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Shadow of a Doubt

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As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch.

- Edith Wharton

 

"Was the water still hot, Mads?"

"Yes dear," Maddie said absently as she shut off the tap, though it could have been ice cold for all she noticed.

They were meeting with the doctors this afternoon to discuss options. Danny's hand, whether surgery would help. When they'd first mentioned going under the knife, Danny had turned gray. Goosebumps crawled across her exposed skin. He hadn't been able to tell them what had caused the injury to his hand, but it had left its mark. Remembered or not, the trauma lingered.

She stepped out of the tub and reached for a towel, pushing her wet hair back with an impatient flick; it had grown far past her preferred style, tickling her neck and brushing against her shoulders.

"Let's get there early," she told Jack from the doorway of the bathroom as he pulled on an undershirt. Clean jumpsuits lay waiting on the bed, hers blue, his a warm, bright orange that took up half the mattress. "I want to talk to this surgeon first, before the meeting with Danny."

"He's a grown boy. It's his surgery, he ought to be in the know."

"Of course, but… Maybe there are other options. Maybe we can figure those out first."

The inventor in her refused to believe this was the only way, just as much as the mother rebelled at the idea of her son undergoing surgery a second time.

When Danny had miraculously reappeared at their kitchen table, everything spun into fast motion. Maddie's driving had rivaled Jack's as she drove the GAV to the nearest hospital, all the while trying to call Jack from her cell to give him the good news and ignoring Danny's protests that he was 'fine'. He'd stepped out of the GAV and promptly collapsed.

She must have made a dramatic figure, kicking open the doors to the ER with Danny in her arms. Maddie was prepared to have the paperwork filed at blaster point if necessary. He'd been whisked away almost immediately into surgery—he'd had internal bleeding. They'd saved his life.

That day had gone by in a blur, her fear for him swallowed up in the sheer relief that he'd come home alive. Now Maddie had time to anticipate, and so did Danny.

That they had to reconstruct his hand, of all things…

Maddie understood Danny's vividly thanks to her recent experiments with the GIW. She'd thought little of the procedures at the time, comfortable in the delusion that dismembering Phantom was no more harmful than removing pieces from a cadaver. Looking back, remembering the exposed flesh, green-white bone flashing through the oozing, gelatinous ectoplasmic blood, the way it had writhed when she'd pulled the tendons free–

She snatched up her hair dryer. She couldn't dwell on her mistakes now. She had Danny to think of.

Jack stepped up behind her, concern flickering up through the distraction. "Mads…"

Maddie glanced down at herself and saw the nearly-healed wounds in her arm and shoulder. Jack hadn't seen her without a shirt since before she came home. They'd neglected each other lately, she realized with a pang. Too busy, too anxious over Danny.

He traced the pitted marks, pink, raw new scars that would slowly fade to white, still just weeks old. "What happened?"

"It was an accident. When I–" Maddie choked on the words; she couldn't bring herself to say it. She'd told Jack where she'd been and what she'd done, despite the confidentiality contracts. He deserved to know why she hadn't been there for him and for Danny. Still, some things she'd glossed over, details she hoped he'd never have to understand. She wanted to forget them herself.

"After one of the…experiments, Phantom had a bad reaction. It wrecked the lab. I fell on some instruments."

His hand tightened on her shoulder. "What did he do?"

"He helped me, Jack." She looked up at him and shook her head. "He was bleeding and hurt and he helped me."

Jack relaxed, stepping back and scratching a chin still bristling with dark morning stubble. "That doesn't sound like a ghost."

"It's like this ghost. I'm telling you, he was different. He had physical attributes, ones that let him connect to reality in a completely different way than other ecto-entities. He could feel; he could respond to me like a human.” She sighed and sat on the edge of the sink. “I don't even know what happened to him."

Most likely, he was dead. There there wasn't much of him left by the end. Helping him escape the GIW hadn't saved him.

Jack sat on the bed, making the mattress creak, and pulled the jumpsuit on over his feet. He paused, arm halfway through one sleeve, and looked at her thoughtfully. "Once Danny's feeling better, we should take a vacation, don't you think?"

"Jack, I don't know if–"

"It'll be fun! We could take the Fenton Blimp and do a little ghost scan in the Catskills." His blue eyes squinted into a grin. "Who knows what we might find, right?"

Maddie felt a smile of her own curving her face. "Have I told you what a wonderful husband you are?"

Jack grinned and struck a pose. "Only ten times this week."

She went to the bed and sat beside him, leaning into his shoulder. "Have I told you how sorry I am?"

"Too many times now. Forget it; you couldn't know." He wrapped her in a hug. "What are the odds that Phantom would be captured and our son would go missing at the same time?"

Something dark and queasy twisted inside Maddie at the words. The two boys were linked, she knew that much from studying Phantom. The ghost had drawn his imprint, the essence of his identity, from her son; but Danny's disappearance and Phantom's capture were two unrelated incidents. Weren't they?

 


 

"So what really happened, dude?"

Danny stirred the pudding in his cup, not looking at Tucker. He'd hoped neither of them would ask.

As much as he hated the nurses with their staring and prodding and needles, he'd been sorry to see the dour-faced woman who'd brought him lunch walk out and leave the three of them alone. It was easy to lie to adults and strangers. He'd never kept anything–anything important–from Sam and Tuck. Well, almost.

He'd never told them just how close Pariah had come to crushing him, exoskeleton and all. Or exactly what Vlad had done to try to get him to morph that time they rescued him from Colorado. Or, in an almost-future, that they'd come close enough to burning alive he could smell their singed hair.

There were things they didn't ever have to know. Things that there weren't really words for. Neither of them understood that.

Are you sure you don't mind us eating in front of you, Danny?" Sam asked. She kicked Tuck, who already had a third of a burger in his mouth. "We can wait."

Tucker swallowed and nodded sheepishly, stuffing the half-wrapped burger back into its greasy bag.

"It's fine. Really." Danny waved his spoon at the pudding cup pinned between his knees."I've got lunch. Besides," he added when they looked doubtful, "The smell of that tofu melt pretty much cancels out the meat."

"Hey," Sam protested.

Tucker snickered. "Face it Sam, that's food only a mother could love."

"Mother nature," Sam retorted. "Soy-based products are sustainable, unlike that dead hunk of cow you have over there." Sam retrieved the strong-smelling sandwich out of her own bag and waved it in Tucker's direction.

He sniffed delicately, then wrinkled his nose. "Pretty sure that thing's been through the cycle a couple of times already."

Sam muttered something unintelligible and took a bite.

Danny stuck a heaping spoonful of the pudding in his mouth, relishing the chocolate flavoring with its plastic aftertaste. He swallowed and let the cool almost-liquid slide down his throat. They were finally letting him eat, after more than a week of nothing but IV fluids and water.

Tuck had offered to smuggle him in a burger and fries, but Danny decided grudgingly to trust the doctors on this one. He still remembered vividly the first night home, when he'd spent the first couple of hours at the hospital puking up a vile mixture of peanut butter, orange juice, and blood.

Turns out it was kind of stupid to gorge on junk food after not eating for a month and a half. His shriveled-up insides couldn't handle it. The doctors actually had to go inside and sew up the hole he'd ruptured in his stomach. They'd left a four-inch incision, just below his ribs on the left side, sewed up neatly and yellow with antiseptic.

Whatever they put in his IV dulled the pain, except when the stitches caught on the rough fabric of the hospital gown. That sent little claws of pain deep into his skin. It made him almost want to throw up again. Almost.

Danny tried not to slouch and took another bite of pudding. He scooped out tiny bites, meticulously scraping together each spoonful. If he could make it last long enough, maybe they'd forget they asked.

"Danny."

"Yeah?" He looked up at his friends. They pulled the hospital chairs up until they almost touched the bed. Sam curled up in one, Tuck perched on the edge of the second.

The technogeek had never gotten over his phobia of hospitals, but he held onto the chair arm like an anchor, obstinate determination in his eyes. "Cut us some slack, okay? We thought you were dead."

He said it almost like a joke, but Danny could hear the tension under his best friend's casual tone. He winced. Not like they'd had a fun, stress-free summer without him.

"Okay," he said quietly. "Just give me a minute to get started, okay? It's not…"

The pudding was already gone. He scraped the spoon around the bottom of the little plastic cup, trying to formulate the words. Five weeks buried in that cold underground lab. He'd felt like a bug, crushed under some cosmic thumb as the universe watched him squirm. Then they'd… she'd started pulling off limbs…

Danny looked up and realized he'd trailed off again. He hoped they'd blame it on the painkillers. He tried again. "It's not easy to talk about."

Sam's warm hand rested on his knee; she gave it a squeeze through the sheets. "We're not going anywhere."

She said it like it was supposed to be comforting.

Danny didn't want to talk. He didn't want to tell them. Not lies, and definitely not the truth– not all of it, at least. For the first time in his life, Danny wished his two friends weren't there for him. He felt like the king of all jerks, but he wished they'd go away.

The seconds ticked by. They waited. He knew they would. He had learned to count on it.

Danny cleared his throat twice. The pleasant moisture of the chocolate pudding had dried up, leaving the taste of plastic in his mouth. "It was Dash's fault. You know, at football camp. Our first day, and of course he decided to pick on the only nerd there."

It felt like an eon ago, these old memories from before the GIW. Like they'd happened to a different person. That made it easier. Danny relaxed as the words finally took shape. "He called it an initiation. They wanted me to steal Teslaff's stuff– her razor and that notebook she always carries around."

"And you actually did it?" Sam's voice colored with disapproval. He could see the 'don't be a sheep' rant just waiting to spring off her lips.

He shrugged, half-smiling at her irritation over his indifference. "I figured if I impressed them early on, they'd get off my back. It was either that or a month of wedgies and mockery."

Tucker shuddered. "I think I'd put up with the wedgies. Doesn't Teslaff sleep with that notebook? And the razor…what the heck, man. You'd have to go through her like, toiletries. If you got caught you'd look like some kind of weird perv."

Sam rolled her eyes. "Hello Tuck, ghost boy? I doubt anyone saw him."

"Yeah, that was the easy part. I wasn't till I gave it to Dash that I screwed up."

"What's to get wrong? It's handing over a book." Tucker leaned back and brushed a few crumbs off his cargo pants.

"How about standing too close to the edge of a cliff and falling off like a spazz?" Danny muttered. He stared mournfully into the empty pudding cup, stabbing it with the spoon.

"You fell?" Sam gasped, grabbing his knee as if he might fall off the bed, too.

"Not exactly. As soon as I fell out of sight I went ghost. I decided to wait around in the woods for a while, then show up at the cabins like nothing happened just to freak Dash out."

"Serve them right," Sam muttered. "They could have gotten you killed."

"Sam, I can't feel my kneecap."

She blushed and released him.

"I was about to head back when my ghost sense went off. I went to check it out."

"Then what?" Tuck leaned forward, eyes gleaming with interest.

"I got caught," Danny said simply. He let the empty cup and spoon rest in his lap, leaning back into the pillows and closing his eyes. He was tired. Exhausted, really. Maybe they'd go away if they thought he was sleeping. Maybe they wouldn't have to know the rest.

He could hear them shifting uneasily in their chairs, putting two and two together. No good.

"Skulker? No, we went after him, he didn't know anything. Then someone human? The… " Tucker paused, frowning in thought.

Don't figure it out, Danny thought, hoping Desiree had suddenly developed telepathy. Just let it go.

"It couldn't be… the guys in white? That government group?"

The GIW. Their trap in the woods. Rattling around in a clunky government ripoff of the Fenton Thermos. He wasn't impressed, not by the immaculate and scowling agents, the lab that was almost as full of scientific equipment as his parents' basement, or the high-tech and completely inescapable force field cage and shackle they'd put him in. Only Mom showing up. That threw him. That's when he really started to worry, because she was serious; and with the GIW there, he had to keep his secret whether he wanted to or not.

"Oh my gosh, those creeps?" Danny put off opening his eyes, not wanting to see the horrified look that would go with Sam's tone.

"What did they want with you?"

"What do you think, Tucker?" Sam snapped. "What happens to any living thing that gets put in a lab?"

"Nonliving," Danny corrected absently. "Not a living thing."

Sam grabbed his arm, startling him into opening his eyes. She squeezed his arm, staring with a wide, angry violet glare made even blacker by her eyeliner. "Yes you are, Danny! What are you talking about?"

"To them, I mean," he corrected hastily, pulling his arm from her grip. "I wasn't human, so it didn't matter. To some of them, I think it wouldn't have mattered even if they did know." He remembered one tall GIW agent, with his ever-present scowl and spotless suit coat. That man had been in charge, and he seemed to have a particular dislike for ghosts, and Danny in particular.

"That's messed up, man." Tucker's eyes flashed behind his glasses.

"Those evil, heartless…" Sam glowered. She was livid. Like he knew she'd be. He wondered what she'd think of his mom, once she found out. If she found out.

"They weren't all bad," he said quietly. "I didn't get away on my own."

"Of course, they wouldn't just let you go. So what happened? Did you escape? Is that how you hurt your hand?"

Mom had come around in the end. It just took her a while. She might not have figured out the truth, but in the end she had helped him, and he was alive, and he was back home. That was all that mattered. Right?

"Danny? Hey, earth to space cadet, do you copy?"

His two friends stared at him. Danny tried to scramble back on board with the conversation, but he couldn't remember where it had left off. He smashed the empty cup with his spoon vindictively, as if it was somehow at fault. "Sorry," he muttered. "Spaced out."

A beat too late, Tucker laughed. "Dude. Hook me up with whatever they're giving you. If I can zone out through senior year like that it'll be a breeze."

"Danny," Sam touched his arm again, her and warm and strong. "If you can't talk about it yet, that's okay. We just want to know what's up with you, that's all. No rush. Right, Tuck?"

Danny nodded, ashamed of his earlier resentment. Sam sat back, looking satisfied. Danny dropped his eyes to his lap, fiddling with the dented cup.

Tucker shifted, then coughed loudly. "I notice nobody asked me how my summer went," he declared. "Did I tell you what my cousins and I did at the beach? You know it was prime bikini season, and J.D. had this itching powder…"

As Tuck chattered on, Sam pulled her chair around and casually draped her arm onto the bed so it rested against Danny's. His fingertips curled around hers; her chipped black nails had tiny, smiling green ghosts on them.