"Where do you think you're going?"
Arthur would have laid his ears back if he could, but he had no wish to go through the pain of transformation for something as petty as a physical gesture of irritation. "I don't think I'm going somewhere Lewis. I am going somewhere." He checked once more under the van's hood before slamming it down.
"You're not my mother," he growled, circling to the driver's side. "Neither of you are."
"I'm going back to the cave," he snarled. "You all left very quickly and there are some important things and people left behind. Obviously you won't be going back, so I will."
"If you're talking about Chloe and Duet," Vivi stepped in front of the door, blocking his path. "They're already here. Mystery is trying to tend Chloe. She's sick. Duet is being held downstairs until we can question him."
Arthur went very still, his eyes narrow. "The dungeons, huh? Damn you, Vivi, still jumping all around without the pieces."
His words struck hard. Vivi's posture wilted momentarily, then straightened as her eyes flashed a hard pink. "And what were we supposed to do? They crashed on our porch and you were unconscious. If you have any information for us, now would be a good time to give it! So Chloe is a unicorn? Fine. But that's all we know. What happened back there?"
Arthur's lips pulled back as he fought to keep his anger under control. "Listen. All I really feel like telling you right now is that I'm going back for something Solo left behind. And I swear to every god, Vivi, if you make fun of that name I will never speak to you again. You have no idea what that creature has gone through."
Vivi's body sagged further, and Arthur shoved her away from the door. "You already did, didn't you? Fine. But have the decency to put him back with Chloe. He sacrificed everything for her." The temperature in the room rose, and he paused, not turning around. "Don't even look at me like that, Lewis Pepper. I don't know what this is, but it's not a friendship and it hasn't been a team for a long time. So don't bother trying to fix it now. I'm taking Uncle Lance home and going to the cave. I'll be back when I feel like I can stand seeing your face again."
The tips of Vivi's hair snuffed out, smoke rising as she fumbled her way to a crate, sitting hard. Arthur jerked the door open and slid into the driver's seat. Lance glanced over from the passenger's seat. "Little harsh, Artie."
"Don't care right now." Arthur twisted the key, blinking as the side door slid open and then shut again. "What the-" He turned back, coming nose to nose with Mystery. "Not a good time."
"Never will be a good time." Mystery settled down on the middle seats. "You need someone to ground you once you return your Uncle."
Lance's expression relaxed. "First sensible thing I've heard outta the dog's mouth. Though I don't get why I can't stay, Artie."
Grinding his teeth, Arthur revved the engine. The wall ahead of him parted, allowing him to drive out of the mansion and onto the road. "All hell broke loose, Uncle Lance. And we're going to have to go through a lot more hell shortly. I can take it now. Vivi can take it. Mystery's fine. You're the only mortal with nothing to back you up right now."
"C'mon, kid. Don't toss my wrestling gold off that easy."
Arthur paused, the corner of his lip twitching up.
"Kid, I know you're worried about me. But I'm worried about you. Yeah, I don't have a lot to take into this fight, but you sure I can't do something? Anything?"
Arthur kept his eyes on the road.
"Artie. I can't lose you."
His throat was too tight. Swallowing, he cleared it hard. "What's left of me, Uncle Lance. I'm not… I'm not ever going to be the same Arthur you raised."
They drove in silence as Arthur let Lance digest his statement. Arthur plugged his phone into the dashboard charger he'd modded in the year before, setting his course from wherever-they-were to Kingsmen Mechanics.
"Yer still Artie," Lance harrumphed, crossing beefy arms. "Nothing's gonna change that, kid. I get it. Crap happens and yer life's different f'rever now, but yer still Artie deep down."
Nothing was going to shake his uncle. Perhaps he should be grateful someone would always be in his corner. But it was just going to break his uncle the day something went wrong. Returning to Lance's earlier question, he responded, "What you can do, Uncle Lance, is try and minimize whatever damage is being done to our reputations as a whole. Anybody involved. Try to downplay whatever's going on. It would be nice if we could actually come back when this is over."
Lance snorted. "Gonna be hard, kid. I was there when Lewis up-and-whisked-outta the nuthouse wit' Vivi. Pepper kid and I were there as witness, with Ma' Pepper singin' up the hall. Not ta mention the lockdown on Juvie Hall fer reasons they won't say why, but I got guesses."
Arthur's jaw squared. "Do what you can. That's what I need from you. And for the love of all gods, keep yourself safe. I need someone to come back for."
Lance eyed him oddly. "You never really were much one fer gods, Artie."
"Yeah. Well. A lot changed. Call the Pepper house, maybe Mr. Pepper can tell us something."
Lance pulled out his cell and dialed as instructed. "No dice, voicemail only."
Arthur fixed his eyes on the road. Still a ways out, but the area wasn't mountainous. All cell signals were decent. "Got data?"
"Check the news."
Lance fiddled with his phone, and Arthur settled his foot a little harder on the pedal. Whatever spirit-energy-junk Lewis had filled the tank with had to last him back to town. He hoped the engine could take it until he got some real honest to goodness gasoline in the tank.
"Artie. Pepper Paradiso's under red tape, city front page news. Mr. and Mrs. Pepper called in fer questions."
"Don't suppose they say why."
"Comments got rumor mills up the wazoo, see coupl'a mentions 'bout some kinda sonic weapon."
The pedal hit the floor. "Fantastic. I leave to drop off my uncle and pick up crap from the cave, I get involved in a full scale jailbreak."
"Whoah, what now? Who said anythin' 'bout a jailbreak, Artie?"
"I need Mrs. Pepper."
"You may need Mrs. Pepper, but ye can't jus' go bustin' her! I can't cover yer arse fer that!"
Arthur scowled, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. He could go full kitsune and knock the police HQ down. He'd probably wake up in a lab somewhere, wired to more tech than he could shake a stick at.
"I strongly suggest we do what you came here to do," Mystery interjected from the back. "And then return to the mansion. The mansion itself is a brilliant asset in regards to more subtle jailbreaks."
Arthur's scowl lifted, his shoulders relaxing.
Lance released a breath through his teeth. "I take it all back, mutt. Yer face is helpful."
It was a quick visit to Kingsmen Mechanics. Uncle Lance unloaded himself, sending Arthur off with extra tools and an earful about getting back in one piece. With Mystery in the passenger seat and a full tank of gas, Arthur sped the van over black asphalt, following painted white lines toward the place that had seen his life fall to ruin.
Occasionally, Arthur's eyes slid sideways to the dog sitting calmly next to him. Mystery hadn't so much as looked at him since claiming that spot, but Arthur could feel the other assessing him. Trying to figure him out. Find a weakness, maybe. Pinpoint which pack member it could have been.
"If you hold the steering wheel any harder, you'll have to replace it," Mystery's calm reprimand jerked him out of his thoughts. The perfect circle was bent inward, the cover burnt and cracked off and the metal beneath red hot. Oddly enough, he didn't feel the heat at all.
"Do you remember why he took you in the first place, Arthur?" Mystery asked, his voice soft.
Arthur's teeth ground together.
"Arthur. You will feed the corruption he left behind with your rage. Speak it."
His throat was on fire, his lungs full of smoke. His tongue crawled with words in a language that could wither souls. He dragged the memory of Kay's final, choked breaths through his mind, over and over, until the rage drowned to numbness.
"Anger. He came to me through anger. And then it happened again."
"And when did you transform, Arthur?"
"When Kay's dead body was pulled from my arms. Then I saw her murderer." But he kept his thoughts fixed on Kay. "Is that something you feed off of? Anger?"
Mystery turned his head slightly. Arthur's eyes narrowed as he sorted through thoughts related to his question. "No. It's strong emotion that's wanted. Because you don't have your own, do you?"
Mystery's ear flicked.
"Does Vivi know?" Arthur snorted. "That's a stupid question. Nobody knows anything, do they? And they don't tell and they don't talk, and this is why we've never been a team. And me? I know everything I ever wanted to know." He swallowed down bile in his throat. "Like having my very own spirit-world search engine in my head. And I wish I'd never been born. And yet somehow, this is all still my fault. Why is that? Oh. Because I was angry."
Mystery glanced at him sidelong. "So what are you going to do about it now?"
The driver's seat erupted in green flame, curling around Arthur's body as he wrenched the van over to the side of the road and threw it in park. "What am I going to do about it now?" The van rattled around him. "Why should I have to do anything? I don't owe them one. More. Ounce. Of effort. The only reason I'm doing anything anymore is for the memory of Kay and hope for Dulcie. But please, tell me more about what I should be doing! It's not like trying to do things for this family has destroyed me!"
Mystery's fur curled back from the heat, but he didn't flinch. "Difficult, isn't it? Painful to be reminded of things that weren't your fault, but happened to you anyway."
Arthur toyed with the idea of ripping out one of Mystery's tails. He'd done it before, he could do… it… again…. He shook his head slowly, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. The flames simmered out, leaving him sitting in a heap of charred fluff, barely attached to a metal frame.
"What happened to you wasn't your fault. What happened to Lewis wasn't his." Mystery lifted a hind leg to scratch behind his ear. "I notice you both have trouble lashing out when it gets bad enough, though."
"I think I have a right," Arthur growled.
"So does Lewis. And Vivi, for that matter."
Arthur rolled his eyes, pitching his voice mockingly. "Yeah, well, Vivi can't help herself."
Mystery's paws landed in his lap, red eyes filling Arthur's vision. "No, Arthur. At a certain point she can't. And I'll thank you to leave her care to me."
"Well you've been doing a marvelous job, letting her run you the way you have. Just fantastic. Whatever happened to moderating her moods?" The connection flashed through his mind and he nearly set the van on fire a second time. "You're not just moderating her moods. You're siphoning them off. You siphon off the energy every bit as much as Meynung Shiker. Pretending you're better than the Mind Drinker?" Arthur's lips curled. "That's low."
"There is a vast difference between what he did and what I do." Mystery's teeth clicked together at the end of each sentence. "You know better than that. I could drain her flat in seconds if I wanted. That's what he did. Their memories were ingredients, but their emotions were wine, and he guzzled it down. I would never do that to Vivi."
"No. You'd just let her think you're a normal dog and get her to trust you to take care of her in a vulnerable state. And she still doesn't understand what you're doing." Arthur shrugged coldly. "No biggie."
Mystery opened his mouth, then shut it, turning to face forward again. There was silence in the van as Arthur started it up and pulled back onto the road.
Apartment complexes gave way to businesses gave way to residential outskirts gave way to gas stations and cheap diners gave way to deserted road. It was a blur Arthur was all too familiar with by now. The cave was not far off.
Arthur glanced to the side.
"You're right. And I will tell her." Mystery's ear twitched. "It isn't the same, Arthur. I only take the worst that keeps her from thinking clearly."
"Yeah, and you've done a fantastic job of that lately."
His ears flattened. "It's not exactly easy to concentrate given the circumstances, Arthur. If I am not careful I will do exactly what you're accusing me of without even intending to. If it comes down to wringing her dry or letting her swing, I'll let her swing every time. She's still Vivi, and she'll always stay Vivi that way."
Arthur forced his grip on the steering wheel to loosen. Mystery wasn't the enemy. And he'd never invaded Arthur's mind without permission.
"How long before you forgive them?"
His fingers relocked themselves. Never, he wanted to say. But he wasn't sure of that. Yet.
"You'll have to work with them to get what you want. Even the ones that are still holding out information."
Arthur took a slow breath in through his nostrils, releasing it through his mouth. "Yeah. I'm headed back to the cave to break the last holdout. The Shiker kept something there that I'll need to get Mrs. Pepper to talk." He pinched the bridge of his nose momentarily, bracing against a dull throb behind his eyes. "Not to mention paying a debt to Solo."
"Solo?" Mystery inquired.
"Later. I can't right now, not when I'll have to repeat it to everyone when we get back." Arthur pulled the van up to the mouth of the cave, setting the parking brake and removing the key. He hoped he wouldn't be there long.
He stepped out of the van, his shoes crunching in the gravel. There was a low breeze carrying the musty cave-innards smell with it as it passed. Rock. Stale dripwater.
Blood and saltwater.
His head jerked up a second before Mystery's. That smell was fresh, not dried on the rocks. Still breathing.
His vision went red.
Note: Getting the party started! And now, just to mark where we are canon-wise to everyone, "Freaking Out" was released. Obviously sister canon got smashed hard, but hey, it's okay. This is an AU, and I'm still having a blast. Who's ready for round three? One brief note I want to say, in all seriousness. I worry sometimes that people may think I introduce character death as a shock factor. While it is true I enjoy the reaction people have (because it means I got them to care for someone in the story) I do not kill off characters for the heckuvit. There is always a reason behind it, though sometimes that reason is simply, "It's what would happen in that situation." Warning you of this because, well, we're not quite done with the funerals. Chapter title excerpted from The Driver by Bastille.