You see an eerie light, and if the moon is right, we just might sight a monster.
The fire crackles and pops, shooting off sparks high into the air. Velma tips back her head and watches them fly up into the darkness. It’s not supposed to rain. She watched the weather forecast before they left and calculated her own, too. Still, there are clouds hiding the stars and a strange darkness settles over their camp.
Or, perhaps, not so strange.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Daphne says. Velma didn’t expect it, not exactly, she hasn’t been sitting and waiting for the announcement while everyone toasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames, but she knows how unhappy Daphne has been lately.
“We’re only camping one more night,” Fred says with a little chuckle. It’s slightly condescending, as always, but maybe that’s just her interpretation. She likes Fred well enough, but has never thought him good enough for Daphne, nor has she ever seen him treat her the way she deserves.
“Not camping.” Daphne stares into the fire, her hands clasped together and resting on her knees. “Solving mysteries. Unmasking false monsters and unveiling fake ghosts. I’m leaving Mystery Inc.”
It is telling that though the others all appear shocked, no one speaks up right away. No one begs her to stay. No one claims that Mystery Inc. won’t survive without her, not because it will survive, but because, it seems, they all feel the same way.
She looks to the sky again, but the stars are covered and dark.
Even when everyone else is sloppy and relaxed, Daphne looks elegant. How she manages that out in the middle of the woods when they’ve been camping together for days, Velma will never know. How she manages that when she’s just woken up, Velma wishes she knew.
Velma herself has tossed and turned for hours. She can feel the mess of her hair and knows her clothes are wrinkled and dirty and displaced. She grabs her glasses and shoves them on, then sits up.
The clouds have blown away without releasing the water they carry. The moon is but a pale sliver in the darkness, but the stars are too numerous to count. Daphne comes to her while the others sleep, or at least pretend to peacefully rest, and she is beautiful in the vague light, a pale slip of a girl who is almost a woman, serene with her hair bound back and her little silk camisole.
“I’m sorry,” she says and sits down on the end of Velma’s sleeping bag. “I know you’re sad.”
“Why?” Velma asks. She wishes she had the words for what she’s feeling. Why are you leaving me? isn’t quite right, nor is Why don’t you love me? but both are as true as they are incorrect for what she wants to say.
“I want something real.” Daphne holds her hands out in front of her, palms down, her fingers spread wide. She stares at them and Velma does too, her perfect nails, carefully shaped but not polished because there is no way, no way, to keep them perfectly polished doing the job they do. “I’m tired of false leads and fake monsters and masks and all the lies we uncover with every job.”
“We’re real,” Velma says and yes, technically that is true, but it is still not exactly what she means.
“Oh, honey, I know.” Daphne scoots closer and puts her head on Velma’s shoulder. She takes one of Velma’s hands and slips their fingers together. Her palm is warm, her skin soft. Velma closes her eyes and tilts her head against Daphne’s.
Maybe she can pretend just once more.
“You’re my best friend,” Daphne says. It is nothing Velma doesn’t already know, but in that moment, in the near darkness with the blanket of stars overhead and Daphne’s body so soft and warm next to her, Velma thinks it is very nearly the greatest thing in the world. “I’m going to miss you so much. Miss this so much, the inbetween times when there is nothing fake, no lies, it’s just all of us and the truth.”
Guilt twists Velma’s stomach but she ignores it. Hers is a necessary lie, and in truth, not a lie at all, simply a secret buried deep.
At first, Daphne sends emails every week, sometimes a short note every day. Velma responds frequently, though not as often as she’d like, not as detailed as she’d like. Eventually they both get too busy, classes taking over their lives and later work.
Velma tries a few different majors before she settles on business. Science and math seem the best places for her, but they remind her too much of all the machines she built for Mystery Inc., all the ways she used her skills to solve mysteries and reveal monsters, all the things which drove Daphne away in the end, false terror and secrets and lies.
She’s not sure why she decides to learn how to operate a small business, nor why she ends up opening a mystery bookstore. She says, when asked, that after growing up solving mysteries, selling them is the next best thing.
Secretly she thinks she’s a masochist, because the books remind her so much of Daphne and Mystery Inc. and all the things she had once but has no more.
Velma watches Daphne’s show every time it’s on. She loves how beautiful Daphne remains, and the way she smiles so bright for the camera. There’s something missing in it, though, something in her eyes.
She fakes being happy well, but she’s not.
Velma thinks, I could make her happy. But she knows it for the lie it is.
Sometimes she thinks about sending an email, but it’s been so long. Instead she organizes her store and once in awhile she dates. The men are nice enough. The women nicer still. None of them she loves, but it is a form of happiness and she will take it.
She has a trunk full of half-finished manuscripts as well, detective stories all.
When Fred calls, Velma is momentarily struck by hope so great it nearly steals her breath. It is a false hope. She knows, of course, that Daphne may miss her and may love her, but not the way she wants.
She thinks about this for the length of a heartbeat, but she knows it doesn’t matter.
All she wants is to go home and Mystery Inc. -- the real Mystery Inc., not her crowded, dusty, sometimes disheartening bookshop -- for all its flaws, has always been home.
The full moon has just barely breached the horizon when Lena comes to Velma’s room.
It’s already golden and bright and Velma takes a moment to go to the window and look out at it and the gray-black shadows of the bayou. It’s a place for ghosts, if they were real. She, of all people, knows they are not, but sometimes she wishes, and not only because if they were, it would make Daphne happy.
“Beautiful, no?” Lena asks and startles Velma. She’s supposed to be in the kitchen finishing dinner, but instead she stands in the doorway, a small smile twisting her mouth. Freddy’s right, she’s absolutely lovely, not that he would phrase it as such.
There’s a strange twist to her walk, a curving of her hips, a bend to her arms. Her eyes are wide, her lips red and full, and her skirt swishes about her legs. She crooks her finger at Velma as she crosses the room and Velma, despite herself, can’t look away.
“Yes,” she says and her voice is weak.
“The harvest moon has long been my favorite.” Lena stops next to Velma and her body radiates so much heat it prickles Velma’s skin. She angles her body closer, lips parted, lashes lowered, every inch of her body tempting, welcoming, begging for Velma’s touch.
A frisson of horror curls through Velma. For a moment, she thinks there is something inhuman in Lena’s movements, the way her body bends and twists, in the curl of her smile and the bright sharpness of her teeth.
“Perhaps we will walk together beneath it,” she says and in the cadence of her words, the soft Southern drawl that lengthens the vowels, Velma hears an echo of something she doesn’t know, something she can’t quite remember.
Lena leaves, her steps gentle, as quiet as little cat feet passing through the room, and something cold blows her skirts around and her long dark hair, a chilly wind chasing her from the room.
If Velma believed in monsters, she thinks she would fear Lena. She simply doesn’t know why.
Lena’s just a woman. A beautiful, flirtatious woman and Velma’s not sure what to make of the way she winds up Fred the same way she’s just wound Velma tight. That must be the problem, because there can be no monster lurking beneath her smile. Monsters, Velma knows better than anyone but the team, are not real.
Beau -- Lieutenant Neville -- is not what she expected. It’s good that he isn’t the villain, it’s good that having him on the show makes Daphne so happy, it’s even good that he enjoys mysteries enough to make them his career twice over, as a detective and as a writer.
She’s not so sure about the way he makes her feel.
She invites him to her bookstore and he agrees to visit her. She’s decided to keep it open between solving mysteries. All she must do is hire someone to work it when she’s gone. They have a week or so while Daphne prepares Beau for the show, while they tell him their stories of unmasking monsters and how much better it is when they’re real.
Velma isn’t certain she agrees with that, but it does make for an exciting life, at least.
And, real monsters or no, Mystery Inc. will always be her home.
Daphne hooks her arm around Velma’s shoulders and beams.
“Want to hunt werewolves?” she asks and her eyes are bright with excitement. “Since we have so much experience with shapeshifting humans and full moon rituals?”
“Werewolves?” Velma nudges her glasses back up her nose. “You think they’re real?”
Daphne shrugs. “There’s supposed to be a cursed castle and a treasure, so who knows? Either way, we’ll solve the mystery. That’s what we do, right?” She casts a sidelong glance at Velma and her expression goes sly. “Beau’s coming. He thinks it will make a good book, even if it’s fake.”
Velma’s tempted, truly she is. Beau’s smart, creative, and competent, and, of course, there is no real doubt, because where Mystery Inc. goes, so goes she.
“I suppose this means research,” she says, as if it is some sort of horrible task, not something she loves. “And perhaps silver bullets.”
“Perhaps,” Daphne echoes, laughter in her voice, and squeezes Velma into a hug.