’s scowl darkened. “Why not?”

Patricia gave him a tranquil smile, refusing to grind her teeth. She loved all her boys, but it seemed as if their brains stopped functioning the moment a pretty face caught their attention.

“We have to figure out what to do with the girl before we can move on to her uncle.” Patricia patiently explained.

Dennis’s lips thinned and his stare narrowed. She met his gaze with a raised brow.

“I thought we were letting her go?”

Patricia bit back an annoyed sigh at Goddard’s panicked question.

The pair couldn’t have spent more than a couple of hours together, and yet the cook was just as bewitched by the pure girl as Dennis.

It was an unfortunate realization.

Patricia was a perfectionist.

Not quite in the way Dennis was, with his swarm of cleaning supplies and hyper fixation on details, but they were not too dissimilar either. They both shared an itch toward order and cleanliness, a carefully calculating mind that understood how to see beyond their current footsteps to the future ones needed, and the tenacity to follow through and live with their choices.

But while Dennis was short-term logic, Patricia saw beyond to the big picture and based her choices on a greater faith.

Patricia had seen the real world being swallowed by filth and malice and had known it was desperate for change. She had found The Beast, she had embraced his sermon with a willing heart, and had known what needed to be done.

Patricia made her plans. She had been obsessively thorough, delicately diligent, and as persevering as a saint.

When the others had grown afraid of the truth in her words, she’d been banished, and Hedwig’s role had become essential. Patricia sang him lullabies and told him bedtime stories where The Beast silenced the ridicule and laughter that chased Hedwig wherever he went. When he sat enthralled, she reminded him of his blunders and emphasized smart boys didn’t make such silly mistakes.

Hedwig had nodded, shamefaced and wide-eyed.

When Dennis had been thrown to her side, she knew fate approved. She had woven his strength and precision into her plans until he became just as necessary as the boy. Patricia had whispered The Beast’s promises in Dennis’s ear, repeating them again and again, while she let hope and doubt war within him until Dennis began to yield. She played coy at his acceptance, questioning his urges and his control.

Dennis had clenched his jaw and coldly swore there wouldn’t be a problem.

Patricia knew her boys. She was aware of Hedwig’s naïve heart and desperation for friendship. She knew Dennis’s compulsion to protect and his desire to be enough. She had meticulously noted their contributions and their weaknesses and had planned their uprising to perfection.

At least that had been her belief, until Dennis brought with him a spare girl with the two expected impures. A girl with wary doe eyes that seemed to see beneath their skin to each person trapped within.

“She’s free to go.”

Patricia frowned at Dennis. She’d felt the same pull of kinship for the girl as the others must have, but Patricia recognized the danger. She used her common sense and held herself back because she knew what needed to be done.

Apparently, she was the only one.

“Even Beasty-boy over there said as much.” Jade replied, studying her nails while she gestured absently at The Beast, who had once more established himself on the floor beside Kevin.

The Beast, with his eyes made of sacred ash, watched them in silence.

“When exactly do we let her go?” Patricia inquired calmly. “Where do we let her loose? Should we just let her walk out? To a zoo full of people? While her face is still posted all over the news? After the two girls she came with were sacrificed?”

Jalin snorted. “Sacrificed is a nice way to put it,” he murmured, draped like a fallen doll across his chair.

“No point in getting delicate now, Patricia.” Barry told her bluntly, sitting so low in his seat he seemed close to slipping off while he rested his neck against the back of it and he stared upwards. “Just say what you mean.”

Patricia gave both a disapproving look. She crossed her ankles and straightened her back. Was it really so hard to sit properly? Why did they seem to find it so necessary to slouch like a pair of common vagrants?

“The girl is an unnecessary risk.” Patricia elaborated, chin held high as she avoided the glares from the others. She kept her gaze on The Beast. “If we let her go, we’ll end up in jail.”

“I don’t think she’d do that,” Goddard argued, shaking his head with a furrowed brow.

“Got caught in the bitta fluff, too, Goddard?” Mary teased, light-heartedness thick in her tone but absent from her gaze.

Goddard ducked his scarlet face. “It’s not-“

“What was the young damsel like?” Heinrich asked, accent sharpening his words as he leaned forward early in his seat, hands braced on his thighs. “Was she ready to be whisked away by her valiant knight?”

Norma hmphed, her own drawl smooth. “If the girl had the nerve to make a bargain with The Beast, I’m positive she’s not waiting for a valiant knight, Heinrich.”

Heinrich gave her an affronted look. “Norma, this is what all great lo-“

“Kill her.”

Barry turned his head to his neighbor. “Kit?” despair in his watery voice.

Patricia appreciated the sensible way Kat shrugged and said, “we’ve already got blood on our hands. We agreed to more. What’s a little extra?”

B.T. cursed.

“Kat does have a point.” Rakel admitted with a thoughtful gaze. “None of us want to go to jail, right?”

“But,“ Samuel hesitated, fidgeting in his seat, “she made that deal…”

“We’ll take care of her uncle,” Patricia smiled, victory feeling close at hand, “just as we promised.”

“Casey’s pure,” Dennis spoke, the growling edge instantly silencing the room, “she will be left alive and set free.”

“She’ll be the death of us,” Patricia warned.

Dennis stared at her in response, daring her to go against him.

She pursed her lips. Between his strength and his penchant for martyrdom, Dennis had always been a tightrope to deal with. She could tell he'd already thinned the rope before she was willing to walk it. There was nothing she could say that would say him. The others, however-

“She was worried about us,” Goddard whispered, painfully soft.

Polly frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

Goddard eyed his bare hands. “I got tomato juice on the bandages and when she saw it- She was so scared and anxious- and for a moment I thought- but then-“ he chuckled fondly. “She was so embarrassed.” He sniffled. He turned back to them. “No one’s ever- We’re not really going to hurt her, are we?”

Goddard’s jumbled sentences didn’t make any sense at all, but he’d said enough to cause an ache to settle in her chest.

Patricia looked at the faces surrounding the light. She saw their wistful expression and the echoes of pain in more than one set of eyes. Even Kat and Rakel seemed affected.

That was Patricia’s biggest miscalculation: she hadn’t counted on how intensely a simple act of kindness would affect each of them.

Life had been cruel to Kevin. It had taken a good boy and had punished him day in and day out for having the audacity of existing until it left him damaged inside and out in irreparable ways.

Patricia had come to Kevin when his faith, the only part of him that was still filled with hope, had begun to dim.

She had arrived with her rosary in hand and a book full of worship inscribed within her mind and had encouraged Kevin to keep believing. Sunday morning had belonged to the two of them and no one else. She would sit in her pew at the front of the church with Kevin at her side, in the light but not quite, so they could both embrace God’s word.

There would be peace in those moments. Peace and hope painting the world in a brightness that mimicked the sunshine filtering through the stained-glass windows lining the cathedral walls.

Kevin insisted on confession after every service and Patricia would give him privacy during those sacred moments where Kevin could embrace his sins and find forgiveness for each. Though, Patricia would always return to recite his penance, together, and his grip on her hand was never as soft as it was in those moments. When they left, their chests felt lighter and Kevin’s head rose a bit higher and it was enough for her.

She had criticized Goddard for being so content to spend all his time in the light in their kitchen, without the slightest itch of curiosity to see what the world beyond could offer. Yet, for those few years, Patricia had felt the same.

She’d found satisfaction and happiness in her pew. Her life belonged to God, Kevin, and the church and it was everything she needed.

That was, until Kevin began to weep between words. Until his prayers became hollow desires for forgiveness and desperate pleas for absolution. Until he’d repeat his Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s until his throat burned and his knees grew sore.  Until Kevin began to leave, not with peace lifting his soul but with his shoulders weighed down with misery.

Patricia had always been comforted by the sounds of the others in the room, but she hadn’t paid attention. She had never read the meaning beneath phrases or heard the story told between glances. She had never had a reason to.

Patricia began to listen. She began to understand.

With knowledge dripping down her throat, she began to appreciate why Eve had taken a bite of the forbidden fruit.

For the next few services, she held the cool beads of her rosary against her wrist and let her fingers trace the raw scars hidden beneath the long sleeves. She ignored each sermon.

Patricia requested the light on a day that wasn’t Sunday and in Barry’s shock, he had readily agreed.

She met Kevin’s mother.

It was then that Patricia realized she would never be able to follow one of God’s holy commandments. She realized she would never be able to practice what The Bible preached.

Patricia would never forgive Kevin’s mother and she would never show that woman any form of honor. She didn’t deserve either.

Once those revelations struck her, the rest of the commandments became shaky and the stories within The Bible began to take on a different meaning entirely.

Patricia had still clutched her rosary, crucifix digging into her palm, and she had prayed.

Patricia prayed for the strength to remain faithful so that she could be what Kevin needed her to be. She prayed that Kevin was granted the freedom to be himself that he deserved and not the permanent escape his eyes begged for.

She prayed Kevin’s mother got exactly what she deserved.

The longer she prayed, the more scars spoiled her skin, and the darker the justice she craved.

When none came, she decided it was time to seek her own.

Patricia had approached Dennis, rosary beads hard against the soft flesh of her palms and had asked why he never acted to stop the abuse.

Dennis’s response had been a confused frown and an assurance that he kept everything perfect.

Bernice, who sat beside Dennis, had understood Patricia. She had shot Patricia a piercing glare and a simple statement: “Kevin loves his mother.”

Patricia had acted as if that was a worthy excuse and had walked away.

Still, she had kept interrogating and prodding until the others began to give her wary looks and distance grew between them.

It became too much. Patricia had dropped her rosary into the blackness at their backs. She was finished worshiping a God that had abandoned them.

A whisper from deep within the darkness had promised that it was still there. It purred in agreement at her thirst for justice. It vowed it could change the world, that they could change the world together.

They would punish the impure, children of vanity and greed who didn’t recognize a suffering soul. They would force the world to witness as they built a new paradise out of their remains. It would be a haven for the broken where they could remain protected and revered. The world would become what God had failed to create.

Patricia had always expected to find justice and perhaps a measure of peace. Happiness had never been probable. A “partner” had never even worth imagining.

It was their curse and their gift. They had each other and would never be alone. They were bound until death in a far more permanent way that even a promise to God and there was something absolutely beautiful and utterly tragic about the affirmation.

Patricia knew no one would ever be worthy of them and no one would ever be willing to try. She had always understood this and had accepted the simple truth a long time ago.

But life had left them all so starved and desperate. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the first pure girl they met would draw The Beast and Dennis’s attention. Or that the first act of kindness would attach Hedwig while the first sign of caring would endear Goddard.

Patricia should have realized the danger.

“The Pure One will not betray us.” The Beast spoke, voice definite.

“Even if not intentionally,” which Patricia highly doubted, “her escaping while the two other girls didn’t is going to put her in a position where she will inevitably reveal something that will lead back to us.”

“Hey Fel,” B. T. called, leaning forward in his chair so that he could see over Ansel to Felicia, “think you can come up with a good story the girl can tell?”

“Hopefully before Madam here goes all Hostel.” Luke added. He grinned at Goddard. “Would the chick make it out like the randy guy did? Just missing a few fingers? Or would she end up like the friends, all diced up?”

“Orwell?” Felicia looked at the man on her other side hopefully. “Could you help?”

Fondness caused crinkles to appear behind Orwell’s brass framed glasses. He nodded. “We’ll create a story worthy of newspaper headlines.”

Patricia set her jaw.

“Come off it, Patty,” Jade smirked. Patricia narrowed her eyes, the nickname leaving a foul taste in her mouth. “If Felicia and Orwell think of an alibi for the girl, she gets to go.”

“If she tells-“

Barry’s harsh laugh caught Patricia’s sentence. “Then she tells.” He sat up in his seat and the grin he gave her was made of stone. “You made your choice and we made ours. Honey, their ain’t no going back now. The girl lives. That’s the end of it.”

Patricia sat back in her chair, her hands folded primly on her lap.

She really should have calculated how strangers would affect their solitary life.

It was too late, the others were absolutely desperate for a companion.

Patricia supposed there were worse choices than Casey. If Orwell and Felicia managed to create a passable story, Patricia wouldn’t protest again.

However, the girl belonged to them.

If she didn’t return within an acceptable time limit, Patricia would fetch her herself. If the girl told the police about them-

Well, she was certain she could take inspiration from one of Luke’s movies.

Chapter Text

“It’s a family tradition, Casey,” her daddy grinned, wide and reassuring. He turned towards her for a moment and the golden light rushing through the truck’s windows made his eyes glow. He winked in that silly way daddys did before he looked back at the road. “Trust me, baby. You’re gonna love it.”

Casey grinned up at him, her cheeks hurting as she tried to mimic his big smile. “Ok, Daddy.”

A warm palm lifted from the steering wheel and reached across the seat to hold her tiny fingers. “Don’t worry, Casey.” He soothed. “John said he’d come with us. He’ll make sure you have fun.”

Casey pouted, thinking of the giant man with his whooping laugh that always echoed in her ears. She was lucky she only had to see her uncle on special holidays. “Uncle John is scary.”

Her daddy laughed. “That’s because the bastard is built like a house, just like our dad was.” He gave her a very serious stare. “He’s definitely bigger than Simba.”

Casey frowned at him. “Na-uh.” She remembered her uncle towering over her daddy and how he’d sometimes scare her by lifting her onto his shoulders and Casey knew that if she unclenched her grip on his hair, she’d be able to touch the ceiling. But Simba, her daddy’s old yellow truck was huge. He was the king of all trucks and there was no way Simba could fit inside their house. Although, maybe the living room? Still, Uncle John couldn’t be bigger.

Her daddy shrugged. “I mean, he has to be bigger than Simba to be scary, doesn’t he?”

Casey scrunched up her nose. She patted Simba’s door affectionately. Simba would always protect her, growling like a lion at the first sign of threat. And nothing was bigger than Simba. “Uncle John isn’t that scary.” She finally admitted.

“Atta girl!” Her daddy lifted his hand from her hers and messed up the short curls on her head so she’d look like a little lion, too.

Casey giggled.

Daddy was right, Uncle John was big but he wasn’t scary.

Casey gazed out the window tot the greens and golds and browns flying by in a whirlwind. Her daddy was probably right about the woods, too. She was gonna love it just as much as he did.

“Casey?”

The rough voice snapped her back to reality. She turned away from the passenger window and towards him.

Dennis frowned at her, bandaged hands clutching the steering wheel. Bitter, bitter worry salted the basil that always seemed to appear when he was around her.

Casey smiled distractedly, her mind still in a beat-up yellow truck with her overly trusting father and the naïve little girl she used to be.

Basil thickened.

Casey took a deep breath. Bleach grounded her and reminded she wasn’t lost in a memory. It reminded her she was sitting in a silver little car beside a worried Dennis who was waiting for her to get out so he could start his shift at the zoo.

“I’m ok.” She nodded at him. His grip loosened but his frown remained.

Casey removed the blonde wig and the vibrant pink sunglasses she’d had to wear during their trip and handed them to Dennis.

He took them without a word.

Casey’s hands fiddled with the sleeves of her red flannel. She’d been surprised when Patricia had returned her old clothes. That was nothing compared to how she felt when Patricia proceeded to tell her the story the group created so that she could be free without putting any of them in jeopardy.

There had been the dissolving taste of chalk mixed with Patricia’s wine. Her smile had echoed that distrust and Casey had almost been reluctant to agree to anything she could suggest.

She’d also known better than to argue and had simply listened. When their alibi began to make sense, Casey began to pay closer attention.

“We can think of something else.”

Casey gave Dennis a genuine smile. She shook her head. “No, this was a good idea. I’m just nervous but I’ll be fine.”

“I can bring Ansel out?” Dennis offered.

Ansel, with the soft scent of pine that reminded her of Christmas mornings and shy words, had been the one the others had ordered to teach Casey about the forest. He had stuttered at first, not sure where to begin and obviously uncomfortable having to talk to her, but Casey had been patient and shared some of the things she’d already learned thanks to her father. It had taken a while, but by the time dinner came and Goddard had returned with a grin, Ansel and Casey both felt she’d survive just fine in the wilderness for a few days.

Their plan centered around Casey being “rescued.” It was deer season and the entire area was scattered with hunters which meant it shouldn’t take long for her to find someone willing to help the missing girl from the news. Once she found them, she was supposed to tell the story Hedwig and her had continuously recited to each other. The police would chase after a figment of their imagination and the group would be safe.

For their plan to even be possible, Casey had to be left in the forest.

“I’m fine.” Casey told Dennis, hoping the repetitive words were beginning to sound true.

Based on the thick basil still in the air, she doubted they were.

Dennis sighed and ran his hand over his scalp, the soft scrape of the cloth against his growing hair sending a shiver through her.

He noted the movement. “If you’re not found in three days, we’re coming to get you.”

Casey felt herself relax slightly. She nodded.

Dennis leaned towards her and Casey froze.

He reached behind her seat and dropped a heavy paper bag on her lap.

Casey peeked inside and let out an disbelieving laugh. “This isn’t a picnic.”

Peppermint filled the car. “River water is filthy.” He told her stiffly, glaring at the scattered leaves beyond the windshield. “And you shouldn’t eat things off the ground.”

Ansel had told her the same. To set both their nerves at ease, they’d agreed she could take two water bottles with her and bury the empty bottles when she was finished with them. They had also talked about food but Ansel had made her memorize the appearance of a few berries and mushrooms on his phone that she could ingest if it took more than a day to find her. He’d emphasized that if it didn’t resemble the pictures or if she wasn’t sure, then they were to be avoided. The thought of her taking sandwiches hadn’t occurred to either of them.

The food and water made sense, the other item in the bag, however-

“A blanket?” she asked, struggling not to grin. She saw his ears redden.

“It’s cold at night.”

Her grin broke through. “I’m supposed to have escaped, Dennis.”

Dennis’s lips thinned and the blush crawled across his cheekbones.

Casey settled the bag at her feet, grabbed a few of the cellophane wrapped sandwiches and stuffed them in her black hoodie’s pockets before grabbing two of the water bottles.

She saw Dennis frown again, basil easily overpowering the peppermint.

“I’ll see you soon.” Casey assured, fingers resting on the door handle.

She caught the taste of sawdust.

Casey reached across the armrest and placed her hand on his arm. “I promise.”

Dennis gave a sharp inhale. He gaped at her, cotton candy covering her tongue with its effervescent sweetness and making her feel lighter.

Casey opened the door and slipped out before he could up with a reply. The crisp dawn breeze rushed across her warm skin and she embraced the calm, walking with purpose to the edge of the tree line.

Casey paused and looked over her shoulder. Dennis was still waiting at the side of the road in his silver car. She raised the bottle of water in a salute.

She turned back and stared at trees before her. Shadows and bad memories lurked in the woods…

“Three days.” She reminded herself.

Casey stepped forward.

 

 


 

 

“Shouldn’t we wait for Daddy?” Casey asked, craning her neck upwards so that she could see her uncle’s hairy face. She tripped and almost tumbled to the floor but managed to catch herself at the last minute.

Make sure you look where you’re going.

Casey concentrated on the leaf littered ground, recalling her daddy’s words. She frowned with focus as she tried not to step in any holes or slip on any more fallen branches.

Uncle John grinned down at her, teeth glinting with the rising sunshine filtering through the branches. “Your dad’s still sleeping.”

“But Daddy always wakes up early.” Casey argued.

Her uncle stopped beside a cluster of trees. He laughed. “Usually, but that’s never been true when he starts drinking. He’d sleep all day if we let him.”

Casey scrunched her nose up at him. “Why would drinking make Daddy sleepy?”

Her uncle leaned his rifle against one of the trunks. “Don’t worry about that.” He crouched down in front of her. The bottom of his open jacket swept the ground with a scrape and he wore his smile full of shining teeth. “How bout we play a game, Casey-bear? Just the two of us.”

Casey heard a rustling behind her. She stilled and pressed herself harder against the bark at her back.

A chirp sounded above her. Casey clenched her teeth and dug her fingers into her palms.

Another rustle. Another chirp. Skittering among fallen leaves. Tiny teeth clicking against one another.

Casey took shallow breaths. She focused on the pain in her hands.

It didn’t help.

Fur, damp and muddy, to the right. Moss, delicate and heavy, at the base of her tree. Earth, rich and powerful, beneath her feet. Hemlock, oak, berries, critters, rabbits…. She could smell them all, she could taste them each one.

Casey’s breaths stuttered. It was too much, too strong. The air was contaminated. She didn’t want it down her throat. She didn’t want it in her lungs. She couldn’t handle it inside her. She wouldn’t do- She couldn’t just-

Casey couldn’t breathe.

The sea of colors flooded her mind. In the riot of images she could see everything. Her nose pointed and her gaze confirmed and it made her dizzy. She jumped from one to the other to yet another and she knew what everything was, what it was inside even if she’d never seen their skin before.

It didn’t make sense. It was making her sight burn. It was making her feel as if she were spinning. Round and round and circles that wouldn’t stop.

She couldn’t think.

She felt her bottom lip tremble. She bit into it viciously until blood filled her mouth. It drowned out the other tastes. Casey rose her bloodied hand to her face and covered her nose. She inhaled.

Casey focused on the copper and iron in her blood. She focused on the warmth and the taste and the scent and closed her eyes.

Be good and listen to your Uncle John, Casey.

The too familiar heaviness over her face dug icicles in her heart and ripped apart her lungs.

How bout we play a game, Casey-bear?

Phantom hands dwarfed her as they burned the flesh from her bones.

Come on, Casey-bear, your dad said you had to be a good girl.

Her eyes snapped open. She felt tears trail down her cheeks and over her numbed hand.

This is our game, Casey-bear.

She sobbed.

All their games started in these woods.

 

 


 

 

At some point the panic dimmed and her exhausted mind stopped functioning.

Casey found herself sitting against the same tree, numb to the point that she didn’t even feel anything, not even her own limbs.

She absently noted how the shadows shifted around her, cradling her in their lengthened hold.

The sounds began to change. Birdsong rose with the shadows, reaching its crescendo that drowned out the rest of the world before becoming lighter and softer until it was nothing but gentle coos.

Scents and tastes shifted. Beneath the canopy of stars and the taste of her own blood she noted the coldness sharpened everything with a precision that was terrifying, but not as overwhelming as before. It was clearing. Like a sip of icy water.

Casey took a careful breath. Damp earth and sparkling air greeted her. She exhaled. Her next breath drew deeper, teasing out the scents of the creatures sleeping in the earth and those swimming silently in the sky above.

Her mind began to shake itself awake.

She wiped her palms against her pants. She reached into one of her pockets for a squished sandwich and withdrew it with a loudness that caused annoyed stirring around her.

Casey wasn’t hungry but she forced herself to open the sandwich and take a bite of the vegetables bursting between the bread. She tasted tomato and smiled.

Her body began to warm and the gnawing in her stomach forced her to devour the sandwich in minutes. Casey finished a second just as quickly.

She picked up the half empty bottle abandoned on the ground and finished it off in a single gulp.

Casey sniffled. She used the sleeve of her flannel to wipe away her new tears and berated herself for crying again.

The fading scent of laundry detergent and dirt hit her nose.

Shame filled her. Casey had walked for a few hours in the morning before the memories began to crowd her and the woods became too alive for her to handle. It might have been no more than a day, but she’d spent it all inside her own head instead of doing what Ansel had told her and finding a river.

All animals flocked to rivers and humans followed their prey, Ansel had told her. He’d said her best chance of being found would be if she stayed beside the water.

Instead, she’d moved maybe a couple of miles in and ended up nowhere.

Casey sat back and listened to the peaceful music of the night.

With her father’s snores filling their tent, Casey had always been safe when the sun set. Night freed her from John. It brought her peace and with the world bathed in moonlight, nightmares didn’t exist and only dreams felt real.

After her father died, nights began to hold the same monster and her moonlit serenity had been stolen from her.

Who broke you?

What will you do if I tell you?

Punish them.

Casey let her body relax and she sighed at The Beast’s promise. Even damp, the earth smelled powerful and it held so much life within it she couldn’t dispute its strength. And there was more beneath.

Casey took a deep breath and focused.

Beneath the taste of ripe berries and the scent of earthworms sliding under the dirt, lay the acrid taste of rotting greenery and the sickly sweetness of vines swallowing corpses.

The earth bred life and it embraced death. It belonged to extremes and every phase between. The earth was powerful because it didn’t have to choose between light or dark, it existed as both.

Casey smiled, maybe her father hadn’t been wrong about the woods, after all.

 

 


 

 

The prey walked as if it did not know fear.

It wore sadness on its face and gave pathetic hiccuped responses to impures who could not understand the truth. It cloaked itself in pity and the impures coddled it and praised its lies.

The false misery didn’t hide the prey’s sickness.

It wore its girth as if it were a worthy weapon, strutting as if it owned the street and intimidating those around into believing the prey’s assumptions.

Its blue eyes held no soul and the hunger that entered the gaze as it watched the children running along the road kept being mistaken for concern.

The impures were too blind to spot the predator in their midst and instead welcomed The Beast’s prey into their homes.

The Beast watched them through Patricia’s eyes and let her share the images with the others.

There were snarls of fury, whimpers of remembrance, and hesitant questions of concern from the group at his back.

There was righteous rage igniting Patricia’s veins and The Beast growled in agreement.

This prey had cleansed Casey in agony and gave her the power and purity that had made her worthy to be their partner.

While The Beast was grateful for their Casey and knew the prey had played a vital role, it had caused her pain.

The prey had marked their Casey. It had tried to brand her skin as it had her soul. It had educated her too well in cruelty, the same way Kevin’s mother had. It had tried to destroy her mind and remake her into a toy for only its pleasure.

The Beast gloried in the mind that had been damaged but remained Casey’s own. He revered her markings because they displayed her strength for all to see. He worshiped her purity because it made her powerful.

Casey was theirs and The Beast protected what was bound to him.

The Beast’s teeth ached to tear apart the prey’s flesh and feast on its entrails until it drowned in its own screams. He wanted to carve Casey’s pain in its mind so that it would be the last sensation the prey had before The Beast devoured its heart.

“It’s time.” Patricia murmured as darkness cast a heavy silence on the busy neighborhood. His priestess wore her thirst for vengeance along her shoulders with a confidence that made him preen in delight. He’d chosen a worthy disciple, indeed.

Patricia left their vehicle and floated stealthily to the side of the deceptively tranquil house. She donned on the plastic gloves Dennis had insisted on and opened the side gate, making her way towards the backdoor Casey had revealed was never locked.

They slid inside without issue and made their way towards the back room where the prey’s den was located. They heard the sound of shouting and laughter and saw a chaos of colors that announced the prey had settled itself in its large recliner to rest.

Patricia paused beside a glass cabinet and reached inside for a metal weapon made deadly by gunpowder and fire.

Instead of taking over completely, as he craved to, The Beast slipped behind Patricia into the light, feeding her enough of his strength while still leaving her in control. Their safety necessitated a different punishment for this prey.

Patricia walked into the prey’s den, shells already loaded in the shotgun.

The prey slept, reclined as far back as possible with the ease of the intoxication evidenced in the pile of cans at its side.

Patricia kneeled on the prey’s spread thighs, causing it to stir with a murmur of their partner’s name. The Beast focused his weight on their knees, digging them deep into the prey’s flesh.

“What the fuck?” The prey slurred, startled awake.

Patricia grabbed the prey’s hands in her own and The Breast strength gave them no hope of release. She guided its hands into position, forcing its fingers to wrap around the shotgun. With the prey’s size, no creativity was necessary and the barrel settled easily below its jaw.

The alcohol had dulled the prey’s senses and the fear at Patricia’s strength kept its resistance weak and left its frantic movements ineffective.

The Beast stepped forward enough for the prey to see his shadow lurking behind Patricia’s eyes.

Patricia smiled.

It still and its blue gaze filled with terrified tears.

The Beast reveled in its surrender.

“You deserve a slow death for everything you have done. You deserve pain and terror and raw wounds on your flesh.” Patricia preached, voice as sharp and her smile. “But no one can know we were responsible, so we will have to settle for your death.”

“Please.” The pray begged in a tone so beautifully pathetic, The Beast engraved it into his mind and wished he could share it with their Casey.

Patricia leaned away as she began to put pressure on the finger nestled on the trigger.

The prey continued to whimper and moan.

The loud bang left a silent corpse in its wake. The remaining pieces of the prey’s twisted mind splattered against the back wall and coated the floor in its remains.

A few beads of crimson marred Patricia’s skin. She licked her lips, catching a drop of blood on her tongue.

The Beast released a satisfied purr.

Chapter Text

“Focus.” Casey repeated, concentrating each of her senses on the brown rabbit scurrying ahead of her through the forest floor. “Focus, Casey. Focus.”

When the sun had bathed the world in gold, it had been as if the very earth had come alive. Chaos draped around her in a dizzying amalgam of fresh scents and emotions that tasted familiar but settled strangely on her tongue.

Memories, sweet and full of freedom tempted her but she knew the agony and pain that lurked at the edges. She had known if she let a single memory in, they would all rush over her and suffocate her until she was left in a catatonic ball once more.

Casey had refused to let another day be wasted reliving her twisted childhood. She had grit her teeth, forced herself to her feet, and had sworn John Cooke would no longer hold any influence in her life.

Her new determination aside, the newness in the air had still assaulted her senses. It had made her pause for longer than she had cared to admit while she had tried to find her footing amid the flood of new sensations around her.

It was the taste of energy that held her. It was flavorless but undeniable and sent a shiver through her skin. Like a live battery pressed against her tongue or a shot of pure caffeine hitting her veins after days without sleep. It was electrifying and incredibly easy to hone in on. The energy was enveloped by the scent of fur mixed with dust and dirt and the crackling leaves that camouflaged the brown hare were easily separated in her eyes.

It began to hop, a gentle thrumming at its paws revealing its simple need to move.

All animals head towards water.

Ansel’s words prompted Casey forward. She followed the rabbit’s scent as it led her along an unmarked path and prayed the rabbit hadn’t decided it wanted to simply wander aimlessly.

As the sun began to move in the sky and a brown rabbit led her along, the world began to slowly make sense. The scents and taste were familiar and not just because she’d been to the woods before, but because it wasn’t the first time she’d caught them. She knew the scent of fallen leaves that lingered in her school’s field and the taste of fur and feathers that always lay just out of sight but ever-present.

They were purer in the woods, however. They existed in a simplicity and a transparency that were foreign to her

The taste of ozone blanketed the streets and the pervasive scent of concrete and engine fumes were hallmarks to her city and were constant backdrops to every sensation. She knew how to keep her mind intact in a crowd full of emotions bursting at flesh colored seams while stoic masks pretended stability. She knew how to breath in just the right way when someone stood too close that a few pointed words easily stabbed their hidden underbellies and gave her back her space. Humans were layers upon layers of emotions and circumstances and a myriad of complications. Nothing was pure to them. Happiness didn’t even exist. It was tainted by a burst of joy, a sigh of contentment, spilled bittersweet tears, or even a cackle of cruelty. It was always more and less and giving a story too long for something that lasted no longer than a moment.

The woods didn’t have to deal with the man-made pandemonium. Scents flowed, they belonged, they existed and that was enough.

A flock of blackbirds were settled high on her left. An inhale revealed the same whisper of energy as her rabbit and the beginning of a gnawing sensation twisting within the most vocal of their group. She could taste the sharp air teasing at their feathers and a scent so uniquely and completely them her nose refused to classify it as anything other than blackbird.

The birds felt a need in their wings to soar and a tightening in their stomachs for food. They weren’t happy, upset, frustrated, or annoyed. They simply were. It wasn’t numbness, Casey knew that feeling too intimately to be confused, but it was an almost completeness. They cocked their heads in curiosity and danced with the wind in bliss, but it didn’t define them. It didn’t overpower everything else. Above it all they were blackbirds no matter what they did and nothing was capable of changing that simple fact.

When Casey was little, she’d been too preoccupied trying to make everyone believe her shattered world hadn’t changed that she’d been ignorant of her new reality. She’d been blind. In the years that followed, how often had she answered questions with phrases only she understood? How many strangers had she swayed her way when she wanted them gone or wanted them to focus on something else? How many times had she wondered if people were just lucky enough not to recognize the taste of oil?

Casey remembered riding in Simba with her father at the wheel as they headed to the woods for the first time. She remembered his eyes glowing in the sunlight, his grin teasing her, and his hands warm over hers. She knew she had been nervous but excited and that her father had felt the exact same.

She didn’t remember the scent of her father’s sunshine or anything in the air that made her certain of his feeling, she just remembered his smile and how that made her feel.

Casey hadn’t caught oil when John wrapped her in his too big arms that stole her breath. She hadn’t caught something sour or stomach-turning or wrong, he had just always scared her. Maybe because she couldn’t explain it, it was so easy to brush aside-

Until it wasn’t. Until a “game” justified her fear and oil began to gather in throat forcing her to breathe nothing else.

She could taste sunshine, afterwards, but it was never enough to fix her.

The image of The Beast, a wall of power and flesh outlined in black veins, flashed before her eyes. She remembered the overwhelming surety that it couldn’t be the same person, yet he and the others had claimed the same patters of freckles and scars on their skins…

Whatever The Beast was, he wasn’t human, not completely.

Casey stared at her palms smeared with dirt and caked with blood.

The broken are the more evolved.

She brought her gaze up, unerringly locking onto the brown rabbit moving further away from her. Its scent lay almost like a teeter to her mind and she wouldn’t lose track of it.

The Beast was an animal barely contained in human flesh. He’d “evolved” beyond it, and not in the metaphoric way she’d originally believed.

Casey began to wonder just how much she had “evolved.”

 

 


 

 

“Barry? Are you alright?”

Alright?

What a strange word that was; alright. Or was it a phrase? It was meant to mean “all right,” wasn’t it? It was meant to say that Barry was all right in the body, the head, and the soul. That he was “right.” That he was perfect and complete and the same shade of shelf that he was created to be.

And what did “all” mean? Yeah, it was him, but what about the others? Most people didn’t believe they should be counted as individuals if they shared the same body. Did that mean that all the others needed to be right for Barry to be all right? Was this a moral question or a question of creation? Were they right if they were doing what they were born to even if it wasn’t what was technically considered “right?”

Blood and brain the only things that remained of human head teased his memory.

Barry blinked rapidly.

It didn’t matter what the phrase meant. Barry was not all right.

They’d murdered a man in cold blood. They’d shot him with his own gun and had celebrated, fucking celebrated, when the news had reported the man’s death as a “tragic suicide.”

Everyone had so easily believed the man had taken drastic measures after being overcome with grief for his missing niece. Not even a single neighbor had doubted.

It had all been perfectly carried out and so very, very easy.

They had all agreed, every single member of their group. They’d “chosen” The Beast’s path and taken their steps forward as one.

Patricia and The Beast had held the light and the gun, but not a single one of them had protested. Not at the end. It was true they had already decided but seeing the man- A few hours watching John Cooke had caused a crawling in their skin that they all knew too well.

Barry felt as if they were losing Kevin. As if each move forward by The Beast drew them further and further away from the only “right” they had ever known.

Barry felt helpless.

“Barry?”

Dr. Fletcher’s soothing tone made Barry realize she was watching him with a furrowed brow and concern in her warm gaze.

Barry drew on his grin, shaking his head with a self-deprecating laugh. “Sorry about that, Dr. Fletcher.” He waved his fingers at his head. “Got caught up in the old noggin for a bit.”

Dr. Fletcher smiled in that patient way that said she’d indulge him even if she didn’t believe him.

Barry didn’t bother to hide his sigh as he wondered what to say. He began to play with his gloves, absently scratching at the still raw skin hidden beneath.

The Horde had agreed to let Barry and the others into the light once more, but not before Patricia had ordered Barry to make sure Dr. Fletcher didn’t realize anything had changed.

The command, tossed at him the same way she did with Hedwig and Dennis, made him chafe. It made him itch to rebel just for his pride’s sake. He didn’t know how Dennis could listen to that insufferable woman.

“Why don’t you tell me why Dennis and Patricia have returned the light to you?” Dr. Fletcher prompted, helpful as always.

Barry followed the lines of her lovely floral scarf tied around her elegant neck. It was too easy to imagine Patricia’s hands where the scarf lay.

“We had a chat yesterday,” Barry revealed. He cleared his throat. He’d do as ordered and Patricia would keep her damn hands to herself. “It was why we had to reschedule our appointment. Anyways, the entire group talked, if you can believe it, and it was decided that locking us up wasn’t helping anyone.”

“You spoke to one another?” Dr. Fletcher asked, brows raised but a hint of a smile on her lips.

Barry replied with an embarrassed grin. How long had she been trying to get him to do just that? She’d always believed so much could be fixed with a simple conversation.

“That’s wonderful, Barry,” Dr. Fletcher caught his eye, hers glowing in pride. “The other alters are as much a part of you as you are to them. Its important that you communicate. There’s no reason you can’t at least try to live harmoniously, after all.”

“That’d be the dream,” Barry murmured. Or at least it had been once. Now, they were all agreeing on all the wrong things and Barry was completely out of his depth.

“Would you tell me what you spoke about?” Dr. Fletcher asked.

Mass murder.

“Do you think Kevin might be ready to come back into the light?”

Barry could feel the tension in their room inside his mind. He was certain more than a few curses and insults were being hurled at him, but they should know nothing would come of it. Barry was just curious.

“Have you decided its time to try again?” Dr. Fletcher prodded delicately.

Barry wished he could. He wished he could bring Kevin back. Maybe even before they completely lost their soul.

That wasn’t a possibility, though. Kevin couldn’t handle the light.

“Dennis mentioned there were some volunteer programs you’d thought we’d be good for?” Barry asked instead.

Dr. Fletcher nodded slowly.

“Maybe after we do a little good then, we can try bringing Kevin back?” Barry shrugged.

Dr. Fletcher smiled, warm and full of affection. Her smile was one of the reason’s Barry adored Dr. Fletcher. She wasn’t just a wonderful doctor, she showed them a hint of everything they’d been deprived of their entire lives in her smile. She was a source of hope that someday, someone might fill in that emptiness in their lives.

Barry refused to think of the girl they’d abandoned in the woods, the one a growing number in their group believed might be their missing piece.

 “We can definitely try bringing Kevin back when you’re ready.” Dr. Fletcher continued. “There’s even a few things you could try that’ll start to wake him. Not completely. Just enough so that its not quite as big a shock when he returns.”

Hope bloomed in his chest. Maybe if he stayed by Kevin’s side, he could bring him back and it wouldn’t be too much. Maybe it wasn’t too late for them. “What sort of things can I try?”

 


 

 

Casey caught the sweet taste of flowing water teasing between the rocks and trees before she or her rabbit even heard the river.

She licked her lips in anticipation. She heard her rabbit pause a few feet away.

Casey closed her eyes and willed her senses a bit further, focusing on the water and nothing else.

She might not know what she was, but she knew she could do this. This should be easy. She’d done more with less thought for most of her life.

Casey was positive she could find the river.

She hoped this wasn’t all just in her head.

The taste of the river sang to her, slipping comfortably in her veins. She exhaled and let her body relax, only the river remaining inside her. Casey let it guide her forward. It led her down an unfettered path, her steps steady and certain.

The rabbit skirted her side, winding down a different trail with a swivel of its ears. Casey whispered a farewell as she released its scent.

The sound of water crashing against stone made her pulse race and her body still. Casey opened her eyes and grinned at the sight before her.

She’d reached the river.

A laugh tumbled out from deep within her belly, so full of exhilaration and freedom she wasn’t even sure it belonged to her. She didn’t care. She’d made it, on her own. That was all that mattered.

Casey had reached the river.

The scent of fire dimmed her joy as it tickled her nose.

A bang echoed through the woods.

Birds screeched as they abandoned their nests. Chaos erupted between fallen leaves as desperate bodies sought sanctuary. Prideful laughter flowed down the river.

Blood stained the air.

Casey turned in the direction she knew she’d find the hunters. Another smile tilted her lips.

Ansel had been right, humans followed their prey.

 


 

 

“Casey, my name is Detective Anders. Do you know where the other two girls, Claire Benoit and Marcia James are?”

“You haven’t found them?”

“So far you’re the first one we’ve found, Casey.”

“Bu-but Marcia and Claire ran when I did. They shouldn’t gotten a lot further. Are you sure you haven’t found them? Oh god, you don’t think he found them again, do you?”

“Who?”

“The guy! That-that big guy.”

“Is he the one that took you the first time?”

“Yeah.”

“Could you describe him for me?”

“I- I don’t know. He wore a lot of clothes. Layers and layers. It was really hard to tell if he was skinny or bulky or what but he was tall. Really, really tall.”

“Do you remember anything about his face?”

“Not really. He wore this weird ski mask over most of his face so all I saw were his eyes.”

“Can you describe them for me?”

“They were dark, almost black. They looked soulless… Detective, what about Marcia and Claire?”

“We already have every available person combing through those woods right now, Casey. We’re doing everything we can to bring your friends home. Can you tell me anything about where you were kept?”

“It was in some basement or something. The walls felt like it was underground.”

“Do you remember anything from when you were taken?”

“Not much. The last thing I remember was putting on my seatbelt and then getting sprayed in the face with something. Then I just woke up in that room with Marcia and Claire right there.”

“Did the man… hurt you, Casey? You or any of the other girls?”

“No. He didn’t touch us. He just kinda stared. It really scared Marcia.”

“How did you manage to escape?”

“It was Claire’s idea. Sh-she thought he should all attack, at once. Then run for it.”

“And you split up?”

“Yeah. She said that as long as one of us got away, we’d be able to get help… Claire and Marcia might just be lost, you know? They both took off in opposite directions. They’re probably out ther-“

“We’re looking everywhere for them. I promise we won’t leave a single stone unturned, Casey. Do you remember in what direction you ran? Was the sun in front of you or behind you? Or maybe anything that looked a little different? A tree or a funny boulder or something?”

“I-I…”

“You’re safe here, Casey. I promise.”

“I fell. It was night and I don’t know for how long I was running but I fell, and I think I hit my head because the next I realized it was already daylight. I kept running but I don’t know how much time passed and my vision was blurry and- and-“

“It’s alright, Casey. You’re safe. It’s ok.”

“But Marcia and Claire-“

“You gave us a place to start, Casey. You gave us a great place to start, now let us worry about Marcia and Claire, ok?”

“Ok.”

“Casey… There’s something else I need to tell you. I know this certainly isn’t the right time, but…”

“What?”

“It’s… about your uncle.”

“Is he here?”

“No, Casey. He’s not coming.”

“Did the truck break down again?”

“It seems that your uncle was scared he’d lost you and since you were his only remaining family…”

Were?”

“I’m afraid your uncle passed late last night, Casey.”

“He-wh-I don’t- he’s dead?”

“I’m sorry, Casey.”

 


 

 

Before meeting The Beast, Casey had never been to the zoo.

Her father had never been a big fan, saying he preferred watching the animals in nature rather than seeing them locked behind iron cages. John had never liked taking her out and he was always a staunch refuser of signing any form of permission slip where she’d be away from him.

Casey had never understood her father’s reluctance when it came to the zoo, however. She understood, in theory, that locking a creature in a cage was cruel, but that wasn’t the reason zoos existed. They gave homes to a surprising number of displaced creatures. There were rescues, slowly being healed and rehabilitated before they’d be released. There were endangered animals being protected, while others were simply stopping on their way to a new home. True, some did end up becoming too institutionalized to be able to survive in the wild on their own, but they were taken care of at the zoo.

Casey could smell it in the air. Playfulness and contentment and a low thrum of that energy that she had learned simply meant life.

The zoo wasn’t ideal or in any way perfect, but she could tell people here cared for the animals, and that they were doing everything they could to give them the best lives possible.

Casey knew Hedwig adored animals and wondered how many of the others felt the same appeal.

She spotted them sweeping in front of the bear habitat, gray fingerless gloves gripping the green broom handle as they absently moved it along the ground. There were too many people between them but Casey was relatively certain she didn’t know whoever held the light.

Casey walked over and leaned against the railing of the brown bears’ enclosure.

It was early morning and the zoo had been opened for less than an hour so there was a certain freshness to the crowd. It radiated with anticipation and the sweet taste of cotton candy. Children laughed and adults talked, and the sun was still new enough that the smiles hadn’t yet become strained or tinged in exhaustion.

Casey relaxed and studied the bears.

A large furry head swung lazily her way in a smooth rolling motion, completely ignoring the second bear that lay on its back, paws playfully swiping at the distracted snout.

Casey stared back at the beady brown eyes and concentrated. She caught the slight tensing of muscles and focusing of attention that she’d learned meant she was being appraised. It was an instinctual reaction every creature seemed to express when faced with something new. It wasn’t hostile or welcoming, it was almost a risk-assessment. A moment where the creature could figure out if she were friend or foe or something better kept away from.

Casey kept her breathing even and gaze steady.

The brown bear opened his mouth in a yawn, sharp yellow teeth on display, before turning back to the younger bear.

Accomplishment tugged a smile on Casey’s lips. It had been nearly two months from the day she found the hunters in the woods, and Casey had spent every moment she could practicing.

“Casey!” Oranges and excitement bombarded her as Hedwig hopped to her side. A grin split across his face and his lisp thickened in his enthusiasm. “I knew you’d be back! I told the others you said you’d be back to make me more drawings. Etcetera. And Mr. Heinrich, he told me that your girlfriend will always come back if you give her flowers and I didn’t give you flowers but I did give you a pinwheel and it looked like a flower-“

“Girlfriend?” Casey squeaked, wide-eyed.

“-and I thought it was better because it won’t die like regular flowers.” His eyes widened. “Have you herd Nikki’s new song?” Hedwig began to sway his shoulders to some unknown melody. “I like it when she goes all hard in the middle, breaking out all her sick beats-“

“Mommy, I wanna see the bears!”

Casey’s gaze shot towards the woman shushing her child and pulling him away from the brown bears. She watched as others walked beside them, eyes lingering too long on Hedwig or making a point to avoid him all together. Casey caught confusion, bitter worry, and disgust flowing around them.

“-Jade says she’ll get me the new CD when it comes out!” Hedwig continued, blissfully unaware of his surroundings.

“Hedwig,” Casey snapped. Hedwig blinked at her, mouth still open mid-word. She pushed back her annoyance at the people around her and soothed her tone. This wasn’t his fault. “We can have another dance party with Nikki later, ok?” He grinned again. “But for now, I need you to bring forward one of the adults.”

Hedwig pouted, hurt making the air heavy. “Didn’t you miss me?”

Casey lay her hand on his arm and smiled sincerely. “Of course, I missed you, Hedwig. You’re my friend.”

Hedwig’s cheeks grew rosy and peppermint made his smile shy.

“We just need an adult because you’re still at work and I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Hedwig spun his head around dramatically, finally registering the lingering stares. “Oh.”

Casey watched as his shoulders relaxed, his gaze seemed to lighten, and spiced apples replaced oranges.

He leaned against the railing almost casually. “We didn’t think you’d be back.” His words slipped off his tongue almost carelessly with a new rhythm.

Casey turned back to stare at the bears who had stretched out in the sun. “I told Hedwig I would be.”

Hesitancy was threaded with charred salt and strangled the spiced apple scent.

“John Cooke deserved to die.” Casey told him softly.

She felt his body tense.

Casey met his whirlwind blue gaze stoically.

While Casey had stood in John’s house beside the old worn recliner he spent so much of his time at, the same recliner that still tasted of his death, she had embraced the deep-seated relief she felt, knowing he was finally gone and had refused to let shame blemish the feeling.

Casey had abandoned her doubt in the woods.

Casey had sold John’s things, including his truck and his house, and found a new place for herself and had buried the last of her ties with John Cooke’s body.

Her life was finally her own and she she’d already decided what she was going to do with it.

“Every person like him deserve to die.”

Chapter Text

“What are you working on today, darling?”

“History.” Casey murmured absently, gaze glued to the scribbles her pen painted on the lined piece of paper.

“Hmm… Not quite my area of expertise.” The feminine voice drawled, winter daphne swirling in the air. “Would you like me to fetch Orwell for you?”

Casey waved away the suggestion with her opposite hand, mouthing the few final sentences to her assignment, the words imprinting in the paper as they left her lips.

Casey set her pen down with a satisfied sigh and finally looked across the table to her companion. She gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry, I just really needed to finish it before I lost my train of thought.”

The woman gave her a warm smile, only the scent of daphne and indulgence around her. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we all find your pursuit of learning admirable.” She used a slender finger to slide an opened lunchbox in her direction. “Now we do not want you growing faint, love. Go on and eat.”

Casey gathered the papers she’d spread across the table and settled them to the side before drawing the lunchbox closer. “Thank you-” she stopped, realizing she had no idea who held the light across from her.

“Where have my manners gone?” The woman shook her head with wide eyes, hand held to her chest. “I apologize, Casey dear, my name is Norma.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Norma.” Casey grinned, already liking the woman’s flowery scent and her kind drawl.

Norma tilted her head and smiled. She kept her posture perfect as she turned her attention on her own lunchbox and the tiny sandwiches held within.

Casey followed her lead and focused on her food, which happened to be an identical assortment of sandwiches. She picked one up and began to eat.

For the last few weeks they’d gotten into rhythm, Casey and the others. Every day she’d spend the morning at the zoo, finishing any homework from the couple of classes she’d decided to take for summer school or sketching away in one of her notebooks, before sharing a lunch with whoever had the light.

Casey had protested at first about the food, loudly and for days, but they had promptly ignored her, bringing her her own meal each day as if she’d never said anything. She gave up after realizing they weren’t going to stop. Besides, Goddard’s food was delicious, and the excuse of a meal did make getting to know the others easier. She was finding that meeting each of them in the sunlight, surrounded by people, and for short spurts of time, was making her feel comfortable and at ease. She was actually starting to like them.

By this point, she’d met nearly all of them. However, every day that someone knew appeared, made her realize exactly how many people lived inside that one body and caused her to wonder, not for the first time, how the fact managed not to drive them mad.

“Hedwig told me you like… plants? Is that right?” Casey asked Norma, while they continued to eat.

“You are absolutely correct!” Norma tittered happily. “I may not be as adept as Ansel when it comes to flora, but I have been told I have a bit of a green thumb.”

“How do you take care of peace lilies?”

Norma paused. “I’m sorry, darling. What type of flower?”

“Peace lilies?” Casey asked again. “Mrs. Benoit gave me one when I moved into my new place and I think I’m killing it.”

Norma’s lips quirked. She tilted her head as she considered Casey’s dilemma. “Peace lilies need to be kept moist. Are you misting the leaves?”

Casey scrunched her nose. “I have to mist the leaves?”

“If you want it to stay healthy.” Norma replied, amusement in her soft blue eyes while she continued to take a delicate bite of her meal. “You should also make sure it has sun. Those lilies prefer warmer temperatures.”

Casey grimaced. What did she consider enough sun? It was sitting in her living room, beside her glass door, that should be enough sun shouldn’t it?

“Would you like me to take a look at your tiny friend?”

“Before I kill it completely?” Casey grinned.

Norma laughed. “Before that, would be preferable.”

Casey caught the taste of curiosity and basil. Casey’s smile crumbled and she turned back towards the half-filled lunchbox. She stroked the painted blue metal.

Casey hadn’t brought them to her new place.

Since the moment she met Barry and saw Hedwig again, she’d kept all their meetings contained to the zoo, for an hour or so each day and nothing more.

Casey hadn’t gone back to their apartment. She’d been invited, welcomed even, but… she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to go back there again. None of the others had pushed, not even Hedwig. None of them had tried to extend their lunch hour or had even suggested they meet outside the zoo walls.

They were being patient with her. They were being careful and giving her all the time and space she could ask for.

Casey’s own reluctance was starting to grate on her nerves.

“Do you want to come over tonight?” Casey grinned, more teeth than mirth in her expression. “After I get out of work?”

Norma lifted a brow. “Tonight?”

Casey had decided to trust them. She’d chosen them over and over again. It was time she started acting like it.

“Tonight.” Casey nodded resolutely.

 


 

 

Casey hated her job.

She was forced to wear a smile that hurt her cheeks and use a carefully polite voice that resounded in her head and made it ache. The air stank of frying oil and grease coated her mouth, but it wasn’t thick enough to completely drown out the avalanche of emotions on the other side of the counter. It was all sour lemons and black pepper, dazedness and confusion, cotton candy, happiness, contentment, smoke, charred salt… all of it and more, blended together in a sickening concoction.

It made her stomach turn.

When Casey had started going to the local college, she’d heard the whispers and had suffered the stares. She was infamous. “The girl who got away.” The only girl who’d been found. They were fascinated by her. They couldn’t decide if she had the worst or the best luck, but they all agreed they didn’t want to be a part of it. Just like high school, she was on her own unless someone wanted something from her.

That was really the only upside to her job. Working in the fast food industry made her invisible and just another faceless drone who only deserved attention when a mistake had been made, even if the mistake wasn’t her own.

While she enjoyed the anonymity it gave her, she really, really hated her job.

Casey rang up the current customer’s order before moving onto the next, fake smile plastered on her face.

She wondered how Barry managed to keep his “helpful” expression constantly on his face while he worked. Regardless of how annoying she knew the people were being, Barry always replied with a grin, spiced apples and patience in the air. Sometimes she’d catch a hint of black pepper, but it was always so soft that it faded almost immediately.

Except when it came to her.

The others, all the others she’d met, liked her. Sometimes they were cautious, other times on edge, at times even suspicious, but they always accepted her in the end. Each of them, it seemed to her, nearly shook in their desperation to connect with her in some tangible way.

Barry was different. Since the first day, charred salt had tainted his apple scent every time he looked at her. Casey saw him more often then any of the others, but it was a quick wave and a “they’ll meet you for lunch,” before he moved as far away from her as he could as fast as possible, wariness thick in his gaze.

Casey had no idea why he didn’t trust her, but despite his attempts at hiding it, she felt he might as well have been wearing a sign advertising his dislike. It made her nervous, wondering how many of the others who she hadn’t met yet also didn’t like her.

Genuine warmth softened the fake smile on her face, causing the blonde woman on the other side to pause in her order. She blinked, her cheeks pinkened, and she cleared her throat before continuing.

Casey, meanwhile, was engulfed in the night when she’d met Bernice. Her fingers continued to work on autopilot while she savored the memory.

Bernice had been the one to appear at her apartment door the day she’d invited Norma to help with her lilies. She had filled Casey’s apartment with cinnamon and delight when she’d fixated on her glass sliding doors that led out to her little balcony.

“Mira!” Bernice had grinned, the blue of her eyes dark, deep, and warm. “La luz! You must love painting out here! Just imagine all the inspiration from the trees and la belleza de los colores! Oh mija, if I were you I’d spend todo mi dia out here.”

Then she’d jumped to the drawings on Casey’s walls, the only decorations in her apartment aside from her dying plant, and asked questions while mounting praise. It was no surprise Casey had immediately liked the woman.

Of course, Hedwig had chosen that moment to take over the light, insisting that it was his turn since they weren’t at work. He’d given her a big watery stare, telling her how much he’d missed her and Casey hadn’t been able to ask him to bring Bernice back. Hedwig had told her stories about his day, they’d colored, and put on a cartoon.

It was late so it didn’t take long for Hedwig to doze off. Jade instantly took over, took one look at her barren apartment, and had decided they needed to go shopping. She’d then ordered Casey to make popcorn while she grabbed the comforter from her bed and changed the movie.

It was surreal, having the taste on her tongue shift from cinnamon to oranges to raspberries while the face remained the same. It should have been strange, to feel comfortable enough with this strange person in her home that she only laughed before settling beside them underneath her blanket as if it were natural.

Casey should have felt uncomfortable. She should have felt worried or on edge… but she didn’t.

In a moment of clarity, the sad realization struck her that they were the only people in a very long time she could call friends.

They saw her and she saw them. She’d realized that a long time ago and she supposed it only made sense that it’d extend to each of them.

“Here.”

Casey frowned at the white slip of paper that appeared in her hand. Numbers were scribbled beneath a flowing name. She looked up to see the blonde woman from earlier grabbing her bag of food and giving her a shy smile, before making her way towards the door.

Maybe it was time Casey branched out from blue eyes and complicated scents. Maybe it was time she started to try for a sense of normalcy.

Casey’s lips quirked and she put the slip of paper in her pocket.

Sure, she hated her work, but where else would she find an opportunity like this?

 


 

 

“Hedwig would like to have a dance party tomorrow night,” Norma commented, as she stroked the lilies’ leaves. “If that’s works for you, darling?”

“I can’t tomorrow,” Casey murmured, leaning against her kitchen counter as she narrowed her eyes at the lilies. She swore they even looked greener and healthier when Norma was around. How the hell was that even possible? Was it just the plant sensing someone knowledgeable had finally entered the room? She supposed she should just be grateful Norma was keeping it alive, even if it did obviously like the southern woman over her.

That plant was important to her, though. Despite what it wanted Casey just hoped it stayed alive.

After she had been found in the woods, both Claire and Marcia’s parents had turned up at the police station.

Marcia’s father, a single parent to an only child, had tasted of gasoline the moment he saw her. Pure gasoline surrounded him while pain bled from his furious eyes. Casey had barely spoken to him. The detective had done most of the talking for her and Casey had been grateful to avoid the man who seemed to hate the very air Casey breathed.

She’d been fortunate he felt that way. Her resentment and anger had made it easy for her to keep silent and for her lies to remain secure. It was easy to act as if Casey were another overwhelmed victim who was useless in the grand scheme of things.

It hadn’t been in any way easy talking to the Benoits.

Claire’s father was soaked in sawdust and self-hatred while her mother had hop in her eyes while the taste of roses lingered around her. They had talked to the detective, like Marcia’s father had. But then, they’d turned their full attention towards Casey.

Mr. Benoit had cried, genuine heart wrenching sobs, while he’d repeated apologized to Casey. He told her he was sorry for insisting he drop Casey off at home. He swore it was his fault they’d been taken and he hadn’t been strong enough to take better care of them. He stared at her in agony as he placed all the blame on himself. He had just looked so broken, with his eyes begging for forgiveness Casey knew he shouldn’t feel responsible for, that she’d been unable to lie.

Casey had insisted there was nothing he could’ve done, that he was just being a good father looking out for his daughter’s classmate. She’d told them both, it had been Claire who decided to attack their kidnapper. She recounted how stubborn and willful Claire had been, refusing to be called a victim and refusing to act like one up until the last moment Casey had seen her. She told them they had raised a fighter.

She’d kept the painful truth to herself that, in the end, it had caused Claire more pain than she’d would’ve had to suffer through otherwise. She didn’t tell them their youngest child was dead.

There was something in the way Mrs. Benoit gripped her hands, however, and the way roses bloomed around them in mourning, that made it obvious she knew she’d never see her daughter again.

Mr. Benoit had helped her sell her uncle’s house and Mrs. Benoit would drop off food every other day. They called and checked in on her, even after the police had stopped searching the woods. When she moved to her new apartment in the city, they’d promised Casey she could call them if she ever needed anything at all. They still checked in on her every few days…

Casey knew it was an odd mixture of guilt and pity that drove their caring, but they did care and it was so easy to pretend she could smell sunshine when she spoke to them…

Her heart ached, knowing she was betraying them in such a horrific way. It killed her, knowing she was covering for the man who had slaughtered the daughter they still held a flickering hope of finding.

Sometimes, Casey would have to stare at her scars in her bathroom mirror, drawing forward the pain and disgust she’d had to endure from each one. She would trace the cigarette burns on her shoulders and remind herself of the wounds she held beneath her skin, the ones that hurt worse but didn’t leave marks. She would bring forth all the abuse John had put her through.

Some days it was enough to convince herself that she had made the right choice in siding with The Beast. It was enough to remind her that it wasn’t just John who would suffer, but all the assholes like him that existed in the world. That with The Beast strength, they’d make the world at least a shade safer for the broken.

Other days Casey would lie awake all night, phone clenched between her fingers, the Benoit’s number on the screen, while the truth trembled at the tip of her tongue.

“Did you pick up an extra shift?” Norma asked, bending low as she grabbed her little spray bottle and carefully began moistening the plant leaves.

Casey took a deep breath, daphne anchoring her to reality. “I have a date.” Casey replied.

She realized she had missed a call from Mrs. Benoit's earlier in the day and wondered if it was too late to call her back. The woman’s affection always left her feeling warm and let her pretend, if only for a few minutes, it was her own mother on the other end.

A growl echoed through the room, copper and bleach and rage filling the air and wiping Mrs. Benoit from her mind.

Casey spine went rigid, her full attention focused on Norma, who’s winter daphne instantly trampled the other scents down with annoyance.

Norma kept her back to Casey and continued to water the plant. Casey noted the slight shaking in her hands and the emotions fighting to be released from her hold. Norma cleared her throat delicately. "That sounds lovely, sweetheart. Do we know your charming suitor?"

"No." At least she hoped they didn't. Based on their reaction she didn’t think her “suitor” would be safe around them. "I met her at work."

"So is this a first date then?" Norma asked, bitter worry and a hint of charred salt mixing with her scent.

Casey began to pull at the sleeves of her shirt. "Yeah."

The worry and fear dimmed. "That's nice. Young people should always go out and experience life."

Casey shifted in place, there was too much going on beneath the surface and it was making her more and more anxious by the moment. "I've never been on a date before." She admitted.

Norma looked over her shoulder at Casey. Her blue eyes softened and she gave her a smile that made the daphne soar while the rest calmed and were pushed far back.

She rose and turned towards her, smile turning teasing. "I'm sure Hedwig would be upset to learn you don't consider your day together a date."

Casey turned scarlet, thinking of the yellow pinwheel that sat in a vase on her bedside table. "That- I mean- Hedwig is-" she floundered. She loved her day with Hedwig and found his belief of it being a date sweet, but it wasn’t. She wasn’t comfortable believing her first date was with a nine-year-old while she had been a legal adult.

Norma laughed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, I couldn't resist. I know what you meant, darling."

Casey gave her a half-hearted smile.

"Would Saturday be a good day for a dance party then?" Norma asked. "It’ll help soothe Hedwig’s ego knowing he’ll have you for a day, as well."

It would probably soothe a few more egos, Casey knew. She grimaced.

The thought of her pinwheel and a big childish grin made her realize she her frown fade. She nodded reluctantly.

Norma patted Casey on the arm lightly. "Enjoy your date, sweetie. You deserve to have fun." Bleach fizzled between them. Norma sighed with a hint of black pepper and amusement. "If you could let us know where you are, however, I know many would appreciate it.”

“Why?” Casey narrowed her eyes.

“We just want to make sure you’re safe.” Norma smiled.

“We’re just going to dinner and a movie.”

“Oh?” Norma asked.

Casey grit her teeth. “I’m not telling you what restaurant or what movie.” The thought of having to answer to someone else, again, after finally being on her own, chaffed at her. “You’re not my nanny, I don’t have to tell you where I am every second.”

Norma pursed her lips. Her eyes held a faraway look and the warring of scents made it obvious she was speaking to the others.

“If any of you follow me,” Casey added, bringing Norma’s attention towards her, “I swear I’ll stop to going to the zoo.”

Norma furrowed her brown. Casey caught the taste of wine and saw a shadow of hardness in the blue eyes.

“I’ll know if you follow me.” Casey swore. “My month pass is almost expired, anyway. I can stop going completely.”

“We won’t follow you.” Norma assured, frown still marring her face. Norma licked her lips. “But we are worried about you and we just want to make sure you’re safe.”

Casey was ready to protest again when Norma interrupted.

“Just a text, at the end of the night.” Norma insisted. “Just a simple ‘I’m home.’ Nothing more. We care about you, Casey, and I’m certain none of us will be able to sleep without knowing you got home safely.”

Casey stared into her blue eyes. She caught the overpowering scent of basil and affection while the blue seemed to shift between familiar shades. They all showed only caring and concern.

Casey sighed. “I’ll let you know what I get home.

 


 

 

Stop pacing, it’s giving me a headache.

“I’m not pacing.” Dennis snapped at Barry, phone clenched in his palm.

Of course not, this is just your new exercise routine, right? Barry stated, voice dripping in sarcasm.

Dennis didn’t bother to reply, continuing to move around their kitchen, fingers itching for something to do. He marched into the catchall room with purpose and grabbed the mop.

You already mopped the entire apartment. Twice.

Dennis frowned. “It could use another turn.”

I’m a sadist for volunteering to look after you, I swear. Barry grumbled to himself. He sighed. Dennis, The Beast is the one who assumed the girl belonged to us, she never said anything of the sort. She’s allowed to date.

“Of course, she is.” Dennis replied, unable to hide the rumbling growl from his voice. He scraped his hand across his head. He placed the mop back on its hook and grabbed a couple of rags and the cleaning spray. Norma was right. Casey was young and she should experience what the world offered.

Dennis made his way towards the living room, setting his supplies on the table. “She should date.” He murmured.

Barry snorted. Date you?

Dennis stiffened. “That’s not-“

The phone vibrating in his hand made him freeze and his jaw shut with a snap. He’d forgotten he still held it in his hand. He stared down at the black device, watching as Casey’s name flashed across the screen.

Maybe she had an early date? Barry wondered cautiously.

Dennis eyed the old red alarm clocked settled on one of the shelves. “Not possible. She got out of work only an hour and a half ago. That’s not long enough for dinner and a movie.”

Stalker of you to notice. Barry laughed.

The phone continued to vibrate.

Aren’t you going to answer?

Dennis couldn’t get his hands to move.

Dennis, Barry warned, she could be in trouble.

“Casey?” Dennis asked, phone already pressed to his ear.

“Dennis!” Casey exhaled, voice sounding out of breath. “Good, I was hoping it would be you.”

Those are fighting words! I’m much more charming than you.

Dennis ignored Barry and pushed aside the spark of pleasure from her words. He needed to focus. She shouldn’t be calling so early. “You ok?”

Casey hesitated.

Dennis heard the sound of cars in the background and realized she wasn’t at home. “Where are you?” he questioned, keys already in his hand as he reached the front door.

“I’m fine!” Casey quickly assured him. “I promise, I’m fine.”

He paused.

“But,” Casey continued, voice holding a tone that set his nerves on edge and made his grip tighten on his keys until they began to dig into his flesh. He began moving again. “I do need you to come by.”

“Tell me where you are, Casey.” Dennis demanded, continuing purposefully through the labyrinthine underground.

Barry cursed. I’ll let the others know something’s wrong. Then he slipped from the forefront of Dennis’s mind to the back where the others waited.

Casey gave him an intersection, the lack of actual address making worry slither beneath his skin. “You’re safe?” Dennis asked, needing to make sure. He pushed past the door to the employee garage.

“Yeah. Its just-” Casey took a deep shuddering breath. “Dennis?” she whispered.

“Yeah?” Dennis rested the yellow handkerchief on the door handle but didn’t open the door. He waited for her to speak. He knew whatever she was about to say was important. He couldn’t miss a word.

“I found someone…” he heard her swallow and her breaths slow in a forced pattern. Dennis could just imagine the brown of her eyes hardening in that subtle form of defiance he’d learned showed just how strong she really was.

He waited, the air burning his lungs while he refused to let it escape.

“I found someone for The Beast.”

Chapter Text

Casey watched as the generic silver car idled near the intersection.

She waited a moment, needing to be sure it was Dennis. This wasn’t the safest of neighborhoods and she had a feeling that walking up to a strange car late at night would give the wrong impression.

Dennis climbed out, leaving the driver’s door open and the engine still running. The stiff set of his shoulders and the black glasses set on his scowling face proved it was without a doubt Dennis glaring up and down the street.

Casey stepped out of the alleyway she’d hidden in.

Despite her dark gray jeans and black jacket, Casey could feel Dennis’s eyes immediately latch onto her.

Casey avoided his gaze. She walked towards the passenger side and slipped into her seat.

A moment later, Dennis settled beside her, basil and charred salt filling the small car. “Case-“

“We should park somewhere away from here.” She interrupted him, lowering her window.

Dennis hesitated but silently took the car out of park and drove forward. Casey stared out of the window, ignoring the feel of his eyes and letting the rush of air drown out his concern. She knew what he would say. She knew what he would ask, and she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t even want to think about it.

“How far?”

“A few blocks should be fine.” Casey replied. Their car wasn’t too recognizable, after all. “Just make sure it’s a place without cameras.”

Dennis didn’t speak. She watched as he took a couple of turns before they parked at one end of an empty building advertising a faded “for rent” sign.

Casey watched as her window rose before the car was turned off.

Basil surrounded her once more.

Casey braced herself for his questions.

“You said you found someone for The Beast?”

Casey turned towards him with a silent sigh of relief. “I did.”

Dennis stared at her. She could still taste the basil and charred salt above his bleach, and she could feel the confusion in the frown he directed her way.

“Who?” he asked, once more ignoring the questions she could see brimming in his gaze.

Casey almost smiled. That was the real reason she had hoped Dennis would answer. He might worry, why was it she always seemed to inspire his concern?, but he wouldn’t pressure her to talk and that was enough for her.

“I’ll show you.” Casey answered, getting out of the car and walking in the direction they’d just come from.

Dennis appeared at her side, hands in the pockets of his gray coat and his stare focused forward.

They didn’t say a word to one another as Casey led them through the streets, trying to remember exactly where their target was.

When she thought she’d gotten lost, his oil-thick taste settled on her tongue. The scent was faint, hours old, but Casey knew she’d be able to follow it no matter how many days passed.

Casey would never be able to forget the feel of oil coating her throat while she struggled to breathe. The sensation was branded in her mind.

Casey turned towards a set of dark green apartment buildings. She headed towards the stairs when Dennis’s hand shot out and took hold of her arm.

Casey stiffened and he immediately released her. She glanced back at him with a raised brow.

“We can’t just go through the front door, Casey.” Dennis reminded her.

Impatience made her frown. “Then how are we-“

Laughter at the other end of the building made her stop. She watched as a group of people stumbled up the opposite stairs. They seemed to be about her age and the paper bags in their hands along with the too loud laughter made it obvious they were drunk, or close to it.

They seemed so carefree and confident and for a brief moment Casey wondered what it would be like to join them.

“This way.” Dennis grumbled as he walked deeper into the shadows.

Casey turned away from the group and followed him. That life wasn’t meant for her, it was time she stopped acting as if it was.

Dennis led them towards a break between two buildings where the streetlamps didn’t seem to reach and the darkness lay thick.

Casey leaned against one of the walls and sighed, “I should have thought this through better.”

Dennis stood at the center of the two buildings, eyeing both walls with distrust. His hands were back in his pockets and his eyes moved from the windows on each of their sides, to the end of their little alley, before returning his glare to the walls.

“We can just use this as a part of our planning.” Dennis replied.

Casey hit her head on the wall and stared up at the sky. If they used this as planning, then that meant they would have to wait who knew how much longer to bring The Beast out.

Casey didn’t want to wait. She was tired of waiting. She wanted to act. She needed to do this-

“Did they hurt you?”

Casey looked at Dennis. “What?”

She could see the muscles on Dennis’s jaw clench. “You had a date tonight.”

“Oh.” The basil finally made sense. “No, they didn’t hurt me.”

Relief filled the air and his shoulders seemed to relax the slightest amount. The were still straight and stiff, but not as hard as they had been.

Casey wiped at the thigh of her jeans, feeling a sudden need to explain. “I found this guy while we were at dinner and followed him from there.”

The basil returned. “You should have called us right away.”

Casey pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. The slight tinge of guilt fading with his reprimand.

“Casey,” Dennis’s tone dropped into that warning growl of his. She could feel him staring at her. She kept her gaze on the wall across from her.

Dennis sighed and she heard the scrape of his hair against his palm. “Casey…” he moved directly in front of her, his charcoal coat blocking her view.

The comforting scent of his bleach wrapped around her and Casey reluctantly looked up into his storm blue eyes.

“If you ever think someone is dangerous, don’t follow them.” Dennis ordered, thinned lips dragged low into a frown.

Casey was tempted to snap an angry retort. She wanted to tell him he had no right to tell her what to do or let him think for even a moment that he had any say in her life. She wanted to remind him that she wasn’t his prisoner anymore and he no longer held any control over her…

But the damn basil was still there with the charred salt and the bitter worry and she could see the crinkle between his brows and the way lighting lit the storm of his eyes with a fear meant for her that she’d only found in a different set of blue eyes.

Casey suddenly realized that this was the first time she had seen Dennis since he left her in the woods. There were times she had caught bleach beneath one of the other’s scent, but she hadn’t actually seen him since she’d waved goodbye with the taste of cotton candy earned from a simple touch making her smile.

“She couldn’t stop staring at my scars.” Casey whispered.

Dennis’s frown smoothed to a look of bewilderment, eyebrows rising above his black frames.

Casey traced the shiny silver buttons on his gray coat with her eyes. “I didn’t really think about it when I put on this shirt,” she admitted, her fingers tracing the soft neckline of the shirt beneath her jacket. “I just thought the red polka dots were pretty.” And they had made her feel pretty by wearing them…

She had been such an unbelievable idiot not to realize what happen.

The night had started well when Sophie had arrived at the restaurant, her cute smile tasting of the same nervous excitement Casey felt. It had even been enough to make Casey really want to try.

For whatever reason, Sophie had been just as eager and it hadn’t taken long for them to grow comfortable with one another. They had been talking about school and how Sophie was studying law when Casey had grown warm and decided to remove her jacket.

Sophie had stopped midsentence and Casey hadn’t been able to understand what was wrong… until she realized what Sophie’s eyes had locked onto.

The excitement had vanished in that instant.

“I just wanted to feel normal,” Casey mumbled, shoulders low in defeat.

Casey caught the scent of smoke and saw as understanding shifted in the clouds of his eyes.

Her eyes watered. She shook her head and pushed the threatening tears away. She’d been foolish too often already. “I followed him without thinking but I won’t do it again.”

Dennis continued to stare at her.

Casey was grateful for the sudden light that lit one of the windows and drew both of their attentions.

The window opened, the curtain’s pale green cloth pushed along with it.

A hoarse laugh filtered down.

Casey shivered.

Too familiar oil lay in that laugh.

“That’s him.”

 


 

 

Patricia sat on Casey’s faded blue armchair in the yellow light her fluorescent bulbs produced and waited.

She took in the small apartment. It was practically bare and what was there was not at all up to Patricia’s standards.

She ran her hand across the armrest of her seat, feeling the way the thinning material pulled along her fingers. She studied the generic design of the pine coffee table and matching side tables set on opposite ends of the couch. There were chips on the sides and faded stains on the top that belied their age despite the fact that they looked the type that came new from a box, needing instructions and far too much patience to assemble. The plant, the one Norma was working so hard to keep alive, brought some life to the room despite the slightly wilting leaves and sat on the table closest to the large glass door leading to the balcony.

Patricia wondered how the room would look in daylight. She always loved sunlight and had always found it to be a shame their home didn’t have any windows.

Patricia’s eyes moved to the kitchen, where another little window was set in the wall across from the front door.

From what she’d seen through the other’s eyes, the bathroom with its stark white walls, pristine porcelain, and striped green towels, but it didn’t have a window.

Patricia stared at the remaining white door. She hadn’t been able to see enough of Casey’s bedroom when Jade held the light, but she vaguely remembered a streetlight shining through a yellow curtain.

Besides the windows and the overall cleanliness she knew even Dennis would approve of, Patricia’s favorite thing about the apartment were the paintings.

Actually, she mused, studying the twisted tree made of swirling branches beneath a gray-blue sky that was set above the tv, she liked the paintings more than even the windows.

They were the only true spark of personality in the entire apartment. They were a piece of Casey.

Across the balcony door the painting of a boy standing across from a caged lion was set beside another of an old yellow truck parked next to a rusted swing set. In the bathroom a brown rabbit tilted its furry ears in the middle of dark forest.

Bernice had told Casey that while the work belonged to someone starting out, there was great potential and powerful emotion in her pieces. She’d then rattled on about color and composition and something about subject matter that was lost in translation despite being mostly English.

Patricia had stopped listening to Bernice long before she’d stopped talking. While art may not be her area of expertise, she had liked the paintings. Casey had made them and that was enough for her to know they held their own power.

Patricia heard the click of the front door as it was unlocked. She serenely folded her hands in her lap and watched as Casey paused, hand still wrapped around the doorknob.

Casey’s brow furrowed as her gaze found Patricia.

“Aren’t you going to come in, little doe?” Patricia asked, disconcerted by the unsurprised look in the girl’s eyes. The entire reason they had broken into her apartment was to unsettle her enough that she would finally tell them the truth. Unfortunately, it seemed they’d already failed the first phase.

Casey closed the door behind her and leaned against it. “I didn’t give you a key.”

“We had some questions for you.” Patricia replied.

Casey crossed her arms. “You could have called.”

“This seemed more effective.”

Casey rolled her eyes. “You mean more dramatic.”

Patricia didn’t bother to respond.

Casey sighed. She walked over to her sitting area, dropped her bag on the couch before dropping herself.

Concern filled her as she watched Casey lean her head against the back of the couch and rub her fingers against her temples.

The girl looked exhausted.

Casey opened an eye to peek at Patricia. “You didn’t come here to worry about me.”

It wasn’t a question.

The more telling detail was that she had known Patricia was worried at all.

Patricia studied Casey.            

“Something’s off about Casey.”

Hedwig audibly gasped, jaw dropping and eyes widening at B.T.’s statement.

Jade let out an annoyed sound from her seat, putting down the nail polish she’d been working on. “Don’t fucking start.”

B.T. scowled at Jade. “I’m not starting anything. I’m just saying-“

“We’ve already agreed to do this.” Felicia sighed from her seat, taking off her round glasses and cleaning the lenses. “Are we going to have this argument every time?”

“Yeah.” Hedwig nodded from his seat. “Don’t be mean to my girlfriend, you jerkface.”

“I’m not being mean and I’m not arguing-“ B.T. protested between clenched teeth.

“Language, Hedwig.” Patricia admonished.

“Sounds like you are, buddy.” Jalin replied from his seat, attention not leaving the magazine on his lap.

Hedwig pouted. “Sorry, Miss Patricia.”

“I just mean that something is going on with Casey.” B.T. tried again.

“You haven’t even met her.” Jade pointed out.

“Jumping at carnage aint exactly normal now, is it?” Luke asked from below his cowboy hat pulled low.

“I’m not talking about that-“ B.T. objected.

“We definitely should be.” Bernice interrupted.

Jade groaned and glared at B.T. “Look at what you did, asshat.”

“Perhaps it is well that this is brought up again,” Orwell spoke up, “before we spill even more blood.”

 Mary snorted. “Orwell, you know I’m definitely against the feasting, but let’s cut to the bone. None of us is thick enough to think letting that chancer live is a good idea.”

“Killing is never the answer.” Orwell frowned at her, disappointment lining his face.

“Don’t be a muppet, now.” Ian snapped. “Or are you really forgetting what we found?”

The room quieted, memories of what had been food when they’d broken into the man’s apartment haunted them. It had been incomplete, they could all tell, but what they saw was enough to keep their skin crawling.

“Aw man! You guys already went?” Hedwig whined. “Was that when I was sleeping? Why do you guys always gotta do things while I’m asleep!”

“He works with children, Orwell.” Mary added softly, pain in her expression. “Babies.”

“Why would that matter?” Hedwig asked, nose scrunched up.

“Don’t worry about it, Hedwig,” Dennis murmured beside him. “We’re gonna take care of it.”

“By calling the authorities.” Orwell insisted, “They can try the man justly.”

“That wasn’t what you agreed to, Orwell.” Patricia reminded him, having had enough of his complaints.

Orwell’s jaw shut with a snap. He glared at her.

“Look!” B.T. shouted, rising from his seat. “Fuck, this got out of hand.” He grumbled.

“I told you not to start.” Jade sing-songed, nail polish back in her hands and working on coloring her toes.

B.T. raised his hands. “What I’m saying’s got nothing to do with the creep. Who, by the way, I’m all for offing. I’m talking about Casey, just Casey.”

“And, what exactly do you think is wrong with Casey?”

B.T. shifted on his feet, trying to avoid Dennis’s glower.

Patricia had never found B.T. particularly bright but she was beginning to question doubt he had any intelligence at all. Dennis’s protectiveness of Casey had become widely apparent from the beginning and had only seemed to strengthen the longer they were around the girl.

“She never did tell us how she found the man, did she?” Rakel spoke up thoughtfully, breaking the tension building between the two alters. “Or how she knew where he lived?”

“Maybe Casey saw him do something bad?” Goddard offered.

“In the middle of a restaurant?” B.T. questioned, his confidence returning now that they finally seemed to have reached his initial motivation. “And she couldn’t have guessed because when she called she didn’t think, did she? She knew. Just like she knew which one his apartment was despite the fact that when we got there, she was going up a completely different set of stairs. She was ready for the bastard to die, then and there, and she was right. But how did she know?”

“What exactly are you imply, B.T.?” Norma carefully asked.

B.T. sat back in his chair with a shrug. “I honestly don’t know. There’s just more going on then she’s saying, is all.”

“Casey wouldn’t keep secrets from us!” Hedwig yelled at B.T. angrily.

Silence was his reply.

Hedwig hesitated, shoulders hunching in on himself and turned towards Dennis. “She wouldn’t. Would she, Mr. Dennis?”

“We all have secrets, Hedwig.” Dennis replied calmly.

Hedwig’s lip trembled.

“We won’t have secrets between us.”

The Beast’s echoing voice rang around the room, startling more than one person in their seats.

Patricia felt her lips tilt in amusement.

The Beast was a constant looming presence beside Kevin’s chair and yet, he was typically so silent and still that most in the room seemed to forget his existence. How they could ever forget him, Patricia simply didn’t understand.

Despite that, however, now that he was talking, no one seemed to be able to look away. “It is time we had a conversation with our Casey.”

“Did you know, in wolf packs, when one of the alpha leaders were killed, more than 70% of wolf packs dissolve?”

Casey’s brow furrowed.

“They’re a fascinating species: wolves.” Patricia crossed her legs and settled in her seat. “They work together with every member having a necessary function. They trust one another and do what is necessary to keep their pack strong. There are no secrets between wolves.”

Casey stilled. “And you think I’m keeping secrets?”

Patricia’s lips tilted up. “I know you are, little doe.”

Casey kept her expression blank. Patricia saw her hands clench into fists on her lap.

She wondered if Casey realized how much she gave away despite her closed expression. Her expressive movements were quick to reveal her emotions while her big lovely eyes were the first to spell her every thought.

Patricia found that she was actually quite fond of those eyes, even when they turned towards her with more than a touch of fear.

“After our appointment this morning with Dr. Fletcher, we broke into his apartment.” Patricia revealed. “We then found out where he worked and followed him for the rest of the day.”

Casey swallowed. “Did you find something?”

“Don’t you already know?” Patricia asked. She saw as her fists turned white and her eyes narrowed and knew that she knew less then she should given her certainty. It seemed B.T. had made a shrewd observation. “We found photos and videos.” Patricia told Casey after she failed to answer. It didn’t matter, her eyes had already given her away.

“Of?” Casey asked shakily.

“Children.”

Casey paled and pain filled her eyes.

Patricia could feel a faint echo of someone speaking. She could sense the others shifting forward in their seats.

Patricia detested leaving herself open for the others to see and hear. It made her feel vulnerable and their inability to stay quiet and still never failed to distract her.

Unfortunately, keeping herself open had been the only way they had agreed to let Patricia be the one to speak to their Casey.

“Did you kill him?” Casey asked, fury lighting her gaze and strengthening her voice.

“We will.” Patricia assured her, knowing that despite their reluctance, the others wouldn’t fight against this death, Mary had been right about that. “How did you find him, little doe?”

Casey’s expression grew defiant. “I already told Dennis.”

“But I am not him.”

Casey snorted. “No, you’re definitely not.”

“Casey,” Patricia called, her careful smile fading from her face. She wasn’t in the mood to play this game. “How did you find this man?”

Casey seemed to sink further in the couch. She stared vacantly at her reflection in the tv’s black screen. “I went out to dinner. It was some burger place who’s name I can’t really remember. The guy was there, too. He was just picking up food.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, the date had already crashed by that point, so I just made some excuses and followed him.”

Patricia felt her lips pull down. Casey’s explanation raised more questions than answers. “How did you know this particular man would be perfect for The Beast?”

There was that spark of fear in her golden brown eyes again.

“This partnership of ours will dissolve if we’re not honest with one another.” Patricia warned the girl, speaking her greatest reservations about their entire partnership. She didn’t just have to keep the others in line, but she was also supposed to keep track of this wayward girl.

Casey’s eyes hardened. “Was it you or The Beast who decided the impure young were the ones that needed to suffer?”

Patricia folded her hands on her lap. “It has always been part of The Beast’s philosophy that the impure must suffer. That only after they’ve been baptized in blood and pain will their impurity be cleansed from the world. By feasting on their flesh he’ll have the power to create a paradise worthy of all the broken.”

Casey nodded. “But it was your choice to make the sacrifices children, wasn’t it?”

Patricia pursed her lips. Their clever doe was asking for proof of their honesty. She knew the answer, Patricia could see it in the calculating gleam in her gaze. Yet, Casey wanted Patricia to confess to something none of the others had ever had the courage to question.

Patricia lifted her chin. “They were and still are the cruelest offenders. They hurt Kevin when he was a boy. They tease Hedwig and taunt Felicia. They play callous  pranks on Barry and push at Dennis’s limits. They point and stare at Jade and ridicule the twins when they’re in the light. They-“ Patricia bit off her tirade. She took a calming breath. “Only Kevin’s mother ever caused us more pain.”

“And instead of hurting the parents that did a poor job raising them, you decided to go after the kids?” Casey asked.

Patricia smiled sharply. “If you hurt their young, it harms them both in the end, doesn’t it?”

Casey began to play with the ends of her jacket. “Then why did you ever agree to change?”

“Because it meant we would be able to create a better world together instead of in spite of one another.” Patricia explained simply.

“And you won’t hurt any other young.” Casey sat up and leaned towards Patricia. “You won’t hurt anyone else who doesn’t absolutely deserve it, right?”

Patricia’s brow rose. “We already gave you our word.”

“The others agreed to the deal, but I want your word, Patricia.” Casey insisted, gaze glaring.

Patricia’s lips tilted. “If I give it, will you tell us the entire truth? Not just pieces of it?”

Casey broke her glare. She was silent, elbows on her knees and the rest of her body unmoving.

When Casey finally looked up at Patricia, her dark gaze was steel. She nodded.

“I give you my word, neither I nor any of the others, will harm anyone, young or old, that has not earned it or threatened us in any way.” Patricia vowed.

Casey exhaled, head resting in her hands. “I could smell him.”

Patricia blinked. “Smell him?”

“Well,” Casey grimaced, dropping her hands, “more like taste, really. It was like oil. The same way John did whenever he’d-“ Casey let her fingers trace the edge of her pine table. “I’ll never be able to forget that taste.” She murmured, nails digging into the pine. “It was easy to recognize.”

“When you say taste…?” Patricia began, unable to completely understand.

“The Beast is the one that said the broken are the more evolved.” Casey shrugged, lips quirked. “I guess this is my evolution.”

Patricia felt herself caught between the exhilarating feeling of not being alone and the confusion of how such a thing was even possible.

Casey pointed to the patio doors. “You came through the balcony, not the front door.” Her brow furrowed as she seemed to take a deep breath. “No, not you. The Beast. Which I guess makes sense since the only way you could have gotten there was to freeclimb or jump. You took the light once you were inside.”

“You can tell us apart?” Patricia asked, fascination making her lean forward.

Casey blushed. “You each have a distinct scent.”

Patricia reached across the space between them and ran her finger down the line of Casey’s nose. “And you can trace it?” Patricia wondered. “Like a bloodhound?”

Casey nodded.

Patricia cupped her rosy cheek in her palm, pleasure warming her blood. “Oh, my little doe,” she breathed, “you are extraordinary.”

Chapter Text

Casey paced the alleyway between buildings, anticipation forcing her to move.

The man stinking of oil was unknowingly enjoying his last few moments of peace above her. Meanwhile The Beast grew ever closer, ready to rip him to shreds.

Casey’s fingers itched for the sting of her razor. Her mind craved a touch of pain. It refused to focus without it. She dug her too short nails against her palm, feeling only the softest sting. It wasn’t enough, not nearly close to what she needed but it brought her back. She reminded herself that she was free. She didn’t need pain anymore…

Casey thought of copper. She thought of bleach and wine and oranges and the dozen other scents she now associated with blue eyes.

She didn’t need pain anymore. Casey let herself believe her new mantra.

Casey had told Patricia the truth. She had finally revealed that it wasn’t just her scars that prevented her from ever being normal, that it was something much deeper and even more permanent.

Casey had never planned to say anything. It had felt trifle and ultimately meaningless compared to them and what The Beast could do. She hadn’t thought it was important.

Then Patricia had appeared, talking about wolves and secrets, and Casey realized that it did matter. At least it mattered to them.

It was chaos at first. Disbelief danced around charred salt while confusion and wax knit into a heartbreaking flavor down her throat and chalk simply crumbled on her tongue. Then fascination and cotton candy had swelled in such potency that she knew it belonged to more than just Patricia. Sage and awe had wrapped around her like a pair of strong arms and Casey had felt herself warm with confidence.

Casey’s pacing slowed and a smile tugged at her lips.

It hadn’t taken long for Hedwig to steal the light, grin wide with amazement. He’d called her a superhero. Had declared her power was awesome and she really was their perfect sidekick. Before Patricia had demanded the light back, Hedwig had even told Casey he would come up with a perfect nickname for her.

Casey caught copper in the air.

Casey froze, feeling the buzz of energy and heated pants brush the back of her hair. She could taste the electricity. It was different from her rabbit’s soft buzz; stronger, more powerful. Her rabbit from the woods had tasted like batteries while The Beast tasted of lightning.

Casey turned, her shoulder brushing his chest. Light reflected across The Beast’s dark eyes, causing them to glow in the darkness. He grinned, teeth sharp and feral.

His hand appeared between their chests.

When Casey had insisted on coming, most of the others had tried to convince her to wait at home. Their scents had shifted, one face appearing after another. All of them had tried to persuade her. They told her she had already done enough. They had warned she didn’t want to see what The Beast was truly capable of.

But Casey had made this deal. She had chosen this man. His death would be on her head as much as on theirs. She hadn’t been there when John had died. Casey needed to be there this time.

Nothing anyone had said had been enough to sway her otherwise.

Casey slipped her hand over his burning palm.

The Beast turned, slipping her arm around his neck. Casey’s other arm followed suit and she stretched high on her tiptoes until she was sure her grasp was secure. “I’m ready.” She whispered.

The Beast let out a soft anticipatory rumble. “Then it is time to feast.”

Her feet were suddenly lifted from the ground and Casey’s arms instinctively tightened around The Beast’s neck. She buried her face in his back, letting herself be engulfed in his copper and lightning. She focused on the feel of his muscles moving with confidence against her and ignored the way she dangled precariously across his back.

The Beast stopped. She heard the soft slide of the window and felt as he moved them inside, the curtain brushing along her arm.

The Beast lowered himself just enough so that her feet touched the floor and Casey gratefully let go.

Casey took a steadying breath. Her lungs filled with oil.

They were in the right place.

Casey pointed towards a half-open door where the oil appeared strongest. That was where the man was.

The Beast stalked forward, his gait silent on the wood floors.

Doubt threatened as The Beast reached forward to push the door.

The oil slipping down her throat made her scars burn. Casey straightened her shoulders and followed The Beast as he entered the man’s room.

The Beast’s hand covered the man’s mouth, muffling his startled protests as he was suddenly awakened.

The Beast growled, a low harsh sound that reverberated around the room. Before it faded, the bloodcurdling screams started… along with the sound of tearing.

Casey wasn’t sure how long it lasted. She’d frozen, blood and body, and the sight before her seemed to pass in slow-motion.

The reality of what he was doing, eating a live human, made her crave retreat. She regretted not listening to the others. She wasn’t at all ready for this reality.

The Beast was savage, and instinct begged her feet to run. A part of her screamed that she needed to get away from this monster before he finished this meal and turned towards for an extra snack.

Casey closed her eyes, ignoring the way the man’s screams seemed to grow dimmer and the sound of The Beast ripping apart his flesh as he gnawed and devoured it remained constant.

She refused to allow her mind to wander to Claire and Marcia, even though she felt as if their ghosts stood at shoulder.

Casey breathed.

She focused on the scents and the tastes underneath the overwhelming carnage before her. Casey reminded herself of the woods. She reminded herself she could push back what tried to grab her attention so that she could concentrate on what lay below.

The taste of blood and pain faded. The oil returned, bringing with it traces of other emotions. She found the wisp of something that made her scars bleed.

Casey turned on her heel away from the bedroom, her eyes still closed. She followed the scent, her uncle’s niece whimpering in her mind the stronger it became.

Casey stopped. She opened her eyes to see an innocuous wooden door that resembled all the others before her. She shook as she twisted the handle.

It was a coat closet, she realized as she watched the jackets sway on their hooks.

There was something hidden within, however. She could taste it.

Casey entered, fighting against every memory that threatened. She stood on her toes, reaching up and stretching as far as she could. Her hand pushing against the ceiling until a piece of it gave way beneath her fingers. Casey continued to push until the panel knocked a box that had been concealed.

Casey stared at the tumbled box on the ground. The Beast’s growl might have tempted her to run, but what she caught now? That crushing need for escape had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with history.

Pride and satisfaction were typically sweeter tastes. They lay on her tongue with a spark and a teasing sensation that they could be hers, that they were within her grasp. They made her feel warm and comforted like a sip of hot cocoa with the bite of winter at her back. Pride from satisfaction was sweet to nearly all, because it was earned and fought for which made it a valuable treasure.

When their sweetness was corrupted by oil, however…

A sob bubbled up her throat. Casey bit her lip and swallowed it back. This wasn’t the time.

She crouched down and reluctantly opened the shoebox.

Casey inhaled sharply.

Patricia said they had found pictures, but Casey knew there was no way they had found these. There was no doubt in her mind that if they had, the man wouldn’t have lived that extra day.

They made her skin crawl with phantom touches and the wounds hidden in her flesh, the ones that never scared, flared to life.

Casey’s rage incinerated any doubt that had tried to take hold. She felt Claire and Marcia’s ghosts flinch as they saw what she had. She felt them shimmer, finally understanding before they disappeared. Casey knew she would never earn their forgiveness or even their acceptance, but she also knew they would never haunt her again. Not when it came to this.

Casey put the pictures back, hands steady. She carefully closed the box and picked it up before making her way back to the now silent bedroom.

The Beast stood on the opposite side of the bed, once again dressed in crimson. His glowing eyes watched her.

Casey set the box on the man’s dresser. She wanted to make sure that whoever found his body knew exactly what he had done to deserve this death.

Her gaze was drawn to the motionless body laying amid the shadows of the room.

Casey flicked on the light.

The man’s eyes were wide unseeing marbles in a face stuck almost comically in fear, like an old Halloween mask who’s exaggerated expression caused more laughter than terror. The rest of him looked just as unreal, she observed coldly.

The flesh of his abdomen had been shredded and the insides ripped to pieces.

Casey had a brief thought of biology class where the students had been paired up before they were instructed to dissect a dead toad. She had always been good at deciphering the different parts. She wondered if there was enough left over that she’d be able to name the man’s remaining organs.

With the images hidden in the shoebox seared in her mind, Casey found herself almost tempted to try. Just so that she could know, undeniably, that the man laying in a puddle of gore was dead and that he had suffered.

She embraced the taste of curdled milk that stained the air instead.

The Beast climbed on the bed, moving over the remains without care, his gaze still locked on her. He stepped off the bed and stopped before her. The Beast always stood far too close and for the first time she found herself almost leaning into him. He burned like a furnace at full steam and she found her rage hadn’t ignited her veins, instead leaving the ice intact and slowly spreading within her.

The Beast’s burning grip settled on her shoulders, giving her a small piece of warmth. “You found a creator of the broken; an impure of the unworthiest caliber. You found a perfect prey for us.” The Beast grinned, whiskey thick in the blood-stained smile.

His fingers ran into her hair and framed her face. “Our broken equal. Our Casey.” The Beast leaned forward and sealed his mouth over hers.

Casey gasped, copper and honeyed whiskey filling her mouth while the taste of blood and death settled thick on his lips. He pressed against her further, his eyes still open and holding hers, keeping her motionless.

The kiss lasted only a moment before The Beast swept her in his arms, jumping out of the window and seeming to fly beneath the night sky.

 


 

When The Beast finally set Casey on her feet it took her a long moment to realize that the darkened balcony they had landed on, was hers.

With the wind rushing past them, The Beast’s warmth surrounding her, and the taste of death lingering on her lips, Casey had embraced the feeling of breath stealing lightness he shared with her and she hadn’t been ready to let it go.

It was easy to imagine, if that was the way The Beast always felt, how it could be the ultimate source of his power. That freedom, above all else, was what made him invincible.

A pained groan from her side brought her focus away from the still night and back to her companion.

The Beast had his hands pressed against the wall with his head bowed low between his outstretched arms.

Copper gave way to bleach and she watched as his body seemed to shrink before her gaze. The black veins running below his skin disappeared, leaving only painted freckles and engraved scars lining his back. They held her enthralled. Even under the dim streetlights, she could see that there were far, far too many scars littering his pale skin.

Casey had known they had scars. She’d caught sight of a few and there had been enough throw-away comments, mostly made by Hedwig, that told her many more lined their skin. But to see them… To catch a true glimpse of the agony they had been forced to go through…

Casey would never ask about the scars.

Patricia might think they shouldn’t have secrets from one another but the stories in those wounds were different. Those belonged to them, and only them, the same way hers belonged to no one else but herself.

Still, she was tempted to ask about the one who gave them those scars. She wanted to know if they all were made by Kevin’s mother or if someone else was also to blame. She needed to know if their hearts still beat. She almost hoped they did. She’d give anything to make sure they paid for the pain they’d put all of them through. Casey knew she would claim it herself if given the opportunity.

Sulfur burned her tongue, the scent of panic thick like rotten eggs clogged her throat.

“Dennis?” Casey cautiously stepped up to him.

Dennis still had his hands against the wall but now, instead of his head being bowed it was facing forward. Dennis was staring at his bloodied arms.

Arms that had begun to shake while sulfur surged.

“Dennis,” Casey reached out and placed her hand on his arm. She knew it was still him in the light. Even with the sulfur trying to drown out everything else, she was still able to catch a trace of bleach.

Dennis stiffened, head turning towards her. His eyes widened and his breaths quickened as he looked her over.

Casey swore. She’d forgotten that, thanks to The Beast, she was probably just as messy and covered in blood as he was.

Her grip tightened on his arm. “Come inside,” she cajoled. “There’s water and soap and I have an entire set of cleaning supplies.”

Dennis’s hands fell from the wall. The panic lessened, not much, but enough that his breathing was no longer frighteningly fast.

Casey pulled at his arm gently. “You can take a shower? Wipe away all the blood?” Dennis moved, steps clumsy and hesitant. “The hot, clean water is practically never-ending.” She promised.

Dennis took another step. He nearly tripped and had to hold onto the wall in order not to fall. Casey wondered if it was his panic or a side-effect of being The Beast that sapped his strength.

Casey slipped beneath one of his arms so that it draped over her shoulders. She wrapped her own around his waist. “Lean on me.” She murmured, walking forward. Dennis slowly moved with her.

“My shampoo is unscented and you can use the entire bottle if you want.” She continued to talk as she slid open the glass door and led him inside her dark apartment. “Same with the bodywash. I think I even have an extra shower sponge.”

She led him by memory around her furniture and into her bathroom, clicking the lights on on the way. She carefully set him on the closed toilet seat. Dennis stared at her, the panic having dimmed enough for the bleach to rise and mingle with the sweet taste of cotton-candy wonder.

Casey placed her hands on his shoulders. “Stay.”

Casey waited for his nod before rushing out of the bathroom and going into her bedroom. She opened her closet and froze at the sight of her clothes.

The khaki pants he was wearing, the ones that belonged as part of his work uniform, were just as stained as the rest of him. Dennis wouldn’t-no, couldn’t wear those. She had no doubt it would lead to another panic attack if she even suggested it.

Casey worried her lip, tasting blood without having broken her skin. Casey looked down at her blood-stained shirt.

Casey slipped off the blouse, moving to the mirror on her dresser to try and scrub off the blood on her face and her arms with the already ruined fabric.

She inspected herself, finding there was blood even in her hair. She sighed and tried to wipe at it until it was at least less noticeable.

Casey would have to wait for her own turn in the shower to get fully clean but she supposed she’d done a good enough job for what she needed.

That reckless Beast. The plan had been for Casey to drive their car back from the abandoned building to a big parking lot a few blocks away. Dennis had said he’d even packed a bag so that they could clean up and change before dropping her off at home.

They were never supposed to come back directly here.

Casey went back to her closet, pulled on a clean t-shirt, and picked up the set of towels folded on one of her shelves before returning to the bathroom.

Casey opened the door to find Dennis over the sink, eyes resolutely avoiding the mirror as he violently scrubbed at the blood on his arms.

Dennis’s shoulders stiffened when she opened the door. He didn’t stop.

Casey leaned against the door. She didn’t mind waiting. Casey was just grateful that the sulfur had practically died and his bleach had surged to life.

Dennis shut off the water, grabbed her hand towel to dry his arms and wipe off the counter. Then turned back to her.

Casey held up the towels in her arms. “They’re clean. I just washed them this morning.”

Dennis accepted them easily.

“Move over a bit.” Casey waved him to the side.

The line between his brows deepened but he nonetheless took a few steps deeper into her small bathroom.

Casey bent down and opened the cabinet under the sink. She rummaged through her things and pulled out the extra shower sponge she’d promised, an unopened toothbrush she had forgotten she’d bought, her backup shampoo, and her extra bottle of bodywash.

Casey got back to her feet and set them all on top of the towels Dennis was still holding. “All new.”

Sage teased the corner of his lips upwards.

Casey gave him a reassuring smile in reply. “Go ahead. Take as long as you need to clean up.”

The sulfur vanished.

Casey walked out, closing the door behind her. The shower turned on.

Casey called for a cab. She cursed The Beast again as she locked the door behind her and made her way down the stairs to her waiting ride.

Why did he always have to complicate her life?

 


  

By the time Casey returned to her apartment, her vexation with The Beast had vanished. She dropped the duffel bag she’d found in Dennis’s car and fell face-first onto her couch with relief.

Casey had unfortunately underestimated how nerve-wrecking driving could be when she didn’t know how to drive. Or how exhausting it was to stay vigilant enough to avoid any attention. She was a murderer’s accomplice, after all.

Casey had made it back in one piece which meant she considered the experience an overall success. Once the others found out, she wasn’t convinced they’d see it the same way. In her defense, if they had known, the others would have never let her go tonight.

She had a feeling Patricia wouldn’t be the only one who would be upset with her for not mentioning she’d only driven a handful of times in her life. She just figured Patricia’s unflinching stare would be the most effective at making her feel irresponsible.

Casey thought back to her previous driving experiences.

Happiness tugged at her lips.

Casey wasn’t sure they would actually count as driving really.

Casey had been six and bursting with possibilities.

There was an empty dirt field a few miles from her father’s house and when the sun was high and the dirt was dry, her father would take her there.

Casey would sit on her daddy’s lap since her legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals and would have full control of the steering wheel.

Old Simba was stubborn and didn’t like when she turned the wheel too quick or when her daddy didn’t shift the gears fast enough, but it was fun. They’d drive in circles, round and round the dirt field. Her daddy would try to teach each gear and explain how and when to shift. Casey listened, because she always did when he talked, but her focused remained on making make-believe pictures in the dirt.

Her daddy, somehow, always knew and would ask what she was drawing.

Casey buried her head in the cushions. The echo of her father’s laughter in her ears and the memory of sunshine heating old metal and embracing her in its warmth, drew her eyes closed.

Casey burrowed further into her couch. She heard the sound of running water and was comforted in the knowledge that Dennis was still there.

Before sleep ensnared her, she had a moment to pray they would be enough to keep the nightmares away.

 


 

It felt like an old friend, reaching towards her with a knowing twist of the lips and a pair of sweeping arms.

It would wrap those arms, made of iron and slime, around her shoulders and her waist, pressing her so close to their chest that breathing was unbearable. Each inhale became soaked in oil and the arms constricted, forcing her even closer to its scorching skin.

Fingers, blade-sharp and multiplying, ran down her back in soothing strokes, splitting open the skin until she felt blood rain down her skin.

“Shh…” it whispered, voice hissing in her ear and boiling her mind with its words dripping acid. “It’s ok, Casey-bear.” Her mind went blank. “I’ll never let you go. Never.

Casey wanted to scream. She wanted to cry or sob but it felt like stitches tied her lips shut. Her lungs filled with oil and laughter shook her body, pieces of her falling to the ground like crumbling stone.

She was trapped. It said never as if it meant always, but she knew she wouldn’t last that long. Before never arrived, there wouldn’t be anything left of her. She’d have shattered long before then.

“Casey?”

A whimper broke free.

“Casey.”

Casey scrambled off the couch and to her feet, crashing into the person beside her. Warm palms settled on her waist and prevented her from falling.

Casey froze, breathing ragged and freed lips open to scream.

Bleach and heady basil wrapped around her.

Casey blinked, the blackness of her dream still pulling at the edges of her sight.

“Are you alright?”

The voice, a warm baritone far removed from the shrieking hiss made her limbs relax.

Casey leaned forward, resting her forehead on the chest of the body before her.

No arms came to suffocate her. The hands remained on her hips, protective and warm. They didn’t burn her skin.

Casey inhaled his scent and exhaled the remaining tension in her body.

It was bleach and basil and bitter worry growing with each moment but there was no oil. There was never any oil in this body. There was never a hint of it with any of them. Contaminated oil belonged to the nightmare. Cleansing bleach belonged to this man. “Dennis.”

“Casey?” Dennis asked tentatively.

“It was just a nightmare.” She murmured against him. The bleach grounding her as the oil began to fade from her mind.

The worry became impossible to ignore.

Casey took another deep breath of bleach and pulled away. She looked up into his storm cloud eyes and tried to give him a confident smile. “I just need a shower. I’ll be fine.”

Dennis frowned but he dropped his hands from her waist and stepped aside.

Casey ignored the bereft feeling she felt at the loss of his warmth. She resolutely went into her bedroom to grab her things before moving towards the bathroom for her shower.

Casey moved robotically, refusing to think.

She hated that nightmare. It always left her feeling raw and hopeless. It was as if the last few months had been the dream and Casey was still in John’s house, having fallen asleep as she hid in her closet.

At least this time Dennis had been there. The simple scent of his bleach had been enough to remind her he was part of her reality. It woke her enough to know that the oil was gone. That it would never again lay a finger on her.

Casey turned her face into the spray of water, letting it wash away the remnants of her nightmare.

John was dead. Just like the man from today.

They were dead, deceased, and departed and their oil would never hurt her or anyone else ever again.

Casey begun to believe the nightmares held no more sway on her mind as she stepped out of the shower. After she’d finished getting ready for bed, she had even managed to convince herself they wouldn’t be returning.

It wasn’t until Casey left her bathroom to find an empty apartment that her heart began to race and panic threatened her, that she knew the nightmares were a blink away.

Casey spotted Dennis on her balcony. Could see him through the glass on his knees methodically scrubbing at the ground.

She felt herself calm. A dangerous idea sprang to mind.

Casey slid open the door and poked her head out.

Dennis paused to look up.

She studied the spotless floor. “Thank you for cleaning up the mess.”

Dennis’s brow rose. Disbelief lit his eyes and was echoed in his scent.

“I think you’re finished, though.” Casey continued. “I can’t see a single mark left.”

Dennis scrutinized the dark wooden panels.

“It looks perfect.” Casey complimented.

Dennis’s shoulders relaxed. “Good.” He gathered up the supplies he was using and got to his feet.

Casey followed him to her kitchen where he cleaned the supplies he had used before returning them to their place under the sink.

Casey licked her lips when he’d finished. “You don’t work tomorrow, right?”

Dennis frowned at her. “No.”

Casey nodded. She’d known that already. Patricia had convinced Barry to trade his usual day so that they could rest after The Beast fed.

Casey began to wring her hands.

Basil grew.

Casey’s lips quirked. “I’m fine.” She reassured the concern she always inspired.

Dennis crossed his arms over his chest in reply.

Casey knew he was waiting for her to say whatever she needed, but she had no idea how.

It was her damn nightmare’s fault. She could lie to herself when she was awake but she couldn’t lie to her dreams. They could always tell the sunshine from her memories wasn’t real and that the bleach she had begun to depend on was nowhere near.

They knew she was vulnerable, and they took advantage.

Casey huffed, annoyed at herself. She should just spit it out. There was no reason for making such a big production about a simple favor. “Can you stay the night?”

Dennis’s eyes widened. He recoiled, his back hitting the kitchen counter. Dennis turned towards the counter, almost seeming surprised it was there before backing away from it, too.

Charred salt spiked with rising sulfur washed over her. Dennis slid along the length of the kitchen, quickly moving away from her with wariness thick in his gaze.

It wasn’t a simple favor, she realized. Not to Dennis and, if she were honest, not to her.

“I keep having nightmares.” Casey tried desperately to explain. A piece of her ached to have him be wary of her. She trusted him and wanted his trust in return.

“Never mind. Just forget I said anything.” Casey backtracked desperately. She retreated, settling herself on the couch and far away from him, giving him the distance he seemed to want.

Sulfur and fear still lingered.

Casey chastised herself. She should’ve kept her mouth shut. The nightmares would go away on their own. They always had before. She could deal with them in the meantime.

This was her problem. She shouldn’t have made it theirs.

“What are the nightmares about?”

Dennis walked out of her kitchen and cautiously stood at the opposite end of her couch. There was still distance between them, but far less than before.

Casey was tempted to tell him not to worry and that they didn’t matter. But there was that basil again mixing so naturally with his bleach, and Casey was so very tired. It had been far too long since she’d had any real rest.

Casey turned her attention to her blank tv. “John.” His name caused a shiver to crawl up her spine.

Casey felt the couch dip and the scent of basil grow stronger. “John is dead, Casey.”

“I know.” Casey studied the black screen. She imagined it rippling, like the liquid that haunted her. Parts of the nightmare were constantly changing, but the oil was a horrifying constant.

“You really think it’ll help?” Dennis cleared his throat. “If we stay?”

Casey looked over at him.

Lines dug deep between his brows and his lips were firmly set in a thin line. He faced the tv but she knew his full attention was on her. Sulfur and charred salt still whispered amid the basil.

“You don’t have to, Dennis.” Casey was positive she’d never hated any other scent as much as she did sulfur.

“Will it help?” Dennis demanded, his voice holding none of the scents she still caught.

Casey inhaled. She found his bleach and despite everything, she felt her tension ease. “Yes.”

Dennis ran his hand over his scalp. He sighed. “Who did you want me to bring into the light?”

“What?”

“Hedwig would probably jump at a sleepover.” Dennis offered. His voice turned thoughtful. “Although you might not get much sleep. You seem to like Norma? She doesn’t care for sleeping on the couch but if its for you she probably won’t mind. Or I could bring Patricia? She used to sing Kevin to sleep when he was little and even does it for Hedwig sometimes?”

She faltered. Casey couldn’t figure out if he honestly didn’t realize or if he wanted her to choose someone else.

“Just tell me who you want.”  

Casey hoped it was the former. “Could you stay?”

Dennis finally turned towards her, brows high and frown heavy with skepticism. “Me?”

Casey shrugged apologetically. “You’re the one that smells like bleach.”

Dennis blinked at her. He turned his attention to the hands fisted on his lap. His scowl turned dark. Smoke mixed with despair as he glared at his blameless appendages.

“It’s not just because you cleaned.” Casey clarified. “It’s you. It’s your scent.”

Dennis stared at her; his scowl softer but still present. She knew he didn’t understand. She doubted any of them really did. She wondered if they ever would.

“Bleach always made me feel safe.” She explained, uncertain if it would make any difference at this point but wishing it would.

Storm blue eyes locked intently with hers. She didn’t know what he was searching for, but he seemed anxious to find it.

Casey knew that what she was asking for was selfish. The panic he’d felt at her request made it abundantly clear that she should give him the car keys she’d left her on her dresser and tell him to go home.

Never mind was on the tip of her tongue. The word that fell in its place was instead a single- “Please?”

Dennis’s bleach remained strong, the basil heavy, and the beginning of something unknown swelled underneath it all.

The panic and fear had disappeared. 

The storm behind his eyes settled. Dennis had found whatever it was he needed. “I’ll stay.”

Chapter Text

Barry stretched his legs out, reclining on Casey’s periwinkle couch while he listened to the cheery newscaster prattle on about the sunny weather. He had been watching the news for almost half an hour now, sitting to attention any time any of the announcers turned the slightest bit serious.

As far as he could tell, the remains of the man from last night had still not been found. Barry wasn’t sure if he wanted the desecrated body found, but the news had become his new obsession and he doubted that would change anytime soon. Especially not since it seemed they really would go forward with their mass murder plan.

Barry leaned forward and grabbed the cup filed with lukewarm brown liquid off the coffee table. He scowled at the seemingly innocent glass. How the hell did Casey have a coffee maker and no mugs?

Granted, after having searched through her barren cupboards, perhaps Barry should just be grateful he’d found at least the glass cup he was using.

Barry ran his fingers along the smooth glass.

From what he’d seen of Casey’s wardrobe, he’d been pleasantly surprised to note she wore plenty of patterns and from her art on display, he could tell she wasn’t shy about colors. Why was it, then, that her entire place lacked that same personality? Casey had been there for at least a month if not a bit longer, and still her apartment reeked on temporary.

Barry put down the glass without taking a drink and scrubbed his hands down his face.

He needed to stop letting his mind wander in Casey’s direction. What she did with her home wasn’t his concern. Whether she decided to live in this little apartment for another month or the rest of her life, it was her decision and no one else’s.

Besides, Barry had more important things to worry about when it came to her.

He let his hands fall limply to his lap. Barry took in the room bathed in morning sunlight. The same light that reminded him he was in a stranger’s apartment.

What the hell had happened last night?

The Beast had kept himself open the entire time he had the light. He had shared this death with them, the way he hadn’t with the first two girls. They had all been able to witness every moment. They had been able to hear every gnaw The Beast made while he … fed.

It had been impossible for any of them not to peek at the slaughter. Even if it had made them sick to see exactly what The Beast was capable of. Knowing that it was their hands and their teeth tearing into another person’s flesh had forced them to look. None of them had been able to close themselves off completely. The most they had been capable of was averting their eyes and releasing only a few whimpers. They had ordered Hedwig not to see, but judging by his ashen expression, it was obvious the boy had once again refused to listen to them.

Because they had looked, they had all seen Casey stand beside the dead body without a trace of pity or fear coloring her expression. They had all heard the pleased purr The Beast had released in their mind to see her standing so proudly. They’d felt concerned at the claim he’d made on her and relief when he’d dropped Casey off at home without further incident.

Dennis had taken over when The Beast stepped back. They should have gone straight home. Why were they still in Casey’s apartment?

When Barry had taken the light from Dennis this morning, he had expected to be at home. He hadn’t anticipated Dennis halting the change long enough to say “Casey had a nightmare. She asked me to stay.” Then Barry found himself in the middle of Casey’s living room without further explanation.

This development had put them all on edge. Even Patricia had glared at Dennis, demanding he tell them exactly what had happened. Dennis had maintained that Casey had a nightmare and that was all he would say. The stubborn bastard simply refused to clarify.

There were no blankets or extra pillows anywhere in sight and the longer Casey stayed in her room, the more worried Barry became. It had been so long, Barry couldn’t even glance at the bedroom door anymore.

Barry would never forgive himself if she’d been hurt.

He should have gotten up when Dennis had and shared the light with him.

Dennis had never been able to open himself up. Anytime he took the light they were all left in darkness and left completely unaware of anything that had happened in those missing hours. It had been that way since the very beginning, and they had never questioned it.

Not until it was too late.

Since they’d reached their truce, everyone had agreed to keep themselves open whenever they took the light. There were going to be no more secrets between any of them ever again.

Whether it was on purpose or a genuine defect, none of them could say but Dennis’s inability to open himself up, made keeping their agreement difficult. Luckily, Dennis was at least able to share the light. He was able to let one of the other alters stand at the edge while he sat in the center and remained in control. It wasn’t much and due to Dennis’s compulsions it usually annoyed more than a few of them, but at least this way they were able to trust him in the light.

Last night, however, seeing what the The Beast could do had left them all drained and too mentally exhausted to step up when Dennis had.

They should have known better. Barry should have known. He should have gotten up on his shaky legs and gone to the edge. They should have never left Dennis by himself.

Dammit.

If Barry wasn’t absolutely terrified to find out what had happened, he would’ve turned the volume all the way up on the tv and started banging around in her kitchen as loudly as possible. He would be doing anything he could to get her to wake up, but Barry wasn’t positive he was ready to find out.

It didn’t help that even Dennis seemed to grow more restless the longer she stayed in her room. He was still sitting in his chair, arms crossed and stoic, completely ignoring all the questions being thrown at him, but Barry noted the too focused look he kept on Barry’s sight and the way his knuckles had turned white.

The click of the door rang like a bullet through the room.

Barry straightened on the couch and could feel the others do the same.

Casey walked out of her room, hands gathering her hair in a messy bun while a yawn stretched across her face.

She paused when she noticed him.

Barry’s muscles tensed. They should have just left. There was no way Dennis hadn’t crossed a line. She was going to yell, or cry, or-

Casey grinned. A smile so unexpectedly carefree and bright it lit her eyes into a golden-green hue that stole Barry’s breath. “You’re still here.”

Barry blinked owlishly at her. He had never understood the phrase “tongue-tied” until that moment. He felt as if his mind was simply incapable of forming a coherent thought. All he could focus on were her eyes. Barry had never realized they were hazel. He’d always been certain they were brown. The realization felt oddly like a betrayal.

Casey’s gaze dimmed, hiding the green from his view and tarnishing the gold.  She took a cautious step further into the room. Her eyes widened. “Oh.” She breathed. Casey gave him a tight-lipped smile that had Barry mourning the loss of her stunning grin. “Good morning, Barry.”

She had thought he was Dennis, Barry realized. That grin had been meant for Dennis while Barry only got that not quite smile.

Barry was the one everyone wanted. They felt at instant ease with his friendly grin and his laidback attitude and wanted him around. They wanted to claim him as a friend even if the title was only superficial. Barry had learned quickly that people rarely cared if his smile was sincere if he remained charming enough to make them feel good and entertaining enough for a laugh when they needed. As long as he was useful, he was wanted, and it had become second nature to him to make himself useful.

Yet, Casey preferred Dennis. She would grin for the most problematic of the alters before she would for Barry.

He wasn’t sure if he should feel annoyed, frustrated, or even jealous with the revelation. The truth was, even with the craziness that filled their lives, this had completely blindsided him and Barry had no idea how to react.

Earth to Doofus! Jalin snickered. Come in Doofus!

Barry, Norma tsked in his mind, you’re being rude. Say something.

Barry realized that while he’d been lost in his own mind, Casey had stood there in silence.

“Good morning.” He belatedly answered with an apologetic smile.

Casey didn’t reply. Instead she tilted her head and a crease appeared between her brows while her gaze remained on him. He swore he even saw her nostrils flare.

She can smell what you’re feeling! Hedwig giggled in his ear. It’s her superpower, remember?

Barry shifted in his seat. He forced himself to focus on a new design. While he had his own doubts about her “superpower,” he didn’t think this was the best time to test them.

A layered skirt with golden stitching…

Tell her about breakfast, Barry. Goddard prodded. I don’t want her food getting cold.

Or, you know, Jade added, say anything. You’re giving off fucking major creeptacular vibes, my friend.

“Shut up, Jade.” Barry mumbled, feeling his face get hot.

The crease deepened on Casey’s face.

Barry took a calming breath. The layering fabrics would be thin enough to see those beneath…

Barry waved behind him to the kitchen. “Goddard made you breakfast.”

Casey’s smile turned soft. “Could you give him my thanks, please?” she asked, heading towards her awaiting meal. “I love his food.”

A rich, vibrant forest green would be the base layer…

Goddard preened in his mind, grin white in his scarlet face.

“He said you’re welcome.” Barry called back.

The next layer would be golden sequin…

Casey returned with a full plate and a glass of water. She set it down on the table, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it.

Silence enveloped them. Casey eating and the arguing on the abandoned tv the only sounds to be heard.

No, sequin would be too heavy for the overall design. A sparkling mesh, maybe…

It would look almost fairy-like with the same flecks of gold he’d seen in wide umber eyes…

Ice ran down Barry’s spine as he remembered a different shade in that gaze.

They had killed a man last night. Another death added to their tally, and Casey had stared at the mangled body with a determined expression and the eyes he’d just seen light in joy, nearly black in their satisfaction.

Barry tried to focus on the people complaining on screen. It looked like some sort of court drama.

There were no cabinets in Casey’s living room, he observed. The disc player was on the open shelf below the tv and a stack of movies sat in a neat row below. Her books were piled neatly on the floor against the wall.

Barry had seen her kitchen and he had seen her bathroom. The cabinets in both places held only what belonged and, in Barry’s opinion, not even enough of that.

Dennis had spent the night in her place. The entire night. It had just been her and Dennis and she hadn’t flinched or avoided eye contact when she’d seen them.

But where were the blankets Dennis had used last night? Why weren’t they folded neatly on the armchair or even the table? If Dennis had spent the night and Casey wasn’t terrified of them then they must have stayed on the couch… Right?

Unless…

Barry swallowed the acid building in his throat. He felt his heart pound a bruise against his chest.

Casey touched them. Throughout the day, despite the alter, Casey’s touches had become commonplace and so easy he knew none of them had acknowledged their importance. She didn’t hesitate to grab Hedwig’s hands to dance, or press her shoulder against Jade’s during their movie times, or even give Goddard a hug on the rare times she saw him.

Casey didn’t flinch when they touched her. She smiled when Norma wound their arms together, indulged Patricia’s caresses, and even remained unaffected by The Beast’s affections.

Casey never made them shudder or flinch. At least, she hadn’t yet.

Barry’s stomach twisted.

What the hell had happened last night?

Casey pushed her plate away, the scraping sound making him jump. “You don’t have to stay, Barry.”

Barry laughed, a strangled edge of hysteria in the sound. “You kicking me out, babygirl?”

Casey shot him a frown over her shoulder. “I make you uncomfortable. Why would you want to stay?”

“What gave you that crazy idea?” Barry asked, false smile wide on his lips.

Luke snorted and Ansel gave a disappointed sigh.

“You don’t make me uncomfortable.” Barry protested weakly.

Casey stood and grabbed her plate before making her way back to the kitchen.

“But I do scare you.”

He wasn’t sure if Casey had meant for him to hear the words mumbled underneath her breath, but he had. Guilt tied knots around him.

Barry dropped his head against the back of the couch. How had he ever been called charming? Barry was a complete disaster when it came to Casey.

Barry heard the water in the kitchen running.

Hand over the light, Barry. Patricia’s clipped tone ordered.

Barry ground his teeth. “No.”

Patricia made a noise of disapproval. You’re obviously ill equipped to speak to Casey. Give me the light.

“I said no, Patricia,” Barry whispered harshly.

If we lose her because of you, Barry… Patricia threatened.

Barry snorted. “When we lose her, we’ll just need to look in the mirror to figure out why.”

Patricia paused and he could see her brows high as she looked at him with that superior expression.

When? Kat’s soft voice was the one to answer him.

Barry clenched his eyes shut. He should have said “if.”

Do you really think she’s going to leave us, Barry? The heartbreak in Kat’s voice was almost too much.

Barry wanted to assure her that Casey would be with them for a long time. He wanted to promise Kat that she’d be able to spend days upon days with the girl she hadn’t yet gathered the courage to meet.

He couldn’t. Kat always saw right through his lies.

“Barry?”

Barry opened his eyes to find Casey standing at the back of her couch, concern in her eyes.

“We killed your friends.”

Furious curses and shocked gasps filled his mind. Barry ignored them, focusing instead on the way Casey’s eyes grew impossibly wide. “They weren’t my friends.”

“They still meant something to you, didn’t they?” Barry asked gently. Those girls had to have meant something. Why else would they have all been together when Dennis kidnapped them?

“Yeah,” Casey admitted, beginning to fiddle with the fabric on the back of her couch. “They did.”

“Then it’s only a matter of time before you have to leave us.”

Stop being a big dumbhead! Hedwig sniffled. Casey isn’t going to ever hate or leave or nothing like that. Etcetera. She’s our friend.

Barry’s hands clenched into fists on his lap. He didn’t reply to Hedwig. No one else did, either.

“You’re afraid I’m going to leave?” Disbelief dripped from Casey’s frown. “After everything that has happened? After everything we’ve done?”

Barry’s lips tilted into a sardonic smile. “We ain’t gonna hold you hostage again, babygirl. Whatever you did or have done is on us way more than on you. You don’t have to worry about us ratting you out.”

Casey huffed with a roll of her eyes. “All of you have to stop telling me what to do.”

Barry stared as Casey began to pace across her kitchen.

“If I want to go with The Beast, then I’m going. I don’t care that it’s dangerous or that it’s going to be bloody and gruesome and whatever. I know what I’m getting myself into. If I want to go on a date, then that’s my damn choice and, honestly, none of your business. If I want one of you to spend the night then I know what I’m asking and I don’t need any of you to ask a million times as if I have no clue. If I want to leave, then it’ll be my decision and mine alone.” She glared at Barry, her hands moving with her frustration. “You don’t get to decide for me. None of you do.”

“We’re not-“ Barry wavered.

Casey’s eyes narrowed. Barry’s words faltered.

Luke’s laugh echoed in his mind. I think I’m in love.

Remind her we’re only saying what we think is best. Mr. Pritchard suggested.

Rakel snorted. Sure, because that’ll make her feel less infantilized.

Tell her she’s right. B.T. spoke up.

Just, Bernice sigh, explain that we care.

Barry opened his mouth, an apology already forming on his lips when the details of her rant reminded him of something far more important. “Where did Dennis sleep last night?”

What the fuck, Barry?

He ignored Jade’s groan and the rest of the comments thrown his way.

Casey stumbled in her pacing. She shifted on her feet, her eyes straying from his.

Barry knew Dennis was probably sitting unnaturally still in his chair, gaze unblinking and body tense enough to break. “He told us you had a nightmare and that you asked him to stay but I don’t see any blankets anywhere.”

Casey’s face turned crimson.

Dread began to make it hard to breathe. “He spent the night in your bed.”

Casey’s glare returned despite her blush remaining vivid.

“You might have had a point about us having no say about the rest of it,” Barry argued, “but when it comes to this, it’s definitely our concern.”

Casey hesitated.

“Casey,” Barry began, thinking of golden-green and knowing he had to be delicate. “Dennis has certain… issues.”

Casey’s expression twisted and the rosy hue turned violent.

Barry stood and held out his hands in a placating manner. “Casey,” He’d seen a certain alter with that same look in his eyes. If he wasn’t careful, danger was a word away. “We care about you. We don’t want to see you get hurt.”

The fury drained from Casey’s features, but the suddenly blank look did nothing to put him at ease.

Casey walked around the couch and dropped sideways on the other end. She leaned her arm on the back of the couch and watched him.

He glanced at the door that would lead out of her apartment. Barry cautiously sat back down on the edge.

“Dennis smells like bleach.”

Barry stilled. “That tends to happen when you’re obsessed with cleaning.”

“You smell like spiced apples, Patricia tastes like red wine, Norma like winter daphne, and Orwell like coffee.” She gave him a too sharp smile. “Are you obsessed with apples, Barry?”

There was too much information in that sentence for Barry to know what to do with.

“Dennis smelling like bleach has nothing to do with actual bleach.” Casey explained, a hint of her anger returning to her voice. She took a deep breath and let her gaze drift to the glass door behind Barry. “Bleach is clean and its safe. Its strong enough to drown out the oil and solid enough to remind me of reality.” Her steely eyes fixed on his. “Dennis slept on one side of the bed and I slept on the other. He didn’t move, he didn’t touch me, he didn’t even sleep under the covers. I asked him to stay because even though bleach makes me feel safe, I knew Dennis being there would make me feel safer. I trust him.”

Barry wondered what the silent Dennis could be thinking, hearing Casey defend him even after everything he had done. Although, Barry supposed he couldn’t really blame the girl for not understanding. She didn’t know Dennis the way they did.

“I’m not an idiot, Barry.” Casey continued. “I’m aware Dennis has his demons, but until I taste oil or something else that makes me think otherwise, I’m going to keep trusting him. As for the other thing…” she sighed. “Claire and Marcia didn’t deserve to die and I’ll never be able to forgive any of you for their deaths. But we’re bound, whether you want to admit it or not. We’re linked, all of you and me, and I doubt there’s anything out there that can unbind us.”

Barry’s fingers went to pull on his gloves. They slid against his naked skin and he looked down in surprise. The bare palm was startlingly pale. They should be stained. “We’re bound by blood, you mean.”

Casey gave a dry laugh. “No. We’re bound by pain.”

He turned his head towards her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Casey gave him a sad smile. For the first time, he saw the ghost hiding between the shades of her eyes. He finally saw the grief at the corner of her lips and the permanent caution weighing down her shoulders. Barry had seen the scars marking that skin and had caught glimpses of the more on her belly. He knew he’d seen only the beginning, but not everything. She had said the man they’d killed tasted of a familiar oil, and Barry had seen the photos along with everyone else.

They knew she was broken, but Barry was beginning to realize how badly she’d been shattered.

In that moment, Casey reminded him of Kevin. But while Kevin had been beaten so badly by the world, he had given up on it, she still had hope. If half of what he was beginning to believe had happened to her was true, he didn’t know how she was capable of the easy laughter she shared with Hedwig or the soft smiles and all those simple touches.

Barry had spent months now trying to bring Kevin back. He had tried all the tricks Dr. Fletcher had come up with and had even added a few of his own. Kevin was close to waking up, he knew it, but Barry was terrified that when it happened, Kevin would drown in his hopelessness before he had a single breath of hope.

If Casey was there when he came back, though… Barry could see it in her eyes, she’d understand. She could help.

The wall between them began to stutter as it tried to slip down.

What if she really was everything Kevin needed, only for Casey to decide she’d had enough of them? Would Kevin be able to survive that? Would any of them?

“Is it strong enough for you to stay?” Barry couldn’t help but ask.

Casey’s smile grew lighter and her eyes turned soft. “You’re all stuck with me for a very long time.”

The wall crumbled.

Barry gave her a genuine smile, even if it wasn’t quite a grin. “So when are we going shopping? You’re taking the minimalist aesthetic a bit too far with this apartment.” He lifted his glass as proof. “I mean, no coffee mugs?”

Chapter Text

Why do I need another table?” Casey asked, nose scrunched as she stared at the endless line of kitchen tables on display.

“It’s uncivilized to eat your meals on the floor.” Patricia replied primly, wine surging for control. Her gaze remained focused on the detail card hanging below the price tag, proving she hadn’t taken over completely.

“Patricia,” a tepid voice replied absently, “stop trying to steal the light.”

With a twist of the lips and in a moment filled with less fight than Casey had expected, wine surrendered to the taste of wood and graphite.

The new combination reminded Casey of the stack of unfinished homework she had left at home. Which was where she should be now. At home, finishing her required reading, not shopping for things she didn’t need. Her apartment was perfectly fine. It had what she needed and that was good enough for her.

Barry, however, with his newfound playfulness and his finally genuine smiles had insisted he wanted them to go explore the city and get out of her apartment. Casey hadn’t wanted their day to end just yet, and had agreed. Then, on their way out the door, he had ever so innocently added a why not visit a few shops while they were out?

Casey had been prepared to argue, a million and one completely valid excuses forming on her tongue…

All of which were completely silenced the moment they had reached his car.

“I parked between the lines?” she tried while they stared at the hazardous way she’d abandoned his car. It hadn’t looked that bad the night before… Although it had been dark. And she been tired. And she had been incredibly relived to just be home… And she also had no idea how to drive.

Barry snorted. “Babygirl, the only lines you made it between were the state lines.”

That combined with the giant scratch on the passenger’s side, had made Casey feel guilty enough that Barry was able to lead her to the enormous furniture section of the department store with minimal complaint.

That was, until Barry abandoned her with the scent of sour lemons and a cross of his arms. His pouted “I can’t be trusted in stores,” had left her both amused and confused until Rakel took over with a straightening of her spine and a tilt of the head.

Casey had met Rakel during one of her lunches at the zoo, but the single interaction had done little to make her seem like less than a stranger.

It was her eyes, Casey was certain. They were a deep whirlpool blue that always watched, always absorbed, and rarely seemed to blink. Whenever Casey spoke, Rakel’s gaze was fixed on her, scrutinizing Casey’s every move and cataloging her every word.

There was never any ill will in the air with Rakel, just a laser focus and calm phrases.

“Which color would you prefer?”

Casey shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I don’t really need a dinning table.”

Rakel nodded. “I agree and while it is ultimately your decision, I believe a designated table with appropriate chairs would make everyone more comfortable during mealtimes.”

Casey’s brow rose. What was wrong with the coffee table? It was big enough for them to eat together and if Patricia or any of the others found it uncomfortable, Casey could always move one of the side tables.

“It will also help make your apartment feel more lived-in and permanent.”

Casey remembered the taste of charred salt as it thread into the softness of ever-hopeful jasmine and spiced apples. She could see the desperation in Barry’s bright blue eyes. They were afraid she would leave, despite everything.

Casey couldn’t help but feel annoyed with them. She had already come back, after nearly every part of her had begged her not to. She had ignored the way her common sense had screamed at her and the bleeding guilt that weighed her down and had still come back.

Why couldn’t they see that she would always come back? Especially now, after so much had happened and so many more ties bound them together… They made her feel powerful and free. They made her feel safe and wanted… How were they so blind to her reality?

After a lifetime of believing she was nothing and of painful whimpers haunting her nights, how could they ever think she was even capable of giving them up? Hadn’t last night proven just how much she needed them?

Casey set her jaw. “The plain pine will match best.” If a few pieces of furniture is what it would take for them to realize she wasn’t going anywhere, then so be it.

Rakel’s intense blue assessed. “But that isn’t the color you would like.”

Casey shrugged. Plain pine was cheap. That was good enough for her.

A wisp of cinnamon filled the air.

Rakel’s gaze turned inward in that familiar way that meant a silent conversation was occurring.

Casey waited patiently, taking in the dinning table. She had to admit, the design wasn’t at all interesting with the predictable way the five pieces of wood were glued together. The matching chairs were little better. At least they were small. The perfect size to fit in whatever corner she picked without them being in the way.

“Bernice believes you may enjoy it more if she helped you paint it.” Rakel paused before nodding in approval. “If the artwork is decent, the value of the pieces would definitely increase.”

Smoke ignited the cinnamon.

Rakel rolled her eyes. “I’m aware of my word choice, Bernice.”

Casey turned back to the dinning set, her interest suddenly sparking at the thought of painting it herself. She’d never considered painting her own furniture but now that she thought about it, why not? She even had to admit that the sharp angles were prime for decorating. There was suddenly so much potential.

“I think we need to look for one with different legs.” While the plain rectangles were perfect canvases, if their base had a bit more design to begin with then they had real potential to make it stunning.

“Then let’s keep looking.” Rakel stated, purposefully walking down the never-ending row.

Casey followed, studying the passing furniture with a newfound appreciation. Every piece now sizzled with potential and she was actually excited to choose something and make it her own.

“What is my scent?”

Casey frowned.

Rakel was reading the card for another square table with almost curved legs.

“You taste like chewing on the end of a pencil.”

Rakel’s deep blue gaze turned towards her. “And what does that mean to you?”

Casey blinked.

“If bleach makes you feel safe,” Rakel explained, “then what do pencil ends make you feel?”

Casey’s brow creased. “Like I should be doing my homework?”

A whisper of dust and sadness tickled her throat and was echoed in the downturn of her eyes.

Casey tried not to flinch, realizing how thoughtless her answer had been. But she never expected anyone to ever ask what a scent meant to her. They were scents and tastes and she knew what they meant when they invaded her senses, or at least she could figure them out easily enough.

Rakel was asking something far more personal, however, and she deserved more than a flippant response.

Casey closed her eyes and brought Rakel’s taste to the forefront of her mind. She exhaled, letting everything else disappear until there was only wood and graphite on her tongue.

A memory, brushed in pencil shavings, slipped to the forefront of her mind.

“It’s focus,” she whispered, teasing the memory forward, “and the refusal to miss a single detail.” Casey remembered climbing onto a wobbly chair and peeking onto the table. A pair of gnarled hands created magic on paper while graphite teased her nose. “It’s knowing just as much beauty can be found in the details than in the full piece.”

Casey opened her eyes and gave Rakel a soft smile. “Its studying, but in a way that it becomes part of you and can never forget.”

Rakel’s lips lifted in a mixture of pleasure and affection, and made the bottomless of her gaze seem comforting. The taste of toasted hazelnut and pencil ends made Casey’s smile shift into a grin.

Rakel turned back to the detail card. “What do you think about a round table instead?”

 


 

 

Casey lowered herself further into the run-down cushions of the booth, silently wishing Jalin would hurry back from wherever he’d disappeared and cursing him for abandoning her in the dimly lit bar.

“Here you go!” A tall glass filed with amber was dropped before her nose, making her jump.

Casey gawked at the glass. She looked up to find Jalin lounging on his side of the booth, grinning with his own beer curled in his hand. “I can’t drink this.”

Jalin’s brows shot up. “Did you want something darker? Or something other than beer? Have to warn you, though, the bartender today is shit. If I were you, I’d only trust what was on tap or bottled.”

Casey shook her head, her brows furrowed. “I’m not 21, yet.” She reminded him.

Jalin stared at her expectantly.

Casey stared back.

He leaned forward, daring in his eyes and the taste of ghost peppers burning her tongue. “Are you telling me our badass babe is actually a goody-goody?”

The urge to scowl at his challenge and chug down the beer tempted her. She even wondered if the taste of wheat would lessen the fire of his taste.

Casey’s hand curled around her glass. She pushed it towards him and settled for the scowl. “I don’t like beer.” And she liked being pressured even less.

Jalin smirked. “Wana chance a mix then?”

“No.”

Jalin leaned back, taking a deep swing of his glass. “Have it your way then.”

Casey watched him swallow down the alcohol, unease twisting her stomach. “Weren’t we going back to my apartment after lunch?”

“That’s what I heard.” Jalin replied. He gave her a slow wink. “Unless you’re up for an adventure.”

Casey ignored the suggestion. She was growing more and more annoyed with every moment. “Then you shouldn’t be drinking if you’re going to be driving.”

“Aw babe,” Jalin shook his head in disappointment. “You really are a straight edge, aren’t you?”

Casey narrowed her eyes. She reached over and stole the glass from Jalin’s hand. “I’d rather not die in a car crash because you’re an idiot.”

“Then call a cab.” Jalin challenged. He ignored the glass she held hostage and swiped the one that had originally been meant for her.

“I don’t want you to die either, dickhead.” Casey growled, snatching the second glass.

Pepper and sour lemons lay thick between the two and if Casey hadn’t been so annoyed herself she would have found it funny how their emotions were the only part of them that was in synch. The signature scents of the others lay beneath his ghost pepper and she really hoped they were bombarding his dense mind with calls for common sense.

Jalin rolled his eyes. “This beer is light. It isn’t enough to do any damage.” He waggled his fingers. “Hand it over.”

Casey pulled the two glasses towards her until she was hugging them to her chest. “No.”

Jalin snorted and got up from his seat. “Well then what was the point of coming to a bar for lunch?”

Casey glared. “You’re the one that picked this place.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jalin waved her off, walking towards the front door.

Casey eagerly got to her feet and followed him, happy to get away from the dingy bar. They walked down the street, heading back to the shopping complex where they had left the car.

“Are we going home?” Casey asked, having to hurry her steps to keep up with Jalin’s long swagger.

Jalin stopped. Casey nearly tripped at the sudden movement. “You looking to go home already, Grandma? Are we nearing your bedtime?”

Casey wanted to stomp her feet in annoyance. She wanted to kick him in the shin and turn on her heel and get as far from him as possible. Casey was ready to do just that when she caught the scent of the others once again. There were so many scents, from spiced apples to bleach and pencil ends to oranges. They each belonged to someone different, someone special, and someone she cared about.

Rakel’s question popped forward once more. What does it mean to you?

What did ghost peppers mean to her?

She’d only ever had them once in her life. When she was small, before taste and smell began to have meaning.

A handful of the peppers had sat on their counter for a week, their origin unknown to her but their presence enticing. The small wrinkly peppers were the brightest red Casey had ever seen and her father had caught her staring at them more than once. But he wouldn’t let her take a bite. He wouldn’t even let her touch them.

Her father was in charge, but Casey hadn’t been able to help herself. When he was distracted, she climbed onto the counter and felt triumphant when the pepper was finally in her hand. The triumph burned out with the taste buds on her tongue.

Her father had stuffed her full of milk and bread and eventually the flames were doused and all that was left behind was a taste she found appealing enough she almost wanted a second bite.

So, what did ghost peppers mean to her, then? They meant caution and maybe even danger, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If she was careful, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a tempting bite.

Casey sighed. She had to be very careful, though. “I’m hungry.”

She resumed their walk back to the complex and, this time, it was Jalin who had to keep pace with her.

“I think we might make it for the early bird special.” Jalin’s pestering made Casey grit her teeth.

She pushed open the glass door harder than was needed and felt a bit of her annoyance ease with the loud bang it produced.

“You know, I’m craving a steak, Gran.” Jalin continued. “Can you eat a steak with dentures? Or would we have to get you something else? I guess you could have my mashed potatoes. No gravy though. The sugar in that is likely to keep you up all night!”

There was a water feature in the center of the mall. A fountain, reeking of chlorine and recycled water sat in the middle of a not too small, not too big wishing pool. The bottom of the pool was littered with coins that made shinning designs and which Casey had found absolutely charming. There was something almost magical about the way the fountain sang and the ripples of water made the designs dance.

Casey had even thrown a penny in, when she’d passed by it earlier with Rakel, wanting to be part of the magic in some small way.

This time around, she hoped it wished for it to bring her some peace. She didn’t have a penny to throw, but she did have a man at her side with a loud mouth.  Why couldn’t she substitute one for the other?

Jalin struggled to knees the thigh-deep pool, coughing up the water he’d unexpectedly swallowed and whipping back the chlorine from his eyes with his drenched sleeves.

Casey snickered. She cleared her throat. “Are you ok?” she asked, voice strangled.

Jalin’s disbelieving gaze turned towards her, the arrogant look from before having literally been washed away.

Another snicker escaped Casey. She bit her lip.

Jalin’s eyes narrowed.

The dam broke and Casey’s laughter escaped.

Jalin continued to watch her, sporting a drowned puppy expression and all it did was call forth ever increasing bouts of mirth until Casey was doubled over, her hands on her knees in an attempt to keep herself upright.

When the need to breathe finally forced her laughter to lessen, Casey found Jalin dripping wet and sitting cross-legged in the little pool. He was looking at her, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands, a half-smile on his lips and daring blue eyes softened. “I guess I deserved that, huh, Gran?”

Casey’s lips threatened to break into a smile. She turned her back on him and continued towards the food court, before he could catch sight of it.

It wasn’t long before Casey heard squishing steps at her side. A soaking arm draped over her shoulders and she shivered as the cold water fell through her clothes and ran down her shoulders.

She gave Jalin a half-hearted glower.

Jalin grinned, pulling her closer. Beneath the chlorinated water and his ghost pepper scent, she found the taste of sage.

Casey leaned into his side and let her smile break through.

Ghost peppers weren’t too bad, after all. Especially when they were watered down.

 


 

 

Casey stared at the boxes littering her apartment in astonishment as Barry settled the last one on her kitchen counter. “How did we end up getting so much stuff?”

Barry leaned against the counter with a chuckle. “That does tend to happen, babygirl, when you start off with nothing.”

“Hey!” Casey protested. “I have stuff.”

Barry shot her a skeptical stare.

“I have what I need.” Casey had everything she could need and what she didn’t have she could do perfectly well without. Or at least she had been able to. Now, with all the boxes crowding her apartment, Casey doubted she’d ever have to “do without” anything.

There were things everywhere now and the mess was making her feel more and more anxious the longer it remained. There were boxes against nearly every wall. There were the need-to-be-assembled dinning set and bookshelves which Casey had to admit was her own fault for showing interest and who’s multiple was due to Orwell’s enthusiasm. There was an entire set of pans and pots the same shade of blue as her couch which she still wasn’t sure she’d agreed to before they had ended up in her cart. There were sets of dishes and bowls and glasses and mugs, with a strong emphasis on the “s,” none of which matched and all of which she’d adored at the store and now realized were completely unnecessary. There were bags of little things, like oven mitts and magnets and a funny little timer shaped like a chicken.

They’d even insisted she get groceries.

Why had they bought so much?

Casey was lucky she had enough money still saved after John’s death that she didn’t have to worry too much about it, but if they kept spending like today… Casey might need to start looking for a second job.

Barry grinned. “You’ll see, once everything is where its supposed to be, you’re gonna love it.”

Casey hummed, the uncertainty she’d felt when they’d first arrived at the store was rearing its ugly head once more. She’d only given in because she had thought they would take it as a sign she wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe there was something else she could do instead? There was just so much stuff.

Was there even any room left for her?

Casey felt her breathing speed. She didn’t belong here. This wasn’t her place anymore. It was too full, it was too foreign…

Barry appeared before her, hands settling on her shoulders and grounding her with the warm blue of his gaze. “We won’t do any of the painting, yet, alright?” He offered. His hands began to move rhythmically up and down her arms. She tried to match her breathing to his ministrations. “We’ll just set everything up and let you get a feel for it. If you don’t like something, Rakel insisted on keeping the receipts. We can just return it. We can return everything if you don’t end up liking it. Promise.”

Casey forced herself to relax. She breathed in Barry’s spiced apples and focused on the warmth of his touch.

She could do this. They would set everything out and if she didn’t like it, they would just return it. No problem. This wasn’t a big deal. There was no reason for her to worry. This was still her place. This was still her choice.

She could do this.

Casey nodded and breathed out, feeling the tension finally escape. She gave him a shaky smile. “Let’s get started.”

 


 

 

Casey had promised Hedwig a dance party and, despite her exhaustion, Casey had no intention of breaking it.

She grabbed one of her new bowls, a huge plastic one decorated with cartoon flowers, and dumped the freshly popped popcorn inside. She grabbed some juice boxes and waters from the fridge and set them beside the chips and cookies already laid out. She contemplated digging out more food from her now full fridge and pantry but held herself back.

Casey had no intention of derailing their party, but she secretly hoped it would be a short one. Her plan was a silly dance followed by a cartoon movie, and then wonderful, beautiful sleep. Too much sugar in Hedwig’s system and her entire plan would go up in smoke.

Casey slouched against the counter while she waited for the boy of the hour and took the time to contemplate her new apartment. While it was still technically the same four walls she’d been renting for months, it didn’t feel the same. Casey wasn’t sure yet if she liked all her new things, but they did manage to bring her an odd sort of serenity.

Goddard had helped put away the food, giving her a list of different menu options before Barry had helped her put away the dishware. Rakel had helped her put together the furniture and Patricia had carefully hung the curtains. Orwell helped organize her books and Jade her movies. Even Hedwig had helped organize her new magnets on the fridge before he’d gone into her room to change.

Suddenly, her space was filled with little moments that Casey welcomed instead of dreaded. They had made the new pieces feel comforting rather than invading. It was enough for her to think about keeping it all.

Or at least consider keeping it.

Her mind wandered to the box kept beneath the darkness of her bed. The same box that had once been hidden beneath her books and her closet floorboards. The very box that was still home to a silver hairbrush and other fading reminders that her childhood had once been surrounded by love instead of pain.

This was her apartment. Hers. It didn’t belong to John. It wasn’t doused in memories she prayed to forget. This was her place and she was safe here.

They would keep her safe. It was a certainty she felt to the marrow of her bones. Casey knew they would make sure this place remained hers and it remained protected.

If this place really would become her home, then maybe it was time her treasures finally saw the sun again…

Casey wondered if any of the others had good mementos on display, or if they also secreted them away in fear that they could disappear. Casey wished she was strong enough to step into their apartment again. She wanted to see what their lives were like in the places they called their own. She had even had the chance, earlier, when Barry had insisted on stopping there so that he could change out of his stiff clothing and squelching shoes.

Casey hadn’t been able to leave the car. She couldn’t go back there. She couldn’t handle being reminded of the terror she had felt waking up in that strange room. She didn’t want to remember the sight of The Beast with Claire and Marcia’s flesh between his teeth or the memory of Dennis scrubbing their blood off the floor until his own hands were raw. She just… couldn’t. She still remembered it all, the memories branded in her mind, but there were enough new ones now that the horror had dulled. Going back would make them far too vibrant.

Luckily, Barry hadn’t left her alone with her thoughts for too long and they remained dulled.

Casey had watched him stride back to the car wearing a maroon v-neck sweater and loose cargo pants that showed much more skin and were a stark contrast to Dennis’s constricting gray attire. Barry had also been carrying a large black duffle bag. A bag that Casey had felt too self-conscious to ask what was inside.

She had been disappointed, hours later, to realize that it held Hedwig’s track suit and other supplies for their dance party.

Casey had wanted the clothes to belong to someone else. She had hoped, if they did, then it would mean she wouldn’t have to ask.

She shouldn’t have asked the night before, but so much had happened and it had seemed like such a simple request. Then the morning came, with the sunlight painting her room a golden hue and the scent of bleach still pulsating in the air, and Casey had woken up happy. She had greeted the day with a warm swirl of contentment making its home in her chest and selfishness had flared inside her. Casey had wanted to wake up with that feeling in her veins every day and was determined to tell Dennis as much when she’d stepped out of her room.

But it was Barry, full of smoke and bitter worry, who greeted her and before she knew it the warmth was replaced with annoyance and her own rising anger.

The morning full of conflict had been worth its resolution. The growing affection reciprocated in Barry’s grin proved to her as much, but it didn’t stop her from mourning the banished warmth. Or from worrying about the lack of bleach throughout the day.

In the end, with her morning and evening having flown by in a flurry of activity and different shades of blue, Casey was left doubting whether it really was a good idea to ask Dennis to stay again.

During brief moments of respite her mind had fixed on the night before and Casey was left analyzing every moment within an inch of its existence.

While Casey had been the one to insist on the sleeping arrangement, it had still taken her a long while to finally fall asleep. The knowledge that someone else, that a man, was in the same bed as her, had left her on edge. If it hadn’t been for the living room light that filtered through the crack in her bedroom door, she wasn’t sure she would have ever managed it.

But the light, the one Dennis had left on, had lit just enough of her room that she could see the outline of his crossed arms and legs as he lay beside her. She’d even been able to see the curve of his nose and the line of his jaw and the familiar features had banished John’s ghost. It was a concrete reminder that it was Dennis, and no one else, sleeping an arm’s length away. When the nightmares threatened, it had been Dennis’s scent that drowned the oil before it could take hold.

Casey had slept, with peaceful dreams and steady heartbeats the full night. It was the first time in far too long that tears and nightmares didn’t choke her.

How ungrateful would Casey have to be to force Dennis to stay once more?

She could still remember the awful taste of sulfur when she had first brought it up. It wasn’t a simple request, not for either of them. She couldn’t treat it like it was. Which meant that she couldn’t ask again. Regardless of how good she had felt that morning, Casey knew it wouldn’t be fair to Dennis.

Her bedroom door opened with a boom to reveal Hedwig, oranges blooming in his bright grin and CDs held up excitedly in his hands. “It’s time to party!”

Casey pushed away the thoughts of bleach and aches of exhaustion. She let herself get carried away in Hedwig’s own special brand of warmth and returned his grin. “It’s time to dance!”

Chapter Text

Dennis felt anxiety dig its claws deeper into his flesh the higher the moon rose.

The sun had set hours ago, and he could see Hedwig’s eyes grow heavier and heavier with each passing second. When Hedwig’s eyelids finally fell, and his head dropped...

It had been decided with a simple, “You’ll take the light after little Hedwig falls asleep,” that it would be Dennis who would be left to deal with whatever Barry had meant by stuffing their pajamas and their work uniform at the bottom of the duffle bag.

Norma had given him a serene smile, hands folded over the flowered fabric of her skirt, and no one had made even a sound of protest at her declaration.

Dennis had almost hoped, when he’d watched through Barry’s eyes as he changed and packed their things, that it was Hedwig who was meant to stay the night. That it would be “happy, hyper oranges,” as Casey had called Hedwig’s scent, that would drive her nightmares away in bleach’s place. Hedwig had always brought a smile to Casey’s lips and an ease to her eyes since the first time they had met. There should be no reason why he didn’t bring the same lightness to her dreams.

Then, as Hedwig changed into his yellow track suit, Dennis had finally paid enough attention to realize that the pajama pants were a plain gray rather than Hedwig’s dinosaur decorated blue and the white shirt was long-sleeved rather than short. Hedwig wasn’t meant to spend the entire night beside Casey.

For a moment, Dennis had believed someone, anyone other than him, would try to offer her comfort instead. But with Norma’s words still ringing around the room, Jade had begun to poke fun at Jalin earning a scolding for both from Patricia and, to the rest of the room, the entire matter had seemingly been decided.

Dennis wasn’t naïve enough to believe they trusted him. He knew better. He was fully aware that if they had honestly decided he was the best choice then it had everything to do with Casey’s speech to Barry and nothing to do with him.

Out of all the alters, Patricia and Dennis were the only two who had been banished from the light. Dennis wondered if, before their coup had been carried out, any of them had realized how horrible of a punishment banishment was for an alter. Dennis was familiar with raw agony but until he had experienced it, he had never realized how much worse the suffocation of hopelessness was. To be cast aside by the people you trusted most… They, along with little Hedwig, were the first to be mocked and ridiculed. Stares of disgust and sincere words of dislike had been their companions for what felt like years in the swallowing blackness of the sidelines. The other alters had labeled them both undesirable and they had meant every aspect of that word.

What was left for them but to join together? What else could they have done to prove that they weren’t undesirable? That he wasn’t completely useless?

Hedwig was resilient and his childlike enthusiasm made forgiveness a nonissue and acceptance an easy feat when the other bothered to be a little patient. For a lot of them, Hedwig was what they had lost, living with Kevin’s mother. When they were reminded of that and that Hedwig was still a little boy, and always would be, he was treated as such, regardless of what he had done.

Patricia had been right, in the end. Whether or not any of them liked it, that simple fact was enough for them to realize she shouldn’t have been banished. Patricia wasn’t insane and she hadn’t set out to scare the others with her tales as Dr. Fletcher had kept insisting. Patricia was obsessive, there was no denying that, but The Beast was real and her stories were true. She had been The Beast’s first believer and, if for no other than reason than that, it was enough to earn the others’ respect and earn her position back in the light.

Dennis… What had Dennis done? He’d gone along with Patricia out of desperation. He hadn’t believed in The Beast until he tore through Dennis’ skin and in that moment it was terror, not hope, that filled him. Dennis wasn’t and had never been The Beast’s disciple, even if he did help set him free. Dennis wasn’t someone the others could look at with wistfulness. He was the opposite; he was the one existence they wanted to forget. Dennis had been born to protect them from their personal hell. He would never invoke soft memories. Their skin was painted in the punctuation of the secrets he kept and oftentimes the reminders were far too much for them.

From before his banishment, to after, to that very moment, Dennis was the truest “undesirable” of them all. There had been no redemption or triumph for him. He still kept secrets, even if they weren’t his own, and he remained on alert whenever anyone took the light, always ready for the worst.

Dennis understood perfectly well why the others didn’t trust him, even if their doubt was a constant knife to the chest.

But he also understood why Casey did. He knew she shouldn’t, not after everything he had done and all the horrors he had forced her through, but he did understand.

Casey had said they were bound by pain and who knew pain better than he did?

Dennis was born to be scarred and live with the memories, so the others didn’t have to. He had shielded Kevin from reality when he had been too young and too innocent. He had made sure that he never realized the extent of what his mother was capable of. No matter how old Kevin grew, how much he managed to read between the white marks on their skin, or how many alters appeared, Dennis remained as their guard.

Casey didn’t have a guard. She had been forced to face her uncle alone. She didn’t have to guess at the meaning of her scars; she had lived them. She didn’t have to stare at the shadows of her nightmares and wonder who they were; she recognized their faces.

Casey was clever, it wouldn’t take much for her to realize what his role as an alter had been. It made sense, that once she did, she would feel that twisted sense of camaraderie between them. They understood what the other had gone through. They both knew what it took to survive, despite everything being against them.

Dennis wasn’t sure, however, if the other alters had arrived at the same conclusions or if they were just humoring Casey, hoping she’d get tired of him sooner rather than later.

Hedwig’s head lolled forward and the sight of the cartoon they had been watching with Casey finally blinked out of their their view.

Their reasoning no longer mattered; the time had come.

Dennis rose to his feet and made his way to the light with Barry a step ahead. Barry reached the chair and lifted Hedwig into his arms. He gave Dennis a final nod before stepping back and surrendering the light.

Dennis opened his eyes to find his head resting against Casey’s side while her arm was draped across his shoulders.

Dennis swallowed thickly.

Casey’s arm tightened around him, pulling him securely against her. She gave a soft sigh and rested her cheek on his head.

Dennis had no idea what to do with the soft warm girl wrapped around him. He had never expected to wake up like this.

He could only imagine what the other alters would think- Dennis pulled back with a start. He knew what they would think, but would they really banish him for another misunderstanding?

Casey fell against him with a sleepy protest, raising her opposite arm and locking her fingers with the one around his neck. She drew him close and burrowed her face against his arm.

Dennis froze. He held his breath, waiting for the reprimand in his mind. He waited for whoever stood at the edge to chastise him and tell him to get away from Casey. He waited for them to call him the usual names and demand he give up the light.

There was nothing but silence.

Dennis frowned. He felt along the edges and realized no one else had stepped behind him. He realized Barry had never come back.

He was alone.

They had left him alone. With Casey.

Dennis felt the panic rise again. He couldn’t be trusted. They all knew it. Why had no one-

“Is ok,” Casey muttered, lips moving against his bicep and her fingers lazily stroking his neck, “you safe.”

Dennis took a deep breath, forcing his racing heart to slow. He concentrated on her touch, so light and guileless. It was nothing like the touches he’d known. Hers didn’t cause pain; it didn’t make him feel sick; it didn’t leave scars.

Dennis closed his eyes and savored the moment. He was wrapped up in her arms and she trusted him, more than that, she insisted she felt safe with him. She had told him it was him, not any of the others, that she knew would keep her nightmares away.

After being called unwanted for so long, he ached for her words to be true.

Dennis looked down at Casey sleeping peacefully against him.

Did she still need him? Like she had the night before? If she were awake, would she be staring at him with that same desperately hopeful expression? Or would she be waiting for him to go back to the zoo?

Dennis moved his arm behind her back, shifting her head to his chest. He turned, hooked his other arm beneath her knees, and stood. Dennis lifted her in his arms and easily carried her to her room.

“Dennis?” Casey’s half-lidded brown eyes stared up at him.

“I’m just taking you to bed.” Dennis answered.

Casey’s arms tensed.

Dennis let out a silent curse, realizing how his words must have sounded. He cleared his throat. “I can leave?” he asked, carefully setting her on her bed.

Her room was dark and the faint light from the tv wasn’t enough for him to see her expression, but the tension hadn’t eased from her hold.

“I can stay?” He asked again, this time far more cautiously.

Casey’s arms loosened from around his neck. His own tension eased. She still needed him.

Dennis leaned away and her arms fell to the bed with a lingering whisper of her fingers against his skin. He shivered and was surprised to find he enjoyed the feeling. “Let me change and clean up. Then I’ll be back.”

“Ok.” Casey’s drowsy reply came easily. Dennis wasn’t sure if it was wistfulness that made him think there had been a hint of a smile in her voice, but it was enough to have the corner of his own lips curl.

Casey had never had a guard, but she had him now, and he would do anything to protect her.

 


 

 

“In recent news, the police have found the mutilated body of 48-year-old schoolteacher, Matthew King, in his home this morning after neighbors complained about a horrible smell.

According to eye-witness statements, King’s bedroom, where the body was found looked like a scene straight out of a horror movie. His body appeared to have been “ripped from the inside out” with large pieces of his internal organs missing. One of the witnesses first on the scene swore there were “teeth-marks” on his skin and his face was “frozen in terror.”

Initial reports suggest that King had been murdered in his bed late Saturday/early Sunday and that his remains had been largely undisturbed until he was found.

It seems that a few of his coworkers were worried about his absence, come Monday morning, but they admitted that King had the tendency to not show up for days at a time. The principal at the elementary school where King worked even stated that King was on “thin ice” due to his frequent absences.

It was one of his neighbors that brought the “rancid” smell coming from King’s apartment to the complex’s management. After there was no response from King, despite repeated attempts, the apartment landlord decided to enter King’s apartment.

The police were notified soon after King’s remains were discovered.

While there have yet to be any arrests made, the police state that incriminating evidence scattered around King’s apartment will lead them to his killer.”

 


 

 

Casey stared at the TV screen for a long while after the reporter had moved on to another story.

They’d found his body.

Casey swallowed harshly. He had worked at an elementary school.

Why hadn’t they mentioned what was in the shoebox? It was way more important in Casey’s mind then that the asshole was about to be fired from his job. Who cared about that? Once they heard about the pictures, Casey was positive they’d all rejoice that the guy never went to work.

The “evidence” was definitely a problem, however.

Casey hadn’t been wearing gloves and neither had The Beast. Their fingerprints were all over the guy’s apartment.

They hadn’t been wearing masks either. What if someone had seen them sneak in or out of his apartment? Had it been dark enough that no one would be able to make them out?

What if the news started admitting the guy had been eaten? Would people start connecting the dots to The Beast?

The others had to have told someone other than her about him, after all. With Patricia’s fanaticism there was no way she had been able to stay quiet about him. At least one other person had to know The Beast existed. That put them in danger.

Casey’s hands began to tremble.

They hadn’t been careful enough. They were going to get caught. What would they do to The Beast and all the others? Would they lock them all up, the way Patricia had feared? If they realized that The Beast was more than human, would they experiment on them to find out just how far his limits were? Would they hurt them?

“Casey?”

Casey shook her head and locked her thoughts away.

She gave Hedwig a tight smile. “Sorry. I got distracted. Did you want to listen to Kanye? Or is Drake your man, now?”

Hedwig twisted his paint-stained fingers, head bent low as he stood on the outer side of her glass door.

“Hedwig?” Casey asked, moving back to the glass door, the towel she’d grabbed from her bathroom still in her hand. The scent of oranges was bogged down by the taste of saltwater.

Hedwig looked at her from beneath his brow, gaze watery and bottom lip quivering.

Casey carefully moved forward. She placed her hand gently over his, stopping his fidgeting. “What’s wrong?”

Hedwig stared at her hand. He bit the corner of his lip. “I saw The Beast when he was eating.”

Casey stiffened. “Oh.” She should have realized it had something to do with The Beast.

“The others talk sometimes,” Hedwig admitted, tears creating rivers down to his jaw, “and they say The Beast is bad.” Desperate blue eyes met hers. “That’s not true is it, Casey?”

Saltwater threatened to drown her.

Casey dropped her gaze from his. There was a thick red line of paint across Hedwig’s cheek, left there by a careless wipe of his hand. It had been the reason she had left the balcony and their scattered paint supplies.

Casey lifted the towel and delicately scrubbed the line away, making sure not to hurt his skin.

“Do you remember that documentary we watched a few days ago?” she asked Hedwig as she used a different corner of the towel to wipe away his tears.

“The one about the lions that Miss Patricia made us watch?” Saltwater dimmed and his eyes lightened.

“That’s the one. I knew you’d remember.” Casey praised. Hedwig stood a little taller. “And do you remember how protective the lions were whenever anyone in their pride was in danger?”

Hedwig nodded gravely.

“The Beast is like a lion.” The comparison always brought to mind the hint of roses and a threatening smile. It felt like a lifetime ago that Patricia had spoken of lions and boas and death to scare her. Who would have thought she would be using that same analogy to comfort? “He killed the bad man because he was hurting other people, and he ate him because lions don’t waste food.”

Hedwig’s brows creased as he contemplated her simple explanation. She hadn’t really answered her question, but that was only because she wasn’t sure herself. Bad and good had become words with too many meanings and none quite right to fit either of them.  

Hedwig’s sudden giggle made Casey breathe easier. “I scared you when I growled!”

“You did.” Casey laughed, remembering the way Hedwig had “stealthily” snuck behind the couch before jumping and roaring in her ear. She had known he was there, but the joy in his laughter had been worth a fib on her end.

“I like documentaries more than cartoons, now.” Hedwig decided seriously. “Cartoons are for little kids.”

Casey bit back her grin. Hedwig was always trying to be older than he was. “I like cartoons.” Hedwig might be forced into forever childhood, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it.

Hedwig narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

Casey nodded. “But you’re the only one I get to watch them with.” She pouted. “Does that mean we can’t watch them together anymore?”

Hedwig shuffled. He gave her a sidelong glance. “I guess we can still watch some.” He shrugged. “Just because you like them, though.”

Casey leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.” Hedwig grinned in accomplishment and oranges flourished. “Now, let’s get back to painting those chairs!”

 


 

 

It was widely acknowledged by the entire zoo staff that Kevin Crumb and his eccentricities were not to be pointed out.

Crumb was the head of maintenance and had been working at the zoo for years longer than nearly everyone else. He was a good boss and was almost obsessively thorough, though most just took that to mean he had high standards. He was a charming guy, when he was in the right mood, and always seemed to have unending patience when it came to the patrons, even if the patience seemed cold at times.

Crumb was a good worker. No one had any complaints when it came to his job.

When it came to the man himself, however…

Victor had been working at the zoo for a little over a year and he had noticed more than a few instances of Crumb’s “oddness.” Whenever he’d brought them up to the senior staff, he’d just gotten a look and a nod and nothing more. He wasn’t alone in his observations, but it was obvious that the “to each their own” philosophy was stamped all over Crumb.

It didn’t stop Victor from setting up a mental catalog. He had always enjoyed people watching and watching Crumb was undeniably fascinating.

To put it simply, Crumb was weird.

He talked to himself all the time. Not quite in the same way the older guys tended to murmur “damn kids,” under their breath while they worked. Crumb talked to himself. Usually it was entire conversations with him only saying aloud one side. Other times…

Victor supposed Crumb could be a voice actor or one of those book readers or something, but hearing the man switch between voices and inflections and accentsSeeing him change the way he stood and walked and the gestures his hands made… Well, there was something about it that left Victor very unsettled.

When the changes were real drastic and Victor thought too long about them, it could take him days before he was able to make eye-contact with Crumb again. The belief that Crumb was just a potential actor had Victor breathing better.

There was more than just then just the talking.

Crumb lived in the old zookeeper apartments in the older parts of the zoo’s basement. By choice. At the end of every day and before the start of every shift, Crumb wandered not from the outside where the sun shone but from deeper within the zoo’s hidden belly. He strolled down the pipe lined walkways as if he owned them and there was so much confidence in his walk that Victor almost believed he did.

It had taken Victor nearly a year to realize that Crumb didn’t just feel privilege because he had been there so long, but that the man actually lived in the zoo. Only the animals and Crumb could claim the zoo as their literal home and suddenly Crumb’s entitlement and ease made a whole lot of sense.

There was no way Crumb could have a normal life, with that as his apartment. What type of girl or guy, Crumb had always been a bit of a question mark when it came to his sexuality, would want to hang out in a dingy basement? While there might have been some appeal the first time, seeing as it was interesting and no one could claim as much, after one time the appeal would have vanished. There would definitely be no second dates for Crumb.

Victor’s theory held merit, since no one had ever seen Crumb talking with the same person twice. There were no rumors about him and any of the staff, despite his flirtatious manner at times, and none of the people on staff were able to say with any certainty that they had even seen Crumb outside of the zoo. He was a loner, by his choice or not. That was obvious to the entire staff.

Crumb was a long list of quirks and Victor felt bad for the guy, figuring long-term relationships of any sort just were not in the man’s future.

Then Casey Cooke arrived and proved Victor wrong.

It had started with sightings of her throughout the zoo. The other employees whispering how it was The Girl That Was Found. The one the news had been obsessed with for months. The one that had to be cursed. The news said her mother died during childbirth, her father died of a heart-attack at a way too young age, and then Casey herself had been kidnapped and held hostage in the woods, only to be found the day after the last member of her family had shot himself point-blank.

Then there were the scars, the ones she bared with her sleeveless blouses. There were theories, some saying her kidnapper had carved them into her skin while others argued that they were much older than a few months. Some said she did them herself, and still others declared they had been done to her.

 It turned the Girl that Survived, into the Cursed Girl, and made more than a few wary of her.

She didn’t seem to care, with her focused gaze and her confident walk.

They didn’t match. The Cursed Girl was too young and innocent-looking, despite what they all knew, and Crumb was too old and lined by life. But then she’d grab his hand and he’d blush, or he would give her a wide grin and she’d look shy, and maybe it did make sense. Maybe it should have been expected that the Cursed Girl and Crumb would find a sense of footing with one another. They were both outcasts, after all.

It didn’t lessen the shock of seeing them, day after day, sharing a table with smiles passed back and forth. It still caused a long pause and a creased brow in confusion before Victor was able to look away. And when Julie, at the ticket stand, told Victor that Crumb had brought a year pass for his “friend,” and Mike had whispered in the locker room how he’d seen Crumb drive into work the last few weeks instead of just walking from his apartment…

It wasn’t hard to put two-and-two together. Especially not when Crumb’s smile was brighter when it was aimed at the Cursed Girl and how her eyes lit with joy when she caught sight of him from across the zoo sidewalks.

Victor was an expert at people watching and he knew exactly what those looks meant. He also knew what the hesitant glances and the increase in touches meant.

The odd couple sat across from him with more than few tables in the way. Crumb wore a dopey smile while the Cursed Girl’s expression was red with frustration and her hands strangled a textbook as she gestured widely.

Crumb’s hand reached forward, fingers casually moving a stray strand from her cheek to behind her ear.

The Cursed Girl froze hands still in the air. She stared at him owlishly while her face tinged crimson for a reason far different than anger.

Crumb asked something that seemed to snap her out of her trance. She set her book on the table and shrugged, movements now bashful.

Victor settled back on his own bench, water bottle raised to his lips as he hid his grin. He had no idea how this would end, but this show was better than any soap opera.

 


 

 

As Casey sat in front of the armchair between Patricia’s knees and her long fingers and lazy brush strokes slowly numbed her mind, Casey wondered if it was time to share a piece of the revelation she’d had only hours before.

It was finals week and she had taken the last couple of days off work to study and make sure she passed. Her manager had complained but Casey hadn’t cared, she knew she needed the days and she was taking them, either coming back on Monday to find she still had a job or not.

Her first exam, lovely algebra with figures that made their own sense even if she wasn’t keen on understanding that language, had been moments before. She was pretty sure she’d passed. Math had never been a strength of hers, but she had a healthy enough respect for it, bordering on fear, that she did all the “suggested” practices over and over until she started to see the patterns.

No. Algebra wasn’t the reason she had needed a few days. The reason was history and the exam that came with it the morning after algebra’s.

When Casey had finished her first final, instead of relief, she had felt only overwhelming panic and frustration as she started her walk back to her apartment.

The phone was pressed against her ear and ringing before she’d even made the conscious decision to press the first number on her speed dial.

“I need Orwell.” Casey had nearly shouted as soon as she heard the click of the phone being answered. “He’s the only way I’m going to pass my stupid test tomorrow. Seriously, who the hell decided it was a smart idea to let a man who mumbles in a freaking monotone be responsible for the future of hundreds of students. Of thousands.

“Why did I take that class? Why did I ever think learning about Europe and the middle ages would be at all interesting? I think I lost my mind. Something had to have seriously gone wrong for me to decide it was a smart idea. All I’ve learned is that the church was in charge, England invaded, and people died. Mix and match and throw them all together and that’s pretty much how it’s repeated. And I didn’t even learn about that in class! Or in the book.

“Oh, oh, do not even get me started on that sorry excuse for a book. If I hadn’t made the absolutely genius decision to rent it instead of buying, I would burn that book, I swear. I’d cremate that poor tree who was cut down only to have Mr. Monotone sully its remains. How do you make words all sound the same? Honestly, how is that even possible?”

Casey finally took a breath. Her hands clenched in the same righteous fury that coursed through the rest of her.

“You chose the class because of the teacher’s name, remember?” Barry’s voice, full of laughter, took her breath as a sign to chime in.

“How the hell can you have a name like Mr. Pinkerton and be as dull as a rock?” Casey argued. She paused as the streetlight turned red. “Wait, that’s not fair to rocks.” She added sarcastically.

Barry’s chuckles flowed from her phone’s speakers. Casey’s annoyance began to fade at the reassuring sound.

She released a deep breath. “Can you please come by after work so Orwell can help me study?”

“No place we’d rather be, babygirl.”

It was that simple statement, utterly sincere and unassuming that had Casey frozen at the crosswalk despite the light having turned green and the little white figure urging her to walk.

A bump to her shoulder made her jump and shout a quick, “I’ll see you later!” before hanging up on Barry.

Casey managed to cross the street and continue her walk home but Barry’s words continued to spin in her mind.

For the past few weeks after King’s death, Barry and all the others had spent nearly every free moment at her apartment. Each evening she watched movies or drew or read or did something with one of them at her side before she fell asleep at night lying next to Dennis. Then the sun would rise and her bed would be cold but Goddard’s breakfast would be warm and she’d rush through her morning until she could make her way to the zoo. After lunch, her afternoons were just as rushed until she was finally back home, a message from Barry or whoever had the light promising they’d be there soon with dinner.

Hadn’t she noticed, after that first night that her entire apartment held memories of them? And hadn’t that brought her comfort? Hadn’t Casey kept everything for that very reason?

Barry had said there was no place they’d rather be than with her. Maybe it had been a tease, but there was truth in his words. She knew because there was no where she’d rather be than with them.

Casey cared about them in a far richer way then just pure friendship. They had become her sunlight. She flourished in their presence. Her branches grew stronger, her leaves more vibrant, and she stood tall. They gave her the confidence to be herself and to embrace both the shadows and the light that belonged to her. They cared about her. That was the water to her roots. It was impossible not to grow addicted to that feeling of acceptance.

And she cared about them the exact same way. Kat could be moody, Jalin could be annoying, Barry could be skeptical, The Beast could be dangerous, and she still cared. They still mattered to her. They were important. They were broken together and neither would ever be whole but that was fine by her. They fit beside one another just fine.

The recognition of exactly how much they meant to her, made her feel as if the world had shifted beneath her feet. It was sudden and unexpected, but so completely natural.

If Casey was honest with herself, she knew it had started the moment bleach and basil had been woven around her. She’d been snared that instant and it had all spiraled from there.

Casey had made a stop on her way home. An almost insignificant piece of metal had made its home in her jeans’ pocket. At least it seemed unimportant after the epiphany she had experienced, but it was a step. It was a gesture.

Because, even as grand as her feelings were, she had realized that she wanted something more.

Casey withdrew the brass key from her pocket and held it up for Patricia.

Patricia’s fingers paused in their braiding. Wine and confusion filled the air.

Casey licked her lips. “It’s a key to my apartment. I thought it was time you should have one.”

Patricia’s wine swelled with the taste of satisfaction and honey as her fingers wrapped around Casey’s and the brass key. “Oh, little doe,” she purred. “Thank you.”

 


 

 

When Dennis finally slipped onto Casey’s bed, he was surprised to hear her chuckle softly at his side.

“You can sleep under the covers.”

Dennis settled on his back and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not cold.”

The sheets rustled and the dim glow from the living room let him see that she had turned towards him. “Thank you for staying.”

Dennis nodded. “You said it helped keep the nightmares away.”

Casey was silent. Dennis closed his eyes. He knew it would be hours still until he fell asleep but there was no harm in trying.

“Dennis?”

He opened his eyes.

“You don’t have to keep staying,” she whispered softly, “if you don’t want to.”

Dennis frowned. “I thought you wanted me to?”

The comforter moved beneath him, and he saw her twisting the fabric in her hands. “It freaked you out when I asked.”

It wasn’t a question, but even if it was Dennis had never seen much point in lying. He had never seen a point in clarifying the truth either. Most people only saw what they wanted and tended to ignore the rest of the facts.

But this was Casey… She knew better than to see only what she wanted.

Dennis turned away. “Kevin’s mother hurt Kevin.” Dennis explained, the words coming easily, even if they were difficult to say. “I came when Kevin was 3 and it was my responsibility to protect him and then to protect the others. It was my job to make sure that they didn’t have to deal with her. That they didn’t have to know… Kevin’s mother could be… creative and it only got worse the older we got.” He stared at the black ceiling. He wondered if it was Casey or the darkness that loosened his tongue. “Touch has never caused us anything but pain.”

Casey was once again quiet.

He felt the tip of her fingers lightly graze his arm.

Dennis faced her.

“I was afraid of that, too.” Casey gave him a shy smile half-hidden in the shadows of the night. “But it that’s not always true.”

Dennis felt his breath halt and his heart stop and all he could do was look at her.

Potential shined in her eyes. Tentativeness lined her words.

Dennis had the sudden urge to reach to the back of his mind and drag Barry or Polly or even Jade from their chairs and into the light. He needed them to tell him what to do. He needed to know what to say.

Dennis had seen the key, and that coupled with her smile that hinted at a new possibility… His brain ground to a halt, refusing to believe it. Casey had said she wanted to feel normal. There was no part of Dennis that would ever fit that description. She might need him, for the moment, but she could never want him.

It caused his gut to twist painfully at the thought, but he knew, she deserved so much more than shattered pieces of a mind. She deserved a good person who wasn’t haunted by the choices they’d made. She deserved someone who wasn’t afraid of what they were capable of. She deserved to feel safe and happy with someone good.

Casey deserved everything Dennis would never be able to give her.

“No. It’s not.” Dennis agreed, unable to hide the longing that lurked beneath his words. She was wrong. Even her touches hurt when he knew he wasn’t worthy of them and that they’d be gone when she realized it, too.

Casey grinned. Even in her dimmed room, the flash of it was enough to brighten Dennis’s entire world. He remembered that surge of protectiveness that had filled him when Casey had announced her date. Dennis wondered if how much worse it would break him when she announced another. He didn’t even know if he was capable of sleeping anymore, without her breathing quietly on the other side of the bed.

She tugged at the comforter. “Get under the covers, Dennis.”

Dennis obediently shifted until the thick material covered him from neck to toe. Once Casey fell asleep, he’d move again, he decided. There was no reason to get too comfortable.

The plan was immediately foiled when he felt her fingers, feather-light and soft, settle against his arm.

Dennis knew, in that moment, that nothing short of a natural disaster would pry him away from her tiny touches that promised him the warmth he’d been deprived of his entire life.

Casey let out a content sigh. “Good night, Dennis.”

Dennis couldn’t reply, afraid his voice would break her spell. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His bleach brought her dreams comfort, but it was her, her soothing presence, her sincere smiles, and easy affections that gave him a haven of peace in the darkness.

Maybe it was time to explore what the key and Casey's smile really meant.

In the end, perhaps the pain would be worth it if he got to keep the memories of these small moments...

Chapter Text

“How are your urges, Samuel?”

Samuel fidgeted in the green chair, digging his hip into the armrest until the bone ached. He gave Dr. Fletcher a smile. “Better.”

Dr. Fletcher’s eyes dropped from his to his hip.

Samuel shifted, moving away from the welcomed ache with disappointment. He shrugged. “Most of the time.”

Dr. Fletcher nodded. “Have you been trying any of the coping methods I recommended?”

“The ice one helps.” His fingers found the red hair tie beneath the sleeve of his wrinkled sweater. He stroked the soft material, willing it to pull his focus away from his need and towards the memories that didn’t leave him starving. His shoulders relaxed. “The rubber band one helps the most.”

Dr. Fletcher’s watchful gaze softened. “I’m proud of you, Samuel.”

Samuel bit his lip and looked down in embarrassment at her sincerity. His teeth reflexively sank deeper into the soft flesh and Samuel had to force his jaw to unclench before he had a chance to savor the sting. He didn’t deserve Dr. Fletcher’s praise. His nails scratched against the red hair tie. “It’s not really me.” He admitted. “I made a deal with Casey and since the others are pretty much never not looking these days, they’ve made sure I do everything I can to keep my end.”

Samuel! Barry hissed in his mind. Fletcher doesn’t know about Casey.

Samuel frowned. Barry never missed a single one of his weekly appointments. How had he avoided mentioning Casey all this time?

“What deal did you make?”

Be careful. Barry warned.

Samuel’s brow furrowed. He hadn’t meant to let slip about Casey. He just hadn’t realized Barry had been keeping her a secret. She was a big part of their lives… How was Samuel supposed to know that Barry hadn’t wanted them to talk about her? How had the others avoided it in their meetings?

It would be Samuel to screw up. After all, he’d converted messing up into an art form. He was always the one that nitpicked and prodded, the one who knew exactly what comment or gesture to make that would make others angry… Samuel knew exactly what to do to be able to relish the sweet ache of a bruise, to be able to savor the delicious taste of copper on his tongue, to drown in the beautiful song of a closed fist on flesh…

Samuel felt his breaths grow short and his heart begin to pound. Need, desperate and dark threatened to consume him. He squeezed his eyes shut and dug his hip into the hard corner of the seat until he could feel the bruise beginning to bloom and his heartbeat begin to slow.

Samuel. You made a promise.

“Samuel,” Dr. Fletcher’s voice was jarringly soft to Dennis’s stern, “deep breaths. Use your hair tie.”

Samuel forced himself to do as he was told. He took a deep breath and focused on the hair tie around his wrist.

It belonged to Casey. Jade had given her an entire packet full of colors and they’d made their home in Casey’s medicine cabinet until Orwell had pulled out two and promised they would help.

“You know,” Samuel gasped with a shaky smile of pride for Orwell’s ingenuity. He turned his wrist and felt the knot in his chest begin to loosen as the vivid red lay innocently against his pale, scarred wrist, “the red really does make me feel better.”

Dennis’s stern voice had reminded him of what the hair tie represented. It had reminded him of the promise he’d made. It had been a promise they’d made to each other on the a day when it was his turn in the light and Casey was stressing about her finals and for the first time, he saw.

There was a hunger in her gaze that he recognized. It was a thirst he knew far too well.

“I promised that if she didn’t hurt herself, I wouldn’t hurt myself.” He repeated between slow breaths. He said it aloud, for Dennis’s sake, for Dr. Fletcher’s… for himself.

Samuel moved, relieving the pressure from his hip. He hunched his shoulders and stroked the hair tie. He’d made a promise and so had she. Samuel could tell she still struggled, just like him, but he hadn’t seen any unexplained or even badly explained bruises or cuts. He couldn’t go back on his word.

Samuel? Norma drawled, nearing the edge of the light. Would you like me to take over, sweetheart?

“Why don’t you tell me a bit about this Casey?” Dr. Fletcher drew his attention. “She seems very important to you.”

Samuel breathed. “I’m ok, Norma.” He took comfort in the shocking red shade of his hair tie. “Casey’s real smart.” He answered the doctor. “She’s sweet and funny.” He took another breath. “And she really cares about us.” His shoulders relaxed. He nodded to himself. “Yeah. She cares. Can’t let her get hurt.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“At the zoo.” Samuel paused. His lips quirked. It had been his turn for lunch and Samuel had been such a chaos of nerves that by the end of their first meeting, Barry had been left with nail marks etched into his palms for days afterwards. “She was working on a sketch of one of the monkeys. She likes to sketch, you know? I think that’s the real reason she likes the zoo so much.” Samuel chuckled thinking of Hedwig’s room. “Casey usually does realistic drawings but every now and then she’ll do some sillier cartoon ones and give them to Hedwig. He’s got all his walls plastered with her drawings and Patricia’s even had a few framed and put around the apartment. Bernice says she’s getting better. I mean, I’ve always thought they were great so I have no clue what Bernice is talking about, but Casey gets all happy when she says it which means no one really argues with her. Except Patricia, of course.”

Samuel’s breathing had calmed, and he had a serene smile on his face.

“She likes dancing, too.” He continued. “She does these little twirls whenever she dances with Goddard and Hedwig insists she’s got awesome moves when they do their dance parties. Although he does complain about her music being all over the place. I get the feeling she never really had much time to enjoy it before. Which means she’s still sort of figuring out what she likes.”

Samuel leaned back in his chair and felt himself relax the more he talked about Casey.

Dr. Fletcher kept up a steady stream of questions that prompted more and more stories from Samuel and caused the appointment to fly by.

When Samuel returned the light to Barry, he didn’t do it with desperation or shame. For once, he left the light with a sense of ease and hope that his next time wouldn’t be ruled by a need he could barely control, but by the person beneath the need he was finally able to meet.

 


 

There was no way Casey could’ve stopped herself from walking out of her job. The planets aligned, the wind blew in her direction, and there was really no way Casey could’ve ignored their calling.

At least that was the lie she rehearsed in her mind while she followed the new scent and brought her phone to her ear.

“The universe made me.”

There was a long pause on the other end.

“It was,” she waved her hand around, searching for the word, “destiny! And I can’t say no to destiny, what type of person would ever do that?”

The silence lingered, only the faint sound of people could be heard in the background.

“I know Jade says fate is bullshit, and yeah I kinda agree, but this was a sign, Barry.” Casey continued to ramble, her voice wavering with her confidence. “I couldn’t just ignore it.”

Barry sighed. “What did you do, Casey?”

The truth sealed her lips.

“Casey?” Barry repeated, his voice hesitant. “What happened?”

“I called you!” Casey argued preemptively.

“I can see that, babygirl.” Barry replied, words light despite the growing worry she could practically feel across the phone.

Casey stared at the ground, following the dim scent by instinct alone. “It smelled like rotting fruit.” She murmured.

The background sound dimmed, Casey wondered if Barry had moved to a quieter area or if he’d just pressed the phone closer to his cheek. “What does rotting fruit mean?” He whispered.

Casey thought of the woman who owned the scent. She thought of the little girl whose wrist she’d gripped in her hand until the little palm had turned white. Casey thought of the sulfur and pain that had drenched a little girl who should have smelled of nothing but oranges and joy. “Bruises.”

There was a sharp inhale then- “Are you ok?” replied, voice deeper than Barry’s and a dangerous edge lining the words.

Casey felt her lips quirk. She hadn’t meant to draw Dennis to the light but she knew explaining it to him would be easier than to Barry. “I’m ok.” She promised. “I’m about two hours behind the lady but the trail had started to fade and I didn’t want to lose it.” She explained, the words now rushing out of her. “I still called to be extra safe.”

Most of the others would’ve scolded her or told her to stay put and stop her tracking, Dennis just sighed. “Stay on the phone.”

Casey grinned. The almost pained concession felt remarkably like permission. She’d been set to argue her decision a million different ways but to have it just accepted… Casey’s steps grew lighter.

“How’s your day going?” Casey asked Dennis cheekily.

She heard a soft sound mixed with a rush of air and she was almost certain that she’d made Dennis laugh. Casey’s grin grew.

“Kids are messy.” Dennis answered; the edge leaving his growl.

Casey gasped in false shock. “You don’t say!”

“Hard to believe, I know.” Dennis replied dryly. “The monkeys are cleaner.”

Casey snorted. “Oh, come on, you can’t say that after the mess the monkey’s left last week.”

“Have you ever had to clean up after a five-year-old eating ice cream?”

She shrugged. “Hedwig’s the first kid I’ve been around since I was one.”

“Trust me, you don’t want to give Hedwig ice cream, either.” Dennis warned. “You’ve seen what he can do with chips.”

“White furniture is definitely not in my future.” Casey agreed, thinking of Hedwig and his orange coated fingers. She flinched. “Or any light fabrics for that matter.”

There was that rush of air again and a pleased curl made its home in her belly. Casey had never seen him laugh and she had to wonder if his lips curled in that same near invisibility they did when he smiled.

The sound stopped. There was another beat of silence and she knew one of the others had to be talking to Dennis.

“Casey?” Dennis started, once more carefully neutral.

Her shoulders dropped in disappointment at the sound. She had known Dennis the longest out of all of them. She had spent the most time with him and knew him the best. Yet, he was still so hesitant with her, so afraid. Even at night when it was only the scent of bleach in the air and only cloud-filled blue colored his eyes, he still kept himself separate. Simple words and superficial phrases were exchanged and nothing more. If it hadn’t been for that peaceful lavender dancing with cotton candy in the air when her fingers settled on his arm, Casey would have been certain Dennis would never see her as more than Hedwig’s friend. It was there, though, on her tongue and warming her insides. She just needed to find a way to make him comfortable enough to admit that it existed.

“Why aren’t you at work?”

Casey blinked. She licked her lips, trying to remember her excuses.

“You walked out.”

It wasn’t a question.

Laughter caught her attention, drawing her gaze towards a group of children playing with a plastic frisbee in front of someone’s yard. Casey let herself smile at the carefree picture.

Casey prodded her feet forward. The scent was stronger here. These streets held it with familiarity. The woman was close.

“I didn’t like it there, anyway.”

“We’re leaving soon. Did you want us to pick you up or meet you at your apartment?”

Casey stared at the cookie cutter homes lined along the road, only the color and the plants beside the front door changing. She hesitated when the sickly sweetness converged on one stoop.

She memorized the house’s number. “I’ll meet you at home.” Casey replied, continuing her walk. “I’ll even pick up dinner. Whose turn is it tonight?”

Dennis paused again. “Barry says not to pick up dinner. It’s B.T.’s turn in the light and he’s going to teach you how to drive.”

Casey froze. She gripped the phone. “I don-“

“The scratch.”

Casey gave him a long-suffering sigh. “Fine.”

 


 

“You’re gonna end up being the death of me.” B.T. was grinning while he said it but the car smelled of charred salt and his white knuckled grip on the door handle dismantled his teasing.

Casey leaned her head on the doorframe and took a deep breath of the cool outside air. Summer was ending and the breeze already whispered of the encroaching Fall. She’d always thought there was something magical about this time when the world began to transform in anticipation of the cold. It was like a painting, colored in with the wrong colors. It created a different world made of turmoil rather than brimming with life. She stared out at the empty parking lot and the trees, seemingly miles away, with their foliage still a vibrant green. Fall was coming, but it wasn’t here yet.

“I like walking.” She’d get the best view of the changing color on her feet then she would in a car.

“That’s nice. You’re still learning how to drive.”

Casey groaned. Her one experience driving had left her terrified and exhausted. After what felt like an entire day behind the wheel of the large metal death machine, she didn’t feel the slightest bit more comfortable. She just wanted it to be over. “But-“

“No arguments. You gotta learn, Case.” B.T. cut her off with unflinching steel in his eyes.

Casey sighed and stared at the rubber steering wheel.

“You made halfway across the city by yourself, you can handle a turn around the parking lot.”

“That’s because it’s easier to do something when you have to.” Casey pointed out.

B.T. was silent.

His sweet tobacco scent began to dim as concern the taste of basil took its place.

Casey shook her head and gave him a tight smile. “I’m sorry for being so whiny, B.T. I’m just tired.”

The crease between his brows remained. “The fruit got under your skin, didn’t it?”

Casey scratched at the wheel’s rubber but didn’t answer.

“More than the sicko?” There was surprise in his voice and despite it being a question, Casey knew it might as well have been rhetorical.

B.T. rarely asked a question he didn’t already know the answer to.

“I’m just worried about the little girl.” Her nails continued to scratch. The little girl whose scent had been so overpowered with sulfur that Casey didn’t even know what her real scent was. The little girl that still lived in the same house as the woman who reeked of rotting fruit. The one who would be there when The Beast tore the woman apart. The girl who was too young to realize the coming brutality was what the woman deserved. The one who would have to live with whatever consequences their choices created.

The woman deserved pain for the suffering she had caused. But-

“You smoke?”

Casey blinked at B.T. as he held up an unassuming white pack.

Sour lemons and black pepper whispered beneath B.T.’s scent. B.T.’s shoulders were tensed but his gaze was focused on her.

Casey wasn’t surprised the others were giving B.T. a hard time. She nodded.

The annoyance and frustration strengthened but B.T.’s tobacco remained unflinching.

B.T. turned off the ignition, took out the keys, and got out of the car.

Casey followed B.T. to the back. She hoped onto the trunk while B.T. withdrew a silver lighter from his pocket.

B.T. took the lit cigarette from his lips and gave a slow exhale, smoke forming abstract shapes in the air. He turned towards her and held it out, returning his lighter to the pocket of his jeans.

“I don’t get my own?” Casey asked, biting back a smile and taking the cigarette from his fingers.

B.T. shrugged watching her take a drag. “I’m supposed to be cutting back.”

Casey let the nicotine soothe away some of the tension stiffening her neck. She handed the cigarette back to B.T. “You smell like tobacco.”

“Can’t really say that’s a surprise.” B.T. leaned against the trunk. He took his turn before handing it back to her.

Casey focused again on the distant trees. She realized she’d been wrong earlier. The trees were already showing signs of Fall, a scattering of leaves already having shifted from emerald to gold. She watched as the soft breeze caused the trees to sway. “Daddy liked to smoke when it rained.” She took another deep inhale and breathed out, watching the smoke float into the cloudless sky. The sun was falling, and the sky wasn’t a pure blue, but it had been only hours ago. There was no rain in sight. “I used to sneak out of class and smoke beneath the bleachers when I needed a break from everyone.” It was always an island of peace. A reminder of her father and quiet days spent on the porch while rain created music all around them.

B.T. flicked off the growing ash. He raised a brow at her. “Are you calling me calming?”

“I was thinking more homey,” Casey grinned at him.

B.T. chuckled, smoke slipping from his lips and echoing in the sound. “Now that is surprising.”

Casey shook her head when he offered the cigarette again. Casey hadn’t smoked in a lifetime and the nicotine was rushing through her too sharply. Much more and it’d change from soothing to distracting.

“You know,” B.T. began, flicking away more ash, “we’re not gonna abandon the little girl.”

The tension returned to Casey’s muscles.

“We’ll make sure she’s safe.” He winked at her. “You’ll be there to make sure.”

Casey would make sure the girl wasn’t present while The Beast had his meal, but when they left… “What if she sees.”

B.T. dropped his cigarette and stomped out the embers. “Yeah, we’ve got some things to work out with this one.”

Casey thought of King. She thought of all the supposed evidence they had left behind. She nodded. They did have a lot of planning to do.

“That’s gonna start with you learning how to drive.”

Casey groaned, her shoulders falling in dread.

B.T. laughed again. “Trust me, it’ll get easier.”

“Oh, I trust you, B.T.,” Casey assured him, jumping off the trunk and walking towards the driver’s side, “but if I get another scratch on this car you are explaining it to Dennis.”

 


 

The woman was hurting the little girl.

The fully grown woman was taking her anger and frustration out on the child.

Ansel had the light, because Ansel could stand wearing neon pink in the middle of the street and no one would notice. He was tall but not too tall, he had wide shoulders but never stood with them on display, he had watchful eyes but his gaze never lingered, he was polite without having to be friendly and kept his distance without seeming rude.

Ansel existed as a perfect backdrop but was never considered a person. People’s eyes seemed to pass right over him wherever he stood and whatever he did. People rarely acknowledged his existence and that suited Ansel perfectly.

Ansel was made for solitude in the wilderness. He was at home in the middle of a forest, the trees singing with birdsong and the sun-soaked dirt brimming with life.

In the city, with its concrete and rubber, nothing felt right. Nothing was right. People stalked the streets like wolves nursing an injured leg, teeth bared in fear and ready to bite the closest hand. They wandered down paths, as oblivious to their surroundings as a driftwood floating with the current. They watched those they thought weaker like lions licking their maws at plump gazelles.

The woman, the one Casey said smelled like rotting fruit, was another predator in this fluorescent world.

Ansel had been watching her for most of the day and it was the little things the woman did that gnawed at his heart. It was the threatening way she spoke to a child that couldn’t have been older than five. It was the way her eyes narrowed and her voice got low, the grip on a tiny wrist that caused the child to flinch.

It was the way the little girl’s eyes were dulled with fear, but she still clung to the woman’s legs as if afraid the rest of the world would show even less kindness.

They had bought groceries, the woman snapping at the girl whenever something colorful distracted the child. They had gone to the bank, a glare halting the girl from talking to the cheerful bank teller. They had walked home, little legs pumping almost furiously as they tried to keep up with the woman’s long strides.

One thing piled onto another, and another, and another… And when Ansel followed them home and was able to sneak close to the house…

It wasn’t the woman’s screeches that became too much, or even the sound of an open palm against flesh, it was the soft almost silent whimpers that followed.

Ansel was shoving the key into the car they’d parked blocks away, burying the gas pedal into the floor, before the whimper had stopped ringing in his ears.

Ansel made sharp turns, trying to ignore the protests that were causing havoc in the back of his mind. “Don’t take the light away. Not yet.” He pleaded, eyes finding his own too wide gaze in the rearview mirror. He didn’t care if they argued or yelled at him, as long as they didn’t steal the light. “Please.”

Ansel turned back to the road. His mind still seemed unable to distinguish words. He didn’t know if they would let him stay but he could hear the shouts fade to murmurs and hoped they would shove him back into his chair.

There was the feeling of a hand on his shoulder. Ansel bit back a sob, wishing he had the strength the thank Felicia for her comfort, but he was too focused on keeping his attention on the black asphalt and away from the innocuous blue house with the hurting little girl. He was too busy holding back memories of another house the same shade with the same whimpers echoing through its rooms. He couldn’t shift his focus. Not here.

Ansel kept his eyes on the road until it turned from newly laid black to neglected gray to a pale cracked road decorated with dirt. When the trees grew thick and the city noises had disappeared, Ansel forced the car into the shoulder and stopped.

He was breathing in the clean woodsy smell the instant he was out of the car.

Ansel shoved his hands into his jacket and entered his home.

The woods were the only place he had ever felt safe and complete. When he was new to the world, he’d found comfort in the Crumb’s backyard. There were no trees but the soil was rich and dark and Ansel had taken ownership. Flowers began to grow and bees began to visit and it was a slice of peace for Ansel and the others.

Dennis had always taken over before Ansel was ready. He was always taken away from his little haven far too soon and Ansel had started to resent Dennis’s interference and hold nothing but contempt for the alter. Ansel had noticed that Dennis was heavy-handed with all of them. There were times he’d even stalk straight to the chair sitting in the light, fling whoever was currently there away, and take over completely without so much as an apology.

But no one ever argued with the bigger alter and Ansel bit his tongue along with the rest of them. He figured Dennis, being the first, reserved a few privileges the others didn’t… regardless of how rude he was about them.

One day, Kevin’s mother had caught Ansel, dirt caked on his hands and grass staining his jeans, and Ansel finally understood why Dennis spent so much more time in the light then the rest of them. He finally understood that Dennis wasn’t stealing time in the light, he was protecting them from spending time with Kevin’s mother.

After the first time, a time cut short by Dennis’s interference, it became constant. There was rarely a day when Ansel held the light that Kevin’s mother didn’t catch him with sickness in her eyes and anger in her fists.

Ansel knew what whimpers sounded like when they were made in pain, or in fear… and he was intimately aware of those that were made in hopelessness.

He knew what each whimper sounded like. They'd fallen from their own throat too many times to ever be forgotten.

 


 

Barry had meant to drive back to their apartment.

It had taken hours for Ansel to calm down enough to give up the light and by the time he did it was closer to dawn then dusk. Barry had fully intended to head back to their own place for a few hours of sleep before their shift at the zoo. It only took a glance at their phone and the handful of missed calls to have him changing his destination.

While Patricia enjoyed using the key Casey had given them, the sentiment obvious in the smirk she wore every time she pulled out the key and heard the lock click, none of the others felt the same. The key was only used to lock the deadbolt in the mornings after they left or if Casey was only a few minutes behind them and expecting to see them when she arrived. Otherwise, the key made its home beside their own and was only taken out as a warm reminder but never for use. They appreciated the meaning of the key, but respected Casey too much to invade her privacy without warning.

Tonight, however, Barry opened her front door without so much as calling first.

Barry slipped into Casey’s apartment as quietly as a thief, telling himself he was just planning on passing out on her couch. He was just there in case she woke up and needed Dennis. Or, if she managed to sleep through the night without him, in the morning she would wake to see Goddard’s breakfast waiting for her like every other day and would know there was no need to worry.

He had come to Casey’s apartment just reassure her they were fine. He had repeated as much to himself the entire drive.

Once he stepped through her door, a knot in his chest had his pausing. The television was on, casting a glow across the living room and lighting the figure curled on the couch beneath a honey yellow throw.

She looks so young.

Barry sniffled at Orwell’s observation. He cleared his throat and wiped at his eyes. He shouldn’t be here.

“Barry?”

A sleepy murmur halted his escape.

He forced a smile. “Hey babygirl, didn’t mean to wake you.”

Casey was frowning at him, sleep making her eyelids heavy. “You ok, Barry?”

“Absolutely peachy!” Barry grinned, arms wide in emphasis.

Casey continued to frown.

I’m thinking you’re laying it on a little thick, hombre. Luke noted dryly. 

Just cut the shit, Barry. Jade echoed with a roll of her eyes.

Jalin laughed, the sound too sharp. You’d think he’d have learned by now not to lie to Granny.

Barry didn’t know how to respond. He kept silent.

Casey shifted, settling into the center of the couch. “Want to watch the rest of the movie with me?”

Barry’s grin trembled. “Sounds great!”

His feet didn’t move.

Casey patted the end of the couch.

Barry stiffened. A lump formed in his throat. His feet remained fixed.

“Barry?” Casey had moved to the edge of the couch. The sleep had evaporated from her gaze.

“Yeah?” His choked out, his quivering voice shaking off his grin.

Barry’s legs began to move and for a moment, Barry didn’t understand what was happening. When his body took a seat on the couch, he felt Dennis’s presence fade out of the light and realized what the alter had done for him.

Pressure on his shoulder drew his gaze down to see Casey resting her head against him. She settled her blanket over his lap. “You’re safe here, Barry.”

The lump grew thicker. His lungs burned.

“I promise.”

When the sobs finally broke through, Barry’s face was buried in Casey’s hair and his arms held her tightly against his chest.

They all had an escape, something or some place that brought them peace when the demons in their memories gnarled at the corners of their mind.

Ansel had his wilderness, Dennis had his cleaning, Bernice had her paintings, Patricia had The Beast… and, now, Barry had Casey.

Chapter Text

Barry’s sobs had quieted minutes before, his head now resting on Casey’s shoulder with steady breaths warming her neck. His arms had loosened their grip and now hung limply around her, warm and comforting rather than suffocating and panicked.

Casey continued to stroke Barry’s head, the soft prickle of his shaved hair against her fingertips providing a soothing sensation that helped her align her thoughts.

Barry’s spiced apples were burning in the taste of charcoal and the choking scent still lingered in the air long after he’d fallen asleep.

That had been the taste that had greeted her when she’d woken up to find him hovering by her front door. It had swelled when Barry had broken down wrapped in her arms and each cry had tasted of apple flavored ash.

Charcoal was new. It made her heart race the same way sulfur did, it overwhelmed her like the taste of sadness, and it consumed her thoughts with the bitterness of worry. But the taste was darker, more insidious in its softness, than nearly any taste she’d been confronted with before.

Oil was brutal and drowning in sickness. Rotting fruit was a sickening sweetness that screamed pain.

Charcoal, though…

Casey found the explanation for charcoal between Barry’s gut-wrenching sobs. Her eyes had watered when she realized charcoal tasted like a burnt home, like hope gone up in smoke and ashes holding dreams disintegrated by hurt. It was hopelessness, but not the sort caused by terror where the imagination ran wild. No, charcoal was caused by reality. It was brought forth by memories, not nightmares, and made a thousand times more tragic because of it.

Barry hiccupped in his sleep and Casey fought to control her anger.

The woman who smelled like rotting fruit had to be responsible. It had to be that woman. Goddard had warned her that morning during breakfast that they wouldn’t be able to spend their day off with her. He had explained that after their meeting with Dr. Fletcher they planned on following the woman and start their planning.

Casey had grown worried when midnight had arrived and they still hadn’t called. She kept her phone clutched to her chest and had resolved to wait on the couch for them to come home.

Casey hadn’t expected Barry to come in past two in the morning wearing that charcoal scent and a grin so strained it looked painful.

Casey’s fingers stuttered in their stroking as Barry’s spiced apple scent began to fade, leaving only a whisper of charcoal in its wake. Casey started again as bleach rose and the body around her stiffened.

“What did you find?”

Casey couldn’t have asked Barry, not when whatever it was had clearly been too much. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to ask any of the others, not if she hoped to get an honest answer. But, Dennis… Casey knew she could always count on Dennis to tell her the truth.

She was certain he would pull away from her just like he always did. Instead, he straightened but his hold tightened rather than loosened and it left her pulled halfway onto his lap. It left her wondering if he needed comfort the same way Barry had. Dennis lifted his head from her shoulder and while their faces were much closer than usual, Dennis’s gaze was fixed on the television screen.

Casey noticed the clench of his jaw. She tasted the scent of smoke, but Casey was relieved at the lack of charcoal.

“You were right.” The growl was back in Dennis’s voice. “The woman deserves to die.”

Casey stopped stroking his hair and let her arms dangle around Dennis’s neck. She studied the thinning of his lips and the slight crease of his brow. Casey waited.

“She’s rough with the girl in public.” Dennis continued, voice going soft but growl ever-present. “She’s worse when they’re at home with the doors shut and she thinks no one can hear.”

The room began to glow with the coming sunrise, but Casey felt cold. Casey shivered and pulled herself closer to Dennis. She rested her head on his shoulder, letting the smoke with its undercurrent of bleach and worry warm her.

“She reminded the others too much of Kevin’s mother. Of the glimpses they caught.” Dennis admitted with a sigh. “Anytime that happens it usually leaves them all unsettled.”

Unsettled was an understatement. “Is she dead?”

“No. Not yet.” Smoke rose. “But The Beast has already started pacing. She won’t last the week.”

Casey thought of her first meeting with The Beast, when he’d kneeled before her and her bloodied fingers had traced white scars scattered among freckles. They had been old scars. “I wasn’t asking about her.

Confusion blew away the smoke. “Then who?”

Sunbeams began to filter through her sliding glass door, slithering across the ground like slips of fire. “Kevin’s mother.”

Dennis froze beneath her. Charred salt appeared. “Why does that matter?”

Rather than reply, Casey slid fully into his lap and drew him closer. Dennis’s arms around her remained still but she could feel the tension in his body. He was marble, ready to crack.

Casey’s fingers absently stroked the hard lines of Dennis’s neck. She kept quiet and marble soon became flesh, warming beneath the rising sun.

Because even if she’s not here, she’s still hurting you.

Casey had wanted to reply, but she could. Dennis might be strong, but he wasn’t strong enough to face that reality. Not yet.

“What are the chances you can convince The Beast to wear gloves?”

A soft puff of air moved her hair. Dennis’s arms held her closer and the chest pressed against her rumbled. “The same as trying to get you to wait in the car.”

The sun had risen, lighting the room in shades of gold. Casey drew back with a scowl.

Dennis’s lips held his almost smile and traces of clear blue could be found hidden within the clouds of his eyes.

Even the pretense of annoyance melted at the sight. She grinned in delight. “So, no chance at all.”

Another puff. Another near invisible tilt. More blue than gray.

No, Dennis wasn’t ready yet to face his own demon, but he would be. Casey knew it would be soon and she knew she’d be right by his side when it happened.

She just hoped that afterwards, the clouds would finally leave his eyes.

 


 

“Our lovely damsel deserves to be taken on a real date.”

Patricia narrowed her eyes at Heinrich’s suggestion.

“Sure, Heinrich.” Samuel laughed, feet propped on Luke’s lap. They were playing cards, using Samuel’s legs as the table and neither alter even bothered to look up. “Why don’t you go wake up The Beast and suggest it? Better yet, go bug Dennis in the light. I’m sure they’d both love to hear your thoughts on Casey dating.”

Luke chuckled, setting down another card. “Hell, Miss Patricia’s already lookin’ like she’s ‘bout push the addle-head towards a big jump.”

Heinrich cast Patricia a nervous look, fidgeting with the rose settled in his jacket’s chest pocket. “I meant with us.” He cleared his throat. “It’s time we start wooing our lady.”

Patricia straightened. “I think that’s a lovely idea, Heinrich.”

Heinrich gave her a pleased grin.

“Course you think it’s a good plan, you’ve been smitten with the fine thing since ye laid eyes on her.” Mary cackled, sharing a wink and a smack on the shoulder with Ian.

“She’s ours.” Patricia retorted.

“For the last time, Patricia,” Orwell sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose, “the girl does not belong to us.”

Patricia didn’t bother to reply.

“Yeah she does, Orwell,” Hedwig pouted, feet swinging while he sat back in his chair. “Casey’s my girlfriend.”

“Hedwig-“ Norma started before cutting herself off. She shook her head and turned back to the others. “We should wait. The last thing we want is to make Casey feel pressured around us.”

“We are barely getting to know her.” Felicia added, fingers fidgeting with the book on her lap.

“I think Casey would like a date,” Polly mused, pursed lips made brighter by her garish red lipstick, “with us.”

All eyes focused on Polly in a mixture of hope and surprise. Everyone paused as new possibilities seemed to enter their mind.

Everyone but Patricia, that was. Patricia bristled, realizing her opinion was taken in the same tone as Heinrich’s while all Polly had to do was agree and suddenly the idea had merit. The feminine alter might have the easiest time reading people, but Polly certainly did not know their Casey as well as Patricia did. The fact that everyone else seemed to think she did, did not sit well with Patricia in the least.

“Dibs on dancin’!” Luke raised his cowboy hat into the air with a wide grin.

Samuel cursed as the sudden movement littered their cards on the ground and ruined their game. “And I was wining.”

“Aw, no fair.” Hedwig whined. “I’m the best dancer.”

“Sure you are, kid.” B.T. smirked, ruffling Hedwig’s hair and earning a scowl in reply.

“I get dinner!” Jade stuck her tongue out at Luke.

“No way grub’ll compare to a straight, honest ho down.” Luke leaned back with a satisfied smile. “You watch, Jadey, Casey’s favorite part of the night’ll be mine.”

“Wanna bet, Mr. I’ve Never Been On A Date?” Jade challenged.

Luke raised a brow. “Yeah? And who was the last person you got randy with?”

Jalin sniggered. “He got you there, Jade.”

Jade glowered. Jalin pressed a hand against his mouth but Patricia could see the mischief in his eyes.

“I believe I should be the one to take our lovely Casey to dinner.” Heinrich stuck his chin in the air and crossed his arms. “After all, I suggested the date.”

If Patricia had less manners, she would have snorted at Heinrich’s theatrics.

For once, she was glad Jade didn’t have any. Jade snorted. “Please, you’re bad enough during lunch where you pretty much just fucking stare and make gag-worthy declarations that have her go all stuttery and red-“

“She’s overwhelmed by her affection and appreciation.”

“She’s overwhelmed by her need to throw a fucking book at you is more like.” Jade rolled her eyes. “Dumbass.”

Jade.” Mr. Pritchard tsked. Jade shrugged unapologetically.

“Well, of course you wouldn’t know how a lady should be treated.” Heinrich sniffed at Jade.

“Heinrich.” Mr. Pritchard sighed.

Jade glared.

A muffled noise slipped from behind Jalin’s hand.

Hedwig snickered loudly, grinning devilishly at Heinrich. “Jade’s gonna kick your ass.” He sing-songed.

“Hedwig,” Patricia reprimanded automatically.

“I think Casey would like it if we cooked for her.” Goddard suggested.

“Sorry, Miss Patricia,” Hedwig gave her an apologetic half-smile.

Patricia gave Hedwig a stern look but there was no real heat in it. There were more important things to discuss then Hedwig’s language. “Casey deserves to be pampered, Goddard. A home-cooked meal wouldn’t make for an appropriate date.”

“It can be with music and candles and all that!” Goddard protested. “We can make it real nice for her.” He turned towards Polly. “Don’t you think that sounds more like a date Casey would like?”

“Of course, Goddard. Casey loves your food and she feels comfortable at home,” Polly soothed, leaning forward in her chair, “but Patricia’s right-“

“Gobshite!” Mary heckled.

“Pure gobshite.” Ian nodded solemnly.

“Jade!” Heinrich yelped from the floor in front of his chair while a satisfied Jade walked back to her own and Jalin let out a roar of laughter.

Hedwig clapped in delight with a shouted “Told you!”

B.T. leaned over to whisper something that had the boy forgetting about the grumbling Heinrich and nodding excitedly.

“-if we’re going to take Casey on a date,” Polly continued, ignoring the mayhem around her, “then we should make it something different and memorable.”

“The girl admitted she’s never been on a proper date before, Polly,” Mr. Pritchard reminded her, “I have a feeling anything we plan will be memorable for her.”

“We aren’t going to put in half-assed effort just because she has nothing to compare it to.” Patricia snapped at Mr. Pritchard. She’d expected more from the usually thoughtful alter. His dismissiveness irked her. Casey deserved the best, regardless of whether she’d had a date before or not.

Bernice gasped, hand to her chest. “Patricia said ass.”

“The apocalypse must be near.” Felicia giggled beside her.

“Patricia, dear, I didn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Mr. Pritchard replied, using that ever-so-patient teacher voice he liked to use when he thought someone was being silly. “I simply meant-“

“I’m glad we agree.” Patricia smiled, teeth clenched achingly tight. “The date will be memorable because our Casey deserves it.”

“There she is.” Came Samuel’s monotone comment.

“A right surprise.” Luke replied just as evenly, the card game once again set up on Samuel’s legs. This time, Kat had joined and was quietly sitting cross-legged on the ground between the two chairs.

Patricia continued to smile at Mr. Pritchard, daring him to argue with his patient voice.

Mr. Pritchard had the nerve to smile back. “Of course she does, my dear.”

If he called her dear one more time- Patricia gripped the fabric of her skirt, forcing herself to remember her manners. He’d made her slip once, she wasn’t about to let it happen again. She turned away from Mr. Pritchard, her attention catching on the still slumbering Barry.

“Hedwig,” Hedwig’s wide eyes turned guiltily towards her. B.T. didn’t even bother to hide the comic book they’d been reading, although he did stop to look at her expectantly. Patricia had never found any value in B.T.’s choice of reading material. They were as appropriate for adults as picture books and even then, Patricia wasn’t certain the children’s books didn’t have more worth “Wake up Barry, will you? He should have some ideas for us.”

Bernice held out her hand when Hedwig went to stand. She glared at Patricia. “Let Barry sleep, mijo. He had a rough night.”

“We all did.” Kat whispered, her cards held to her chest.

Luke took off his hat and settled it on Kat’s head almost distractedly. He placed a card on the pile on Samuel’s legs.

Kat’s lips twitched as the hat fell over her eyes. Samuel placed a card on top of Luke’s, reaching over and fixing the fallen hat so Kat could see.

Patricia watched in surprise as Kat smiled, her shoulders relaxed, and placed her own card down.

“Maybe we should figure out this whole date mess when we aren’t all knackered.” Mary suggested, letting out an exaggerated yawn for emphasis.

Rakel nodded. “Right now, we should be focusing on how we can be more careful during our next kill.”

B.T. groaned, lifting his head from the comic. “Forget that! I’d rather talk more about the stupid date!”

 


 

There was an alley behind one row of houses and their neighbors to the back. It wasn’t much, just a dirt path wide enough for a kid to ride their bicycle and a person to walk beside them. It was just enough that two people could walk their dogs in opposite directions and not run over one another, but narrow enough that they could both chat.

At least, Casey thought that had been the builder’s intent for the tiny alleyway: something neighborly and wholesome. Instead, she stood, waiting by a plain wooden fence for a beast in name and body to arrive. Casey shifted, blonde wig causing her scalp to itch and layered clothes making her feel bogged down and sweaty.

Fall was coming, but it wasn’t there yet. The night was hot and suffocating. The air was still without even a hint of a breeze and the half-moon shown pale in the clear sky, lighting everything in a faint white glow.

Casey closed her eyes and tilted her chin to the air.

Rotting fruit lay plump and bleeding sulfur behind her. Pain teasing at charcoal caused her nose to sting.

Casey clenched her hands. She grimaced when fabric dug into fabric and left her skin unmarred. Before that desperate ache could take hold, she thought of the red hair tie hidden beneath her sleeves.

Casey wouldn’t be the one bleeding that night.

She took a deep breath and threw her focus towards The Beast, growing impatient.

He was growing closer. She could taste the incoming copper and lightning, could practically hear his feet pounding against the ground, and feel the rush of adrenaline singing in his blood.

Casey breathed deep. A few streets, bare feet scraping against textured asphalt… a couple of blocks, a dog whining at the fence… at the end of the alley, rocks silent at his approach…

Casey opened her eyes when The Beast stopped before her. His teeth glint in a savage grin and Casey found her own lips tilted in grin of her own.

The Beast drew close. He held Casey’s head between his hands and grinned once more, his lightning tasting of anticipation. He leaned his head forward and pressed their foreheads together. Neither said a word.

There was no question this time, Casey was ready.

The Beast scooped her into his arms before deftly jumping over the fence that had towered over her. He set her on her feet beside the back door. He broke the lock with a swift turn of his wrist and stepped inside.

At the end of a hallway The Beast cast her a look over his shoulder. Casey pointed to the left, where rotting fruit flourished. The Beast lowered his head and stalked forward, movements predatory and dangerous.

Casey turned to the right. Tonight, The Beast would avenge. Tonight, Casey would protect.

 


 

There was a strange sense of peace that filled their mind while The Beast tore into the woman, her screams muffled by his palm.

It was brutal and gruesome, but Ansel had to admit, at least to himself, that it was also strangely awe-inspiring and right.

At least more than a small part of him he had always thought so.

The Beast killed more like a beast than a man. Each death felt… natural in a disconcerting way. They were deaths that nourished The Beast’s strength. Neither the woman’s death nor King’s had felt wasted. They were predators and their flesh fed their hunter.

Ansel knew the conflicting realities of nature. He understood that death provided life as often as life led to death. He had never shied away from the brutal beauty of it.

It was why, despite knowing that killing people was wrong, Ansel had never been truly horrified by The Beast. It was a secret he’d kept to himself, even when Patricia’s stories had first began and Ansel had felt fascinated by the possibility of The Beast.

He hadn’t condoned the murders, of course… At least, not the girls. The others, however…

With each death, Ansel was finding it harder to remember why it was wrong. He was struggling to remember why they’d even fought it to begin with.

The woman gurgled, her limbs shook. Then she stilled, becoming their fifth victim.

“She’s no better than Kevin’s mother.” Patricia observed coolly. “She’s gotten what she deserves.” Just like King had. Just like Casey’s uncle.

Ansel looked around at the different faces that shared his mind. He saw stilled figures with fixed gazes, lowered heads with clenched hands, tearful eyes with locked jaws…

Kevin’s mother had gifted each of them a memory written as a scar across their minds and just as many carved into their flesh. She had left them so broken that even now with a bright future, one made of affection that didn’t bruise and happiness that didn’t bleed, an actual possibility the scars still flared. They still brought forth nightmares and phantom pains, and sometimes it was hard to look at Casey smile because it made them wonder how long it’d take her to see them and realize…

The woman whose blood slipped down their throats had tried to break a little girl the same way Kevin’s mother had done to them.

Patricia was right, this woman and all the others like her deserved to scream as The Beast’s teeth tore them apart. Ansel felt not a single shred of guilt as he imagined Kevin’s mother as the one being dismembered.

He wished it was her and he could tell he wasn't the only one.

Ansel’s gaze paused on Dennis.

The first alter’s eyes were wide in his ashen face. They shown with something that Ansel would have called fear if he saw it in another’s eyes. But Dennis didn’t know the emotion. Ansel was positive he had never been faced with it before.

“Is it over, yet?” A little voice lisped behind the hands covering his face.

Dennis blinked and his expression returned to its usual stoicism. He cleared his throat and crossed his arms. “Not yet, Hedwig.”

Hedwig nodded from where he sat curled in his chair. “Ok.”

The Beast continued to feast on the now limp body.

No one else mentioned the look Ansel had seen. It made him wonder if perhaps he’d been imagining it.

The Beast tore into something that caused blood to spray across his body.

Dennis flinched.

Ansel relaxed. It was the mess that had disturbed Dennis. Of course, it was the mess. There was nothing else it could have possibly been.

It was just the mess.

 


 

It wasn’t until Betsy, with her big blue eyes and tangled brown hair, knocked on the neighbor’s door, that Casey felt herself finally begin to breath.

She continued to watch the house across from her, hidden between the shadows that painted the playground. Casey stayed seated on the swing-set, watching as a rumpled woman opened the door and a little white dog ran out to greet the girl. The woman crouched low and while Casey couldn’t hear them, she knew Betsy was reciting the story Casey had taught her.

The woman rose, holding out a hand for the little girl. Betsy’s shoulders hunched in and Casey could see the woman’s brow furrowed. She smiled at Betsy, hand reaching up to stroke her hair before stepping back and gesturing towards the inside of the house.

Betsy shuffled inside, tiny dog hopping at her heels. The woman gave another look towards the neighboring house before following Betsy inside.

Casey breathed a sigh of relief. She kicked her feet and the swing moved as she thought of the little girl.

Betsy smelled like peaches. She was sweet, and kind, and easily bruised.

She liked stories of far away places and dashing princes coming to the rescue. Casey had seen the story book clutched against a sleeping Betsy’s chest. Casey had recognized the title from the pieces she’d glimpsed between Betsy’s battered arms.

It was the same book her father had read to her as a child. One where the princess was locked high in a tower guarded by a fearsome dragon.

Casey had loved the pictures, finding the image of the brilliant green dragon striking beside the desolate castle and bleak backdrops. She’d never cared much for the story itself, and her father had been quick to realize what made the story her favorite.

That had been when he’d begun to invent stories for her. He had used the pictures, ignored the words, and created a fairytale as riveting as the images themselves. Casey had fallen asleep to the sound of her father’s voice and had dreams of brave dragons keeping their princesses safe.

Her father’s stories had inspired Casey into waking Betsy with a story created just for her. A story of a princess, one who smelled like peaches and had big blue eyes, who was trapped by an evil witch who snarled and hurt the princess. It was about a dragon, a golden one with eyes the same shade of sadness as the princess’s, who had come to rid the land of the evil witch and monsters just like her.

Casey had explained the dragon would do what it could to keep the princess safe, but that the princess needed to do what she could to keep herself safe, too. She was clumsy as she tried to twist the truth into a fairytale. Casey knew she didn’t have Felicia’s talent, or even her father’s, but Betsy didn’t seem to mind. She was entranced by the story she spun.

And with every word, the scent of death had grown stronger.

When copper had appeared on the other side of the door, Casey had known it was time to move Betsy somewhere safe.

A growl rumbled through the air on a wave of sour lemons. She tilted her head towards the shadows that lay just a bit darker beneath one of the bigger trees.

Casey got to her feet just as the door to the house opened, a different woman to the one from before stomped out of the house, green robe billowing behind her before she raised her fist to pound on the front door of Betsy’s house. Casey

Casey made her way towards the car, parked two blocks away, with a satisfied smile on her face a grumbling shadow in her wake just as the door gave way beneath the woman’s fist.

When the first scream cut through the air, Casey was a couple of streets away, remembering the way her story had made a sliver of sunlight appear in the darkness of a home dowsed in misery.

Chapter Text

Black pepper and sour lemons greeted Casey before strong arms stole her breath in a wave of copper.

The move had been so unexpected that when The Beast finally stopped on her balcony, Casey’s mind was still left reeling, trying to understand what had happened. One moment she’d been stepping out of the parked car, the next she was flying. Even now, her feet still dangled in the air, her chest pressed against The Beast while her hands rested on those locked around her.

The Beast dragged his nose up and down the column of her throat. Whiskey slowly drowned in honey as his frustration and annoyance began to fade.

Casey grinned, patting his shoulder. “It was the smart decision.”

The Beast growled, holding her closer and burying his nose in her hair.

Casey bit back a laugh and didn’t argue with him.

Casey knew how much The Beast had hated having to keep his distance. She’d taken the smaller streets as much as she could and at every stop, she had caught his scent growing more and more aggravated at being apart from her.

Planning, when it came to The Beast had involved more losses then victories and it had only been the others persistence and Casey’s arguments that had made The Beast agree to keep his hands off of her until she was home and wouldn’t have to worry about bloodstains and an abandoned car.

When she’d brought up The Beast’s habit of leaving her covered in blood after each of their interactions, Barry had turned crimson and immediately stuttered a string of apologies. Casey had had to reassure him that she really didn’t care about the blood, but if she had to fetch their car in bloodied clothes and without a driver’s license only a mile from a crime scene, she was definitely asking for trouble.

The Beast hadn’t liked the idea, but he hadn’t dismissed it the same way he had the suggestion of wearing gloves or a mask. And, after he’d feasted and they had made sure Betsy was safe, he had been soaked in sour lemons but he had kept his distance.

The Beast’s growl shifted into a purr that rumbled between their chests and warmed her blood. Satisfaction filled the air.

Casey closed her eyes and savored the moment.

Casey hadn’t lied to Barry. She couldn’t care less about the blood already drying on the side of her neck, or the stains that would be left on her clothes. She wasn’t afraid of The Beast or his clothes. She hadn’t been afraid of him since their first meeting and being held by him now, after he’d ripped apart someone who took pleasure in causing pain, made her feel as if his strength was her own. She was unstoppable and protected. She was valuable and fierce.

With death still between his teeth and the taste of whiskey heavy on thick on his skin, Casey felt like a huntress proud of her kill.

 


 

Bleach, stoic and strong, hid rising sulfur beneath its chemical fragrance and an unflinching expression.

He had been hiding it for days.

Casey had thought, at first, that it was The Beast’s mess that had set Dennis off. He had panicked after King and a repeat hadn’t been unexpected…

Except Dennis hadn’t acted the same way he had then.

Sulfur hadn’t surged while his body shook with panic. The sulfur had thrummed in the background before Dennis’s veins had even had a chance to revert to crimson. He had cleaned, motions lacking frenzy and moving almost robotically while the clouds strangled any hint of blue in his eyes.

There were no more conversations. There were no more smiles. There were no more puffs of amusement.

There were no more touches.

That night, Casey had reached for him like she always did.

Dennis had flinched.

Casey hadn’t found the courage to reach out again… and she was starting to doubt Dennis would ever reach for her.

 


 

Samantha Flores. Patricia had savored the pretty name on her tongue. She imagined it tasted like rotting fruit and raw meat.

Patricia had preened with pride when the reporters on screen had shared gruesome details and statements from traumatized witness. She had nearly praised their intelligence when they noted that Flores’s death and King’s had too many similarities to ignore.

The Beast had just begun to cleanse the world and already people were noticing.

Then the reporters had shared a plastic look of insincere sadness. They had repeated that Flores was leaving behind a family. They had tried to bring a sense of tragedy to the story by telling people she was leaving behind a little girl.

Patricia had smiled in fury at their gall. The little girl, the woman was “leaving” behind was finally free. This was a time for celebration not pity.

But, of course, the polished impures on screen wouldn’t care. After all, misfortune sold better than happiness.

Once more the news had bypassed the reason for her death and had instead focused on the “savageness” of it.

That, Patricia agreed with. The act was feral, violent, and savage and despite Patricia’s manners, she found it exquisite.

Patricia was satisfied with this feast. Even better, so was everyone else. Despite a few half-hearted protests about morality and justice and all that nonsense, there were no more arguments. The other alters were finally, slowly and surely, beginning to accept The Beast as their savior.

Their eyes were opening to the better world they were creating.

A world where they could live without nightmares and scars. A world where their Casey could stand proudly by their side.

 


 

“How are things with Casey?”

Barry pulled at his gloves. He shrugged at Dr. Fletcher. “Good. She’s starting her classes again next week and she just started working as a waitress last week.”

Dr. Fletcher nodded, waiting for more.

Barry stayed quiet. He didn’t know what else to say.

“When was her last dance party with Hedwig?” Dr. Fletcher tried.

Barry chuckled, studying his plain black gloves. “Tuesday. They watched the Lion King and Hedwig is still singing that lion song. He really connected with Timon and Pumba.”

The room fell silent again.

“The others seem comfortable talking about Casey. Some of them are even eager to do so.” Too eager, in Barry’s opinion. Samuel and Hedwig’s sessions were full of stories and anecdotes. Patricia spent her brief moments in the light praising Casey and her “our.” Orwell talked about her intelligence and Felicia giggled about her imagination. Then there were those like Kat and Polly who rarely, if ever, made an appearance during their sessions who would even make comments while someone else was in the light.

It was all about Casey.

“Barry?” Dr. Fletcher asked softly. “What are you afraid of?”

Barry fixed his beanie.

Dr. Fletcher continued to stare at him with her caring gray eyes and concern written on her brow.

How could he explain? How could he tell Dr. Fletcher that Casey wasn’t just important to him, to all of them, she was becoming necessary? That their entire mornings were spent searching for her in the crowd at the zoo until she found them, a bright smile already curving her lips? That the evenings dragged until they were able to clock out and make their way to her apartment, all tension disappearing at the sound of her laugh? Or how Barry had never felt safer than he did on her faded blue couch with her beside him?

How was Barry supposed to admit to Dr. Fletcher that if they hadn’t completely fallen for Casey, they were more than half-way there?

Casey saw them and adored even the worst pieces and she still smiled as if they were the reason behind her joy. She was young and scarred and beautiful and deserved more than they all had to give.

Patricia was right: Casey was theirs and they were hers and Barry would do whatever he had to to make sure it stayed that way.

But Barry had always wondered if Kevin wouldn’t have been better off without them. He couldn’t help but echo the feeling when it came to Casey.

Barry felt the silence in his mind. He could practically feel the stares aimed at him, and the words that were beginning to take shape got caught in his throat.

He grinned at Dr. Fletcher. “You know, I had the best idea for a dress for you. Something simple but absolutely stunning. And I know with your eye for accessories you’ll absolutely claim the look and make it breathtaking.”

The concern deepened.

Barry cleared his throat. “I’m designed a dress for Casey.” He forced out, grin still wide. “Its layers of gold and green and kinda reminds me of a fairytale dress. Kinda has a romantic air to it.”

The concern dimmed and the beginning of a smile appeared. “Has Casey seen the design?”

Barry focused on Dr. Fletcher’s sensible heels. They were a lovely burgundy shade that complimented her taupe skirt beautifully. “She hasn’t.”

“Are you planning on making the dress?”

“I just need to find the right fabric.” He thought of the sketch, hidden between the pages of his sketchbook. Barry had been working on it from the first morning he had woken in Casey’s apartment and he’d realized her eyes were hazel. There were little parts and pieces that were improved almost daily and sometimes, he’d see it and realize how attached he was… How hopelessly lost they all were.

Barry wasn’t sure he was ready for Casey to figure it out, too. Once she realized… they didn’t deserve her, but they all wanted her to stay. This could either bring them closer or tear them apart.

“Might take a while, though.” Barry added. “Don’t wanna mess it up.”

Dr. Fletcher smiled, understanding in her gaze. “Of course, you should be sure before you get started. There’s no need to rush.”

Barry nodded, feeling himself relax into his seat. Dr. Fletcher was right. He liked what they had and Casey seemed to like it, too. There was no need to rush.

 


 

The Beast had always wondered: were they pieces of the whole? Or were they each whole, forced to live like pieces?

Most days The Beast believed the former. His peers acted like pieces; overemphasizing a single character trait while disregarding those that provided balance. They acted as if all they had to offer was the piece they were born to provide. As if that single piece defined their entire existence.

They were fighting that reality now, each one in their own way. Flores had shaken them. The woman’s impurity and the satisfaction they’d gotten from her death had rattled them. They were trying to act complete, but they’d lived as pieces for so long that trying to retake the entirety was unsettling the roles they had forced themselves into.

The Beast listened to the soft snores that fell from the chair beside the space he had claimed as his own.

The boy, their boy, Kevin Wendell Crumb, the whole they were meant to be, the whole they invaded, remained in his forever slumber.

Barry had made it his mission to rouse the boy, but fear soaked the air whenever Kevin so much as shifted in his sleep and it made Barry’s efforts, while honest not sincere. They were all too terrified of what Kevin might do when he awoke to do what was necessary. To prompt the spark that would bring brightness to his existence.

The Beast was not blind. He understood their fears.

Kevin had been praying for death longer than he had been alive. A shock, and there was no doubt their new life would be a shock, had the potential of prompting Kevin into finding another permanent escape. Dennis had been quick enough to save them from the first slice of their veins to the last bullet still in its metal casing. But Dennis wouldn’t always be so quick, and Kevin had proven to be tenacious.

They all believed the day was coming that Dennis’s luck would run out and Kevin would finally be faced with the consequence of his desperate desire.

The Beast knew the truth.

Whether the others were pieces or whole, they had been born in Kevin’s mind for Kevin’s sake. The Beast had been forged by the pieces the others had tried to rip from themselves. They believed he was made of purely hate and instinct, but there was more they had abandoned. The Beast was desire and freedom, faith and caution, strength and power… They had thrown what they believed to be weaknesses into the abyss of Kevin’s mind, never realizing The Beast was waiting, absorbing each piece into himself and learning and growing.

All of them had helped create him. All of them, except Kevin.

Kevin, believing his entire being was a weakness, never discarded a single part of himself. The others hid behind a trait. They pretended their weaknesses didn’t exist until the supposed weakness roared into existence between their ribs and refused to be hidden any longer.

Kevin never denied a single part. It brought him suffering and pain. It made escape impossible and release unreachable. But it was never denied.

The Beast knew that when Kevin awoke he would be afraid, but he would never again look towards death as a release. Once the truth of their lives settled in his bones, the strength Kevin held would shine and he would finally grow into the person he was meant to be.

Kevin stirred.

The Beast purred.

Kevin was waking.

The time was coming. Pieces or whole, they would finally be complete.

 


 

“I need you to stay away from my place today.”

The smile on Barry’s face froze. He gripped the phone tighter and pressed it closer to his ear. “What?”

“Mr. Benoit just called and he’s coming by to visit today but I’m not sure at what time and there’s absolutely no way he can see you.” Casey rushed out, her voice sounding breathless. “I’m on my way home but I still have to stop by the store to pick up some things and drop off those books I borrowed from the library. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to the zoo, either.”

Barry could hear traffic and random voices coming and going on her side. His words failed him.

Mr. Benoit?

“Mr. Benoit is Claire’s dad.” Casey answered Dennis’s question. Barry wasn’t sure if Dennis had taken over to ask or if she just knew that well. “He and Mrs. Benoit have been sort of looking out for me since… it happened.”

“Claire…” That was the blonde girl’s name. She was the first one The Beast had eaten…

“I have to go. I’ll call you later!”

Barry remained with the silent phone pressed against his cheek. She’d asked him to stay away. Casey didn’t want them there…

Why doesn’t Casey wanna see us? Hedwig pouted.

It aint forever, kid. Luke assured. She’s just keeping us safe is all.

Still feels shitty. Jade complained.

Barry silently agreed, putting his phone back in his pocket and trying to focus on work.

He understood why she didn’t want them there. It made perfect sense. Mr. Benoit had seen Dennis when he had kidnapped the girls. Of course, she wouldn’t want them there. She didn’t want to put them in danger. It was just…

Barry’s hands gripped the broom’s handle.

We should stop by. Barry didn’t need to see him to know Jalin’s eyes were lit with mischief.

Yes! Hedwig lisped happily.

She asked us not to. Mr. Pritchard scolded. We have to respect her request.

So, we’re not gonna see her all day? Hedwig whined. Just because some jerkface is here? That’s not fair!

We’ll see her as soon as he’s gone, Hedwig. Polly assured him.

I don’t like it.

You don’t have to like it, Hedwig. Just respect it. Dennis spoke, stern voice ringing with finality.

Barry continued to move almost woodenly.

There was this fear that iced his veins any time Casey wasn’t with them. This constant, gnawing worry that the longer she spent away the faster she’d realize she could do better. That the more time she was around other people, people who weren’t burdened with baggage so heavy even Atlas didn’t envy them, that she would realize just how difficult life with them was.

And she wasn’t just spending time away from them. She’d be spending that time with the parents of the girl they’d murdered. If ever there was a time to worry about her coming to her senses, this was it.

Barry knew Jalin was just stirring up trouble, but if Barry headed towards her place he doubted anyone would protest. Barry was pretty sure he could even convince Dennis…

Barry shook his head and picked up his broom.

Casey asked them not to go.

If Barry really hoped for any future with her, Mr. Pritchard and Dennis were right: Barry had to respect her.

 


 

“Your apartment looks wonderful, Casey.” Mr. Benoit smiled, walking through her living room with the scent of lavender drifting behind him. Casey shifted on her feet when he paused in front of the pictures she’d set out on her bookshelf.

On the highest shelf, there was a thick wood frame stained white that held her mother’s picture. The woman Casey had never had a chance to meet looked magical as she stood above the crowd on an ebony stage with soft lights twinkling overhead. Her face was frozen in a small smile that radiated serenity and she exuded grace as she was caught mid pirouette in a pristine tutu.

A warm chestnut frame held a picture of her parents. Her father was wearing a faded suit closer to gray than black, his arm around her mother who had on a short white dress that appeared like a watered down version of her ballerina outfit, and they were both wearing grins that lit their eyes with unrestrained joy. There was a generic red-bricked wall behind them and a simple piece of paper between them. It was a picture of their wedding day and it had involved only the two of them, a judge, and strangers but Casey had never seen that pure happiness in her father’s eyes when he’d been alive.

Beside the one of her parents was another of her father, two-year-old Casey being held in his arms. Despite there only being a little over three years difference between the two photographs her father’s face had aged a decade, his smile was heavy and his eyes still shown but the light struggled to find its way between the clouds. Little Casey, not knowing the difference, radiated happiness in her innocence and held up a stuffed bear in pride.

Mr. Benoit lifted the forest green frame and the air grew heavy with the salty taste of seawater.

A lump formed in her throat as she recognized the same heartbreak to his smile. Her eyes stung and she had to look away.

She caught sight of her peace lilies, growing beautifully in the sunlight. Casey stroked the leaves and the tightness in her chest began to ease as she pictured Norma humming as she carefully tended to the delicate plant.

“Who’s Hedwig?”

Casey startled at Mr. Benoit’s question. She looked up to see him holding a warm yellow frame, the forest green having been carefully replaced.

Casey felt her cheeks warm.

Hedwig had just been so proud when he’d handed her a drawn portrait of the two of them, hands linked with sunny grins under a yellow half-moon. Hedwig had happily pointed out the constellations he’d spent hours drawing, the same ones they’d watched a documentary on a few days prior. Hedwig had been both enthralled and lulled to sleep by the mountain of information that two hour movie had given them.

Casey kept all of Hedwig’s drawings. The portrait, though, had deserved to be framed. Oranges and joy had soared when he’d seen it and he always had a smug smile whenever he took the light.

Mr. Benoit smiled expectantly.

“He’s… um… my friend’s little brother.” Casey blurted out. “I babysit every once in a while.”

Mr. Benoit’s eyes crinkled. Saltwater soaked the taste of lavender. He set the picture down. “Why don’t we go grab something to eat and you can tell me all about your new friends?”

Regardless of his kindness and genuine affection for her, Casey knew he would never be able to look at her without wishing his own daughter was there instead.

Casey gave a tight smile. She wondered how much longer she could keep doing this.

 


 

Stop cleaning and just go to bed, Dennis. Barry sighed. Casey isn’t going to call tonight.

Dennis continued to scrub their already immaculate stove. “I’ll go to sleep when I’m done cleaning.”

Barry snorted. You’re never done cleaning.

Dennis didn’t respond, instead moving his focus to the counters.

Dennis-

“I’ll go to sleep when I’m ready.” Dennis cut him off before he could keep arguing.

Barry sighed again. Just don’t stay up all night, ok? We have to open tomorrow and Babygirl’ll probably be by bright and early. I’d rather we didn’t have big ol’ bags under our eyes when she sees us.

Dennis made a noncommittal noise.

Barry paused.

Dennis continued to clean.

Barry gave one final sigh before leaving the edge of Dennis’s light and returning to his chair.

Dennis waited.

When Barry didn’t return to the light and no one else took his place, Dennis put down his cleaning supplies and reached for the phone in his pocket.

There were no missed calls or messages.

He ran his hand over his head, his fingers itching to click on her name.

Casey had told them not to stop by, but she hadn’t said anything about calling…

Dennis put his phone back into his pocket. He grabbed a brush and started working on the wall behind the stove.

When Casey was ready, she’d reach out to them. Dennis was certain. They just had to wait.

Dennis scrubbed harder. Barry wanted him to sleep but Dennis knew that would be impossible without Casey at his side. With nothing else to do, Dennis did the one thing he was good at: he cleaned.

Dennis had finished a thorough cleaning of the kitchen and had moved onto the living room when his phone rang.

The phone was pressed to his ear before he even looked at the display.

“Did I wake you?”

Dennis felt his lips quirk. “No.”

“Good.”

Dennis began to pick up his cleaning supplies. “Mr. Benoit gone?”

“He and Mrs. Benoit actually left a couple of hours ago, but I know tomorrow is your early day and I figured you’d already be sleeping.” Casey paused as if realizing something. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

“Wasn’t tired.” Dennis replied, putting his cleaning supplies in their designated closet. He grabbed his keys. “Did you want me to come over?”

“Actually…” Casey hesitated. Her voice sounded embarrassed. “So, I figured I’d go for a walk, you know-”

Casey.” Dennis growled. He knew when her voice grew fast it was time to worry. He clutched the keys in his hand and ignored his coat while marching straight for the door.

“I know.” Casey grumbled. “It’s not safe out and I shouldn’t be walking alone at night by myself. But it was so nice out-“

“It’s near freezing.” Dennis snapped, hurrying through the underground and towards the employee parking lot. His pulse was racing. Casey was alone and wandering the streets at night. Dennis wasn’t sure he was at all qualified to keep her safe but when she was with him, at least he was able to try. But he couldn’t do a damn thing for her when she was out there, alone.

“But it looked nice.” Casey argued.

“Where are you?” Dennis demanded. He’d let her recite her flimsy excuses after he was sure she was safe.

“See, that’s the thing…”

Dennis paused. He hurried towards the outer door. That phrase never boded well. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine!” Casey assured him. “It’s just…” Her voice trailed off.

Dennis scraped his hand against his head. He stood still and waited. Rambling meant she knew she had done something reckless and wanted to make her point before he could interrupt, long silences, however, meant it was worse than he’d thought. Besides, there was no reason to get in the car when he didn’t even know where he was going.

“I’m outside.”

Dennis froze. “What?”

“I know. It’s too far and I shouldn’t have walked but it’s not that far and it wasn’t like I did it on purpose. I just kinda started walking and whoop! Here I am! I really didn’t even realize. I mean, I did halfway here, but I was almost here and I mean, I knew you’d be here and I knew I wasn’t going to sleep anyway so why not just keep going, you know?”

Dennis’s feet had led him to the zoo streets and when he caught sight of Casey, leaning against the zoo’s front gate, he breathed in disbelief. “You’re here.”

“And yeah, I did wonder if you’d be asleep. I mean, you really should be sleeping, Dennis. You work in like three hours.” Casey continued, her arms beginning to wave in emphasis. “But, like I said, I was almost here, and I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. I know you probably don’t want me here.” Dennis brow creased. Casey’s shoulders slumped. “I mean, I know you don’t, but…” she sighed. The sadness in the sound propelled Dennis forward. He ended the call and put his phone away.

Casey stood up. “I’ll just go.” Her back was still to him and the phone was still pressed to her ear. “Go to sleep. I’ll stop-“ He saw her pause when Dennis grew closer to the gate.

Casey spun towards him eyes widened in surprise. “Oh.”

Dennis unlocked the gate. He pulled out his yellow handkerchief and opened the iron gate for her.

Casey continued to stare.

Dennis scowled as he realized Casey was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt and baggy pajama pants. “Where’s your jacket?”

Casey blinked down, seemingly surprised at her bare arms. “Huh.”

He pulled the gate open further. “Get inside before you catch a cold.”

Casey glared. “You’re not wearing a jacket either,” she argued, stepping inside.

“Which is why I’m going inside, too.” Dennis replied, locking the gate behind them.

Casey rolled her eyes as she followed him towards the maintenance entrance. “But you were on your way to get me, weren’t you?”

“The car has a heater.”

“It takes a while to warm up.” Casey argued. Her head swiveled as she took in the darkened cages. “I’ve never been here at night.” She murmured, drawing closer to his side with a shiver. “I’m finding it more eerie than peaceful.”

Dennis settled his hand on the small of Casey’s back and hurried his pace. He needed to get her inside and out of the cold. “That may be why the zoo isn’t it open at night.”

Casey looked up at him, a teasing grin on her lips. “Really? And here I was ready to invest in a nighttime zoo.”

Dennis looked down at her, lips fighting not to twist into a smile. “You just called it eerie.”

“I said I thought it was eerie.” Casey corrected. “That doesn’t mean others will. People can be real strange, you know.”

The chuckle escaped him before he could stop it.

Casey’s grin was wide and her dark eyes bright.

Barry had asked him, the day after their first night with Casey, if Dennis had known her eyes were hazel.

Dennis hadn’t understood how Barry could miss something so obvious. Of course, he knew her eye color. He knew the shade changed, depending on her mood, but they were always hazel, always a mixture of earth tones and vivid greens.

He hadn’t understood but Norma had made an offhanded comment about Casey trusting Dennis and Barry had stopped asking.

Casey’s eyes were shinning now, in a way that always caused the green to spark to life. It was the same shine they had the first morning when Barry had been in the light.

Dennis swallowed. His amusement vanished. He withdrew his hand from her back. Norma had insinuated it meant Casey trusted him.

But Casey shouldn’t be trusting him.

He had thought, had hoped, he might be worth it. For a second, with her eyes shining that way, he had even begun to believe he was. Then the truth came to light and he realized just how much of a failure he would always be.

Dennis pulled open the door to the maintenance entrance.

Casey hesitated. The shine was gone. There was confusion lining her brows and dismay had shadowed down her grin.

“It’s warmer inside.” Dennis prompted.

Casey dropped her head. She wrapped her arms around herself and walked past him.

Dennis followed in silence.

Their steps echoed from the grate floors and around the pipe walls. Dennis’s steps were heavy and loud, Casey’s light and soft.

Dennis withdrew the keys from his pocket and opened the first gate with a heavy clamor.

Casey jumped.

She hadn’t been down here since…

Dennis cleared his throat. “I can take you home.”

Casey stared at the gate. “What did I do?”

Dennis’s fingers tightened around his handkerchief, the cold metal sneaking through and numbing his fingers. “You don’t want to be here.”

Casey shook her head. She frowned at him. “I don’t mean just now. I mean…” She pulled at the bottom of her shirt. She looked away. “You’re afraid…”

Dennis’s frown deepened.

Casey looked up at him, her own brow creased. She gave him a shaky half-smile. “It tastes like sulfur.”

This time it was Dennis who looked away. He had tried to hide it from her. He had tried to bury his emotions as far down as he could so she wouldn’t catch them.

Apparently, Dennis hadn’t done a good job.

Dennis wondered why he even bothered to be surprised by that fact.

Casey shifted on her feet.

“Did you want to stay here or go back to your apartment?”

Casey bit her lip as she studied the gate. She looked back at Dennis.

Dennis met her gaze. He couldn’t even see a hint of green.

Casey tilted her chin up and walked inside.

Dennis stared after her. He wished she had insisted on going to her apartment. Once he told her the truth, he doubted she’d ever feel safe around bleach again.

Chapter Text

Casey sat at the kitchen table, her hands wrapped around a mug of steaming water, watching as Dennis simultaneously reorganized the cabinets and took out a growing mountain of tea boxes.

There was the sweet taste of basil laying heavy on her tongue, the scent of sulfur scratching at her throat, and bleach burning softly beneath everything. There was more. There was always so much more hidden beneath Dennis’s bleach, but all she could catch were hints and wisps with nothing concrete.

Dennis was becoming too adept at blurring his scents. To find out what was really going on beneath his stoic expression he would have to tell her.

Casey observed her surroundings while she waited.

She hadn’t been in their apartment since… then.

The kitchen was smaller than she remembered. It had felt enormous the first time, with Patricia on the far side, threatening in her casualness and Marcia right beside her, big brown eyes full of hope and clouded by the scent of jasmine.

Casey’s grip tightened on her mug. She focused on the water, noting how her movements made it ripple.

Even without looking, she vividly remembered the swinging door at her back with its window at eye level. The hinges had been so well taken care of it was silent when it was pushed open.

To the left, down the bleak hallway, she would find two closets soaked in curdled milk and death.

Casey had never asked which room had belonged to Marcia and her kind eyes and which had belonged to Claire and her confident grin. She wondered if either room still held a sliver of scent of either girl. Or if it had all been drowned out by the hopeless terror of their final moments.

Casey blinked back tears and looked up at Dennis again.

His back was still towards her. His shirt was pulled tight at his shoulders and she watched the muscles move as he searched through the shelves. His arms flexed and pulled at the seams and Casey was brought back to the hazy memory of Dennis carrying Claire as if she weighed nothing. She remembered how he’d almost lazily held Claire as she fought against him with every scrap of strength she had. Of how he’d pushed Marcia and she’d practically flown across the room…

Casey clenched her eyes shut and tried to calm her breathing.

This was Dennis, who always smelled of bleach and most times basil and sometimes moonlight, but always clean.

She exhaled slowly. This was Dennis, her friend. Not her unknown abductor.

Casey’s nails scraped uselessly against the white porcelain.

If Casey took a right instead, she’d reach the room she had woken up in. The room where it all began. She would reach the room that had been her prison. The same one where she’d tasted whiskey and freedom. Where basil had begun, and her life had become entwined with her captor’s.

“Dennis?” Casey whispered. She had chosen her path before either of them had even realized there was one. She didn’t regret it, but she was afraid Dennis was beginning to.

Dennis stilled. He settled a few more things. Then he cleared his throat and turned, setting several boxes in neat rows on the table before stiffly taking the seat across from her. He frowned when Casey kept her hands wrapped around her swiftly cooling mug. “Didn’t you want tea?”

Casey’s lips quirked. She shook her head.

Dennis blinked. “Oh.”

He reached out to take back the boxes.

“Dennis?” Casey repeated.

Casey wanted to ask why sulfur had become such a constant echo in his scent. She wanted to ask why he distanced himself. She needed to know why he flinched… Her lips refused to form another word.

Dennis pushed at the corner of one box, moving it so it lay parallel with the others. He shifted in his seat. His fingernails scratched at his scalp. Bleach dimmed and sulfur flared, and below it… “I hurt him.” Dennis’s gravelly voice seemed to scrape against his throat with each word. “I could have- No, I should have- but I didn’t even think to and Kevin suffered.”

Casey strangled the mug in her hands. Her mind struggled to block out his scent and focus on his words. Her nose had to be confused, she needed her brain. But she didn’t understand.

Dennis would never hurt Kevin.

Casey could still taste the wax that had slipped down her throat, a lifetime ago. She could still remember the doubt in his eyes when she’d begged him not to hurt Claire and Marcia and how he’d hesitated. And, afterwards, after Claire and Marcia were gone and Casey had come face to face with The Beast, he’d tasted of sawdust.

Dennis wasn’t The Beast. She wasn’t sure Dennis was even capable of hurting anyone, least of all Kevin or any of the others. What made him think he ever could?

Casey scrunched her nose. The words and their taste had always made sense before. They told her everything she needed, and they painted the clearest picture when it came to Dennis. But the scent had muddled her mind. The dots weren’t connecting. The image lay fractured. “What didn’t you do?”

There it was again, growing stronger with every heartbeat. It kept ticking away like a timebomb and had her heart racing. Ready for the explosion.

She wanted to be wrong. Casey wished she was, but there was no denying it. She could see it echoed in the clouds of his eyes. It burned her throat and stabbed at her heart and her nose might be confused and her brain muddled but…

Casey had caught this scent only once before. Back in her other life and other school.

A quiet boy less than a year older than her had reeked of it. He was thin and frail and would’ve fit in better among children than teenagers. His limbs were gangly and awkward, and his mop of black hair always fell limply over his downturned eyes. The boy was in that unfortunate in between of being so small people’s eyes moved over him, and so fragile that the bullies salivated at the easy target.

He was polite, on the rare occasions he spoke, with a pleasant lilt to his voice that Casey had liked. He was kind, the first to offer a hand despite the ridicule. And his eyes had been a beautiful shade of brown when he’d looked at her. He had seen another outcast in her, and his eyes had stuttered in hope.

But his scent…

It had grown worse and worse each day and, even with a hint of jasmine, it was still more than Casey could handle. She’d pushed him away before he’d gotten too close.

There had been times where Casey had wondered, if she had been more normal, would she have been able to be his friend? Or would she have been like all the others whose eyes glazed in his presence?

Casey had caught him, on her way to one of her classes one day, staring at his reflection in one of the windows. His eyes were dull, and his expression warped in hate. There’d been a sneer on his usually passive face and his gentle hands had been fisted so tightly she could practically taste the blood welling in his palms.

That day his scent had burned so harshly her nose had revolted and she’d sneezed.

The boy had blinked, features emptying, and had fled. Casey had wanted to go after him. She had wanted to find out what that expression had been. She’d wanted to know what his scent meant.

Instead, she’d gone to class.

Casey never saw the boy or caught his scent again.

The school had held an assembly, with a crowd full of undisguised yawns and vapid giggles. It was meant to be a show of respect for the boy and one of support for his family.

Casey hadn’t caught a single trace of sadness.

“I let Kevin’s mother live.”

Casey stared at Dennis and saw the lonely boy reflected in the pain of his eyes.

They both tasted like vinegar.

 


 

Dennis had forced the words free. Now, he was incapable of looking at Casey. Saying it aloud, revealing just how badly he’d messed up… Dennis swallowed. How could he ever look her in the eye again?

Casey deserved to know what type of protector he truly was.

“Kevin’s mother was vicious. Worse after his father left…” Dennis clenched his fists. “I should’ve stopped it. I could’ve-” Dennis was the strongest, and Kevin’s mother had appeared large only in their nightmares. Even as a child, he could have stopped it. He could have ended the pain before Kevin started slicing his wrists and started whimpering in his sleep. He could have prevented the scars, the ones that slipped beneath their skin and tainted their soul. He could have ended it before the scars had broken their mind.

Dennis had been created to protect. He was strong and his skin was the thickest. Dennis was made to keep Kevin safe…

How had it taken him so long to realize what would have made Kevin truly safe? Kevin had had to live with Dennis’s carelessness for most of his life when he could have had decades of peace instead. “Kevin mother’s no better than Flores or King or-”

“John.”

Dennis’s eyes rose at the whisper.

Casey was staring blankly at the fridge behind Dennis, her expression twisted in pain.

Dennis fought against the sudden need to reach out and comfort her. He crossed his arms, forcing them to stay put. Dennis only brought her comfort because she felt safe beside his strength. What could he possibly offer her now, knowing that even with that he had failed those closest to him?

“My un-John used to pl-pla…” The creases in Casey’s brow deepened, her eyes shined. There was no joy, this time. Her eyes were dark with fear and bitterness and rage and so much agony it stole his breath.

Dennis understood that look too well.

“It started in the woods and that’s where it had stayed… At least while Dad was alive.” Her voice grew dreamy in its softness. Dennis could practically see the nightmares forming with each word. “Daddy loved to hunt and he always shared with me what made him happy. John always brought beer and it always made Dad so very, very tired that he didn’t notice…” Casey blinked rapidly. She cleared her cleared her throat. “The nightmares had gotten so bad that I was barely sleeping, and I felt like screaming every time anyone touched me… even Daddy.”

Dennis’s fingers dug into his arms. Casey’s eyes lowered. She stared at the water in her mug, her eyelashes darker than usual as they trapped the tears she was forcing back.

“Dad taught me how to take care of his rifle. I made sure it was loaded. I made sure the safety was off and that I had it aimed at John’s middle before I put my finger on the trigger.” Her fingers ran over the curved handle. She hooked her pointer finger around the piece of porcelain. “I had my finger on the trigger and I knew it would all be over once John was dead. I just had to pull the trigger and I would be able to sleep. I would be able to hug my Daddy again…” Casey’s voice trailed off.

“Dad always said that family came first, and I always listened to my Dad.” She looked up at Dennis with raised brows. “Even after I stopped believing that, I still couldn’t hurt John. I hate John, but I couldn’t… He would get drunk and pass out and his gun cabinet was always unlocked, but I couldn’t.” The vulnerability in her expression reminded Dennis of just how young Casey was while the darkness in her gaze held too much knowledge. She was so much Kevin- “Does that mean everything that happened was my fault?” She asked, words direct and unflinching. -and nothing like Kevin at all.

No.” Dennis replied instantly and adamantly, unable to stop himself from leaning forward and bracing his hands on the laminate tabletop. “That was not your fault.”

Casey’s gaze softened, the shadows lightening, and the hard line of her shoulders eased. She narrowed her eyes. “Then why is it yours?”

Dennis frowned. He withdrew his hands. “It’s not the same, Casey.”

“Why not?” Casey demanded. “I could have ended it and I didn’t. Why is it different for-“

“I was created to protect Kevin, Casey.” Dennis snapped, getting to his feet. He scratched his hands over his head as he began to pace. Why wouldn’t she understand? She’d lived through the same pain they had but they weren’t the same. Casey had stayed whole. She had suffered and she’d sharpened and grown strong because of it, but Dennis- “I was made to keep Kevin safe. I thought it was enough that I took his punishments and did what I could to keep her from going off, but it wasn’t. Things got worse and worse and worse the older we grew, and I could have stopped it. I could have stopped it all if I had just gotten rid of her! Kevin wouldn’t have cried every time he looked in the mirror. He wouldn’t have all these scars. He wouldn’t have needed to hide behind so many of us, only to end up deciding death was better. He could have had a normal life if I had done something!”

Dennis stopped pacing. “He would still be awake.” His feet planted in the middle of the kitchen at he stared at his palms. They were full of callouses and little cuts and small burns and were rough and lined. They held his strength and were drenched in blood because he’d squandered it. “I didn’t do anything, and Kevin suffered because of it.”

Kevin’s mother had broken them. She had shattered them to pieces that cut and bled. Dennis tried to shield them but he had failed, time and time again… All Dennis ever did was fail… All Dennis had ever done for them was keep them locked in a house with a monster.

Kevin would have been better off with The Beast as his first alter. The Beast had rescued the little girl from Flores, he had rescued the silent children from King, he had rescued Casey…

The others had been right all along, Dennis truly was useless.

Casey sneezed.

Dennis moved stiffly into the next room. He grabbed his jacket hanging on the coatrack by the door and turned.

Casey was suddenly at his side, her arms wrapped tightly around his waist and her head buried in his chest.

Dennis settled his jacket on her shoulders. “You should really drink some tea.” He told her weakly. “Before that sneeze turns into something worse.”

“Please don’t leave me.” He felt Casey’s fingers dig into the back of his shirt and draw herself closer to him. He’d have to iron his shirt after he dropped her off at home.

He should also clean the kitchen again. If Casey was sick, he didn’t want the others to get sick, too. The entire apartment could use another mopping while he was at it. He should also clean up the utility closets again.

“You’d be better off if I did.” Dennis replied woodenly, mind bringing up chores he needed to get to.

Casey’s head snapped up, fury burning in her eyes. “No. I wouldn’t.”

Dennis felt heavy with exhaustion. He needed to take her back to her apartment so he could start cleaning. There was a lot he needed to do before he gave the others the light. “Casey-“

Casey’s hands pulled down his face until they were level. Her eyes were misted but her expression resolute. “You are not leaving me, Dennis.” She ordered fiercely.

Dennis brow twitched. “Casey, you don’t understand-“ Dennis tried again.

“No. You don’t understand.” Casey cut him off again with narrowed eyes. “What Kevin’s mother did was not your fault. You protected Kevin and all the others the only way you knew how. But you were a kid, too, Dennis. You can’t blame yourself for not killing her back then. Murder isn’t usually someone’s first thought.”

You thought of it.” Dennis retorted, straightening despite the warm hands still on his cheeks. Wasn’t Casey’s story just further proof of his weakness? Casey’s father had died when she was younger than Hedwig. She’d been clever enough to see her escape even back then.

Casey’s face remained set in determination, but her eyes became unfocused once more. It was her escape, he realized. She escaped from herself when she thought of her uncle. “John used to tell me it was a game. He said we were pretending to be animals.” Casey blinked, forcing herself back to the present. Her lips thinned. “Dad was a hunter. For me, shooting the animal was a natural thought. Mr. Pritchard said Kevin’s father was a corporate lawyer. It would’ve never been a natural thought for you.”

John had made it a game. He’d made her think as if- Dennis’s jaw clenched. “Why didn’t you shoot him?”

Casey’s eyes drifted, following her hands as they slipped down from his face to his shoulders. “I don’t know.” She murmured. “I just couldn’t.”

Dennis wished she had. She didn’t deserve the horrors she’d been forced to live through. No one ever did.

But Dennis had wondered before, when he’d realized how badly he’d failed Kevin if he even had it in himself to kill Kevin’s mother. Even knowing everything she had done. Even knowing all the pain the act would have prevented… Knowing Casey, willful and strong Casey, hadn’t been able to pull the trigger settled something in Dennis.

He would regret his inaction for the rest of his days, but…

Dennis sighed. “Did you want to sleep here tonight?”

Casey leaned forward and rested her forehead against his chest, taking a deep long breath. “I’ll stay with you.”

 


 

Their labyrinthine apartment boasted of more than a dozen rooms with most having been intended to be dorms.

Not that any of them had cared. The rooms were converted into whatever whimsy the alters had felt at that moment. There was a study for Orwell and Felicia, a sewing room for Barry, a tea parlor filled with stubborn flowers for Ansel and Norma, and the list just kept going.

Dennis had shared his room with Kevin and they had made it into an unremarkable bedroom. It had rough walls and bare floors, but had remained pristine and neat and felt perfect for them both…

Dennis hadn’t been inside while he had been banished. Afterwards, when they’d reclaimed the light and had been grudgingly welcomed back… Dennis still kept it impeccable, but he hadn’t been able to rest in that bed or feel at peace in that room while Kevin continued to sleep.

It was why, when Casey decided to stay and had helped him clean up, he led her into Hedwig’s room rather than his own.

Casey had laughed in delight at Hedwig’s wall, plastered in her drawings, and she had smiled fondly at the different toys, and Dennis had known he’d made the right choice.

Hedwig’s elephant nightlight bathed the room in a soothing yellow glow and his blanket decorated with cartoon lions was warm and comfortable. The hamster’s squeaky wheel kept the room from falling into complete silence and made the odd pipe noises seem almost natural.

The bed had seemed big enough in Dennis’s mind, but when Casey had laid down and he laid beside her, he realized just how small it actually was. Dennis had no choice but to cross his arms behind his head so Casey wouldn’t be forced against the wall. He considered, for a moment, sleeping on the floor, but banished the thought before he said a word.

It was selfish but having Casey pressed against him made him breathe easier. It should have felt strange. Dennis had never known touch that didn’t sting or ache or bleed, but with Casey, the only strangeness about it was how right it felt.

After they settled, Casey had curled into his side and Dennis had relaxed.

“You can always call.” Dennis broke the hush that had settled around them. He wasn’t sure she was still awake, but he had to tell her. She had to know before she put herself in danger again. “If you need us, we’ll go. Always. No matter the time.”

Casey shifted and moved until her head settled on his forearm. “I didn’t need you.” She replied softly. Dennis stiffened. “I just wanted to see you.”

Dennis stared down at her in confusion. Shadows lay heavy around the room, but he didn’t need to see her to know she was looking up at him.

“I hadn’t seen any of you all day.” Casey whined. “I missed you all, but night is the only real time I get to see you and,” he felt her shrug, “I just started walking.”

“You shouldn’t have gone walking alone at night.” Came his automatic reply.

Casey’s giggle was cut off by a yawn. She snuggled further into his side. “Sorry.”

Dennis chuckled at the complete lack of sincerity. He lowered his arm until it curved around her and his hand settled on her shoulder. “Next time just call.”

Casey settled her hand on his chest. “You could have called me.”

“You told us not to stop by.” Dennis retorted.

“I didn’t say anything about calling.” Casey murmured.

Dennis shook his head. The irony of her repeating his earlier thought not lost to him. “We didn’t want to bother you.”

“You never do.” Casey whispered sleepily. “I like talking to you, Dennis.”

Dennis drew her tighter. She sighed in response and he could practically feel her smiling against him.

No one had ever liked talking to Dennis. Actually, no one had ever liked anything about Dennis before. The most he could ever hope for was to be useful. Liked and wanted were fantasies better left as such. They were unreachable and beyond unlikely.

But Casey… She’d walked down dangerous streets in the middle of a cold night to see him because she’d wanted to. She had entered their apartment, a place she had always reasonably avoided, to talk to him.

And she’d stayed.

This place had to be kindle for her nightmares. She’d been caged like an animal and had been prepared to be slaughtered like one. Her friends had been murdered a few feet from her and he doubted she hadn’t been able to hear them scream.

Casey had even met The Beast right after his first feast. Right when there was no denying exactly whose blood he wore.

And she had still stayed.

Dennis still thought of himself as a failure. Regardless of what Casey said, he should have done something. It had been his responsibility. If he had only-

Casey’s fingers began to move against his chest in a soothing rhythm.

Dennis pushed away his doubts. Every caring gesture from Casey was always startling enough to derail his train of thought, but this time he pushed them back for her. She deserved to rest, and he knew she wouldn’t if she was worried about him. He focused on her and only her and hoped his scent would be enough to at least keep her safe in her dreams.

Dennis let his thumb stroke her arm and Casey’s hand slowed. He could tell she was already falling asleep.

She was falling into a peaceful sleep here. With him

The realization didn’t hit him suddenly, like a sledgehammer or a lightning bolt. It was almost like a wave, building and sweeping but not at all surprising despite its unexpectedness. It wasn’t really a realization either, it was more like an acceptance of a long known fact.

Norma had been right: Casey trusted him. Dennis brought out the green in her eyes.

Even after he’d spilled his failures and showed his weakness. Despite his compulsions and general unpleasantness, Casey trusted him completely and without hesitation.

Dennis would never be able to trust himself. He would never be able to forgive his mistakes or accept his failures. But if Casey trusted him…

Dennis let the hand that wasn’t on Casey’s shoulder settle above the one on his chest. Casey sighed his name in her sleep and Dennis felt himself truly relax for the first time in his existence.

Casey trusting him was enough. It was more than he had ever hoped for and it was all he needed.

Dennis closed his eyes and smiled, savoring the feel of her in his arms…

Until she wasn’t.

Dennis’ eyes snapped open in confusion. He jumped from his chair so suddenly it fell backwards with a loud bang that caused his ears to ring.

He didn’t hear the sleepy complaints or hear when they turned to shocked shouts and startled questions.

Dennis couldn’t hear anything beyond the ringing in his ears.

Not even the elated laugh that rumbled through the room.

Dennis didn’t register a sound past ringing until a single word was uttered in disbelief. A name belonging to a boy who had been asleep so long he was closer to death than life. A name belonging to the one who they’d all begun to lose hope in ever seeing again…

The name belonged to the person sitting in the light-

Kevin.”

Chapter Text

Casey was half asleep and half drunk on the scent of moonlight so when the scents shifted beneath her cheek, she didn’t even bother to open her eyes. She just shifted closer.

When charred salt began to burn away the memory of moonlight, Casey nearly whimpered at the loss. Her half-formed dream had been on the verge of defining the new scent and its disappearance left her feeling exhausted and empty.

Casey didn’t have time to mourn the disappearance. Fear lay like a suffocating blanket over the cacophony of scents beneath. The riot was so much worse than usual that Casey wasn’t even able to find his core taste of bleach and more than anything else, that was what really began to wake her.

Casey lifted her head from flesh that had begun to shift into trembling iron. “Dennis?”

She had thought his mind had settled. She’d believed that, at least for a moment, she’d finally given Dennis some peace. The whirlwind of scents laughed at her naivety.

Dennis stilled. The hand on her shoulder tightened. The one laying warm above hers shook. The heartbeat laying below pounded in reply. Sulfur rose.

“Dennis?” Casey asked again, hesitation laying thick in his name.

The body beside her wretched violently away from her touch and fell to the floor with a resounding thud and a near-silent whimper.

Casey was left cold. The blankets and his warmth had disappeared, but more than that Casey had realized she had no idea who had been lying next to her.

Casey had thought she’d met them all. She’d been certain she had…

Casey climbed out of Hedwig’s bed, careful not to step on the person who’s harsh breathing cut through the room with sulfur following each gasp.

Her hip met the sharp corner of the dresser. She flinched and set her hand against the rising bruise while the other searched for the light switch. Each sound, each scent, had her pressing further against her hip.

The person froze when yellow light bathed the room in artificial sunlight.

Blue eyes blinked at her. Chalk coated her throat.

Casey dug her fingers in her hip. “Hi?” Casey waved unsurely from the doorway.

They looked down and pulled at the blanket wrapped around them until they were able to stand. They swallowed, fingers fidgeting as their eyes jumped around the room. They were looking everywhere but at her.

“I’m Casey,” she tried again.

Blue eyes looked at her before skipping away.

Casey felt a knot twist in her chest. Her name meant nothing to them. This person, whoever they were didn’t know her. They’d never heard of her.

Had Casey been too forward with Dennis? Had she pushed him too far, too fast? Or told him something that became too much?

Had Casey broken Dennis into another piece?

Casey’s eyes caught a flash of red on their wrist. She took away her hand from her hip and flexed her fingers, feeling the matching red tie shift on her own wrist.

The stranger stood before her with their shoulder drawn and spine curved, trying to appear smaller… the same way Kat had the first time they’d met.

She took a deep breath and straightened. “What’s your name?”

They startled at her voice, taking a step back and tripping over the blanket. They fell with a bang and a groan.

Casey hurried forward, reaching forward and helping the stranger sit up.

Unfamiliar blue eyes in a familiar face stared at her in silence.

Calk choked her.

Casey stepped back, giving them distance.

They didn’t know her, she had to remind herself. Of course, they wouldn’t trust her.

“Do you want some tea?” She gestured uselessly behind her. “Dennis found like a dozen boxes earlier so there’s bound to be something you’d like. And at least half of them weren’t even open and the other half were all in individual wrappings. So, you know, you’re safe from germs and stuff. And I think I saw peppermint and chamomile? Norma swears by both. Or, if you don’t like tea, I’m sure there’s a coffee machine around here. I can’t imagine Samuel or Orwell surviving without coffee. Or juice? There has to be juice in the fridge. No way there isn’t. Goddard packed in like four different types in my fridge so there should be about that many here.” They continued to watch her from the floor. Casey struggled to find something else. “Oh! Water?” She looked at them hopefully. No reaction. “Milk?” She added, almost desperately. With so many cereals, they had to have milk… But they had been spending so much time at her place, what if they didn’t have any since they didn’t really need it? What if this new person wanted milk and Casey couldn’t follow through with her promise? How were they supposed to trust her if she’d basically lied to them already?

Casey bit her lip. She really hoped they didn’t want milk.

“Who are you?”

Casey blinked. Their voice was different, too. It held a different accent and smoother cadence. Their words were slower, said with an underlying care that caused Casey’s chest to ache. They even spoke with saltwater laying heavy on each word. Kat was the most fragile, yet not even her own voice held such heartbreak.

“I’m your friend.” Casey promised.

Jasmine spiked. Then was drowned by the stinging scent of burnt tires. “You were sleeping with Dennis.”

Casey shifted at the hard note of accusation in the soft tone. They weren’t wrong, exactly, but implication in the statement-

“How long-” They swallowed again, adams apple bobbing with the motion. “How long have you two…?” They trailed off.

“Dennis and I are friends. We were just sleeping.” Casey snapped, face heating. “I trust him. Why doesn’t anyone-“ Casey dug her teeth into her tongue and cut off her words. She may had this conversation before, but there was no reason to get upset at this person. Barry had known better. She couldn’t say the same about the newcomer.

She sighed and turned her attention towards Hedwig’s hamster and his beady black eyes. At least someone in the room seemed to be enjoying this conversation.

Casey took a deep breath to ground herself. Curiosity and rainwater greeted her.

She focused on the stranger again. They were still sitting on the floor, but the distrust had gone and she could practically see the questions forming in their eyes.

“You trust Dennis?”

“Yes.”

Jasmine threaded between drops of rain. They narrowed their eyes. “Why?”

Casey grit her teeth. She reminded herself of the hope in their scent and forced herself to calm down. “Because he’s never given me a reason not to.” She paused. “Well, he did when we first met,” she corrected, remembering exactly where they were, “but he’s good at his core,” she quickly assured them, “and I trust him.”

They studied their hands. “I always thought so, too.”

Casey frowned. The whisper had been more of a puff of air than words and Casey wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. They had always-

Their head snapped up. “Dennis had the light.” Their face twisted. “He was banished-“ Charred salt returned with sulfur at its heels. “They were so angry. I always figured it’d be years before-“ Their breathing stuttered. “What day is it?”

Casey tilted her head. How could they have known-

They scrambled to their feet, hands shaking and tearful eyes desperate. “I was on a bus.” They began. “I was on a bus and… Is it still September 18, 2014?”

Realization froze Casey’s blood.

He continued to look at her expectantly, desperation heavy with charcoal.

Casey slowly shook her head.

Kevin crumbled.

 


 

Casey set the kettle on the stove while she thought of rainwater.

Casey had always wondered what Kevin’s scent would be. Other than his name and the refrain “Kevin needs us,” Casey knew nothing about him. There was always pain and sadness whenever his name was mentioned and Casey hadn’t had the heart to prod further. Maybe if there had been a hint of hope? Or a wisp of… something positive. Instead there was fear and heartbreak and regret, and it tied her tongue and sealed her lips.

Casey chastised herself. She was beginning to realize her silence was causing her causing her problems that could’ve been avoided with a few questions.

Like what Kevin was like.

She began to take down the tea boxes Dennis had just recently put away.

Rainwater. That was all she had to go on. Well, that and the hope that had filled the air when she said she trusted Dennis.

Casey glanced over her shoulder. Kevin was sitting at the table, head in his hands. Vinegar warred with charcoal while saltwater drowned them all.

Casey blinked back tears and turned back to the tea she was making. She didn’t know why she was making it. Kevin hadn’t asked for it. Casey didn’t want any. But it kept her hands occupied while she thought about him.

Casey felt out of her depth. She had managed to coax Kevin into the kitchen, hands hovering but never touching while the mixture of his scents made her chest hurt. He was just so… it was a brokenness beyond broken. It was… Casey swallowed her sob.

But he was important and she had to do what she could. All of them were important, of course, but Kevin… he was the beginning. He was the root. He was shattered and while his pieces had names, they also held that same bleeding edge. Even Hedwig, with toothy grins all oranges and freedom still held darkness beneath his laughs.

Maybe, if she helped Kevin…

Casey closed her eyes and focused on Kevin’s scent. She focused on the core, beneath all the heartbreak. Kevin was the smell of rain...

She remembered her father, sitting on the porch with his feet propped on the railing and cigarette hanging between his fingers. His head tilted back as he listened to the soft patter of raindrops against the panels of the porch’s roof. He seemed half-asleep with a soft smile on his lips and his eyes closed.

Casey remembered racing out into the rain to play in the puddles, her father’s scolding tone following behind, laced with laughter and giving her unspoken permission. Casey would twirl beneath the downpour, little hands reaching for the clouds while droplets kissed her upturned face. Their gentle touch and the sight of water swirling around her always made her feel magical.

She remembered, scars burning on her shoulders and bleeding in her heart as she wandered into the rain, roaring her pain to the storm. Where everyone could hear, when no one would notice. Not even her Uncle sleeping a thin wall away. The thunder answered with a bellow that shook her soul and the rain stung as it hit her battered flesh, but she felt soothed. It had felt as if the storm was crying with her.

Casey poured steaming water into two mugs.

Rain existed in both light and darkness…

Casey set a mug in front of Kevin and took a seat beside him with her own.

Kevin remained huddled in his seat.

Casey licked her lips. “Water’s ready in case you want tea.”

Kevin’s shoulders tensed.

“Or coffee.” She added.

His fingers gripped his skull. “How long have I been asleep?” he demanded, gasoline laying thick in his words.

Rain could bruise the earth with its anger and fury…

Casey wrapped her hands around her mug. Her fingers felt numb. He’d been asleep since 2014-

“Years.” She admitted reluctantly.

Kevin whimpered and his hands began to shake again. Between one breath and the next, the anger and fear had dissolved and left only fear with its charred salt taste heavy on her tongue.

Casey cautiously laid her hand on his arm. Kevin’s whimpering stopped.

“They’re doing better.” She tried.

His watery gaze peeked at her between his fingers, hope a dim glimmer buried beneath misery.

Casey smiled in a way she prayed was reassuring. “They’re sharing the light and working together.”

Kevin raised his head. Eyes wide and wet, the glimmer became a gleam. “They are?”

Casey nodded enthusiastically. “And Samuel even told me that they’re now taking turns during their sessions with Dr. Fletcher.”

“We’re still seeing the doc?” Kevin asked, lowering his hands.

“Every Thursday from 1 to 3.” Casey recited dutifully.

Kevin sniffled. “And they all get the light?” He asked with narrowed eyes. “All of them?”

“Every single one of them.” Casey promised.

Kevin looked hesitant.

Rain could be so gentle it was almost invisible…

“I see Barry and Dennis every day. They both work in the zoo and mostly take turns.” She elaborated. “Goddard makes breakfast every morning and a few days ago we even made dinner together while he played me his favorite playlist. Kat and I walked around the park for a few hours last week and I even played on the swings and the slide with Hedwig for a while.”

The tears had dried from Kevin’s eyes.

Casey felt herself relax. “I watched a horror movie with Luke which he completely ruined by talking through, but I liked it better that way. It made it almost funny. Then the next night I watched an action one with Jade while she did my nails.” Casey wiggled her blue tipped fingers. There had been sharpie drawing on them but they’d washed off before too long.

Kevin’s lips tilted.

“B.T. is teaching me how to drive, even though I don’t want to learn.” She rolled her eyes.

Kevin was riveted.

“I went grocery shopping with Ansel and had lunch with Heinrich. Heinrich even told me about this cute book he’d read and I though it sounded really sweet but didn’t find it in the library last time I went. Norma took me to some plant place, and we got to see a bunch of pretty plants I don’t remember the name of. Mary and Ian are teaching me how to play poker.” She narrowed her eyes. “But I’m pretty sure they’re cheating although I don’t know enough to be sure. I went to the museum with Orwell and he told me the history about a bunch of painting. Then, later that night, Felicia made up stories for all the paintings we’d seen and Bernice and I tried to redraw the stories she’d told us.”

Kevin gave a soft laugh.

“Patricia is trying to sign us up for knitting lessons and Jalin is having an absolute field-day with that. You know, he calls me Granny?” Casey scowled without any heat. It was hard to get mad at the nickname that reminded her of the first time they’d met.

Kevin laughed again, this time a little louder. This time, there was lavender in the sound and jasmine around the room.

“Mr. Pritchard spent an hour or so telling me about Koi fish and their symbolism in movies. Samuel and I ended up going to about a dozen pet stores and just looking at the fish afterwards. And playing with the puppies.” Casey admitted. Samuel had seemed at ease with the animals, but they both knew that getting a furry creature would cause chaos for Dennis and neither was sure how it would react to The Beast.

“Rakel helped me with my resume, Polly helped me with my interview, and I found a job thanks to them.” Although, it wasn’t the best job, it was close to her apartment, and that had been the biggest job perk when she’d gotten the waitress position at the restaurant down the block.

“Who are you?” Kevin’s voice was steady now and there was only curiosity in his eyes.

“I’m your friend.” Casey repeated. She gently squeezed his arm. “At least, I’d like to be?”

Kevin’s brow creased. “Why?”

Casey studied him. She let her nose pull apart his scents.

Kevin still didn’t trust her, not quite. There was too much chalk for her to believe that. There was still vinegar and charcoal and Casey didn’t have to know the details to know why Kevin had gone to sleep for so long.

But there was so much hope, tasting like jasmine and making his eyes bright, and even if Kevin didn’t believe her, she knew he wanted to.

Rain was complicated. It was chaotic with its inconstancies and graceful in its fluidity. It was the same water, recycled between air and earth, and yet it changed each time. Rain was life.

She smiled. “Because we understand each other.”

 


 

Patricia looked at the untouched mugs of water and the boxes of tea on the table and wondered for the millionth time in the last couple of hours, what exactly had happened between Casey and Dennis that had woken Kevin?

It had been chaos when they had realized. A few of them were confused, some even frightened, but all of them were stunned to see Kevin alert and in the light.

And Dennis had stood, his chair laying haphazardly and forgotten on the ground while his eyes remained locked on Kevin and his usually closed expression was twisted, pale, and terrified.

They’d all fallen silent and still when Rakel pointed out that Kevin had left himself open. Not even Hedwig had made a noise as they watched Kevin struggle through his first waking moments.

Patricia had no idea what Casey was doing there or even when she’d arrived, but she was grateful for her presence. She didn’t want to wonder how Kevin would have reacted without Casey there to calm him.

Patricia got to her feet. She emptied the mugs and put away the tea boxes, noting the shelves had been reorganized. Casey had mentioned something about Dennis making her tea, hadn’t she?

Patricia smiled in satisfaction as she washed both mugs. Casey was in their apartment.

She’d been sleeping with Dennis when Kevin had come into the light. So much had happened, Patricia had nearly overlooked it. Casey was here and she had been willing to stay. In the same place where they had met and The Beast had had his first feast. Casey had declined every invitation to return. She’d refused to ever come back but now, despite her previous sentiment, she was here.

Patricia heard the door at her back swing open as she dried the mugs and put them away.

“Patricia?”

She turned to see Casey paused in the doorway, worry written across her features. “Did Kevin…?” Patricia noted the way Casey shifted on her feet and her hands clenched. “I was only gone a few minutes.”

Patricia made her way over to Casey. She pushed back a wayward strand of dark hair behind Casey’s ear. “Kevin is still awake.”

There was relief in Casey’s smile that was echoed in the softness of her eyes and Patricia was certain she’d never been so fond of anyone else as she was of Casey.

Patricia let her hand settle on Casey’s cheek and Casey instantly leaned into Patricia’s touch.

Patricia let her thumb caress the smooth skin. The others were being foolish with their tentativeness. Patricia had no doubt that Casey was as ready as they were.

“Is he going to be alright?”

How could she not be when she obviously cared so much for all of them?

“Don’t you worry, little doe.” Patricia soothed. “We’ll make sure he will be.”

Casey seemed almost to deflate at the reassurance. Patricia ran her thumb beneath Casey’s eye. “You haven’t slept much, have you?”

Casey stifled a yawn and looked down in embarrassment, scarlet blossoming on her cheeks.

Patricia chuckled.

Casey held up the phone in her hand. “I just called Ted and asked him to cover your shift today,” Casey announced quickly. She frowned as if realizing what she’d said. “Is that ok?” She shifted. “I mean, I’ve heard Barry talk about Ted and I know Andrew is technically your second in command or whatever it’s called but Ted was actually in your contacts unlike Andrew. Plus Dennis said Ted is better at his job then Andrew despite being newer, and-“

“That’s fine, Casey.” Patricia cut off her speech. “Barry asked me to call for a replacement, so you saved me the trouble.” Barry had asked her to call Ted, but she didn’t see how it would matter as long as they had a cover.

Besides, Patricia’s primary reason for volunteering to take the light when Kevin had stepped back was to talk to Casey, not their job. Patricia ran her fingers over Casey’s unmarked jaw, remembering the first time they’d met.

“We’re all going to be out of the light for a few hours.” Patricia continued slowly. While Casey may have shown her strength and her trust in them by coming back here, Patricia still needed to push the girl a step farther. “We have a lot to talk to Kevin about.”

Casey bit her lip. Patricia used her thumb to coax the lips from between her teeth. She had seen Casey clutch her hip. One bruise was already one too many.

Casey blinked. Her throat moved as she swallowed. “Did you want me to leave?” her voice came out in an almost whisper.

“I’d prefer it if you stayed.” Patricia replied honestly. The others had wanted to send Casey home while they talked to Kevin. Patricia disagreed and was amused to notice a lack of protest in her decision. “There’s plenty of books and movies in the cupboards and Orwell has an entire bookshelf in his and Felicia’s room.” Patricia tempted. “And I know neither Barry nor Bernice, nor even Hedwig will mind if you use any of their art supplies.”

Casey still looked uncertain.

“Please,” Patricia forced herself to say. Something had woken Kevin. It was obvious Casey was involved. Despite what the others might believe, they needed Casey to stay. Kevin was a fragile boy and what they had to tell him had the possibility of proving too much. If it came to the point that they couldn’t reach Kevin, Casey had already proven she could. Right now, they needed her to stay close for Kevin’s sake. “We need you to stay.”

Casey took a deep breath. She straightened and gave a sharp nod.

Patricia smiled proudly. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Casey’s forehead. “Thank you, little doe.”