Chapter 1: Hard to Think About
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...
Chapter 2: Anything But to Breathe
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.
"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.
Invisible threads are the strongest ties.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
"Mocha espresso shake please," Tucker ordered. He slumped against the counter at the cash register. "Make it a double."
Sam let the bustle of the Nasty Burger wash over her, sipping at the cool root beer in her hand. Not that they needed lunch again, but after that tense hospital visit, they both needed some mundane grunge.
"Back again, Foley?" The redhead behind the register flashed him a winning smile gleaming with dental hardware. Her name tag labeled her as Vicky, and she had the unique distinction of being the only female who seemed to enjoy Tucker's less-than-suave attentions.
"Just give me my caffeine, okay?"
Vicky huffed and snatched the offered cash, punching in his order.
He shuddered and turned to Sam. "I don't do hospitals."
"You saw Danny?" Valerie came in from the back, two paper bags and a milkshake in her hands. She had her dark curly hair pinned at the nape of her neck, and wore the restaurant's red and white polo. She set their order on the counter, her hands lingering as she glanced from Sam to Tucker.
"Oh, hey Valerie," Tucker nodded. “Yeah, we just came back.”
"Where else would we be?" Sam muttered, reaching for the bag. She didn't want to talk about Danny, she wanted to talk to him. Not that she could blame him for not wanting to, but it left a void between them. It gnawed at her. How could they be his best friends if they didn't even know what he'd been through?
Her hands closed over the warm, slightly greasy paper bag, but Valerie didn't let go. Sam looked up and found herself studied by sharp green eyes. "How is he?"
Sam blinked at the open concern in Valerie's gaze. She sometimes forgot that the other girl actually cared about Danny. The half of him she wasn't planning to hunt down and murder, that is.
"The news stopped covering him after he moved out of critical care," Valerie added, crumpling the top of the bag. "The last thing we got was that interview."
"He's fine," Sam said. She freed the paper from Valerie's grip.
Tucker pocketed his change and shifted over to snatch up his mocha shake. He grabbed a straw and stabbed it through the lid. "He looks tons better than last week. They have a surgery thing planned for Monday to fix some of the stuff in his hand, or else he'd be home already." Tucker gave Sam a quick glance, then added, "Look, why don't you go see him yourself? Visiting hours don't end till eight on the weekends."
"Can't, second job." Valerie looked away, frowning. "It gets in the way, you know?"
Tuck nodded. "We get it; more than you think."
A ghost hunter who'd spent all summer building up grudges was a magnet for ghost trouble. It wouldn't be the brightest idea for her to hang around in a hospital and put the patients at risk. As if on cue, Valerie's watch beeped. She stiffened and glanced out the windows, then at the dining area with its sparse late lunch crowd. "Break time, gotta go."
"Again?!" Vicky wailed as Valerie sprinted out the back. "You so owe me tips for this, Gray!"
The foundations of the building shook, and a chill brushed their backs. Everything took on an unearthly cast, even under the bland industrial lighting. Sam grabbed Tucker's elbow and pulled him into the nearest empty booth, ducking low.
An unearthly figure glided down through the ceiling: A large, grandmotherly woman, with a pink plaid kerchief tied over her netted white hair, a white apron tied around her waist. She floated up to the counter and the petrified cashier. Sam and Tucker exchanged glances; the Lunch Lady.
"C-can I take your order, ma’am?" Vicky bleated; customer service training seemed to kick in at the absence of coherent thought.
"Hello there," the ghost said in a sugary-sweet voice. Vicky relaxed a fraction. Sam and Tucker tensed. “Did someone change the burger recipe?"
"Y-yes, ma'am! The Nasty Burger is now twenty percent less fat and one hundred percent tastier!" Vicky rattled off the sale pitch, then cringed as the ghost's aura flared dangerously.
Green flames licked over her gray hair. "That burger was a classic!"
"Oh man," Tucker muttered under his breath.
Sam crouched a little lower, glancing around the room. Most of the customers were near the back entrance, edging their way in twos and threes toward the door. "Where's the Thermos?"
The Fenton device had become their go-to solution after Danny disappeared; it took a lot more maneuvering and the element of surprise to catch a ghost without beating it first, but she and Tucker had managed. So far. With the smaller ghosts.
Tuck clutched his mocha shake, tugging his beret down over his ears. "I left it at home!"
"If you have a complaint you can fill out our Nasty Comment Card and place it in the–"
Vicky shrieked as the ghost crushed the comment box with a flaming fist. "That's the problem with kids these days, not listening!" Splinters of the box scattered across the counter, leaving scorches on the stainless steel surface.
"Tucker!" Sam hissed.
"Hey, it's really heavy! It's gonna make me a hunchback before I'm twenty."
"Assuming you live that long!"
"S-sorry?" Vicky squeaked out, wobbling between terror and confusion.
"Sorry's not good enough!" Burgers flew off the warming racks in the back and orbited the ghost like maddened wasps. One veered off and sped bullet-like toward the cashier.
Vicky shrieked and ducked behind the counter. The burger splatted against the back wall, leaving a smear of sizzling grease.
Tucker winced and slouched even lower. "I guess we'll have to rely on Plan B, then." A smile tugged at his lips. "Or as I like to call it, Plan V."
Right on cue, Valerie zoomed in through the open door, clad head to toe in black and red body armor, crouching on her jet led to clear the doorway. Her sled brushed the upholstery of the booths as she flew across the dining area.
"Hey, ghost!" she shouted. "You got a beef with the Nasty Burger? You'll have to get through me!"
The Lunch Lady whipped around and growled, gloved fists clenching. Something rumbled in the back. A wave of cold air, then dozens of pink-red frozen patties flew out, coating the ghost in a protective layer of raw meat. Greasy steam rose from her hulking meat shoulders as the hot burgers fused with the frozen.
"I'll only tell you this once, you undead freak!" Valerie shouted, leveling an ectoblast and firing off a shot of bright red energy. "Get lost!"
"That's a recipe for disaster," the ghost snapped, whipping out one meat-clad arm like a wrecking ball.
The ghost hunter ducked and swept past in a smooth arc, slicing deep into the Lunch Lady's meat armor with a black and red blade that materialized on her wrist. She looped and circled back, shaving another chunk off the top. Blobs of half-thawed meat fell to the floor with a wet splat. Sam winced and shuddered. Tucker looked aghast.
The ghost waved a hand; the meat closed over like it had never been touched.
Vicky scrambled around the counter and darted for the door, clutching the tip jar to her chest. Lunch Lady pointed a gloved finger at the retreating cashier. Hot, greasy fluid shot out.
Valerie fired a blast, knocking the ghost's aim off. The grease sizzled into the floor to the right of Vicky's tennis shoes as the girl dragged the side door open and ran out. The ghost snarled and turned on Valerie. Valerie dodged away and zoomed out into the dining area.
Rockets shot off her sled. Her suit created cannons on her shoulders and she fired with both barrels. All four strikes hit the ghost at once. The Lunch Lady gave a terrible shriek and exploded. Hot, sizzling, half-cooked meat splattered everywhere, onto the tables, chairs, and unfortunate customers who had gotten trapped.
Sam jumped at the sting of the hot oil as a few pieces dropped onto her hair and shoulders. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of something slinking behind the counter.
Valerie surveyed the room and spotted Sam and Tucker, clutching their purchases and peeking out over one of the booths. "You two? I thought you'd already…well, never mind. Get out of here." She jerked her thumb toward the door. "This isn't over yet."
Tucker stood, dusting hamburger meat off of his shoulders. "What a waste."
Sam shuddered and did the same; hamburger was disgusting enough on a bun where it belonged. The little noodles of processed meat looked like bloody pink worms. In fact, they were wiggling. They flew out of sight across the counter, followed by the bigger chunks, faster and faster.
"Va– uh, ghost huntress," Sam pointed. "The meat's reforming!"
"I see it," Valerie muttered, an ectogun materializing in her hand. She cocked it and jumped back on her sled, rising to hover a few feet off the tile. "Now leave, unless you like being target practice for a walking meatball."
"Yes ma'am," Tucker said, grabbing Sam's hand and tugging her toward the door.
They dashed across the parking lot, where most of the Nasty Burger patrons were milling about, waiting. Ghost attacks had become so routine that people rarely screamed and ran in terror for more than a block or so.
Tucker and Sam slipped through the crowd and crossed the street, where a bench took up a tiny patch of grass behind the sidewalk. Tucker flung himself onto it, unloading his burden of paper bags and drinks. Sam plopped down beside him with a sigh. The ground shook again.
Tuck looked at Sam and grinned. "Three, two, one…"
Windows shattered, sending the rubberneckers scrambling out of the parking lot and back to a more reasonable distance. A whirlwind of meat flowed out the front door, reassembling itself into a massive, lumpy creature with stubby arms and legs and wicked green eyes. It hovered above the NB sign like a misshapen blimp. The Lunch Lady took a stand beside her creation, burgers and chicken nuggets swirling around her in a greasy miasma.
"That's some nasty sauce, right there," Tucker commented.
Sam rolled her eyes. "Come on, Tuck, you can do better than that."
"Get back here, ghost!"
Tuck whistled as the ghost huntress streaked out of the building on her jet sled and executed an acrobatic flying kick to the face of the meat monster. "That's some hot sauce right– "
Sam dumped her near-empty soda on Tucker's head, sending ice cascading down his shoulders.
"At least once Danny's back to normal we'll have some decent banter again." She tossed the empty cup into the nearby trash can.
"I think you've forgotten how bad his puns can get," Tuck retorted. "You just let him away with it. What's the saying again? Absence makes the crush grow stronger?"
Sam held up Tucker's extra-large cup threateningly.
"Fine, fine, don't destroy my mocha shake!" Tucker snatched it from her hands and cradled it to his chest. "Chocolate and coffee, my one true love." He paused, the grin falling from his face. "You do think he'll go back to normal, right? Danny, I mean."
Sam rolled her heels against the pavement, biting her lip. The shouts and explosions from across the parking lot seemed miles away, fading into familiar background noise. Danny had been hurt before. Bad enough to scare them. His ghost half had always helped him bounce back. This felt different. Just thinking about what Danny must have been through made her blood boil; she had to remind herself not to crush the bag and their french fries.
Experiment. Test subject. The words brought terrifying images to mind, of animals in cages, sad heaps of mangy fur with wild, white-rimmed, pleading eyes.
Images far too easy to compare with the Danny in that hospital room. He tried to hide it, but it bled through: The way he sat, how he talked, that nervous twitch every time the door opened. He seemed frail, watchful, cautious. Things the doctors couldn't wrap up in neat white bandages and hide under clean sheets.
"It's Danny," she said finally. Then more forcefully, as if to make herself believe it, "He'll be fine. He's come through everything else being half-ghost has thrown at him."
"True." Tucker brushed a few ice cubes off his shoulder. “He's trying, anyway.”
Sam frowned, tearing open the fries. "You'd think he'd know better than to try to pull a hero-face bluff on us by now."
"You're forgetting he's got an overprotective streak the size of Lake Erie."
She snagged a couple of fries, then dropped the bag into Tucker's outstretched hands. "If he thinks he can 'protect' us from helping him, he's delusional."
Yet another explosion rocked the block, showering the parking lot with meat. A fist-sized piece rolled up against the toe of Sam's black boot. She kicked it away. It hissed at her, baring tiny needle fangs, then scampered back toward the main body.
As the ghost focused poured all her energy into rebuilding the meat monster, Valerie flew back a dozen yards and knelt on her board. A bulky device materialized on her shoulder, with odd bits of green and silver mixed into her usual black and red. She took careful aim and fired, with a recoil hard enough to push her sled back a couple of yards.
The blast hit home at the center of the lunch-lady's ample bosom. It punched a sharp indent through the ghost's chest. The Lunch Lady looked down, puzzled. The air in front of her rippled, twisted, and tore. Green light flashed. The ghost seemed to contract, like a sheet caught in a vacuum hose. Her angry wail echoed against the cheers of the onlookers as she was sucked in and vanished.
"At least we don't have to worry about the ghost problem," Tuck observed. "We've got to make sure that Danny knows that so he doesn't try to go ghost 'til he's– you know. Up to it."
"Anonymously donating the Fenton Bazooka was a stroke of brilliance," Sam commented, watching as the green swirling portal flickered and disappeared. Valerie had become a much more effective ghost deterrent with the portal-creating weapon. It was a lot easier to banish a ghost than to completely destroy it.
Tucker leaned back and took a long sip of his mocha shake, smirking around the straw. "I do have my moments."
"Do you have any inkling of the measure of scrutiny this organization has fallen under?"
Agent L looked up from his seat behind the desk and said nothing. The first floor with its mock offices had faulty air conditioning, and in this heat he was in no mood to pander to condescending, obvious questions.
Doctor Kerza's lip curled in disgust. "The media is having a field day with your supposed 'top secret' operation." He dropped the papers onto the desk; they fluttered and fell in Agent L's line of sight, headlines glaring from them in bold block print.
FAMILY SEPARATED IN MOMENT OF NEED
LOST SON, ABSENT MOTHER, NEGLIGENT GOVERNMENT
RED TAPE THICKER THAN BLOOD?
The agent brushed them aside. He was, of course, fully aware of the disastrous media storm that upper management had brought down on their heads. That abominable Jack Fenton had told anyone who would listen how the government was keeping him from his wife. It was a small mercy that their department had never been mentioned by name.
"If you're looking for a dog to kick, the perpetrators are long gone." His own distaste mirrored the doctor's sour expression. "My 'promotion' is only a consequence of a series of departures." They'd left only a skeleton crew, disposables to take the fall should the facility be forced into the public eye.
Dr. Kerza glanced at him keenly through rimless, rectangular lenses."Higher-ups weaseling out of personal responsibility, hm? The American government never fails to disappoint."
It had taken hours of filling out forms and a few veiled threats of blackmail to prevent them from shutting it down altogether. Only the marked technological advances of the past year had saved them, and only just. Projects like Silver Mist and the Electromagnetic Disruptor were direct results of their research, essential steps forward in national ghost defense. As it was, funding had been halved, and they'd held onto their confidential status by a thread.
Dr. Kerza turned on his heel. "Hurry up and show me this rare specimen of yours; I may as well have a look before some misguided champions of justice kick down our doors."
Security protocols only took five minutes, much to Agent L's frustration. His security team had been reduced to a handful of men. A pathetically thin shield between the world and the dangers of ghost research. Although, he noted with a touch of pride, the remaining staff was vigilant as ever.
"You are at least well-equipped," Kerza said grudgingly, taking in the well-shielded lab and its armament of equipment. "Though I suppose that's not surprising, considering the monopoly you've given yourselves through the patent office."
"We're protecting the interests of the human race, Dr. Kerza. That's justification enough to prioritize our research."
"Hmm, I suppose." He nodded at the cube a low-ranking agent had brought in. "Is that the specimen?"
"Yes." Agent L activated the containment unit and attached the cube to the side of the force field.
The cube hissed; a green mist billowed out into the space behind the glass. It hovered nebulous in the air, then gathered and condensed, congealing into a faintly glowing mass. All at once it dropped to the floor with a wet slap.
The two men stared at the oozing pool of goo.
"What, may I ask, is that supposed to be? Surely not Phantom."
Agent L checked the barcode on the cube a second time. "This is the device that contained ecto-entity 0013. There's no mistake."
The scientist arched a skeptical eyebrow. "You're telling me that your most advanced and valuable specimen just melted away?"
"Dr. Fenton did suggest such an outcome was possible," Agent L said, approaching the holding cell. "Phantom showed signs of significant destabilization." He frowned down at the green substance, suspicion flickering at the back of his mind. Dr. Fenton might not be trustworthy; her attitude in the final days of her tenure had been suspect, to say the least.
"I have read her reports, yes," Dr. Kerza snapped. "Her reasoning was faulty; Phantom was too strongly ideated to simply dissolve. It should have reached a state of reduced mass which its core could continue to support, and then stabilized. No ghost would spontaneously evaporate after such a simple battery of tests, certainly not a specimen of such remarkable physical density."
"So you don't think this," Agent L waved his hand, "is Phantom?"
"That is something of a paradox, isn't it?" Dr. Kerza adjusted his glasses and peered down at the substance. "Did the ghost check itself out of cold storage and stroll away, leaving a few gallons of ectoplasmic matter behind?"
The agent's eyes narrowed. "That may not be as fanciful as you seem to find it, doctor."
"It would be wise to question the scientist who last had possession of Phantom. I should also run some tests; if this is indeed the entity's remains, data from the ectoplasmic residue could be enlightening."
"You are not permitted to have contact outside of the facility." Agent L paused, and added grudgingly, "Except in cases of family emergency."
"Oh yes, to keep this place top secret. You've been so very successful with that tactic thus far." Dr. Kerza pulled on a pair of heavy hazmat gloves, dark eyes running over the array of equipment on the laboratory shelves. "Not everyone is under such restrictions, am I correct?" He selected a vacuum-type device. "Surely the Facility Head could elect two government-approved emissaries to track the good doctor down and find out a few details, hmm? Make sure someone with an actual mind for science goes along, not just you militant secret agent types."
Agent L bristled. "I don't recall you outranking me, Dr. Kerza."
"Let us not be petty, Agent L. If I don't find a reason to keep this facility going, there will be no facility. Unless you want to say farewell to your ghost research, see that things go my way." If Dr. Kerza could feel how the agent glared behind his shades, he didn't show it. "Now stand aside, I need that sample."
Ties that Bind :: tbc…
Fun fact: If I were ever to do an abridged version, this is one of the chapters that would be (mostly) cropped out. The Nasty Burger battle is fun, but not remotely plot-necessary. The only reason it stayed in was to balance the chapter length, since the GIW scene was a little too long to tack onto the flanking chapters, but not quite long enough to deserve its own chapter.
No cord or cable can draw so forcibly, or bind so fast, as love can do with a single thread.
- Robert Burton
"Danny, sweetie." Maddie clasped her styrofoam cup; the hot liquid inside warmed her hands. "How are you feeling?"
Her son looked up from his plate of mashed potatoes, which he'd spent the last ten minutes clumsily sculpting into a lunar landscape.
Danny would be forced to relearn a lot of fine motor skills left-handed. He'd managed with feeding himself and other necessities, but school loomed on the horizon. Would he be able to cope?
Writing was out of the question, and even typing would be slow. She and Jack could come up with some device to make it easier– voice capture, maybe. They could modify the Ghost Gabber. It keyed into Danny's voice already, thanks to his strange connection with Phantom. The Fenton Portal, too; they'd have to scan his left thumbprint into the system. Driving would have to wait another year, but that was fine. Maddie could drive him. Endless small changes fluttered in and out of her mind.
Danny studied her, then carefully took a scoop out of the nearest crater and inserted the spoonful into his mouth. "I'm okay," he said after he'd swallowed. He turned the spoon over and poked at a ridge of mountains.
Maddie smiled wryly. Fentons didn't do well with prolonged captivity; Danny's stir-crazy side was beginning to show. "At least you're enjoying your food."
"It's boring food." Danny mock-glared at his plate. "I bet space dust would taste better."
"I could get some more pudding if you like," she said, standing up and looking toward the door. "You can't live off half a–"
The tray rattled and her eyes snapped back to Danny. He met her gaze with a wide-eyed stare.
"…plate of potatoes," she finished, uncertainly. "Are you alright?"
"Oh." Danny's eyes dropped to his plate. He frowned at the ragged gouge that now ruined his handiwork. "No, it's fine. I'm not that hungry."
Maddie sighed and sat down again, cradling her cup of coffee. There it was: That frightening strangeness that had taken hold of Danny.
For the most part he acted normally enough, at least since the stronger medications had worn off. He'd chat with them and make lame jokes. Yet somehow it felt off. Fake. Every once in a while he'd slip up, and she'd catch a glimpse of something else. He'd startle at sudden gestures and trail off in the middle of conversations.
When he thought she wasn't looking, Danny would watch her. Maybe he was afraid that she'd vanish. The idea left a bitter taste in her mouth; she couldn't blame him for that fear.
"You must have felt so alone out there. So abandoned." Maddie searched his face, hoping to find an easy denial of her thoughts. "I hope you never felt like we didn't care about you. That we weren't doing everything we could to get you home."
Danny didn't meet her eyes, shrugging. "I got back. That's what matters."
"What matters is you." She resisted the urge to squeeze the cup tightly. Styrofoam was so brittle. It could easily buckle and break.
"You know what really matters?"
Maddie looked up and found Danny staring at her with intense purpose. His eyes still had purple shadows under them, making his usually soft blue eyes look stark and bright.
"What?" she asked softly.
He glanced furtively toward the door, then offered her a crooked grin. "Giving me some of that coffee the nice nurses let you have."
She found herself smiling back. "Afraid not, sweetie. The doctors said that you have to be careful what you eat." Acidic food was strictly off limits until his stomach could heal completely, and the vile brew that the hospital staff passed off as coffee could probably eat through steel.
"Oh come on, one sip won't hurt."
It was a good try, but Maddie wasn't fooled. He was putting on a show for her, acting silly because he knew that's what she wanted to see. As if he was protecting her. From what? His own pain?
"You're sixteen," she admonished, holding the coffee out of reach. Way too young to be shouldering that kind of responsibility.
He gave up and slouched into a sulk, clutching his spoon. "Last time I checked, that was a legal age of consent for caffeine."
Maddie set aside the coffee – out of reach of the bed, despite Danny's exaggerated show of disappointment. "Danny. Sweetheart."
She put her hand on his shoulder. He stilled, the spoon sliding from his hand.
"You know you can tell me anything, right?" She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, pretending not to feel the rigid tension there. "You can be upset. Even upset with me. I won't be mad."
"Mom…" He pushed away the tray and took her hand, pulling it off his shoulder and holding it lightly between his fingers. "I'm not upset, okay? It's just… I'm adjusting, I guess. Everything feels… I'm trying, but…" He shrugged, dropping her hand. "It's just not gonna be the same, you know?"
"Maybe it won't," Maddie said quietly, wishing with all her heart that she could tell him otherwise. "Some things don't change though, Danny. We're here for you. Your dad and I, and Jazz. Your friends, too."
He chuckled, though the humor seemed to fall flat. "So people keep telling me."
"Must be because it's true." She leaned back and reclaimed her coffee. "We'll get you through this."
"No matter what, right?"
"You've got it, sweetie."
"Even if I'm…" He hesitated, hand twisting knots into the sheets. "Even if I'm not…what you think?"
Maddie stiffened. She lowered the coffee from her lips. "What do you mean by that?"
He paled and reached for the tray, pulling it close. "You know what? I think I'm still hungry."
"Danny." That indefinable fear returned, stronger now. There was something not right here… something she didn't know about her son.
Danny stirred the soft dish with manic energy, destroying the lunar landscape and completely avoiding her eyes. "They ought to put cheese on these potatoes. Or salt. Heck, even cardboard might improve the flavor. Pretty sure that's the cafeteria's secret ingredient back at school. It had more tang, you know? Nothing like industrial chemicals to spice up a dish."
"Danny, please. Talk to me."
He dug at the shapeless food. "I can't," he whispered.
Emotions she couldn't define fought for dominance on his face; stubbornness, anger… or was that fear? Closing his eyes, he shook his head. "No. I'm not going there. Mom please, just forget it, okay? I didn't mean to say anything."
"How can I forget? You just–" A knock drew their attention to the door. It swung open and the nurse walked in, smiling pleasantly.
"Afternoon, sweetheart! I hope you're done eating, it's time to get that cast off," she announced briskly. "Dr. Stein needs a look at it before the surgery gets final approval."
Florrie was a plump, middle-aged woman with laugh lines creased deeply around her mouth and practiced, gentle hands. Maddie gave the woman a smile, hiding her frustration at being interrupted.
Danny studiously avoided eye contact as the nurse bustled around, gathering supplies. She opened a cabinet and produced a bottle of iodine and a pair of blunt-tipped scissors. They clacked as she set them on a metal tray. Danny jumped.
Florrie smiled at him. "No need to worry, hon. This won't hurt at all."
"Wait." Danny pulled away and the nurse paused. He looked at Maddie, an odd expression on his face, half timid, half stubborn. "Mom, could you leave… please?"
"You want me to go?" Maddie stamped down the knee-jerk fear that crept in at the idea of leaving him. As much as her rational mind knew that here in the hospital Danny was safe, the mother in her couldn't let go of the fear of just how close they had come to losing him. "But why, sweetie?"
Danny flushed and ducked his head, avoiding both of their sympathetic glances. "I don't want you to see…to see it."
"Honey, you don't have to be embarrassed. It's okay." Maddie smiled. "I'm your mom. I can take anything." Hopefully he'd read the double meaning of her words. They'd have to have a real talk later.
He shook his head; stubborn won out over timid. "I know that, but please?"
Florrie watched them, her glossy pink lips pressed together in a politely neutral expression. Maddie suspected in an argument she would take Danny's side. He might be a minor, but he had a right to privacy… and he got to choose so little about his current situation. This at least she could give him.
Maddie reached over and ruffled his hair, smiling to show her feelings weren't hurt. "Okay. I'll be right outside."
He sighed in relief. "Thanks."
Outside in the hall, Maddie gazed at the closed door, trying to push away the sudden dark fears that swirled around her. Danny cared about her, she told herself. He just didn't want her to see him hurt. That was all.
Did that really make sense? Danny hadn't seemed self-conscious so much as afraid. Of what? Her reaction? What she would see?
Even if I'm…not what you think?
Her instincts as a mother… no, both as a mother and a ghost hunter, they didn't like this one bit. Something was seriously wrong, and Danny's injuries were just the start. Where had he been all that time? What really happened?
Maddie swallowed the hard lump of dread in her throat. Ghost hunters made enemies.
Had Danny not wanted her to see something ghost-related about his broken arm? Why? Was he still afraid? Was whoever it was still out there, just waiting for the chance to strike again?
Tossing the untouched coffee into the nearest trash can, she set off with a purposeful stride toward the doctors' offices. Whatever Danny was hiding, she would find it.
"Give me a name." Vlad cut right to the chase.
The boy looked up from his contemplation of the bed sheets, giving Vlad an achingly fake plastic grin. "Vlad! You came to visit? How kind. Oh, I'm doing much better. Hardly hurts at all now. I can even sometimes sleep at night. How are you?"
Vlad scoffed, pushing the flowers he'd brought to impress the nurses (and Maddie, when she saw them) onto the nearest flat surface and dusting pollen off his lapel. "Let's not play games, Daniel. I've read your file. I know a ghost experiment when I see one. A threat to you is a threat, however small, to me. I have a vested interested in eliminating that threat."
"Now you're starting to make sense." Danny crossed his arms and leveled a glare. "I was wondering what would bring you all the way from Wisconsin to see little old me."
Hostile and childish as always. Vlad breathed a silent sigh of relief; he had feared after seeing the medical records and realizing their implications that it might have killed Daniel's spirit. There was no sport in playing with a broken toy.
"As much as your attempts at banter are amusing under less pressing circumstances, today I am not in the mood. A name. Or names, whatever the case may be."
The false cheery attitude vanished like a dropped cloak. It took none of the hostility with it. "So you can what, take your vengeance? Save your own hide? What are you going to do?"
Vlad's eyes took on a dangerous red gleam. "I will do whatever is necessary. That I can assure you."
Danny chuckled humorlessly. "No you won't. Not you, fruit loop. You couldn't."
"Why must you be so deliberately difficult?" Vlad growled, clasping his hands behind his back and turning to pace. The shabby linoleum threatened to scuff his patent leather shoes. "I had thought you would be relieved to have the threat removed. Eager even, to know revenge was being taken, regardless of whether it happened to serve my purposes."
"I'm not like you, Vlad. I don't want to see anybody hurt for..." He trailed off, eyes falling to his lap. The great white sling enveloped his spare frame, making him seem smaller than he was. "Anybody else, anyway."
"Don't you see?" Vlad gestured broadly. "Whoever did this will do so again. Science is a hunger that knows no ethics, my boy. They will find more victims. They will come for you again."
"You would know. Creepy mad scientist is your thing, right?" If you knew to look for it, you could see the faint marks on his wrist and neck for what they were; they had chained him. Danny had sported similar marks after that little cloning fiasco, just a few months ago.
"Why do you insist on protecting them? It's not as if it's someone you… know." Vlad halted mid-step. The temperature in the room dropped, although it was difficult to tell whether it was from Vlad's sudden dread or whatever dark emotion the boy must be feeling. "Or is it?"
Outside of the closed door, the bustle of the hospital went on faintly; phones ringing, the muffled sound of footsteps and wheeled beds passing by, intermittent calls over the hall's loudspeaker.
"I guess you do have a brain in there, V-man," Daniel said at last. "It might have been those government creeps that caught me, but the one who actually did all those things… you've already figured it out, haven't you?"
His mouth felt impossibly dry. "The name, Daniel. You must give it to me. That's all I ask."
Danny looked at him with dead eyes as his lips formed the damning syllables. The least likely name in the world, if it hadn't made such terrible sense. "Maddie Fenton."
Vlad stared, his sharp mind grasping for some manipulation, some lie, some motivation that would explain this cruel deception. "You're not…joking, are you Daniel?" A hint of pleading crept into his voice despite himself.
Daniel gave him a weary look. There was too much cynicism in that young face now. Daniel was still an amateur, someone incapable of hiding his true emotions; they played behind those eyes as clear as day.
"You're the one that likes to tell ugly lies, Vlad. Not me."
Ties that Bind :: tbc...
At last Maddie and Danny have a conversation. Sort of? If I were to do a really, truly abridged version, this would probably be the opening scene.
Chapter 5: All You Get
All that we can't say is all we need to hear.
― Ben Harper
The dash of the Ops Center pulsed with blinking screens, flickering needles, and built-in computer consoles that scrolled through obscure lines of data to automatically record and compile.
Maddie took a sip of her coffee, intent on one screen in particular. She set aside the mug and toggled a joystick in the dash, trying to coax just a little more range out of the scanner. "Come on, Phantom," she murmured. "Don't tell me you're not out there."
She had salvaged what she could from the damaged BOOmerang and used that data to create a new, Phantom-specific ecto-energy scanner. The first time she'd booted it up, it had immediately locked onto a weak but definite signal–but her hopes were dashed when she realized it was coming from the hospital.
Phantom had created his own psyche based around Danny's. It gave the boys matching electromagnetic patterns. Danny's in brain waves, Phantom's in ectosignature. Even after she had calibrated it, it still confused the tracking devices.
Maddie pushed back from the console and sighed deeply, pinching the bridge of her nose. Danny. She had yet to confront him about his connection with Phantom, even though it galled her to know the truth. Whatever Danny had been through, it had left him changed, somehow. Shaken. He seemed poised on the brink of something that terrified him, that maybe he could not quite come to grips with. What he needed now was stability and reassurance, not an inquisition.
Until she could locate Phantom, Danny took priority. She needed to make sure that he was safe, and stayed that way. She glanced at the clock. She and Jack had a meeting with the doctor this afternoon. Hopefully he would have some answers for her.
Snatching up her keys, she headed downstairs, balancing her coffee carefully so it wouldn't spill. She had her hand on the doorknob when the bell rang. She opened the door. Two men stood on her front step. Her blood ran cold as she recognized their white suits; GIW agents.
"Is there something you gentlemen require?" Maddie asked frostily. She stood poised in the doorway, making it crystal clear she had no intentions of inviting them in.
One was tall and broad-shouldered, with blonde hair cropped in a close military cut. His mouth set in a thin, grim line under his reflective shades. "Dr. Fenton? We need a word with you."
"Are you looking to add harassment to your list of misdemeanors?” She jabbed the pointed end of her keys at the tall one. "I've said all I have to say to you people."
The other looked rather rumpled and unused to his ill-fitting white suit; she could spot a grease stain on his lapel, which he smoothed down self-consciously. "Now ma'am, no need for that kind of attitude. You remember me, of course? No? Well, never mind. We're here to ask you a few questions; a followup, perfectly within our rights. Part of the contract, if you understand."
The man held up a folder fat with papers, TOP SECRET stamped across the front. It had a coffee ring at the corner, and a splattering of green stains on the edges. He smiled, teeth yellow with unwashed coffee stains.
Maddie realized she knew him after all; one of the techs in the acquisitions room where she'd 'left' Phantom. In reality nothing but an empty canister. She schooled her face into a neutral expression, hiding a spike of fear at the realization. Had they found out?
"Were my notes not thorough?"
"Extremely thorough, ma'am, and perceptive." The man flapped his hand, sweat beading on his brow. "You are very much the scientist. It's just–the ecto-entity–"
"I'm afraid your new scientists must puzzle it out," Maddie returned sharply. "I have a meeting with the doctor that is taking care of my son. Now remove yourself from my doorway or I will do it for you."
The tall agent actually sized her up and smiled. He wouldn't find it so amusing if he knew she was a high-level black belt and could easily send him flying into the windshield of that shiny black car of his.
The smaller man backed down the steps, raising his hands and chuckling. "Alright then, Dr. Fenton, obviously this was a bad time, no need to get hostile." He gave a little tug to his white coat and tucked the thick folder under his arm. "I'm sure you know we'll be back. Soon, too. Dr. Kerza marked this as urgent."
"Your replacement. He's taken over the Phantom project. The funny thing is… well, there isn't much left to study." He glanced up at her, and his small, pale eyes took on a cunning look. "But you knew that already, didn't you, Dr. Fenton?"
"I warned you he would require extreme measures to re-stabilize," she returned, as evenly as she could. "That you didn't heed my advice is on your own heads."
"Sure, you did tell us that, but what if he didn't just 'give up the ghost'?" He chuckled at his own joke. "If Phantom has escaped, it would be on the last person that handled his containment device. That's me, Dr. Fenton. Do you realize what position that puts me in?"
"Not a comfortable one, I imagine."
"I hope you know, Dr. Fenton, that I hold you in the highest respect. But I like my job. Between you and me? That's no choice at all." He nodded at the agent, who turned and headed for the sleek black sedan. That crooked, yellow smile took on a nasty look. "Have a nice afternoon."
Jazz hummed as she made her way back from the hospital cafeteria, her feet taking her automatically through the twists and turns. She'd left Danny and Dad together, chatting about upgrades to the Specter Speeder. As the closest thing to spacecraft in the Fenton inventory besides the Ops Center, it had always been one of Danny's favorite inventions.
It was good to see some of their dad's pure enthusiasm rubbing off on Danny. Her brother had been brooding so much lately, not that she could blame him. But he was getting better. After this surgery, he could come home and they'd have a few peaceful weeks before school began. Jazz had to be sure that Danny was comfortable–and safe–before she left for college.
"You shouldn't worry about a thing, kiddo!" Dad was saying, in his booming, most cheerful voice as Jazz opened the door. "Dr. Stein's an alright guy."
Their dad sat with his back to the door, Danny on the couch in front of him at the back of the room under the window. Danny wore a soft, loose blue t-shirt and sweatpants, with socks covering his feet; only the sling and the plastic band around his wrist marked him as a patient.
"Sure Dad," Danny said with that glazed-over look listening to Dad's longer ramblings caused.
"He's got state of the art equipment here–did you know some Fenton gear is medical grade?"
"I, uh…" Danny's expression faltered.
"Laser-sharpened blades are the only way to go, Danny boy, don't forget that. Your mother thinks they're overkill for low-density ecto-entities, but I say, slice with confidence!"
Danny went stiff and white.
Jack didn't seem to notice as he jumped up and proceeded to demonstrate proper technique. "Now the trick, son, is to use one long, smooth–"
Jazz stepped inside. "Dad!"
He turned and grinned at her, waving her in. "Jazzy, you're back! I was just telling Danny here about me and Dr. Stein."
"Dad–you–" Jazz glanced at Danny, who stared fiercely at the floor. His eyes darted to hers and he shook his head once. Jazz sighed, then turned to their dad and said as brightly as she could, "Why don't you go get some lunch?"
"Don't mind if I do!" He patted Danny on the back with remarkable gentleness. "I've got some meeting with your mom and the doc too. Keep your chin up, kiddo! Dr. Stein's a whiz."
"Better run, the line at the cafeteria is terrible!" Jazz practically shoved him out of the room, closing the door on his heels.
As soon as it clicked shut, Danny dropped his head on his knees. "Thanks," he muttered.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine." His skin was almost as gray as his sweatpants; she couldn't see his face, but his fingers shook as he raked them through his hair.
She rested her hand on his shoulder. "Danny–" Green flickered over his shoulder and she pulled back, her hand stinging from the frigid burn of ectoplasmic energy.
"Don't–touch me!" he snapped.
She stood, twisting her hands together, watching in tense silence. Danny seemed to be fighting some internal battle, his lips parted silently, his breath coming short and harsh. After what felt like an eternity, he quieted. With one last long sigh, he sat up. "Sorry."
"You okay now?"
Danny shrugged. "I didn't throw up and the floor's stopped spinning around, so yeah. Just great." He let his head fall back on the arm of the couch and threw an arm over his eyes.
Jazz's concern simmered into anger. She dropped into the chair nearest the couch with a huff. "I can't believe Dad."
"He was trying to help."
Of course he was. Jack Fenton always had the best intentions, but his mouth ran way ahead of his brain. "He seriously thought telling you all about Dr. Stein's–" Danny blanched and Jazz cut herself off. "That was a good idea? Going on and on about his favorite pointy toys when you have major surgery in two days?!"
Danny touched the stitches in his side, wincing. "He was talking about ghosts, not people."
"It's not the same!" He sat up and grabbed her arm; his fingers felt cold and clammy. "That's a totally different thing and you know it, Jazz. They wouldn't know that– ghosts aren't human. It's not the same."
Jazz stared at him. "That's a little funny coming from you."
"I'm–that's different. I'm a halfa." Danny shook his head, repeating stubbornly, "Mom and Dad doing stuff to ghosts, that's not the same."
"Why are you defending him?"
He let go of her and pulled back, shoulders slumping. "I dunno. Never mind."
"You know…" Jazz tugged at a strand of her hair, twisting it around her finger as she tried to find the right words. "Even Dad wouldn't screw up that bad if he knew what you'd been through."
Danny's head snapped up. "No."
"Danny, they need to know. Stuff like this is going to keep happening–and I'm worried about your ghost half, too. What if there's stuff wrong with it that the doctors wouldn't know how to look for? Mom and Dad are the experts on that kind of thing, remember?"
He scowled. "They don't know everything."
"It's your secret, and I respect that enough that I won't go behind your back. But Danny, you have to tell them."
An angry green gleam flickered in the depths of his blue eyes. "What's the point? So they can feel guilty about it all? So I can relive all the gory details for them? It's over, okay? I want it to stay that way. It's fine how it is."
"It's not fine, and neither are you! You can't suppress something this traumatic long-term, Danny. You'll just do yourself more psychological damage. Long-term damage. You need to talk about this. Maybe even get outside help."
Danny had that stubborn set to his jaw, the one that reminded her most of Dad when he got fixated on something. "I'm not telling anybody. Nobody has to know."
"Then tell me, at least. Talk to me." She moved to sit next to him, leaning over to look in his eyes. "Danny, you're suffocating yourself, can't you see that?"
He shrugged. "You're the one who said disassociation was a good thing. That it could help me cope."
"That's the thing, Danny. You're not coping. You won't open up to anyone, not even your friends. I haven't heard you laugh since before. You let the doctors move you around like a puppet, you haven't asked about the ghosts, or worried about school, or threatened to break out of here," She ran out of fingers to tick off. She paused, and touched his knee. "That's not the Danny I know."
Unexpectedly, hurt flashed in her little brother's eyes. He scowled and looked away, brows knitting together like a thunderhead. "Maybe I'm not the Danny you know."
Jazz felt a pang of guilt, but she refused to back down. "What do you mean?"
The anger vanished as quickly as the hurt, leaving him sad and tired. He stared down at his hands, one swathed in gauze, the other thin and bony. "Maybe I'm just… what's left of him."
Jazz resisted the urge to crush him in a hug and pile on meaningless denials. He didn't need comfort right now; he needed catharsis. He had to talk. Jazz forced herself to fold her hands, sit back and really listen.
"What did they do to you?" Let me in please, little brother.
Danny wrapped his arms around his knees, glaring at the floor. " It wasn't 'them', Jazz. I don't care what–"
He stopped short, shivering. A white mist escaped his mouth, then dissolved. Their eyes met in the space that it had been, both blank with surprise.
Danny's face hardened into determination. Jazz's stomach sank like a stone.
"No," she gasped. "Danny, you can't!"
"Actually, yeah I can." He pushed himself to his feet and the familiar white rings swept his body.
For the first time in months, her brother's alter ego stood in front of her. The close-fitting jumpsuit exposed his underweight frame; ribs that carved ridges into his sides, arms and legs that had lost their lean muscle definition. He cradled his right hand close to his chest. It, oddly, had a black glove instead of the usual white. The jumpsuit itself seemed faded, charcoal rather than black, and ragged at the hems. The boots were scuffed and spotted with green. His eyes burned green, bright and inhuman in dark, sunken sockets.
Jazz grabbed for his arm, but it slipped like smoke through her fingers.
"Sorry sis," Danny said. "This is the one thing I can still do." With that, he floated up through the ceiling and disappeared.
Ties that Bind :: tbc…
The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.
― Steve Maraboli
"Dr. Stein will be with you in a few minutes, please have a seat."
"Thank you," Maddie said as graciously as she could. She glanced around; the waiting room was nearly deserted. A nervous couple huddled together, holding hands. An elderly woman paged through a creased magazine. The TV in the corner flickered silently, subtitles rolling across the bottom of the screen, its primary colors bright against the subdued green walls.
Maddie perched on the edge of a nondescript brown chair and drummed her fingers on her knee. More waiting. It felt like all she'd been doing lately. Where was Jack? She remembered her cell and retrieved it from the depths of her purse.
A missed call blinked up at her from the screen. Maddie frowned at the number; wasn't that a Wisconsin area code?
Vlad had left an extravagant bouquet of tiger lilies (her favorite) in Danny's room sometime yesterday, but strangely, he'd passed on the opportunity to slather her with unwanted attention. Her thumb hovered over the delete button, but she found herself retrieving the message instead. Why had he avoided her, only to call later?
Silence filled the recording, punctuated by heavy breathing. A deep sigh and a glass clinked against a hard surface.
"Maddie, m'dear." Vlad slurred as he spoke, a far cry from his usual slick refinement. "I wanted to give you my regrets about Daniel." Another sigh. "If he'd had the sense to be honest with you…"
Maddie stiffened. Honest? About what?
"Well." There was the clatter and scrape of a chair being pushed back. "We've all made our mistakes. Jack…" He chuckled. "Jack won't understand. I wonder if he'd forgive you? But I will. No matter what you've done."
The phone clicked, ending the message.
Maddie stared blankly ahead, the dial tone buzzing in her ear. Cold lead settled in her stomach. She quickly redialed.
Vlad had funded the manhunt for Danny, a gift that Maddie had accepted gratefully despite her reservations about his motivations. He was closer to the investigation than anyone. Had he uncovered something… something he hadn't yet told them? Something so awful he wouldn't want to tell her to her face?
The phone rang on and on.
Her mind flew back over what Jack had told her. She had taken the gaps in the story the way everyone else had–as a series of terrible, dangerous mistakes. The poorly fenced, uncharted wilderness surrounding the camp. The staff losing paperwork. Assumptions made, at home and by the staff, that Danny was safe and accounted for. That he'd simply slipped through the cracks.
That rationale seemed thin to her now. Fake. Constructed. As if someone, somewhere along the line, had wanted Danny to vanish. The idea made her blood run ice cold. For what purpose?
Danny had changed. Something made him pull away from human contact, had left him skittish, frail… and his hand…he hadn't wanted her to see. See what? An image came unbidden of Phantom, curled up on the cold tile of that cramped bathroom with agents beating down the door, cradling his mangled hand to his chest as his face twisted in pain.
Maddie gripped the phone till her knuckles went white, startled by the sudden parallel. That was… that was completely different. Danny's injury was an accident. Only by random chance was it similar to–
"You have reached the phone of Vlad Masters," a bored, crisp voice intoned. "Leave a message."
She let the phone drop to her lap, filling the voicemail with silence. He must be sleeping off whatever he'd been drinking. She hung up. What would she have asked, anyway? Maddie knew Vlad was delusional and manipulative, that he would say anything to get her to leave Jack.
Jack won't forgive you… but I will.
Maddie felt exhausted. She had such a burden of regrets already. Leaving her family. Danny's disappearance. Phantom, and the terrible pain she'd put him through in her ignorance. Now this, whatever it was. It made her feel so helpless.
"Mrs. Fenton?" The secretary put down her phone and nodded to the door next to her desk. "You can go in now."
Maddie stood up, gathering herself as best she could. "I'm not sure where my husband is. I'd like him to –"
"Here!" Jack elbowed his way through the outer door, a coffee in each hand. "Sorry I'm late! Lunch called." He handed a cup to her and took a sip of his own. There must have been something in her expression, because he paused and gazed down at her. "You alright, Mads?"
She managed a smile. "I will be."
He patted her shoulder. "Where's the doc?"
"Right through here and then the third door on your left," the secretary supplied, buzzing them in.
In a rare moment of insecurity, Maddie slipped her arm through Jack's. Ready or not, she was getting answers.
As Danny floated up through the roof, light-headedness washed through him. The hot summer sun struck his eyes and he squinted. The roof was broad, flat and covered in gravel, populated by a small city of air conditioners and ventilation piping.
"I know you're here!" he barked out. "Show yourself!" It felt good to put on the hero voice.
Something whistled through the air toward the back of his head. Danny dropped flat, inches above the graveled roof. A green and silver object flew past, slamming into an air conditioning unit in front of him. It was a net, high-tech and woven from faintly-glowing phase-proof fibers. Only one ghost Danny knew hunted with that kind of technology.
Danny did a handspring off the dented air conditioning unit, which seconds later rattled with a barrage of darts. The jump morphed into flight, propelling him high above the roof as he scanned for his opponent. An ecto-weapon whined, powering up—a flash of silver armor, green flame flickering over a skull-like mask—there!
Danny thrust out a hand, unleashing a blast of—
Pain. Piercing, unspeakable agony shred his fingertips and splintered up to his shoulder like shards of glass. Danny screamed. He felt himself dropping out of the air.
Wrong hand. Dammit. Dammit, he'd used the wrong hand, it was reflex—
He crashed into the gravel shoulder-first, tumbling head over heels in a skid that scraped through jumpsuit and skin alike. His injured hand bounced off metal and for a split second Danny saw white. He pressed his forehead into the ground, trying to focus on the warm, prickly stones, the sun beating on his back, the faint scent of tar and hot metal–anything.
Somewhere behind him, he could hear a jet pack revving, the click and whirr of some new weapon assembling itself from that suit, smell the sharp lemony bite of ectoplasmic fire. Adrenaline sang in his ears. Danger. If he didn't want to end up as a macabre rug, he had to get up. Get up. Get—up—
The heat of the sun disappeared as he was swallowed up in Skulker's shadow.
"Game over, ghost child."
Danny twisted onto his back and fired blindly from his left palm. Mostly by luck, it hit the mouth of the weapon Skulker had pointed at him. The barrel imploded spectacularly, leaving a smoking crater on the ghost's mechanical forearm.
"That was brand new," Skulker said, a hint of reproach in his voice.
"Hope you kept the receipt," Danny panted out. He staggered to his feet, fighting through a whirl of dizziness that threatened to send the hospital roof careening into outer space. That blast had taken a lot out of him. He wasn't sure how many more he could do.
The ghost's eyes glimmered deep in the recesses of his steel mask. "You are damaged, ghost child." The ghost's tone– somewhere between surprise and pity– made Danny's stomach twist. "So the rumors are true."
"So—so what? I don't have to be at the top of my game to take you on, tin can." He threw a punch. Skulker sidestepped and Danny sprawled on his face.
"What a pity," the ghost said. "Humans are cruel animals, even to their own species."
Danny spit a rock out of his mouth and glared. "Says the guy who wants my pelt as a trophy."
"That's different. It's an honor to be a part of my collection! I pursue only the best." He crossed his arms with a creak of metal. "Look at you now. Where's the thrill of the hunt when my prey is limping around like a wounded rabbit?"
"Who's limping?!" Danny growled. He climbed to his feet, wisps of energy curling half-heartedly around his fingertips. Come on, one more ectoblast. That's all he wanted.
A metal palm connected with Danny's chest, knocking the wind out of him. Danny found himself back on the ground, dazed, blinking up at his enemy.
"Sit down whelp, I haven't made up my mind."
That crawling, dizzy feeling washed over Danny again, followed by a rush of cold. Suddenly he felt heavier, hot and dull, a heartbeat thudding too loudly in his chest. Danny's jaw dropped. He'd turned human. He'd lost the transformation. Just like that.
"On the one hand," Skulker mused, "overall it was a difficult and challenging hunt, with many setbacks. This victory has been a long time coming." A gleaming green blade appeared on his wrist with an ominous schick. "I've earned your pelt ten times over, ghost child."
Danny grasped at the icy spot in his chest that was his ghost core, trying to yank it back into existence. It slid through his grip like mist, leaving him sweating, his head pounding. He hadn't changed on accident in over a year. Why couldn't he go ghost?
"Still. There's not much sport in just collecting a pelt from an unresisting foe. Especially damaged goods."
Danny shivered. "Damaged?"
He sat there on the roof, t-shirt flapping in the wind and a chill creeping along his exposed back. He looked down at his hand, which blurred in and out of focus; he couldn't even tell if he was shaking or whether that was just his head spinning.
The door to the stairwell banged open. "Ghost X!"
Skulker glanced at Danny, looking puzzled. "Who is Gho—" A bright green ectoblast slammed into him from the side, sending him crashing into a tangle of oversized piping.
Jazz stood at the top of the stairs, a smoking ectogun in her hand. She looked tousled and out of breath, but the wild look in her eye made her seem positively murderous. "Get away from my little brother!"
Danny felt a cold, hard lump of dread sink into his stomach. "Jazz, you can't be up here!"
She dashed across the roof, stuffing the ectogun in her pocket and checking him over with quick, anxious movements. "What, and you can? Danny, are you crazy? You can't fight ghosts while you're like this! Let's go, quick, before he—"
A segment of piping collided with her head. Jazz collapsed.
Blood trickled bright red and terrifying into the gravel.
Skulker stalked out of the ruins of the air conditioning units, his armor smudged and dented. He toed the motionless girl, kicking her onto her back. When she rolled over limply, he shrugged, turning to Danny with a predatory grin. "Where were we?"
The stairway door banged open a second time, and Skulker was peppered with a small ectoweapon's fire. He growled, raising an arm to deflect the blasts. Sam charged out the door, brandishing a lipstick laser. Tuck was right behind her.
"Tucker, blackout frequency now!"
Tucker pushed a rapid combination of buttons, then held out his PDA like a radar gun. It emitted a searingly shrill whine. Skulker jerked, his mechanical body twisting and sparking, then fell to his knees with a clang. Sam ran up one silver arm and hooked her fingers into the eyes of Skulker's faceplate, jamming the thermos against his metal teeth.
"No!" Skulker's voice pitched high and squeaky as the suit's vocoder malfunctioned. "I will not be captured by a mere—"
Sam pushed the button. Blue-white light flooded into the suit. Danny caught just a glimpse of Skulker's true form, its shapeless body and spindly legs stretched weirdly by the thermos's pull, then Skulker was sucked inside.
"You better have been about to say 'human'," she told the thermos scornfully, slapping on the lid and screwing it tight. The suit of armor, dark and empty, collapsed. A red light blinking dully on the chest plate, the only remaining spark of life.
Sam scrambled down, thermos held firmly in her hands. Her eyes flew to Danny. She stood there, scrutinizing him, her mouth working through several expressions before it snapped into a thin, tight line. Turning on her heel, she strode over to Jazz.
Danny flinched. She was angry.
Sam clipped the thermos to her belt and crouched next to Jazz, who had begun to stir. Tucker pocketed his dark and smoking PDA with a sigh, then jogged over to Danny.
Danny stared stupidly up at his friend. "How did you… the Thermos?"
Tucker grinned tightly. "The can't-miss accessory of the season. I had it, of course. Don't worry though, Sam's in charge once it has actual ghosts in it." Tucker whistled as he peered at the angry red skinned patches on Danny's elbows and forearms. "Looks like you tangled with a belt sander. Any burns? Anything broken? He hit you with poison?"
"No, I'm—" Danny tried to bat away Tucker's hands. "Jazz, Skulker hit her—"
"Dude, relax. We're at a hospital, remember? The ER's just an elevator ride away. With doctors… and needles, and staples, and blood, and…" Tucker shuddered. "She'll be fine. You're both fine. Yeah. It's a good thing."
Danny peered over Tucker's shoulder at Jazz, who was sitting up with help from Sam.
She mumbled something that Danny couldn't quite catch, and Sam snorted. "That's Skulker, braniac. I told you to wait until we got here, we were already in the parking lot. Luckily. How many fingers am I holding up? Uhuh. Yeah, you're concussed. Congratulations."
Danny grabbed Tucker's offered hand and scrambled to his feet. The hospital roof tilted and rolled under his feet, but Tucker's arm anchored him.
Tucker slung an arm around Danny's shoulders, giving him a squeeze. "Geez Danny, don't do that." He chuckled weakly. "I'm still trying to recover from your last near-death experience."
Guilt wormed through Danny's chest. "Sorry Tuck, I…" He fiddled with the bandages on his hand. A few reddish spots had begun to seep through the gauze, corresponding to the raw, burning ache of torn skin and bruised muscle.
Jazz blinked at him groggily. "Danny?"
Ugly red and purple blotches darkened her temple, her eye already swollen and red. Blood caked the right side of her face, plastering strands of hair to her cheek. An ugly slash just above her ear still oozed blood. Sam had folded up Jazz's headband and was pressing it against the wound.
"He's fine," Sam told her flatly. "Except for the major malfunction that is his brain."
Danny stared at his feet. What was he supposed to do? Hide anytime a ghost happened by? Ignore it when other people were in danger? Let Jazz, Sam and Tucker put themselves at risk? Until what? He recovered? He squeezed his left hand into a fist; the right one refused to close, nerves still throbbing from that misfired blast. Damaged goods. Not worth it. Bits of gravel stung in his knees.
"We should never have left you on your own," Sam was saying. Her fingernails worked into the ridged plating on the thermos. "We should have known they'd figure out where you were, that Skulker at least would came after you— and of course you'd be an idiot and try to fight them."
That sick, heavy feeling returned. Danny shook his head sharply. "I don't need you covering for me."
"Yeah you do, Danny," Tucker objected. "In case you didn't notice, you were losing. Against Skulker." Danny glared at him, but he stared back through his heavy black frames. "You were. Big time."
"He came after me," Danny protested. "What was I supposed to do? Wait until something attacked me in my room in front of my mom and dad?"
Sam threw up her hands. "Why not? They're ghost hunters. They'd protect you."
Danny tensed; Mom and Dad, with all their ghost gear, in his hospital room... "I had to go."
Jazz frowned hard, her head weaving back and forth as she tried to follow the conversation.
"Don't act like it wasn't a choice," Sam snapped. "You can't just run off like that! You're useless in a fight right now, don't you get that? Skulker was bad enough. You didn't know who was up here. What were you gonna do if it was the Fright Knight, or Plasmius, or Spectra—somebody even stronger?"
Danny glanced away. The sun burned on the back of his neck now, far too harsh and bright. The red light on the abandoned armor winked at him mockingly. He would have died. Probably.
That idea didn't chill him the way it probably should; it only caused a vague sense of dread, like picturing some unpleasant but inevitable chore. The urgency had worn thin after weeks of living in constant certainty of his own impending death.
The lab floor was like a slab of ice under his cheek, sour with the moldy-metal stench of old ectoplasm. His mind, hazy with pain and exhaustion, emptied of thoughts. Static on an empty TV. His eyes wandered the memorized seams of the plated ceiling, aimless, half-gone, until he slowly became aware of one simple fact.
He wasn't breathing.
Danny gasped, then choked and coughed as stale air collided with the new. Pain rippled through his muscles, stiff and sore from electrocution. They jerked and spasmed into movement. He rolled onto his side, holding the mangled stump of his right arm close to his chest, sucking in air.
Terror sang through him. Energy thrummed in his chest in a not-quite-heartbeat. His ears and fingertips prickled with ghostly energy, sharpened by his sudden spike of emotion. He'd stopped breathing. Or rather, his body had stopped, and he hadn't noticed.
What did it mean? Was he dead?
Breathing in, breathing out, he felt his lungs expand and contract. "It's not so bad," he rasped aloud.
He wondered with a sick sense of dread whether his human half could die, just like that, without him noticing. Or maybe his core would flicker out right along with it, and that would be it.
He tried not to think of the blurry figure on the other side of the thick, soundproof glass, and what she might be preparing for him. Against his will, he raised his head and looked. Her back was to him. The lab coat was a vague white patch against the dull gray steel of endless computers.
The white blur moved, and a faraway ache became a vague sensation of cold air and probing fingers.
Danny whimpered and curled in on himself. He dug bony knees into his forehead and wrapped his good arm tightly around his head. Aching muscles went taut with anticipation. She—
"Danny, are you even listening?!" Danny started. He looked up into Sam's angry, red-rimmed eyes. "This is not your job, okay? Not right now. Your job is not dying. Got that?" Her eyeliner looked smudged and wet. His heart sank, reality piling on his shoulders like a ton of bricks. Sam never cried, ever. Even Jazz looked alarmed.
Danny dropped down next to his sister with a crunch of gravel. He peered up at Sam and nodded meekly. "I won't."
No point, his inner voice added sourly.
"If you think I'll take that kind of crap from you—" Sam stopped. "Oh. That's… that's good. Okay." She sniffed loudly, then sat down beside Danny opposite of Jazz. After a moment, she leaned her head on Danny's shoulder.
"Glad you're okay," she offered.
Danny nodded at the not-quite-apology. "Yeah. Sorry."
Sam slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze.
The sun-baked roof felt warm; a breeze flickered over the rooftop, sending the battered piping into a chorus of creaks and groans. Summer was ending; school began in less than two weeks. He'd have to deal with Dash and the other football players, the teachers and the coaches, whatever excuses or apologies they'd cooked up. Just the thought of it exhausted him. Even closer loomed the surgery. Doctors cutting his hand open… again…
A helicopter droned in the distance.
"That might be those stupid ghost chasers," Tucker said, squinting at the clear blue sky. "Always late to the party. We'd better get inside." He stood up, brushing bits of rock off his cargo pants, and offered Danny a hand.
It was ten times harder getting up the second time. Danny's arms and legs felt dull and rubbery. An ache pulsed behind his eyes, and moving gave all his scrapes a fresh sting. It was like he'd spent the whole night being pummeled, instead of a two-minute defeat where the ghost had barely touched him.
Tucker left a steadying hand on Danny's shoulder, glancing in the direction of the approaching helicopters. "What are we gonna tell the doctors? Better get the story straight before we split up."
Danny's gaze wandered back over the rooftop. It was in shambles; dented piping jumbled in a pile like legos, broken fans clattering inside half-destroyed air conditioners, the gritty surface furrowed and dotted with scorch marks.
Sam pursed her lips. "Danny wanted to get out of the room, he and Jazz walked down to meet us in the parking lot. Tripped on some stairs, Jazz tried to catch him, they both fell?"
"Stupidly simple," Tuck agreed. "That works."
There was one reddish spot, browning in the heat, from where Jazz had fallen. In the middle of it all lay Skulker's armor like a broken action figure, weird and oversized. Red light flashing. Eye holes dead and dark. The maintenance people would find it later. They probably wouldn't bat an eye, even at the blood. Blame it on Valerie, maybe.
"Jazz, you got that?"
Jazz nodded sluggishly. "Fell down s'm ghosts. Stairs attacked."
Just another day in Amity Park. It was normal. It used to be his normal.
"Right. Okay, you'd better let me do the talking." Sam scrambled up and reached down for the older girl. "Come on ghost getter, it's hospital time for you. Up we go." She grunted. "Ugh, Jazz, how much gear are you packing? Tucker, help me out here—"
"You okay, Danny?" Danny flushed and pulled away from Tucker's light grip, locking his knees so the rooftop would stop swaying. Tucker and ducked under Jazz's arm, supporting her from the other side. "Get the elevator for us?"
The elevator stood right next to the stairwell. Its shabby doors, coated in peeling white paint, read Maintenance Only. It probably took a key to get up here. Hopefully the reverse wasn't true. Danny pushed the button, relieved when it lit up. The cables inside creaked and groaned as they kicked into gear. Danny leaned against the doors, letting his head drop back against the warm, slightly blistered surface.
Nobody looked at him. Jazz seemed extremely preoccupied with her feet; his friends looked at each other, then away, carefully avoiding his gaze. It gave Danny a sour taste in his mouth; they were treating him like he was made of glass. His eyes turned to Skulker's armor behind them. Sam was right. He was useless…
The red light caught his eye. It flickered rapidly, urgent now, as if it speeding toward something—
The realization clicked and Danny lunged forward to grab onto Sam, Jazz and Tucker, dragging them all into prickly cold intangibility right as the suit blew itself to bits.
Ties that Bind :: tbc...
Some action at last! And the plot thickens...
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.
–Henry David Thoreau
A cloud of fire blasted through them, gravel spraying up and rattling down onto the stairs. Danny felt dimly chunks of circuitry and steel plating fly by—one through his knee, another making a cold echo through his ribcage. His legs felt like jello. The world spun. Intangibility slid through his grip like water. He clenched his teeth and hung on.
"Danny! It's okay, it's over. You can—"
Reality yanked back into focus. A hand clutching his shoulder. Thick, hot blood roared in his ears; the smoking, disemboweled wreck of Skulker's suit radiated heat and reeked of hot metal. The only thing that didn't go solid was the ground. It bucked and rolled underfoot like a vindictive ocean. Weird. Everything was going black.
"Shoot—Tuck, catch him!"
"Before we begin, I'd like to ask you to avoid mentioning anything we discuss to Danny himself," Dr. Stein said, steepling his fingers. "He has no apparent memory of the events, and until we are completely sure of what happened, it would be detrimental to his health for him to worry over speculations."
They sat in Dr. Stein's personal office, a modest space with all the earmarks of a professional who lived his job. Faint coffee rings made abstract patterns on the glass surface of the desk. Fast food packets were scattered here and there amid the paperwork. A clean shirt and tie hung on the back of the door.
"Of course," Maddie said, trying her best to ignore the fear it prompted. What, exactly, had they found?
Dr. Stein picked up a stack of paperwork and shuffled through the contents, frowning. "Danny's baseline is already in the outliers, if these physicals from last year are correct." He was an older man, clean-shaven, with neat salt and pepper hair. "The low body temperature, unusual blood pressure... but of course you know all this. Nothing alarming, just unusual. Still, there's something odd about the nature of your son's injuries."
Maddie frowned at the evasive term. "Odd?"
Dr. Stein pushed his glasses into place absently as he looked up to the Fentons."Yes, odd. Unlikely. Even supernaturally so—that's what I thought, so I sent samples all the way out to Axion for intensive testing." He pulled out a slim manila envelope and slid it across the desk. "Axion's lab results came back just an hour ago. Danny's blood contains a notable excess of copper, non-native plasma fluid, and trace metals, all of which point to a significant, prolonged exposure to ectoplasm."
"You think ghosts are involved?" Jack snatched up the envelope and flicked open the flap, pulling out a few closely typed pages. His brows knit together in a thick line as he studied the complex chemical formulas.
"We can't be sure," Dr. Stein said carefully. "Traces of ectoplasm doesn't necessarily mean a specific ecto-entity. I didn't want to bring it up before the results came in, as it might cause unnecessary…" his gaze flicked over to Jack, "commotion.
Maddie hid her frown at the subtle slight. This was about Danny, not Jack's reputation.
The doctor had the good graces to look apologetic."Of course you're the first to be informed. In fact, I'd like to get your professional input on Danny's case, if you feel capable."
"We'll help in any way we can."
"Let me show you the really strange part." Dr. Stein opened the topmost file, removing a large color print and passing it to Maddie.
It was a very plain, clearly lit photograph, sterile in its simplicity, of a bare hand lying flat, palm-down, on a steel surface. Ugly, ragged scarlet lines criss-crossed thickly over the hand and wrist, pink and puffy with inflammation, some oozing yellow. They had a strangely symmetrical pattern: Four jagged lines close together, over and over, in all directions.
"We think most of them are," he hesitated, "self-inflicted. The stage of healing he was in suggests that Danny's arm was broken much earlier in his absence. Dealing with the pain…"
A grim silence settled over the three. Maddie pressed her hand against her mouth. Jack's hands curled into fists on his knees, knuckles cracking.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Stein said at last. "I wouldn't subject you to this, but you are the leading experts on ghosts in our community."
Jack nodded once, stiffly. "Understood. What do you need?"
"Despite how they look, those are superficial scratches. They don't penetrate the subdermal layer of skin. Our first theory was that his hand had been crushed—a rock slide, a bad fall, maybe even a collision with a vehicle, but that doesn't seem sufficient. Just look at the x-ray."
White bones stood starkly out from the dark background, clothed in shadowy gray forms of muscle and skin. Maddie stared, fixated. It looked utterly familiar. She had measured and weighed and examined every inch of Phantom's hand, and here it was in perfect parallel. Except… human. Danny's. A vital difference. She gazed uneasily at the faint grayish line that marked where the bone had broken.
"Despite the lack of open wounds, some of the connective tissue is missing—destroyed or severely damaged. There are torn ligaments, odd pockets of fluid, and if you look here, we have missing cartilage—"
Maddie was in the lab, pushing aside a stray piece of greenish-white gristle, too preoccupied with the strange cohesive behavior of the muscle-type material to bother replacing it—
"You can see the break here, though it was half healed by the time he came to us. In an ordinary case that would have been a disaster. Bones are broken by outside pressure," he demonstrated with a sharp snapping gesture, "that leaves them crooked. When they heal back, it's in the wrong shape, deformed and painful. In Danny's case the bone was perfectly realigned. Fortunately for him, it managed to heal that way."
Phantom's forehead was glossy with sweat, but the hand stayed, attached at the wrist and glowing faintly. He looked up at her wide-eyed, with more hope than she had seen in weeks. "It… worked?""
"Even stranger, there are no signs indicating the bone had splintered as it would from an impact. It looks as if it had been sliced," Dr. Stein made a smooth vertical motion with the knife of his hand, resting it on his own upturned wrist. "Straight through."
Maddie went numb.
"But that would've—" Jack dragged his fingers through the graying patches behind his ears. "That didn't happen. That couldn't have happened. What are you trying to tell us, doc?"
"That's exactly the puzzle. While there is clear trauma to the bone and similar signs in his musculature, The subdermal and dermal layers of his hand are intact. Either Danny's skin healed over miraculously without a trace, or—"
"Something phased right through it," Jack growled. "Ghosts."
"Three years ago the idea would never have crossed my mind. These days, after so many victims of ectoplasmic attacks…" Dr. Stein sighed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his thick nose. "What a time we live in."
Maddie paged back to the photo. If you looked closely, under the scratches there were a few stray marks, fainter and pinker than the others, that were oddly smooth and linear. Something imperceptible to anyone not looking for it. She traced it with her eyes. A fat, capital "I" shape, the short lines horizontal to the knuckles and wrist, connected by a single perpendicular line. A textbook-perfect dissection incision.
"We can't… jump to conclusions," Maddie heard herself saying. It was like she was standing at the bottom of a deep pit, throwing her voice toward a faraway pinpoint of light.
Conclusions. They crowded in thick and fast, some with obscene clarity, others wild and vague and altogether frightening. It turned every fear and worry and care from the past few weeks on its head. Who was the boy they had been caring for upstairs? What was he? Phantom? Danny? Some unspeakable blend of the two?
"Can we get a blood sample and a copy of this?” Jack asked. “We need to take this home and analyze it with our equipment. Whatever's infected our Danno, we'll figure it out."
Maddie stood and shook the doctor's hand. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was something completely unrelated. All a hideous coincidence, a sick amalgam of irony and parallel inflicted on her by some higher power. She couldn't jump to conclusions. She refused to. One good look under the microscope. A handful of test results. Then she would know for sure.
"Of course," Dr. Stein agreed. "The GIW have of course been notified, as is protocol with cases involving ectoplasm, but rarely share their findings. Having your expertise will be invaluable."
Maddie stiffened. "The GIW?"
Dr. Stein caught the tension in her tone and glanced at her curiously. "It's hospital policy, yes. They'll probably send someone by, just to ask some questions and maybe do a scan of your son."
Alarm shot through her. If she could pick up the signs of Phantom all the way from Fentonworks, the GIW certainly would. She couldn't let that happen. Not now.
Before she could say anything, the phone rang.
"Sorry, it's the ER. I need to take this." Dr. Stein picked up the receiver. "Stein speaking." He frowned, glancing at Jack and Maddie, then nodded, standing. "What's his condition? Not until Monday. Fluids are alright. See if you can get him to eat something. Understood."
Dr. Stein hung up and strode for the door without waiting for the Fentons. He called back over his shoulder, very calmly. "Would you mind coming downstairs? It seems that your children have been in an accident."
Reality went bang.
Jazz hurt. Her head had been blown to smithereens and kept exploding. Every jolt and sway sent her through another nauseating loop of vertigo, no matter how stiffly she planted her feet and hung on for dear life. Understanding slithered through her fingers like eels through mud. Fragmented, writhing bits of sound and sight jumbled together.
She had some vague memory of vomiting in the elevator, the confused smells of dusty carpet, blood, and bile mixing with the cold, grimy elevator wall that slanted sideways under her weight. The right side of her face felt heavy and raw, like a cut of beef had been glued to her cheek and jacked into her nervous system.
Stumbling down a bright hallway. Strange hands. Dizzying, weaving figures darting in. A bed that kept tilting and rolling under her back as if floating on a wave. Tucker waving goodbye as she was rolled off on a stretcher. A big machine with blue lights, flashing with rhythmic precision as it encircled her head. The universe exploding. Bang. Dark. Flash. Light. Ow.
An awful numbness ate away at the side of her face as someone pulled and pinched the gaping slash in her skin. The flash of a tiny needle held by forceps, red with blood that she vaguely recognized was hers. Cold, rubbery hands rolling up her sleeve. The burning sting of a needle as something was administered into her shoulder. Then the lights went dim and she was alone, drifting in and out of a deeper darkness.
After a while the jumping, skewed impressions congealed into real thought. Jazz came to the conclusion that her skull hadn't exploded after all, but maybe that wasn't such a good thing. Pain. Ouch. Jazz blinked. She stirred, and felt the heavy softness of a blanket shift against her. She was in a tiny examination room, lying on the table, the only lights coming from the empty x-ray reader and a light set under the cabinets.
She dragged a hand up and patted at her still-tingling head, her fingertips finding gauze with the irregular lumps of stitches underneath. The acid taste of vomit still burned in her nose and throat. Jazz groaned. She hated throwing up. Her head was killing her. Where…
The door opened, pouring in light and noise from the bustling hallway. "Jasmine?"
Jazz turned her head automatically at the sound of her name and the room spun into a crazy tilt-a-whirl. She moaned and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling her stomach lurch.
A hand rested on her shoulder. A woman's voice, someone Jazz didn't know. "Sorry sweetie. That painkiller should kick in any minute. Do you need some water?"
Jazz almost shook her head, but caught herself just in time.
"No… th'nk you." The words formed clumsily, like her tongue was two sizes too big. She frowned in frustration. The fog had started to clear—most of it—but her body hadn't caught up.
The woman moved across the room, and Jazz heard the rustle of paper. "You rattled your brains around, but there's no serious hemorrhaging in the brain tissue. You're very lucky, young lady. Do you remember what happened?"
With a monumental effort, Jazz dropped her legs off the table and pushed herself into a sitting position. She tried a shrug. The world teetered, but she didn't fall off. "Stairs?"
Falling down the stairs, an accident. No ghosts involved. Sam had drilled that story into her ear for five minutes straight on the long, tense elevator ride. Of course she knew it was a secret. She could lie when she had to. What had really happened was foggy… the rooftop… ghosts… a loud bang that had torn through everything…except them, because a warm hand gone suddenly icy had yanked them all into—
Her queasy stomach clenched."Danny?"
The woman nodded. "He's in the next room. You and your brother took a fall. Danny got off with bumps and bruises. He's experiencing some symptoms of shock, but it's nothing that he can't recover from."
"C'n I see him?"
"It's better if you don't try to get up yet. Your injury is not as bad as it could be, but it's still a head trauma." The woman tucked the clipboard under her arm, shaking her head. "You'll experience nausea, some confusion, headaches, possibly memory loss from just before the accident. The headaches could last for some time, but if they persist beyond two weeks you need to contact us immediately. I'm going to tell all this to your parents as well, so don't worry about remembering it."
Jazz scowled, determined to remember none of it. She refused to do or think about anything until she could see for herself that her brother was okay.
"We'll have you sign some forms, then you can go home and get some rest."
"I w'na…" Jazz pursed her lips and tried again. "I… want to… see Danny."
"Soon," the lady promised. "You need to recover a little bit more. Be patient. We paged your parents down from the doctor's offices, they should be here soon. Wait here, okay?" She patted Jazz's shoulder and walked out.
Jazz watched the door shut, then counted to ten. One, two… eight… five? Never mind.
She very carefully picked herself up and, clinging to the walls for support, pulled herself out the door and over to the next room. It swung open at her touch. Good thing too, since she probably couldn't figure out door handles at present.
Danny sat on the table at the back of the room, Tuck and Sam hovering at his side like watchful guard dogs. He had a brightly colored juice box in his lap, and an oxygen tube ran under his nose. Gauze-coated arms peeked out from the edges of the blanket thrown around his shoulders.
Danny's sweatpants were rolled up, and a man in scrubs knelt on the floor, dabbing at the raw patches on the teen's knees with a piece of gauze. He paused and delicately removed something with metal forceps, dropping it into a plastic tray.
"That's the fourth one," the man said, glancing up at Danny with a wry smile. "How did you manage to get bits of rocks in your knees without ripping up your sweatpants?"
"Talent, I guess," Danny mumbled. His eyes roved anywhere but the small operation going on at his knees. His skin looked unbelievably pale; the dark shadows under his eyes had deepened accentuated, shoulders slumping. The fingers that curled around the juice box shook.
His eyes fell on Jazz in the doorway. Jazz opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and settled on smiling. The smile he gave her in return was so heartbreakingly hollow. Whatever had happened on the roof, he blamed himself.
Jazz began to shake her head, flinched, and growled in frustration. He had to understand. She couldn't let him burden himself with something like that—something so stupid—
Her mother's angry voice drew her attention to the hallway outside.
"That's Dr. Fenton to you," Mom snapped.
She had taken a stance in the middle of the hallway, legs planted wide apart, hands on hips, completely blocking the progress of two tall men in crisp white suits. They were almost perfectly matched, with black ties and dark shades, dark hair in identical buzz cuts. One of them held a sleek silver device with an array of buttons and cords.
Anxiety chewed through Jazz's gut. GIW. Why were they here?
Her father stood at the reception desk further down the hall, his orange jumpsuit clashing with all the scrubs and lab coats like an orange in a basket of eggs. He bent over a pile of forms, scribbling signatures, apparently oblivious to the confrontation taking place.
Maddie spoke quickly to the agents in a low, firm voice. They frowned down at her like a particularly difficult speed bump.
Jazz stepped closer, trying to hear.
"Now you listen to me," Maddie was saying. "Your organization has caused enough damage to our family. If you don't think I'd break my confidentiality contract in a heartbeat, then are severely mistaken. I learned about your methods personally. Do you think that the government would still back your little ghost tech empire if your methods were common knowledge? This isn't the cold war."
The taller agent adjusted his glasses, his tone bored and professional. "Ma'am, Daniel Fenton's relationship to you is irrelevant. Protocol requires we investigate and interrogate the subject in all ectoplasmic exposure instances, especially in the cases of human contamination."
"If it was really mandatory, you would have had a profile on everyone in Amity Park by now," Maddie shot back. "Where were you last year when an entire high school was ectoplasmically infected?"
He looked nonplussed. "Not my division, ma'am."
"Of course it isn't. It wasn't an avenue convenient to your cause. The extreme prejudice with which you eliminate ectoplasmic contamination wouldn't have gone unnoticed on an entire student body, would it?"
"That's none of my concern." Irritation bled through his professional facade. He took a step forward, standing toe to toe with the much shorter ghost hunter. He had to look almost straight down to stare at her. "Your son must be scanned and questioned. Stand aside."
"My so—" Maddie paled and her lips snapped shut. "Danny has gone through enough," she continued quietly, but in a tone of steel. "You'll only frighten and confuse him. Leave. Now. Or I'll call hospital security and report you for harassment. After that, I'll call the press."
The two men exchanged glances through their dark shades.
"This isn't over," the second one said, but he tucked the device inside his coat.
"I think it is. Good afternoon."
The white suits turned on their heels and left, stalking out of the ER.
Maddie stood looking after them for a long moment, only to turn and find Jazz, who couldn't help but stare at her stupidly. Her mind wasn't working very well, she knew that, but that didn't stop the facts from slowly sinking in. Mom and the GIW?
"Jazz, honey! Should you be up?"
Jazz barely registered her mom's cry of dismay at the bandages covering her face, her eyes on the GIW as they vanished through the ER entrance doors. Maddie Fenton and the government's anti-ghost organization. The organization that had…
"Dr. Stein said you and Danny fell, what happened?"
"Stairs," Jazz responded automatically. Maddie looked puzzled.
"Danny's in room 323," Jack said, coming up behind them. "Jazzy, your face!"
"'m fine, Dad." Neither of them looked convinced, but they didn't press the issue. It was an unspoken rule in the Fenton household that people who insisted they were "fine" were humored, then ignored.
Jack moved past Jazz and ducked into the room. Jazz could hear her dad's voice easily through the wall. "Danny! Heard you were trying stunts on the stairs! You look pretty good, kiddo!"
Maddie offered a stabilizing arm to Jazz, who leaned on it gratefully. Jazz frowned, determined to get the words out right. "Mom…"
"What is it, sweetie?"
"You worked with them? Those guys?"
Mom's hand tightened on Jazz's shoulder. "Briefly," she said at last.
Jack stuck his head back through the door. "You coming, Mads?"
"No, I—" Maddie's free hand knotted into a fist, then she smiled. "You go on, honey. I'm sure Danny doesn't need me hovering. I want to get started on this research. I'll drive Jazz home."
They drove home in pensive silence. Jazz closed her eyes and clutched her icepack, trying to ignore the fragmented thoughts that buzzed through her brain like hornets. GIW. Mom. Danny. The summer. It had to be the concussion, scrambling her worst fears together.
Some things were just too awful to imagine.
Ties that Bind :: tbc…
Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.
― Arthur Miller
"The doctors have decided to go ahead with the surgery as scheduled," Florrie said. The nurse flipped a page on her clipboard, settling into the bedside chair with a creak of starched scrubs and leather upholstery. "After ten o'clock tonight, we want you to fast and avoid drinking anything."
Danny stared at a scratch on her name tag, barely listening. If he listened, that meant he had to think about it. If he thought about it, then it was really going to happen. If it really happened… His good hand curled around the bandaged one, a habit that he found himself doing more and more lately.
Sometimes he half-imagined that it was still a sawn-off stump―but then his fingers would jerk and twist on their own, and he'd feel relieved by the sudden jab of pain.
"It's not a dangerous surgery, but it does involve opening the area, and you must be very careful with the wound afterward. No more stair escapades, okay sweetie?"
A pause. He glanced up, and found her peering at him with mock sternness over the silver rims of her reading glasses.
"Yes'm," he mumbled.
"The surgery goals are to repair the major tendons in your hand and forearm, and to relieve some of the pressure from the inflammation of your joint by removing fluid buildup…"
The words blended into the buzzy exhaustion in his head, turning into so much white noise. His eyes wandered to the little silver cube tucked away under the bedside table. Its green light blinked back at him steadily. The Fenton First Alarm―a device that sent out an alert if any ecto-energy spiked within fifty yards.
"We'll keep you here for a day or two post-op, just to observe the healing process and monitor your general health, make sure there's no lingering issues from your ordeal. After that you can be released to your parents. We'll connect you with one of our physical therapists and they'll get to work on your strength and mobility."
Tuck had hacked the software, calibrating it to ignore Danny’s ecto-signature. Instead of a blaring alarm, it sent a text to Sam and Tucker's phones. If a ghost so much as sneezed near the hospital, one of them would be there in minutes. That and the empty thermos stashed under the pile of pillows in Danny's bed had been the compromise. It had taken him twenty minutes to convince them that staking out the hospital around the clock was a bad idea.
He didn't want them watching too closely. Their anxious gazes rubbed him raw. Especially after the thing with Skulker. He felt suffocated; this place left him no space to think, let alone breathe. Danny had to hide everything, and he found himself resenting it. What did he really feel? It all just felt like a tangled mass of wrong.
"You will lose some muscle mass during the recovery period. Nerves take longer to heal, so it's possible you may feel some numbness for as long as a year from now. The stitches will be out in a week, and―"
"What if I just didn't have the surgery?" The thought spilled out of his mouth before he'd really formed it.
Florrie blinked at him, her over-plucked eyebrows arched even higher than usual.
Danny flushed, regretting it immediately; that sounded like a scared five year old who didn't want to face reality. Real brave, hero. Real grown up.
Florrie nodded slowly. "You… could do that, dear. It will heal on its own, but there will be pain and scarring. Your dominant hand needs to do such complex movements. It's already been put off much longer than it should, because your condition was too…"
She hesitated in a way that made Danny feel queasy. He knew his "condition" even under normal circumstances wasn't entirely human.
"Too unstable," she finished firmly. "The longer we wait, the more scar tissue builds around it, and the harder any repairs Dr. Stein could make would be. Without surgery you might never write with that hand again. Are you prepared to live with that kind of disability?"
"I guess not," Danny said, staring down at his knees.
The nurse put her soft hand on his arm. Her perfume, vaguely floral but mixed with antiseptic, wafted around him. "I know it's a hard thing to think about. Surgery scares even tough guys. You're in expert hands, and we'll take excellent care of you through everything. This really is for the best."
"I know. Thanks." Being reassured made him feel even more like kid.
She patted his knee. "Get some sleep now. You've had a stressful day. Everything will look better after some shut-eye." Florrie smiled. "I'm sure you're sick of this place. Just a few more days, and we'll send you home."
The word made up such a complex knot of happiness and dread and disappointment in Danny's mind. When he'd stumbled over the threshold a couple of weeks ago, a huge sense of relief and peace had washed over him. He had spent every ounce of energy he had just to make it there. There had been no doubt in his mind that everything would be okay once he got home. He'd even kept his secret, from the GIW and his parents. Everything was back to normal.
Except it hadn't turned out like that at all.
Nothing was like it had been before. Everyone treated him like… like a ghost. Not real ghosts, but the ghosts in stories, the ones you couldn't touch. Like something that wasn't totally real anymore. As if he might disappear at any moment. He picked at the gauze covering his new scrapes and bruises. Maybe in a way he already had.
Danny watched as the nurse dimmed the lights and slipped out, leaving him in twilight. The Fenton First Alarm kept watch with its mechanical green eye. His eyes fell on a dim shape on the bedside table. the puzzle Sam had left for him last week. Someone had fitted the bright geometric pieces together perfectly.
Probably Mom. She'd been fiddling with it yesterday. It figured that she'd put it together when he'd completely failed for the past week and a half. Danny reached for it. As he leaned forward, pain shot through his arm. He flinched, fingers colliding with the puzzle; the pieces scattered to the floor.
Sudden, irrational dread coursed through his veins.
One piece remained on the table, a blue triangle. His fingers curled around it. For some reason he couldn't put into words, he needed it.
Exhaustion folded over Danny. He rolled onto his side. The hand with the puzzle piece slipped under the pillows to brush the cool, reassuring metal of the thermos. He deposited it there with a soft click of plastic against metal.
Maybe Florrie was right. Things would look better when he woke up.
The coffee in their forgotten mugs had long gone cold as Maddie and Jack studied in the lab. They worked together seamlessly, coordinated from years of practice, methodically processing every fragment of data the medical staff had given them.
It might have felt like an ordinary day, if not for the labels that read FENTON, DANIEL J.
Maddie was glad for Jack's preoccupied silence. It gave an excuse for her own, as every discovery confirmed her suspicions. Piece by piece it built them up, slotting all the little fragments into place, creating a complete, horrifying picture. Maddie might as well have been referencing the notes she had taken so meticulously in the now-distant government facility.
It was there. Everywhere she looked, it was there.
The parallels she had expected because of Phantom's borrowed physiological profile were, of course, glaringly obvious to her now. The boys shared traits, even down to the rhythm of the EKG in parallel to Phantom's ectosignature. But it went deeper than that.
Phantom had shown mineral traces in his ectoplasm; Danny's blood was laced with ectoplasmic elements. The fingernail they'd put through the chemical analysis device proved to be a blend… part keratin, part ectoplasm. There was a certain… potency, for lack of a better word, in the electromagnetic readings intended to monitor Danny's brain and heart activity. The signals read too strongly, for a human… but matched perfectly the profile of a weak ectosignature. One with oddly complex, human traits.
Only one ghost Maddie knew of fit that description.
The wounds… Maddie shut the thick folder with its photographs and x-rays, pushing it away across the cool steel tabletop. They accused her with their stark reality. All the evidence pointed to one thing. These weren't just similarities. This was Phantom. Phantom's blood. His injuries. His unique physiological earmarks. Which meant…
He'd been lying to her all this time. Or perhaps she'd lied to herself, to keep from facing it. That wasn't an option, not anymore. Maddie stared, unseeing, at the heavy black and yellow-striped blast doors that hid the portal. The sense of betrayal stung more deeply than she'd expected.
How had he hidden this for so long? How could he look so human? What did it mean for Danny? For her son?
She realized vaguely that her hands were shaking. Reaching for her coffee mug, she clasped it, sipping the tepid brown liquid mechanically. She couldn't… wouldn't tell Jack. Not just yet. Not until she knew for sure what awaited them back the hospital. What, exactly, had happened to their child.
"You were right, Maddie," Jack spoke up, still peering through a microscope. "There's definitely some kind of ectoplasmic taint to Danny's blood." He pushed up his goggles and scratched his head. "I'm having the darnedest time trying to isolate the ectoplasmic qualities from the human cells. This ecto-disease, or whatever it is, it's a nasty little bugger. It's like it was made to fit Danny perfectly."
Maddie's blood ran cold, but she simply nodded. "That matches up," she said quietly. "I'm going to check on him."
"Sure thing, baby!" Jack had already burrowed into a pile of readouts. "I'll call you if I make a breakthrough."
On her way out of the lab, Maddie slipped an ectogun from a bin under the table. Just in case.
Visiting hours were long over. Maddie slipped past the nurse's station to reach Danny's room unattended. She could have just told the staff she was coming to spend the night with her son, but she didn't want to explain why she carried an ectogun with her.
She opened the door to his room; it was quiet, the lights dimmed. The blanket that Jack had used from his stay the night before had been thrown carelessly across the foot of the couch at the end of the room. Two chairs stood next to the bed, silent attendants to its lone occupant.
The top half of the bed housed a small mountain of pillows, most raided from the Fentons' living room. Comfortable fat teal bolsters shared space with dozens of embroidered cushions produced by Jack's quieter hobby. Little ghosts and ghouls danced over them in brightly-colored thread. A black silk cushion nestled behind the faded plushy rocket that Danny had never gotten around to growing out of. In the midst of it all, sleeping quietly, lay Daniel Fenton.
Or what should have been him.
She studied the boy; how the shadows seemed softer on his young face, the way he'd tucked his bandaged hand under his chin as if protecting it. Sadness settled into her, leeching away the hot anger that had coursed through her veins on the drive here. He looked so peaceful. It seemed so long since she had seen him–either of them–really at ease.
Ever so softly she eased off her glove and set the ectogun in the chair. She lay her hand on his cool forehead and brushed back the clean, shaggy black hair. He was long overdue for a haircut. Danny sighed and nestled closer into the pillows. His breath tickled her exposed wrist, and to her it seemed unnaturally cold.
Maddie drew back; the peace was an illusion. One that she must remedy. She owed it to her son, her real son. She pulled on her glove, then reclaimed the ectogun and sat down. Taking a deep breath, she raised the weapon and turned it on.
The distinct whine of power cells charging woke him. The boy jolted upright, looking half ready to leap into the air and fly away. He saw her, froze, then very carefully and slowly finished sitting up, resting his empty hands in his lap. His eyes were glued the barrel of her fully-charged weapon.
"Uh…Mom? What's going on?"
"I think you know," Maddie said quietly. "Because it's not my son I'm talking to, is it? Phantom."
The reaction was telling; his eyes went wide, then dropped to his lap. His body seemed to shrink into itself. No surprise. Just sudden dread, and… exhaustion. "Oh."
Maddie shook her head, keeping her voice low and tightly controlled. "I should have seen it sooner. All the signs were there. I knew what… who your obsession was."
Instead of seeing her son in Phantom, the ghost's personality played itself out on her Danny's face. A subtle difference, but it was there, strange and frightening. That faint but familiar wry smile crept onto his lips, and he shrugged. "World peace? A good night's sleep?"
Her eyes narrowed. Did he find this funny? "I should never have let you go."
The smile vanished and he looked at her with haunted eyes. "Do you really mean that?"
She thought of that cold, sterile facility. The disembodied screams that echoed in the halls, and the clinical, distant way the other scientists had spoken about their 'projects.' The thought of leaving Phantom to the GIW's nonexistent mercies filled her with dread. No, she wouldn't have wanted that. Not even now.
"Not that I'm any use here," Phantom said, rubbing hard at his eyes. "Some hero, huh? Stuck in this place, basically helpless. I should have stayed vanished."
The dull despair in his tone surprised her; it wasn't like him. "Don't talk like that."
"You brought it up, not me."
"You're mad at me." Maddie sighed, lowering the gun but not putting it away. "Of course you are."
Phantom shrugged. "You helped me get out. Not that it makes the other things better, but…or I guess it does, somehow, though hacking off limbs is…" He gestured vaguely in the air, then gave up, hand dropping into his lap.
He looked tired, Maddie realized. She wondered how much effort he put into this little charade. How long he'd thought it could go on, especially in his fragile state. Part of her wanted to tell him to go to sleep, that they'd figure out everything in the morning. But this couldn't wait. Her Danny had waited long enough.
Phantom looked up at her. "I can't believe you still want to shoot me."
"I can't believe you possessed my son."
He scowled. "I didn't possess anybody."
"Don't lie to me!" They both flinched at the sudden sharpness of her voice. Maddie took a long, slow breath, smoothed her fingertip along the trigger guard, and tried again. "Not with this, Phantom. It's too important."
He pushed aside the covers and drew his knees up to his chin, tucking his bandaged arm in his lap and wrapping the other tightly around his legs. His bare ankles poked lanky and oversized out of the bottoms of his old pajamas. They were official NASA merchandise, and Danny had refused to get rid of them even when he'd long outgrown the fraying hems.
That little, stupid detail made her voice hitch in her throat. "Can't you see how difficult—how painful this is for me?"
Guilt flickered over his features. He looked away.
"I've been mourning the wrong child all this time. I was so worried for you; I thought you were dead, but… I thought, too, that my Danny was safe. Now I don't know what to think. He's my son, Phantom. My child. I have to know. So please, don't lie. Just explain it to me. I need the truth. That's all I'm asking."
"I'll… yeah. I guess it's…" He swallowed hard, fingers clenching briefly, then nodded. "Okay."
"Where's Danny? My Danny."
The boy shrugged, looking down at himself. "He's here."
Maddie studied him, then nodded. She had to lick her lips before the next question would form. "Alive?"
"Yeah." Another wry smile. "Last time I checked, anyway."
Maddie could have collapsed with relief, but she wasn't done yet. "Alright. That's… that's good." She leaned forward, finger curling around the trigger. "Now. Get out of him." When the boy began to shake his head, Maddie raised her gun a little higher in warning. "My Danny's still sick. You've got to go."
He scowled, and she saw a flash of his old, obstinate teenage personality. "I'm fine."
Fear prickled up the back of her neck. He thought of it as his body. That was dangerous. Even if he hadn't meant harm to begin with, Phantom was struggling to differentiate himself from the human he'd possessed. Soon he wouldn't be able to let go, and he would violently resist any attempts at extraction. If it wasn't already to that point.
The surgery on Monday flickered through Maddie's mind. If Phantom interfered with Danny's physiology, it could endanger his life. She flicked the safety off. If she had to shoot him out, she would do it. "I don't want to hurt you Phantom, but if it's between you and him, I'm going to pick Danny."
Phantom pulled back. "You can't choose like that! You shoot me, you shoot your son."
Ectoblasts shouldn't hurt a hosting human, but... something was different this time. There was an odd synchronicity to the bond that didn't make sense. She hesitated.
“He'll be fine,” she said, but doubt made her hand waver.
"What if you're wrong?” He stared at her, blue eyes flickering green. “If you shoot, and you're wrong, you couldn't live with yourself. I'm not going to let you do that."
Maddie bit her lip; she wanted the ghost away from her son. She wanted her Danny back, the real Danny, more than anything. Still, Phantom was right. She couldn't risk it; she might end up destroying both of them together.
"So…" Phantom ventured, and Maddie realized she'd been staring at him in silence. "What now?"
Maddie sighed; this would take time, and careful maneuvering. She had to get him to understand the horror of what he was doing, the kind of damage he'd inflicted on his host already. "I want you to tell me how you found Danny. Why you possessed him."
"You seem to know everything," he said with a trace of bitterness. "You tell me."
"I think...” No, it was more than a theory now. “The two of you are connected. In more than just similarities. Maybe it's a psycho-electric link, maybe something about parallel magnetism… So you found him, out there. Then…" she closed her eyes briefly, pushed back the hot flare of anger. "You couldn't resist your obsession. Or maybe you were too weak to survive on your own. So you possessed him. The resonance between the two of you inflicted your own wounds on Danny."
It felt like a divine punishment, in a way. Her actions passed on to her son. She couldn't blame Phantom, not for that. That irresistible attraction to Danny was in his nature, built into the very ectoplasm that formed him. Maddie looked at him sadly. "You might have physiological differences, but you're still a ghost."
The ghost scowled with Danny's face, dark brows knitting into a line. "That's where you're wrong. You have to stop thinking I'm a real ghost, because I'm not."
"Then what are you?" Frustration tinged her tone. "You can't tell me, can you? You don't even know yourself."
If he hadn't possessed her Danny, that left what alternative? A shapeshifter? A cleverly disguised corpse? Phantom alone, somehow imitating a human convincingly enough to fool a hospital full of doctors, while the real boy lay rotting in the wilderness? She shuddered. No, it couldn't be. Phantom wouldn't lie about that. Danny was here. Alive. Ghost or not, she trusted him that far.
"Actually I do know," he said softly, bringing her thoughts to a standstill.
"Then tell me," she pressed.
"I can't." His fingers twisted in the sheets. "It scares me," he whispered. "It's stupid, maybe even stupider to think it wouldn't come out, but... I don't know if I can do this. What you'll do. What I'll… I just don't know." Terror hung raw and thick behind his tone.
Maddie couldn't help but soften. "I won't hurt you, Phantom. I'll help you in any way I can." Phantom hadn't asked for this. He'd already been through so much, to her shame. Now she, of all people, was asking him to expose himself. "I just want my son to be safe. That, and I want the truth. The whole truth."
Phantom rested his forehead on his knees; the line of his shoulders was taut beneath his t-shirt. "What if the truth is the worst possible thing? What if it'll hurt more than anything?"
Maddie shivered with foreboding, but she kept her voice calm and reassuring. "Then we'll deal with it."
"What if you don't believe me?" The searching look he gave her was far too jaded for the teenage face that wore it.
“The thing is..." He sat up straight, folding his knees under himself and leaning onto his hands. He stared at her with a desperate kind of intensity. "I'm Danny."
Maddie stared back, unable to answer the pleading in his eyes. She didn't understand. "What are you saying?"
He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, fingers tapping on the blankets."You know I'm not all ghost. You were wrong, though. I wasn't―I'm still not dead. I never was a cadaver or a lab experiment. I just walked into the portal, and… when it came on... This is me. My…artifact, or whatever you called it. It wasn't a dead body the ectoplasm fused to. It was me."
Not dead? She tried to wrap her mind around it. A fusion of ectoplasm and a living being? "That's absurd."
"Maybe, but it happened. Ask Jazz―or Sam and Tuck, they were there. It's the truth. I'm not pretending to be Danny Fenton. Why would I obsess over something I already am?"
A living being? No. A living being wouldn't have needed an imprint. Wouldn't have needed her Danny. The original human would have provided his own electrical pattern for the ghost to form around.
Maddie stared blankly, gazing in her mind's eye at the data that sat in neat stacks in their basement lab. The human samples with their bewildering, ectoplasmic qualities. Phantom's data, that made a perfect mirror image.
"Look. I…I'll show you." He squeezed his eyes shut, sweat beading on his brow. From Danny's chest sprang that same bright white glow Maddie remembered so vividly. It was supposed to mark the recession of Phantom's ghost half, his impending dissolution.
…but that didn't make any sense. He had told her before that the light meant meant losing his ghost half. He could voluntarily trigger the change?
She watched, mesmerized, as it grew and thickened. The lines wavered and shimmered in and out, faint as heat waves then bright and hot as neon fire. It sputtered, and for a moment she thought it would go out. The light encircling Danny's body surged one last time, splitting like a curtain being pulled two ways.
Maddie caught a glimpse―just a glimpse― of a black jumpsuit with a familiar logo. Then the white light blinked out, leaving Phantom in Danny's body slumping back against the pillows, panting as though he'd run a marathon.
That… didn't make sense.
He was supposed to lose his ghost half, not expose it. Even while possessing someone, it should have revealed the cadaver beneath. A corpse. Not the ghost.
Unless… the phenomenon went both ways. If it was a change, not something lost, then… losing his ghost half would show the human body. So in the reverse case, where he lost his human half, it would reveal the other nature. The ghost. Like two sides of a coin.
Danny to Phantom. Changing, not destroying. Human half to ghost half. Human to ghost. Ghost to human. Phantom to…
She stared at the boy, who looked back at her with mingled hope and dread in his blue human eyes. Was it possible? That all this time… he was… she had…
"Mo―Maddie? What are you doing here?"
"You're lying," she said faintly. He had to be.
Phantom―Danny― drew back, his mouth falling open. "Mom, no, I―"
They both jumped as an ectoblast thudded into the wall. Maddie didn't even remember pulling the trigger. "Don't call me that!" Her hands shook; thank god, she'd missed by a mile. "You're not—"
All that useless searching for Danny, in the month before she'd returned, and of course they hadn't found him, because all that time he was— no. No.
"You're not Danny." Maddie croaked. It came out as more of a plea than a protest.
"Please, Mom! You said you'd believe me! It's the truth!"
"Oh, for―what's wrong with you?" Danny burst out. He jumped out of the bed to stand glaring at her, sending pillows scattering. "I'm not that bright, okay? I can't even talk my way out of detention―a-and now you're saying that I've spent the last two years leading on my friends―not to mention Jazz―pretending to be a useless, defective loser of a half ghost? I'm telling you the truth here, for once in my life. I'm a halfa! Human ghost hybrid! I'm Fenton and Phantom. I'm Danny."
Maddie pulled black, clutching the gun. It was the only thing that stood between her and Danny, between her and the truth.
He flinched, but refused to back down. "Mom, please. I'm Danny."
The door banged open, making way for Sam, half-dressed with a jacket slung over her black pajamas, the bottoms stuffed into her hastily tied combat boots. She brandished a Fenton Thermos in one hand and a small ectogun in the other.
"The ecto-alarm triggered, where's the―" her eyes took in the room and she noticed Maddie. "Mrs. Fenton?" The girl's eyes locked on Maddie's ecto-gun, still pointed directly at—her son…
Sam glanced back and forth between them, her violet eyes quick and calculating. It struck Maddie with a cold, hard clarity that the girl knew. Probably had known from the beginning.
Maddie found herself shaking her head. "It's not him. It can't be him. I would have known it was him." The words echoed hollow in her ears.
Sam turned white. "Oh my god, Danny. She was with them?!" Her eyes narrowed into slits, and the ectogun swung up to point at Maddie. "Don't you dare touch him," she hissed.
"Sam!" Danny's voice cracked. Sam flinched, hesitating, and he shook his head. "Don't, okay? Just… don't."
Something thundered down the hall outside. Jack barged in, sending Sam stumbling further into the room by his sheer bulk. The massive, intricate silver machinery that made up the Fenton Extractor balanced easily on one shoulder. He pointed it toward Danny.
Ecto-entity detected, the cool female computer device stated. On standby for manual extraction. It began to emit an ominous buzz.
"Don't worry Danny!" Jack barked out over the noise. "We'll yank that ghostly parasite right out of your nervous system."
"Are you insane?" Sam shrieked, and reached over to yank a cord free from the device. It powered down with an angry whine. "You're going to shred him!"
"The Extractor only hurts ghosts, Sammy," Jack said, fumbling for the loose cord. "I'm not gonna let my son be sucked dry by a ghost! Not on my watch."
"Danny, you can't let them do this! Tell him!"
"I tried." His eyes darted around the room; he looked trapped, terrified. Lost.
Maddie's mind told her to reach out to him, but it was as if her limbs were made of lead. Her tongue hung dead in her mouth. She could only stare, blank and glassy. Something wet rolled down her cheek.
He stumbled away from the bed, backing past her and away from the others, toward the window. "I can't do this. Sorry, I just―can't."
Sam dropped the thermos, hand stretching toward him. "Danny, wait!"
Too late. Danny vanished right before their eyes.
Ties that Bind: tbc…
Annnd reveal! What a mess that turned out to be, eh? Poor Danny. Poor Mads.
"It was a mistake," you said. But the cruel thing was, it felt like the mistake was mine, for trusting you.
― David Levithan
She didn't remember leaving the hospital, or the drive home.
The next thing Maddie became aware of was fumbling with the keys at the front door. It took her three tries before she realized the ones she was trying to fit into the lock belonged to the RV. She was searching through her purse, turning the contents over and over, when the door opened from the inside.
"Mom?" Jazz, her voice thick with sleep and the lingering effects of the concussion. She held an icepack against the side of her head with one hand and leaned on the door frame with the other.
The bruise spreading from the bandage taped to the right side of her face had darkened spectacularly, red and purple splotches ringing around a plum-colored eye. Maddie dropped her gaze, heart twisting in knots; she couldn't stand to see her children in pain.
"It wasn't locked."
"Oh...thank you." Maddie walked past her daughter into the house. She dropped her purse on the table next to the couch and went to the kitchen. It was almost suppertime. They needed something to eat.
Jazz trailed after her. Maddie heard her pull out a kitchen chair, metal legs scraping against the tile, and sink into it. "I thought you and Dad were studying in the lab. Did you go to the hospital?"
She opened the fridge, pushing aside a half-eaten block of fudge and a near-empty gallon jug of milk. Did they have any leftovers? A Tupperware near the back held some pasta, but when she opened it she discovered a thriving colony of mold. There was strawberry jam, a jar that looked like jello but on closer inspection was an ecto-sample, a box of ecto-weenies that rattled when she pushed it away. They'd spent too much time lately living off fast food and hospital meals.
"I need to ask you about something." Jazz's shoes scuffed against the tiled floor. "You said that you worked for the GIW. Recently, right?"
Pasta was a good idea, though. Simple. She could make a lot of it. Between the two of them, Jack and Danny put away massive amounts of food. She'd always assumed that it was a sign that Danny would one day catch up to Jack's size, not that he was… Growing pains. A hollow leg. A body trying to be two things at once. Fueling endless ghost fights. Physiology teetering on the bare edge of the possible. She'd always assumed.
"Mom. I looked on your computer." Jazz spoke neutrally, meticulously articulate. "You have emails from the GIW, from last May. Something about a contract."
Maddie swallowed hard, squeezed her eyes shut. The tile seemed to roll treacherously under her feet. Spaghetti. She could make spaghetti, that would be nice and simple.
"Danny went missing in June. You were gone then, too." Jazz continued, relentlessly stumbling on. Silence. A sharp breath. "You couldn't have…"
Boiling noodles would take no time at all. There was some ground beef in the freezer, a couple of cans of tomato sauce in the cabinet. She'd even go the extra mile and make meatballs.
"Mom, talk to me!" Jazz took Maddie by the shoulder, pulling her around so that they were face to face. "Why won't you—oh my gosh!" Her daughter look startled. "What happened to your face?"
"My face?" Maddie repeated blankly.
"It's bruised. Did somebody hit you?"
She reached up, and to her surprise found her cheek swollen and tender. "I…"
Yes. Of course. Before they had rushed away to find Danny. Before anyone else had moved. Before she could even begin to tell them. "Sam hit me."
"Sam? You mean Sam Manson? Why would she do that?"
Maddie shook her head. Tears burned at the back of her eyes, but they stayed dry and blank. She felt hollow, empty. Numb. It just couldn't be possible. "I didn't know that it was him."
Jazz was a bright girl. Maddie could see her putting two and two together, the growing horror in her eyes. "Oh, Mom. You were there. You…" Jazz faltered, stepped back. "You're the one?"
"I didn't know," she repeated helplessly.
Jazz ran from the kitchen, snatching up her keys.
The door slammed. Maddie heard Jazz's car pull out of the drive and zoom away. Goosebumps crawled up her arms from the chill that emanated from the fridge; she still stood with it wide open. She closed the door. Spaghetti had been a bad idea. No one was going to eat it anyway.
Jazz probably shouldn't have been driving when she could still barely see straight, but she didn't care.
All she could think of was Danny—Danny and Mom, and—it was so obvious. How hadn't she seen it? All the little fragments fit. Danny's withdrawal from his family. Mom's absence. The experiments. The hand. That convoluted knot of anger and guilt and hurt that she'd only caught glimpses of, because her dumb little brother was still trying to protect everyone else.
Of course it had blown up up in his face, and Jazz couldn't believe that she hadn't been there for him. What had happened back at the hospital? Mom's blank expression frightened her. Visions flashed through her eyes— Danny lying glassy-eyed and still in a pool of blood and ectoplasm. GIW leading him away in handcuffs. Ghosts, madness flashing in their scarlet eyes, grinning with yellowed fangs as they threw her brother off the roof.
Jazz screeched into the nearest parking space, flying through the front doors of the hospital, darting past a cluster of men in white suits—noting briefly their confusion and frustration, they hadn't caught him— nurses and doctors, who spoke together in clusters, shaking their heads.
She leaned on the doorway to Danny's room, panting for breath, trying to ignore the way the run had made her head throb viciously.
It was like walking onto a murder scene just after the body had been whisked away. Jazz could practically see the chalk outline in the rumpled sheets of the hospital bed.
Tucker hunched in one of the chairs next to the deserted bed. Dad sat on the floor just inside the room, a damaged and sparking Fenton Extractor resting next to him, abandoned on the floor. His hands rested limp in his lap. He stared at the outside wall, as if something was written there, some sign that he was desperate to understand.
A small but distinct scorch mark marred the wall behind the bed. Ectoblast. Someone had shot at him. Who? Dad? The blast mark explained the presence of the GIW, at least. Ecto-activity of any kind would give them the access to Danny that they wanted. Sooner or later they'd talk their way past the hospital administration. Not that it mattered at the moment. Danny was obviously long gone.
"Tucker?" Jazz hovered in the doorway, somehow afraid to step over the threshold. As if that would make the scene that much more real, and there'd be no taking it back.
He looked up sharply, then scowled. "Did you hear?"
Jazz shrugged, unable to hide a quiver of anxiety. "I… I saw Mom."
"Yeah, it was her." Tucker gestured to the room, to the scorch on the wall and the dazed-looking Jack Fenton, as if that explained it all.
"Your mom's a freakin' mad scientist and in with the Guys in White, that's what,” he said flatly. "Some best friend I am." His shoulders sagged. "I had no freakin' clue what was going on with Danny. Couldn't even figure out what was really hurting him. Just cracked jokes and pretended everything was normal. Great job. Fan-freakin-tastic."
"Tuck—" she began, but he cut her off.
"Face it Jazz, we screwed up." Tucker gripped his smart phone. The screen was on, but he wasn't looking at it, staring hard and angry into the distance as the blue light reflected off the square lenses of his glasses. Emotions rolled over his face like thunderclouds. "The GIW got him. Your mom was in on it. Danny had to live through whatever hell she cooked up in that place. End of story."
"Where's Danny now?" Jazz glanced around. If the GIW hadn't found him, and the hospital staff was still looking, and he wasn't at home…
"Gone. Up and left." Tuck stood up and shoved the device into his pocket. "Not that I blame him. Who'd want to stick around after that? He had to tell her straight out for her to believe him."
Jazz spotted an ectogun sitting on the other chair, the lock indicator light blinking red. Someone had used it—or threatened—with a very real intent to kill. Jazz walked in and picked it up, clicking on the safety. The cool buzz of ectoplasmic energy died away in her hands.
Guilt washed over her. She should have told them.
She'd put it off too many times. Danny said he wasn't ready, but Jazz knew from the start how dangerous it was to leave her parents in ignorance. If it was about looking out for her brother, she would have told them months ago. No, that wasn't the real reason. Jazz liked having a secret with him. It made her feel important. Like part of the team. How childish, Jazz thought, looking back on it. Childish and selfish. Now Danny suffered the consequences.
Why did it seem so obvious in hindsight? How could she have gotten it so wrong?
"I don't understand," Jack spoke up, sounding lost and completely unlike his usual blustering self. "Danny…the ghost kid, all this time?"
"Shut up," Tucker snapped, kicking the Fenton Extractor and sending pieces of it skittering to the far corner of the room. "You're his parents. You should've figured that out ages ago."
Jack's head snapped up and his mouth opened, as if to throw out an angry response, but he stopped short, gestured helplessly, and lapsed back into his silent staring.
Jazz took a step to place herself between them. "Tucker, that's enough. You're not being fair."
"Fair?" He turned on her. "Your little brother got picked apart by your mom in some lab and you're seriously standing here trying to talk about fairness with me, Jazz? Screw you. You always did have your priorities backwards."
Jazz flinched, stung. "This is on us," she said softly but no less firmly. "Just as much as Mom and Dad. We shouldn't have let it get this far."
"You don't think I know that?!" Tucker's anger flashed hot, then flickered and dimmed; his eyes dropped and his shoulders sank. "I'm his best friend, Jazz. Nobody knows that better than me."
Jazz put a hand on his shoulder, but he brushed it off, moving past her to the door. "I'm out of here. I don't want to deal with any more Fenton stupidity." Tucker's hand lingered on the door frame. "I hate hospitals." His voice cracked. "Everything in this place is messed up."
The door slammed hard. Both Jazz and Jack flinched. Jazz's headache spiked, sending blossoms of black spots across her vision.
Jack sighed heavily. He looked up at Jazz. "Why didn't he ever tell us?"
She shrugged; that was far too complex for her to understand, let alone explain. Especially today, when everything had been turned on its head.
"You're a ghost hunter, aren't you?" she said as gently as she could.
"But Jazzy, that's exactly why he should have told us! Did he want one of us to shoot him? Was he crazy?"
"I don't know. It's complicated." She sat down beside her dad and touched his arm. "At least at first, he was afraid, you know. Because of your experiments. That it might happen to him."
Jack began gathering up the pieces of the broken invention. A disbelieving scowl dominated his expression. "We're—I'm not like that! I wouldn't…I would never think like that."
"Wouldn't want to obliterate an ecto-entity?" Her voice turned harsh despite herself. "Take it apart molecule by molecule? Peel it from the inside out? Study its smoking remains? Blast it to—"
"That's enough! I get it. I… I understand." He rocked to his feet, letting the ruined technology fall clattering to the floor with barely a glance. "I'm gonna go. I've gotta think about this." He lumbered out, leaving her alone in the empty hospital room.
Jazz sighed and stood up, suddenly feeling old. Her temple throbbed, the cut stiff and swollen. The queasy tilt her lingering concussion gave the room made it feel like a funhouse, some twisted, warped version of reality that was never meant to be. Her heart ached in time with her head.
Danny was gone. He'd disappeared. For how long? A few hours? She wanted to believe that her brother would just show up at home again, and they'd all have one long talk to set it all straight. That they could go back to being their own weird yet somehow functional family again.
Could that even happen now? The hollow look in Mom's eyes had frightened Jazz. Maybe… there were things that couldn't be forgiven. Maybe it wasn't the kind of thing that would heal. Jazz shivered and turned toward the door.
What if Danny didn't come back?
They'd have to tell the police again. File a missing persons report. Begin the search yet again. There would be even less hope than last time of finding him. It was worse than useless to try to track down someone who could turn invisible. If Danny flew, he could be a hundred miles from Amity Park by now.
He hadn't said goodbye. That stung, more than a little.
Jazz couldn't decide whether she wanted to blame Danny or not. Yet… there was a sense of relief, too. Because what could she possibly say now that she knew the truth? What would she say to her own mom, for that matter?
She wandered closer to the bed. Something brightly colored caught her eye amid all the sterile hospital white. It was the puzzle, the one from Sam, sitting on the beside table. The geometric pieces were neatly arranged inside the plastic tray, all except for one. It left an empty, irregular space in the middle of the colorful plastic tiles.
Jazz spotted something crumpled on the floor and picked it up. The missing piece, twisted and warped beyond repair. The bright blue plastic was tinged green at the edges, as if someone had crushed it in a fistful of ectoplasmic fire.
"Oh little brother," Jazz whispered, closing her hand over the scrap of plastic and holding it to her chest.
For once Sam wished desperately that she hadn't turned her parents down cold when they'd offered her a car. The oversized, toxic, gas-guzzling machines might be the worst thing for the environment since coal fuels, but she could have been there five minutes ago.
She seethed as her little electric-powered moped scooted along at its maximum speed of twenty-five miles an hour. Danny had a fifteen minute head start. More than enough time to go there and be gone. Unless he waited for her. He'd have to know she was coming. They'd all put the hideout together, a spot they'd all agreed on as the place to go during trouble. So maybe he'd wait and actually talk to her and not be a total jerk that had let them keep thinking things weren't that bad when he—
Her eyes blurred and Sam nearly veered into the curb. She brushed the tears away with a swipe of her sleeve and swerved back toward the center of the street, trying to urge just a hint more of speed from the scooter's engine. He'd better be there. She'd never forgive him if he hadn't waited.
There. The bridge.
Sam killed the engine without hitting the brakes and jumped off, using the momentum to wheel the bike over the embankment at the end of the bridge and into the underbrush so it wouldn't be seen from the road. As she pushed it further in and hastily pulled some branches over it, she glimpsed a flash of chrome finish—Tuck's moped. Hope jumped into her throat at the sight of it. Tuck had told her that his keys had "vanished" from his his pocket sometime between when the hospital parking lot and Danny's room. Danny had to have come here, then. Maybe he was still here.
Creeping up to the edge of the bridge, she glanced around to make sure the riverbanks were empty. Ignoring the drop to the muddy water thirty feet below, she reached up and under the closest of the bridge's great steel under-girders, feeling around until her hands closed on a coil of thin, strong rope. It was super-durable, military grade stuff that Tucker had found on the internet, that would last forever even kept outdoors and could hold something like five hundred pounds.
They'd made a safer way to get in, a crawlspace across the girders, but the rope shortcut was faster. She couldn't waste the time today. Danny, who could just phase in through the road, was fastest of all.
Sam uncoiled the rope until she found two loops, one at the end and another a few feet higher. She twisted her hands into the upper loop, then settled her right foot into the second. Leaning back to give herself a little extra momentum, she launched herself out over the open water.
For a few breathtaking feet she plummeted, then the rope stopped her with a jerk and her weight caused the rope to swing up sharply, bringing her just in reach of one of the heavy cross-beams that was tucked under the more decorative architecture of the bridge. She snagged the lip of the beam on the first try and hung there one-handed as she used the other hand to feel around for the handle they'd installed.
She closed her fingers around the metal grip and pulled herself up, careful to drag the rope behind her and fasten it to its hook in the wall. Then she climbed up over the beam to the door of the hideout. It was invisible from the shores and above, and they'd camouflaged it to look like part of the bridge when seen from below.
Eventually the three of them had realized there would be times when they couldn't bluff their way up the Fenton's stairs with goofy smiles and a few lies. They had spent the better part of last summer putting it together piece by piece. A safe place, away from all parents and public eyes.
Back when things like being hospitalized didn't feel possible. Back when they'd thought grounding was the worst their parents could do to them.
Sam pulled the key from her pocket and unlocked the hatch, stepping into the dim little room. It felt almost like a cave, with the battery-powered lights and the ceiling a bare two feet above her head. It was almost low enough to make Danny need to duck, after he'd hit a growth spurt last fall.
A cabinet full of first aid supplies and food stood in the corner, open and recently raided from the looks of the disorderly shelves. A box full of old clothes sat next to it, with Danny's old backpack stuffed full and leaning against it. Against the far wall stood a shelf full of spare ghost hunting equipment. Sam saw that a couple of thermoses were missing, along with some of the smaller types of ecto-weaponry.
An old mattress covered in blankets and pillows took up the last quarter of the room. Tuck had given Sam an unreal amount of grief when she'd first suggested it. His jokes had left both her and Danny turning crimson around each other for weeks afterward. Still, she'd insisted. This place was supposed to be somewhere they could rest and be safe. That included a place to sleep.
Danny lay there now, curled up around one of her old spider plushies. He was back in his own clothes, hospital pajamas abandoned on the floor. He lay half on, half off the mattress, as if he'd collapsed before he'd really made up his mind whether he wanted to sleep or not.
Sam carefully shut the hatch behind her, then slipped her backpack off and let it drop to the floor. She knelt and touched Danny's shoulder, shaking him gently.
"Hey, Danny. It's me."
He didn't respond. A chill of fear shot through her. Sam had almost forgotten that Danny had been in the hospital for good reason—a lot of good reasons. He was still hurt. Maybe he'd hurt himself getting here. Maybe he couldn't phase through the bridge like usual and he'd had to crawl all the way out here with his hand like it was and all those scrapes and bruises from the Skulker fight—
Sam gasped as he groaned and stirred.
"Sam…?" He slurred, squinting up at her as if even the weak lighting was too bright for his eyes. "Here…fast. Tucker?"
"You stole his bike, remember?" Sam shot back, trying to calm her thudding heart.
"Oh yeah. Say…sorry for me…" He sat up all the way only to pitch over sideways, falling awkwardly into her arms. She struggled to push him upright, frightened by the way he leaned into her like so much dead weight.
"Are you okay? You're not okay. Leaving the hospital was a bad idea."
"I'm fine," he protested. Danny's hand came up to grip her shoulder and he pushed himself away from her. He looked more awake now, eyes fully open and alert, though he couldn't hide how much the side of the bed held him up. "Just…used a lot of ghost powers all at once. Invisibility. Phasing in here. Wore me out. That's all." He threw an arm over his eyes and chuckled darkly. "I can't even storm off dramatically properly. This sucks."
"She's the worst," Sam spat. Mrs. Fenton had almost shot him. All of the things she'd done and she still tried to hurt him. Sam's knuckles still stung from the blow she'd landed on her face. "That bitch, that…"
"Hey," Danny interjected. "That's my mom you're talking about."
Sam glared. "She's a monster."
"Sam." The steel in his voice stopped her cold. He used his ghost hunting voice, frigid and deadly, the one you listened to. His eyes had gone neon green, bright in the half-dark of the hideout, and she was suddenly hyper-aware of his smoldering anger. "Drop it."
"Sorry," she muttered. He had to know she didn't mean it at all, but the green fire dimmed, and he nodded.
They lapsed into a brittle silence.
Danny's eyes flickered out, leaving behind a hazy blue that seemed dull and glassy in contrast. He drooped, jerked, and rubbed at his eyes.
Sam jumped up and crossed the room, retrieving her backpack. She unzipped the main compartment and pulled out a plastic bottle, pushing it into his hand. "Here. Gatorade. Drink it, it'll help."
He glanced at her, then raised his head just enough to peer down at the drink and pulled a face. "The yellow kind? I hate that stuff. Tastes like pickle juice and puke."
Sam gaped at him, thrown by the sudden twist of mood. "Are you serious?"
His arm fell across his eyes a second time, concealing all but a down-turned mouth. "It's gross."
She sat down next to him on the musty mattress, huffing. "Stop being a baby and drink it."
"That's a little more like Sam," he said, offering her a small smile and extending his hand.
Sam didn't smile in return; she knew very well what he was doing. Trying to soften her black mood. Playing dumb as if they could just calm down and forget what he'd hidden from them—what he'd been through, what that woman had done to him.
"Idiot," she muttered, shoving the bottle into his hands.
Danny made a movement with his bandaged hand, winced, stopped short. He stared at the bottle for a long moment, a peculiar string of emotions flickering over his face. Then he handed it back. "I'm not thirsty."
It took her a second to realize he couldn't take off the lid. Not while gripping the bottle at the same time.
"Oh Danny, I'm sorry. Here." she twisted off the cap with an ease that somehow made her ashamed, and offered it to him again.
"Pathetic," he mumbled, flushing angrily.
"You're not, Danny. Don't you dare even think that."
"What are you talking about? I can't even open a bottle! Look at me Sam!" He slammed down the drink and gestured at his bandaged right arm. "I was going write a note to my parents, but oh well, guess that's out too."
Sam worked her fingernails into the dense weave of the backpack, suddenly hot and cold at the same time. The chill of the metal floor worked its way through her tights and sent a shiver through her. "You're not… leaving, leaving, are you?"
A lump throbbed at the back of her throat. She couldn't stand the thought. But— What else could he do? Go back? To that woman, in that place? Rage bubbled up in her at the thought. No. They didn't deserve to get him back. But then what about her? What about Tucker? What about all the waiting they had done, all the searching? Didn't that mean anything? Didn't he see what this would do to them? She couldn't lose him twice.
"Sam, I just…" He made a weak gesture and sighed. The movement seemed to sap all the life out of Danny; he sat leaning into the mattress, listless, hollow. He'd already left, in a way, she realized. He'd waited for her, but that was all.
"Answer me," she snapped, fear and anger lending a tremor to her voice.
He looked away, voice thick with quiet resignation. "Yeah. I'm leaving."
Ties that Bind :: tbc…
And here we see an author make a plot choice that will result in 65 chapters and three years of fic writing. *sigh*
At least Danny isn't suffering alone anymore. Now everyone gets to suffer with him!
"Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings."
— Anaïs Nin
"I don't like this, Danny." Sam dug her nails into the old, faded spider plushy. There was a tiny rip at one seam, snarled with violet thread; she picked at it viciously.
He paused, then took a slow, deliberate sip of from the half-empty bottle. "I know. I'm going anyway." The Gatorade seemed to be helping, at least. He was sitting up, more alert, his complexion faded back in from that deathly paleness.
"Go where?" She tried not to sound as frantic as she felt.
He shrugged. "Away from here. Somewhere the ghosts aren't gonna follow and make trouble."
Her chipped nail polish caught on the thread. "You could stay with me. I could hide you in one of the spare bedrooms. You've seen the fourth floor of my place, Danny, nobody goes up there. No one else would know."
"Vlad would find me. You know he would. Either him, or the GIW, or your parents. It's the first place they'd look." Danny set aside the empty bottle and got up carefully. She watched him, ready to jump up and catch his arm if he stumbled, but he was steady on his feet as he walked across the hideout, head ducked to avoid the low ceiling of corrugated metal. He knelt next to his half-packed bag.
Sam rolled back on her heels and stared at him, as if she could melt his shoes to the floor by willpower alone. "How can you be so calm about this?”
She'd expected to find him upset, half panicking, fumbling around in his insecurities like usual. Not this. Acting with a kind of eerie, quiet deliberation. Leaving. She wanted to call it confidence, but that seemed like the wrong word. "Were you planning all this?"
"Not before." Danny pulled a flashlight off the shelf and wedged it into the backpack. "When they had me at that lab, all I could think about was getting back here to you guys. To my family. To Amity Park. I missed you, Sam." Danny paused, shoulders drooping. His face, half turned away from her, was lost in the shadows of his dark hair. "I missed all of you."
"Then why leave us?" The rip had widened into a hole. Sam glared down at the little tuft of stuffing that had come out.
She heard him sigh deeply. "I just… don't fit here. Okay? I've been trying, Sam. I can't…going home next week, and school…"
She glanced up, but Danny's focused on the bag, scowling as he yanked at the zipper, trying in vain to close it over the bulging contents. He shoved the backpack down with a growl. "It'll just get worse. I can't keep pretending that everything's normal. It's not. I'm not."
"Normal?" Sam tried to force a laugh. This was an old fear, one they'd learned to joke about: Whether he was ghost, or human, whether he and Vlad were some strange species of their own; in the end it didn't matter. "Come on Danny, un-normal is awesome. You think anybody with more than two brain cells to rub together cares about normalcy?"
He twisted to face her. "I'm not talking about popularity, Sam. I mean living. Being a functional human being."
Sam stubbornly refused to understand. He talked as if more than his hand had broken. As if he was just as damaged. She wouldn't accept that. "So...so what? What's so great about being human anyway?"
"Not getting dissected for one thing," Danny shot at her, lunging to his feet and storming to the far side of the hideout. His footsteps clanged on the metal floor, voice pitching rough and raw. "Not looking over your shoulder for government agents, not hugging your mom without your heart rate spiking, not sleeping on your back and feeling like you're strapped down in—in—"
He dragged his fingers through his messy hair and glared hard at the far wall. "Being able to look your friends in the eye and tell them the truth without feeling like it'll make you both crazy."
Sam's blood ran cold. Her imagination painted in the spaces Danny refused to fill in, vivid and awful. "That should never have happened. Human or not."
"I know it Sam, but it did. This," he gestured in disgust at his still too-skinny frame, the crippled hand, the shadowed eyes that spoke of sleepless nights. "This is all that's left of me. I can't get that time back. That me back. It's gone."
Sam threw down the plushy and sprang up. "Why didn't you tell her?" The question had eaten at her from the minute she'd put things together in the hospital room. Danny went all those weeks without telling his secret, and for what?
"What was I supposed to do? Announce it right there with the GIW listening in, waiting for a reason to put me away for good?" He shuddered. "Something like me—something as useful and unique as a human-ghost hybrid would never see daylight again."
"They couldn't do that to you. There's no way that'd be legal!"
"You think they care? With me already 'missing' and locked in a top secret lab? Would you take that chance?"
Sam glowered. Danny was right. The GIW had proven they weren't above illegal and unethical practices; there's no way they would have passed up such an opportunity. They could make Danny Fenton disappear just as easily as Danny Phantom, if not easier.
"She should have recognized you," she seethed. "She should have helped you."
"Mom did help me, though." Danny turned around and in two strides was standing face to face with Sam, eyes intense, searching. "Don't you get it? She snuck me past the GIW security. She saved me. Phantom. A ghost. A-and that's huge. Even after everything that she…" His eyes dimmed. "Well, what happened. She cared about Phantom by the end of it. I wouldn't have made it without her help."
As if that could make up for what she did. Sam glared up at him. "I can't believe you're defending her. And—and now you want to leave?! Do you have any idea what we went through?"
He stiffened, pulled back. "What you went through?"
"Yeah, Danny, in case you forgot." Sam snatched up the empty Gatorade bottle and stalked to the corner, throwing it in the trash bin. The plastic rattled in the empty wastebasket, sending hollow echoes through the metal box of a room. "You were dead, don't you get it?"
The silence from the other end of the room told her nothing.
Her voice came out low, brittle, barely controlled. "For a whole month, Danny, they were saying you were—that you'd drowned or starved and all these awful things, and we knew you weren't just lost because you could have just flown home." That frustrating teary blur returned; it streaked mascara onto her cheeks in traitorous twin tracks. "None of the trackers worked. We couldn't find you."
She turned and found him staring at her with an expression she couldn't place, something between anger and pain. Maybe she shouldn't be saying it, but he had to know what he was doing—to her, to all of them. She wouldn't let him ignore that part, no matter how much he wanted to. "Now you want to leave us? You'd put us through that all over again?"
"I guess it's a good thing you're used to it." Danny snapped, green fire sparking in his eyes.
Sam flinched. "That's cruel."
Danny glared at her—but it only lasted a moment, and then his anger faded, leaving dark hollows under his eyes. "Sorry." He shuffled over to the shelf and picked up the first aid kit that he'd left open on the floor. Shutting the lid with a snap, he crouched and shoved it back into its place on the bottom shelf.
"It'll be better like this," he said, not looking at her. "For everyone, not just me."
"That's not true."
Danny stayed crouched on the floor. His arm crept out and encircled his knees. "Did you see Mom's face when she figured it out? Dad too. They couldn't handle it."
Sam stared at his back, refusing to bend to the hurt in his voice. "You think by up and leaving again you'll fix that?"
"No! I don't know! I just—I can't do this right now. I really, really can't. Okay? Look at me right now, Sam, I—I'm—here, feel this." Danny pushed himself to his feet and grabbed her hands.
His fingers were ice cold and clammy with sweat; she could feel shivers running through his frame. For half a moment she thought his fever had come back—but then she realized what it was: fear. Just raw emotional terror. Danny, who faced monsters on a regular basis, was petrified at the idea of going home.
Sam pulled back, speechless.
He let her, dropping his eyes to the ground. Guilt pierced her at the shame that crossed his face.
"I know it's selfish, and maybe it won't fix anything—or make things worse, but… I can't be Danny Fenton right now." He laughed humorlessly, running a hand over his face. "I can't even be Phantom. I'm nobody. I'm just… messed up."
"Danny, you're not—"
"Don't lie." The hand dropped from his face, and that eerie calm was back, betrayed only by the slight tremor in his hands, the sheen of sweat on his forehead. "You don't have to like it, Sam, and I'm sorry. But I'm going." He bent to pick up the backpack, still only half-zipped.
A thrill of horror shot through her. She'd wasted the last ten minutes that she had with him arguing.
"Wait!" Sam blurted out. "I mean, not just yet."
He stopped. "They're already looking for me. I can't stay invisible all the way out of town; the sooner I get out of here, the better."
"I know, but… you don't even have a jacket!" She pointed to the bin of spare clothes. "You'll freeze at night if you don't have something. I'll find you one, so just… a few more minutes, okay?"
He sighed but nodded, sinking down on the mattress.
Sam rummaged through the box. A flush rose on her face and refused to die down. It was selfish. Completely selfish. She was, not Danny. She'd just wanted him close. As if that was more important than protecting him. At least Tucker had actually helped Danny, even though it had to be killing him to not be here right now.
Her fingers closed on the sleeve of a huge, shapeless hoodie. She snatched it up and held it out to Danny, not looking at him. " "Put this on. You need to be inconspicuous."
He eyed the faded but still distinctly orange garment. "This will help…how?"
"They'll be looking for a kid with a bad arm, not some dork in oversized clothes. Trust me."
As he took it he saw her face. Danny winced, then wiped some of the mascara off her cheek. "I do trust you, Sam. I'm sorry I—"
Sam shook her head and brushed his hand away. “Don't say it. Please.” Turning away she, rubbed off the rest of the mascara with her sleeve. She hated crying. "I have something else for you." She retrieved her backpack from beside the door plunged her hand into the bottom until her fingers closed on the thick wad of bills she'd stashed there last night.
Danny's eyes widened as she drew out the cash. "Where'd you get all that?"
Sam shrugged. "Stole it."
Danny's jaw dropped and he stared at her wide-eyed. "You—you—you're kidding, aren't you?" His head fell back against the pillows and he actually laughed a little.
Sam rolled her eyes, secretly delighted that she'd gotten through his somber mood. "Of course I'm kidding! My parents are filthy rich. Why would I rob a bank when I can rob them?"
"They'll find out. How much is that exactly?"
She shrugged. "It's from my pocket money account, so not that much. Eight hundred."
"Eight hundred dollars?! Sam, that's almost a thousand bucks! I can't take that much money."
Sam peeled off a couple of twenties and stuffed them in the hoodie's pocket, then shoved the rest of the money into Danny's backpack, squeezing it between the flashlight and the thermoses he'd already loaded into the main compartment. "Danny please, don't try to be honorable or embarrassed or whatever the heck it is you're trying to do. I'm your friend. Which is why I'm not dragging your skinny butt back to the hospital right now."
She took at deep breath, zipping the backpack shut. "You're right. You shouldn't be forced to deal with all this." At the very least she didn't want to think of him being in the same house with that woman anytime soon. "You need to be here because you want to be here, Danny. Not because you have to." Not because she wanted him to be.
His hand fell on hers; it was still cold, but the shaking had stopped. He squeezed her fingers. "Thanks."
Danny stood up and with a grunt of effort, hefted the backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He looked at her tiredly. "I guess this is it, then. Tell Tucker I'm sorry."
Sam flung her arms around Danny and hugged him. A thin arm circled her waist, returning the pressure gently. He held on for a long time, chin resting on the top of her head. Danny had grown so much taller this year, while Sam stayed at a stubborn five foot one. He and Tuck were leaving her behind.
Quickly, because her smarter half would have talked her out of it, Sam kissed him right there on the soft part of his neck. She felt him start in surprise.
Pulling away, Sam snatched up her own backpack, zipping it so fast it nearly ripped the worn purple fabric. "I'm heading back. They'll start to wonder where I am if I don't show up somewhere, and I don't want them to find this place."
It made things worse. She knew that. They'd never talked about the thing between them, though they should have ages ago. He didn't need to deal with that—whatever it was—on top of everything else right now, but… Sam couldn't stand for it to go unsaid. Not again.
She fiddled with the zipper, knees going cold on the corrugated steel floor. "I care about you, Danny. A lot." That didn't nearly cover the boiling knot of emotions in her chest.
She flinched at the exhaustion and guilt that filtered into Danny's voice. Her fault. But she couldn't be sorry. "I know, you can't. Not right now, and that's fine."
"I'll come back."
I know you will, she wanted to say, but that would be another lie.
Maddie wandered down the steps and found herself in the lab. Familiar smells surrounded her, a sharp blend of hot solder and chemicals and ectoplasm that had been her constant companion for years. She gazed up at the portal, its acid green glow hidden behind the heavy-duty doors. It had taken them two decades to perfect the design, and then five years with thousands of dollars in grants and patent earnings to build. She knew every panel, every switch and wire and circuit board that had gone into its creation.
It all seemed strange and menacing to her now.
They had never figured it out, not really. When it failed, they'd assumed it came down to a loose wire, an unturned switch, an error in sequencing. That was wrong. Danny and his accident had truly unlocked the Ghost Zone.
When Maddie had first begun her research into the paranormal field, she had studied its history. Riddled with errors and superstitions, the documents still had a pattern. When mediums or priests accessed the world beyond, it required death. Immediate and traumatic.
These ancient, arcane rituals used humans as often as animals. The act was said to bridge the gap—however briefly. To open the door between worlds. Between dimensions. The shift of energy from living brain patterns to dead, ghostly ectosignatures. There was no passage out of life without death.
She'd dismissed the idea, of course. It was brutal and archaic, and she was a scientist. She was determined to find a clean, modern, perpetual mode of access to the other dimension, with none of that mythical barbarity. She had been proud of the fact.
In reality, this portal had sprung to life under the rule of the same terrible, immutable law. Danny, her baby, had taken the brunt of that sacrifice.
Maddie back away. She stumbled into one of the many tables. A box clattered to the floor, its contents spilling across the stained concrete. They glittered in the harsh white lighting. Scalpels. Some were rusty, some stained green with age and use. Bright, scrubbed-clean silver caught Maddie's gaze.
She picked up the tool almost reverently. Feeling the familiar roughness of the grip, letting the light glint off the razor fineness of its edge. It had a surgical purity to it. It was inculpable in this state, a simple object in steel. The only threat in its potential. Maddie set it on the table, unable to take her eyes off it. Had Danny seen hers, before she started? Would he have been so drawn and afraid at the same time?
Maddie pulled off her glove and pressed her bare hand against the steel tabletop. The smooth, brushed surface of the metal felt slick and shockingly cold—so much that it raised goosebumps on her arm. She shivered. Had Danny felt this cold?
She gazed down at her own hand. It wasn't so different. Older, narrower, more feminine, with small green scars and thick calluses on the palm from years of handling weapons.
What she had found so extraordinary about Phantom's hand looked quite mundane in her own. She studied the hard, trim nails, the texture of the skin, contoured muscles delineated by the sharp lines of the tendons, veins that pulsed ever so slightly with her heartbeat.
Only that soft glow, that faint greenish tint, had differentiated his. Somehow, that had been more than enough to set aside any empathy she possessed.
She picked up the scalpel, and let it hover over her skin. Where had she'd cut him first? There? She flinched as the sharp blade nicked her, red blood welling up onto the skin. She squeezed her eyes shut, and the after-image flashed bright green against her eyelids.
A huge bang shook the house to its foundations. Maddie jumped, and the scalpel clattered out of her hands. The upstairs shuddered as someone stomped across the living room and down the stairs. Jack appeared in the doorway.
"Ja…" she trailed off when she saw his black expression. Veins stood out on his forehead, and the tendons bulged in his neck, pulsing with every breath that hissed through his clenched teeth. His brows knit together into one dark line.
Maddie flinched when he looked her way, but his eyes passed over her without pausing. With an inarticulate growl he overturned the nearest table, sending dozens of wires and circuits crashing to the floor. He turned to the next one and heaved, scattering scrap metal and screws. A jar full of ectoplasm hit the concrete and shattered. Maddie watched in silence as her husband methodically wrecked the entire lab, ruining thousands of dollars in equipment.
Jack stood in the middle of the carnage, heaving, gazing up at the portal just as she had.
His hands twitched, and she wondered if he would try to destroy it, too. He wouldn't. He couldn't. They had worked too hard and long on it. It represented a lifetime to both of them. Jack couldn't throw that away, even now that they knew.
"Jack," she said softly.
He looked at her for the first time, and her heart sank at the hurt and confusion in his eyes. Jack looked at her almost as if she was a stranger. It felt as if she'd performed her betrayal all over again.
"I don't understand, Maddie," he said. "You studied him for weeks, with all those resources. You couldn't tell?"
Maddie struggled to answer steadily. "He was a ghost, Jack. Why would I look for anything else? How could he be alive?"
"He—he looks like him. He always has."
"It could have been a trick, an imitation." Even as she said it, it sounded so absurd—so ridiculous. That a ghost, any ghost, could copy her son so perfectly. It wasn't a theory so much as the delusion of an arrogant mind... or one simply and utterly incapable of containing the horror of what the real truth implied.
"Didn't he tell you?"
"Ghosts lie." People lie. Danny lied. He'd lied to them for so long…
Sorrow bowed those broad shoulders, caving them in, buckling even Jack's strong frame. "He's always looked exactly…just like him."
"I know." Maddie stared at her feet; numb horror washed over her as she realized that her boots were splattered with ectoplasm from the broken lab equipment. She could have been standing back at the facility, fresh from cutting deeper into her sample... his hand. Her spine crawled at the idea, bile burning in her throat.
"Mads, he's our son."
Maddie dug her fingernails into her palm. "I know."
The stairs groaned under his feet as Jack walked, slow and silent, back up to the kitchen.
Maddie stood alone in the half-darkened lab with broken glass at her feet.
:: Ties that Bind :: End
I struggled a lot with Sam when I wrote that scene. To my great relief, it's not as awkward and contrived as I remembered it, though I don't think it'll ever be my favorite. This officially wraps up Part 1! Got all those pesky secrets out of the way, now it's time to dig into some trauma. *rubs hands together*
Part Two: Those that Break
Gone. The saddest word in the language. In any language.
- Mark Slouka
Maddie sat at the kitchen table. She stared down at the mug that had found its way into her hands. Somehow there was always coffee in the pot. She couldn't remember the last time she'd made any herself. She wasn't even sure she remembered how.
A chime sounded. The doorbell. Someone ought to open the door.
Jack was absent. Talking to investigators, reporters, the police. Running errands. Tinkering in the lab—or destroying it further, she didn't know. Maddie hadn't set foot in that place since Danny disappeared.
The police had been there, pushing paper into her hands, walking her through the missing person filing. Jazz had handled most of it. Maddie just signed the bottom of each page, not even seeing the text in front of her. They'd asked her questions, but all she could do was shake her head.
"I don't know," she'd said over and over, like a puppet with a pull string.
A lie. The truth, the terrible, awful thing was that she did know.
Her son was a half-ghost, a halfa. He had been ripped from the sky by a trap of her own devising. Dragged away by government agents and subjected to unspeakable experiments. Experiments she had conducted with her own hand.
Danny had every right to leave her.
She squeezed the mug tighter, watching a bit of cream on the top that hadn't yet mixed into the coffee. The swirl of white spiraled, delicately balanced. Still pure and distinct, though mingled irreversibly with the coffee. It no longer had the ability to exist as a single substance.
As the minutes stretched on the knock turned into an insistent banging that echoed through the house. Tiny waves shuddering across the surface disturbed the swirl of cream, curdling it into oblivion.
Someone really ought to get it.
Another door―upstairs, Jazz―banged open. Feet stomped down the stairs. Maddie listened to them cross the living room. The knocking stopped. Murmured, terse voices. The door shut. Silence. Jazz appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"Mom," she said. Her eyes were tired. The purple swelling around her right eye only added to the look of defeat.
Maddie looked at her in silence. Clutched her coffee. Waited.
Jazz dragged out a chair and sat, squeezing her hands together. "That was Tucker. He was at the hospital earlier, and he saw the GIW checking out Danny's room. They know there was ecto-activity there, and he thinks they could tell it was Phantom's ectosignature." She shuddered. "Tuck said that with all your…"
She stopped, swallowed, glanced at Maddie. "They know a lot about Danny's ghost half now."
Danny's ghost half. It rolled off Jazz's tongue as naturally as breathing. Her daughter had accepted it with such unquestioning ease.
Nervous fingers twisted tangles into long red hair. "I don't think they've guessed who he really is. They would have been here hours ago. But if they were at the hospital, they know there's a connection. If they find Danny and try to do a scan, he's in trouble."
Maddie looked at her hands. She'd denied it to his face. She'd nearly shot him. Why did she pull the trigger?
Jazz leaned forward, catching Maddie's downcast gaze. "You can't let them know about Danny."
"But if they knew―"
Irrelevant. Tainted. She remembered Agent L's cold gaze as he dismissed even the possibility of a truly sentient ghost. Wasn't that why she had been so determined to free "Phantom" in the first place?
"It wouldn't matter,” Jazz said, echoing her thoughts. “They'd take him anyway. You understand that, right?"
Maddie shuddered, clutching the mug tightly. That conveniently hidden facility, where no one could see what was done to the ghosts. That place where she had… she had...
The sharp word made Maddie start, sending the mug out of her hand and crashing to the floor. It shattered. Jazz drew back, a blush creeping along her cheeks. Maddie's realized her daughter was on the verge of tears.
Jazz squeezed her eyes shut. "I know this is awful. You shouldn't have found out this way. I should've…" She breathed deeply, then opened her eyes, pushing back the chair and crouching to gather up the shards of ceramic. "I need you to listen to me, okay? For Danny."
"Danny," Maddie echoed, and found herself nodding.
"It's the only way to keep him safe. They'll ask you questions, but you have to play dumb. Say that you weren't there when he left. You know nothing about it."
Maddie watched the coffee creeping across the tile. "Nothing."
Sam glared at the patch of settee visible between the two sets of white slacks. It was a particularly offensive shade of pink, like chewed bubblegum, part of the sugary-sweet decor of the downstairs sitting room. Her mother had chosen this room, of all places, to host Sam's interrogation.
An appropriate setting for torture, Sam decided. The ambient disgust that she held for it gave her stony attitude that much more power.
"Sam, sweetie," her mother said, twisting white-gloved fingers around her gilded teacup. "These men are from the government. They only want to help. You and that Fenton boy."
She hated that subtle, condescending way of removing themselves from Danny. "That Fenton boy," as if Pamela Manson hadn't heard him called by name a million times.
"I know who they are," Sam. She transferred her venomous glare from the couch to its more deserving occupants. Her hands curled into fists. "I know what they do."
The man with the buzz cut stared back at her through impenetrable black shades, unmoved. "Miss Manson, you were the last person to have contact with Daniel Fenton. We have reason to believe that he had already been compromised by an ecto-entity at that time. An ecto-entity that escaped our possession."
"Imprisonment, you mean." Same leaned forward, digging her nails into the armchair. "Your unethical, immoral, probably illegal imprisonment of a sentient being."
"Our daughter is an activist," Pamela said with a touch of pride. "Although usually it's for more… appropriate causes." Her mother sighed, setting down her teacup. "I don't know where this ghost rights craze is coming from."
The second GIW chuckled. "Your daughter has been reading too many internet conspiracy theories, ma'am," he said with a flash of yellow teeth.
This man, who had introduced himself as Mr. Dujean, didn't quite fit into his GIW uniform. There were uncomfortable little bulges at the armpits and waist, a coffee stain on his slacks and crumbs in his lap. The other GIW agent had offered no name at all, only a cold glare and a signed paper confirming the mandatory nature of this interview.
Dujean brushed cookie crumbs off his lapel and reached for a teacup. "You don't have any coffee, do you? Whoops."
Pamela stared at the blot of tea on her cashmere carpet. "I'm afraid I'd have to brew a new pot," she answered with a brittle smile. "I wouldn't want to make you gentlemen wait. This interview will be brief."
"Never mind. then," Dujean responded affably enough. "You don't need to worry about the legitimacy of the GIW, Miss Manson. We're a fully-sanctioned branch of the US government."
"Of course," Pamela said, sipping her own tea and gazing at the two agents with cool green eyes. "Our lawyers confirmed it before we let you in."
Sam tried not to gape at this unexpected parry from her mother. The Mansons weren't afraid to call in their legal team against the GIW, she was saying. The high-level branch of the government line didn't intimidate her at all.
It figured that a carpet stain would raised Pamela Manson's ire.
"We've run our own checks, as you can imagine," Dujean responded with an unpleasant, crooked smile. "We know that your family are law-abiding, responsible citizens."
"We have nothing to hide."
Sam's skin crawled; she wished she could have her mom's confidence. Too bad it was based in a false assumption. There were ectoguns under her bed, ghost files on her computer; some of Danny's blood still smudged on the handle of the industrial-grade first aid kit she kept behind her speakers. She had a lot to hide.
"I'm sure you already know, Miss Manson," he continued, taking a sip of his tea, then frowning in disappointment. "Enabling and aiding an underage runaway is a punishable offense."
The man with the buzz cut opened the folder that had been tucked under his arm. "These records show that you made a substantial withdrawal from the hospital ATM immediately after Daniel Fenton's disappearance. Do you still have that money?"
Sam's mother made a faint sound of dismay, her hand fluttering up to cover her mouth.
Sam shrugged. "Why? You looking for donations?" She crossed her arms and leaned back. "I gave it to a homeless guy. He looked like he needed a new coat."
Dujean snorted. "An eight hundred dollar coat?"
Sam returned their skeptical gazes with practiced apathy, grinding her combat boots into the plush carpet. "You heard me."
Dujean set down the teacup with a clack; he leaned forward and lacing his thick fingers. "You wouldn't want to spend your last year of high school in juvenile detention, would you?"
"Oh Sammy," Pamela murmured, but there was an angry glimmer in her eyes that gave Sam hope. Even if it was just for the Manson reputation, Mom and Dad wouldn't let the GIW bully her without a fight.
Even better, the GIW were more afraid of bad press than the Mansons were. Sam had noticed how Danny's second disappearance had barely reached the news stations, how none of the papers even touched the subject―even though the first time Danny had made national headlines. Someone had suppressed the story. The GIW were hoping they could quietly find Danny, get their ghost back, and take him away. As if she'd ever let that happen.
"You just have to answer a few questions," Dujean said. "We don't want to get you in trouble, Miss Manson. We just want the truth."
She flung back her head and bared her teeth at the men in their less-than-spotless white suits in her most dazzling smile. "Try me."
At first Danny had no particular plan except getting away. He'd slipped into the back of a truck that reeked of wet mulch and kerosene, then hopped off at the first gas station, phasing into one of the big, empty eighteen wheelers leaving the city. Now the highway roared past outside as the truck rattled its way to some unknown destination.
Danny leaned up against the front inside of the truck and rested the heavy backpack in his lap. He crossed his arms on top of it and lay his head down. Exhaustion soaked into his bones. He still felt light-headed and sick, just from a few seconds of intangibility. Sleep wouldn't come.
The truck was dark, empty and hollow. A couple of wooden pallets and heavy straps bolted to the wall swayed with every bump the truck hit.
He coughed, then stiffened at the echo that bounced back against the empty walls of the truck. He knew this space, better than the inside of his bedroom at home. That sound, weird and tinny from his own supernatural voice, but with a claustrophobic, airless intensity that could only come from four prison walls.
Danny's eyes flew open with a start. He stared at the dull gray steel of the ecto-proof ceiling above him. It was night; the lab beyond the glass walls was pitch black. The cell was lit dimly by a combination of his failing aura and the still-wet ectoplasm fading into dark green on the walls. He drew the battered stump of his arm up to his chest. The moldy citrus stink of his own ectoplasm burned his nose.
He'd been dreaming of freedom, of stars, and… highways? Danny rubbed at his aching eyes. It all seemed fuzzy now.
Something moved in the corner of his eye. He turned his head. A figure stood outside the smudged and foggy glass. Blue jumpsuit. White lab coat. Red hair.
"Mom," Danny croaked, pushing himself onto one elbow.
No. Dr. Fenton.
He flinched, half expecting to be blasted with electricity for his verbal slip, but instead the figure stepped closer. He could see her clearly now, the dark circles under her eyes, tears streaking her cheeks, her hair limp and draggled as if she'd been standing in a downpour.
"Are you okay?"
Mom just stared at him sadly. She knew, he realized with a twisting panic. Who he was, what she'd done, everything. The raw pain in her eyes struck him through the heart.
"I know I should have told you, I just…" he sighed. "I didn't want to. Everything would change." He ignored the ache of his body and climbed to his feet. "As long as only I knew it was almost like it didn't happen. You know? A nightmare I could put behind me."
He shifted under her silence; wouldn't she let him out, now that she knew? Couldn't they go home now?
"Mom? I—ow," Danny broke off at a sharp yet distant prick. It sang through his nerves, both removed and immediate; a bizarre, alien sensation. He gaped, horror squeezing at his chest. He knew that feeling. Someone had cut his missing hand.
"Mom!" Pain and fear edged into his voice. "Somebody's…"
Then Danny realized that he couldn't see her hands. She wasn't looking at him any more, though her face wore an unchanging mask of grief. She was looking down at something. A scalpel flashed.
Terror sizzled in his veins. Not again. In two strides he came face to face with her. Now he could see flickers of gloves in the shadows that swallowed up her lower half, splashes of electric green. "You have to stop. I don't know how much more I can—"
She wasn't listening. The intercom was off.
The glass flung his cries back to him. They rebounded over and over till his ears ached with his own screams. He dropped to his knees, curling around his wounded arm, squeezing it tight. That didn't lessen the pain that ripped through his senses. Danny gasped for breath around dry, shuddering sobs.
"Please just stop—please—"
The truck jolted over a pothole, knocking Danny flat.
Danny scrambled up, hand burning with phantom pains, half ready to fly away in terror—rings formed around his waist instinctively. A sudden wave of nausea sent him crashing to his knees. He groaned and yanked the transformation back, pressing his face into the steel. Reality soaked into his awareness. The hollow metal under his cheek, the rumbling engine, the hiss of other cars passing by.
Oh. The truck. The lab had been weeks ago. He was miles away from it, the GIW, and even Amity Park by now.
Danny collapsed. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing his heart to stop thudding like a jackhammer against his chest.
A dream. Or something. Had he fallen asleep? Danny didn't remember. If he had, the nightmare had robbed him of any kind of rest. Danny pressed his injured hand against his chest and shuddered.
Crawling back toward the front of the truck, he gathered up the backpack and buried his face in it. Its brown fabric still smelled faintly of Tucker, of homemade cologne and burnt circuitry; the thermoses were two comforting lumps inside. If he tried, he could imagine Sam's smell mixed in there too, a warm smell, somewhere between exotic flowers and old comic books.
After a minute he got up, resting a hand on the side of the truck to steady himself. The confines of the truck were getting to him, that was all. His hand brushed against a thick vinyl strap that hung from a bolt in the side of the truck. Danny picked it up; his thumb pressed against the ridgy fabric, testing the realness of it.
Maybe he could… His eyes wandered up to the roof of the truck. It was probably a waste of energy, definitely risky, but right now, he just wanted out.
Danny took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and found the flickering coolness of his core. Danny wrapped the strap around his waist a couple of times and knotted it. He crouched and sprang, grasping at intangibility. Phasing played tricks on gravity, letting him drift up through the roof on pure momentum.
He dropped the intangibility. Instantly his body was yanked, feet-first, toward the end of the truck. The makeshift tether yanked tight around his armpits. The truck roared and rattled beneath him. Headlights flashed in the darkness. Warm summer air blasted by. Danny lay on his stomach and tried not to retch.
The wooziness passed easier this time. The world stopped careening in circles and settled for hurtling straight along the highway at eighty miles an hour. That was just over cruising speed for a ghost; the familiar onslaught of wind in his face gave Danny a weird, bittersweet feeling. He hadn't flown in months. Probably wouldn't again for… well, a while. At best. If ever. The bitter overtook the sweet, and he rolled on his back instead.
The world swished by in a dark blur, but up above the night sky held still, calm and empty. They must have left the cities behind, because the stars were brilliantly clear. Danny picked out the easy ones: Orion, Ursa Major and Minor. His eyes wandered from the Little Dipper's tail and found the northern star, and just beyond that, Cygnus. He was heading south, then. As good a direction as any.
Mom had shown him that constellation. A raw ache cut through his chest; images of her hollow, distant face came rushing back, with hands moving in the shadows. Danny pushed the image away, shaking his head. Mom. Back then. She'd shown him Cygnus.
It was too faint to see in an urban sky. They'd driven out fifty miles and stayed up half the night. Then they slept in till eleven and made pancakes with blueberry constellations. Just him and Mom, for a whole weekend. A half smile curled his lips.
That was back when ghosts were just some abstract theory. When inventions were toys to tinker with, not death traps in the making. When things were simpler. When he was simpler. Why couldn't he dream about back then?
Danny stretched out his hands to frame the cluster of stars. His bandaged fingers, awkward and crooked, broke the circle. Sighing, he let them drop to his lap, closing his eyes and listening to the wind whistle by. He wanted to go back. He just didn't know how.
Those that Break :: tbc…
Back again, and let's get started on Part 2. This is the part where I tried to pretend I was "cutting down" chapters when in fact I was just doing two chapters worth of story in each one. They get pretty long, be warned!
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…
Checking in with our feature cast in Amity Park - plus one jock? This is Dash's final POV scene, interestingly enough. After making him the one who started this whole chain of events, I felt that he needed to at least be touched on in SoaD. Meanwhile everyone else is distinctly Not Coping with Danny's choice. Poor everyone.
Broken does not mean non-functioning, or incapacitated. It does, however, mean ready for repair.
― Shawn Boreta
It was a dream. Maddie knew that even from the beginning.
A figured walked toward her out of the dark. She didn’t need the tousled white hair or the faint glow that emanated from his skin to tell her who it was. Still, she watched avidly as he came into focus; she was hungry for the sight of him.
He was gaunt, pale, shreds of black jumpsuit hanging loosely on a wasted frame. The boyishness had been stolen from his face; there were hollows in his cheeks and lines around his mouth. His eyes were dull glints of green buried deep in the pits beneath his brow. A shackle, one of her own design, clamped cruelly tight to one ankle; a broken cable trailed behind with each limping step.
He stopped, just an arm’s length away. Maddie reached for him, then drew back, breath catching, as the image rippled and almost disappeared. He looked at her.
"Hello, Danny," she said softly.
The boy didn't speak. He never spoke. He simply held out his hand—the bruised, lacerated hand that had undergone her merciless attentions. In his palm lay a jagged shard of glass.
Maddie looked at it, biting her lip. She knew what came next.
“You don’t have to—”
She cringed as his fingers tightened around the sharp edges, slicing open cuts in the soft skin. Ectoplasm welled up, acid green, shockingly bright in the midst of the darkness. It ran in rivulets between his fingers, down his arm, dripping to the ground and pooling at his bare feet.
Maddie covered her mouth with her hands.
He held out the broken glass, now tinted green, for her to see. Maddie looked. It was a mirror. In it was the same face, but with black hair, blue eyes. Danny’s face. Her son’s. Phantom’s.
“I’m sorry,” she choked out.
He stared at her; she could feel the reproach like a knife in her gut.
“You were a ghost. You weren’t alive. What are the chances...” her voice was pleading and weak, swallowed up by the impenetrable dark. “How was I supposed to figure that out?”
He said nothing.
She reached out, fingers brushing the air in front of his unblinking eyes, then let her hands fall to her sides. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”
He couldn’t answer; this Danny was only an echo, a wisp of her psyche that made a mockery of her son. That was all. Maddie squeezed her eyes shut, plunging herself in darkness. She opened them and stared at a ceiling striped in shades of grey. Dawn had crept through the blinds, and the night was over. This was reality. Danny was gone.
Jack’s warm bulk was absent from the bed, leaving her chilled and exposed. Maddie got up, slipped on a robe over her pajamas, and padded down the upstairs hall.
She passed Jazz’s room, dark and quiet. Danny’s, which was darker and quieter still. A little dust had gathered on the handle, shrouding it from her touch.
Maddie hovered there, longing to push it open and find Danny sprawled out across the bed, usually only half undressed, where he would start awake at her good morning. He’d mutter something incoherent and throw socks at her until she retreated--unless she bribed him with coffee, in his favorite blue mug with the shuttle blueprints on it. Then she’d be allowed to enter the sanctum and maneuver her way through the obstacle course that was his cluttered floor. She’d sit beside him and ruffle his hair while he sipped the coffee and blinked grudgingly at the daylight streaming in--
Her fingers touched the knob and the cool metal came as a shock--like ectoplasm under dead, stiff skin. Maddie shuddered and pulled back.
She went downstairs.
Jazz sat at the kitchen table--or rather, the flimsy card table that was standing in until they could replace the one Jack had broken--with a book open in front of her. She looked up as Maddie came in. Beside the book sat a mug of coffee, still steaming. The blue one. Danny’s favorite.
“Good morning!” Jazz said, a little too brightly.
“Morning…” Maddie responded, her eyes fixed on the mug.
Jazz pushed it across the table to her. “Drink up. We’re going out.”
Maddie followed meekly as Jazz led the way out to her little turquoise car. She climbed into the passenger seat, resting her hands in her lap.
As Jazz put the keys in the ignition, Maddie noticed a little black and white charm on the keychain: Phantom, in miniature. His miniscule white fist was raised triumphantly, the body tapering into a squiggly black tail. One of the many useless trinkets that had sprung up with their local tourist industry. She'd scoffed more than once at the gullible public, buying into a ghost boy's heroic façade.
Knotting her fingers into fists, Maddie turned away, staring out the window.
Bluesy, wordless music wafted out of the car's speakers. They drove in silence for a few minutes, out of the neighborhoods, into downtown, toward the shopping district. In the midmorning sun, Amity Park looked like the ghost of a summer day: hot, bleached-pale, the streets nearly empty now that the kids were back in school.
Finally Jazz straightened, as if steeling herself, and turned off the music. "Mom. Can I talk?"
Maddie sighed, heavy-hearted. She'd known this was coming. After her outburst, how could it not? "I'm listening."
Jazz nodded. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "First I need to apologize."
"I need to apologize, Mom," Jazz repeated, more forcefully. "I lost my temper, and I let that turn into blaming you. You were right, I... I should have told you. Maybe I could have prevented all of this. I'm sorry."
"You couldn't have known what would happen."
Jazz's hands tightened on the wheel, then she nodded. "I know. Maybe I don’t accept it emotionally, just yet, but intellectually, I made the best decision I could with the information I had.” They rolled to a stop at a red light and watched the cross traffic streaming by. Jazz looked at her. “I'm not going to waste any more time blaming myself."
Neither should you, read the subtext loud and clear, but Maddie ignored it. That was different.
The light turned green and Jazz drove on. She took a deep breath, and nodded to herself. “That’s why I’m going.”
Maddie stiffened. “Going? Going where?”
"To college, Mom. Harvard. I called them last night, they said that my registration is still valid."
Streets flickered by faster than Maddie could catch the names. "You—you're leaving?"
"That was the plan, remember? At least up until...well, when all this happened with Danny, I assumed my academic career was put off indefinitely. I thought he'd need me." Jazz tipped back her head and pressed her lips together. "And then I thought you two did, that I had to keep all of us together for Danny." She laughed, putting on a self-mocking smile. "I, Jazz Fenton, amateur psychologist, not quite nineteen, had to save everyone from themselves. How arrogant could I be, right, Mom?”
“Jazz, honey…” If anyone could be blamed of arrogance in this situation, it was Maddie. Her supreme arrogance, that rigid confidence in her own theories, that’s what had devastated their family.
Jazz shook her head. “Don’t start, okay? I’m not telling you all this for my sake. This isn’t about me. I guess that’s the point.” Another red light. The turning signal clicked away, a sharp counterpoint to the engine’s throaty rumble. “I can't fix things between you and Danny, or even you and Dad. That's not my place. I shouldn't have thought it was. It's just…” For the first time that morning Jazz’s voice faltered. “You're my family. I love you. It’s awful seeing this… this rift that’s happened between all of us. It hurts more than anything."
Maddie reached out and squeezed Jazz’s shoulder.
A hand slipped up from the wheel and squeezed back, hard. She glanced at Maddie with a wan smile. "Dad’s not mad, you know. At least no more than he is at himself."
Maddie drew back, her hands falling into her lap. "You can't know that."
"Sure I can, Mom, I've known him my whole life. Dad, blaming you? Not wanting you around? If you weren't hating on yourself so much right now you wouldn't think twice about something so ridiculous."
A smile crept onto Maddie’s face despite herself. “Maybe you’re right. But Danny…”
“He loves you, Mom. He’ll forgive you. Just give him that chance. This isn't like last time. I’m not as smart as I like to think I am… and I might not always make the best decisions... but I know my little brother.”
Maddie had thought she’d known him, too. She was convinced that no one--not even his best friends--understood Danny like she did. She was his mom. She knew what foods he liked. She knew his favorite comic book heroes, and just how many video games he and Tucker had uploaded to the Fenton Digital Interface.
Yet it had never crossed her mind that he might be hunting ghosts. That he might be a ghost. There was this vast other part of Danny’s life that she had… overlooked? Misinterpreted? Refused to see?
“I missed orientation, but classes don't begin until Thursday." Jazz was saying. "I've dropped my course work from eighteen hours to twelve, and that leaves most weekends free.” Jazz swung expertly into a parallel parking spot and turned off the car. “I’m not going to stop looking. Danny’s still my little brother. He doesn’t get that much personal space, even if he wants it.”
As they got out, Maddie glanced around and realized they had parked on a familiar street. Shops lined this side of the avenue, and day spas the other. Right at the corner stood a brightly painted salon with big bay windows on each side, surrounded by lime green trim. Jazz took her by the hand and all but dragged her toward it. “Come on, Mom, you’ll be late for the appointment.”
Maddie's mind reeled, trying to sort through their conversation—about Jack, about Danny, about Jazz...leaving. Jazz would be gone in a matter of days. She dug in her heels and yanked her hand from Jazz's grip.
"Jazz, I don't need a haircut —" Her daughter swung around to face her, and Maddie stepped back, startled at the fierceness of her expression..
"Just--trust me, alright?" Jazz said, and there was that stubborn set to her jaw that reminded Maddie so much of Jack. "This is exactly what you need."
A bell chimed above the door as Jazz opened it. Maddie followed, smoothing her unkempt, outgrown hair self-consciously.
"Coming!" a voice sang out from the back. Becca, tiny, smiling and upbeat, with hair that changed colors more often than a street light, had cut Maddie's hair for the last five years. She hurried out from the back, electric blue curls bent as she tied a black apron on over her fuschia jeans. She stopped short when she saw the two Fentons. There was a flash of sympathy in her face, then her cheerful demeanor slid back into place and she ushered Maddie into the nearest seat. "We'll get you fixed up and feeling like yourself again."
Maddie had no choice; she sat, and let the hairdresser’s bubbly chatter wash over her. She listened as Becca good-naturedly teased Jazz about cutting off her waist-length hair, listened as the conversation turned to Harvard: Jazz was double majoring in psychology and pre-med. She still hadn’t decided which was more fascinating--the inside of a human brain, or the thoughts it produced. Harvard was offering a new course in paranormal studies, and Jazz hoped to pick it up as a minor if she found the time.
A different kind of guilt prickled at Maddie’s conscience; she’d been so caught up in Danny these past few months. Natural as that might be, she had somehow lost track of her other child. Not that Jazz ever asked for attention; she was so ready to be grown up, self-sufficient, free from the embarrassing onslaught of affection Maddie and Jack ordinarily took great pleasure in providing.
Now she was leaving, setting forth with so little fanfare that Maddie might have missed it if Jazz hadn’t told her outright. Jazz deserved better from her mother.
In less than an hour, Maddie's hair was styled, smooth and shining. Becca whisked off the plastic smock and handed her a mirror. Maddie stared at herself, but it felt more like examining a photograph than her reflection: The crisp, angled lines of the reddish-brown hair framing her cheeks created a face from the past. Before the GIW. Before she’d known the truth. She'd been so smug in her ignorance back then. So smart and confident in herself. The renaissance woman, a brilliant scientist, skilled hunter, capable mother, world-class inventor.
The eyes looked older; lined and shadowed as if it had been years instead of months. They were wiser eyes, darker ones. Eyes that knew. The mouth turned stone hard.
"See? It's just like you had it this spring."
A photo came to rest on the mirror; a recent one, still glossy. It was herself, with the same hairstyle, smiling, an arm slung around a certain blue-eyed boy. Maddie's breath caught in her throat.
The Danny in the photo stood cheek to cheek with Maddie. He was reaching around her, arms going out of frame to hold the camera. His face looked as it did before the GIW, tinged pink with health, fuller, but starting to lose its round boyishness. He looked kind, a little mischievous, and--for that moment at least--so carefree. For whatever reason, he’d turned at the moment the photo was taken to look directly at Maddie, that lopsided grin full of fondness.
Her eyes moved up to the big mirror and saw her daughter's anxious gaze reflected there. Jazz had pulled a strand of hair over her shoulder, smoothing it between her fingers.
"Thank you," she whispered.
As they stepped out onto sidewalk, a cool breeze brushed Maddie’s newly exposed neck. She turned, watching the first few leaves of fall scuttle along the concrete. For the first time in weeks she felt wide awake.
Maddie threw her arms around her daughter; there was so much tension in those slender shoulders that they felt more like planks of wood. Jazz melted into the embrace. Whatever cool determination that had driven her through the morning seemed to have run its course.
"I'm sorry, Mom." Jazz’s voice came out thick and wobbly. "So, so sorry."
Maddie squeezed her tight. "I'm going to miss you, sweetie."
Dr. Kerza was in his office, or what served as one in dismally isolated top secret government facilities. It was cold, bare except for the minimum of office furniture, and had about as much personality as the underside of a toilet bowl. He’d brought in a lamp to ease the blinding whiteness of whitewashed walls and (ridiculous to the point of satire) white furniture. Its brave little yellow bulb threw a warmer cast on the desk, which was now covered with all manner of data gathered from Subject 0013.
Sipping his coffee, Dr. Kerza leafed through another of the seemingly endless piles of baseline monitoring. Phantom’s ectosignature had spiked in response to one stimulus, plummeted in response to the next. He’d had a remarkable, perhaps utterly unique density that gave his form a stability nearly comparable to a human’s, but data gathered in Amity Park showed amply that the ghost had had no difficulties in warping that dense mass at will, creating a tail or stretching his body around projectiles.
The electromagnetic field suppressed most of that capability, and while it was appreciable as a security device, it had crippled the scope and accuracy of any research done under its influence. Kerza frowned; if they ever re-obtained the specimen he would have to suggest an extension of the facility as a control area, outside the electromagnetic field and using alternate means of containment.
Not that he had high hopes of being listened to; so far he’d succeeded in small victories; removing the camera from his office, the lamp, bringing in a cappuccino maker (but not before it was disassembled and scanned for contamination). Anything that could have significant impact had been met with stony silence.
Kerza sighed, pushing away the notes, and turned to the computer screen. The security films, such as they were, had been given to him. The security force had supposedly picked them apart and were unable to confidently determine whether Phantom had escaped just before Dr. Fenton’s departure. Most of the footage had been uninteresting… lab procedures, blood draws, a few hours during what must have been the dissection phase of the dismembered hand that was… somewhat disturbing.
At least it might have been to less jaded eyes than Kerza’s; but he had been employed in discreet holding facilities for the more mortal kind, and it took more than a blurred image of ectoplasmic gore to move him.
The video was low-res black and white, staticky and marred by electromagnetic artifacts. He clicked forward to the final tape, the few minutes before Dr. Fenton had allegedly somehow hidden or removed Phantom--unless he had, in fact, managed to disintegrate.
The existence of the hand itself was solid evidence against that happening. Dr. Fenton had removed it from the body completely, isolating it from the subject’s ectosignature and ectoplasmic mass, and it had remained intact for days.
He resumed the tape bare minutes from the end--two figures took up the middle of the space, fuzzy and indistinct, one lying prostrate, the other kneeling. The kneeler pulled back, reached for a device, pressed a button. A glitch and burst of static obscured the image; that would be the electromagnetic field reacting to a substantial change in the ecto-entity's state of being. Which could easily have been the containment mechanism... or whatever sleight of hand Dr. Fenton might have employed. The image cleared; the body on the floor dissolved into smoke and rapidly disappeared, to all appearances into the cube in Dr. Fenton's hands.
Dr. Kerza frowned, rewound, and watched the scene again.
All that electromagnetic noise rendered the video practically useless. How a supposedly state-of-the-art facility couldn't find a workaround to provide proper video surveillance was beyond him. The lack of foresight was appalling. Not surprising, given the unimpressive number of true intellectuals Dr. Kerza had encountered thus far, but still appalling.
His door flew open without warning; Dr. Kerza looked up, irritation flickering through him. Agent L stalked in, looking for all the world like a feral dog forced to walk on a leash.
“Oh, it’s you,” Kerza said, and went back to his video. He rewound, watched it again; there was something suspicious about the scene, but with the deteriorated image he wasn’t completely sure he had seen correctly.
"Do you mind?"
"Hmm? Oh, of course." Kerza flicked off the screen with his thumb and pushed his rolling chair away from it, resting his elbows on the papers that covered every square inch of his desk. "What brings you here, Agent L?"
Kerza’s eyebrows arched. “You found him?”
“No,” Agent L admitted sourly. “But we have confirmed that he was in Amity Park. There were unmistakable traces of his ectosignature. There's no doubt now; Phantom has escaped. He was in the Fenton boy’s hospital room less than twenty-four hours ago.”
“Is that so?” Kerza tried his hardest not to look smug.
“We scanned Dr. Fenton before she was permitted to leave,” Agent L said. Frustration practically radiated from the sharp, tense lines of his shoulders. “How could the entity have escaped our notice?”
“No system is infallible,” Dr. Kerza noted mildly. Especially if that system was outdated and unreasonably rigid.
The agent clasped his hands behind his back and prowled back and forth in front of Kerza's desk. "If Dr. Fenton did indeed become sympathetic to Phantom, it is possible that she secreted the ghost inside herself intentionally. But there were signs of a struggle in the hospital room; perhaps things did not go as she’d planned." He glanced at the doctor. “The Fenton boy disappeared, a possible runaway, on the same night that Phantom’s ectosignature was detected.”
Dr. Kerza steepled his fingers and frowned. “That’s quite the coincidence.”
"The Fenton boy was physically weak. If Phantom had, in some part of his escape, overshadowed Dr. Fenton, he would have been close by. Easy prey."
They were both silent for a moment in the face of this grim reality.
Agent L barked out a short laugh. "Dr. Fenton was a fool. What else could she expect, dealing with an ecto-entity? Now there is a dangerous ghost at large in possession of an underage human that serves as both cover and a hostage. What’s worse, regardless of Dr. Fenton’s role in the matter, the culpability for this fiasco falls directly on us."
"Mmm," said Kerza, turning over a page of the paper on his desk. The politics of the thing didn’t interest him. At least, not politics as Agent L seemed to understand it. The cat was already out of the bag, so to speak. If Agent L had wanted to save the GIW’s reputation, he was several months too late.
"If this ever went public, our organization would be obliterated. Villainized. We'd be seen as the creators of this fiasco, despite all our efforts to contain or eliminate the entity that made this situation so hazardous in the first place."
"Have you read this?" Kerza interrupted. "Dr. Fenton writes about degrees of sentience in ecto-entities correlating with the complexity of its ectosignature. Fascinating." He snatched up another document. "And this data on the ectoplasmic density of the test subject, it's revolutionary. There's no precedent for—"
"Put that down and pay attention!" Agent L snapped. "I am not here to listen to a peer review, I am telling you that Phantom is a direct threat to this facility and must be dealt with."
“Aren’t you listening?” Kerza responded, unruffled by the outburst. “I’m saying that Phantom is valuable. Incredibly so. I am highly motivated to regain possession of this ecto-entity. Our interests align in this case, Agent L. Fortunately for you.”
Agent L’s glare threatened to melt right through his shades. “Then perhaps you could contribute something of value.”
“I intend to. Dr. Fenton still denies any knowledge of Phantom's escape or whereabouts?"
"Fascinating." Dr. Kerza set down the papers with a decisive nod, flashing Agent L a smile. "Then I think I'll have a little chat with her."
"You have been advised that outside contact is not permitted during your period of study within our private facility."
Kerza scoffed, straightening his glasses and running a hand through his dark, curly hair. "Nonsense. Agent L, you are in the highest position of authority here, am I correct?"
"A detail you prefer to ignore, but yes," Agent L ground out between clenched teeth.
"Then _you_ set the protocol, not whatever codebook you're storing all this tedious bureaucracy in." Kerza stood up, leaning forward and putting his palms flat on the desk. "I am telling you that I will ascertain valuable information from Dr. Madeline Fenton if I am given the opportunity to speak to her in person. Information valuable not only to me, but to the interests and longevity of the GIW. You, as the top authority on these projects, would be wise to provide that opportunity."
Agent L glared at Kerza, as if searching for an opening to put the blame directly on him. Search away, Kerza thought with a slight smile. Every mistake had been made long before he'd arrived.
"I will send you the necessary forms," Agent L said stiffly, then stalked out.
"Excellent," Dr. Kerza said to the slamming door. He stared at it for a moment, lost in thought, then pushed his chair back to the computer monitor and flicked it back on. The two figures, nearly lost behind digital noise. There was a movement, indistinct, but you could almost imagine that the one kneeling was running her fingers through the prone figure's hair.
A smile played about the lips of the scientist as the scene reflected in his glasses. "Oh, I'm looking forward to this meeting. We will have so much to talk about."
Very strange to revisit this story after all this time. I've had a few people request for SoaD to be fully reposted here for better access, and I'd like to make it easier for folks to read, so here we are. Ironically FFn is down tonight, so perfect timing. -Hj
Chapter 14: Wise Enemy
Nothing is as dangerous as an ignorant friend; a wise enemy is to be preferred.
Jean de La Fontaine
Valerie pushed her bike past the elevator (broken again, for the third time this month) and hauled it, bumping and rattling, up three flights of stairs. She yanked the handlebars vindictively as she pulled it through the heavy fire door and into the hallway that led to her apartment. She was hot, sweaty, nearly stifling in her long-sleeved jacket, and it would take hours to scrub the blood out of the sleeve. Stupid stairs. Stupid bike. Stupid ghosts.
Valerie had taken the bus to work. Fifteen minutes ago she’d unpadlocked the bike from its perch on the fire escape. She didn’t quite dare to use her hoverboard to get home, though; sometimes her dad would wake up early and wait for her in the living room. He still didn’t quite trust her, even though it had been months since he’d found an ecto-weapon in her room. She hoped Mr. Masters didn’t need her for anything tonight; all she wanted was a shower, a bowl of ramen, and her bed.
Wheeling the bike down the hall one-handed, she fumbled for her keys. When she looked up, Valerie realized that she wasn’t alone: Tucker Foley stood in front of her apartment door with a fist raised to knock.
“Don't!” Valerie jumped forward and put her hand flat on the door. "My Dad's still asleep."
Tucker pulled back, startled. "Oh. Sorry."
They stared at each other. She took him in: Hands now shoved awkwardly in the pockets of his cargo pants, a yellow tank top that looked enviably cool in the sweltering hallway, a backpack on his back, full to bursting with something—surely not textbooks? Was he looking for a study partner? Funny. Last week he’d barely spoken two words to her, and that was after she’d saved him from a beating. The bruises Dash had left were fading, mottled burgundy and yellow under Tucker’s dark skin. His glasses were nowhere to be seen. Contacts, maybe?
"You look better," Valerie said at last, nodding at his no-longer-quite-so-black eye.
"You look worse," he returned. He gestured toward the raw patch on her wrist that her jacket couldn't quite hide.
"I biked to work," she lied, and resisted the urge to tuck the arm out of sight. "Wiped out."
Tucker frowned. "Is that what you're gonna tell your dad?"
She drew back, then remembered where she was and pushed past him to put the key in the lock. "How is that your business?" It jammed, like usual, but her usual patience for jimmying it escaped her.
“Here,” Tucker took her bike.
“Can’t you take a hint?” Still, it was easier with two hands; one to hold the wobbly doorknob in place, the other to jiggle the key. Finally she got them both at just the right angle and it turned.
“Thanks.” Valerie gave Tucker a terse smile and pulled her bike out of his hands. “Now leave.”
He shook his head. “We need to talk.”
She sighed, hand still on the knob. “Look Foley, if it’s schoolwork, I don’t have time for study buddies. If it’s dating, then the answer’s the same from the last two years. No.”
"What? It’s not— I wasn’t—” Tucker flushed, then scowled. “This isn’t about dating , okay? Look— I'm doing this backwards." He huffed and scratched at his cropped hair, throwing his glance somewhere down the dingy hall. "Thanks. For last week."
Valerie paused. That was a nice surprise. "You're welcome. But you could've told me at school."
"That's not why I'm here. I want to help you.” Tucker hefted the backpack higher onto his shoulders and reached to adjust his glasses. He found only empty air and frowned. “Or actually, I think we can help each other. A lot."
Something was off about Tucker. No goofy smile, and that little handheld he carried around like a security blanket was oddly absent. He stood legs apart, hands loose at his sides, head lowered, as if his subconscious was spoiling for a fight. The thing with Danny had hit him hard, Valerie realized. Harder than maybe even Manson, who wore her smoldering anger like battle gear. Still. Whatever trouble he might be in, she had enough problems of her own.
“I told you, I don’t have time—”
“I’m not talking homework either.” She didn’t like the way his gaze flicked down to her “watch” and back. As if he knew exactly what it was and what she did.
Valerie turned her back on him, yanking her keys out of the lock. “Too bad. I have that English quiz to study for."
"Is Lancer giving out extra credit for ghost hunting now?"
Valerie stiffened. "What was that?"
"That's what happened to your arm, right? You got clipped by an ectoblast." He pointed at her wound. "That's a burn, not a scrape. You have ectoplasm on you under that jacket, I bet. You can tell from the way it smells.” His nose wrinkled. “Burnt wire, but kind of limey."
She turned slowly and stared at him, letting frost trickle into her expression. Her suit hummed at the back of her awareness like a wasp. Paulina used to complain about that look; whenever Valerie felt cornered, she didn’t break down or blow up. She went predatory . Her glare had been known to wither even teachers into babbling wrecks.
Tucker— even this weirdly serious, intense version—didn’t stand a chance. He fidgeted. His shoulders dropped, and he shoved his hands back into his pockets, turning toward the stairwell. “You—You know, this was a bad idea. Sorry—shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll just… we’ll talk later. Maybe.”
Alarm bells screamed in her head. This was bad, really bad. He knew. He knew her secret. He could hold that over her head for the rest of their lives. Some weasely second-rate like Foley couldn’t do that to her .
Valerie let go of the bike.
Before it clattered to the rock-hard carpet, she’d landed a kick to the inside of Tucker’s knee, grabbed one of the arms he threw out for balance, and wrapped her other arm around his throat in an expert chokehold. The red beret went flying. He made one little squeak of surprise, which was forcibly cut off as she tightened her bicep around his airway.
“What do you know?” she hissed.
He shrugged, the only expression he was capable of making. Valerie eased up slightly. Tucker gasped, coughed, chuckled. “Shouldn’t we—do dinner—first?”
Slipping a thumb up to his neck, she found a pressure point. He stiffened. “Talk, Foley. How did you know about the burn? Did you see me?”
Tucker shook his head. “Experience,” he rasped. “Must've been pretty nasty to get through your armor."
Armor. Then he did know. Valerie’s mind blazed with possibilities. What was this, blackmail? Some absurd attempt to score a date? "You've been spying on me."
“I haven’t.” Tucker plucked at her arm uselessly. “Anyway, I’m not here about your secret identity.”
She frowned, confused by the distinction. “Then what are you after?”
A long pause. Valerie couldn’t see his face, and the head of close-cropped curly hair told her nothing. She could feel him straighten deliberately, taking a deep breath and letting it out. His fingers stilled on her arm. “You want to know about Danny Phantom, right? Well, I can tell you.”
Valerie blinked. “What does Phantom have to do with anything?”
“Everything. That’s the whole reason I’m here.”
She pushed him away. Tucker half-stumbled, catching himself on the wall. He rubbed the tender spot on his jaw and shot her a wounded look. She crossed her arms and glared at him. “How would you know about Phantom?”
“He’s my best friend,” Tucker said, searching her eyes.
Valerie’s mouth fell open. She clamped it shut. “You replaced Danny pretty quick, didn’t you? How would he feel about you getting all buddy-buddy with the same monsters his parents fight?”
“He’s not a monster,” Tucker growled. “You’re missing the point.”
“You’re right.” She moved her hands to her hips and closed the distance between them in one long stride. Tucker was taller, but not by much. It was easy to stare him down. “Phantom. Where is he? What is he up to? What happened?”
“What didn’t happen to him? Getting banished to that screwy camp. That idiot, Dash. The Creeps in White. Then..." Tucker shuddered. "His mom got to him. He wouldn’t tell us the details, but… she hurt him. He barely made it back alive."
Tucker wasn't making sense. His mom? Whose? Phantom’s? Dash had been off at that jock camp with Danny. The GIW were after Phantom. Phantom, who was a ghost. A creep with a particular knack for making her life miserable. A dead creep. "Alive?" she echoed.
Tucker grinned, as if she’d mentioned an old inside joke. "Well, as much as he usually is. Did you know there could be half ghosts, Valerie? Half ghost, half human."
"That's ridiculous.” Where was he going with this?
"What, more ridiculous than ghosts existing in the first place? Skeleton armies? Evil robots? Our town being pulled into another reality?” Tucker’s eyes went again to the watch. “How about a human with a high-tech suit that materializes out of thin air? It bonded to you, right? With all the ghost energy drenching that thing, you’re almost a hybrid yourself.”
She bristled and tried to ignore how the suit buzzed along with her anger. “I’m as human as anybody.”
“Yeah you are, that’s what I’m saying.” His arm swept out, taking her in head to toe. “You’re human. Ghost-powered, sort of, but still a person. Still you. So is he.”
“You’re telling me that Phantom’s alive. Like a human.” Not that she believed it. Maybe he’d figured out how to... to hide his ghostliness. Blend in with people. Tucker wasn’t exactly what she’d call strong-minded. If Phantom could hide his glow, walk on the ground, fake a heartbeat… it made him more dangerous than ever.
“Not like a human, half human. That’s what he is. Danny. Danny Phantom .” Tucker crossed his arms. "How many Dannys do you know? You can figure it out. Just try."
Valerie stared at him. He wasn’t saying what she thought he’d just said. Was he?
Tucker’s best friend. Danny. Or… or now, Phantom. Danny Phantom. Hybrid ghosts. Dash. GIW. Phantom had disappeared. Danny was gone. A human-ghost. Part human.
She only knew one Danny.
"You're crazy," she snapped, and found herself stepping back, her hands dropping to her sides. Tucker was even more messed up more than she’d realized. He wasn’t just upset, he was making up stuff. Deluding himself.
He shrugged and bent to grab his hat. “I’m telling you this because I know you, at least a little bit. You were Danny’s… well, his friend, and you and I dated… uh, sort of.” Dusting off the beret, he jammed it on his head and pulled it over his ears, which had tinged red. “The point is, I know you’re one of the good guys. Most of the time you do what’s right. At least what you think is right. You’re not the enemy. You’re not out to kill anybody.” Awkward, blushing Tucker dissolved right back into that odd steeliness. His eyes flashed as he caught her gaze. “You don’t wanna kill Danny. I know you don’t.”
He was doing it again—mixing up Danny and Phantom, Phantom and Danny. Killing a ghost, even though ghosts were dead. It made Valerie’s head ache.
“Tucker, listen, I… I get it.”
He glanced up sharply. “You do?”
Valerie sighed and shoved down her rising temper. “Danny’s gone, and you can’t deal. So you’re looking for…I don’t even know what. But he’s not dead, alright? He’s not Phantom. If you weren’t so messed up over it, you’d realize how insane that sounds.”
Tucker’s face bunched with irritation. “What? You’re not listening. I’m—”
“Wake up, Tucker! Danny’s gone .” The words tasted bitter in her mouth. She turned away. “Phantom’s just some ghost. Not your friend, not a person! A ghost that’s been trying to kill me.”
“No he hasn’t!” Tucker grabbed her arm—the strength of it surprised her, and she tore it out of his grip, turning. “Think about it Val, he knew who you were. He knew where you lived.” He jabbed a thumb at her door, which stood ajar with the keys in the lock, a slice of faded living room exposed through the crack. “If he really had a grudge, you’d be dead. And you’re not.”
She strode across the hall and yanked the door shut. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
Phantom did know. He’d found her there, twice. And she, like an idiot, hadn’t ghost-proofed it. Why hadn’t he come after her?
Tucker seemed to read her thoughts. “Because he is Danny. He never matched your shots, though he totally could have. Not once. Even when you were gunning for him for real. He’s got scars to prove it.”
Valerie pulled back, stung. She’d always made sure that Danny wasn’t around when she fought ghosts, especially Phantom. That was the reason she’d distanced herself after their almost-relationship—the entire reason—to protect him. “You think I’d let Danny get hurt? That’s ridiculous. I’m not some—”
“Some ghost hunter with a grudge?” Tucker’s voice dropped low and angry. He rapped his knuckles on his side, to the left, on the ribcage. “Because that’d do it.”
Valerie paled. Her one clean hit—frustratingly, after over a year of hunting Phantom—had been exactly there on Phantom. Ribcage. Left side. She remembered it vividly. The gaudy spray of green. Her triumph. His sudden panic. He’d gone missing for a week after that—a blissful week that had only been marred by the fact that Danny was… out sick…
The flu. He’d had the flu. Right?
Tucker’s gaze wouldn’t let her escape. “It’s not like Danny wore a tank top at the pool because he’s shy . You know?”
She shook her head. That was wrong. Completely wrong. Phantom was just a ghost—her enemy—he wasn’t… She’d never hurt Danny. It couldn’t be… because... Mr. Masters. Relief washed over her. Of course, he would have known about this. Mr. Masters was a friend of the Fentons, and he had the best ghost tech money could buy. Something that big wouldn’t have slipped past him.
“If Danny was…” Valerie squeezed her hands into fists. No. Danny was not Phantom. “If he was mixed up with some ghost, I would have known about it.”
“From who, Vlad?” Tucker scoffed. “Valerie, come on. He’s one of the bad guys.”
She stiffened. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Tucker leaned against the wall and scowled up at the ceiling light. One bulb was out; the other cast its wan, green-white rays on them like a begrudging moon. “I thought you of all people would see right through him. Remember the A-listers? All those so-called friends? They were awesome to you back then, right? Then the second you had no money, they dropped you.”
“I remember, thanks,” she spat. She planted her hands on her hips. “This is different.”
“Whatever. Vlad wants something from you, so he strings you along with shiny death toys.”
“I had nothing , Tucker. A certain ghost boy trashed everything I had!” A ghost boy who was not Danny, not— her Danny. “Mr. Masters didn’t have any reason to help me.”
“You hold back the small ghosts. You attack Danny, and he can’t just blast you to bits like he would a ghost.” Tucker smiled bitterly. “Of course Vlad’s right behind you, laughing all the way.”
Valerie stepped closer and lowered her voice to a hiss. “ Mr. Masters is a philanthropist, my benefactor, a good man, and you do not get to talk about him like that.”
He glanced pointedly at her burned arm. “Oh sure, he’s got your best interests at heart.”
She ignored the sting of the burn and raised that arm into a fist. “Leave. Now.” She didn’t have to listen to some loser who’d lost it. He wanted to make up delusions about Danny? Fine. As long as Foley left her—and Mr. Masters—out.
Tucker shrugged. “You’re not stupid, Valerie. And like I said, I think you’re one of the good guys— if you wanna be.” He shoved his hands back in his pockets and strolled down the hall. Tucker paused at the stairs and glanced back, worry flickering on his face. “Call me next time it gets bad, okay? I may not have a super cool high-tech suit, but I know how ghosts work. I can help. I have tech that you don’t.”
She let just a glimmer of glowing red armor flicker across her shoulders. “Wanna bet?”
Tucker grinned unexpectedly. He touched his beret in a mock farewell, then swung the heavy stairwell door wide. His voice echoed back to her as he went down the steps. “Where do you think that handy little portal cannon came from?”
Valerie glowered. She’d been asking herself that all summer. He had given it to her? As if.
Locking the door, Valerie flung her bag onto the sink. She couldn’t count the times she’d thanked her dad for giving her the room with the bathroom attached. It was great for washing out her thick, curly, waist-length hair, and put her self-surgeries behind two locked doors instead of one. Her mind buzzed with Tucker's words. It was all so ridiculous. Vlad Masters, the worldwide philanthropist and billionaire, her personal benefactor, evil? Danny as some—some hybrid ghost thing—and on top of that, secretly Phantom? Tucker had lost it.
Valerie clenched her teeth and peeled off the jacket. The inside of the sleeve was crusted with blood, a mirror image of the shallow but nasty burn streaking up her outer arm. It could have been a lot worse. Her armor— armor given to her by Mr. Masters, originally— had protected her. Thanks to him, she still had an arm to bandage.
Phantom had deliberately and methodically blown that armor to pieces. She hadn’t been in it, but if she had… It was a vicious act. Cold-blooded. Inhuman.
Cool water splashed over the wound. Valerie gripped the sink and tried to ignore the molten pain that raced right up to her shoulder. The citrus ozone smell of ectoplasm lingered. Tucker’s words came back to her. Experience. How had he known? Was he hurt by a ghost? He did always seem to be around during ghost fights for some reason. Had he been hanging out with Phantom? Maybe even helping?
Valerie’s lip curled in disgust and she flung her jacket into a far corner of the room. Phantom, human? Danny?
That was insane. A really mean joke.
“Not funny, Foley,” she snarled at her reflection. A bruise she hadn’t noticed on her chin glared back. Makeup wouldn’t hide that from Dad. Damnit.
Still. Some part of her brain snagged on the bits of truth Tucker had squeezed into his crazy story. The coincidences. It was kind of… weird. Weird enough to keep bugging her as she pulled out the first aid kit and set out her supplies on the edge of the bathtub.
Danny had disappeared at camp. Phantom had vanished not a week before that. Danny had been hospitalized, and her radars had picked up scattered, frustrating hints of Phantom, too faint to trace. Now both were gone. Maybe they were connected, somehow...
A thought stopped her cold.
Had Phantom kidnapped Danny? It could have happened, easily. Not once, but twice. At camp, and then from the hospital. Valerie pictured Danny, thin and wan like he’d looked on camera staring up wide-eyed as Phantom descended from the ceiling…
No. That didn’t work. If Phantom had been flying around Amity Park, Valerie would have known instantly. She’d been patrolling almost nonstop before school started up, and had made a point of doing wide sweeps past the hospital— especially after that rumored ghost incident that had caused an explosion on the hospital roof. Phantom wasn’t there. Not at the hospital, anyway.
Besides, Tucker had talked like the ghost had been taken, forcibly. Danny and Phantom kidnapped? At the same time? By who?
Valerie growled and grabbed a tube of burn cream; she was wasting her time even thinking about it. She dabbed the cream on the wound and bit her lip to keep from moaning. It stung worse than the burn itself, but she couldn’t afford to add to her collection of noticeable scars. Dad was already suspicious. She’d barely convinced him that the new suit was some copy-cat ghost hunter.
The GIW were ghost hunters, government-sanctioned ones. If they had taken Phantom, that would make sense. That’s what they did. If anyone could make him disappear for months, it would be them. Tucker could be right about that, at least. But they had no reason to touch Danny. Danny’s mom had been working for some part of the government, apparently. There had been a big scandal over the secrecy statutes that had kept her away while Danny was missing.
Valerie shuddered; she couldn’t imagine what her dad would do if his company ever tried to pull something like that on him. Actually, no, she could. A wry smile crossed her face. Dad believed in taking matters into his own hands.
Pulling out a roll of gauze, she wound it lightly from wrist to elbow. It would have to come off in the morning or else her dad would see it, but for now it would protect the skin and she wouldn’t have to worry about all that expensive cream rubbing off on her sheets.
Tucker had said something else, hadn’t he? That Phantom’s mom had hurt him. Valerie slowed, right hand extended with the roll of gauze, left arm sitting in her lap. If Tucker thought Phantom was Danny, then had he meant Mrs. Fenton? That was impossible, right? Because Mrs. Fenton had been off on that top secret government thing while Danny was gone.
Top secret, like something the GIW might do. While Danny was… while Phantom…
Valerie shook her head sharply, twisting off the gauze and tucking it under. Those were stupid, crazy thoughts. Stupid, crazy Tucker. She needed sleep. She’d skip the English homework and try to study it on the bus tomorrow. When she got up, everything would start making sense again.
Valerie had slipped into an old t-shirt and sweats and was about to crawl into bed when the suit beeped in her ear. Vlad Masters.
He’s one of the bad guys.
Tucker didn’t know what he was talking about; she owed this man the world.
Valerie tossed back her hair and flicked the vidscreen open on her wrist. Vlad Master’s refined, silver-haired visage appeared in a flicker of red static. “Good evening, Mr. Masters,” Valerie said, giving him a genuine smile. “What can I do for you?”
"Valerie, my dear, I have something special in store." He smiled over steepled fingers. "Phantom.”
The familiar name prickled at her brain. Coincidence. It had to be. “You know where he is?”
Something like irritation crossed the man’s features, like ripples on a dark pond. “As of yet, no. Still, with your talent searching on the ground and my considerable resources, we will corner Phantom. It's time this game ends, for the good of everyone.”
Valerie cracked her knuckles and grinned. “I’ve wanted to grind that scum into ecto-particles since day one, sir. It’ll be my pleasure.” If he knew anything, anything at all about Danny— the real Danny— she would get it out of him. One way or another.
“No!” Mr. Master’s hands slammed flat on the desk, his face pushing toward the camera as he stood up. “I want him alive —”
He caught himself and settled back in his seat, straightening his blazer with a smile as smooth as tar. “Ah, I mean intact , of course. Phantom is a valuable asset. My laboratories could learn much as part of our development of ghost defenses.”
Alive. Tucker had said Phantom was alive . Part human.
“Bring him to me. Core intact. That is my only concern. As for his condition...well.” His smile turned sharp and feral, and for the first time she saw the look as sinister. “You have your methods, my dear. Use them.”
“When?” she asked automatically as her mind spun. Coincidence. Again? How many coincidences could she pile together before she had to see them as something else? If Tucker was right about Phantom, that he was some kind of… of hybrid … what about the rest? What about Danny?
“As soon as possible. Tonight, if you can manage. He's fled Amity Park, quite likely to get away from you , my dear. Who knows what destruction he could cause in the world at large."
Fled. Danny had gone, run away. Why? The rumors of a ghost attack on the hospital... what if they were true? Valerie's arm burned. She imagined Danny, some fanged spook prowling toward him, his blue eyes wide— suddenly green?
The image shook something embedded in Valerie’s memory, rattling it loose, like gears clattering into motion on a rusted machine.
In two strides Valerie was in front of wanted poster for Phantom. She ripped the paper off her wall and studied it. It was old, from the mayor incident that so much of Amity Park had conveniently forgotten, but also one of the rare unblurred photos of Phantom. Ghost faces always looked weird, distorted. They were lit by their own auras, and shadows never lay properly on their faces. Behind that shadowless oddness... Valerie felt the blood drain from her face. It was younger, but it was him .
Vlad, half-forgotten on her wristwatch, coughed politely.
It took all of her willpower to keep her expression neutral. "Mr. Masters, I… I don't know if I can help you this time."
Anger ghosted across his face and vanished. "Why Valerie, that sounded almost ungrateful ."
"I'm sorry, I just…” she found herself playing with her hair and biting her lip, a stupid trick that she’d used on the gullible assistant teachers— it made her look vulnerable, played on people’s pity. “My grades are slipping already, I have a double shift coming up, Dad's been so tired from work lately... and the ghost attacks here are getting bad."
She faked a huge sigh, tangling her finger hopelessly in a stray curl. "I just can't do anything that will take me so far from home."
"I suppose that's... reasonable. Of course I have alternatives. I just wanted to give you this opportunity; I know how much it would mean to you to bring Phantom down."
Valerie tried not to wince. "I appreciate that, sir."
The instant Mr. Master’s face disappeared, Valerie jumped across the room and scrambled through her desk. It took her ages, but finally she found that little scrap of paper where she’d scribbled down Tucker and Sam’s numbers, way back when they were just the overprotective friends of the guy she kind of liked. Valerie wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream at the irony of those dates— those fights—that big, awful mess that she’d made of everything.
Danny was an idiot. A complete idiot. When she saw him again, she’d… she’d…
Valerie dropped onto the bed and hugged her knees to her chest. If she saw him again. She couldn’t think about that now… not while she still didn’t even know what to think. She needed answers.
Biting her lip, she punched in the number.
Tucker picked up on the second ring. “Your rooftop, or mine?”
Danny crouched behind a rusted engine block, waiting for dusk. They never attacked before sundown, not out here. Ectoplasm burned faster in the daylight. He was outside some nowhere town— Kreugerville, the green sign off the interstate had read. No billboards, no signs welcoming visitors. Just a name and a population count. Just a place, among many. Just another stop as he went... somewhere.
A deserted warehouse overshadowed the empty space, its rows of windows smashed out like jagged eye sockets. The lot was strewn with rubble. Tall scrubby grass jutted up between chunks of pavement. It was a good place for rats and snakes and insects. It was a good place to hide. Danny crept over to a chunk of concrete the size of a car, crowned with the rusted teeth of rebars. He put his backpack on the ground between his knees. With the daylight draining out of the sky, his body was already humming with adrenaline.
That was good, because his ghost half was still out of commission. He had to do things the old-fashioned way. Danny had bought a brace at a drugstore a few days back to protect his hand; the cool, hard cylinder of the lipstick laser pressed between the fabric and his palm, ready to activate with a touch of his fingers. His other hand curled around a thermos, and there was an ectoblaster stuffed into the waistband of his jeans.
Danny waited, watching. Vapor drifted from his lips despite the late summer heat. Something green and red flickered through the rubble. It moved like an animal, trotting nose to ground. He saw the tail first, raised high and vitriolic green, brighter than the twilight should allow. Three more followed. Danny tensed; that was a lot, and he couldn’t afford to let even one escape. He hoped his hasty preparations from an hour before would pay off.
Danny pushed the backpack under a bush. It would slow him down too much. He clipped the thermos to his belt loop and settled the ectogun in his hand. He took a deep breath. Activated it. It powered up with a shrill whine.
Three wolfish heads came up. Their ears perked. They turned as one and moved toward him, snarling deep in their throats. Focused now. Deliberate. Hungry.
Danny caught sight of thick black leather collars around their necks: They had DALVCORP printed into the leather. Figures.
He took careful aim between the eyes of the leader and fired.
The thing yipped and fell back, ectoplasm spraying everywhere. It staggered and shook its head; a ragged wound directly through the brainpan. The wound slowly filled with oozing green matter as it growled and regained its footing. The other ghosts howled and leapt ahead. Danny fired off two quick shots, scattering them, and then dropped the gun and grabbed the thermos, zapping the first wolf-dog with its capturing beam. One.
It took eight seconds to fully capture a ghost in the thermos. Those eight seconds cost him.
Another wolf slammed into his right shoulder, sending him sprawling. Saliva splashed into Danny’s hair, slavering fangs biting at him. He blocked instinctively, then cried out at the pressure on his injured arm. Gritting his teeth, Danny threw the ghost wolf off of him. Aimed. Fired. Two down.
He rolled back toward his former hiding place, clipping the thermos to the nearest belt loop and sweeping up the abandoned ectogun. He fired, leaving a gaping hole in the last ghost’s shoulder. It howled and kept coming. Danny shot one more blast—hitting the chest, glancing off its core, disorienting it momentarily—then turned and ran flat out into the warehouse.
He phased directly through the door, staggering from the sudden drain. He forced himself to keep running, dodging in and out between mottled girders and mounds of ancient equipment. He glanced back and saw the ghost hard on his heels.
His foot caught in a crack in the pavement. Danny crashed, hands outstretched, skinning his left forearm, his knees, his cheek—fangs closed around his ankle and pain flashed up his leg—he screamed—it echoed through the vast empty space and bounced off the corrugated steel walls. The thing clamped its jaws and started dragging him away.
Realization sank in: They weren’t here to kill him, they wanted to capture him. He must definitely, absolutely, make sure none of them got away.
He twisted around—ignoring the frightening tearing sound that came from his leg—and squeezed his fingers on the lipstick laser. The blast was tiny but effective, striking the ghost square in the eye. It yelped, losing its grip. Danny drew his legs back, swung the thermos up without unclipping it, and slammed the trigger. The wolf disappeared in an arc of white light. Three.
Danny rolled to his feet. He limped to the crude X he'd drawn in charcoal on the floor, lit by the last rays spilling in through the broken windows. Cables and chains snaked down from the dark ceiling and coiled in tangled masses on the floor. He stopped. He glanced over his shoulder; goosebumps ran up his arms as a growl came from ahead of him instead. He whipped his head back and saw it, waiting for him. It crouched in the jagged wreck of some long-defunct conveyer, red eyes like coals, green hackles prickling along its spine. It was snarling, yellow fangs glistening in the light of its own aura.
"You seem smarter than the rest," Danny said, looking up at the creature crouched on the machine. "You're the real leader."
The thing glared at him. It didn't look as wolfish as the other three had. It crouched on two feet rather than four, its legs and arms strangely elongated. Its mouth was broader, flatter, more... manlike. Danny shuddered. How far did Vlad's experiments go?
He tried to sound less freaked out and more intimidating. "How did you find me? What do you want?" The warehouse swallowed his bravado in echoes.
"The Masterrr," it snarled, words ripped out of vocal chords not meant for human speech, "sendss a messsage."
"You mean Vlad?" Master. Vlad Masters. It made sense, in an unbelievably egocentric and creepy way.
"Prrotection," it said. "Master will keep you sssafe."
"Sure, safe in the hands of a lunatic." Danny glanced left, right; nothing but empty warehouse stretched away on either side. No hiding spaces. "I'll take my chances out here, thank you."
"You can't rrun foreverr, boy," it snapped. He couldn't tell whether that was part of Vlad's message or from the beast itself.
He resisted the urge to step back. "Won't your ‘master’ be cheesed if you rip me to shreds?"
A cunning gleam came into the thing's eyes. "Masterr ssaid... alive. That'sss all."
It sprang, jaws wide and snarling. Danny snatched at a cable that hung from the ceiling and yanked. Nothing.
"Damn," Danny muttered.
It collided with his chest, knocking the wind clean out of him. One long-fingered paw gripped viciously at Danny's right hand, claws driving through the protective brace. Fire knifed up his arm and burrowed into his shoulder. A half-strangled scream tore out of Danny's throat. He threw all his weight into the cable. White rings descended out of the rafters from the thermos he'd rigged there just half an hour before and swallowed them both. Danny felt the pull—the buzz and twist of the ectoplasmic traces in his body—but his human half was too solid for the thermos to compress. The wolf-thing howled and scrabbled at him, but it was sucked off into the thermos, its claws melting into vapor even as it slashed at his face.
The thermos shut off. Danny coughed, gasped, rolled onto his side, trying to get air back into his lungs. Sawdust, dirt and grime coated the side of his face as he pressed it against the floor.
He laughed, a cracked sound that was half nerves, half triumph. He'd done it. Caught all of them, alone, as a human. Boy did he owe Tuck and Sam a lot of 'thank you's. Fighting ghosts as a human wasn't just hard, it was nearly impossible.
Danny picked himself up, dusting as much grime as he could off his jeans, and tested the leg the dog had bitten. It was painful, but held. He carefully retraced his steps to find his backpack. Tomorrow night, he ought to be another hundred miles from this place, just in case. Sam’s money hadn’t run out, not yet, but he’d gotten strange looks from people, especially in smaller towns and on the road. In the cities he blended in more, but crowds made it hard to fend off ghosts.
Pretty soon he wouldn’t have to worry.
There weren’t many who would venture this far from Amity Park, not without Vlad forcing them. Fully realized ghosts needed ectoplasm to maintain their forms, unless they were like Spectra and could leech energy from humans. If there wasn't a stable portal nearby, ghosts ran out of ectoplasm in a matter of days; they’d lose their corporeality and fade.
That left only shades, a ghostly echo. Those didn't bother Danny. They had no voices, and most people couldn't even see them. If he could get a little bit further away, even those would thin out. He’d be out of range for most ghosts unless a natural portal opened nearby.
As long as those ghosts were in a thermos, they couldn't report back to Vlad. As long as he didn't run out of space, the strategy would work. As long as he kept being incredibly, stupidly lucky, he’d be just fine.
As Danny limped out of the abandoned lot, thick grey clouds rolled in, blotting out the sky. The remaining daylight faded. Danny realized he was lost. He'd tried to go back toward the highway, but ended up in a rambling series of fields and two-lane roads, with houses loosely scattered in between. Those houses were getting closer together, which meant more street lights, but also the risk of being seen... and there was no way a bedraggled, sawdust-covered teenager with a bloody leg wouldn't arouse suspicion.
Danny was too tired to care. His right arm throbbed from the wolf-thing's grip, which had left four ugly blue-black bruises in the already sensitive flesh. It had irritated something in the nerves, because every few minutes the fingers would tighten of their own accord, bringing on a flash of pain.
Something growled close by. Danny jumped, swinging his arm up defensively, and squinted against the dusk. It was a big, black dog whose dark coat almost vanished into the twilight. It barked at him, tail up, eyes alert.
Danny backed away. The dog was big, and the way he felt right now, it wouldn't need supernatural attributes to do him serious damage. "Easy big guy," he said softly, raising his empty hands. "I'm just passing..."
His heel caught on something and the wounded leg buckled. The world took a spin. Grassy turf hit him squarely in the back. Danny blinked up at the clouds stupidly. Oh. He'd fallen. Again.
Tucker would be making some crack about the world's klutziest hero just about now. He'd come back with how he was dead on his feet, and Sam would smack both of them. He waited, a self-deprecating smile already drifting onto his lips.
His fingers spasmed, sending a hot knife of pain up his arm and clearing the fog from his brain. Right. He was nowhere near Tucker, or Sam. He'd left them behind.
Something damp and whiskery snuffled at his face, bringing Danny back to the present. He held very still, staring up at the large black dog as it thoroughly sniffed his face. It woofed softly, then licked him and sat on its haunches.
Danny sat up. "Thanks for not biting me."
It thumped its tail.
Danny sat, head spinning, wondering if it was worth it to try standing, or if he should just curl up there and go to sleep. He was exhausted—worst than exhausted. Drained.
Something hissed off in the distance. At first he thought it was a passing car, but then cool flecks of moisture sprinkled his face. The rain that had been threatening all day began to fall. Rain thudded on his shoulders, well on its way to being a complete downpour.
"Thanks," he said to the sky. "That's exactly what I needed to top this day off." Danny climbed to his feet and pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt. He'd have to find some kind of shelter, at least until the rain passed and he could get back to the highway. The dog licked his hand, woofed, then turned and trotted off confidently.
He shrugged and followed. Why not? At least he wouldn’t be completely alone.
In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life — It goes on
- Robert Frost
Maddie woke early. There were dreams, but she put them behind her.
She went downstairs and found Jack making coffee in the kitchen, dropping tablespoons of fresh grounds into the filter and pouring cold water in the back, nearly automated himself. There was a thick, messy folder sitting next to the coffee maker, crammed with documents and contact lists, DANNY scrawled in all caps across the cover. She put her arms around his waist.
Jack sighed; he turned, arms enveloping her, and squeezed her tight. For a long moment, they just held each other. Maddie leaned into his warmth and his smell; this was fresh, morning Jack, unseasoned by sweat, food, or machinery: The slightly-burned plastic odor that lingered on his jumpsuit, dish soap, fresh coffee grounds, a lingering echo of Listerine and aftershave.
He kissed her on the crown of the head, then left without a word.
Maddie pulled off her hazmat gloves and dug a pair of yellow rubber ones from under the sink. Dust had accumulated everywhere. She started in her bedroom, changing the the sheets and pulling discarded jumpsuits from various corners of the room. She pulled back the curtains and threw open the window. The air was crisp and pleasantly cool from from the rain that had passed through overnight.
On her way down the hall, Maddie noticed Jazz’s door half open. Boxes stacked in orderly arrangements of "stay" and "go" cluttered the otherwise-bare floor. Jazz was a softly-snoring lump under the covers. Maddie pulled the door to and went on.
Danny's room. She turned the knob, pushed it open. A faint stench of sweat and mold permeated the darkness within. Maddie took a deep breath and flicked on the switch.
They'd had a standing agreement, that Danny would keep his mess limited to his room as long as his parents promised never to set foot over the threshold. On most days it had at least stayed at a less-than-toxic level. The day that Danny left for camp hadn't been one of those days. There were clothes strewn all over the unmade bed from his last-minute packing efforts, and an unsavory odor wafted up from the hamper in the corner. Unreturned library books were piled on Danny's desk, and last year's homework still stuck out of the wastebasket.
Maddie pressed her lips together and nodded. They couldn't keep pretending he’d be right back; that nothing had changed. She propped the door open wide and got to work.
Dragging the hamper into the hall, she dumped its contents into the laundry chute, then left it to air out. The clothes on the bed got the sniff test, and were then relegated to the chute or Danny's drawers, which she discovered had as much Fenton gear as clothing. Something that might have surprised her a few weeks ago. Something she expected now.
"Mom?" Jazz appeared, hair falling over one shoulder in a tangled red mop. Bearburt dangled from one hand. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Yes," Maddie said, far more firmly than she felt. "Danny is not coming home to moldy clothes and a room that smells like a dumpster. If this laundry festers here any longer, it’ll start absorbing ambient ectoplasm and animate.”
"I guess you're right. Just don't mess with his models." She shuffled down the hall and vanished into the bathroom.
Maddie took the trash downstairs and dumped it. That alone vastly improved the smell. She brought the vacuum up, stripped the bed, remade it. As she tucked in the sheet she noticed a shoebox, shoved into the morass of junk under Danny’s bed. A smear of— something on the cardboard lid caught her eye. Maddie pushed aside a skateboard, grabbed the box and pulled it out. The smudge was definitely a handprint, blurred as if someone had torn off the lid in a hurry, a muddy blend of dark green and brownish red. Maddie stiffened: blood. Ectoplasm and blood.
She pulled off the lid, heart in her throat.
Neatly stacked rolls of gauze. Antiseptic. Joint wraps. A spool of plain black thread with a needle jabbed through it. Maddie stared at it, her mind blank. Was he repairing his own clothes? If he'd torn a shirt and tried to stitch it up with black thread she would have seen it. So what on earth...
Danny was Phantom. Phantom, whom she had hunted. Phantom, who had fought ghosts every day of his existence. Her Danny, with the far too human physiology that she had studied. Humans weren't just masses of loosely associated matter sustained by a central core. Unlike ghosts, they couldn't close up wounds as if nothing had happened.
"You're cleaning his room?" Maddie jumped and turned to find Tucker standing in the doorway. He crossed his arms and glared at her. "Doesn't that violate parent/teenager code?"
She settled the lid back on the box. "I've done worse."
He shrugged. "I can't argue with that."
"Why are you here, Tucker?"
"I wanna talk." His hostile bluntness, like the ectoweapons in Danny's drawers, might once have surprised her. It seemed natural now.
Maddie set the box aside and stood up, dusting off her knees. "Let's go downstairs."
Tucker stalked after her into the kitchen; his backpack hit the table with a decisive thunk. Maddie shifted uncomfortably under the teen’s hard stare. Tucker was angry. He was Danny’s best friend. She poured two cups of coffee and pushed one across the table as a wordless peace offering.
He pulled out a chair and plunked himself down, putting his hands on the table and leaning in. “Here’s the deal. I need something, so I'll give you something. I’ll tell you what you want to know about Danny--all the stuff he was hiding from you. You give me your security badge and access codes from that place. Even trade.”
She blinked, puzzled. “What are you going to do?”
“What do you think? Undo some of the damage you caused.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m not leaving all that data on my best friend’s weaknesses in the hands of those psychos.”
“The codes are surely defunct by now.”
He took a gulp of the coffee she’d served. “It doesn’t matter. I just need samples.”
Tucker, hacking government technology. It made about as much sense as anything else that had happened. Maddie sat down. “Okay.”
Tucker looked taken aback, as if he’d expected more resistance. He leaned back and drummed his knuckles on the tabletop. “So, uh… what do you want to know?”
Maddie stared down at her coffee; she couldn't get her mind off the box that she had left upstairs. "Tucker, was Danny stitching wounds ?"
"That was me, mostly, or Jazz if I wasn't around. We only had to do it once or twice. Ghost skin heals over really well, you know, so as long as he could hang out as Phantom for a while he'd be fine. He only has a couple really gnarly scars."
Maddie shuddered. She hadn’t noticed.
Tucker shifted in his chair, dropping an elbow onto the table. “So, uh…what parts do you know?”
“I know Danny is,” Maddie swallowed hard. It somehow made it that much more real to say it out loud. “Danny is a halfa, a half ghost. I thought that meant a combination of non-living human tissue and ectoplasm. Not…”
“Not Danny. Yeah, I get it. I guess half-dead isn’t very scientific, is it?”
She shook her head. That was an absurd simplification of the confusion she’d blundered through. A halfa shouldn’t be able to exist, let alone spend half the time as a living, breathing… her living, breathing son. “How did it happen?”
“The portal.” A hand darted up to scratch beside his ear. “Back then your tech didn’t actually, uh, work. Sam was all into ghosts then, so we showed her.”
That stirred something in her memory. “Phantom—that is, Danny, he said he’d turned it on from inside ?” When Tucker nodded, she felt the blood drain from her face. A priming charge had been programmed to pulse before the portal activated, a flash of unbelievably high energy to purge contaminants that might interfere with its delicate subatomic manipulation. A human caught in that blast? With only a flimsy hazmat suit, a few pounds of bone and flesh and hair? “It would have been instantly fatal.”
“Maybe it was,” Tucker shrugged, apparently oblivious to the horror of what he was saying. “Maybe it killed him and brought him back at the same time. We never really figured out the science of it. The only one who might know for sure is Vlad, and no way are we gonna sit down and have a nice chat with him .”
“Vlad Masters?” Any interest Vlad had expressed in ghosts abruptly disappeared after he’d developed ecto-acne. Who could blame him? It had been directly caused by the accident… with the...proto-portal... A big, smirking piece of the puzzle settled into place. “You mean Vlad is—really?”
“A nasty one. You know how he got filthy rich? Overshadowing people to get what he wants. He’s been after Danny for a while now.”
Maddie tensed. “Why would he want Danny?”
“Couldn’t buy him. He’s got some weird fixation on turning Danny evil, or something. Well, that and his obsession with…”
“Well, uh…” Tucker fidgeted. “With you, Mrs. Fenton. Creeptastic, huh?”
The obsession, she’d known. That it was ghostly… Vlad, a ghost… “How could I not see it?”
He slouched, rolling the coffee mug between his hands, not looking at her. “No offense, Mrs. F, but you and your husband aren’t the most observant people around.”
The rebuke stung twofold. As a parent and as a scientist, the oversights had been inexcusable. She’d had no right to be so blind. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“Danny got into this mess because he didn’t know when to quit lying." Tucker scowled at the table. "He didn’t tell you who he was even after all that—and that’s messed up, man. It wasn’t that important. Not more important than him.”
Maddie rummaged in her purse and pulled out a pad and her security badge. She scribbled a series of numbers on the paper, then pushed it across the table to Tucker with the badge. “That’s all I have.”
He picked it up, eyes devouring the numbers; she could see the calculations already whirring in his head. “Okay. Awesome. I can work with this.” Eyes on the paper, he grabbed his backpack and stood up, shouldering it and heading for the door.
“Tucker,” she called after him. He paused and looked back. “They had palm and retinal scanners. They took DNA samples and fingerprints when I arrived.”
She shook her head, cradling the empty mug in her hands. “Thank you.”
The teen’s look softened. “Yeah.” His hands dove into his pockets and he scuffed at the threshold between the carpet and the kitchen tile. “I’m uh… well, we’re sorry, too,” he said at last. “Really sorry.” Then he was gone, the distant click of the front door shutting behind him. Maddie moved over to the coffee pot, but didn’t refill her mug, staring blankly down at the hot black liquid.
Vlad. Vlad was half ghost, just like Danny. Intelligent, calculating, in-control Vlad. He knew what Danny had gone through. Even more, he would likely know everything there was to know about his own physiology…Danny’s physiology. Vlad wasn’t the type to let such factors out of his control. Vlad wasn’t the type to let any detail escape his attention. Vlad had the scientific knowledge—and more importantly, the money—to do anything. To find anyone.
Maddie bit her lip. She left her coffee mug empty on the counter and reached for the phone instead. It rang only once before it picked up.
“Why Maddie,” Vlad was back to his usual self, suave, and self-assured. “I’ve been hoping you’d call.”
“I… sorry about this, Vlad. I misdialed.” She put down the phone, heart thudding.
Someone banged on the door. Maddie jumped, and the phone clattered to the floor. Was Tucker back? No; neither of Danny’s friends had felt the need to knock for years. Maddie sighed. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be more haunting than the conversation she’d just been through. Stripping off her cleaning gloves, she went to the door. She found herself face to face with a small, dark-haired man in an immaculately trim white suit.
He smiled, touching the frames of his silver glasses. “Ah, Dr. Fenton. I’ve so looked forward to meeting you. I am Dr. Kerza. We’re here to conduct a little interview.”
The doctor stood flanked by two large agents armed with gleaming blasters. Their stony gazes betrayed nothing, though she imagined she could detect just the faintest bit of smugness behind dark shades. “I take it this is not a request.”
Dr. Kerza smiled again and held up an official-looking slip of paper. “I’m afraid not, doctor.”
Shannon Rozzo turned off the rattling engine of her ancient station wagon, switching off the headlights with a sigh. It had been a long, grueling week at the hospital, and right now she wanted nothing more than a hot shower before collapsing into bed. The sprawling two-story farmhouse she called home sat nearly on the outskirts of town, a dozen yards from the nearest street light. The drive petered into darkness. As she walked up from the garage to her front door, her tennis shoes squelched through puddles from the recent downpour. Usually she’d be greeted by her Labrador Harley’s excited barking. Instead the house stood oddly, eerily silent.
Shannon hurried onto the porch--then stopped short. A figure in an oversized hoodie and jeans sat curled up against the door, one arm draped over Harley's neck. The dog looked up and thumped her tail.
A stranger? There weren’t too many people who wandered so far out of town. Not without a reason, anyway. Her hand settled on the mace in her jacket pocket, just in case. The motion sensor light ticked on. Shannon tensed, but no reaction came from the stranger. She could see his chest move with slow shallow breaths; he was dead asleep.
“Some guard dog you are, unfaithful mutt,” Shannon muttered. She loosened her grip on the mace and picked her way up the steps for a closer look. He didn’t look dangerous, though calling him respectable would have been a stretch. Ratty shoes with dirt-caked soles. A worn backpack strapped to his shoulders. That hoodie draped over him like an orange sack, the hood throwing his face into shadow. Shannon could just pick up the faint, sour stench of wet clothes and unwashed human. He was small. Skinny. Underfed or young, or both.
Feeling a bit bolder, she knelt, letting Harley lick her hand as she peered under the hood. Dark, matted hair framed a face blotchy with sunburn. He was young. A boy. Teenager, maybe. An old ache stirred at the thought. What had happened with this one? Thrown out? Driven away? Neglected? It wasn’t fair when trouble hit before they even really had a chance at life.
Harley whined. The boy’s eyes flew open. Green--a startling shade that almost seemed to glow. Shannon jerked back. The stranger let out a squawk and pitched himself away from her, sprawling across the porch. The boy gaped at her in palpable terror, eyes dilated like a creature caught in the headlights.
Shannon raised her empty hands. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurtcha.”
The boy blinked, then his eyes snapped into focus. He jumped to his feet--no, not a boy. He was tall, taller than her, all arms and legs. He held himself with arms in, half crouched, fists clenched, like a coiled spring. Plenty dangerous now. Fear spiked through her veins, but she kept her expression calm, lowering her hands to rest by her sides, just outside the jacket pockets. The mace was in one, her cell phone in the other. With a touch she could dial the precinct. If should could keep the distance between them for a few minutes, she’d be alright.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
It was her turn to blink in surprise. She offered a slow, careful smile. “This is my front porch, kiddo.”
The boy looked around, then flushed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Right. Uh...sorry.” The aggressive stance melted away into a slouch. He scuffed his feet, his gaze dropping the floorboards. There was something disarming in his sudden bashfulness--like a puppy caught mutilating a favorite shoe. No wonder Harley liked him.
Shannon found herself relaxing; dangerous had been the wrong word. Threatened, maybe. Skittish. And exhausted, she realized, despite his nap on her doorstep. He was swaying where he stood.
“What brings you all the way out here at this time of night?” she asked, casually tucking her hands into her pockets. Her phone and the mace pressed against her fingers, cool and solid. The boy didn’t seem to note the action.
He shrugged. “Out walking.”
Shannon glanced at the muddy lawn and the rain water still dripping off the roof, then took in his sopping clothes. “Such a nice night for it, too. You live around here?”
Another shrug. “Close enough.”
That sounded like a no to Shannon, but she didn’t press him. “Get yourself warm and dry soon, or you’ll end up sick.”
“Yeah… better get going, then. Sorry for startling you. And uh,” he blushed again. “Falling asleep here, that was… I didn’t mean to.”
For a vagrant he sure was polite. She nodded, accepting the apology. “Walks can be tiring. Especially if you lose your way. Where did you say you lived again?”
“A ways.” He gestured off into the dark.
She weighed the options; sympathy for his soggy state won out. “I could drive you.”
“No!” he said, a little too quickly. “No, really, it’s fine. I’ve got it. It’s shorter this way, I’ll just cut through the yards.”
“Be careful. Some of the dogs out here aren’t as friendly as Harley.”
For some reason this seemed to strike him as funny; the side of his mouth quirked up in an almost-smile. He nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ll keep that in mind.” As he turned, Shannon saw that the right leg of his jeans, ripped and bloody from the knee down. She winced. That looked fresh. He stumbled down the steps. At the bottom he paused, glancing left and right. Shannon’s heart sank; either he was lost and wouldn’t admit it, or he had nowhere he had to go. A roll of thunder in the distance warned of more rain. The boy trudged--in the wrong direction, away from town-- off across the lawn.
There was a momentary temptation. He didn’t expect anything from her, and Shannon was tired. She could just let him go, head inside, and sleep off her twelve hour shift without adding somebody else’s worries.
This kid might be exactly what he said he was--just out on an unlikely walk. Or he could be a thug, or a thief, or mentally unstable. He wasn’t much bigger than her, but taller and stronger. Shannon couldn’t count on a little mace to guarantee her safety. She had no idea where he had come from, what he’d done... who might be missing him. Where he’d go. Whether anyone cared at all.
Harley whined, snuffling her hand. “Yeah, yeah,” she said softly, stroking the dog’s ears. “I know.” It would earn her another lecture from Frank, but Shannon couldn’t help it. Stupid or not, she wouldn’t let somebody’s child just wander off into the night. Not in this weather.
“Hey kid.” She leaned out over the railing. He paused at the top of the drive and half-turned “I’ll be eating alone tonight. Why don’t you join me?”
The porch offered just enough light to show him blush yet again. The kid wasn’t used to being offered handouts. “I don’t want to bug you. Well, more, anyway.”
“It’s no trouble. ” He wavered at the edge of the porchlight. The dark threatened to consume him, as if he might just dissolve into the night. Shannon nudged Harley with her toe, and the lab trotted down the steps and went after the boy, her tail wagging. His hand dropped onto her dark head for a pat.
“I have a room where you can crash if you need to, and coffee in the morning,” Shannon added, trying to catch his eyes. “You’re welcome to a shower, too.”
Finally, a tired grin cracked his face. “I smell that bad?”
Shannon grinned back. “You said it hon, not me. I have a whole bar of soap with your name on it.” She whistled and Harley trotted back up onto the porch. After a long, long moment, the stranger followed.
Shannon smiled. As she led the way inside, she gestured to the living room just off the front hall. “Make yourself at home.” It was still full of the dark, heavy furniture her parents had furnished it with in the seventies, but it had a comfortable feel to it, like a well-worn pair of shoes. The boy nodded and perched on the edge of the nearest armchair. He took off the backpack and set it between his knees. It was full nearly to bursting, the zipper straining. Stolen goods. Drugs. Weapons. Or food and clothes, or fifteen volumes of Shakespeare, she reminded herself. No use jumping to conclusions.
“I know you must be hungry, but it’ll take me a while to fix something. Let me get you a change of clothes so you can have that shower.”
He nodded again, twisting his fingers into the backpack strap. His right hand stayed in his pocket. “Okay, yeah.”
Leaving him to Harley's supervision, Shannon walked upstairs and opened the bedroom across from hers. She brushed the comforter free of dust. Pulling open a dresser drawer, she rummaged through the musty clothes. Todd had been older, and definitely less of a beanpole. Settling on a t-shirt and a soft old pair of sweatpants, she pulled a towel from the hall closet. She wondered what Todd would have said about this kid. Probably that she was crazy to up and invite a random stranger into the house. Though he would’ve agreed that anyone Harley liked couldn’t be all that bad.
Dad would have something to say about it the next time he called. He’d lecture her for not watching the kid like a hawk. As if that skinny thing could throw all of their valuables over his shoulder and make off with it in the ten minutes she took to find clothes that might fit... Shannon walked downstairs a little more briskly than usual.
She shouldn’t have worried. The boy lay draped over the armchair, head lolled to one side, snoring. He hugged his backpack like a teddy bear. She grinned at the sight; if he could sleep in that position he really must be a kid. No adult spine would tolerate that kind of abuse. The boy frowned in his sleep, brows knitting. Then he jolted awake, just as violently as when she’d woken him on the porch. Their eyes met, both startled.
He let out a long breath, dropping his eyes and relaxing. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“Nonsense,” she said with perhaps too much cheerfulness. “Let’s get you cleaned up, hon.”
She told him to toss his clothes out the door after he changed. As soon as she heard the water running, Shannon picked them up between forefinger and thumb and went straight to the laundry room. Jeans, socks, some unfortunately overused boxers, a once-white t-shirt, and of course the big orange hoodie. It looked like it had been dragged through a muddy field. The right leg on the jeans was shredded to just a few snarls of bloodstained fabric. Shannon cringed just looking at it. They weren’t really wearable anymore, but…she threw them in anyway.
Twenty minutes later, Shannon was stirring tomato sauce into a fresh batch of pasta and beginning to wonder whether she’d have time to make garlic toast when she finally heard the stairs creak. She smiled down at the saucepan. “I thought you might have washed yourself down the drain.”
“Where are my clothes?”
“In the wash.” Shannon switched off the stove, turning around. “Though the jeans are probably--”
The boy hovered in the doorway, awkward in his borrowed clothes. Bruises and cuts littered his skin. Blood already reddened the hem of the sweatpants, beading on his bare foot. He hid his right hand behind his back, but not before she saw the red marks on his forearm. He shifted from foot to foot, flushing under her scrutiny. “I guess I look pretty bad.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” Shannon sat down and gestured to the other chair. He limped across the kitchen and sat down. His hair was black, she noticed, shaggy and combed back behind his ears. His eyes looked blue, not green, in the full light of the kitchen. He cleaned up decent. Minus the fact that he looked like a boxer after a losing fight. “What on earth happened to you?”
“It...I fell down a hill. Lots of rocks.”
“A hill. Right.” Shannon had worked long enough in the ER to recognize defensive wounds when she saw them. Marks and cuts on the outside of his forearms as if he’d thrown them up to protect himself, split knuckles, bruised hands. This kid had been in a rough fight, and recently. The bruises hadn’t even discolored yet; they’d look pretty spectacular tomorrow. “Did this hill have a baseball bat? An attack dog? Just what kind of trouble are you in?”
Her eyes fell on the backpack that sat at his feet; the boy hadn’t yet let it out of his sight. She wondered if it was connected. What had she gotten herself into? What had he? How old was he? Fourteen, fifteen? Shannon sighed. Exhaustion seemed to sink into her bones. “You’re too young for all this, honey. Why don’t you just go home?”
That had been the wrong thing to say. The boy’s expression closed off with a snap. He pushed himself to his feet and snatched up the backpack, slinging it over one shoulder and backing toward the door. “Listen--thanks for the shower, and--for the concern and all. I’d better go.”
“But you haven’t even eaten yet.”
The boy eyed the steaming pasta on the table with poorly disguised longing, but a stubborn look came in his eyes and he shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Hiding her dismay, Shannon looked him up and down and arched an eyebrow. “You just going to walk out in the rain in nothing but a t-shirt?” she asked mildly. “Those belong to me, if you remember.”
He flushed, looking at the ground, hands tightening around the bag. “I’ll bring them back,” he mumbled.
“Nonsense. You’ll catch your death on a night like this. Come on, I’m sorry I pried. I'll keep my questions to myself. Just stay a bit longer?”
“Just until my clothes dry,” he said at last.
Shannon watched in silence as her guest devoured the pasta. Home was bad, then. That would explain things. Unfortunately. The cruelties behind that simple thought made her blood boil. Her fingers traced over the hard plastic phone in her pocket and she wondered what would happen if she called it in. He’d likely vanish into the night, and end up sleeping in the rain, god knows where.
She waited until he was scraping one last noodle off the plate before she spoke again. “I won’t ask you how you got them, but those wounds look like they need attention.”
The boy shrugged, tracing his finger round the edge of the plate and sucking the last of the sauce from his fingertip. “It’s not too bad. They’ll heal.”
She glanced under the table and frowned at him. “Honey, you’re bleeding on my kitchen floor.”
“It just started again because of the shower,” he mumbled, tugging at the pants leg as if he could cover it up. “It’s shallow. It’ll be fine.”
““If your leg is half as bad off as your jeans, you’ll need more than just a hot shower to take care of it.” She pushed herself back from the table. “Now don’t move, I’ll go get something to fix you up.”
To her pleasant surprise, he was still there when she came back.
“I really did fall,” he mumbled as she clucked her tongue and dabbed antiseptic on his scrapes and bruises. “I was trying to get away from this, uh, dog...”
Shannon frowned. “What did it look like?”
He gave her an incredulous look. “I don’t know, big, hairy, lots of teeth? It was dark. I was more worried about, you know, running for my life.”
“Is that what chewed up your leg?” She could see the jagged teeth marks from some large canine jaw, deep punctures that dragged out into shallow tears. Whatever it was had chomped down, given a hard shake, then ripped itself free, leaving a messy collection of gashes in the boy’s calf. A little to her surprise considering the amount of dirt that had been on his clothes, the wound itself was clean, and while still red and irritated, showed none of the dangerous signs of infection dog bites were so prone to. Not yet, anyway. “This needs professional attention.”
He shook his head. “It’ll be fine.”
“Don’t be foolish. Animal bites are pretty much guaranteed to get infected. If it was a dog, you’ll need antibiotics. If it was a coyote, you might need a rabies shot, too.” She glanced up at him. “There’s this clinic downtown. They won’t ask any questions,” she added when he drew back. “I’ll take you there tomorrow.”
He frowned, toeing the backpack. “Tomorrow?”
“You got someplace to be, honey?”
“I…” he laughed a little. “I guess not.”
Fun fact: It Goes On was one of the working titles for this story when I first started writing it. To any new readers, say hello to one of my first fully realized OCs. I'm very fond of Shannon and I hope you'll like her too. -Hj