"I'm not sorry your dad died," Amanda muttered above the pattering rain as she held out her wrists for the handcuffs. Bunsen snapped them into place without meeting her eyes. As she tugged at them, he counted the dents and hardened egg yolks that marred her front doors. Seventeen. The Killmans had stopped replacing the parts of their house that hadn't yet hit thirty. Since the curled door handles still worked, why bother? Money wasn't the issue. It was a matter of pride. Every new door they put up meant a new surrender.
He cleared both his throats. "Ah, no, I don't see why you should be sorry. In fact, I imagined you to be more happy. There is no way I would be doing this for you if he hadn't."
"Don't get a swelled head about the goopy goodness of your heart, Beast. I'm sure I'll get my ride back on Monday." Though they'd run through the routine a dozen times before, Amanda fiddled with her hands as she led the way down her front walk to his idle car. He'd specifically brought the red one- the one her dad had thrust upon his family a few years back as an alternative to a lawsuit. It glimmered like a dragonfly in the rain. The wipers swished like beating hearts.
"I'm very sorry you were fired from the police station because of me."
"I wasn't fired," she snapped. "I just- I… My dispatcher and I are taking a break for awhile, that's all."
Bunsen flattened his horns. "Oh."
Amanda tossed her head, her blonde ponytail cutting through the gray sky like sunshine. "Your dad," she said then. "A heart attack, wasn't it?"
"Capture myopathy. Like a human heart attack in a few ways, but for creatures who are refused treatment from a human hospital."
"Eh, that's close enough I could mark it on a bingo board." She watched him pop the passenger side door. "You know, it'd be easier for both of us if you didn't always make me put the handcuffs on before I get in your car."
He gestured, again, for her to duck out of the rain. "No, I don't think it really would be. We agreed: Driver makes the rules. I don't plan to change my mind even if you complain. Not unless you stop air freshening your car with oranges and tangerines."
Amanda slid across the seat, for once not commenting about the torn leather or any misplaced spines or claws. She didn't even bother checking the back seat to confirm he'd brought the picket signs. "Well, it seems like a safety hazard if you ask me. Look, Beast; you can tell me I'm wrong, but I know you only passed driver's ed because Hodson thought they'd call him ungulaphobic if he didn't allow it. It was only after you got your license that anyone even found out your eyes are so bad, you have to wear those goofy glasses all the time. Don't even argue- you know it's true. Echolocation's not going to help you through the windshield." Metal crackled each time she shifted. "I'm just being the practical one. I mean, what if we get in a wreck?"
Bunsen didn't try to stop his snort. "Please, Amanda, you are practically a ninja. I have seen you mauled by a bear many times before. I've watched you crash out of the sky without a jumping chute. Also, the last time I put you in those, you had wiggled free of them before we reached the Pennsylvania border."
With that, he slammed her door and circled around to the other side.
"It's raining," she said when he'd joined her in the car, pulling a foot up on her seat.
"The thunder doesn't scare me so much anymore. I am a grown Beast. Trust me, we will be okay. This isn't our longest drive."
Amanda hmphed. "I'm going to say a prayer anyway."
"Fine, go and do that. Scaredy-fry." Bunsen yanked the driver's door shut and buckled himself in with two of his other hands. His arced horns scraped along his headrest. "I will just be picking the songs for our travel music."
She bowed her head. Just to annoy her, he flicked through his phone until he found an old playlist containing no English words. His thumb hovered over 'Caged Before Beauty'. Overlanders were more than a little bashed in this one; Amanda would have been very offended if she'd been able to translate. Catchy tune, though, even if twenty-six-year-old Bunsen no longer agreed with thirteen-year-old Bunsen's decision to download it. Haunting lyrics rippled through the car along with the one heater that still worked. It wasn't until Bunsen turned the key in the ignition that Amanda spoke again.
"Does Mike even know you're doing this?"
Bunsen wrapped his knuckles around the steering wheel. After two seconds spent gathering his thoughts, he glanced over and locked eyes with her for the first time. "I don't think Mike needs to know everything I do with my life."
"Huh, that surprises me. It's usually not wise to go to these things without writing down your will in front of a trusted witness." Amanda nestled into the seat cushion. This time, she did find a claw and wince. "You know, it's not everyone who drives their mortal enemy to a rally against their own kind."
"We are both going to be there," he pointed out.
"Technically you're correct, sure, but you know I'll be on the opposite side."
"Ah, I still think it's better for the environment to carpool."
She rolled her entire head as he eased the car down her driveway. "It's just three hours away. I say that we live in a small town and ride the bus all the time, so we can afford to stop being so green every now and again. Especially if it keeps us from strangling each other."
"Well, that is why I brought the handcuffs." He switched the car into drive. "I think I may have misunderstood when you were telling me how your boss man took away your car for an ind'aterminated amount of time. Did you want to walk all the way there?"
"Ahh, then shut your talk hole when I have chosen to be nice."
Amanda rested a knuckle against her lip, focusing her stare down at his phone. "Is 'Kalyle' the word for 'Hate' in Beast?"
"This song became a meme like four months ago. People've been trying to translate the lyrics. Humans. Seriously, you didn't know that?"
Bunsen leaned forward, squinting through the sloshing windshield wipers. He never drove with less than four arms at the ready, and now he used two of them to push his glasses further up his snout. "I have so many people blocked on my social medias now that I do not think I even ever noticed."
"Who'd you block?" she demanded, and then she said, "Oh. We're going to a rally. I see."
He shrugged. "Some things I saw may have hurt my feelings, and I no longer wanted to be looking at them, so now I don't."
"Well." She clinked her handcuffs again. "I blocked some Beasts too. And not just Beasts, but you know. People. Anyway, we're even. I mean with the blocking. I'm not mad or anything. It's your choice."
"I know. And it means 'I don't know'."
Bunsen eased up on the gas as a four-wheeler rolled into view further down the road. "Kalyle is how Beasts tell each other 'I am unsure about this'. It means, 'Proceed with carefulness'. Or 'I am afraid'. We don't have a word for 'hate' in our language."
"Of course you don't," she muttered. "Why would you be anything less than full of love and acceptance for others? You're just so perfect that way."
His phone chirped with an incoming call before he could reply. Bunsen flashed out one of his arms to grab it, but Amanda snatched it first.
"Eyes on the road, Beast. Seriously, if you crash, I'll write you a ticket for distracted driving. Oh, temple of doom; it's Mike."
"Ahhh, that's really int-er-esting! Now don't answer it."
She answered it. Bunsen leaned over to slap at her with a couple of his arms, and Amanda fought him off with her foot and a few choice words. Leaning against the window, cradling the phone in both hands (since she didn't have many options), she purred, "How's it hanging, delectable? You doing anything later?" And then she said, "Sugarsnaps, it's Sophie. I just said I still think Mike is smokin' in front of Sophie. Oh, look at that; I just did it again, didn't I?"
Spiffy. Bunsen kept one eye on her, until she noticed and gestured back to the windshield. He turned his attention on the road again. Between the engine and the rain, he couldn't hear what Sophie said next, but Amanda folded her legs and straightened up.
"Well, I'm sure he's around. You tried his house, didn't you? You didn't. See, 'cuz I know you. So I know you didn't."
Because he was driving, Bunsen had to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. He loved Sophie, and her infallible gentleness made her so good for Mike, but it would be just like her to panic before bothering to perform a thorough investigation for whomever she was in search of. Once, she'd called him at two in the morning to ask if he'd pop over to help her find her phone. Inconsolable for ten minutes.
Amanda's fingers danced across her wrist, metal clicking. Somehow, she managed to tuck a loose curl behind her ear. "A babysitter? Eh, too bad I'm on my way to the rally. Rally. Ra- Oh, how do I translate this into Sophie… The protest? Yes- protest. 'Protest' works. So, no babysitting from me. Sorry 'bout it, luv. I'd check the bowling alley. Your Beast is in another castle."
"Oh my florax," he muttered, "I dodged an acid geyser there. They have five boys, Amanda. Their oldest is quiet, but the rest are bonkers and I have finals to study for next week. I can't fail now and lose my scholarships. Everyone expects me to be the first Beast to graduate from a human university."
"And they can't afford me." Louder, "Well, he's not at my place. And he's not at your place. And he's not at his place. And he's certainly not in the car with me today."
Her tone lilted on 'car'. Bunsen flicked his horns. Sophie had called his phone specifically, and he'd dropped by to babysit a time or two when she'd been pregnant with the twins, but even then, why would she want to talk with him? This was the girl who pet his head and sometimes forgot he had a solid grasp of the English language, although he'd now officially spent more time above ground than below it. Bunsen groped for the radio knobs out of instinct before remembering Amanda had the phone against her ear. Well, at least the Beast music had stopped when Sophie's call had started. That would've given away his position for sure.
Amanda slumped. Her fingertips migrated to her forehead. "I wasn't fired, Soph. Stop listening to all that stuff your mother-in-law says behind my back; I know where she lives. Yes. My dad's. No, the blue one. Shoot." Amanda covered the speaker as best as her handcuffed hands allowed. "Do you remember which car my rich father took to New York?"
Having four arms gave Bunsen the chance to shrug without letting go of the steering wheel. "Mostly, I try only to pay attention to your dad when I really, really have to."
"Ehiyeh, can't say I blame you there." She let her hand drop away. "Well, good luck, Munroe. I hope you find him."
They said their good-byes and hung up. Lightning crackled over the distant trees, and Bunsen winced. "Ahh… So, did Sophie need me to sit on her babies sometime?"
"Eh, just for like twenty minutes while she ran down to the store. I would put 'twenty minutes' in air quotes, but again, my hands are cuffed and I'm a little concerned about letting go of this phone. Don't worry about it; I got you out of that scrape."
Even as she said it, Bunsen's ringtone went off again (Shame, too- it cut off the best part of the song). Amanda listened for a couple of seconds, then cringed.
"Oh, that's riiight. It's his phone, and I'm Amanda Killman, not Bunsen the Beast."
"Lie," he hissed (Or… said. Technically, there weren't 's' sounds in that word, so 'he spat' might have been the more accurate way to go). "Remember? Finals? Scholarships? Failure and shaming my whole family?"
"Sophie, he's not here. I'm on my way to- What? No! No. Ugh. Just tell Mike the Beast would never go to another rally. Sure, that works. What? Uh…" Amanda tossed a pleading look his way. "H-he went back to college, studying for… studying! Right?"
The last of Muckledunk's buildings disappeared from his rear-view mirror. They were on the open road now. Bunsen curled the end of his tail.
"How could you have seen his car? No, I don't think so. Like I said, he's studying back at college. Presumably. It's not like I would have talked to him. I wouldn't lie to you, Mrs. Munroe. I am, after all, an officer of the law. What? How'd I… the phone? Well, see, I noticed he left it at my place the other day, so I'm just hanging onto it until he comes back…"
He mumbled, "In a week, when I am done with finals, stop being the focus of all the major news companies, and you don't need a babysitter anymore."
"I have his phone because we had an affair last night," Amanda blurted.
Bunsen smashed his bare foot against the brakes. The car swivelled, screeching, and completed an entire spin before it faced forward on the road again. He grabbed the wheel and traded the brake pedal for the gas. "Amanda, why would you say that?"
Amanda clutched the phone, her mouth hanging. When he spared a glance, the screen had gone black. Call ended. "I… I got in over my head- She was cross-examining me- I didn't know how to back out, a-and then Mike came on and I said the first thing that came to mind."
"Ohh, boy." One of his fists went to his forehead. "Well, now you will certainly never be getting your job back. And I am going to need to erase what little I can of Mike's and Sophie's memories with my tendrils."
"What, I'm just supposed to tell them you're driving me to an Anti-Beast rally? You know Sophie! She'd skin us both for fishing lures. You promised them you'd never go back."
Bunsen said nothing. Amanda curled her knees against her chest. The trees they passed bloomed with summer leaves. Rain dribbled.
"I'm sorry your dad died."
"Ahh, don't make yourself feel like it was your fault. If he had been looked at by a human doctor instead of a Beast one, it wouldn't have changed anything."
Two minutes passed. "It would have changed everything," she said. "That's why life's so crazy. When you have power, you can make the rules. Turn one group of people against anybody else."
Bunsen managed to keep driving for ten more minutes in silence. And then, he couldn't. He dragged the car to the side of the road, shoved the gearshift into park, and twisted around to face her. "How can you support him, Amanda? Tell me that."
She watched the water leaking down the windshield instead of the water on his face. "Yeah, well. The thing is, you may be understandably opposed to him and what he and his team do, Bunsen, but he's just trying to do the right thing and make the world a better place. He wants to help people. He's tried his best. Everyone's turning against him now because they don't think his best was enough, but he still did all he could, and I have to defend that."
"He wants to help human people, you mean."
Amanda turned her face away. "Well, if non-human people happen to be the ones causing problems, then yes. That comes with the job."
Bunsen took off his glasses and massaged his eyelids with two other hands. "No matter how you want to spin it, or how popular he is or used to be with all of the human crowds, it's still an excuse to take away the rights of others who are just trying to get by. It's so wrong."
"He's just one guy who's trying to protect the world."
"He's one guy who became famous because he hates people like me." The glasses went back on his snout. "And I have to fight that."
"Not people like you," Amanda insisted. She picked a fingernail against the handcuffs. "Not Beasts. Just… other creatures."
Bunsen put the car in drive again and led it back on the road. "I don't think it's really right that he can openly hate one minority group and now start pretending to support another just because the issue is getting really hot right now."
Amanda dropped his phone in her lap and scoffed. "Well, it's not exactly a good time to be human, either. Remember? I'm a cop; I gave you these handcuffs. Bad career move on my part, since cops and superheroes don't mix… But you wouldn't believe how many times I've seen Beasts - adult Beasts! - treat ungulaphobia like it's the default function in the human brain." She kicked the glove compartment. "I've seen human kids in cafeterias who sit next to Beasts without thinking anything about it, only to be questioned endlessly on whether they're adopted so one of their parents is a Beast and if that's why they're unafraid, since they couldn't possibly be nice just because they see only people-"
"Don't." Bunsen turned his head. "No, really. Please… don't. Not today. It's late, and I am already upset. Let's just agree that we don't agree, and I will drive."
She forced a brief smile. "Thanks for reminding everyone why one of us always wears handcuffs when we carpool."
So saying, she began to play with them again. After several minutes of it, Bunsen flicked one of his tongues her way. Amanda made a few disgusted noises, and it took him awhile to feel for the lock and keep the car steady at the same time. But after a moment of him squishing around its insides, the handcuffs clicked open.
"It's three hours," he said when she looked at him funny. "What if we got in a wreck? I can't die with that on my conscience. You gave me your trust that if I put those on you I would event'ally let you go, and Beasts always fulfill their promises."
Amanda rubbed her wrists. "Hey, uh, speaking of death… Be okay. Okay? With all the protesting? Ghosts might not die if things get out of hand, but you're not invincible and I need you to drive me back."
Bunsen stuck out his first tongue again. "Do you think they'll even let me get close enough to make it in the rally? I heard security had plans to turn all the Beasts and Ghosts away."
"They're just trying to limit the population and prevent things from getting out of hand in the first place."
True… Still, Bunsen put a hand to his throat. "But if you do make it through the lines to the Fenton household, you will ask Danny if he can find my dad, right?"
"We agreed I would if you drove and paid for gas."
"Thanks. Even if nothing can be done, or if he can't be found, it means a lot to my family."
She tilted up her chin. "Eh, at least I don't have to worry about humans killing me. They wouldn't want to add another Ghost to the protests today."
"Aw, no one will even recognize you anyway. You are not even wearing the same perfume as the last two times."
Amanda gazed through the window, still holding her wrist, as blurry trees flew by on either side. "Funny. You know, when I was eleven… I actually thought I was going to save the world. More than anything, I wanted to be just like Danny Phantom. I'd scare away the monsters and keep all of Muckledunk safe. And everyone was supposed to love me."
Bunsen paused. "Well. I used to believe that there was no such thing as a bad Ghost. Or a bad Beast. History is written by the victorious ones. I think when we were eleven, we both had some growing up left to do. Hand me my phone. This playlist has bored me. I want to pick another."
"Pretty crappy superhero, wasn't I?" she asked, turning her head.
He couldn't offer up better body language than a shrug. Shrugging seemed appropriate. "Ahh, an actual superhero maybe would not have really liked it if I made him put on handcuffs to ride in my car. He proba'ly would have bonked me on the nose. I think I might like cops better than superheroes anyway."
Amanda did reach over to bonk him on the nose, then glanced at the back seat. "'This is our home'. 'Show some respect'. 'Trust goes both ways'. 'We're just people'… I can't remember which of our picket signs I wanted to use this time."
"It doesn't really matter, does it?"