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Shadow of a Doubt

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Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color."

W.S. Merwin

 

"What was I supposed to do, Tuck?" Sam rifled through the pile of notebooks in her locker and yanked out her history textbook.

The masses of Casper High streamed past them, a jumble of red and white and chatter, sneakers squeaking on tile. Some part of Tucker remembered that tryouts were today; school spirit buzzed, and the cheerleader hopefuls would be lining up in the gym after lunch. Any other year this would have been a major highlight of the semester. Now it irritated him. All these stupid kids caught up in their own petty lives. Nobody seemed to remember Danny Fenton. Nobody seemed to care. Not all that different from when he'd been here every day, risking his life for them.

Tucker swung open his own locker and grabbed an extra pencil. "Talk him out of it! That's what you're good at, talking sense into Danny when he's about to do something stupid."

"What's stupid about it?"

Tucker scowled. "Are you kidding me? He's out there, wherever he is, alone—with that messed up arm—ghosts and police and GIW after him with nobody to watch his back."

"I'm sure ghost-crazed parents and a wide-open portal to all his worst enemies is exactly what Danny needs right now." She slammed her locker shut and spun the lock. "Out there, he'll be free."

Sam had said the same thing about releasing a four hundred pound gorilla. Anger prickled up Tucker's neck; she made it sound so pat, so simple. "Free of danger? Or free of us?"

"Everything," Sam thrust a handful of pens into her bag. "Especially her."

"You know that's bull," Tucker said. He was angry too, but Sam was missing the point. Mrs. Fenton had just been a single piece on one big, twisted chessboard. "Mrs. F. wouldn't have…"

Except that she did.

He sighed and dragged the beret off his head, twisting the red fabric between his hands. He frowned at it for a moment, then shoved it back on, pulling it back with a jerk. "She loves him too, Sam."

"Don't you dare compare me to her," Sam spat out, whirling to glare at him. The first bell rang, but neither of them budged. "She doesn't deserve him."

Tucker shrugged. "Think what you want. Maybe he would have been better off with me, or at your place. He could have stayed."

"He didn't, though." Sam seemed to draw in on herself, shrinking into the dingy black dress she wore, the notebook pressed flat against her chest.

Not even for Sam. Tucker's anger sank into his chest, where it felt more like defeat. Danny had really left them.

"He wanted this."

There wasn't anything Tucker could say to that.

 


 

Dash slouched past the principal's office, glancing through the glass windows of the outer office. Teslaff was there, occupying a seat and a half in the waiting area. They must have called her in to ask about Fenton.

The former gym teacher sat with her head bowed, hair combed into a severe bun, hands in her lap, looking uncomfortable and defeated in a mousy gray business suit that barely contained her muscular shoulders. She'd been suspended and eventually fired over the whole thing with Fenton disappearing.

An ugly little worm of guilt squirmed its way through Dash's thoughts. He quashed it with a sneer and stalked off, down the halls. Like it was his fault.

Those government guys had shown up first thing in the morning, staking out the teacher's offices like they owned the place. They'd even interviewed some of the kids from the summer camp. Not that anyone would talk. Dash had made sure of that.

Amazing what the name killer did for your rep, even if it had turned out false. Dash held back an involuntary shudder. He'd wasted so many sleepless nights on Fenton. Remembering that fall—picturing his scrawny body rotting on the rocks—going weak-kneed whenever someone mentioned ghosts and wondering when Fenton would show up to haunt him.

All for nothing. Fenton was fine. It wasn't Dash's problem that the nerd couldn't bounce back from a little walk in the woods.

He'd gone to visit. Made up some excuse, forced the team to sign off on some lame get-well card and shuffled into the room with three other classmates. He'd wanted to look Fenton in the eyes and know why he wasn't halfway to juvenile hall already.

Fenton, even more skinny and pathetic than usual, had just blinked at Dash vacantly, then mumbled a completely unsarcastic thanks for the card.

He hadn't looked angry. He hadn't looked scared of Dash either, which was annoying. He'd looked... not all there.

Dash didn't know why Fenton had run off again, and he didn't care. What mattered was that he'd kept his mouth shut. This time it was Fenton's own fault; nobody could pin a runaway on Dash. Nobody would try.

Dash cracked his knuckles and a curly-haired nerd—Chris, that physics kid—scuttled out of his path. Nobody who mattered knew. Nobody who knew cared enough to tell, or at least they were too scared about their getting themselves expelled.

He wasn't worried. He just needed to blow off some steam.

A slamming locker door caught Dash's attention. He smirked. Perfect: that kind of aggression meant pain he could take advantage of. It was just his good luck that the victim turned out to be Tucker Foley, Fenton's buddy. The skinny teen stood in a nearly-deserted hallway, watching Manson stomp off toward History.

Dash strolled over and leaned against the neighboring locker. He grinned down at Foley. "What's the matter, geek boy? Your creepy girlfriend dump you? Guess you're not even good enough for the rebound."

Foley stared after the goth for a long moment, then huffed and snatched a notebook from his locker, slamming it shut. "You're an idiot, Dash. I'm not in the mood."

Dash scowled. Foley was usually too spineless to even think about brushing him off; he must be filling in for Fenton. That was part of the reason Dash could never leave that stupid nerd alone. Fenton always had some smart remark, like he didn't care if his body made a permanent dent in the locker room floor, or whether Dash scrubbed the toilets with his face. He never looked beaten. At least, not until that last time.

Foley turned to walk away.

"Hey! I'm talking to you, techno-freak!" Dash grabbed Foley by the collar of his yellow shirt and slammed him into the lockers. The kid was so skinny it was like whipping around an empty sack. It felt good. Easy. Like nature intended.

The geek glared.

Dash stepped in close, making sure Foley felt all six feet and two hundred pounds of muscle bearing down on him. "Walk away before I'm done with you, and you can forget about walking at all." He leaned in and lowered his voice to a hiss. "You broken-hearted, freak? Your boyfriend left you, and you can't blame it on getting lost this time. He bailed."

"How about pushed off a cliff," Tucker snapped back. The geek's eyes narrowed behind thick black frames. "You think Principal Ishiyama would like to hear the real version? I bet Teslaff would. Wonder how much your touchdowns will be worth once they realize you left a classmate for dead?"

Dash felt all the blood drain from his face. Foley knew? Of course he knew. That wimp would always tell these two everything. Even if he didn't have the guts to say anything himself.

Looking into Foley's eyes, Dash realized something else. For once in his life this geek was fearless. He'd put himself through any kind of trouble for his loser friend. That kind of attitude had to be squashed. Pronto.

Dash spared a quick glance around. The second bell had rung, and the hall was deserted.

He picked the nerd clear off the floor and slammed him into the lockers again, hard enough that he could feel the cheap metal give a little under the nerd's skinny frame. "You've got nothing Foley, and you know it. You can't scare me with stories nobody's going to believe."

"Maybe. Maybe not." Foley wheezed. His hand swung up and clawed at Dash's fingers that were twisted into his shirt collar. "It's not the teachers you ought to worry about, Dash. It's me."

"You?" Dash laughed out loud. "You, Fo-lame?"

"You can't hide behind football trophies for this kind of thing, Bax-turd." The geek said slowly and deliberately, drawing out that unbelievable insult. "Danny might not think it's your fault, but he's not here. I am. I'm his best friend. And I totally blame you."

Foley slammed his hands back against the lockers—bracing himself, Dash realized a second too late—and then pain nailed Dash in the gut. He lost his grip and stumbled back, disbelief singing through his brain. The geek had just kicked him? Before he could fully process that event something hard and metallic smashed into his right eye.

Stars sparked in his vision, but he was already seeing red. Foley must be suicidal. Good, because Dash felt murderous.

 


 

Valerie had never really liked Tucker. He talked too much, led Danny into almost as much trouble as that bleeding-heart goth girl, and let any female that batted her eyelashes lead him around by the nose. He'd made no secret of his dislike of her when she'd been dating Danny. At the time she'd blamed it on sour grapes, thanks to that old puppy crush Foley had had on her freshman year.

Even so, she currently liked Dash even less.

When she hurried in late for her next class period—ghost snake, two blocks away, taken care of—and saw the broad-shouldered senior pummeling Tucker Foley into the floor, she hauled Dash up by the arm and shoved him against the lockers.

"Cool it, helmet brain!" she snapped, twisting his arm just enough that he was aware she could lock it painfully if he tried to yank it away. "You want to put him in the hospital?"

"You bet I do!" Dash sputtered, his face scarlet with fury. "Look what he did to my eye, the little buttwipe!" Valerie realized that not all the red was from the quarterback's temper. An oddly angular bruise had already started to puff around his right eye.

"Foley did that?" Valerie said, disbelief and grudging admiration coloring her voice. "What the heck did you say to him?"

Dash scowled down at her, furious, but he knew better than to shove her around. Valerie wasn't a black belt for nothing and she wouldn't hesitate to pummel him, two facts he knew quite well. He'd even admired it in a "you tell anyone else you're dead" kind of way. That was back during her A-list year, when they'd pretended to be friends. Ancient history.

"What do you care about this loser nobody anyway?" Dash straightened and brushed off his jacket, frowning at the specks of blood on the white leather sleeve. "You some kinda champion for nerd justice now, Valerie?"

Her eyes narrowed. Loser, nobody, nerd. Insults he'd fling at her just as easily when he bothered to notice her these days. "Somebody has to, jerkface."

He scoffed. "I didn't know you'd sunk that low."

"Get out of here before Lancer shows up," Val said, letting go of his arm and giving him a shove toward the men's room. "Clean yourself up, you look pathetic."

Tucker slowly picked himself up from the floor. It made Valerie wince just looking at him. He might have gotten a couple of blows in, but Dash had paid that back tenfold.

"Thanks," he said shortly.

Valerie didn't miss the cool edge to his voice, but she shrugged it off; he'd just lost a fight. Nobody felt grateful after getting worked over like that. "What did he say to you, anyway? You don't usually lose your cool."

"The usual." Anger glittered in Tucker's green eyes. "Picking on Danny. Can't leave his favorite target alone even when he isn't here."

"Oh." Valerie didn't know what to say. She had heard about Danny's second disappearance, that he'd run away… or been abducted, some people were saying. A pair of silent, white-suited men had walked out of the principal's office this morning, official-looking folders tucked under their arms. Valerie couldn't stop wondering if some ghost had figured out her connection to Danny and decided to take its revenge; avoiding the hospital had been a bad decision after all.

She gathered up what was left of Tucker's glasses and handed them to him. "Next time you want to take on the biggest guy in school, you should do it in a dark alley with a baseball bat."

"I'll keep that in mind." Tucker squinted at the mangled eyewear, then shrugged and shoved them in his back pocket. He tucked a notebook under his arm, and turned to go.

"Some things are too big for you to handle, Tucker. Dash is one of them."

He shrugged with an odd little smile. "We'll see about that."

 


 

Fifteen minutes into History, something pulled Sam out of her gloomy haze.

She looked up in surprise as her next-best-friend dropped heavily into the chair next to her. Tucker's beret was pulled forward in a half-hearted attempt at hiding, but it did nothing to disguise the puffy, distorted mass of raw meat that was his face. The bruises were already blossoming into violent shades, their purple hues turned violet by his dark skin. His green eyes were just barely visible through the swollen lids. His nose looked crooked, maybe even broken.

"Tuck," she hissed. "Your face—"

"Forget it," he said, pulling out his notebook and flipping it open. Sam winced; he must still be mad.

"Where are your…" She saw the glasses sticking out his back pocket, clearly in pieces, the lenses shattered.

He shrugged. "Mom said she was done buying me new ones. I'll start wearing contacts."

"You can't see the board." She doubted the teacher would even think to ask him about his textbook, which was nowhere to be seen. Judging by the horrified glance Mr. Felucca sent their way, Tucker wouldn't be going home without a visit to the principal's office. Not to mention the nurse.

"Doesn't matter." Tucker hunched over his notebook, which was filled with endless rows of numbers in some complicated formula. Weird. This was History, not Trig. "I can see up close just fine."

 


 

Jazz picked at the congealed square of pasta, cheese and spinach on her plate. Lasagna. Theoretically. Mom had forgotten the tomato sauce, but Jazz carefully avoided mentioning it.

They were eating at the kitchen table. Jack, Maddie and Jazz. The Fenton family minus one Fenton. The empty chair across from Jazz seemed to glare at her. The lack of plate and silverware in front of it felt almost like a betrayal. It was good though, Jazz told herself, that Mom had stopped setting a place there.

Maddie had been distant ever since Danny left. No, Jazz thought bitterly, that was the wrong word. Absent would be better. She hardly spoke a word. She didn't seem to see anything in front of her. Maddie just moved around the house, like a ghost—the old-school, transparent kind like in a movie. Having a conversation with her was like shouting down a long, dark tunnel.

Jazz swallowed and almost gagged on the dry food. She snatched up her glass and took a long drink of water.

Dad had been the opposite. Driven, focused on the moment, not stopping for anything. He'd plunged headlong into the police investigation, had the runaway alert sent out, contacted news stations, pouring his boundless energy into finding Danny. As the days stretched on she could see his smiles wearing thin.

Nothing had turned up. Of course not; Danny could go invisible. Walk through walls and gates and fences. He wouldn't be found if he didn't want to be.

None of them talked about it. Danny's ghost half. It was the glaring elephant in the room, more accusing than the empty chair at the table.

Ghost were bizarrely, glaringly absent from her dad's conversations. Jazz had brought it up once and even managed to rouse some enthusiasm, but he'd trailed off in the middle of describing how his latest invention stripped ghosts bare to the core. Realizing, Jazz knew, that the same thing could suddenly be applied to his son.

Jazz knew the feeling well: the sudden clench of fear, intellectual interest giving way to elaborate plans on how to make sure that weapon never, ever got used. She could only imagine what that would feel like for the inventor.

The weapon in question had turned up in pieces in the waste bin two days later. Jazz hadn't brought it up again.

Silverware clacked on plates, glasses clinked, and old chairs squeaked. Maddie's head bowed over her meal; Jack said nothing. They didn't look at each other, not once. Neither of them looked at Jazz.

Jazz couldn't remember a time when her parents hadn't acted together. Apart from Christmas, Maddie supported Jack, and Jack backed up Maddie. They were a pair, a couple, the perfect team. Now, the only words Jazz had seen them exchange were about Danny, and those were short, terse, and very carefully focused only on the search. They didn't talk. Not about the past. Not about whatever awful things had happened while Maddie was at the GIW.

Jazz shuddered. She still couldn't wrap her mind around it. It just seemed too awful. Too cruel to be true.

She cleared her throat. Neither of her parents looked up. "I've been meaning to talk to you," she began, trying to make her voice sound clear and confident, "about Danny."

Maddie's knife dropped out of her hand and clattered to the floor.

Jazz bit her lip, taken aback at the reaction. She forced herself to continue. "You know… even though he did keep secrets from you… That's normal, just a part of adolescent behavior. He needed to form his own identity as a person, and maybe more importantly, as a ghost. I think he did a good job. He could have…"

She remembered the dark, frightening figure that had revealed itself in Danny's room just before the CAT exams; the sheer malice in its lazy red gaze as it described a future in ruin, a future of its own making.

"He could have been a lot of bad things," she finished timidly. "But he chose to help people, because that's who Danny is. He cares about people. Cares about us. I think we need to put a little faith in him."

Jack slowly, deliberately, resumed shoveling the pasta into his mouth. Maddie pushed her chair back and picked up the fallen silverware. She walked over to the sink and set in the bottom, turning on the tap. It filled the kitchen with white noise.

Jazz flushed and dug her fork into the lasagna.

It took five minutes before she realized her mother had frozen at the sink, unmoving as water overflowed and splashed on the floor.

"Mom!" she squawked, pushing herself away from the table and running over to turn off the sink. "What's wrong with you?" She snatched up a dish towel and mopped at the mess.

Mom flinched at her daughter's sharp tone. Jazz felt instantly guilty.

"Sorry," Maddie said. Then quieter, tighter, wrapping her arms around herself. "Sorry."

Jazz set down the dish towel put her hands on her mom's shoulders. It felt weird to be as tall as her mom—no, with her shoulders drooped like that, Mom was shorter. Jazz felt like the adult more and more lately.

"It's okay, Mom." She swallowed hard against a dryness in her throat that had nothing to do with the pasta. This was it, she realized. An opportunity. Jazz seized on it. "You know, what happened with Danny... that it wasn't your fault, right?"

Silence. This time it burned. Of course Mom blamed herself. Who wouldn't? She couldn't keep thinking like that.

Jazz knew for a fact that her mom was a good person. That she was loving and tender, maybe a little over-enthusiastic and oblivious, but a great mom. She'd never hurt anything she believed to be sentient. She'd never, ever hurt Danny on purpose. It hurt Jazz to see Maddie believe that of herself.

"If it was anybody's fault, it was mine." Jazz said quietly. "I should have told you two earlier. I should have told Dad the minute we knew he was missing."

"You knew?" Maddie whispered, eyes widening.

"I…" Jazz faltered. Hadn't they realized that? This conversation was supposed to be about Maddie. Not Jazz.

"All this time?"

"I did." Jazz tried to sound calm, though a strange fear prickled up her spine.

Maddie stepped forward, eyes burning with intensity. "How? When?"

"I found out a while ago, last year. Remember the thing with that school counselor, Spectra? There were ghosts involved, and I saw Danny transform."

"You didn't tell us?" Maddie gripped her wrist. Jazz tried to pull away, but Maddie wouldn't let her, fingers tightening with a desperate strength.

"Danny had enough on his plate," Jazz snapped. "He was doing alright then, and it wasn't my secret to tell."

Excuses. Stupid ones. Jazz knew it even as they passed her lips, but she couldn't help it. She'd reassured herself with them so many times, wrapping herself in them like a cotton blanket. Cold water seeped into her socks from the spill on the floor.

"You didn't tell us?" Maddie's voice grew shriller with every repetition. "You knew, and you didn't tell us?!"

Jazz yanked away from her mother's grip and took a step back. Her toes squelched, wet and cold. "I thought it was for the best—"

"Do you have any idea what happened to him because I didn't know? All that time I could have known." Maddie trembled. "Do you know what I did, Jazz? What you let me do?"

"Danny didn't want you to know! He was scared! You scared him, running around with guns blazing and those stupid ghost-obliterating inventions!" Jazz knew she was lashing out, getting defensive, but her guilty conscience screamed from being exposed.

"How were we supposed know? Ghosts are inhuman! Not… not Danny. How could you not tell us?!"

Jazz snapped. Mom couldn't pile all the blame on her. It wasn't fair. She wouldn't let her. "Are you saying it's my fault? I wasn't the one who he was afraid to look at when he came home! What did you do to my baby brother? Dissect him molecule by molecule?"

"Why did you let me hurt him? I hurt him so badly…"

"Yes you did," Jazz said. Her pain made her cruel.

"Enough!" A bang and a crack made them both flinch. Jazz turned to see Jack standing at the table. Slowly, almost comically, it finished cracking in half where Jack had struck it and fell in pieces to the floor. Silverware, pasta and plates crashed to the ground. Jack strode over and dropped a heavy hand on each of their shoulders, squeezing so hard it hurt. Jazz tried to pull away, but his fingers were like steel.

"It doesn't matter what—who—" he struggled with the words, jaw working.

Jazz stared wide-eyed. She had never seen her dad so angry. He was angry. At both of them. Hot shame crept across her cheeks.

"I don't care whose fault it is," Jack said at last, his voice quieting to a growl but losing none of its intensity. "It doesn't matter what happened. We're Fentons. All of us. We'll…we'll fix it somehow. We're going to find him. We'll make this right."

How? Jazz wanted to say, but one look at her father's thunderous expression and she didn't dare voice the thought. Mom stared at the floor, tears slipping down her face.

Later that night, Jazz curled up in bed, squeezing Bearburt as tightly as his old stitches would bear, and sobbed. She hadn't cried since she was a little girl. She'd always believed that she was too mature, and there were more constructive coping methods.

How was she supposed to cope with this?

It felt like her family was broken beyond repair. Despite all her reading and research and stupid know-it-all confidence, she had no idea how to fix it.

When the sobs finally petered out into sniffles, she got up, blew her nose, and set Bearburt aside with a pat. She seated herself at her desk and gathered up the missing Phantom clippings and stolen photocopies of Danny's charts, stacking them all neatly. She stowed them in a drawer and pushed it shut. That left a single sheet of paper on her desk, stamped with an official seal, an elegant handwritten signature at the bottom.

Jazz picked up the acceptance letter and studied its contents. "Maybe you had the right idea, little brother," she said aloud, folding the letter to her chest. "Maybe anywhere's better than here."

 

Those that Break :: tbc…