Chapter 1: The Great Disappointment
As it often happens, I was listening to music and got inspired to write part of what ended up being the second chapter of this story and decided to flesh it out. Dennis and Barry's relationship has always been super fascinating to me, or maybe more accurately the relationship fandom has carved out for them. I wanted to explore what life was like before the Beast. What happened in the final weeks before his emergence and the rise of the Horde? What choices had to be made on either side to try and save Kevin's life?
My children, I had to know
Does this taste like Hell?
How I envy you the most
What you must be feeling
How I envy you the most
This must be me dreaming
How I envy you the most
Once you stop breathing
Please don't resist, it won't take long
It was never supposed to be like this. They were all there for Kevin, but things wouldn’t work if the others refused to play their part. It was understandable that Dennis was scared, desperate even. But why couldn’t he see that his supposed path to salvation was the same path that only the wicked tread? He knew that they walked a fine line between functional and suicidal every day, why tip the balance towards death?
Barry paced in the darkness, beyond the room with the chairs and the light. This was where Kevin slept, and where Barry came to collect his thoughts when he had the rare moment of spare time. Normally when not in the light, he spent the day consulting with the rest of the System as their de facto…well, "leader" wasn’t the right word, but it was the one Dr. Fletcher always chose to use. He could never remember exactly how it came to be-if by vote or if that was just how he was born, he couldn’t say; he retained few memories from that time of his life.
In the end it didn’t matter, there was no directive needed for him to feel a deep sense of responsibility towards the others, no matter how much some of them may have resented him for it. Even now he could feel Dennis’s eyes boring into the back of his head, sitting in his chair with arms clasped so tightly against his chest that that they were shaking.
They called Dennis “Guardian” once upon a time because he was something out of a myth, the guardian at the gate that kept out all but the most worthy from their beloved Kevin. But now he was a man betrayed, or so he felt; and in honesty Barry could not begrudge him the feeling. But what else did Dennis expect him to do? Barry couldn’t allow the eldest to lead them astray, no matter how much it hurt him to see his brother suffering.
Cain and Abel
Romulus and Remus
Set and Osiris
Lucifer and Michael
Barry was no philosopher, but he had to assume the story of brother versus brother was a story forever retold for a reason. It was the great wound on the psyche of humanity that mankind reenacted again and again; reenacted until one day they would learn the lessons of the past and stop being so cruel to the ones they loved.
They were brothers once upon a time, but Dennis had come to resent the comparison. At first the rejection had hurt because if any of the alters could truly be considered siblings, it would be the two of them. While everyone served their purpose, they were the Macrocosm of Kevin’s universe, protecting and shepherding their host. Barry was the elemental Water to Dennis’s Earth, flowing and smoothing out any fissures that somehow snuck through Dennis’s rock solid defenses. Dennis was the shield to Barry’s balm, and while Barry had no complaints in letting Dennis safeguard their body, Dennis would never allow him to return the favor. Not anymore. Not since….not since Penelope Crumb had gotten between them.
She tainted everything she touched.
Years ago she had confronted Barry after seeing photographs of him at prom with another boy, insisting that she wasn’t raising a “fucking faggot”. She ended up beating him so severely that they couldn’t get out of bed for a week. Dennis didn’t make it to the light until Penelope had cracked several of their ribs, and he carried the guilt around ever since.
It wasn't pain one man should have to deal with alone, but despite Barry’s attempts at getting him to open up, he never spoke of it again. It was obvious in the way their relationship changed that the experience left a mark on him- he guarded the light with a possessiveness that bordered on frightening when it came time to interact with the Crumb matriarch. It was a noble (if misguided) way to protect the System, and Dennis was usually wise enough that Barry never felt the need to question his decisions; he had enough to deal with as it was. But lately though…lately….
It had all come to a head earlier that day. Dennis was in an exceedingly good mood, something that was happening more and more frequently. It always made Barry’s hackles raise, as he could only attribute Dennis’s cheer to his time spent with the darkened Priestess and those stories of a dreadful Beast she had been waxing on about. A Beast who had supposedly reached out to her and prophesied a future marked by evolution, hunger, and terror. Barry didn’t know how that was in any way comforting, but then again Barry didn’t understand a lot about Dennis anymore.
And anyway, what did they need a Beast for? They were already extraordinary, Dr. Fletcher told them as much every time she saw them, and the good doctor was not known to hand out praise indiscriminately. The very fact they were able to consciously see and interact with each other, something the average person could only accomplish in dreams or under the influence, was astounding. Fletcher was convinced that with the System’s permission, studying Kevin could help psychologists understand human consciousness far beyond their current meager comprehension. That was pretty tight, and definitely didn’t involve eating people alive. Wasn't that a more worthwhile goal to pursue?
Barry had kept watching Dennis on and off all afternoon, observing how he moved with an easy, loping grace he rarely possessed. The sight was so mesmerizing that Barry couldn’t help himself and eventually had made his way over to see what had put him so at ease. He shooed Jade away from her chair with a grin and a wink before claiming it for himself, reclining against it.
“What’s good, Dennis?”
Dennis had his chin tucked and arms crossed against his massive chest in a meditative pose, but his eyes cracked open when he heard Barry sit down next to him. “Not sure I wanna tell you,” he admitted, although he was smiling.
“And why would that be?” Barry acted the part of nonchalant as he crossed his legs, but his interest was beyond piqued.
“Gonna ruin my good mood.”
“You’re a good mood, huh? Could have fooled me." He was teasing and Dennis knew it. It was true that most people would not be able to look at the grim man and read any sort of emotion in his face, but Barry was not most people.
Dennis finally opened his eyes all the way to pin Barry with a look. “I’m serious. There’s no way you don’t already know I was with Patricia, and I really don’t want to ha-”
“Oh come on.”
“See? That’s what I’m talking about.” He sat up straighter, his wisp of a smile now gone. “I don’t really feel like dealing with your ridicule right now. In fact, I’d appreciate a break from the group’s collective disdain for the time being.”
Ouch. Dennis had always been a little sensitive when he felt like he was being picked on, but never with Barry, he knew better. “No one is disdainful of you, least of all me.”
Getting up from his chair, Dennis started pacing, his eyes telling Barry he was full of shit. “You think I don’t hear the whispers? Notice them staring at me?”
Well, that was true, but certainly not for the reasons Dennis was thinking. “Look, this Beast stuff has got everyone on edge, and don’t tell me ya don’t understand why. We’re worried about you is all. Would it kill ya to relax a little? Everyone would feel a lot better if ya didn’t walk around looking like you wanted to throat punch us all.”
Dennis cracked a smile again. So close.
Barry’s problem, if he had one, was that at times he could be a bit…much. In his mind, there wasn't any issue in the world that couldn’t be solved with a little TLC, and maybe some alcohol, preferably both. While that was usually fine, not everyone had the energy to deal with his exuberance constantly. So while it would have been a lie to claim that he didn't know he was pushing his luck, he couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to try and clear the tension in the air.
Slyly, he turned around to wrap fingers around Dennis’s waist and squeezed, watching with pleasure as the bigger man nearly jumped out of his skin before frantically trying to get away, choking back on the laughter that was clawing its way out of his throat.
His reaction was everything Barry could have hoped for and he pressed the attack, tickling every area Dennis left open in his desperate bid to escape. Many of the other alters sat in quiet shock as their Guardian was rendered helpless, his voice pleading and hysterical. While easily the strongest of the pair, Dennis wasn’t as lithe, and couldn’t lock Barry down and shield his body at the same time.
At first the struggle was somewhat enjoyable as he tried to fend off the friendly assualt, bringing to mind their younger years, but as usual Barry didn't know when to stop. Pain Dennis could take, but this sort of touch was becoming unbearable; in fact he hadn’t even known it was possible for someone like him, so incredibly hardened, to be so ticklish. Annoyance began to flare up, heat pooling in his chest; this was just one more weakness to be rooted out and destroyed. He gathered his strength and forced Barry off violently, managing to send the younger alter sprawling to the floor.
“Knock it off,” he snarled, embarrassed that he had temporarily been bested, and worse, in front of everyone else. His fingers itched to do more than just shove and he balled his fists up, trying to get his anger under control.
The mirth in Barry’s eyes indicated he wasn’t aware of how horribly close to danger he was. “Come on, it’s nice to hear ya laugh. Having fun once in a while won’t kill you, lighten up!”
What a moronic sentiment. “Lighten up? Why don’t you grow up? There’s NOTHING to laugh about. What exactly about our life seems humorous to you?”
Realizing that Dennis was no longer playing in any way, Barry sobered; anger was not the goal. Dennis rarely laughed freely, but perhaps Barry had indulged his playful appetite a little too recklessly. “I’m sorry. I was just messing around, I didn’t mean-”
“Shut up Barry. Go find some kittens to save from a tree, or do whatever it is you still hang around here to do. Let those of us with an actual purpose work in peace.”
The room grew quieter, Barry’s hurt palpable to everyone but the most dormant alter. His initial impulse was to slink away and go nurse his wounds, but then a wave of resentment flooded him. He was sick and tired of having to tiptoe around Dennis’s feelings, never sure what would set the other man off. They were supposed to take care of Kevin together, but Dennis kept pushing him away. How COULD he do his job if Dennis never worked with him anymore? It was like asking the earth to keep up the status quo while the sun refused to set and let the moon shine.
Convinced of his rightness, Barry grew bold. “You’re the one shirking your job, Dennis!”
All other conversation in the room died and every set of eyes turned to observe the pair intently, but Barry wasn’t backing down. “You’re supposed to be watching out for us, but the only thing ya watch anymore is the teenage girls at work!”
Dennis’s voice lowered but remained dangerously calm. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
If he was trying to talk Barry out of believing what he saw with his own eyes, Dennis had another thing coming. “I know you’re a fucking degenerate that’s gonna get our ass fired one of these days! I’ve tried to be patient with you, but you’re making it really, really difficult.”
Dennis closed the distance between them in a few steps, getting in Barry's face, nose to nose. “Who are you to judge me? Who made you king?”
“I don’t need to be king when I control the light!”
The rage in Dennis’s eyes immediately shifted to cold flame and the muscles in his face slackened, impassive. “Good for you, Barry. The light loves you, light has always loved you.” He turned away from his friend. “Just…stay in your goddamn lane before you get hurt.”
Did…did he just threaten him?
“Or what? Or you’ll get your Beast to eat me?” Barry wasn’t stupid, he knew that if it ever came down to brute force he would lose. He wasn’t even sure if alters could actually do permanent damage to each other, never thought he would have to find out. But he wasn’t going to let the possibility stop him from trying to avert disaster.
Then Dennis did something surprising. He pulled Barry into a bear hug, squeezing so hard it bordered on painful. Barry hesitantly returned the embrace, feeling Dennis's muscles tremble beneath his fingertips.
“You can laugh, but the Beast, he’s seen me! He’s spoken to me! He understands my pain, Barry. Our pain.”
There was no other combination of words in the universe that could have hurt Barry more, and the younger alter tensed, trying to keep the pain from his voice. “But...that’s my job.”
“And my job was to protect Kevin.” Dennis abruptly let Barry go and turned towards the outer darkness. Somewhere in the blackest black, Kevin was asleep, and they could not wake him. “We’re not enough, Barry. He hasn’t woken up in a long time. When the ones who haven’t suffered start to disappear, maybe then it will be safe enough, the world will be pure enough for him to exist again.”
Barry blinked, trying to twist the words around in his head to mean something harmless, something other then what Dennis obviously intended. “What do you mean ‘disappear’? You’re scaring me.” His chest constricted so tightly he thought that maybe this was what dying was like.
"You know what the Beast requires."
Oh hell no. Barry shook his head vehemently.“No…no! Ya don’t get to do this. Ya don’t get to go off on some fucked up crusade and leave me to pick up the pieces. We have a life, Dennis, and we're making it work. And ya want to play at being Freddy fucking Kruger? You wanna go after kids?”
“Not kids...the impure." Excitement lit his eyes up but the shine was feverish and glassy, unhealthy. "The Beast takes that which is impure and consumes it, turning it into something sacred. That is the secret alchemy philosophers and sorcerers have sought for thousands of years, the conversion of dross to gold!”
Impure…sacred…alchemy. Yeah, Dennis definitely wasn’t coming up with this bullshit on his own. The man was smart, but hell if he went around reading about alchemy. That was more Patricia or Orwell’s speed, and Orwell certainly wasn’t entertaining ideas like this. And surely he wasn't serious, he was just blowing off steam. If Barry just kept reiterating what Dennis was getting at, maybe the insanity of it it would get through his thick skull.
“Patricia is a sociopath, Dennis. Are ya even listening to yourself right now? You. Want. To hurt. Children! Tell me right now that you're deadass."
Dennis remained silent and grim, the jagged slivers of grey in his eyes muddying the blue, turning them unrecognizable.
God, he was fucking serious, and that left Barry furious.
“PATRICIA!” He roared, voice echoing through their twilight room.
A few tense moments of silence passed before her shadow slowly separated from the darkness. “No need to shout, Dove, I’m here.” She moved up behind Barry like a big cat stalking a lesser animal, holding her hands placidly in front of her waist. She acknowledged Dennis with a slight nod of the head, but otherwise waited for Barry to explain the outburst.
Barry obliged. "Getting real sick of your shit, Trish. You're supposed to be our spiritual center, what is this Beast crap you're pushing?"
She regarded him dispassionately. "It was never meant for your ears. Pearls before swine, and all that."
Humorlessly, Barry grinned. "That's pretty funny, considering we're all sick to death of hearing about it." He turned from Patricia to address the rest of the alters. "You hear that? Patricia isn't working for Kevin anymore, she admits it!"
As far as Patricia was concerned, Barry was just a little boy playing politics. Normally she indulged him so that she could be left alone to her work, but the time for action was drawing closer. It was now time to face the enemy head on. "Just when I thought I couldn't be any more disappointed in you. Well, what can I say? You never fail to surprise me, Barry. Of course I still work on behalf of Kevin, he's the only thing that matters."
Rakel, bless her pacifist heart, sidled up to Barry's side before he could snap back, putting a gentle hand on his arm. "Maybe we should all step back and-”
Her interception gave Barry a moment or two to pause and regroup, but he was too heated for any respite. “No, this has gone on long enough. We’re putting a stop to this once and for all.” Barry raised his voice again so that everyone could hear. "Ok fam, despite Patricia's fervent wishes, this is still a democracy. How many of ya wanna go all Ted Bundy up in here and see if this Beast is real?”
A lone hand was raised, waving with enthusiasm, and Barry’s heart squeezed against his chest. Despite being a child and not knowing better, surely Hedwig knew enough about life to understand that killing was wrong?
“Alright Hedwig, duly noted,” he muttered under his breath. “And all who never want to hear another word about this goddamn Beast again?”
In the blink of an eye every alter short of Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig had their hands raised, shooting looks of disapproval and derision at their Guardian and Priestess. Barry rocked back on his heels and turned to look at the two. “And there you have it, no one is buying what you're selling, Patricia. Can we get back to normalcy now?”
Denis grit his teeth, jaw flexing so hard it looked like he might burst a blood vessel. “And if we don’t?”
For a moment Barry was unable to parse the question; they had always done things by vote, and the results were rarely, if ever, questioned.
“I’m sorry? If you don’t what? If you don’t stop making plans to eat kids?”
“You don’t get to dictate our beliefs to us!"
Barry tried not to laugh, unsuccessfully. "That's not a belief, it's a fucking nightmare."
"You have no idea what a real nightmare is!"
Barry was a man of words, Dennis of action, so they would never see eye to eye, and Dennis would never...could never explain why he was willing to do the unthinkable. No matter how much they may come to despise each other, Dennis was still Guardian, still held their vile secrets so that all the rest could dream without waking up screaming every night. His voice broke. “Why do you want to take away our one shot at happiness?”
Compassion inundated Barry, he had no idea what Dennis even wanted from him. “How is that...I don’t understand what’s going on with ya anymore. Talk to me, babyboy." He took a deep breath, solemn, but smiled in an attempt to be reassuring. "We can still work this out, I promise.”
“I do that and I fail all of you.”
“We’re not as fragile as you think! Why don’t ya at least try?”
"He doesn't want to try, he wants to carry out his pervy little fantasies," Goddard interrupted from the back of the room. "We've got our very own John Wayne Gacy in the making here."
The twins nodded their collective agreement. "Ye should send them out to the darkness," Mary suggested.
Ian's thinking was a bit more extreme. "Or maybe we just kill them. Aren't they too fierce, now?"
This was spiraling out of control, and fast. "Hold up, the point is no one is killing anyone!" Barry understood Ian was just blowing smoke, but shot him a glare anyway.
"Ah? So when the day comes that ye go to the light an' see our hands covered in blood, so what then? We 'av a bit of tea with our heart an' liver?"
The idea stopped Barry cold, and he stared at Dennis forlornly, silently begging for him to give them an easy out. This entire mess was predicated on the belief that the Beast was real, so if Dennis could just get his head out of his ass...
Dennis turned away, scowling and refusing to return Barry's heartfelt gaze. "Do what you gotta do, then."
"Dennis, please, I don't wanna-"
“SAY IT, YOU SPINELESS CUNT! ”
For a brief moment Barry reeled, feeling like he had just been hit. Then the fury came. “FINE. You know what, since we're doing whatever the hell we want without regard for anyone else, ya can have all the fucked up beliefs ya want!"
Dennis’s eyes burned with rage. He knew what was coming.
“You and Patricia? You’re both BANISHED from the light, ya hear me? Ya wanna act like a fucking psycho, be my guest, but you're not putting the rest of us at risk!”
Surprisingly, Patricia's only reaction was to wipe away tears of pride, practically worshiping Dennis with her gaze, but Dennis himself looked like he was about to punch a hole through Barry's chest.
Instead, he briskly turned on his heels and stormed away, and Barry had retreated quickly to the darkness, afraid and unsure. No one made him judge or jury, but he was the only one that could control who did and did not get to have the light, so the responsibility fell to him. He fucking hated it. How did it get out of hand so fast? Just an hour ago they were trying to come to terms, and now Dennis, the one most like his own theoretical flesh and blood, despised him. Deep down Barry knew that it was the only real course of action, so why did he feel like Judas?
Moving to the edge of the abyss, he reached out to the darkness with his entire heart and soul, knowing that Kevin was out there somewhere. Kevin...and something else? Grief flooded through him, and he turned his chin up to the blackness, defiant.
"Ya out there, motherfucker?! Come on, prove you're real!" he yelled out into the vast expanse, but, as expected, there was no reply. Looking into the sea of inky darkness, it was easy to imagine all sorts of terrible things lurking just beyond, but it couldn't be true, it couldn't. Kevin resided there, and if something wicked was being born alongside him, Barry couldn't protect him, couldn't even locate him. That was Dennis's job...
Heavy-hearted, Barry came back from his meditation somehow feeling even worse. He trudged back to his chair, placed at the front of the room closest to the light, closest to consciousness. He dreaded walking past Dennis, but when his eyes landed on the other man he saw that he was no longer moving. His heart picked up speed briefly and he hurried over, looking to Jade for an explanation. She just shrugged.
"Probably wore the cocksucker out with all the carrying on you two were doing. Not that he didn't deserve it. Seriously, good on you for growing some balls, those two freaks were odee."
Barry ignored the commentary, too concerned to engage in their usual banter. The alters could sleep while not in the light, but the statuesque position of Dennis's body was strange, stiff and unnerving. "Is he...sleeping?"
"Uh, obviously." Jade rolled her eyes, clearly not seeing what Barry was seeing. "I wouldn't recommend waking him though, he looked like he wanted to wring your scrawny neck all afternoon."
"Yeah..ok. Thanks Jade."
For five weeks Dennis remained in what appeared to be a deep sleep, not once stirring from his chair. While asleep, Barry often stayed by his side, telling him stories from their past, stories where Dennis acted as their bulwark against hopelessness, giving Kevin the strength to keep going. He feared Dennis was falling dormant, but also secretly wondered if maybe that would be for the best, so long as it was temporary. He never could have known that while Dennis slept, he was communing with something far darker than any of them could ever comprehend.
On the first day of the sixth week, Dennis woke up with violence in his eyes.
Chapter 2: Not By Blood
A recounting of when
Todd and CopperBarry and Dennis first met.
Barry and Dr. Fletcher try to figure out how to best help Dennis
I had originally planned three chapters for this story, than cut it down to two, now it's back to three for the time being. I started writing about Dennis and Barry's childhood and most of it came super easily, so I figured it was meant to be.
When Barry had first come into existence, things were very unfocused for a while- blurry, hazy. One moment there was nothing, and the next he just was. Bits of memories occasionally came to him in dreams or therapy sessions, but he couldn't be sure if they were real or just a product of growing up in such an unorthodox environment.
Was he born? Was he taken from a piece of Kevin and formed, like Eve from Adam’s rib? When Kevin's bones broke under the weight of his mother’s hand, maybe a shard had fallen to the ground, only to be the catalyst for Barry’s new life. Or perhaps it was reincarnation gone wrong. Maybe he was a spirit meant to go to a brand-new body, but somehow he became tethered to the room with chairs and so many other, disparate souls.
Sometimes in the fantasy movies Luke liked to watch, sorcerers called demons up from hell to do their bidding. Was Kevin an unknowing wizard, and the alters just spirits that had been evoked, possessing their original? Barry didn’t think he was from hell, but often in his worst moments, it seemed like that was where he had ended up.
Whatever he was, it was always a great source of amusement that his first memory was of Dennis. That had always stuck solidly in his mind, for whatever reason. As he opened his eyes in his first act of conscious choice, he saw a young boy with glasses looming over him. He was much bigger, kind of intimidating, face pinched into an angry scowl and Barry wanted to crack a joke about personal space (so he’s always been a smart ass, a source of pride, really).
But before any words could actually come out of his mouth, he realized that this much bigger boy was, in reality, tired and scared and…
“You’re sad,” was the first thing Barry ever said to Dennis, to anyone.
Taken aback, the boy’s eyebrows shot up his face and his features softened. “I don’t remember seeing you around before.” He didn’t acknowledge Barry’s observation. “Who are you?”
That was a great question. Who was he? He looked around at his surroundings, at a loss. “I don’t know. Where are we? Who are you?”
The other boy remained silent for a few moments, seizing Barry up with his steely eyes before responding. “My name is Dennis and this is the chair room. It’s where we stay when we’re not helping Kevin.”
That meant nothing to Barry. “Who is Kevin?”
Dennis pointed a few feet over to his right. Just beyond them were multiple rows of chairs set around a glowing light with no discernible source. Some of the chairs were occupied with other sleeping children and a few adults, but it was the kid in the middle that Dennis was indicating. From where Barry stood, he could see chestnut hair and a slim build, but not much else made him stand out from the others.
“Can I go say 'hi'?”
“No, he’s sleeping.”
“Can’t we wake him up?”
Briefly, Dennis looked like he was about to cry. “No. That’s why we gotta help him, ‘cause he’s too tired to stay in the light for long.”
“What’s the light?”
“You’ll know, when it’s your turn to go.”
This boy was really rather mysterious, Barry thought. Still, despite the cryptic nature of Dennis’s words, the idea of the light didn’t scare him. Something that bright and inviting couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Hey, do ya wanna play?” The idea came to him out of nowhere, and suddenly the idea of fun was all consuming.
Dennis looked away, crossing his arms as if embarrassed. “I don’t play.”
“Why not?” That struck Barry as impossibly odd, though he didn’t know why yet. There was a lot he didn’t know, but a lot that he did and probably shouldn’t. What was he?
Somehow, Dennis looked even sadder. “Kevin’s mom doesn’t like it when we play. She’s only nice to us when I’m cleanin’ or when she wants…” he trailed off, looking over his shoulder at something Barry couldn’t see, and part of him was glad he couldn’t.
Dennis then shrugged, sticking his thumb out over his shoulder. “Hedwig likes to play.”
At hearing his name, another little boy’s head shot up over by the chairs. He seemed younger than Dennis, with dusty blond hair, bright blue eyes, and freckles. He grinned so wide that Barry couldn’t help but smile back.
"Hi! Are you new? Wanna see my socks? They're purple." Hedwig barely took a breath between words. "What's your name?"
The question caught Barry off guard. He looked to Dennis for an answer, who just shrugged. That seemed to be his go-to response.
Barry felt a little panicked; was this one of those things that he was just supposed to know, like how he knew what light and playing were? "I don't think I have a name."
Rolling his eyes, Hedwig shook his head slightly and shot Dennis a look, like a parent might after their child said something adorably incorrect. "Sure you do, it's your name, et cetera! How could you not know? That's silly." Hedwig giggled a little, showing off a slight gap between his right canine and premolar teeth. Barry decided he really liked Hedwig.
Concentrating, he turned deep inside himself because if he had a name, that's where it would be. "Barry. I think my name is Barry."
Hedwig laughed again. "Like those little blue fruits Kevin's dad used to give us?"
"No, those were berries. His name is Barry, like the animal. Bear-e," Dennis corrected.
"That's what I said, Dennis! Duh!"
Barry sensed a fight about to break out and changed the subject, quickly. "Kevin's dad sounds nice. Where is he?" He looked around the chair room, but didn't notice any adult men.
"He's gone," Dennis said, in a voice so low it would have been easy to miss. "He's gone and he hasn't come back. I don't think he will."
Hedwig leaned forward and whispered, “That’s why we gotta keep Kevin safe, et cetra.” His eyes grew wider as he spoke, so wide they seemed to cover half his face, like the tide was coming in through his irises.
Barry did not like the sound of that. “From what?”
“His mom. She’s mean to him.”
This was Barry’s first memory of fear-heavy and cloying. He shrunk back, clinging to the blessed but quickly fading memory of non-existence. “Will she be mean to me?”
“No,” Dennis responded. “I’ll protect you. That’s what I do.”
No wonder he was so sad. Barry turned fearful eyes to his new friend. “Why? Is she nice to ya?”
Dennis wouldn’t meet his gaze. “It doesn’t matter. It's what I do,” he repeated, scuffing at the ground with the toe of his shoes.
Barry didn’t know what to do. He hurt when he realized this other boy was hurting, and he felt like that was why he was sent there; so none of the others in that room had to hurt alone. Maybe he couldn't stop this lady from being mean to Dennis, but he could keep his mind occupied with better things.
“Play with me and Hedwig! You’ll feel better!”
Somehow Dennis’s brows dipped further, etching deep lines in his face that belied his age. “How do you know?”
“I just do. Come on, you’re it!”
“Maybe we’re brothers.”
In retrospect, it was an odd thing to say out of nowhere, or in general, really. Barry didn't know what he looked like, but given the leaner build of his body, he assumed he wasn’t anywhere near the size of Dennis. Plus, Dennis spoke differently, pronounced his “r”s, as “ah”, driving the bookish Orwell insane. “He makes us sound unlearned,” he would complain, but Barry wasn’t sure why they had to sound so smart, they were only fourteen.
Anyway, Orwell was half of the reason Barry had to come to the light most days, the boy was a bully magnet. Barry couldn’t recall the amount of times he had to emerge, sweet talking his assailants down from beating the everliving shit out of them, so really, what did Orwell know?
What Barry knew was that none of the alters worked together as effortlessly as he and Dennis did, almost like they had come from the same source or shared the same mind. When Dennis was closing a door, Barry opened. Where Barry could not succeed, Dennis found a way, and vice versa.
Dennis wasn’t entirely convinced of this theory, but it made him feel good when few things did- so sure, they were brothers. If not by blood (did they have blood? Did the blood they shed on behalf of Kevin belong to them?) then by circumstance.
Sometimes, confined to their house after school, they liked to people watch from their living room window. Occasionally Barry would get a laugh out of Dennis with biting commentary on a passerby's clothing, or they would make up stories about their neighbors as they went about their business. As they got older, their favorite activity by far was pointing out any other young teenagers that caught their fancy, until Hedwig would grow bored and coax them back to the chair room to play.
“Did you see that skater boy with the Mohawk earlier? He was cute. I wish Kevin would let us do something fun with our hair,” Barry mentioned off hand one day, not realizing the enormity of what he was saying. Up until that point, existence was such a struggle that one's orientation being a sticking point had never occurred to him.
“Gross.” The words slipped out before Dennis could even think about the implication, and he cringed a little, ashamed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…I guess if I liked boys, he’d be ok looking.” Color was creeping up his neck into his cheeks, a rare sight, and Barry couldn’t stay mad.
“It’s ok, ya wouldn’t want to date boys anyway. You’d always be worried that they might be bigger and stronger then you.”
“Would not! I don’t care how big I am!” Dennis jumped up defensively and crossed his arms as he widened his stance, not really helping his case.
“Do too! That’s why you always work out, even though the doctor says it can keep us from gettin’ another growth spurt.”
That made Dennis frown. Kevin was rather short, and secretly Dennis worried the girls in their class would outgrow him, and then they really wouldn’t like or talk to him.
“What’s a ‘spurt’? That sounds funny.” Walking up behind the pair, Hedwig giggled, enjoying this new word, rolling it around on his tongue. “Spuuurrrrtttt. It sounds like something Freakazoid would say, et cetera!”
“Yeah, it’s what is never gonna happen to Kevin if Dennis doesn’t quit it with the weights!” Barry yelled.
Dennis scowled. “Will too!”
“Will not!” Barry lunged, the unexpected movement taking Dennis by surprise, and they both fell to the ground in a squealing, laughing heap. Hedwig piled on top, the three boys wrestling for dominance on the floor until a sharp clap caught their attention. They looked up to see a woman of around sixty five in pleated trousers and a cream sweater that draped languidly across her slight shoulders, as though she were royalty.
“Oh, hiiiiii Bernice!” Barry wiggled out of Dennis’s grip and rolled onto his stomach, giving the older woman his most winning smile. “Did ya see me kick their asses?”
Dennis sputtered, mouth silently forming words of defense that didn’t come, but Bernice wagged a finger. “That’s not polite language for a young gentleman, is it?”
It took all of his effort not to laugh, and Barry bit down on his cheek, shaking his head in feigned contrition. Bernice relaxed. “Good. Now why don’t you boys go back to your chairs and get some sleep? Kevin’s mother…will be home soon.”
She turned a knowing, sad eye to Dennis, who only nodded back glumly. Barry looked from Bernice to Dennis, wondering what she knew that Barry didn’t. Dennis was very private about his time in the light, and no matter how often he bugged him for information, he never gave. Some of the alters found it noble, but Barry not so secretly hated the distance it put between them.
The boys dispersed, but Barry sidled up to Hedwig’s side, speaking in hushed tones. “Why’d Bernice look at Dennis like that?”
Hedwig shrugged, but his face told a different story, and he shrunk away from Barry. “I dunno.”
“Come on Hedwig! Nobody ever tells me anything. How am I supposed to help Kevin and you guys if people don’t tell me what’s up?”
“Why do you wanna help us?”
“Cause that’s my job.”
"How do you know?"
The boys probably had some variation of this conversation at least a few times a week. Hedwig never took Barry's "job" very seriously, namely because it wasn't anywhere near as cool as Dennis's.
"Come on, I'm serious! Why won't anyone tell me what goes on when Dennis is in the light?" Barry wasn't much of a pouter, but on this subject he was very tempted to sulk until he got his way. Acting put upon seemed to be the only way to get Dennis to take him or his wishes seriously. And if something bad or scary was going on, he should be there to help his friend.
“Dennis is so cool. I hope I grow up to be as big as he will!” By this point Hedwig was completely over discussing anyone's problems, something he constantly referred to as "boring adult stuff", even though none of them were grown yet. With all the grace of a gangly newborn calf, he pivoted on his heels and playfully punched Barry in the shoulder, still full of energy despite Bernice's admonishment to rest. "Do you think I'll get a spurt soon, et cetera?"
For as long as Barry had known him, Hedwig never seemed to age a day, let alone a year. He didn’t think that time would ever come for Hedwig, and it made Barry impossibly sad. He sighed to himself. Focus. One problem at a time.
Dennis had changed since he had awoken, somehow for the worst. The man had been tortured for as long as Barry had known him, but this was different, and Barry didn’t believe it could fully be attributed to the banishment.
He shared his concerns with Dr. Fletcher every time they met, but the well-meaning woman could only pull her knowledge from books and theories, and neither alter nor the doctor could know that destiny was being weaved in the shadows. They couldn’t have known that a god was getting ready to be born. They couldn’t know that the labor pains would be the least traumatizing part of the process.
“I don’t know if I did the right thing, Doc," Barry had told her the day after Dennis awoke from his temporary dormancy. "Dennis really isn’t like himself, he’s straight aggy. More so than usual, I mean. He just sits in his chair and glares at anyone that gets too close, aside from Patricia.”
Dr. Fletcher clasped then unclasped her hands, trying to find some sort of comfortable position to hold them in. Despite having years of experience in the face of insurmountable stress, somehow Barry’s nervous energy was getting to her. Finally, she stood up with a sigh, smoothing her pants in a desperate bid to do something. “Can I get you some tea, Barry? Coffee, maybe? I have a feeling the caffeine might be helpful this session.”
“Oh. We’re gonna have on of those talks, huh?” He winked at her playfully in an effort to reassure, but internally his guts were twisting in on themselves, the air in the room heavy and unmoving. “Could I just have a glass of water, please?”
They sat in affable silence for a few minutes as Dr. Fletcher prepared their beverages, and she came back with drinks in hand just as Barry received a notification that Jade's insulin was ready for pickup at their pharmacy. He sighed, sticking the phone in his back pocket before shifting so he could more easily crack his back. He longed for the day when he wouldn't have to be so on top of everyone's medications, Dennis was much better at that sort of thing. If they could just get past this, go back to normal...
“Come on Dr. Fletcher, be straight with me. I feel like you’re avoiding my question.”
“Not avoiding Barry, just gathering my thoughts. I have to admit, this has me worried. I do wish Dennis would schedule a session with me, it would be much easier to navigate this situation if I could speak with him.”
Barry laughed without meaning to. “I’m afraid I’m the best ya got, Doc. Dennis would sooner work Sanitation at the zoo than admit he can’t handle anything by himself. Believe me, I’ve been tryin’ for years.”
“And you say he hasn’t spoken to you since he’s woken up?”
“Not one goddamn word, excuse the French. Not even to chew me out again.”
Something about that made Dr. Fletcher uneasy. While it wasn’t unlike Dennis to keep his thoughts to himself, as much as she could tell from Barry and the others, to have a previously cooperative alter show such a disregard for his function was unusual. Especially for one as intense as Dennis, their protector.
“Doctor, is it possible he could have…changed, somehow?”
Barry’s normally relaxed cadence was tinged with worry, yanking Dr. Fletcher from her musings. Despite working with Dissociative Identity Disorder her entire career, there was still so much they didn’t understand.
“I have heard of cases where, instead of going dormant, alters that are no longer needed switch their role, yes. But Barry, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t believe that’s what’s going on here.”
Barry held his hands wide apart with a shrug. “Well? What is it then?”
“Again, I couldn’t tell you for certain without actually having spoken to Dennis, but I believe…”
“I believe it’s just a case of hurt feelings.”
Barry blinked, dumbfounded. Wouldn’t he have picked up on that if it were true? Dr. Fletcher smiled faintly, reading his mind.
“You’re very good at what you do, Barry, but no one is perfect. There may be a small part of you, even in all your emotional health, that must see Dennis as someone who is impervious to internal pain, in all it’s forms. That is the impression he’s left you with, isn’t it?”
"There's no shame in it. That's how he wants to be seen, correct?"
“I mean, I guess…” Barry was at a loss for words. “He’s told me that I didn’t understand him. Scratch that, couldn’t understand his pain. But is that really a cry for help, or just an excuse?”
"Barry," she was smiling despite using the tone she saved for his moments of thickness, "what would someone like Dennis gain by playing head games? He's not Jade. It sounds like he is feeling unknown and unseen, and I'm inclined to believe you should take him at his word. I think you know that."
"Even so, he ain't talking anymore. What am I supposed to do with that?"
Dr. Fletcher took a moment to choose her next words, ever thoughtful. "Tell me, has there ever been a time where the two of you didn't require words to communicate?"
Growing up, sometimes Dennis would stay in the light for days, even weeks at a time, and Barry didn’t get to see him. When he would finally relinquish his hold, he would go off near the darkness, by himself.
The first couple of times it happened, Barry would chase after him, but would always be confronted by a red eyed and furious Dennis, snapping and howling at the smaller boy to get away. During those times it was like dealing with a different person completely, and Barry didn’t know what to do, but learned to honor his friend’s wishes to be left alone.
Once, when they were older, the astral winds in their room shifted and Barry could hear Dennis sobbing. Like the heart of a body, Barry had his own sort of nervous system that would come and bring him information about the others, unseen tendrils that flowed to and from him to the others, connecting them. While he was in the light, people referred to him as “empathetic”. While with the System, it was just a necessary function of his job.
Against his better judgment he sought Dennis out and found him, further out in the darkness than usual, guided only by soft sobs and his sense of duty to the other. Out there, in the black, there was much less a sense of time or matter, and Barry feared venturing too far in the event he couldn't sense his way back. But Dennis needed him, so he kept putting one foot in front of the other.
When he found (nearly stumbled over) him, there was no sign of the usual stoicism, no trace of strength. Just a young boy coping with something far beyond his years. He couldn't speak his pain even if he had wanted to, the tears wouldn't stop for long enough. No explanation was needed though, Barry's burning curiosity was unceremoniously doused in the face of his friend's suffering.
Instead, he joined Dennis on the ground, pulling him to his chest, close to his heart. Dennis was carrying something terrible for Kevin, for all of them. Barry knew he couldn't help bear this burden, but he could help carry Dennis.