Dulcie started, whirling around with a cold sandwich in hand. Dib stood in the kitchen doorway, blocking her exit. A Deadbeat hovered over his shoulder, little nubs crossed with disapproval.
Dulcie's face fell. "That's not fair, Lewis," she muttered.
The Deadbeat chittered at her, shaking a nub in her direction.
"What's really not fair is telling Arthur you'll be right in to see me." Dib leaned forward, his goggles glinting. "Two days ago. Then hiding in every nook and cranny of this godsforsaken mansion until I have to beg your ghostly brother for help finding you. He was already in a bad mood, too."
Defeated, Dulcie pulled a stool over, hopping up. She wasn't hungry anymore. She set her sandwich on the counter, staring at it like it had done something terrible.
The stool beside her screeched and Dib settled onto it, folding his arms on the counter. "So. How come you been avoiding me?"
Shrugging, she kept her eyes fixed on the sandwich. That was a lie, but at least she hadn't said it with her mouth.
"Dulcie, I'm not very good with being gentle, so I'm about to be very blunt. I'd prefer you answer me first so I don't put my foot in my mouth or hurt you."
She scrunched up over the sandwich, squaring her shoulders and bracing herself. Dib sighed. "Stubborn mules, the lot of you. Are you giving up on being my sister that quickly?"
Shocked, she jerked her head up, blinking.
"Were you just joking about the family offer?" he demanded.
She shook her head hard, pigtails hitting her face and the back of her head. Fwap fwap fwap fwap.
"Then why are you avoiding me?" he pressed.
Back down to the sandwich. She opened her mouth, but the words lodged up in her throat and wouldn't come out. Blinking hard, she swiped at the tears threatening to give her away. She tried again. "You… don't want me. I got in your head. I told them your secrets."
"That's what this is about?" Dib groaned. "Save me from your family's never-ending guilt complex… look. It's gone."
She peered up at him, confused.
"The nightmare dimension. I haven't had a nightmare for two nights, now. Chloe doesn't even know what I'm talking about and given your level of avoidance I don't think you're keeping the monsters away this time."
Dulcie's eyes widened.
"Whatever you two did the last time you were there? I mean, Chloe mentioned she woke up pouring out huge levels of light and magic the last time you two went into my dreams, I have to assume that did some kind of purge. Maybe between that and rewiring my brain…" he shrugged his shoulders. "The dimension is either gone or sealed off. My dreams aren't all good, but they aren't nightmares anymore. Why would I be mad about that? And," he reached over, shutting her gaping mouth, "would you stop goldfishing like that? You have a gift, you used it in a way that helped me, why is it so shocking that I want to see you and thank you?"
Dulcie swallowed. "But, that's not why you wanted to see me two days ago."
"You're right. I wanted to tell you, even before I realized the nightmares were gone, that I wasn't mad about you going in my dreams. This was just the cherry on top. You seem to be pretty determined to believe I'm mad at you. Mind knocking that off?"
Dulcie shifted, shrugging her shoulders again.
She glanced sidelong at him.
"You did something nobody else would have cared to do, even if they could. And then you offered to be family. It's not every day good things just fall into my lap and ask to stay, kid." Light glinted off his goggles. "Is there anything I could do for you? That's an awful lot of gifts to give a guy. Makes me want to give something back."
Running her hand along her arm, she murmured, "You already helped us find a way to cure Daddy. He needs more time with Mom, but he already shakes less. Unless you can turn me human before I fledge, there's not really anything else."
"About that." He cut her off. "No, I can't do that. I'm good, but I'm not that good. However, I have something else that might interest you." He reached into his trench coat and pulled out a sheaf of papers, setting them in front of her. "I already kind of picked up on that wish and I didn't even have to get in your head. Funny how you can know cameras are on all the time and still forget they're recording your every word. You're really scared of becoming like your Mom, huh?"
The papers each had a different name. Timothy. Aji. Cayenne. Teles. Dulcie. She ducked her head. The words and numbers on the pages made no sense to her.
"Don't be embarrassed, this is way over your grade level. That's why I'm here, to help make sense of it. You see this?" He put Teles' paper next to Timothy's. "This helps me see the differences in your Daddy's body and your Mommy's. I found this out with their skin, hair, and saliva samples. Now," he arranged Aji's paper next to Kay's underneath their parents. "See this line up here, on Teles' page? The same one shows up here," he tapped Kay's page, "And here." His finger rested on Aji's page a moment. Then he lined up Dulcie's page next to theirs. "Take a look at this. Tell me if you see it."
Blinking, Dulcie studied the line on her sisters' pages and then looked at hers. Try as she might, she couldn't match it up anywhere. Looking back at Dib, she asked, "Okay, it's not there. What does that mean?"
"It means you're probably never going to fledge, kid. You got more of your Dad in you than your Mom in the ways you wanted."
Dulcie's lips parted. Dib's mouth kept moving, but his voice seemed to be coming from a great distance.
"It might crop up in your kids or grandkids, but I'm about 96% sure you don't have siren abilities and never will."
A small, wounded sound escaped her. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but everything already looked wavery.
Dib sucked in a sharp breath, sweeping the papers into a pile. "I'm sorry, kid. Put my foot in my mouth, I just thought you wanted—"
Dulcie's hand shot out, clutching the papers. A sob rolled up from her midsection, humping her shoulders up to her ears as she shook.
"Di-i-ib. Do you even kno-hoooow?" She tried to cram the words out before they were buried in tears. "Then Lewis d-d-dying really really wasn't my fa-a-ault a-a-and I n-n-never made Daddy do s-s-s-something he didn't wa-a-ant even by accident and and and and…" she hauled in a breath and thought she might never stop inhaling, "and I can't ever force some-some-someone to love me and and maybe I can…" she broke off. Her mouth twisted around and it felt like someone was punching her stomach and rolling giant weights off her shoulders all at once. She clutched the papers to her chest. "M-m-m-maybe I can study music just like Lewis, Dib. Maybe I can… sing for…. people… I used to… pretend…"
As the words drowned under the weight of her tears, Dib pulled her into his arms and sighed. "We have got to do something about this genetic guilt complex because I am the wrong choice for family therapy."
Arthur ran the index finger of his right hand along the ring finger of his prosthetic. Two days. Plenty of time to work on a special project, but he hadn't seen Kay once. Hadn't gotten to talk more about the day he'd drained from her lifespan. Hadn't gotten to apologize or swear he'd never do it again or any of the other things he wanted to say and was pretty sure Lewis wanted him to say.
Lewis had been yelling at Vivi over something yesterday. Arcturus had been curious, too, but more insistent that enhancing their hearing to pick up the nuances of the argument was a waste of resources. It worried Artie, though, that Lewis would yell at Vivi like that. What was going on now? Was it something he'd have to fix or was he supposed to let them deal with it themselves?
He crouched at the top of a rocky outcropping a quarter mile from the mini-mart, watching the stars overhead. The wind knifed across his skin, drawing water from his eyes, but he didn't budge. Dib had finally allowed surface leave for most of the group and Arthur hadn't seen the sky in weeks. He felt sorry for Chloe, though. She, alone, was not allowed topside yet. He had to work something out with Arcturus for her. Surely there was some way to harness her magic into a glamour of sorts so she could come out.
The stars are beautiful.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. So, Arcturus had an appreciation of beauty. That was something new.
A prairie hawk screeched in the dark. Arthur shifted his eyes from the sky to the ground, scanning the surrounding area. The matter of the vanishing fox had been buried by more important issues, but it still bothered Arthur. It bothered Dib too, enough that Dib disclosed older footage from Kay's room and his own witness account from the night Kay was called back from the edge.
"I'm telling you, Arthur, however many sirens were around, there was always an extra voice when that fox was present. When Kay was sleeping and you were out of the room? Something was using the siren call. When Lewis tried to get Kay back, his violin just wasn't cutting it alone. It didn't work until that extra voice chimed in with the same song. Teles was gagged, Arthur. Couldn't have been her. Nobody's seen the fox since."
It bothered Arthur, but he had no more answers than Dib. There was no recent scent of the fox for a one mile radius around the mini-mart. Or of Mystery, for that matter.
He hugged his knees. Once again, he wished Mystery had stayed. Whatever he was hoping to find could have waited. Arthur needed more answers. He needed more help. Arcturus was still being stubborn about way too many things.
A shadow passed overhead. Arthur threw himself back under a little overhang in the rock.
"Just me," a soft voice called down and Arthur relaxed. "Coming in for a landing."
He stayed put, allowing Kay to choose her spot. She hit the rock feet-first, tumbling to her knees and scraping talons along stone. Arthur winced, leaving the overhang to help her to her feet.
She coughed, grimacing. "Rusty. Haven't had a proper flight in too long."
"Dib will be all over your case for this," you mumble, steadying her. "You know what he says about satellite imagery and all that. You could have walked over."
"Yeah and you don't have to be out here at nighttime freezing your rear off." She shook her wings, the feathers fluffing up. "You're not the only one who missed the outdoors. Besides, it was a short flight. In the dark. Worst case scenario some conspiracy theorist gets a blurry bigfoot-level photo they can't prove."
Arthur peered at her face through the dark. He couldn't make out every detail, but her eyelids drooped. Most of her body drooped, actually.
"We were concerned. We haven't seen you for a few days and you seem tired."
"I needed some rest. Vivi and I had a pretty intense project to work on. That's what I came to talk to you about."
Arthur started. Did this have to do with why Lewis was yelling at Vivi?
Kay's plumage shrank back into her arms and she fumbled in her pocket. She thrust a small flashlight into Arthur's hands. "Would you please turn this on? It's dark out here and I practiced this hard to make sure I get it right."
She'd carefully phrased it as a question, Arthur noted. He switched the flashlight on and pointed it at her hands. To his surprise, there was one yellow plume left, clasped between her fingers. Her hands trembled.
"I'm going to ask you a question, Arthur. I hope that you will not answer it right away, because after I ask the question I'm going to explain what I mean by asking it. Would you please wait until I'm done explaining?"
With a nervous twinge in his gut, Arthur nodded once.
Kay took a breath in slowly through her nose, let it out through her mouth, and reached out one hand, putting it on Arthur's chest. Removing it, she cupped her hands into crescents, clapping them across each other at the curve. Then she put one hand on her own chest.
Arthur's jaw went slack.
You. Marry. Me?
Kay poured words into his stunned silence. "And there, now you have complete and total freedom because I didn't even ask out loud. But, okay, so." Her hands still trembled as she gripped the feather. "If your first reaction isn't, 'No,' then I need this to be different than my parents. You did everything you could to bring me back and protect me. And, and I'm really grateful. I…" She swiped a hand across her nose. "It feels really nice to know someone's looking out for me like that. But most of that time you didn't have someone watching your back for you. Not steadily. You got lucky mostly and it still wrecked you and I'm not okay with that. I'm not okay with you just going it alone and not having someone there looking out for you the way you looked out for me."
Talons poked through the tips of her fingers. She took another deep breath, drawing them back under her skin. "So. That question. It means you'll let me be there to have your back, too."
She repeated the sign once more, then extended the feather to him, fingers curled around it to keep it from blowing away.
Kay in his life as long as he lived. He'd hoped, but…
But there's no need to rehash this, Puppet. We've both known the answer for a long time, now.
Arthur slowly handed the flashlight back over to Kay, then knelt on the rock and raised his prosthetic. In the light of the harsh beam, he curled all but the ring-finger of the prosthetic inward toward the palm. He pinched the base of the ring-finger between the thumb and forefinger of his real hand. A circular band of metal sprang free, a ring that split in half, leaving a wide, shallow groove at the base of the finger. Arthur took the two halves of the circle, clicking them together and lifting up a shiny silver ring. It had been two days in the making, carving it from his prosthetic with no room for error, but it worked.
He held it up in one hand, stretching the other hand out for the feather.
Kay huffed a short laugh. "Wow, sorry. Guess I only beat you to it by a little, huh?"
Arthur gazed up at her. Shadows blurred her features but the moon illuminated her hair from behind. He could picture the kind of smile she wore by the sheepish tone of her voice. The voice that led him out of madness and re-established who he was so many times. Kind Kay. Gentle Kay. Cayenne Pepper, who wanted to look after him as much as he wanted to look after her. He offered the ring again, reaching out to pluck the feather from her fingers.
Kay took the ring, sliding it onto her finger. "Keep that feather close," she said, quietly. "It has two weeks of my life attached to it. Vivi helped me."
Arthur shot to his feet, his mouth already working, but Kay laid a finger across his lips.
"Arthur. Whatever secrets Arcturus is keeping, you and I both know past bills always come due. You have paid the bill for our family's curse more than you ever should have had to. This isn't even a fraction of what we owe you, but we could never pay that. This," she said quietly, closing his hand around the feather, "is for emergencies only. I pray you never need it, but I will not lose you because of something neither of us could forsee. I can't." She took a deep breath. "Please. I know you don't like this, but please would you respect that I can make decisions to protect people I love just like you do?"
Oh, Artie. How ever did you find this one?
Arthur lifted his prosthetic again, opening a long, narrow panel in the forearm and tucking the feather inside, then closed the panel. He made a fist, raised it, and bent it forward twice.
Yes. And then Yes marry you. You marry me?
She gave a little choked laugh, nodding her head and came closer. He circled his arms around her shoulders and found her lips. Soft and warm. It was a short kiss, but then there was another. And another, and another and he could scarcely breathe for her lips on his and her hands up in his hair and oh, gods, everything was finally going to be alright again.
A flashlight clattered down the face of the outcropping to land, abandoned, on the desert floor. A tiny pink ghost made its way back to the nearby Mini-Mart to relay details. A prairie hawk wheeled overhead, winging its way out of the desert.
None of it mattered to two figures under the moon.
Knock knock knock.
Vivi rapped her knuckles on the door. The thirty sixth door of the day, to be exact. No telling which one Lewis was behind in this mansion and since he could reshape it to his will, the only way she'd find a ghost that didn't want to be found was by letting him know she wasn't giving up that easily and waiting for him to cave.
No answer. Well, fine. She could do this all day. She stalked down to the thirty seventh door, raising her hand to knock.
The door cracked open, ever so slightly.
"About time," Vivi muttered, shoving it open and entering. Her irritation sputtered, fading at the sight of Lewis sitting cross-legged in the middle of an empty room, his back to her, his bare skull in his hands.
Quietly, she circled around front, nudging his arms aside and settling in his lap. Reaching up, she tugged his skull free and pulled it down, wrapping her arms around it.
His arms circled around her. The sound of a heavy sigh vibrated through the room.
"You were right, Vee. You're right. I just… I hate seeing her get hurt at all. I don't want her to have to sacrifice anything." He huddled over Vivi. "But she wants to and she's all grown up and she picked somebody else to look out for her."
Vivi chose to forgo "I told you so" and hugged his head, resting her cheek against the top of his skull.
"Deadbeats say she really did it. Went and proposed." He chuckled weakly. "They said he couldn't find his jaw for a good while."
Vivi snickered at the mental image. "Figures. Did the dork answer?"
"Yeah. Looks like they're going to go through with it." Lewis' skull rotated in Vivi's arms until he was looking back up at her. "What about you? Seems like Dib's friends could teach you a lot. What are you going to do now?"
"Oh, well. I already applied to be Dib's personal assistant as part of this package deal from the start, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind loaning me out to this Swollen Eyeball group to learn more. They all have funny names, but there's a couple magic specialists that should help me start filling in the blanks, like the spell Kay needed." She ran a finger from his forehead down to the hole where his nose would have been. "What about you, flame brain? What do you want?"
Lewis' eyes dimmed. The corner's of Vivi's mouth pulled down. "Aside from the thing I can't ever make happen for you." She drew his skull into an embrace. "I'd bring you back in a heartbeat if I could."
Lewis' arms tightened around her as well. "I know. What do I want?" there was a long pause. "I want to stay with you, Vee. I know you'll probably move on and… and I won't stop you. Just… I want to stay and watch over you. Can I do that, Vee? Please?"
She pulled back from his skull, staring down at him in disbelief. "Move… on? Move… you…" she swatted his arms aside and tossed his skull back up to his neck, huffing up to her feet and turning around to face him. She jammed her hand into her pocket and pulled out the little gray box she'd been carrying around. "What is this?" she demanded.
Lewis tilted his head, his eyes going back and forth between Vivi and the box. "Um… I thought you knew?"
"An engagement ring," he said quietly. "I was waiting for… well. The right time."
She flipped the box open. Seated in a plush velvet display was a delicate silver band that cupped three small sapphires. Simple. Straightforward. Beautiful.
"And that's what you wanted back then?" she pressed. "What about now?"
"Now?" his voice was pained. "Now, Vee? I'm dead."
"What. About. Now."
"Vee, please. I don't know what you want from me."
She shut her eyes for a moment and counted to ten, then opened them. "Would you still give me this now? And don't say 'I'm dead' one more time, just answer the question."
He looked down at the ring again, then raised his eyes to hers. "Yeah," he said, softly.
She took his hand and dropped the ring into it, closing his fingers around it. Then she stretched her left hand out to him, fingers splayed. "Well. What are you waiting for?"
He looked down at the ring in his hand, then over to her fingers, then back to the ring.
"You… don't mind… being haunted forever? Not having someone… living?"
She opened her mouth to snap at him, then shut it with a click as his tone caught up to her. He wasn't questioning her judgment or challenging her decision. He wanted to know he was enough.
She took one more step, bringing her fingers closer. Silently, he slid the ring onto the third finger of her left hand. Then he reached into his suit and pulled out a gently pulsing heart locket, placing it in Vivi's hands as well.
Vivi took the locket and clasped the cord around her neck, then pulled Lewis close, resting her head against his chest. "Until death reunites us," she whispered. "This is what I want."
Note: AND THE RECOVERY FIC IS COMPLETE. I did not expect… most of that fic, actually. So here's the plan! I'm going to focus on moving into the new home. I'm going to re-read this series from the top to make sure I don't lose track of any threads I started. Then, hopefully soon, I will launch into the final (PLEASE GOD I HOPE, NO MORE SURPRISES) fic of the Just Legends series. Keep an eye out for Laughter Lines! If you have time, check out my new (pat reon)! Chapter title excerpted from The Best Is Yet To Come by Sheppard.