Chapter 1: Inferno
Casey heard the sound of something crashing.
As she descended the staircase, she was further alarmed by heavy footsteps that didn't match her own, and decided to sprint towards the next landing.
Someone else could be trapped inside this building with her.
She caught a glimpse of a singular man climbing the stairs not a moment later, effectively freezing her in place.
Not a fireman.
Not a figure of her imagination.
The man halted his ascent.
His head snapped up, initially surprised by her presence, but his features softened as returned her gaze for a half-second, a half-second that seemed thrice as long. He then let out a strained chuckle and continued scaling the remaining steps. She couldn't hear his laughter thanks to the crackling of fire devouring everything in its path, coupled with the never-ending, deafening wails of fire alarms, however his amusement seemed evident with the half-smile as his chest heaved.
But maybe he was coughing up smoke.
His face was partially marred by blackened soot and while the billowing smoke obscured his figure, there was no mistaking it. Who else would most likely come to her aid?
Those eyes could never match anyone else's.
She opened her mouth and tried to speak but couldn't find her voice. She was unsure if there was anything to say at all, and there was no time to talk about why and how he was here.
A beat passed, and suddenly he was at arms' length.
The man was clothed in sweats of an undistinguishable colour and looked like he'd just been out for a run. Aside from the fact that his sneakers and pants up to his calves were dirty with ash and all sorts of debris that stuck to it. Casey's eyes wandered over his body until it settled on his left sleeve. Half of it was burned away, exposing the flesh underneath. The skin there looked raw -- a bleeding and stinging sight, but it didn't seem to impair his mobility.
He acknowledged it by glancing towards the injured arm but made no further comment.
"Hold on," he rasped. The man produced a yellow rag from his back pocket, unscrewed the flask's cap attached to his belt bag and proceeded to thoroughly wet the cloth with water. He handed it over to her with careless haste, they had no time to lose.
"Breathe through this."
Casey nodded and took the offer with both hands, the feeling of ice-cold wetness through her fingers and cheeks overwhelming her as she covered her nose and mouth.
She didn't notice how laboured her breathing was until she started inhaling through the drenched rag.
Without warning, the man took one of her hands, pulled her close to his body, and started his way down.
"We'll make it out. It won't be long."
He sounded unconvinced, but it didn't matter.
Casey's determination to leave the inferno that was once her home -- their home, was bolstered by his presence.
She let go of his hand but reunited with it by interlocking their fingers together, securing her grasp.
She can believe him.
Three floors to go.
Three more to salvation.
Chapter 2: Short-lived Mystery
Casey still couldn't figure out who the man was. His voice was drowned out by other noises for the most part of their escape. He was still with them though, but barely talked on their way to the hospital. The ambulance's siren didn't help her figure out his accent.
He sat upright and gave no indication that he was hurt. But he simply held onto her all throughout the journey.
His eyes were as unreadable as his body language, and kept his responses short whenever the responder asked him something. The wailing suddenly went away -- they were nearing their destination.
Kevin wouldn't have the courage to power through deadly fire that could be the end of him.
Dennis wouldn't see much of the way, aside from his inability to stand the chaos. He would've been paralysed at the doorstep knowing he could never fix any of it.
It had been seven, eight? months since she last talked to him. He most likely wasn't aware of what transpired earlier.
Barry would've returned for everything he owned, for the person he dreamed of becoming. But he wouldn't know Casey was holed up in her room. She said she'd leave after him and get a breather herself.
And Hedwig was simply incapable of doing anything an adult can do.
She didn't think she maintained strong friendships with the other male alters for them to come get her.
The man that met her on the staircase knew her almost death wish.
The female responder tended to them with an expression full of worry, and offered a few sentences about their current condition. Casey only caught "emergency room for further evaluation," as was she far too preoccupied with her theorising. The man kissed her temple, interrupting her thoughts, and he decided to give up the light then, slightly convulsing as he brought somebody else out.
"No, he's alright," Casey held up a hand to warn the woman. "He has DID."
The responder squirmed a little in her seat but turned the other way. "Four minutes and we're at the hospital," she muttered. Dana figured the two could use some privacy. This was a delicate and complex situation to deal with.
Kevin clutched his chest with his free hand while surveying his surroundings. "Huh." The pain of his arm burn shot through his whole body. The responder mentioned earlier that it wasn't the main priority, only to be looked at after a few tests that they both had to go through. He frowned at the visible cuts she had here and there, but ultimately decided to let Casey explain her condition.
"Nothing worth worrying over. Look at you."
"Yeah, I can really feel it now." He gave her a pained smile as he fiddled with his sleeves.
"They promised to make it better. Dana said it'll heal properly. It looked worse a few minutes ago."
"When it wasn't covered," Kevin snorted.
The responder nodded in agreement. She looked agitated, but did not butt in.
"But I bet they will. I'm a little dizzy but don't fret. Not like getting burned is anything new..." he trailed off.
Casey grabbed both of his hands together and squeezed it as hard as she can. She wanted Kevin's full attention and hoped he'd stay with her until they were all sorted out. But she knew he wouldn't last long if she kept up with question after question. She started with what she thought was the safest for him to answer.
"Did you know I was there all along?"
"I had a feeling... that you didn't want to leave." Kevin's eyes intensified with sadness and understanding, trying to explain what he thought of her in that moment.
"Not because you really wanted to die."
Of course. Who else would've understood?
"I spotted the fire a quarter-mile away." He struggled with some of his words, but kept going.
She let him continue.
"They didn't let me in. I took a chance and went through the back door, and then... I blanked out."
"Someone else took over." she said, with finality.
Kevin shrugged and immediately winced due to the abrupt movement that caused his burn to flare up. "Nobody knows. I've asked Barry. Patricia too. Hedwig-- even Orwell. You couldn't tell?"
"He didn't speak much. He found me while I was trying to escape. He sort of, laughed at me. Or at the whole situation."
His eyes lit up with a sudden realisation. He leaned back and gently let go of her hands.
"Your plan... It worked."
"My plan?" Now she was confused.
"Yeah. I wish it was me, Casey. Why I left the Light, I don't know. But I wish I was there with you the whole time."
"You're here now, okay? You're here. So don't leave. Whoever it was, he deserves our gratitude. He saved me -- no, he saved us both."
"As he always has."
And then it hit her. Like a freight train from nowhere. She was felt the shame course through her. She always gave him too little credit, and her disbelieving eyes confirmed it.
Without warning, Kevin's breath started coming out in short huffs.
Dana opened the doors and stepped out of the vehicle with lightning speed. Two nurses greeted their arrival with another gurney. The other responder held the status report and motioned for everyone to approach them.
"Defibrillator, now! Widowmaker, possible CO poisoning. I need O2 and an antidote kit!"
Kevin was rapidly losing consciousness. Casey couldn't understand a word the responder said, couldn't make sense of what was happening. The events unfurled too fast for her to process. She reached for him to no avail, as she was tightly restrained by the other nurses.
"She's negative, but make sure she's stable."
All that saving... for nothing.
She wanted to tell Kevin he was mistaken.
Casey never planned anything on her own.
They planned things together.
Tens of birthdays with each other. A hundred films to watch. A thousand breakfasts in bed.
But every dose of electric current that shocked his heart to life seemed to slowly reduce those plans to zero.
Chapter 3: Second Preamble
The coast is not clear.
I was holding on to this chapter for too long but fuck it. Here's a mess of letters to sort of entertain you. No proofreading and grammarly available. My dictionary app also prevented me from offering you a garden variety of words. It wanted to download a mountain of stuff but I couldn't let eat into my monthly data limit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One of the nurses wheeled her off to another room and gave her a hospital gown to change into.
"We're done with blood extraction and vital signs. So far, so good. I have to leave you now, but someone will attend to you in a moment to tell you what'll happen next, okay?"
Casey refused to answer him. She sat on the edge of the bed and studied her dirtied feet. She remembered wearing some sneakers before leaving her room but couldn't recall how she lost it. Some of her toenails were split in two but that was the worst of injuries she had. She's fine as a survivor could get. Her clothes weren't clean, but there weren't riddled with burns like Dennis'. He made sure she was kept away from the rolling fire the whole time they battled it out.
She still struggled with the fact that it was him. The only thing that made her think otherwise was his parting words which she remembered all too clearly.
I only care about Kevin. No one else. Not even you.
She imagined what he would say to her current state of dishevelment and filth.
Dennis, who decided to live in the shadows almost a year ago.
A female doctor entered the room and observed Casey from the doorway, before clearing her throat to make her presence known. The girl gave her a quick glance -- she had blonde hair tied in a loose ponytail that settled on her shoulders. She was a doctor, no doubt about it, and she seemed smartly dressed than most of the personnel who attended to her earlier, never mind that she was wearing the same scrub suit as them. Maybe it was her pointed face, or the way she held herself, with an air of self-importance surrounding her... something that Casey wished she possessed some of.
"Hi. I hope you're feeling better."
The woman received no reply. She approached Casey's bed and settled in one of the black chairs for the patients' guests.
"What's your name, honey?"
"Casey..." the doctor encouraged her to finish.
"Cassandra. Cooke, with an e." She looked up, and her eyes were pleading, watery, holding promises of what emotion was to come. "Can I check on Kevin? The guy. The guy who came with me."
Her gaze returned to her feet. "Or can you?"
"You can, but not until you finish all the tests needed. You might have been mildly poisoned." The doctor kept her voice low, steady and neutral; she didn't want to scare Casey while she made her understand the gravity of her situation. It wasn't as bad as Kevin's, nevertheless she felt that it was appropriate to deal with her as urgently. "We administered two shots to mitigate the possible effects, but we need a complete work-up so we can send you, and your friend home."
"I'm Dr. Ellie Staple. What's his name again?"
"Kevin. Kevin Wendell Crumb."
"Crumb... Noted. Now what I'm going to say next might be a surprise to you, but a couple of police officers--"
"Tell them he's not running away," she responded bitterly. "We're gonna show up in court."
"As if he can take as much as a half-step without a beating heart." Casey buried her face in her hands. They were dirty and bloodied too, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
"I'm really sorry to hear this. They were just... looking for witnesses. I told them both of you weren't healthy enough to entertain any inquiries. Is Kevin your... boyfriend?"
"Yes. No. Maybe."
"I don't know."
Kevin, yes? Barry? Luke? Not Luke. Orwell. Hardly. Dennis, Mr. Pritchard, Heinrich, Ansel -- too many men. No right answer.
Dr. Staple kept prodding Casey for details. "He saved you, right? That's what the responder said."
Casey sighed. She was so tired of everything. She lashed out at the doctor before she could even stop herself. "He shouldn't have. But he went in there because stupidity spares no one. Or was it my fault? What else do you want to know? He's my boyfriend, he's living with DID, he's diabetic, he has OCD. God. I don't know how any of these answers can help him now, so can we stop with the interrogation?"
If Dr. Staple was offended, she hid it well. "I apologise for prying. Please don't take this the wrong way. I know this is a difficult time for you but we do want be informed of our patients' relations so we know who to contact in case of... emergencies." There was a certain lack of bite in her response -- she offered all the right words, but they didn't sound right.
"We have no one but each other."
"And God only knows for how long," Casey whispered to herself.
A prolonged silence filled the air.
It took a while for Dr. Staple to speak. She chose her words carefully this time.
"Ms. Cooke, I just want to let you know we're doing our best. You're upset and I understand that. I would be too, if I were in your shoes. We just want you to recover. I'll pay you another visit tomorrow. But can you do me a favour and cooperate with the nurses and techs? They're just doing their job."
"Okay. Please tell him that I'm doing fine."
"I will. I haven't met your boyfriend yet, but if the chance comes up I'll check on him and let you know. Also. He'll really want to see you unharmed, so please take care of yourself. Nurse Grayson's here, he'll be tending to your wounds now, okay?"
"Thank you," was all Casey could manage.
Casey, Claire and Joseph took shelter under a shed while they waited for Kevin to arrive. It was raining and they had no umbrellas with them.
Claire seemed chipper, most probably excited that she was to meet Kevin for the first time. Casey described her the best she can, thinking of Barry and his endless supply of chatter and energy when she did.
"Finally we get to meet your boyfriend."
"You'll be good to him?" Casey was nervous, she keep clutching her fingers together every other second. She already cracked her knuckles but was tempted to find out if she can crack them again.
"No way, Case. We became enemies the moment you ditched Thursday night for that... dork."
"Only two Thursdays," she corrected.
"I'm clingy. Anyway, is he big?"
Casey nudged Claire with her elbow. "What's gotten into you? Joseph's just right there."
The blonde girl turned to Joseph and made a obscene gesture with her right hand. "Do you mind?"
Instead of answering back, Joseph put his headphones on and started singing off-tune to himself.
Claire was unusually gleeful to resume their conversation about Kevin. "So... you haven't had sex yet. He's really gay then."
"He's a lot of things. And yeah, he likes guys." Barry does. It's not like she's lying about his preference. But her friend seemed to take it in jest, which was fine too. One lie is enough for today.
"Are you scared?"
"Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know."
Her friend abruptly stood up and squinted her eyes at a man approaching the shed. "Wait, is that him? You said bald guy."
"No different than bald."
Kevin was wearing a fitted blue trench coat that hung perfectly on his shoulders, a wool sweater in maroon underneath, distressed, dark blue jeans and a pair of weathered brogues to complete the look. He carried a couple of shopping bags on his left hand and a huge umbrella good for two people in the other.
"He's... older." Claire noted.
Casey cast her a furtive glance and forced herself to not speak a word until Kevin finally reached them.
"I actually LIKE the fact," she whispered, sniggering. "Nothing wrong about it, Case."
Joseph took notice and stood up from his seat. He removed his headphones and observed the following exchange in silence.
Kevin wasn't Kevin. Kevin was Barry, and he offered one of the shopping bags which Claire quickly snatched away. "So sorry for the hold-up. It was kind of difficult to find a parking spot. Anyway, I got you these." She rummaged through its contents, raised and waved two umbrellas for Joseph to see, as if making a point.
"Thanks. A. Bunch. Sweet way to make a good first impression." Claire was being a smart-ass. Not that she can't help it, but this wasn't going according to plan.
Casey rolled her eyes. She wanted to get the awkwardness over with and started with the introductions.
"Please excuse her. She's just a kid. So... Claire, Joseph, this is Kevin, my boyfriend."
"Kevin, this is Claire, my good friend. Joseph was a colleague of mine. We're friends too."
"Nice to meet cha, mister," Claire said, shaking Barry's hand so vigorously it bordered on inappropriate.
"Pleasure is mine," Barry then offered his hand to Joseph, but the latter declined to take it.
"I've got sweaty hands, sorry." Joseph spoke up finally.
Barry nodded. "I should be the nervous one. Can't wait to get to know you guys better. But can I talk to Casey for a quick minute?"
Claire was still eyeing Barry, but Joseph started to drag her away from them and managed a respectable distance between the two groups in a few seconds. "Yeah, sure. We're getting popcorn and soda anyway. You want anything?"
"I'm good, thanks." Barry was fond of the whole moviehouse experience without a doubt... sans the butter.
"A candy bar, Casey?" Joseph offered.
"Thanks. Just one, and a bottle of water."
As soon as Claire and Joseph settled in line by the concession stands, Barry ushered Casey towards a dimly-lit corner inside the theatre and spoke in hushed tones.
"Hey, babygirl... You worry me. You alright? What was that about? Boyfriend?"
He was definitely bothered, she could immediately tell. A very blatant and very false lie they never discussed beforehand would sound her alarms too if it was the other way around.
"Er, yeah. It's just Claire." She suddenly regretted lying about their supposed relationship. Casey couldn't pinpoint the reason why she claimed they were involved with each other, but maybe it just felt better to act like her life is going so well for her bestfriend to not notice what was really happening.
"I just want her to, uh, stop breathing down my neck, 'cause she keeps asking if I'm alright, how I am, why we live together, all that. I already mentioned you play for the other field, but she wouldn't have it."
"You want a boyfriend now, huh? Me too. But seriously--"
Claire was nice. Casey enjoyed her company. She never failed to invite her in anything important, even if she hardly showed up to any of them. She was understanding enough but Casey wanted to be far from being a real burden -- and she had no idea what Claire thought of people broken by abuse and neglect -- if they were disgusting and unbearable -- if they caused serious trouble that she'd never want to get involved in or they were just plain drama magnets who couldn't enjoy themselves. Their childhoods were polar opposites, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that they had nothing in common but college. That made Casey plenty uncomfortable.
"Claire's prone to take unnecessary pity on others." Casey reasoned. "She already knows I've never had one. Moreso, I didn't want her to worry. I had no choice with you but if I was given a chance I would've just kept it to myself."
Barry wasn't having it. "And I'm more than thankful you trusted me with your secret. But she's your friend, longer than I've been, and there's a greater chance she won't judge you for it."
Casey opened her mouth to argue, and was shushed to silence instead.
"You don't have to spell it out, but you can tell Claire how you feel so she can be, more sensitive around you. She might even help you feel better. I know it's a huge hurdle to overcome, but you gotta remember -- a solid support system outside of Jade, Hedwig and myself is something you shouldn't deprive yourself of. Even Kevin. As much as we want to, we can't be here for you all the time."
Casey just raised her brows and made an annoyed face. Maybe if Dennis tried treating his OCD they'd have more time together. He's effectively squandered most of their time in the Light, and he barely talked to her. She didn't mind his silence, but it was weird running into him all the time. Peace and quiet used to be her favourite time of the day however adapting to three of Kevin's alters' social habits made his aversion to conversation palpable than ever.
Barry, sensing her irritation, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Look babygirl, I'm not forcing you, alright? Remember it pays to trust someone who's stuck with you through thick and thin."
"I'll think about it. Let's just breathe, live a little today."
"Alright. Now... since I don't want to embarrass you -- although it's quite tempting --" Casey shot Barry a scathing look, "what do I need to do to keep this ruse of yours up for tonight? Also I deserve a prize."
"Just stay close?"
Casey's right hand ghosted over her left arm and thigh to demonstrate. "All that natural touchy-feely things you do, up three levels?"
Barry was clearly unimpressed with her instruction. He narrowed his eyes and slightly frowned, the lines forming on his forehead. He crossed his arms and leaned back for the full effect to kick in. His Dennis impression was uncanny. And unnerving.
"That's tedious. I want to watch the movie, Marlon Brando needs my full attention," he said with a huff.
Casey knew his weakness. "I'll let you dress me up for a week."
"No one should watch A Streetcar Named Desire with half a heart. But a week? Consider it done."
Barry looked over his shoulder which prompted Casey to have a peek at whatever he was staring at. "By the way, is Joseph interested in you? His eyes never left you for, like, five minutes now..."
Casey cocked an eyebrow. "I like him, but I don't think he's into me. We don't talk much. Sometimes I think he does, but it's difficult to assume. Though I really want to find out so we can, you know, hang more."
Joseph. Oh, Joseph, Casey thought. Joseph was a guy who'd rather work in his father's shop than grab coffee. The same Joseph who thinks she's still in her mid-teens when she's almost 20. Joseph, who taught her how to get a 25% discount at the record store. Barry read into it too much. Joseph could have been assessing if his pseudo-boyfriend's gay or not.
"Babygirl, that's too easy a problem. A sliver of jealousy is the answer."
And before Casey could ask him how, Barry swooped in on her with a quick peck.