Part One: Ties that Bind
The chains that bind us the most closely are the ones we have broken.
- Antonio Porchia
Danny stared into the gleaming plastic eyes of a dozen cameras. Mom sat on the bed next to him, holding his hand.There should be some kind of decency law against having to answer interview questions in a hospital gown, he thought.
What sixteen year old lets his mom hold his hand on live TV?
Danny shifted his fingers and Mom gave them a squeeze. He stiffened. Part of him hated the idea of his one good hand being trapped by her after she had—she had—
He could feel each individual tendon as they were yanked one by one, forcing the fingers to curl and uncurl. Over and over. Aside from the pain, which after the first few hours he'd developed a dull, desperate resistance to, they had begun to cramp from the repeated movement. Danny sagged in relief as the force eased—only to spike into knife-like agony as she tore the tendons off completely.
"It's remarkable that you made it all the way home by yourself," a woman was saying. She must have introduced herself before, but Danny couldn't remember.
The a reporter, Danny realized, taking in her neat tailored suit with the pretty pink blouse. Sam would scoff at such a frilly shirt. Danny pictured her sitting in her kitchen, eating cereal and watching him sit like a mute idiot on TV. He wondered what she thought of it all.
What were they doing again?
The reporter turned to him, her smile painted in gaudy coral lipstick. "Why didn't you stop and ask for help? You must have passed dozens of places."
Danny shrugged, wishing his mom would let go of his hand so he could fidget with the sheets. It felt too weird doing nothing, like he was on display. "I dunno. I guess that was stupid."
"Nobody's saying that," the woman said smoothly.
"I just wasn't thinking straight," Danny admitted, tapping his fingers on the inside of his mom's palm. She squeezed them reassuringly. He resisted the urge to yank them out of her grip. "I just... I knew I had to get home, you know?"
"How did you get home?"
"I walked." He'd been too weak to fly, so he picked a direction that "felt" right and walked. Danny only had patches of memory from that time, of rough, hot mountainside and deserted roads. He remembered dropping into a roadside ditch to avoid the searching glare of headlights. After that, a jumbled impression of exhaustion and pain, and some inborn stubbornness driving him on until he'd found himself at his own front door.
The woman leaned in conspiratorially, wreathing him in sickly-sweet as perfume. "That's an awfully long way, Danny."
Danny dropped his gaze to his lap where his mother's hand entangled his own, and wished he could will away this woman and her cameras and every single person watching on the other side. "Yeah."
"You didn't tell Dad."
Jazz flinched and nearly dropped her book. She looked up at her Danny; he slouched in the hospital bed, surrounded by dozens of pillow. His right arm was completely encased in a thick white sling, only the barest tips of his fingers showing out of the heavy cast that rested inside.
Jazz studied her little brother, trying to decide what had driven him to ask. Gratitude? Hurt? Curiosity?
He stared down at the puzzle that Sam had brought him. As she watched, he scowled and dumped out the pieces, starting over.
The cast's bright blue casing peeked out, already grafittied with "Jack Fenton", "Tuck was here" and a smiling purple spider. Visiting Danny was supposed to be limited to family only, but his friends had somehow snuck in anyway. Even the orderlies seemed to understand that those two were as much a part of the Fenton family as any of them.
Danny's face remained blank, his attention apparently absorbed in maneuvering the puzzle pieces. It was one of those colorful abstract things, like a Tetris game in plastic. When placed the right way, all geometric shapes would fit together in its little plastic tray, forming one perfect square.
They were keeping him on a strong sedative, for pain and because he'd apparently displayed 'persistent agitation'. Jazz wasn't sure exactly what that entailed, but she didn't like the way the doctor had said it. Carefully, as if glossing over something much more awful. Visions of her little brother screaming and struggling as nurses shoved needles in his arm sprang up in her mind's eye. Jazz shuddered. No. The doctors would have told them. Surely they would have told the family if it had gotten that bad.
"No, I didn't tell anyone," she said at last. She closed her book and ran her hands across the glossy cover. "Was that the right thing to do?"
He gave her an odd look. Jazz smiled self-consciously, pulling a strand of her long red hair over her shoulder and smoothing it between her fingertips. It wasn't like her to ask that kind of question. Jazz always knew what to do—and if she didn't, she researched it. There was no precedent on what to do when your half-ghost little brother goes missing.
Danny shrugged, eyes falling back to the puzzle. "Probably wouldn't have changed things. Now I'd rather they not know. You know?"
Jazz sighed, relieved and worried again in the same breath. Keeping it from their parents now, with Danny so vulnerable felt like a bad idea. More than one ghost held a serious grudge against him. Would she, Tucker and Sam be able to protect him alone? Would he still try to fight, even in his condition?
"Why didn't you?" No inflection, no real indicator of how he felt. No eye contact either, although the puzzle let them both pretend he had a good reason.
Jazz shrank back in the chair and wrapped her arms around herself, hugging the book. "I was sure you were dead."
"Sure?" he echoed, fingers stilling on the pieces.
She nodded. "The BOOmerang." Stupid name aside, it was one of the best of their parents' inventions, a tracking device that faithfully found Danny across countries, dimensions, even time. At least, it had before. "As soon as we realized you were gone, gone, Sam, Tucker and I tried to use it. It kept blinking 'no matching ectosignature detected' and that's all it would do.”
Jazz had even gone to Vlad in the end, hoping that his controlling tendencies would mean he'd kept tabs on Danny. She'd half hoped that she'd find her little brother stashed away in some shielded corner of the millionaire's mansion. No such luck. Under Vlad's sneers and the petty jabs at her father, the man had been genuinely worried—definitely annoyed—and just as lost as they were.
"We tried everything, Danny. Every scanner, every over-powered toy of Dad's. How could they not find you? Unless you were... unless there was nothing to find."
Jazz gripped the edges of the heavy book, feeling irrationally guilty. It was as if she hadn't had faith in Danny. "If you really were--if it was true, I couldn't just tell them. Not while they were grieving. They'd feel so guilty and confused about your ghost half with no way to resolve it. I couldn't do it. Not right away, at least."
“I guess not." The puzzle lay in the folds of the sheet across Danny's lap, its pieces jumbled and crowding each other out of the frame. Silence stretched between them.
Jazz wished that Danny could banish the doubts that haunted her. That he'd her she'd done everything she could. Except she hadn't. The textbook in her lap weighed her down, its sharp, new corners biting through her jeans. She hadn't found him. Hurt and lost, he'd had to find his way home alone.
"There was this thing," Danny began slowly, startling her. "At the place where they had me. A dampening field. It limited my powers. No intangibility, no ectoblasts. No shields. It suppressed everything.” He shrugged and glanced at her. “I bet that's why you couldn't track me."
"Oh," she breathed, hardly daring to speak. This was the first time he'd volunteered any real information on what had happened to him.
"It's nice to know," he added in a low voice, "why nobody came flying in on the Specter Speeder to break me out. You couldn't find me."
"We couldn't," Jazz agreed. She hoped he heard all the regret in those words. How ardently she wished they weren't true. "We tried, but you were gone."
Silence settled in again, heavy and bleak. The clock on the wall that ticked just a little bit off time filled the room with its soft, steady beat.
"You were captured then," she prompted gently.
Danny paused, then nodded. He moved the puzzle pieces, meticulously turning them this way and that. "Guys in White. They have this whole lab… facility thing out in the mountains, just for ghost experiments."
"Experiments? You mean... you? You were... " Horror crawled to the forefront of her mind. Jazz had scientists for parents. She knew very well what kinds of "studies" a ghost could undergo in the name of science. An even more horrible thought came in on the heels of the first. Maybe Danny hadn't gotten all of his injuries from escaping. Maybe that hand… why it was so bad…
As if to confirm her thoughts, Danny's good hand strayed up to cradle the one in the sling and cast. "That's me." A little bitterness crept into his tone. "Test subject number 0013. Such 'fascinating' material."
"Oh Danny, I'm sorry." She pressed her hands to her lips, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm so sorry."
"It's over. Forget it." Danny frowned down at the last two pieces. He'd started out wrong, Jazz realized. The last tile wouldn't fit.
“You know you can't just forget something like that.”
He shrugged. That wouldn't stop him from trying, his shoulders seemed to say.
He would have to talk about it and deal with it, and soon, but Jazz didn't have the heart to play psychologist tonight. She moved to the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around his thin shoulders, hugging him as hard as she dared.
Danny's arm drifted up and settled across her shoulders. Fingers brushed against her face. She felt him hesitate. Think. Sinking in past the sedatives.
"You're crying," he said, surprise in his voice. "Why?"
"Why?" Jazz squeezed him tighter, shutting her eyes against more tears. "Because you're my little brother; and they—" They'd done horrible things to him. Almost killed him. "Of course I'm upset." How out of it was he that he had to ask that question? "I love you, Danny. Don't forget that."
"I won't." Danny relaxed into her embrace, nodding against her shoulder. He felt so light, frail and thin as a paper doll. Jazz smoothed down his hair, taking a deep breath. Outrage could wait. Talking it out could wait. Right now he needed to rest and heal.
"You should sleep," she told him.
"Not gonna," he mumbled.
"You already are." Jazz sniffed and swiped a hand across her eyes, then pushed him gently back into the nest of pillows. She crept across the room and flicked off the light, then found her way to the cot set up under the window. Curling up under the blanket, she shut her eyes.
Plastic clacked against plastic; Jazz looked at the bed. Danny had sat up again, silhouetted against the light spilling in from the hallway. His fingers shifted; she caught a flash of color in his lap. He sat alone in the dark, staring down unseeing at the unfinished puzzle.
Ties that Bind :: tbc...