It'd been four years since they'd split up. And not in their usual, 'Let's split up, Gang!' way, either. They literally had not been in the same room together for four years. The thought startled Velma into stillness, and she nearly stopped her sedan in the middle of the road. Had it really been so long?
She reflected quietly, bringing her car back up to speed on the empty, bog-lined path. The break-up hadn't been messy, or angry, or anything like that. There were no shouts, no hurt feelings, no tears. They'd simply… broken up. Drifted apart, to their own things. It wasn't that they weren't friends anymore, heck, she loved the gang like family, but they hadn't had anything to hold them together in one spot, once the mysteries dried up.
And that had been it, the mysteries. They'd always been the best when it came to masked men and ridiculous scams. They'd shown the world the truth in countless cases. Problem was, they'd been too good at it. Their exploits had become somewhat famous, and the imagination of teens everywhere was captured. They had been quite inspiring, apparently. It felt good.
It still felt good, the first time they arrived in a small town they'd gotten a tip about, only to find that a local group of rag-tag teens had followed their example and solved the mystery the day before they got there. They laughed and shaken hands with the group, excited and flattered to find they were making an impact on the world. It didn't feel so good the second time. Or the third. It stopped feeling good at all somewhere around the tenth.
After a while, the mysteries started to become few and far between. People had gained confidence, all across the nation. They weren't afraid of men in masks anymore. If a bunch of meddling kids (and Velma almost missed being called that) could foil a villainous smuggling ring, who were they to let it happen in their town? Bands of teens and adults alike prowled the dark alleys and ancient mansions, stomping out crime wherever they could.
The gang stopped chasing mysteries when the brand names appeared. Mystery Squad and Question Hunters and Monster-Ops and half a dozen others, all claiming to be the best of the best. There were even a few claiming themselves to be the 'Original' Mystery Inc. The game, as it were, had changed. The gang had been in the business before it had been a business, when it had been about a love for puzzles and chases and exotic locales. They couldn't make themselves a part of this new craze they'd accidentally started.
So, they just… didn't. The bespectacled woman could still remember sitting in the soda parlor, reading while Shaggy and Scooby shoveled food down their throats and Daphne idly selected some songs from the jukebox play list. Fred had come rushing through the doors, his usual cheery grin stuck on his face and a scrap of paper in his hand.
"You guys," His voice had been full of that electric excitement he always got when there was a mystery at hand or a trap to build. "I just heard on the radio about this Corn Yeti that's been-"
"Pass." She hadn't even looked up from her book. If it had been on the radio, there was no way they'd get there first. She'd rather get lost in the mystery in front of her than chase one that'd be solved before she saw it.
"Like, what she said." As though Shaggy and Scooby needed an excuse to avoid Corn Yeti, whatever those were. They were content to eat and play in the park and hang out with the gang.
Freddie's face had fallen a bit, but he had managed to keep smiling. He'd turned to Daphne, but she just sighed and looked away.
"Someone's probably unmasking the Yeti as we speak, Fred." Her voice had been quiet, resigned. If any of them had realised they were at the end of the line, it had been her. Velma didn't look up from her book, but she could picture the disappointment on Fred's face.
"Yeah, I guess….." He'd tossed the paper in the trash, then slumped into the booth next to Shaggy. He managed to fake an optimistic expression. "Oh well, we'll get the next one."
They hadn't been on a case since.
Without the mysteries, they'd found themselves doing other things to fill their time. Normal things, that didn't force them together in a van or into sewers or scare them out of their minds. They found themselves apart for longer and longer stretches of time.
Daphne mostly stayed around her home, the ancestral Blake Manor, having decided to write a book about their exploits. Fred visited her for a while, before her parents made it clear that he wasn't welcome. Now that Daphne was through with her 'Adventurous' phase, her parents saw no reason to allow her to associate with anything but the most upper of the upper crust. Not that it had stopped her from seeing Freddie, of course, but it had made their meetings scarcer. That went double for the rest of them.
Fred, oddly enough, became the host of a children's TV show. All of them being minor celebrities, he'd been hired on the spot. It helped that he was absolutely great with kids, since he himself was a child in a man's body. Mystery Time with Freddie quickly became the most popular show on television among kids ages 5-13+. (It also became quite popular among the mothers of kids ages 5-13+, but that had less to do with the content and more to do with Freddie's biceps.) Velma herself had made two guest appearances, but being in front of a camera wasn't really her thing.
What was her thing, however, was the Occult. Ever since Oakhaven, where she'd witnessed the power of magic and the full truth of the supernatural, she'd been unable to shake it from her mind. Witches existed. Magic existed. What else was there? It was the biggest mystery she'd ever come across, and she couldn't ignore it. And now, she finally had the time to look into it. She spent at least a year on research before leaving, but leave she did. She traveled the world (It was surprising how much money you make over years of freelance sleuthing), seeking out every scrap of evidence, every whisper of the unknown. Slowly, she built up a picture of the real world. Some weeks were quiet, peaceful. Others found her in the middle of a pursuit- or being pursued. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and goblins and a whole lot more. Things really did go bump in the night. It was almost like the old days, if only the rest of the gang were with her. Freddie and Daph, Shaggy and Scooby.
He'd left before she had, actually, and taken Scooby with him. The quiet life really hadn't suited him. Oh, he'd been fine for the first month or two. He and Scooby had spent their days eating and sleeping and goofing around. They were ok with that. It wasn't until Freddie got his job and she'd buried herself in her research that Shaggy had started to get restless. At first, he'd gotten a job in town, as a DJ for the local radio station. He actually had quite the voice for radio, and the gang always made sure to tune in. That lasted about three months before Shaggy couldn't stand it anymore. He had too much energy, a need to move and experience that he couldn't fulfill in a DJ's booth. How surprised he'd been when he'd realised that he actually missed being chased by monsters.
The rest of the gang had been even more surprised when he'd told them he and Scooby were leaving. It hit Fred the hardest; He and Shaggy had been like brothers, and they'd never been apart like this. He begged Shaggy to stay, but the lanky man declared that he'd already lined up a job. Velma couldn't believe her ears when Shaggy had declared he was going to teach at a boarding school in Louisiana. Sure, he was just going to be teaching Physical Education, but still. Shaggy. Teacher. Does not compute. And Louisiana? That was quite a way to go to teach a gym class. Even after he'd explained that he'd worked there for a few weeks in the past, it hadn't made sense.
In the end, though, he'd left. He couldn't promise to call, as Miss Grimwood's Finishing School for Girls (And a snarky, cynical voice in her head wondered if the fact that it was an all-girls school was why he was willing to travel so far to teach gym.) wasn't electronics friendly, but he did promise to write. He said he couldn't guarantee that the mailbox wouldn't eat the letters, but he'd write them. That man had the most bizarre sense of humour.
The day he'd left had been just over four years ago. It had been the last time the whole gang had been together. In fact, it had been the last time Velma had seen any of the gang. It wasn't that she'd avoided them, of course. It was just that she'd been busy with her research. Time had gotten away from her. Years had gotten away from her. Four years wasn't a huge amount of time, but…. It was. It was an enormous amount of time to just forget about your closest friends.
Velma shook her head. It didn't matter. In just another week or so, the whole gang would be together again. She could apologise then. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, then flicked on the radio. Nothing but static. She'd been checking the stations every few miles, listening as they became fewer and fainter. Now, they were all gone. She flicked it back off, thinking to the letter in her bag.
Like, Dear Velma,
(No, Shaggy hadn't peppered the page with the word 'like'. She just found it impossible to imagine his voice without his usual verbal tic.)
I don't know if you, like, got my other letters. The Post Office doesn't exactly exist out here, so mailing is kind of hit or miss. Since this is, like, an emergency, Miss Grimwood promised me she'd, like, personally make sure you'd get this one.
(She hadn't gotten any of the other letters, but that was probably because she hadn't been home to get them. How this one managed to find her was a complete mystery, seeing as she'd spent the last week in the Rockies, following a lead about some cultists. She simply woke up one morning to find the letter lying on her chest.)
I know you're probably, like, really busy with your research, but you guys are like the only ones I can trust with this. No one else is gonna be able to help us but Mystery Inc. Plus, you guys are, like, the only ones who wouldn't call me crazy or shrug me off as freaking out over, like, nothing.
(While it would be just like Shaggy to freak out over nothing, this letter had been written with a calm hand. Whatever was going on, it was real, Velma was sure of that much.)
I can't go into details here, for, like, reasons I can't talk about. Total weirdsville, I know. But it really is important. I, like, can't figure this mystery out without you guys. Come to the school, and I'll explain, like, everything, I promise.
(And that little passage set off every alarm in Velma's head.)
Anyway, the girls really can't, like, wait to meet you, Velms. I haven't seen them this excited since, like, last Halloween! And I can't wait for you to meet them, either. All I ask is that you, like, try not to judge them by how they look. They're not, like, all that normal, but they're good kids.
(She now regretted never asking Shaggy more about the school before he left. For all she knew, he'd been spending the last few years looking after delinquents or something.)
I even managed to finally convince them to, like, not kill the garden this year, so we have tons of, like, fresh food! When you get here, we'll have, like, a huge feast to celebrate!
(Ok, that was pure Shaggy. The little alarms in her head quieted a bit.)
I've like, written some directions down with this letter, so you should be able to find the school alright. Just, like, don't try to find it in a thunderstorm. The road is kinda twisty and narrow in some spots. And totally spooky.
I really can't wait to, like, see you guys again!
(And that had been what really worried her. Shaggy never went by his first name and certainly wouldn't sign a letter with it. Not unless there was something seriously wrong.)
Like, P.S. - BRING SCOOBY SNACKS.
(She laughed. Of course Shaggy would end his rollercoaster of a letter with a request for food. She bought an entire case of Scooby Snacks and did her best to ignore his signature.)
Velma sighed, glancing at the thickly packed trees off the side of the road. Just a few more hours and she'd be there. Then she could see for herself that he was ok and things weren't as serious as she'd imagined. She nodded to herself.
Everything was going to be fine.
The building was smaller than she'd imagined, looking more like a small mansion than a boarding school. The whole thing was ringed by a ten or eleven feet high wall of what looked like solid mortar, spider webbed with cracks and chips. The road lead to a wrought-iron double gate that looked wide enough for a steamroller to pass by without worry. A plaque, or a wooden sign, rather, hung on the right side of the gate.
"Miss Grimwood's Finishing School for… Ghouls?" Velma blinked. The other words were printed neatly and professionally in black, but the last one was sloppily applied in red paint, hugely out of proportion with the rest. "I wonder if they know someone defaced their sign?" Probably the boys from the camp she passed on her way in.
She stopped in front of the gate, glancing left and right for a groundsman or gatekeeper, but saw no one. Odd. She shrugged, getting out of the car. After a few moments of stretching and wiggling her feet to restore proper blood flow, she stepped up to the gates and peered past them. The school building was about a football field up the path, which was lined with small stone buildings and benches, sitting atop a small rise. There was a great, old oak tree sitting just in front of it, long dead. She couldn't see anyone.
She took a step back, frowning at the gate. It didn't look to have a lock, so she could probably just-
"Jinkies!" She took a half-step back, raising one arm defensively as the gate silently swung inward of its own accord. She quickly checked the ground for a pressure plate or similar device, but found nothing but the dirt of the road. She couldn't spy any mechanism on the wall or gate itself, either. Very odd.
She climbed back into her car and cautiously drove through the opening. She noted that the gates swung themselves closed after she passed. Very odd indeed. She turned her attention back ahead, and her sense of unease increased. They weren't benches and sheds. They were gravestones and mausoleums. The whole area leading to the school was a graveyard. She suppressed a shiver.
She found herself slamming on the brakes as she neared the school. Just beyond the tree, right where the rise leveled out, was a moat. Due to the curve of the ground, she'd nearly driven right into it. She climbed back out of her car, walking to the edge of the pit. It surrounded the whole building. She could just spot a drawbridge on the far side, some ten yards away.
"Hm," She regarded the mansion. "Open sesame?" She jumped back, eyes widening in surprise, as the drawbridge rapidly descended. "Wasn't expecting that." Now that the bridge was down, she could see the heavy wooden door that had been hidden behind it. She was contemplating walking across the bridge when the door swung open.
A huge man, nearly seven feet tall and built like a runner, quickly strode through the doorway, grinning widely. He had bright brown eyes and a short crop of reddish-brown hair, as well as what Velma instantly mentally dubbed a 'mountain man' scruff of beard. He wore a workout jersey and jogging shorts, which showed his well-defined muscles. Before she could react, he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off the ground.
"Like, Velma, you came!" Belatedly, she realized that this giant was Shaggy. Had they really been apart so long that he looked huge to her? Maybe it was all the new muscle mass; being a gym teacher was apparently quite the workout.
"Shaggy!" She hugged him back when she realized who he was. "Of course I came! I drove down right after I got your letter." He put her down gently. "Jinkies, just look at you!" She tried not to stare at him, but he looked so…. Different. She could see the old Shaggy, the one she'd always known, but the changes in him were shocking. She could hardly believe her eyes; Shaggy Rogers looked like a grownup. He laughed.
"Like, what about you?" She tucked her hair behind her ear with a wry grin. Sure, it was longer than her usual pageboy, but that was just because she'd been too busy to get it cut the last few weeks. She was still the same Velma. Same coke-bottle glasses, same freckles. She wasn't wearing her trademark sweater/skirt ensemble, but that was only because it was way too warm in Louisiana for clothes like that. And maybe she'd gotten into better shape herself from all the running around ferreting out the supernatural she'd been doing. Still, she felt like the same old Velma. She wondered if Shaggy felt the same way about himself. "Like, you look like you could do my job!"
"And how is your job?" She gave his attire an obvious once over. "Considering the rest of the place, I was expecting something a little more macabre." He laughed again.
"Yeah, they really like things nice and spooky around here. It's actually, like, brightened up a bit since Scoob and me have been around." He gestured out to the school grounds. "I was going to, like, run a warm-up lap or two before my first session of the day. Why don't you, like, come along and I can show you around?"
After grabbing a light jacket from the car, she did just that.
They followed the path she'd driven up, turning at a small fork and running through the graveyard, which Shaggy helpfully pointed out was, in fact, a graveyard. She was mildly surprised at how relaxed he seemed, but she supposed even Shaggy couldn't spend four years with a graveyard in his front lawn and not get used to it. She was also a touch surprised by how fast he was. He'd always been the fastest of the gang, excluding Scooby of course, but even with Velma's own recently improved running abilities, she could barely keep up and she knew he was holding back for her sake. Had she improved so little, or had he improved that much?
"And, like, over there's the bog. Don't get too close, there's, like, quicksand." And the school grounds were much, much more extensive than they first appeared. They easily stretched for miles in each direction, encompassing way more terrain than she'd realized.
"Just how big is this place?" They'd started on a hill, gone through a graveyard, cut through what looked like an overgrown apple orchard, and now a bog? She made sure to stick close to him; Quicksand was never fun.
"It's, like, pretty big today." He laughed. Today? What was that supposed to mean? She opened her mouth to voice that very question. "Like, over there's the pumpkin patch, they should start growing in pretty soon." He pointed. About an acre seemed to have been set aside for the gourds. It fit rather well with the atmosphere of the place. And next to it…. "And, like, the garden." It wasn't hard to notice; the garden was the only thing that looked healthy for miles. There were tomatoes, corn, some various squashes and bushes of vegetables, pepper plants, grape-vines, at least two pineapple plants, and a dozen other things. Velma idly wondered how they'd made all these different plants grow in the same garden, but shook the thought away; when it came to food, Shaggy always found a way. "Speaking of, how about a little snack?" He reached out and snagged at least three tomatoes, wolfing them down without breaking stride. Same old Shaggy.
"I think," She panted. "I'll pass." Running and eating was not a skill she possessed, nor did she fancy a stomach cramp. He just shrugged and grabbed a few more treats before they passed the garden.
She hated to admit it, but she was pretty winded when they finally made it back to her car, which she leaned upon to catch her breath. A lap around the school grounds had been a lot farther than she'd anticipated. Shaggy was giving her a sort of apologetic grin, though he also looked a mite amused, jogging in place as he was.
"This is a warm-up?" She gave him half a glare. He just laughed. Again. Someday, she was sure, it would come down to a battle of wits, and then it would be her turn to laugh. And laugh she would. "What kind of torturous gym class are you running out here?"
"Heh, like, sorry Velma. I guess-" He was cut off as a mass of teeth, fur, and claws hit him in a flying tackle with a high-pitched howl. He and the mass tumbled over each other a few times, before they rolled to a stop with the mass on top. Velma's breath caught as she looked at the creature. Thick tan fur, bright yellow eyes, long and pointed ears. Long claws, sharp fangs in a short, rounded snout. Werewolf.
She turned back to her car, flinging the door open. She had a small silver dagger somewhere in her bag. Where was it? She'd never run into a werewolf before, but she'd learned to always be prepared for any monster she might meet during her research. She scrambled for the weapon, throwing less important items across the floor of her car. There! She pulled sharply, tugging the blade free from both her bag and its hilt, and whirled around.
"Ok, ok! You, like, got me Winnie!" Shaggy laughed, pushing the monster off of himself with a casual shove. The werewolf sat back on her haunches with a self-satisfied snort. "Like, I guess you're ready to get going, huh?"
"You betcha, Coach!" Her voice was somewhere between a scratchy growl and a girlish lilt. She snickered, then caught sight of Velma. "Hey, who's the new girl?"
Velma just gaped at the scene, her brain trying and failing to make sense of it. The dagger dangled loosely in her hand. Talking werewolf. Talking werewolf. Not ripping or tearing or eating. In the daylight. Shaggy laughing. Not scared. Shaggy not scared of a werewolf. The talking daytime werewolf. In jogging shorts.
"Bwuh?" Velma blinked. Shaggy laughed again, climbing back to his feet.
"Like, Winnie, this is my friend Velma." He held out his hands between the two of them. "Velma, this is Winnie. She's, like, one of the girls here at the school." The werewolf stood up, walking (prowling, her mind supplied) towards her. She had her own exercise outfit, a baby blue reflection of Shaggy's. Why did a werewolf need clothes?
"You're a werewolf." Most brilliant insight of the day award to Dinkley. The werewolf looked over to Shaggy, then back at Velma.
"Uh, yeah." Winnie raised her eyebrows, staring at her as though Velma were the strange one! "Coach Shaggy told us all about you." She leaned towards said coach. "I thought you said she was the smart one?" It was the loudest whisper in history.
Velma did the only reasonable thing. She fainted.