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Condemned

Chapter Text

Danny grimaced at the sight of his parents. They didn't typically hunt ghosts this late at night, and yet there they were, looking right at him.

Out on the streets of Amity Park, they stood beneath him as he hovered in the air. Jack was fiddling with some sort of new weapon Danny saw him working on earlier that morning at breakfast. Maddie stared up at him and reached for something on her belt. Danny curiously watched her. Jack stopped what he was doing and looked at Maddie with a frown.

"Mads, ah—"

Maddie turned on him with a fierce scowl. Jack flinched and shrugged and returned to tinkering with his gun. With a loud sigh, Maddie snatched the weapon away and began working to fix it herself.

Jack watched Maddie for a moment before glaring up at Danny. Danny cocked a brow before turning his attention back to the spider ghost he had been fighting, which was quickly scurrying away behind a building. He had to stop it before it hurt anyone or destroyed anything. His parents were only a threat to him. The ghost was a threat to the town. He had to put that before his own safety.

And besides, he was way faster than his parents were. They could never catch him.

He flew away at top speed, ignoring a yell from Maddie behind him. He searched the streets, but there was no sign of the spider ghost. He wished Sam and Tucker were around to help him, but it was the middle of the night, and he didn't feel it was necessary to wake them for, in his opinion, a minor threat.

But he knew they'd gladly offer their help if he asked for it no matter what time of night. Their loyalty was astounding to him, especially since he wasn't even sure he deserved it. He felt he was asking more and more of them while having little to offer in return.

So the least he could do was let them sleep.

After a basic overlook of the streets, he decided to do a more thorough search, carefully looking behind and around buildings and landmarks.

Nothing.

Sighing in frustration, he wondered how long he actually cared to look. If he couldn't find the ghost, his parents probably could. Perhaps he could just call it a night, get some much needed sleep.

No. He couldn't do that. He had an obligation to protect this town. It was his fault this spider ghost was even here in the first place, and he couldn't just give up because he was "tired" or "not up to it." If he had wanted to get enough sleep every night and not be so sore every morning, well, he should've thought about that before he switched on his parents' ghost portal and gave these haunts an easy way to invade their town.

He lowered his eyes. Why couldn't these ghosts just leave his town alone? Was this what the rest of his life would be like?

A rustle from an alley caught his attention. He looked at it warily, adrenaline bristling his spine. After a further moment of hesitation, he headed down the passage, figuring the worst that could happen was he'd have to fight another ghost. Just part of the routine he had locked himself into.

He cautiously scanned the alley as he flew down it, ready to dodge at any moment. He reached the end where a tall gate and two silver trash cans stood before him. He landed on the ground and looked around in confusion.

Another rustling sound, a louder one. Danny turned his attention to one of the trash cans and peered inside to find a rat frantically scurrying along the walls in a futile effort to escape.

Danny watched the rat struggle in its metal prison, wondering how it had even managed to get in there in the first place. Had it fallen in somehow? Had someone thrown it in there? Regardless, here it was. No way for it to move through the barrier surrounding it. No way for it to escape anyone who might happen to find it and decide to do it harm.

He gripped the sides of the otherwise empty can and turned it intangible. The rat squeaked and ran off, ran away from its savior. Danny watched it scamper into the darkness.

It didn't seem to matter who or what he rescued. No one would ever trust him or even thank him.

But he would never abandon the people of this town. He'd fight for them until the end.

He held his arms and looked in the direction in which the rat had run off with silent contemplation.

A sudden sharp stinging sensation broke just below the base of his neck.

Danny yelped and immediately pulled out the dart that had struck him. He stared at it in his trembling hand. Was it a tranquilizer or something that would temporarily paralyze him?

He started to turn around, wondering if Skulker was after him once again.

A familiar voice shouted at him instead, "Hold it there, ghost!"

His hand lost its grip on the dart as it clattered to the ground.

Dad!

He heard the charged-up whir of an ecto-gun and figured his father was less than twenty feet away. Whatever he had just been shot with did not have a noticeable effect on him. Perhaps he could turn invisible and fly away before Jack could get any closer.

"You've just been injected with the Fenton Ghost Solidifier," said Jack proudly. "It won't let you change your molecules in any way for a while. You won't be able to become invisible or intangible." He paused, his tone falling. "My wife's creation."

Danny's eye twitched. He began to turn.

"Don't move," snarled Jack.

Danny thinned his lips and made no further movement. He stood with his back facing Jack, his mind racing over how to get out of this one. He indeed could not become invisible; his molecules completely ignored his mental commands. He glanced up at the open sky, but he could not possibly fly away with Jack's gun so close and trained on him.

He heard the older man walking closer to him.

"Put your hands up where I can see them," his father ordered.

Danny hesitated.

"Now, Phantom. Don't make me shoot you."

Looking at the wall straight ahead, Danny raised his hands with open palms. "Like this?"

"Shut up, ghost. Don't speak unless I tell you to."

Danny exhaled hard through his nose.

"But yes," said Jack a little awkwardly. "Like that."

Danny smirked and kept his hands up near his head. He knew he was being forced into a position of submission, but he could never take his father's clumsy mannerisms and muddled authority too seriously.

He waited quietly for Jack to call for his mother, to give him another order, to do something, but nothing happened. His eyes wandered as he tried to concoct a way out of this.

A couple minutes passed. He could still hear the humming of Jack's weapon. He turned his head slightly, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on behind him.

"Keep looking forward, ghost," hissed Jack.

Danny obeyed with an irritated sigh. "How long are you going to keep me like this? My arms are getting tired."

"Do you really think I care about your arms?"

"Are you going to capture me or not? Because I feel like you would've captured me by now if you were going to."

"What did I tell you about speaking?"

Danny was set to retort when his mother's voice suddenly came in over a radio device.

"Jack? Jack! Come in, Jack."

Jack paused before answering. "Yes, Maddie?"

"Did you find Phantom?"

Another pause. Danny maintained his forward stare as he waited for Jack's response.

"No," said Jack. "Not yet."

Danny creased his brow.

"All right," said Maddie wistfully. "Let me know the moment you find him."

"Of course."

Danny frowned and tried to make sense of Jack's blatant lie to his mother. He tensed when he felt the older man drawing closer to him.

But then Jack stopped and did nothing more.

A minute passed.

"What are you waiting for?" asked Danny with surly unease.

A low growl from Jack. Danny narrowed his eyes.

"My wife wants to be the one to capture you," said Jack at last. "But maybe I should just shoot you instead."

The whirring of his ecto-gun intensified as it was raised right to Danny's head. Danny flinched only slightly before regaining his composure.

"Shooting you might be better," said Jack in a low voice.

Danny gazed up at the sky, wondering if he could find an opportunity to fly away. His father was not too difficult to distract, after all. "Shooting me. What do you mean? Like shooting to kill?"

"Yes, like shooting to kill. What do you think?" barked Jack.

"And then what?"

"And then I'll take you back to our lab and rip you apart."

"Like dissect me? Wouldn't you rather me be alive for that?"

"My wife would prefer you be alive." Jack's tone was suddenly bitter.

Danny pouted, his confusion deepening, his arms growing heavier. "So you don't care if I'm alive or not for your experiments?"

"All I care about is getting you out of the picture."

Danny unconsciously lowered his arms as he tried to make sense of the implication being made with this choice of words.

"Keep those hands up, Phantom."

Danny immediately raised his arms again. "Look, Jack, um, can I call you Jack?"

"No."

"All right, well... What do you mean by 'out of the picture'? I mean, what picture am I in exactly?"

"Quit talking."

Danny shut his mouth obediently. But Jack remained motionless and silent behind him.

"Seriously, what are you waiting for?" asked Danny.

"I said don't speak."

"Or what? If you were going to shoot me, you would've done it. And I'm not just going to stand here in silence," spat Danny, staring straight ahead, his hands still up. "So why don't you tell me what you want from me already? Or at least tell me what your problem with me is."

Jack gave a disgruntled groan, low and sustained. Danny kept his gaze forward and said nothing for the time being, sensing that his father was thinking deeply.

"I was so excited the first time I saw you," said Jack quietly. "Do you know you're the first ghost I ever saw?"

Danny glanced up briefly in recollection but said nothing.

"I was all set to renounce ghosts. After years and years of what seemed like wasted effort and drained bank accounts, I was finally ready to give up on this venture. Ghosts. I had never seen one. My wife had never seen one. Our kids thought we were insane, especially our daughter. And I started to believe it."

Danny inclined his head slightly, remembering how he had once been so ashamed of his parents, how he had tried to keep Career Day at school a secret but they somehow always found out and showed up. His classmates would tease him for weeks afterward.

"But then you appeared. Out of nowhere. This punk ghost kid single-handedly renewed my faith in our work. Your existence proved we were right all along. My wife and I were ecstatic." Jack paused. "And then more ghosts appeared, and we finally had real specimens to capture and work with, study."

"And vivisect," jibed Danny.

"Yes," affirmed Jack boldly. "We've torn so many apart, maybe even buddies of yours. Do you want the details, Phantom?"

Danny paled and made no reply.

"Then shut up," said Jack. "Nothing you say is going to get any sympathy from me."

Danny's fingers curled slightly, his gaze lowered.

Jack's radio crackled to life again.

"Jack? Come in, Jack."

Jack didn't respond for a moderately long moment. "I'm here, Maddie."

"Did you find Phantom?"

Vexed heavy exhalation. "No, Maddie. Not yet."

"Well, be sure to—"

"Yes, yes, I know," said Jack curtly. "I'll be sure to call you if I find him."

The radio sound faded. Danny raised his upper lip in baffled contemplation.

"We were both so fascinated by you," said Jack. "My wife and I. You were at the top of our list from day one. Our first ghost. And I wanted nothing more than to rip you apart, study each and every nerve and fiber as I tore them away."

Danny bit the inside of his lip but maintained his composure. This was nothing new. He had heard his father talk about him like this so many times. But it never didn't hurt.

"That's what I want to do. Study you." Jack paused. "But my wife…"

Danny's mouth fell open, his eyes darting as he tried to anticipate the rest of Jack's sentence.

"She wants to study you as well, of course. But lately...sometimes I wonder…"

Jack paused another long moment. Danny tensed and cringed with raised arms still draining.

"You're the only ghost she ever seems to think about anymore. Whenever we're operating on another specimen, she's always relating it back to you somehow. 'I wonder if Phantom would have this?' 'Do you think Phantom would react this way?' 'I bet Phantom is different.' And every new invention from her lately is created with you specifically in mind. She'd never admit it, but I know that's the case." Jack huffed. "Might as well call it the Phantom Solidifier. I know she created this solution just for you."

Jack pressed the barrel of his ecto-gun directly to Danny's head. Danny instinctively bent his head forward.

"And you wanna know why, Phantom? Why that inhibitor coursing through your veins was meant for you?"

Danny shut his eyes.

"Without it, ghosts have to be contained in special ways. Huge containers, bulky anti-ghost restraints. Makes dissection difficult a lot of the time. We often have to anesthetize them to prevent them from shape-shifting or becoming intangible or invisible. Or else we have to keep them in special restraints that neutralize their powers but then make it difficult to work on them. Also very expensive to keep running. You should see our power bill."

Danny had seen all of these devices himself in his parents' lab. He had studied them extensively, had seen them in use. He had even imagined himself confined and jailed within them. Never intentionally, but the nightmarish fantasies would sometimes creep into his subconscious or sleeping mind.

"My wife created that Solidifier so those cumbersome measures could be eliminated."

Jack moved the gun along the back of Danny's head, the strangest and most uncomfortable massage. Danny shivered and moved away, but the gun was right back on him just as quickly.

"And that way, you'll be completely vulnerable. A powerless ghost. And she'll be able to do whatever she wants to you without an excess of anti-ghost measures." Jack chuckled and shoved Danny's head forward with the gun. "Real close and real personal. Just as intimate as she wants to be with you."

Danny wanted to lie down. Or at least sit. But he kept his quivering legs rooted.

The radio buzzed again with Maddie's metallic voice. "Jack?"

Jack cursed under his breath. "What is it, Maddie?"

"Did you find—"

"No, Maddie. No, I did not find Phantom," snapped Jack. "And anyway, aren't we supposed to be looking for Danny? Wasn't that the whole point of us traipsing out here in the middle of the night?"

Danny's brow knit. Looking for him? Did they think he was missing?

"Jack, watch that tone. Of course we should be looking for Danny as well. But it's just that—"

"I know, Maddie. I know. We saw Phantom. We know he's out here. This could be our only chance. I get it. I promise I'll tell you if I find him, all right? You don't need to keep asking me."

A long pause. "Fine," said Maddie evenly.

Danny winced and rattled. Such tension between his parents. And was it really all because of him? Both as their ghost and as their son who they apparently noticed wasn't in his room well past curfew?

"It's you," murmured Jack. "It's only you. You're all she wants."

His volume was so hushed now, so treacherous.

"The more I've realized her intentions toward you, what she's really thinking about you, just how much you dominate her thoughts, the more I don't want her anywhere near you at all. You're a sickness. Her sickness." His gun whirred louder. "If I get rid of you, maybe she'll be cured."

The droning filtered into the half-ghost's chest, turbulence pumping through his valves and chambers.

With hands still raised, Danny spun around with a swift lower kick, gloved hands latching onto the gun, wrenching it at such an angle that his father was forced to let go, a beaming discharge racing past his head and crumbling part of the wall beside them. He leapt backwards with the gun in his hands and instinctively aimed it at Jack with shallow breaths.

Jack's eyes were wide and his jaw was slacked for only a moment before he clenched his fists and stood taller. Even with distance between them, Danny still had to look up at this mountainous man.

Jack leered at him. Danny faltered but held his mark.

"What are you going to do, Phantom? Are you going to shoot me?"

Danny let his gaze drop to the weapon in his trembling arms. He switched it off and tossed it behind him.

Jack laughed, a cruel sound. "Of course not. You always have to be a hero. You'd never hurt me because I'm not a threat to this town. You're compelled to protect even me. It's embedded in your composition. You can't disobey your obsession."

"We're not enemies," insisted Danny with a tremor of desperation.

"I hope you never stop thinking that," said Jack coldly. "That will continue to give me an advantage over you."

They stood apart in tensed suspension, their only weapons the strength of their stares. Danny could feel Jack's hateful glare breaking through his defenses.

There's no convincing you otherwise, is there?

"Jack!" another voice cried, the unmistakable voice of his mother. Only this time it was not coming over a radio.

Danny and Jack both turned to look at Maddie, who was standing at the beginning of the alley with a gun in her hands. Her stance indicated distress, but she straightened in shock. "Phantom! That's—" She growled and began angrily stomping up to them. "You promised you'd tell me if—why didn't you—"

The spider ghost Danny had been searching for earlier appeared behind Maddie, but she did not stop her march.

"Maddie!" hollered Jack.

The spider ghost advanced and grabbed Maddie with its front legs. She turned her gun on the ghost, but the shrieking arachnid knocked it out of her hands toward Jack. He immediately picked up the weapon and began firing.

Danny watched the battle with glassy concentration before taking off into the sky, leaving his parents to battle with the spider ghost on their own.

His molecules still refused to change. No cover of invisibility to conceal him. Within a thin veil of dewy clouds, he was defenseless and exposed and surely anyone and everyone could see him, could see through him, could see all his trespasses and fears.

He had to hide. Somewhere safe.

He could see his bedroom window. He increased his speed as he raced toward it.

An explosion of pain sent him sailing back. He dizzily observed the activated ghost shield surrounding his house.

Jazz opened his window and looked out at him. "Danny! Thank goodness. I've been trying to call you. Mom and Dad have been worried about you. Get in here, quick!"

Danny moaned and massaged his aching head. "Why is the ghost shield up?"

"You know how protective Mom and Dad are. Now come on, change already and get in here."

"I can't change back. Can you go turn it off?"

Jazz furrowed her brow. "You can't change back? What do you mean?"

"I'll explain inside."

Jazz stared at him for a short while before leaving. The ghost shield powered down, and Danny immediately entered in through his open window. He landed on the floor of his dark room and looked at his still gloved hands with dismay.

Jazz reappeared in his room. "Okay what happened? Why can't you change back?"

Danny glanced up at the ceiling with shrugged shoulders. "I don't really know—I mean, Dad, he—he was just there all of a—and he—" Danny gingerly touched the back of his neck where the dart had struck him. "He injected me with something. Some sort of—I have no idea—but it won't let me go invisible or intangible or even change back."

And he also—

No, he wasn't about to tell her what else—

He wanted to kill him. Came so close to killing him.

And for what reason again? Something about his mother. Something about not wanting his mother anywhere near him. A reason that wasn't even his fault. He had no control over how his mother felt about his ghost form.

Would his father have cared when he realized later he had killed his own son?

Or did he really believe that it would be better to kill him, would not feel any remorse at all even if he did know who he really was?

Don't say, don't reveal. He was afraid to know.

Jazz coaxed him to his bed, pulled him to sit down with her. Danny leaned forward with elbows propped near his knees and head pressed into his palms.

"I think…" Danny stared down at the floor of his room lit by his ghostly glow. "I think Dad hates me." He drew in a shaking breath. "Like, hates me. Like actually seriously hates me."

From beside him, Jazz placed her hands on his shoulders. "Dad does not hate you. Not even a little."

Danny turned his head to look at her briefly before returning his gaze to the floor.

Jazz started rubbing his back. "So, if I heard right, Dad injected you with Mom's latest creation, right? I heard Mom talking about it a few days ago. It prevents ghostly molecules from changing."

"Right. I can't turn invisible or intangible...or even human." Danny groaned and sat up straight. "What were Mom and Dad even doing out at this hour?"

"Well, I was trying to call you to let you know! But you wouldn't answer your phone. I guess Mom came into your room and saw you were missing. She woke me up to say that she and Dad were going to go out looking for you." Jazz paused. "She was really worried about you because as far as she knows, you're not the type to sneak out in the middle of the night."

"I didn't use to be." The intended mirth stuck in Danny's throat. "Do you know how long this stuff is supposed to last? I mean, I really need to change back. Preferably before Mom and Dad return."

Jazz stood. "Wait here. I'll be back."

She left Danny alone in his room. He fell back on his bed with a sigh. It was over now. He was safe at this moment. Nothing was happening, nothing was threatening him.

And his dad didn't hate him.

His dad hated Phantom, not him. A common dichotomy he dealt with. No different coming from his father.

Jazz returned with a syringe and a bottle of clear liquid. "I looked through Mom's notes. The effects are apparently supposed to last for hours, but this should cancel them."

Danny propped himself up on his forearms and curled a displeased upper lip. "Are you kidding me? That thing is huge!"

Jazz glanced at the needle and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, but it's a thick liquid." She sat down beside him. "It has to be this big."

Danny scowled and looked off to the side.

"Best to do it in your upper arm, I think."

"Yeah? How do you figure?"

"Well, that or your thigh." Jazz patted his leg teasingly. "Which we can totally do if you want. I mean, if you want to take off that much of your suit."

Danny huffed and unzipped his jumpsuit enough to expose his right upper arm. Jazz drew a precise amount of liquid from the bottle and inspected it for air bubbles, flicking it a couple times.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" asked Danny.

"Of course. Don't worry." She moved the needle to his arm. "And really, what other choice do you have, right?"

"You always know how to make me feel better."

He looked away to indicate he was ready and felt the needle poke through his skin. The pain was tolerable at first but sharpened as the liquid was pushed into him, agonizingly separating and stretching his skin. Danny bit the inside of his lip to stop himself from gasping.

"There." Jazz pulled the needle out. "Not too bad, I hope?"

"A spa treatment." Danny zipped up his suit. "How long does it take to work?"

"How long did it take when you were first injected?"

"It was quick."

"Then I imagine this will be quick, too."

Danny waited a moment more before willing his form to change. With a small crackle, the familiar lights appeared and revealed his human form. Danny looked down at his street clothes with relief.

Jazz hugged him. "There's my little brother." She moved back and sighed. "Well, now you have a new problem."

Danny eyed her warily.

"What are you going to tell Mom and Dad when they ask where you've been?"

Danny blew out air through nearly closed lips. "Well... I guess I could say I was with Tucker." He pulled out his cell phone. "Like playing a new game or something."

Jazz placed a hand on his shoulder. "You know that would get Tucker in trouble, too, right?"

"Tucker will do this for me," said Danny, writing out a coded message to his techie friend. "I can always count on him."

Jazz nodded and pulled out her own phone. "I'm going to call Mom and tell her you're back, okay?"

Danny only listened as Jazz spoke to their mother. He could not hear Maddie's side very well, just shrill joyful chatter.

He wondered what his father was doing, what he was thinking, the expression he was wearing.

Was he still thinking about their encounter just less than half an hour ago?

Because Danny certainly was.

Jazz disconnected the call. "They're on their way back."

Danny sighed heavily. "I guess I have to talk to him." He paused, frowned. "I mean, her, too. Mom. Mom and Dad. Not just Dad." He blinked with a shake of his head.

"Well, truthfully, you'll probably mostly be talking to Mom. She was way more worried." Jazz stood and, with an arm around his shoulders, started leading the way out of his room. "In fact, Dad didn't really seem all that worried at all."

"Ah, see? I told you Dad hates me."

Jazz squeezed him. "No, he doesn't. Don't be ridiculous."

He smiled weakly. He had meant the comment in jest, but the words had felt quite astringent against his teeth.

The two teenagers headed downstairs. Jazz reactivated the ghost shield before joining Danny in the living room on the couch. Danny tried to practice his story, tried to rehearse the most convincing way to present his alibi.

But his adrenaline was spiking, tying and knotting his tongue.

He instead focused on the pain in his arm from the injection and the pain at the base of his neck from when his father originally shot him. Aching throbs radiating from the original puncture sites.

This physical pain was preferable for now.

At last, the front door swung open. Danny and Jazz both stood as their parents walked in.

"Danny!" Maddie ran and threw her arms around him. "I was worried sick."

Danny stood still in her embrace and glanced at his father. Jack's gaze was distant, moving right through him.

Maddie pulled back, her hands now on his shoulders. "Where have you been, young man?"

"Yes," said Jack with a tired tone, walking up beside her. "What was so important that you felt you had to leave the house in the middle of the night?"

Danny inwardly winced at the irritation in his father's tone. "Sorry. I was with Tucker."

Maddie cocked a brow. "Tucker?"

"Yeah, um... Well, we were just—"

"With Tucker? Like at his house?" asked Jack.

"Well, yeah—"

"Why didn't you answer your phone? Your mother was trying to call you, sent a ton of messages."

"Ah, well, I wasn't looking at my phone. I'm sorry."

"Well, it certainly would have saved us a lot of trouble. You know we actually went out to look for you, right?"

Jack's glare bore into him. Danny shrank back and averted his own gaze.

"Well, we're definitely going to have a talk with Tucker's parents tomorrow," said Maddie. "And we'll have to think of a suitable punishment for you, Danny." Her expression softened. "But I'm so relieved you're safe."

Danny raised his eyes, but his father's focus was now off to the side, looking at something no one else could see.

"Yes," said Danny quietly. "I am."

But he almost wasn't.

Almost wasn't because of—

Maddie studied him. "Are you okay, Danny?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just...really sorry. And tired."

Maddie frowned. "You seem... I feel like something's wrong."

She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothed down his dark cowlicks in vain. Jack's vexed gaze snapped back to him.

—a hateful glare breaking through his defenses—

You're a sickness. If I get rid of you, maybe

There's no convincing youis there—?

Danny quickly turned his head away with a sharp inhale.

"Danny?" asked Maddie with alarm.

Danny forced an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I'm just tired. So, um, is it all right if I go to bed now, or do you still want to talk about this?"

Maddie glanced at Jack, who only shrugged.

"Yes," said Maddie. "Yes, we'll talk tomorrow."

She placed a tender kiss on his head. Danny sensed his father's glower but did not dare make eye contact.

When his mother at last released him, he briskly walked away and up the stairs. He could feel Jazz walking behind him. He could hear his parents conversing in low voices.

He entered his room and closed the door. He leaned his back against it for a moment, stared straight ahead.

His father didn't hate him. Not the version of him that mattered, anyway.

And if he hated Phantom, well, it's not like he was the only one.

So he could live with this. He could ignore it and pretend it never happened.

Everything could still be normal.

It was done. It was over.

Please just let it be over.

Chapter Text

Was it over?

The light breaking through the cracks in his blinds was grey. A cloudy day.

Beneath his sheets, Danny felt warm and comfortable but unrested. But he had definitely slept. Definitely. Because he had dreamt. He had been dreaming something right before he awoke.

Something…

Held hostage in the dark by someone too familiar...

But that was over.

Wasn't it over?

An alarm began blaring from his bedside table. He jumped and grabbed his phone with a fumble, shakily stopping the intrusive noise.

This day was only just starting.

He grudgingly sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His head was hazily swimming with resurfacing remnants from his dreams. Or were they memories from the night before? From just a mere six hours ago?

Six hours ago, he had been a mess. His mom definitely noticed, had made it clear to him she noticed.

And his dad? Did his dad notice?

If he did, he didn't seem to care.

Regardless, Danny knew he couldn't afford to raise any further suspicion. He had to get through this morning, had to convince his mother he was fine.

And he had to face his father, too.

His mentality ached. His grogginess ached. His body ached. A quick shower to wake him fully. An invisible trip to the medicine cabinet in the empty kitchen. Eight hundred milligrams of ibuprofen.

Back in his room, he observed the injection sites on his arm and on the back of his neck. They had swelled considerably in the past few hours, large patches of heated inflammation. He had to hide them, could not let his parents see them. He could not possibly explain them. It wasn't cool enough for him to get away with wearing a jacket, but a loose shirt with sleeves that stopped just above his elbows hid the site on his arm well. As for the one on the back of his neck, he would just have to pull at the front of his collar to keep it hidden.

He studied himself in the mirror. He looked the same as always. Even the darkness under his eyes was a familiar sight by now. Nothing about his appearance would give anything away. He just had to pull his act together, keep his emotions under control.

As he descended the stairs, he could hear the usual sounds of his family coming from the kitchen. Their normalcy was encouraging, mitigating. Last night really was over.

"Morning, sweetie," Maddie greeted him from the stove as he walked in.

"Morning," he returned.

"I'm almost done here." Maddie lowered the heat of the burner she was using. "Just give me a minute."

Danny nodded and looked over at the kitchen table. Jazz was speaking to their father cheerily, perhaps about something she had just read in the book she was holding that morning. Jack was smiling at her fondly.

Danny approached the table and pulled out a chair with a small scrape. Jack sharply turned to look at him. Danny froze, his hand gripping the top of his chair.

"Danny," said Jack, his smile completely gone.

"Hey," said Danny with fading inflection. He remained standing and waited, waited for Jack to say something more, waited for permission to join him at the table.

Maybe last night wasn't entirely over after all.

"So... Did you sleep well?" asked Jack.

"Um, yeah. Did you?"

An automatic question, reflexive, one he regretted the moment it was out, the moment his father's expression hardened.

"I definitely could've slept better if I hadn't had to go out in the middle of the night looking for you."

Danny cringed and wished one of his ghost powers was time control. Or maybe he should've kept the Reality Gauntlet. What was he even thinking when he destroyed it? He totally should've kept it for moments exactly like this. Stupid, stupid, stupid—

"Oh, uh, hey, speaking of...of that." Jazz cleared her throat and flipped through her book.

Jack's attention immediately returned to her. Danny anxiously watched Jazz, hoping for a true save from his sister.

"Speaking of, uh, sleep, lack of sleep, um…" Jazz continued turning pages at a frenzied pace. "I read about this really rare disease that, ah... It like prevents your brain from going past stage one of sleep. Or something like that. Basically, it stops you from ever being able to sleep again."

Jack cocked his head in mild intrigue. Danny took the opportunity to slowly and quietly lower himself in his seat, not even daring to scoot the chair in closer to the table.

"Yeah, so, um…" Jazz sucked her teeth as she studied a page. "Uh, I can't remember where it is, but like, um... Eventually, you die from it."

"Well, I guess that just goes to show how important sleep is," said Jack evenly.

He was looking at Jazz, but Danny could feel the words were aimed right at him. He inwardly groaned. Great save, Jazz. Just great.

"Here." Maddie began serving hot cereal to everyone. "Be careful, okay? Blow on it first."

"Thanks, Mom." Danny smiled up at her, tugged at his collar to conceal the injection site on his neck. Maddie gave his shoulder a tender squeeze, ran a hand through his hair. He softened beneath her motherly affection.

But across the table, he felt something else from his father, coldness. Jack gave Maddie a small smile as she sat beside him before placing all of his focus into his bowl.

Danny stared at him, wondered what was going on in his father's head. Their encounter last night?

Jack met his gaze and frowned at his scrutiny. Danny looked down and blew on a spoonful of cereal, trying his best to pretend he wasn't even aware of his father at all. He slipped the sufficiently cooled bite into his mouth. Bland. Tasteless. Difficult to swallow. Not even worth eating, honestly. Not like he was hungry anyway.

But he had to eat. His mother would worry if he didn't. And his father...probably wouldn't care, but he still had to act as normal as possible.

He studied what else was on the table. Sugar, milk, honey…honey would maybe make this easier to eat.

"Hey, Jazz, can you pass the—"

Jack's eyes found him again, pinned him into immobility.

"Pass what, Danny?" asked Jazz, a bite of cereal held in her cheek.

Danny leaned back in his chair and lowered his head. "Nothing," he muttered.

He wanted to turn invisible. He wanted his father to stop looking at him, stop noticing him.

Maybe he just wouldn't talk for the rest of his life.

No, that was ridiculous.

The rest of breakfast, then.

Resolved, Danny forced a spoonful of the warm cereal into his mouth and somehow managed to swallow its lack of flavor down. All in silence.

All. All of them. In silence. No one was talking. Not even Jazz who was usually so talkative in the morning and in the afternoon and at all times.

Why couldn't this be over already?

"Well." Maddie halted, blinked, opened and closed her mouth a couple times before finally speaking again. "Danny, um…"

Danny looked up at her and lowered his spoon, somewhat grateful for a reason to stop eating.

"We need to discuss what happened last night." Maddie looked at him seriously. "You know that, right?"

"Now?" asked Danny. Jack's eyes were on him again.

"No, not now," said Maddie. "After school."

Danny kept eye contact with only her.

"We'll talk about it later this afternoon and decide where to go from there," said Maddie. "Okay?"

"Okay."

"So you need to come straight home right when school ends. Jazz, please drive Danny home today."

"Of course," said Jazz.

Danny stared off to the left. "Ah, but... Well, Sam kind of made me promise I would—"

Both of his parents' eyes narrowed in disapproval.

"Ah...okay." Danny blushed and inclined his head.

"And please try not to get detention today," said Jack.

"Jack," scolded Maddie.

"What? He gets detention a lot."

Danny's lips pursed. "Not that often. And I keep telling you it's because Lancer—"

"Just don't today, okay?"

Jack's intensity pushed Danny against the back of his chair.

"I just don't want to have to wait around for you to get back so we can have this discussion."

Danny said nothing for a long moment before finally nodding.

Maddie leaned over the table toward him. "You okay, Danny?"

Danny blinked and turned to her. "Hmm?"

"Is there anything you want to say now?" Maddie glanced at the clock. "Or do you want to talk now? I could take you to school for your second class later."

"No," said Danny quickly. "No, I'm fine. It's fine. After school is fine."

"You sure?"

Danny inwardly winced. Outwardly, should he smile or be stoic? What would be normal for him? He didn't know. Why didn't he know? He should know, right? Was he that out of touch with himself?

He had to answer. He had to respond. Doing nothing was definitely not something he would normally do. He at least knew that much.

Did he?

He was already doubting even that.

He chose to smile. "Yes," he said with a small lift of assurance.

Maddie studied his face closely. Danny kept his smile, kept his eyes right on her. His father was nothing but a blur beside her.

His mother at last stood and began clearing the table. "All right. You and Jazz should probably leave now, then."

"Let me help with the dishes real quick." Danny jumped up with his bowl and stacked Jazz's above it so his mother couldn't see that he had barely eaten anything.

Maddie smiled at him appreciatively. "Thank you, sweetheart."

Danny warmed, relishing the fond reaction. He reached for Jack's empty bowl.

Stopped.

Warmth faded as he tentatively raised his eyes to meet his father's.

"What?" asked Jack with a puzzled brow.

Danny's outstretched fingers twitched. "Um... Are you done? Can I take this?"

Jack shrugged and pushed the bowl toward him. Danny gripped it, stacked it on the others in his arm. He briskly turned. He could see his mother's worried expression on the edge of his vision.

"Danny?" she asked.

He headed to the sink and rinsed out all the bowls, his first. He pulled at his collar.

"Danny."

He could hear her walking toward him. He turned to face her. "Yeah, Mom?" he asked cheerfully.

She stopped just a foot away from him. He maintained his innocent poker face as her gaze roamed over him.

"We're not mad at you," she said softly. "We were only worried."

"I know," said Danny just as quietly.

"And we love you. So much."

Danny warily peered behind Maddie at Jack, who was still sitting at the kitchen table, speaking to Jazz about something.

He turned back to rinsing off the dishes.

In Jazz's car, Danny stared out the window as the scenery rushed by.

"How are you feeling?" asked Jazz.

"Fine," said Danny flatly.

Jazz hesitated. "You don't seem fine."

Danny looked at her. She only glanced at him before returning her eyes to the road.

"Was it obvious back there?"

"Yeah, it...kind of was."

Danny sighed. "Great," he muttered.

A short silence.

"So...you and Dad…" Jazz tapped the steering wheel as she thought.

Danny shrugged. "I told you Dad hates me."

"No, he doesn't."

"Then how do you explain what happened in there?"

"He was just... You know how he gets when he's mad. He gets moody and irritable."

"He was talking to you just fine."

Jazz bit her lip. "Well, because... Well, he's not mad at me."

"Has Dad ever been mad at you?"

Jazz knit her brow in thought.

"Why did I even ask that?" grumbled Danny. "You're perfect. You never do anything wrong. You've never been in trouble for anything."

"Now, no, that's not—"

"It's true," asserted Danny. "And look, I don't want to talk about this. I need to stop thinking about it." Yes, that was it. He had to lock this feeling away. "It wasn't a big deal anyway. Not the first time Dad's had me trapped like that. Not the first time he's threatened me. So whatever. This is nothing new."

"Danny, that's dangerous."

"What is?"

"It's okay to think about it. Healthy, even. You should allow yourself to process it."

"Jazz, I don't want your psychotherapy, okay?"

Jazz did not reply. Danny guiltily sighed over the snappishness of his tone with her.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I really do appreciate what you've done for me. Last night...you really helped me out." He looked forward out the window. "But I just want to forget about it. I'll just take whatever punishment Mom and Dad give me, and then I can pretend this never happened."

"You know it can't be that simple."

He knew that. Of course he knew that.

But for now, last night was over. Breakfast was over. School would eventually be over. The coming discussion with his parents would at some point also be over.

There was an end. He just had to hold out for it.

Chapter Text

Lunch hour at Casper High. Danny sat across from Sam and Tucker outside in the warm spring air amidst a scattering of new flowers sprouting in the grass around them. He stared blankly at the meal he had purchased from the cafeteria. He wouldn't have purchased anything at all if it weren't for his friends being right there with him.

But he knew he had to eat. He hadn't eaten much at breakfast. He needed calories so he'd have energy to fight ghosts.

And energy to talk to his dad later.

And his mom, too. Of course. Not just his dad.

"Hey, so, Danny." Tucker rapped his knuckles on the table. "We need to talk about last night."

Danny lowered the burger in his hands. He suppressed a glare. No, we don't, he wanted to say.

"I didn't see your text until this morning, but I'm of course happy to cover for you," said Tucker. "But what exactly am I covering for?"

"Yeah, what happened?" asked Sam.

Danny's muscles relaxed. Right. He had called on Tucker to pretend he was with him and not trapped in an alley by someone too familiar who hated him and wanted to kill him—

He really needed to stop that. His dad did not want to kill him.

Danny set down his burger on his tray. "I was out on patrol last night past curfew, and my parents noticed I was gone. I don't know, I guess my mom decided to check on me for some reason. But anyway, I just needed to give them some sort of excuse for where I was." He guiltily looked down at his lunch, a lunch he still didn't want to eat. Maybe he could give it to Tucker as compensation. "I'm really sorry I couldn't wait for you to reply, but I really needed to tell them something."

"It's cool," said Tucker, "but, ah... What do we want to say we were doing, then?"

"Just...playing a new game you got or something. You know, on that new VR system of yours."

"Okay, but do you think that will convince them?"

Danny frowned.

"I mean, do you think they'd believe you'd sneak out just to play a game?"

Danny took a sip of water to stall for time as he thought. "Well... I mean... I'll just say we were texting late last night and...you were telling me how awesome the game was and...I just wanted to check it out for an hour and that I didn't think they'd notice I was gone." He didn't dare look up to see the expressions on his friends' faces, especially not Sam's. He didn't want to risk any visible affirmation of how stupid he was sure this idea sounded.

Both of his friends were quiet for a moment.

"Okay," said Sam at last, "but what if they ask to see your phone? To check that you were actually texting about it? They won't find anything."

"Well, maybe we could say that we planned Danny to sneak out earlier at school yesterday?" offered Tucker.

"Yeah, but Danny's never done anything like that before. I mean, as far as they know. Certainly not for a game."

"Mmm...then maybe we could just say he...decided to come over on his own? He just surprised me with a visit?"

"But for what reason? It's gotta be something his parents will buy. Something personal, maybe?"

"But then they're going to want to know what that personal reason was."

"Well, he doesn't have to say what it was." Sam haughtily lifted her chin. "He has a right to his privacy."

Danny groaned and put a hand to his head. "You're right. This is stupid. They'll never buy it. But I just—I just needed—I had to think of something—"

"Chill, dude, it's okay." Tucker held up a reassuring hand. "We'll make this work." He shot a smirk at their goth friend. "It just might have been more convincing to say you snuck out to see, you know, Sam."

Danny blushed and kept his gaze down. "Well, I—I didn't want them to think—that Sam and I—I mean, Sam and I, we're not—" He looked up apprehensively. "Do you really think they won't buy that I was with you?"

Tucker shrugged. "It's too late to change it now. Like I said, we'll make it work."

"Just say you had a really bad day at school and needed a little bromance time," said Sam cheekily.

Danny gave her a weak smile in return. "Is it okay if I don't use that word?"

"It might be more convincing if you use it."

Danny exhaled in soft amusement before turning back to his tech friend. "Okay, well...just thanks, Tuck. I'm sorry to drag you into this, but thanks for letting me. I owe you one."

"Nah. It's no problem at all." Tucker glanced at Sam before looking back at him. "We're all in this together."

The corners of Danny's mouth twitched but could not form a genuine smile. Such loyalty, loyalty he so often had to take advantage of. He hated that his friends had to suffer with him. And they were so willing, too.

He didn't deserve them.

"Thanks," he finally managed to get out through a plastered smile.

Sam and Tucker smiled back at him. Pleasant and friendly and…

...expectant?

Danny curiously eyed them. They seemed to be waiting for something.

"So, Danny, um…" Sam bit the inside of her violet-stained lip. "Did anything else happen last night?"

"Yeah," chimed in Tucker. "Anything at all?"

Danny looked at Sam hard, then Tucker.

"No," he said with low tone.

Sam and Tucker stared back at him for a moment before looking at each other. Danny quietly watched the wordless debate between them.

"Danny." Sam clasped her hands. "Jazz e-mailed us."

Danny rolled his eyes. "Of course she did. That's what she does."

He irritably glared at them. Sam and Tucker exchanged glances again, hesitantly this time.

"Danny, can we talk about it?" asked Sam.

"I don't want to."

"But—"

"I don't know what Jazz told you, but she wasn't there. She doesn't know what happened."

"And that's why we want to hear it from you," insisted Sam. "Please talk to us about it."

"It was nothing."

"It didn't sound like nothing."

"I told you, Jazz doesn't know anything."

"Just... Danny, did it really happen?" asked Tucker. "You and your dad, I mean?"

Danny shrugged. "Not the first time my dad's caught me like that."

"Yeah, true, but you've never…" Tucker cleared his throat. "Um—"

Danny glowered darkly at him. Tucker leaned back and said nothing more.

"You've never reacted that way before," said Sam. "I mean, from what Jazz said—"

"What? What did Jazz say?" asked Danny testily.

Sam pensively looked down at her vegan lunch before raising her eyes again. "She...made it sound like you didn't take it very well."

Anger and betrayal vied for space in his head. "I was just tired," he said as calmly as he could. "I overreacted. It was stupid."

"Danny—"

"No. I can't believe Jazz e-mailed you. Why would she do that?"

"Because it's something we should know," said Sam. "We're a team, and anything that involves your ghost side is something we need to know so we can help you."

"It wasn't her place to tell you. She should've let me tell you."

"But you weren't going to, were you?"

Danny didn't reply.

"She knew you wouldn't. That's why she told us." Sam studied him with a disapproving frown. "And she was right. You were going to keep it from us, weren't you?"

"So what if I was? Weren't you the one saying I have a right to my privacy?"

Sam blinked and mutely sat back.

"It's not something you needed to know," asserted Danny.

"But Danny, you're our friend, and we care about you," pleaded Sam. "We want to help you through this. How can we help you if you don't confide in us something as important as what happened last night?"

"There's nothing to help me through," snapped Danny. "I'm fine. I admit I was a little shaken, but I'm fine now."

"Danny, it's okay," said Tucker. "I mean, it was your own dad. That had to have been rough."

"No. It was nothing. Seriously, I just overreacted. I've been through way worse." Danny looked down at his arms resting against the edge of the table. Why were they trembling so much? "He didn't know it was me. He just really hates Phantom. And honestly, who doesn't in this town?"

"Lots of people like Phantom," assured Tucker.

Danny kept his gaze down for a couple beats. "Yeah, well, not my dad," he grumbled. "But that's nothing new."

Sam and Tucker stared at him with small pouts. Danny didn't look up.

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," he said firmly.

His friends remained quiet, and in their sustained uncomfortable silence, shame over his behavior and lack of gratitude for their support built and burrowed deep in his empty stomach.

He picked up his burger, wondering if maybe this time, for once, food could replace the bad feeling instead of aggravating it.

"Tuck, really, thank you." Danny couldn't bring himself to look at his tech friend, but he tried to sound sincere. "For helping me out."

Tucker smiled and nodded. "Never a problem."

His friends attempted to engage him in more pleasant conversation, trivial matters, amusing small-talk.

Good, yes. Another incident done and over, another end met.

...

His nerves were buzzing. His hands were shaking.

Jack fumbled with an installment on his latest project. It was loose. It wasn't staying in place. Had he measured this out wrong again?

He kept having to start over, remember again what it was exactly he was trying to calculate or fit together or weld every few minutes. His focus kept shifting to other thoughts, to memories.

Maddie was still upset with him. So obviously. She was being civil with him now, sure, but she was definitely mostly ignoring him, hadn't given him one smile at all that entire morning, not even when he tried smiling at her first. The way she worked behind him now, her back turned completely to him, the sounds of her labor, nothing about it was normal.

And all over a ghost.

No, not a ghost. Him.

He didn't even want to think the punk's name.

Why did Danny have to sneak out? Why did Maddie have to notice? Why did Maddie have to insist they actually go out and look for him?

Last night was Danny's fault. Maddie's coldness toward him now was Danny's fault.

Damn it, why couldn't Danny be more like Jazz? Jazz would never do such a thing to him.

He gritted his teeth and pressed his current project into the counter. No way he was going to go easy on Danny for this one. Maddie always insisted on coddling him because he was just so fragile and sensitive and oh Jack don't be so hard on him he's trying his best.

No way he was going to let Maddie talk him into giving their son any less than what he deserved this time.

His stomach growled loudly. What time was it? How long had he and Maddie been working down here? He definitely needed a break. Not that he had accomplished much so far. He couldn't even affix this stupid installment.

Danny's fault.

His stomach growled again. Should he just leave the lab? Should he try to invite Maddie to join him? Would she even want to?

He leaned over the counter, rehearsing in his head what he would say to her. He then turned around. "Hey, Maddie—"

He stopped. Maddie was gone. When had she left? Why hadn't he noticed sooner that the sound of her working behind him had disappeared?

He climbed the stairs out of the basement to find Maddie on the living room sofa, jumpsuit hood down, arms folded, one shapely leg crossed over the other, small feminine foot bouncing up and down along to what seemed to be deep contemplation. She appeared to not notice him at all as she stared straight ahead, eyes glazed and narrowed.

What was she thinking about?

Or was it a who?

Better not be him.

Not that he'd be able to blame her. Jack was thinking about that scrawny little jackass, too.

"Maddie?" he asked tentatively.

Maddie turned her head toward him. "Oh, hey. Are you done for now?"

"Yeah. For now."

"Can we talk about Danny, then?"

Oh. Danny. The other him.

"I just don't know what to make of him sneaking out." Maddie looked forward again with a puzzled frown.

Jack joined her on the sofa but kept a discreet distance, her closed-off body language not inviting him to come any closer. He had no idea what to make of their son's actions the night before either, but he did know that it was the reason he couldn't place an arm around his wife right now.

"So... Do you want to talk about what we're going to do about it?" asked Jack.

"Eventually. But I'm really more concerned about why he snuck out. It's not like him to rebel or disregard our rules. I mean, right? Is something more serious going on with him?"

"I don't know. I mean, there's always a first time for everything."

"Are you saying you think he could do this again? Or more often?"

"Well, yeah, if he did it once, why wouldn't he maybe do it again?"

"That's why I really want to hear more of what he was doing last night, why he felt it was so important to see Tucker right then and not wait until school. We definitely need to sit down with him and have a serious talk about it."

Yes. Danny's excuse. His claim that he was with Tucker.

Jack's focus blurred, hardened.

Indeed, why couldn't he have just waited until school the next morning? What could have possibly been so important that he had to leave after curfew had already passed?

He and Maddie should not have been out last night. They should've been together in their bed, not arguing and fighting in the streets.

And did Danny really expect them to believe he had gone out just to see Tucker? Jack hated that they hadn't forced him to speak more the night before, that Maddie had allowed him to go to bed. He had the entire night to concoct an excuse and now the entire school day to further fabricate it.

He definitely planned on conducting an aggressive cross-examination when Danny came home.

"But regardless, we still have to punish him," sighed Maddie. "Some sort of consequence to deter him from sneaking out again. I mean, what if something had happened to him on his way home? Ghosts really do roam this city at night."

She turned her head to Jack, her eyes reflecting a grudge. Jack knew exactly what she was thinking about, what ghosts or rather ghost she was referring to.

Jack said nothing. He wasn't about to start up this fight again. And he definitely didn't want to even mention him.

"I need to call Angela," muttered Maddie as she pulled out her phone and started scrolling through her contacts.

Jack hummed a low scoff.

Maddie looked up at him. "What?"

"I just find Danny's excuse odd. Why would he sneak out to see Tucker?"

"Well, yeah, that's why we need to sit down with him and—"

"No, I mean, why Tucker?"

Maddie cocked her head.

"Certainly not something I would've snuck out for." Jack shrugged. "And I did my share of sneaking out back in high school."

Maddie smirked at him. "Oh, so Danny got this from you, huh?"

"There's no way he could've gotten it from me. I only snuck out to see girls."

Maddie chuckled and leaned her body toward him. "Well, I don't think Danny is as promiscuous as you."

She moved in closer, trailed her fingers down his arm. Her touch jolted his skin through the material of his jumpsuit, ignited his scurrying nerves, made his lips spread with bliss.

He leaned toward her as well and placed his hand over hers. "Are you still mad at me, Maddie?"

Maddie allowed him to caress the back of her gloved hand but otherwise did not move. "I just don't understand why you lied to me," she said quietly. "You found Phantom. He was right there. But not only did you not capture him, you didn't even tell me you found him. You deliberately lied to me and said you hadn't found him at all."

She didn't meet his gaze, continued to stay still with her hand against him. Jack resisted the urge to put his arm around her and pull her in close, afraid to push his luck too soon.

"I'm sorry," he said solemnly. "I told you I hadn't found him yet because I wasn't ready for you to join me. I just wanted to talk to Phantom on my own first."

"Talk to him about what?"

"Just...his motives, what he's doing in our town, why we never had a ghost problem before he appeared."

"But we could've made him talk about all that in captivity."

Jack hesitated. He was lying to her again. But he couldn't tell her the truth. He could never reveal that he simply didn't want her anywhere near that ghost.

"I know," he finally said, "but at the time, I just wanted to talk to him on my own." He slowly moved his other hand close to her leg, rested a palm on her thigh when she did not shy away. "But I should've told you. You're right. That was wrong of me. I won't do it again."

More lies.

But to his relief, she smiled and moved her mouth close to his. He met her with smooth reflexes, parted flesh warm and soft, drew her in, let her pull at him.

His mind was melting, floating, clearing.

Maddie broke away from the kiss with a tiny smacking noise. She gazed at him dreamily. Jack ran a hand up her thigh toward her hips, put his other hand in her hair to bring her mouth back to his.

"Mmm, Jack, I need to call Angela." Maddie leaned away from him.

"Aw, but Mads…"

"I know, I know. But we need to be parents now, okay?"

Jack playfully pouted. Danny. Of course. Their son probably should come first.

Maddie pecked his lips with hers. "Later."

Jack brightened, his thoughts already alight with possible scenarios and locations and positions—

His stomach growled an angry reminder. He met Maddie's amused smile with a sheepish one. "I'll go make us lunch, then. Let me know how it goes."

He lugged himself off the sofa and walked to the kitchen, going over meal choices in his head based on what he knew they had in the fridge and freezer and pantry. Pizza and burritos and wings and chips and FUDGE of course fudge no wait Maddie wanted him to eat healthier okay so maybe salad or egg salad with lots of mustard and ranch dressing and mayonnaise oh right no that's not healthy just eggs then or maybe cold cuts or wait the Fenton Panini Maker he hadn't used that in a while he should use that he should make panini sandwiches that sounded awesome and then maybe a little fudge afterwards.

He gathered what he needed while listening to Maddie's side of the conversation with Tucker's mother back in the living room. Greeting, a bit of small talk. Stalling for just a moment before breaking the uncomfortable news. Bread, turkey, tomatoes, cheese, lots of cheese. How are things, how is life? Sourdough or ciabatta or multigrain? Oh, he needed to add greens, too. Spinach leaves, perhaps? Angela, listen, I called you for a more specific reason. It's about Danny. Provolone or mozzarella? Why not both? Danny broke curfew last night and didn't get home until well past one in the morning. He said he was with your son. Do you know anything about that?

He placed the assembled sandwiches in the panini maker and pressed down. No response, no hiss of heat being applied. Oh, he forgot to plug it in. There. Now to grill the perfect sandwiches.

In the living room, Maddie continued her phone conversation about Danny. Danny. He had been really angry with Danny not that long ago. But Danny was just being a typical teen. Totally normal for a teen to sneak out. Even he had his rebellious bouts in his high school days, and Danny was his son.

Sizzling, smoking, starving. He placed the finished sandwiches on plates and resisted devouring his right then. He had to wait for Maddie.

She appeared in the kitchen at last. Jack beamed at her. "How'd it go?"

"Angela says she'll talk to Tucker, but she's reluctant to believe that Danny was with him last night." Maddie leaned against a wall forlornly. "She says she can't imagine Tucker sneaking out himself to see him."

"Danny said he was at their house, didn't he?"

"I think he did, but Angela says she definitely didn't hear him in the house. And she insists she's a really light sleeper."

"So... What are you thinking?"

Maddie held up her hands. "I don't know. I mean, I don't think Danny would lie about where he was...unless he was trying to hide something. But that doesn't seem like him either. But then I never would've thought he'd sneak out in the first place, so—" She sighed in frustration.

"Hey, now." Jack guided her to the kitchen table and set a sandwich before her. "Let's not jump to conclusions. We should let Danny explain his side more first." He glanced at the chair Danny had sat in just a few hours ago at breakfast. He remembered how irritated he had been with his son that morning, but now the desire to discredit his story was gone. "He's a good kid. He always has been."

"It's just... I mean, the way he acted last night. And this morning, too." Maddie picked up her sandwich but did not take a bite. "Something about this just doesn't feel right."

"We know our son," said Jack firmly. "We just need to give him a chance to defend himself."

"Do we really know him?"

Jack reached over and touched her arm. "Of course we do. And you'll see when we talk to him later that he's fine. He just had a rebellious moment. Even if he is lying about being with Tucker, I'm sure it wasn't to hide anything illegal or dangerous. Maybe he was actually with Sam and he just doesn't want us to know he's involved with her."

Maddie smiled knowingly. "That would make sense. He's had a crush on her for so long."

Jack moved his chair in closer to her. Maddie took a bite of her sandwich and hummed approval as she chewed. Auburn hair catching the light, creamy lips pressing and rubbing against each other, cheeks filled with food he had prepared just for her. So beautiful.

They could deal with their son later. Maddie wasn't angry with him anymore. Everything was fine now.

Chapter Text

Never had the school day felt so short before. When the final bell rang, Danny lamented that there couldn't be just one more class.

But it was time to leave, time to go home. He dragged himself down the hall and out of the building and toward the student parking lot. At the very least, it was a relief to get away from Sam and Tucker. Although they did not try to bring up the subject of last night again, he could see the questions etched in their heads every time they spoke to him or even looked at him.

Being apart from them felt better than he wanted it to. But being with them was still so much more preferable to returning home.

Jazz was waiting for him by her car. She looked up as he approached. Danny stopped a short distance away and glared at her. She squinched her brow with a slight tilt of her head.

"Why did you e-mail Sam and Tucker about what happened last night?" he asked when they were both in the car.

Jazz was quiet for only a moment. "Because I knew you wouldn't tell them yourself."

"Oh, you knew, huh? And how did you know I wouldn't tell them myself?"

"Well, was I wrong?"

Danny exhaled sharply through his nose. No, of course not. His perfect sister was never wrong. "It doesn't matter. It wasn't your place to tell them."

"They needed to know. I knew you weren't going to tell them, so I had to do it for you."

"They did not need to know."

"Yes, they did," insisted Jazz, her eyes fixed straight ahead.

"No, they didn't, and even if they did, what makes you think you had any business or right telling them yourself?" Anger, so much of it, replacing the dread for the time being. This sort of weight was so much lighter, felt so much more comfortable in his gut. "If anyone was going to tell them, it should've been me."

"You're right. You should've been the one to tell them. But I knew you wouldn't." She glanced at him. "Right? You wouldn't have ever told them."

"Because they didn't need to know."

"Yes, they did."

"No!" snapped Danny. "Who do you think you are to decide that? It's my life, my friends, my decision." He massaged the back of his neck, kneaded the aching soreness from the injection site in an attempt to spread it, diffuse it. The pain in his arm had dulled significantly, but there was still a heaviness that made it difficult to comfortably rest or move. "Now, because of you, Sam and Tucker are worrying about this little thing that happened. Do you know how hard it is to get them to let things go? They make a huge deal out of everything."

"See? There it is. The fact that you think this is just a little thing proves they needed to know. Because you need help."

Danny clenched his jaw. "It is a little thing. I overreacted, okay? But I'm fine now."

"You're not fine. You're so obviously not fine, Danny."

"What would you know? You're not me."

"I can tell. I know you."

"No, you don't know me. You don't know anything."

"I do know. And I'm not the only one who can tell. Mom and Dad could definitely tell. And Sam and Tucker could tell."

Danny shot her an awry glare. "Sam and Tucker could tell? How would you know that?"

Jazz's neck noticeably tensed. "We... They texted me."

Danny rolled his eyes up at the ceiling. "You guys were texting about me? Seriously?"

"We're just concerned about you."

"And you think that's a good excuse?" yelled Danny. "I don't care that you're concerned or that you're older or that you're smarter. I don't care if you think I need help and that I'm just too stupid to admit it."

"Danny, please, that's not—"

"It doesn't mean you can talk about me or make decisions behind my back."

"Danny—"

He was done. Done with this, done with her. He willed intangibility to sweep over his molecules, transformed and shifted into anti-gravity, shot up and out of her car amidst her protests. Away he sped, high above the town and all the people in it that could just never trust him.

The heated pain from the injections was so much cooler in this form, so much more tolerable, he could almost feel them healing with accelerated relief—

But where did they come from—?

Him. What was he thinking? Why had he transformed? He was still angry and still hated him and if he saw him flying like this he'd—

He had to get away. Get away from here.

No, he had to go home. Immediately. He'd be even angrier if he didn't return home right after school like he was supposed to.

He could see the ridiculously obvious house from here. He slowed, stopped, hovered in the air.

He had to go home. He couldn't run away from this.

But he couldn't return on his own. He had to be with Jazz. It would be too suspicious otherwise, and his dad was already so suspicious.

He engaged his hold on gravity and allowed himself to sink to the ground, changing back into his human form, the pain in his neck and arm instantly returning. On the sidewalk about a block away, Danny stared down the street toward Fenton Works.

A car pulled up beside him. Danny warily turned to look at it as the driver's side window rolled down.

"Danny." Jazz leaned out toward him. "Are you okay?"

He didn't answer.

"Will you let me drive you the rest of the way home? Please?"

Danny stared back at her for a moment, looked down the street, returned his gaze to her. At last, he moved around to the other side of the car and climbed into the passenger's seat. The siblings sat in silence as Jazz drove down the street, parking at the curb once they arrived at their house.

His father was in there waiting. No escape.

Jazz gently touched his arm. Danny looked down at her fingers, not at her.

"I'm sorry I told Sam and Tucker without your permission," said Jazz seriously, quietly. "That was wrong of me."

She sounded genuinely repentant, but Danny still did not look up. It was over and done. Sam and Tucker knew, and he wouldn't be able to change that. The sooner this next challenge began, the sooner it could end. He picked up his school bag from the car floor and clutched it to him tightly, breathed, readied himself.

"One thing." Jazz leaned over and opened the glove compartment in front of him. She rummaged through and pulled out a small pill bottle. "This should help with the pain and inflammation. I just noticed you rubbing your neck and arm a lot."

Danny took the bottle from Jazz. Ibuprofen. He probably could use more, yes. The relief from the dose he took that morning had definitely worn off. Not that he was about to tell her he had already taken eight hundred milligrams that morning. He poured two pills in his hand, a standard dose, and dry swallowed them. He then leaned back and closed his eyes, arms crossed over the bag held to his chest.

He visualized the medication working, taking all of this away. This would mask the pain and everything would be fine and easy and maybe even normal again.

"Danny," said Jazz. "You can't stay here forever."

Why not? Why did he have to leave? Why did he have to face him again?

because he told you to.

Why couldn't he wait another five or ten minutes, at least?

because he'll hate you even more for making him wait.

His dad didn't hate him.

you remember how he acted this morning don't you?

He was just angry. Not the same as hate.

well then by all means go in and see for yourself

The nerve in his upper chest was shooting and twanging, crumpling his spine in defense. He could see Jazz studying him, and he suddenly wanted so much to confide in her, to tell her just how shaken and tormented he was feeling. She was right, he was wrong. He wasn't fine. He wanted her to know, to share this weight.

But he couldn't trust her with this. She would just tell Sam and Tucker. She would just try to fix him, give him advice. She could never just listen.

She wasn't his ally right now.

He stepped out of the car and walked toward the house, slinging his school bag on his back, even pace, even breathing.

He stood before the front door. He was fine. He was calm. The jolting pulse in his chest was gone. He could stand straight easily.

Good.

Jazz strolled up next to him. "Do you want me to go in first?"

Not looking at her, Danny pushed the door open without further hesitation. In the living room, their parents were sitting on the sofa.

"How was school?" asked Maddie.

"Great," said Jazz.

Jack was smiling. But that couldn't be right. His dad looked happy. Like normal. But things weren't normal right now, were they? How could they be? It hadn't been that long since breakfast. Was his dad over it all now?

Was it or wasn't it over?

"Danny?" asked Jack.

Danny blinked and straightened up. "Hmm?"

"You were just staring at me," said Jack with an amused smile.

"Oh." Danny looked down at the floor. "Sorry."

Jack chuckled. "No need to apologize. You just seem a little dazed. You doing okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

"Are you ready to talk now?" asked Maddie. "Or do you need a few minutes? Do you want to eat something first, maybe?"

He needed far longer than a few minutes. He couldn't possibly eat anything now. Nothing could get through his clotted throat prickled with tension.

He was not ready.

He nodded.

Jazz left the room, and then he was alone with his parents. They sat together on one end while he took a seat at the other. He waited for them to begin, hoped that they would maybe never begin and they could just sit here in silence. But none of this could end if it didn't start.

"Danny." Jack was speaking first. Danny focused on the peppered strands in his aging hair. "Can you tell us exactly what you were doing last night?"

"Yes," said Maddie. Danny quickly made eye contact with her. "Tell us from the beginning. When did you leave, where did you go, when did you get back?"

"You were definitely here when we all went to bed," said Jack. "So that means you left the house after ten, well after your curfew of nine on school nights."

Stern but not angry. His father really did sound like his usual self again and yet Danny didn't want to test it. He kept himself turned toward his mother, directed his explanation to her.

"Yes," Danny began. "I left after everyone went to bed. Well, what happened was Tucker and I were texting, and he started telling me about this new game he got for his VR system. And…" Sam and Tucker were both so right. This sounded ridiculous, just stupid. But he was now committed, and Tucker already agreed to corroborate. "And... Well, I just really wanted to check it out, so..."

"You snuck out to play a video game?" said Jack with a lift of hinted incredulity.

Yup, it was official. This sounded way too stupid.

"Must've been a really good game," quipped Maddie. "What was it?"

Damn it. He hadn't even thought to invent that detail.

"It's just a shooter game," said Danny as casually as he could. "You wouldn't know it."

"But do you know it?" asked Maddie with a small raise of her brow.

"Yeah, what's the name?" pressed Jack.

Their tones were almost jocular in their probing. Tiny muscles in his skin tightened, raising the hairs on his arm.

"Farpoint," he blurted, the first VR shooter game he knew Tucker owned. But that wasn't a new game. Tucker bought that months ago. He sucked, he absolutely just sucked.

"Farpoint. Sounds fun," said Maddie. "Where did you play?"

"Downstairs. In his living room. I mean, that's where all his gaming stuff is set up. His mom won't let him keep it in his room anymore."

"And did Tucker ask you to come over? Or did you invite yourself?"

"Ah... I invited myself, I guess. Well, I mean, I asked if I could come over to check it out, and he said yes."

"And so you just went to his house? And played a game in the living room? And his parents didn't hear you at all?"

"Well, Tucker always plays games at night in the living room, so the noise wouldn't have been new to them."

"Do they usually let him play at midnight on school nights?"

Danny hesitated. "Um...no. I mean, they don't let him, but he still does sometimes. But we kept the volume really low. They didn't hear us."

His parents didn't reply. In fact, they said nothing for some time, the silence becoming more and more deafening the longer it dragged.

"Is that the truth, Danny?" asked Jack in a low voice. "Is that really what you were doing last night?"

Danny tentatively locked eyes with his father. So much evident in his father's stare.

Jack knew. Just like Sam and Tucker, he knew. Jack knew he was lying. Jack knew he was out on the streets and knew he was held at gunpoint and knew he was Phantom and knew everything and he was going to lock him up and lock him down and kill him and his dad wouldn't even miss him.

No, no, it had to be another tactic, another ploy to catch him. Once again trapped with his hands up, forced to explain himself, his reasons and defenses challenged and belittled. A test, just another research experiment. Another standoff, another gun aimed at his head.

What should he do? Call this bluff and stick to the story he had worked out with Tucker? Or offer a new story, the story Sam had suggested?

Maybe a little of both?

"Okay, look." Danny exhaled, studied the fibers of the couch. "We... We did play a game, but...there was more to it than that. I mean, that's not the reason I snuck out."

His parents tilted their heads.

"I've just been kind of going through a rough time lately, and... I wanted to talk to Tucker about some things." He rubbed his forearms, tried to smooth out the bristling bumps. "But I really was at his house."

"What things, Danny?" asked Maddie, her forehead creased with motherly concern.

"Just...personal things." Danny slouched his shoulders. "Um... Nothing that serious, honestly. It definitely could've waited until I saw him at school. I really am sorry for doing this to you."

"What personal things?" Maddie asked more forcefully. "You can't just keep this from us, Danny. If something is troubling you or hurting you, we need to know so we can help you."

Danny tensed. What wasn't troubling or hurting him these days? Even his own parents were unknowingly torturing him. "It's nothing, really. I mean, just...stupid dramatic teenage stuff, you know? I just get worked up over little things, overreact. Tucker's just good at helping me talk things out."

He ran his nails over his jeans. His parents scrutinized him from the other end of the couch.

"Why didn't you tell us this before?" asked Jack. "Why did you tell us it was just for a game?"

"Because...I didn't want you to worry about me. It really was nothing, nothing you need to be concerned about or help me with." He raised his head with somber expression. "I'm fine. Really."

Maddie and Jack stared back at him just as solemnly, then turned to each other in whispered conversation. Danny watched them, clasped his hands and bounced them on his thigh.

"All right, Danny." Maddie sighed. "We definitely want to know what you talked about with Tucker, what was so troubling that you felt you had to talk about it in person in the middle of the night, but we won't make you tell us right now."

Danny's muscles relaxed.

"We know you're not a liar," said Jack, "so if you say you were with Tucker, we believe you."

He tensed again but gave no visible reaction. He had been a liar for so long now. He didn't deserve their trust, not as their son. Perhaps he deserved their distrust as their ghost after all, then.

"But you did sneak out," said Maddie. "We can't let that go."

Danny waited. Maddie and Jack shifted their weights, looking somewhat uncomfortable.

"Danny, what you did was not only disrespectful to our rules but also dangerous," said Maddie, her eyes fixing with a stern glare. "You know that ghosts are most active at night, and they are rampant in our town."

Danny could see something flash in Jack's eyes, but the older man stayed silent, the corners of his mouth turning down. Maddie stole a glance at him, but he didn't return it.

"We met up with ghosts ourselves last night while looking for you," said Maddie. "And even with our expertise, we definitely could've been killed."

"No," said Jack suddenly, bitingly. "Those ghosts need to watch out for us, not the other way around."

Maddie shot a disapproving look at him. Jack shrugged. Danny studied the exchange but was unsure what it meant.

"Danny, we don't want you to think we don't trust you or that we don't think you're responsible enough to be out on your own," said Maddie, "but you're our son, our child, and we need to know where you are at all times, especially during the night. We have these rules not to restrict you and Jazz but to keep you two safe." She paused and cocked her head. "Do you understand that, Danny?"

He understood every word. But just how much safer was he at night sleeping down the hall from scientists who so often openly discussed the explicit details of the sickening experiments they wanted to put him through?

"I do understand," said Danny quietly. "I really am sorry for sneaking out and worrying you. I won't do it again."

"We believe you," said Maddie with a small smile, "but like I said, we can't just let this go."

Danny looked down. He knew what was coming next.

"Dad and I talked about it." Maddie patted Jack's leg. "Since this was the first—and hopefully only—time, we won't be too harsh, but we will be strict about it." She straightened up. "You are to go to school with Jazz and come home immediately afterwards with her, just like today. No hanging out with Sam or Tucker. When you're home, you're to be out here where we can see you, not in your room. We moved your computer so that you can do your homework down here."

Maddie gestured to Danny's computer that was clearly right there. How could he not have noticed it before?

"You can only be in your room at night to sleep," continued Maddie, "but you must keep your door open."

Danny suppressed an eye roll. After what happened the night before, he didn't think he could possibly feel more debased.

But he had to accept these terms. He had no choice.

"How long?" he asked without looking up.

"One week," said Jack gruffly. "Until next Thursday."

Danny frowned to himself. His father didn't sound nearly as angry as he did that morning, but he certainly sounded more upset than he had when Danny first entered the living room not that long ago.

"Which means no going out this weekend either," said Maddie.

Danny kept his eyes down but nodded to show he understood.

Why did his dad seem like his normal self earlier? And what caused the sudden shift just now?

Was it him? Was it just something about him that irritated his father? Had his father been in a good mood while he was gone but soured the moment he came home?

He had been trying to be respectful and cooperative, and it seemed it just wasn't enough. He wasn't enough for his dad. Could he ever be enough?

"You okay, Danny?"

Danny looked up through half-lidded eyes.

"Is there anything else you want to talk about?" asked Maddie with keen concern.

Danny was sure she was thinking back to the way he acted the night before and at breakfast. Jazz did tell him his odd behavior was obvious. "No," he said with a small shake of his head and a weak smile.

Maddie and Jack exchanged looks but did not press further.

"Well, I'm going to call Tucker's mom again," said Maddie, looking down at her phone. "I want to see if she's talked to Tucker about this. And I want to let her know what you just told us."

Danny numbly watched her thumb her phone screen. "You're going to call her now?" he asked through tightened vocal cords.

Jack and Maddie both looked at him. Danny avoided Jack's stare.

"Is that a problem?" asked Maddie.

Danny held back a gulp. "No."

She stood and walked to the kitchen with her phone. Danny watched her leave and did his best to conceal his panic.

"Do you have homework, Danny?" asked Jack.

Danny continued to look in the direction of the kitchen. "Yeah," he replied absently.

"Do it now. Down here."

"Right now?"

Danny turned to Jack to see him nod. No use arguing. He was the child here. He had to lose.

"Can I go upstairs first?" he asked, once again looking in the direction of the kitchen. He could hear Maddie beginning to talk to Tucker's mother. "Get some things, use the bathroom?"

"Just make it quick," said Jack. "Ten minutes."

Danny practically jumped off the couch, pulling at his shirt collar to conceal the injection site on his neck as he started up the stairs. He took out his cell phone to send Tucker a message, the details of the new story he had told his parents.

"Wait, Danny," Jack called after him.

Danny halted and turned around. Jack approached the stairs but did not ascend them.

"We're taking your phone for the week, too." Jack held out a large gloved hand to him.

Danny froze. "My phone?" He glanced down at it, then back at Jack. "Why?"

"It's what we decided."

Danny clutched his phone. His messages to Sam, Tucker, and even Jazz were hidden in an app disguised as something ordinary, an inconspicuous math app. His father wouldn't find those messages unless he thoroughly investigated the phone, and even if he did, the messages were carefully coded.

But he couldn't risk it. He needed to delete the app before he handed it over.

"Okay," said Danny with a small crack in his voice. "Is it all right if I send a message to Sam and Tuck to let them know?"

"No," said Jack, his hand still held out. "Give it to me now."

Danny recoiled at the harshness in his father's voice, the steel in his glower. Danny looked down at his phone again. If he deleted the app now with his dad staring right at him, he would not only get in more trouble for being openly defiant, but his dad would be suspicious about what he was doing, what he was trying to hide.

He had to play this as cool as possible to quell any wariness. He would just have to invisibly retrieve the phone that night and delete the app then.

He placed his phone in Jack's hand, praying that Tucker would figure out how to play along with the new version of his alibi.

Jack's fingers curled around the phone. He gave Danny a nod, then a smile. Confused by this sudden reaction free of the ire that had been present just seconds before, Danny could not summon a smile of his own as Jack turned away from him and headed to the kitchen. Danny stared after him.

Was his dad angry with him? Annoyed? Fine? What?

Why couldn't he tell?

Chapter Text

Dinner was fantastic. Jack would say Maddie outdid herself this time except everything she prepared was always this amazing. He ate heartily, happily. Heavenly.

Jazz was talking, discussing all the details of her latest research endeavors. And lately, all her research involved ghosts! His favorite subject! He loved hearing all of her theories and ideas, even the crazy ones that gave him a chance to debate with her. She usually focused on ghost psychology and human psychology related to ghosts, aspects that he himself had not delved into too much.

She used to hate ghosts. But at some point over a year ago, she became very interested in them. He had no idea why the sudden change, but he wasn't about to question it. He just couldn't be more pleased. He could always count on his daughter to make him proud.

"I think that's something Mom and I could probably investigate more thoroughly," said Jack, keeping a bite in his cheek as he spoke.

Jazz brightened, perked. "Really?"

"Sure! We could, right, Mads?"

Maddie smiled affectionately at their daughter. "Definitely! It's a very interesting idea."

Jazz's shoulders raised in excitement. "Wow, then maybe I could get started on my college thesis early!"

"You want to write about ghosts?" Jack leaned in toward her eagerly.

"Of course! There's not much out there about them right now apart from what you two have published. I want to continue the family legacy!"

Jack beamed at her. A family of ghost researchers. Perfect. Him and Maddie and Jazz—

—and—?

He turned his attention to Danny, whose head was down as he ate. Or while he moved his fork around, anyway. His plate was still pretty full even after all this time. But how could he possibly not want to scarf down this delicious food? It was steak night!

"What about you, Danny?" asked Jack, cutting off another piece of meat and popping it into his mouth.

Danny's head shot up, his fork falling out of his hand and onto his plate. "What?" he gasped out.

Jack quirked a brow in amusement. Across the table, Maddie stuck out her bottom lip and studied their son intently.

"Our family legacy. Are you going to uphold it, too? Like Jazz?" asked Jack.

Danny was still for a couple very quiet seconds. "Ah... Yeah, sure." The corners of his mouth twitched up and out. "Our... Our legacy, of course."

His strange smile widened, weakened. Nothing was said by anyone for a moment.

"Danny, you feeling okay?" Maddie's forehead creased. "You've barely touched your food."

"Oh, sorry." Danny promptly jabbed a large bite into his mouth. He almost comically chewed, audibly gagged behind closed lips.

"Sweetheart, careful, don't choke." Maddie placed a hand on his back. "You didn't answer my question. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"Do you want me to make you something else?"

"No, no. This is great. Really."

Jack sighed to himself as Maddie continued to fuss over their son amidst his bleats. She didn't need to fret and worry like this, though. Danny was just still feeling uncomfortable about being caught sneaking out the night before, about being lectured and punished, about getting his phone taken away. He was fine. He just needed time to get over it.

After dinner, Jack rinsed off his dishes and handed them to Jazz to load into the dishwasher.

"You gonna work in the lab tonight, Dad?" asked Jazz.

"Yup. Your mother and I have a lot of unfinished work." Jack placed forks in the washer. "But I can help you out real quick."

Once the dishes were loaded, they entered the living room together. Jack paused when he saw Maddie. He had expected her to have gone down to the lab already.

And across from her, even stranger, Danny stared at her, an uneasy silence hanging between them. Jack looked from one to the other but could not decipher this tension between them.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

Danny's posture jerked as his eyes snapped to his father. "Fine," he said quickly. "Everything's fine, Dad."

Maddie raised a loose fist to her mouth. She looked at Jack briefly before turning back to Danny.

"Do you want to borrow my compass, Danny?" asked Jazz, moving in between Danny and Maddie.

Danny turned to the table set up for his computer while Jazz continued to ask about his homework. But Maddie remained where she was, staring at him.

"Mads?" Jack came up behind her. "Should we finish up our work for the night?"

"Sure," said Maddie distantly, her eyes still on Danny even as Jack led her to the basement door. She was definitely still worried about him. But as for Jack, he was done with Danny for the night, for the whole day. Their son had consumed Maddie's and his own thoughts for far too long now. He just wanted some alone time with his wife that didn't include discussion about Danny.

Drafts. Theories. Tests. He dove into his work, his mind stimulated by his greatest passion, ghosts. He was going to figure them out one of these days. He just needed to conduct more experiments, needed to invent more devices, capture more specimens.

And with his wife's remarkable and super sexy intelligence, they were unstoppable, they were—

"Jack," said Maddie suddenly.

He continued with his measurement, unable to take his eyes off his work lest he lose track of what he was doing. "Need something, Mads?"

"Can we talk about Danny?"

"Haven't we talked about him enough?"

"Well, it's just... Doesn't he seem kind of odd?"

"He might have inherited some eccentricities from his parents, yes."

"No, I mean since last night. And today. This morning. At dinner." Maddie crossed her arms and leaned back against a counter. "He's been acting strange."

"Well, he did just get caught sneaking out, and then we had to lecture him about it. He's always been kind of sensitive."

Indeed, their son certainly possessed a timid nature, a characteristic that often robbed him of self-esteem and prevented him from being able to assert or defend himself, a trait that had the golden effect of drawing sympathy but the detrimental effect of attracting harassment. Jack knew this all too well about Danny, had had to many times apologize to Danny for unintentional slights and teasing that went too far, often at Maddie's insistence. He had always been sure that Danny would toughen up as he got older, but he seemed to have only gotten worse in the past couple years. Teenagers, huh? Maybe when he became an adult, then.

"I've never seen him like this before," said Maddie. "This is different, Jack."

Jack sighed loudly and set down his work very deliberately. Danny again. What a surprise. He turned to face Maddie fully. "All right, I'm listening. What are you thinking?"

Maddie scrunched her mouth for a brief moment. "Well… He seems very apprehensive. You've noticed, right? And he hardly ate anything at dinner. Well, not willingly, anyway. And you know he only does that when he's depressed or anxious."

"He does seem kind of uncomfortable, yes, but again, I think it's just a reaction to being in trouble."

"No, Jack. I know how he is when he's in trouble, and this really is different."

"How so?"

"He seems...afraid."

Jack cocked a brow.

"This just seems like more than discomfort or embarrassment or guilt." Maddie looked down, tapped her fingers against her crossed arms. "It seems more like fear."

"And what do you think he's afraid of?"

Maddie slowly raised her eyes to him. "Well... It kind of seems like he's afraid of you."

Jack stared at her incredulously. "Afraid of me?" He glanced up at the ceiling, around the lab, unsure how to process this conjecture, this accusation. "What could possibly make you think that? I didn't do anything to him."

"I'm not saying you did."

"Then why do you think he's afraid of me?"

"I don't know how else to explain it. But I've noticed it since last night."

"Noticed what?"

Maddie looked away from him with a sigh. "He just seems on edge whenever you talk to him."

"Why would he be on edge?"

"I don't know, Jack," moaned Maddie. "I really don't know what's going on with him, but I've just noticed that he tenses or jumps whenever you say something to him."

"Is that somehow my fault?"

Maddie bit the inside of her lip.

"I haven't done anything to him, Maddie."

"What about the way you talked to him last night? And this morning at breakfast?"

Jack loudly huffed. "Okay, yeah, I was kind of short with him. But then I was completely sensitive and patient with him when we talked after he got home from school. And I was very nice to him at dinner." He threw up a frustrated hand. "And you don't honestly think me snapping at him a few times would make him afraid of me, do you?"

Maddie looked off to the side in quiet contemplation. Jack narrowed his eyes at her.

"I don't know," she finally said. "But can you please go and talk to him?"

Jack glanced at the stairs leading out of the basement. "Right now?"

"Yes."

"And what do you want me to say? You want me to just ask him why he's afraid of me?"

"No, of course not. Just see how he acts, try to get some sort of clue. Or try to get him to open up to you. Please, Jack?"

Jack kept his gaze hard.

"I'm really worried about him. Please do this for me."

Jack glared at her a few moments more. "Fine." He briskly moved past her toward the stairs. She called out a "thank you" behind him, but he didn't acknowledge it.

What a waste of his time. He had so much work to do. Danny was just fine. He could deal with the aftermath of being in trouble on his own. And he should deal with it on his own. How else did Maddie expect him to grow up already? She was always babying him, always going so easy on him. She was even going to make him something entirely new for dinner just to get him to eat!

But whatever. Fine. He'd talk to Danny. For her.

Upstairs, Danny hunched over the table he and Maddie had set up for his computer, his head lowered as his pen scribbled and scurried. He entered something into his calculator, returned to writing. Jack watched him in silence from the basement doorway for some time, his muscles unclenching, his posture relaxing.

Danny was doing his homework right here in the living room. Just like he had been told to. He was certainly a good kid at the end of the day. Shy and nervous, kind of a slacker at times, often in his own world, but he was also obedient and honest and…

His son.

He and Danny didn't have a whole lot in common. Jack was towering and large, Danny was narrow and small. Jack could eat his weight in fudge, Danny actually forgot to eat some days. Jack had been popular in high school, Danny had a total of only two friends. Jack used to go on dates with different girls all the time, Danny couldn't even work up the nerve to ask out the goth girl he had known for years and years and was crushing hard on. Jack wasn't even sure if Danny really liked fishing or if he went on all those fishing trips just to make him happy.

But he was still his son. His only son. He didn't always understand what was going on in that boy's head, but as far as kids went, Danny was a great one.

Jack approached him. "Hey, Danny."

Danny immediately straightened, turned to Jack with wide eyes, leaned away from him, looking almost as if he could fall out of his chair.

Jack's brow furrowed in bewilderment as he stared down at Danny, thinned his lips in offense. This reaction, really? After all the nice things he had just been thinking about Danny, this was what he got? An affirmation that Maddie was right?

"What?" asked Jack irritably. "What's the matter with you?"

A beat. Danny returned to sitting upright in his chair. "Sorry," he said quietly. "You startled me. I was just really focused, I guess."

Jack glared at him for another beat before softening his expression. "What are you working on?"

"Physics." Danny gestured to his textbook. "Physics problems take forever."

Jack chortled. "Do you need any help?" He proudly pointed to himself. "You've got a physics expert right here, you know."

"I think I'm okay. But thanks."

Jack looked over the page of calculations Danny had scrawled. "Have you been doing better in physics lately? I know you struggled with it during the first semester."

"Um, yeah, I think so." Danny also looked down at the homework he had completed so far. "It makes a lot more sense to me now. And I've been working really hard at it. I mean, I'm probably going to be studying it in college, so…"

"Oh? You're going to major in physics?"

"Well, I kind of have to. If I want to get into astronomy." Danny shrugged and turned to his computer. "I did a lot of research, and everyone says physics is the best degree for a career in astronomy."

"You still want to be an astronaut, huh?"

Danny's shoulders raised, a blush spreading across his face. "Well... I mean, I'd still love to be an astronaut, sure, but I'm trying to be more realistic." He looked up at Jack with a shy smile. "Actually getting out into space is tough. And I guess I just don't want to be disappointed." He looked down at his homework again. "Especially considering my grades now. I've gotta do way better in college."

"Yeah. College is the real deal. One screw-up can really hold you back." Jack gave him a fond smile. "But you'll do fine. You're a Fenton, after all."

Danny returned the smile feebly and looked back down at his homework. Jack watched his son's eyes forlornly scan his attempts to solve assigned physics problems. How he wished he could just leave now, give Danny a couple pats on the shoulder and wish him a good night and tell him not to stay up too late.

But Maddie was counting on him to figure out what was going on with their son.

He glanced around the room for another chair he could pull up to the table. None. Maybe he could kneel? No, that would just make Danny feel patronized. Being so tall certainly had its advantages, but he needed to be as close to eye level with Danny as possible right now.

"Hey, Danny," began Jack tentatively. "Could you come sit with me on the couch?"

Danny looked up at him in alarm, his eyes darting to the couch for a brief second. "Why? Did I do something?"

Jack suppressed an eye twitch. Was Maddie right? Was Danny afraid of him? "I just want to talk."

He gestured toward the couch and gave Danny space to stand. Danny studied the couch with glazed focus before slowly rising. Jack placed a hand on his far shoulder to guide him. Danny tensed but did not pull away. Side by side, they sat quietly, not looking at each other. Jack's hand was still on his shoulder. He considered what to do next. Pull him closer?

He opted to let go of his son altogether. Danny's back muscles seemed to unwind.

"Danny, um…" Jack tapped his gloved fingers together a couple times. "I know last night and this morning were kind of rough between us. But I want you to know that I'm not mad at you."

Danny's brow creased, but he said nothing.

"I admit I was kind of cross with you for sneaking out and worrying your mother so much that she insisted we go out and look for you. And honestly, I didn't mind going out to look for you. It's just... Something happened last night because of it."

Jack paused, chewed the inside of his cheek in thought. How much should he tell Danny about last night?

He looked over at his son. He appeared tense again, tiny trembles visible in the veins in his hands.

"It's really okay, Danny," said Jack cautiously. "It's nothing you need to be concerned about."

Right. Danny didn't need to know about his encounter with Phantom. Danny didn't need to know just how much Jack wanted to shred that punk into ectoplasmic segments, separate every single one of his molecules so they could never join together again. Danny didn't need to know that Maddie was obsessed with that cocky brat for some reason and that Jack sometimes had to wonder if her intentions toward Phantom were not all entirely scientific.

"I just really want you to know that I'm not mad at you," said Jack again, more seriously this time. He studied his son, debating if he should ease into the point or not.

Perhaps it would be best to just get it out there.

"I've noticed that you've been...kind of on edge around me since last night."

Danny's head lowered. "I—that's not—I've just been—I just have a lot on my mind."

"Well, that's obvious," said Jack somewhat playfully. "So much that you had to sneak out to talk to someone about it."

Danny's head drooped even more. "I really am sorry, Dad."

"I know you are. But you did what you did, and it can't be changed now." Jack patted his back. "But you know you can talk to me and your mom, right? Even if it's the middle of the night. We're here."

"I know, but... I didn't want to bother you guys."

"Well, we'd really rather you bother us than sneak out of the house." Jack smiled kindly at him. "But it wouldn't be a bother to us. You are not a bother to us, Danny."

"It's just... You both work so hard. And I know I already give you so much trouble. My teachers calling or e-mailing you about my poor attendance or grades…"

"Hey, you're doing fine, Danno. Mom and I know you're trying your best."

"I just... I'm sorry I'm not more like Jazz."

Jack stared at his son, at a sudden loss for words.

"Jazz is so much smarter than me and never does anything wrong and her teachers are all crazy about her while I...I just keep screwing up." Danny rubbed his arm. "And I know sorry isn't enough, but I am sorry and I am trying. I'm trying my best, just like you said." He sighed. "But I know my best isn't very good."

Jack cocked his head in an attempt to get Danny to look at him, but his son kept his head low. What could he say? Jazz was more intelligent and accomplished and well-behaved than Danny was. Jazz was most certainly on a path headed for success while Danny was on a path that didn't seem headed anywhere in particular.

And Jazz would certainly never sneak out or deliberately break any of their parental rules.

But Danny wasn't Jazz, and he never would be. Jack simply couldn't hold his son to the same standards as his daughter.

"Mom and I don't want you to be like Jazz," said Jack gently. "One Jazz is enough. We don't need another."

Danny didn't move.

"And your best is great."

A response. A frail smile. But Danny still wouldn't look at him. Jack held in a groan. "Danny, what's on your mind?"

Danny straightened and turned to face him. He now wore a smile much stronger, broader. "I'm fine, really. I just feel bad about last night. I keep thinking about it."

Jack nodded in understanding. This was exactly what he had been trying to tell Maddie. See? He was right. Danny was fine, just reacting normally to the disturbance from last night. He just needed time.

Afraid of him. No way. Danny wasn't afraid of him. Danny was just acting accordingly in response to his father's familial authority.

"Well, Mom and I appreciate you being so mature about all this," said Jack. He motioned back to the table-turned-desk. "How much homework do you have left?"

"Not too much. I'll probably be done in like half an hour."

"All right." Jack stood, Danny following suit. "You sure you don't need any help?"

"No, I got it. Thanks, though."

"Give me a holler if you do need help. I'll be in the lab."

One last look, one final glance. Danny was the first to break eye contact and return to his work. Jack watched him for a moment before heading back to the basement—

Wait, fudge, that sounded like a good idea.

A quick trip to the kitchen, and then he was heading to the basement for real whistling a tune he knew he had heard on the radio recently but couldn't remember when or even what it was.

"Well?" Maddie anxiously wrung her hands. "How'd it go? What'd he do? What'd he say?"

Jack chuckled. "You don't know? I thought for sure you'd be listening at the basement door."

"Ah, well... I tried, but I couldn't hear well enough." She took his hand in hers. "You seem happy. Does this mean it went okay?"

"It went great." Jack wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her head. "It's exactly what I told you. Danny just feels bad about what he did. He'll be back to his old self once this all blows over."

"You sure that's it? Is that what he told you?"

"Yes. And I apologized for the way I talked to him before, too. I think he'll be just fine now."

"Oh, thank you, Jack."

Maddie hugged him tight, buried her face in his chest. Jack affectionately stroked her hair, her back, rested his hand right above her hips, started moving lower—

"Did you talk about anything else?" asked Maddie, pressing her chin against him so that she was staring straight up into his face. "I mean, did he give any hints about why he went to talk to Tucker?"

Jack moved his hands back up to her shoulders. "Well, he definitely still has all of the same self-esteem problems. He thinks he's a disappointment to us, especially compared to Jazz." He looked up the basement stairs. "I don't know if that's what's been troubling him or not, but it certainly hasn't been getting any better."

Maddie sighed loudly. "I keep thinking of having him see a therapist, but... I don't know. I don't want him to think that we think there's something wrong with him." She hugged Jack closer. "That certainly wouldn't help his self-esteem."

"We'll just need to find ways to show him that we're proud of him just the way he is."

Jack patted her back again, hoped this could finally put her mind at ease, at least for the rest of the night. He really just wanted this to be done already. No more talking or fretting about Danny, please.

He headed back to his work station, refreshed his memory as to what he was doing before.

"Jack."

He groaned. What now?

She sidled up to him, placed her hands on his face and pulled it close. Relieved, elated, he pressed his mouth to hers and gulped her in.

"Thank you so much for doing that for me," she murmured into him.

Jack grinned and tightened his hold on her.

No doubt more serious talks about their son were in the future, probably even tomorrow, but for now, his wife was in his arms and against his body, and he intended to keep it that way for as long as he could.

Chapter Text

Danny leaned out his open window, arms resting on the sill. He surveyed the neighborhood, gazed at the distant lights of the town.

He should go to bed. He really needed to shut off for a while. And it wasn't like he could go out on patrol tonight, so why not just take advantage of his forced lockdown and actually get a full eight hours of sleep for once?

Because there were ghosts out there somewhere. Ghosts that could hurt others, and if they hurt anyone, then it would be his fault for not being there to stop them.

The town seemed quiet and undisturbed for now, but he knew how quickly that could change. He scanned the buildings, the sky, searched for any signs of trouble. He couldn't go out on his normal patrol, but he just couldn't bring himself to lie in his bed and do nothing. He owed it to the town to at least watch from his window.

"Danny?" a voice whispered from his doorway.

Danny turned to see his sister's darkened silhouette. "Hey, Jazz. You still up?"

"I'm about to go to bed, but I just wanted to see how you're doing."

Danny turned around again so she couldn't see his irritation. He didn't even bother insisting he was fine. If she didn't believe him before, she wasn't going to now.

Jazz walked up beside him and scanned the neighborhood through the open window. "Are you going out tonight?"

Danny leaned forward past the sill, the strands of his thick hair fluttering in the night wind. "No."

"You're not worried about the ghosts?"

"It's not like I've never taken a night off before. Besides, Mayor Vlad has his own anti-ghost measures in place." He paused. "And I can't risk Dad seeing that I'm not in my room."

And and AND his mom, of course. Couldn't have his mom alert his dad and couldn't have them go looking for him again and couldn't have his dad catch him in his ghost form again and couldn't have his dad be mad at him again and couldn't have his dad try to kill him again.

Definitely definitely couldn't have that.

"So are you never going out again?" asked Jazz. "Or at least not for a while?"

He stared out at the lonely-looking town. Or maybe he was the one who was lonely, even more so with his sister by his side. "I have to go back out at some point. They need me." He imagined the sleeping townspeople, strangers and classmates, shoppers he passed at the mall, faces he recognized but didn't have names to go with them. So many who slept soundly each night never knowing what he had to do to ensure they could keep sleeping soundly. "I'm just going to have to figure something out, some way to make Mom and Dad think I'm still in my room. Maybe use the Fenton Ghost Catcher." He looked down at his hand. "Or if I could just master duplicating myself."

"But... I mean, you really don't have to go out at all, do you?"

Danny furrowed his brow, a small pout pulling at his bottom lip.

"Vlad's anti-ghost measures have got this town pretty well covered, don't they?"

"They're okay, but not nearly enough. This town needs something with actual intelligence protecting it, not artificial."

"And why does that 'actual intelligence' have to be you?"

Danny looked at her curiously.

"It's just... Fighting ghosts isn't safe, and it seems to be taking a toll on you, emotionally and physically."

Where was this coming from? Emotionally? What the hell did she think she knew about how ghost-fighting made him feel? He resisted rolling his eyes, done with her psychoanalysis before it even started.

"You were almost killed last night—"

"Stop," ordered Danny sharply. "I'm already aware of what's happened in my life. And that was not the first time I've been almost killed."

"That's exactly my point." Jazz matched the intensity of his glare, moonlight highlighting the edges of her face. "You've been almost killed so many times, most recently last night, and it shows no signs of stopping."

This time, Danny did not hold back an eye-roll as he looked out the window again.

"One of these times—" Jazz put a hand on his shoulder and forced him to turn back to her. "—it might not be 'almost.'"

Danny quickly stepped back, her hand falling away. "What are you suggesting, Jazz? You want me to stop fighting ghosts? Because you know I can't just do that."

Jazz's teeth clenched, then relaxed, her whole expression abating into melancholy concern. His own countenance broke down with sudden guilt for making her look this way.

"Why do you do it?" she asked softly. "Why do you feel like you have to stop all these ghosts?"

"If I don't, no one else will. My ghost form is more durable and can take ectoplasmic rays better—"

"No, Danny. Why do you really do this?" Jazz's voice was trembling. "Why do you keep doing this when you are so badly injured on a regular basis, when you repeatedly come close to death, when no one even appreciates what you go through to keep them safe, not even Mom and Dad?"

He couldn't meet her gaze, had to lean out the window and keep his head low to avoid her.

How could he possibly explain it to her? Not even Tucker or Sam had asked him this so pointedly before. He convinced himself in the beginning that he was doing it to make good use of his powers, to take responsibility for what he had done when he turned on his parents' portal and subsequently made their town a magnet for ghosts.

But there was more to it, an obsession embedded in his ghostly molecules that compelled him to keep fighting no matter how much it physically hurt him. He kept it to himself, concealed it under layers of heroic reasoning and noble excuses. He couldn't say the truth, couldn't say it was something far more selfish, couldn't say that the guilt and shame from not doing whatever he could to protect the townspeople from the infestation he himself had inflicted on them would consume him.

He kept hoping there would be an end to it. Each time he released ghosts back into their own realm, he wanted to cry and beg them to stay, stay, please don't return this time. I don't want to keep doing. Don't you see what this is doing to me?

He couldn't tell her the truth. Or anyone. They would only worry about him, and he was so sick of everyone worrying about him.

"I'm all this town has got," said Danny, still leaning out the window. "That's why I do it."

Jazz was quiet, unmoving. Danny turned to her slightly and saw the shine of tears in her eyes.

Once again, he had screwed up. He had made his sister cry. Great.

"Please don't." Danny stood up straight. "Please. I promise I'm fine."

She brushed at her eyes. "I should let you get to bed. I'm sorry for bothering you like this."

"Jazz—"

She walked away.

"Jazz, wait."

She halted, her hand on his door.

"Don't... Don't close that," he stammered. "I'm supposed to leave it open."

She blinked at him a few times before letting go of the door.

"And you weren't bothering me." Danny's hands tensed into loose fists at his sides. "I really am fine, okay? I know I've been acting kind of weird, but a lot's just happened."

Jazz said nothing for several beats before she smiled at him. "You know I'm here for you if you need to talk, right?"

"Yeah. I know. Thanks."

She said nothing again. Danny could sense she was waiting for him to confide in her right then, but as genuine as he knew her offer was, she was not someone he ever wanted to share his feelings with, not when she'd just tell Sam and Tucker, not when she'd overanalyze everything and try to give him advice.

So he stayed just as quiet. She finally nodded in understanding and disappeared into the hallway.

Once again alone in his room.

But when was he ever not alone these days, really?

Even with his sister right there, she didn't seem to be on his side. Same with Sam and Tucker. All of them offering their words of encouragement, their company when he needed someone to talk to. But all they ever really did lately was tell him to relax, to maybe take a break, that he didn't need to keep pushing himself so hard.

As the months kept passing, his friends seemed to understand him less and less.

He instinctively reached for his phone in his pocket, alarmed for only a moment by the empty space as he recalled his father had taken it.

His father. The man who made him feel loneliest of all.

Danny lay back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. His dad seemed to be okay with him now. He didn't seem to be angry with him anymore. He had even said some kind fatherly things to him, had actually apologized for his harsh words the night before and at breakfast.

So then why did he only feel relieved when his dad finally left?

Why did he still dread ever being alone with his dad again?

Why was he not feeling any better right now?

He turned over on his side and pressed his forehead into his mattress, clutched at his blanket with his top hand.

He had always been much closer to his mom. He and his mom used to do all sorts of things together. Not lately, no, but he had many fond memories of hanging out with her as a child. At the animal shelter to walk dogs, in the park to feed ducks, home from school when he was sick, up in the Ops Center to locate constellations.

And his dad would be there. Sometimes. But what did he and his dad ever do together? Just the two of them?

He could only recall the few fishing trips Jack had brought him along on. Yes, brought him along. Danny was sure his dad would get the idea to go fishing first and the idea to take his son along second, never the other way around. Not that Danny minded. At least his dad seemed happy to have Danny join him. And the fishing itself was never bad. Being outdoors in the sun wasn't his favorite thing, but fishing was a "normal guy thing" to do that made him seem more like a man to his dad, a "normal father/son activity" that made their relationship appear healthy and functional. See? He and his dad got along just fine. So much in common. They sometimes went fishing together, see? See? No need to scrutinize it beyond that because his dad would never ever threaten to kill him and make him feel like he was an irritant or an enemy to be eliminated.

His fists and face muscles tensed. How many times did he have to remind himself that his dad did not want to kill him or even hurt him? That his dad actually really did want him in the family? That just because he wasn't the prodigy Jazz was didn't mean his dad disregarded his potential to live up to the family name? That his dad wasn't secretly telling Jazz to keep her name when she married so that someone named Fenton would be successful?

His father didn't think any of that. Danny knew that. Really.

But truthfully, he wasn't sure what his father did think about him. It almost seemed like his dad was only just barely aware of him, only vaguely interested in him. The few times Danny had openly expressed an interest in ghosts, Jack had been ecstatic but never cared to know exactly what his interest in ghosts was. And when he found out Danny was sort of dating a girl, Jack had cared far more that he was finally starting to grow up and develop meaningful relationships than he was about the actual girl he was getting close to. Didn't even care to find out her name, just got him a ring engraved with the name of the one girl his dad apparently thought was the only one who'd ever give him a chance.

Not that he was against dating Sam, but—hmm—anyway—

He didn't know what was going on in his dad's head. And he never really knew. For as long as he could remember, his dad was subject to the largest mood swings, excitedly hyperactive one second and then violently livid the next, especially when a ghost crossed his path. And when Danny happened to be that ghost, nothing made Jack explode faster.

Yes, his father was unpredictable. But Danny could certainly predict at least one thing.

He sat up on his bed and looked out his door.

If his dad found the coded messages on his phone, he would rampage and hound Danny about their meaning. Yes, all right, the likelihood of his dad finding those messages was low, but setting him off again was not worth any risk. He'd feel a lot safer if those messages were just completely gone, so much safer if there was no chance of them being found at all.

Safer? Odd word choice. Just what did he think his dad would do to him? Corner him and shoot him in the head?

Enough. Stop. He just needed to quit overthinking and go get his phone already. He was sure it was in the drawer of his mom's nightstand since that was typically where his parents kept things they took away from either him or Jazz.

Not that they ever took anything away from Jazz, their golden child.

He could just invisibly phase through and grab his phone, delete the app he had been using to secretly communicate with his ghost-fighting team, and then place it back in the drawer.

But what if it was in his father's drawer?

...yeah, so what if it was? Not like his dad's nightstand had its own built-in ghost shield.

Or did it? Seemed like something his dad would set up.

All right, he was just stalling now.

Invisible, he walked into the master bedroom and paused as he observed his parents in their bed. Their breathing patterns were heavy and deep, indicative of tranquil sleep. Danny looked first at his mother's nightstand, then his father's.

Please let his phone be in his mother's nightstand like usual. Please give him this one predictable thing.

He phased his arm through Maddie's bedside table, held in a curse when it became apparent his phone wasn't there.

He stared over at his dad, the snoring vibrations escaping through the older man's slightly open mouth. He kept his eyes on his dad's face as he moved to the other side of the bed.

As long as his dad didn't wake up, as long as his eyes stayed closed…

He could still do this.

Danny faced Jack's bedside table and reached forward an intangible hand into the drawer. He wrapped his fingers around the familiar shape of his phone, pulled it up and turned it invisible. He held it to his chest with shaking relief, then took it out into the hall so that its light would not disturb his sleeping father.

All right. He really needed to calm down already. None of this was a big deal.

4304

Nothing. The phone remained locked.

He had probably just passed over the wrong number. He tried again, more carefully.

4-3-0-4

Still locked.

Several times more. Now his phone was disabled, try again in one minute, dumbass.

His father had changed his passcode, had anticipated this exact situation. His dad really didn't trust him? Had so little faith in him to follow his stupid rules that he would lock him out like this?

Well, his lack of faith was certainly well-justified, wasn't it? No wonder his dad liked Jazz so much better than him. Jazz would never try to take her phone back. Not that she'd ever even need to take her phone back. Not that their dad would ever take her phone even if she did do something wrong for once.

He gripped his phone and held it to his head, gritted his teeth and seethed.

Calm down, calm down.

His father didn't hate him, and he was not one to invade his privacy. As long as Danny gave him no reason to believe he would be hiding anything in his phone, his dad wouldn't try to find anything.

His dad so far didn't seem to think he was hiding anything. In fact, his dad probably didn't care that much at all about what he might've really been up to. Sure, Jack came up to talk to him while he was working on his homework, but he wouldn't be surprised if Maddie had put him up to that.

Because... Because…

No, stop it. His dad did care about him. He just wasn't overprotective and meddling like his mother was sometimes.

Okay, so there was nothing he could do about the secret messaging app on his phone. But he could do something about the ghost files on his computer. They were hidden, password-protected, encrypted, but if his dad found them, he'd be forced to explain them, ordered to open them, and no amount of refusal would save him from the ruthless scrutiny.

Could he really just delete them? After all the time he put into compiling them? The hours he spent writing up log entries of important ghost encounters, the grief he felt when he wrote about what all of this was doing to him on a personal and emotional level, the pained secrets he kept from even Sam and Tucker?

Except he still hadn't written about what happened the night before, what his dad said to him, had done to him. But then maybe he shouldn't write about it. If he didn't write it, then it would be as if it never happened, and then he could surely forget it with time.

After replacing his phone in Jack's bedside table, he made his way downstairs to his computer. Sam and Tucker both had their own copies of the ghost files. He had an online backup of the files he kept for only himself. He could delete all of the files and restore them later when this was over. He just couldn't risk them being discovered no matter how well-hidden they were. He would sleep so much better if they were just completely gone.

Denied access. His computer was locked with a new password.

Why did his dad have to be so right not to trust him?

His upper chest jarred, his head throbbed. He breathed deeply, tried to talk himself back down.

His parents hadn't locked him out of his phone and computer because they wanted to stop him from hiding or deleting anything. They just wanted to be sure he would have no way to use them, no way to rebel and get around the constraints of his punishment. As with his phone, as long as he gave them no reason to think he was hiding anything in his computer, they wouldn't look through it.

And besides, they would unlock it for him tomorrow so he could do his homework. He could just delete everything then.

He just had to wait until tomorrow, had to wait for this night to be over.

He just had to keep waiting for all of this to be over because for some god-forsaken reason this still wasn't over.

And the injection sites on his arm and neck still hurt. His headache was getting steadily worse. But such pain could easily be taken care of with medication. A final dose of ibuprofen for the day, more than the standard but less than the maximum. Six hundred milligrams. Totally safe.

He left the light off as he walked across the kitchen. His eyes were adjusted well enough, and any light would just drill this headache deeper. Now to find something to unscrew it. He swung open the medicine cabinet and scanned the various boxes and bottles he was quite familiar with by now. He reached forward with shaking hands.

Wait, why were they shaking? He paused, tried to still them. Maybe he was just tired. Or cold. It was a little cold in the house, he guessed. He'd feel better soon enough. No need to worry about it.

He reached forward again, his hands jerking as he moved aside the various contents to get what he really wanted. He gripped the bottle of ibuprofen and pulled it out, sending a clattering of other plastic containers to the floor, the cabinet shutting with a bang as he tried to catch them with desperate flailing.

He stopped everything, stopped moving, stopped breathing as he assessed the situation. Complete silence now as he studied the fallen pill bottles. Their child-proof lids were still locked on tight, keeping all contents inside. Good, great, all he had to do was put them back. Carefully, gently, made sure the cabinet closed softly this time.

He dispensed a glass of cold water from the fridge and took a seat at the kitchen table, popping three painkillers and swallowing them down all at once. Clutching the pill bottle in his hand, he lay his forehead against the cool tabletop. Still shivery, still aching. He'd rest here for just a moment, wait for the meds to kick in, then he'd go back upstairs and get some sleep.

The light switched on, ignited his pulse and jump-started his adrenaline. He shot up and sprained his neck as he turned to the kitchen entry.

"Danny?" Maddie frowned as she walked up to him, hair matted and tossed, eyes rimmed with recent sleep. "Everything okay?"

Just his mom. Just his mom. He was fine. This was okay. "Yeah, I'm fine," he gasped out.

Maddie put a hand to his head, smoothed back sections of his hair. "What are you doing down here? Did you drop something? I heard a big noise coming from down here, and then I saw you weren't in your room."

Danny blanched. "I didn't wake Dad up, did I?"

Maddie's frown pulled even lower. "No. Of course not. Nothing ever wakes Dad up."

Danny exhaled shakily and took a drink from the glass of water he had poured for himself. The chill felt good going down, settled well in his stressed core.

Maddie pushed back his bangs entirely and studied his face. "You feeling okay?" Her eyes went to the pill bottle in his hand. "What's that?"

Danny also looked at the ibuprofen. "Oh, I was just—I just came down to get some painkillers. But I'm about to go back upstairs."

"Painkillers? For what?"

"I just have a headache." Danny stood and walked to replace the bottle in the cabinet. "Not too bad, but I couldn't sleep."

"What kind of headache?"

"Just a normal headache. It's nothing, really."

Maddie placed a hand on his shoulder, the other on his face. "Sweetheart, it's probably because you didn't eat much today."

His jaw clenched, his neck warmed.

"Let me make you something now." Maddie opened the pantry and rummaged through the shelves. "How about a sandwich?"

"No, Mom, please." Danny's stomach flipped. "I don't like eating this late."

"How about some milk, then?" She started over to the fridge.

"Milk sometimes makes me sick. Especially at night."

Maddie sighed and went back to the pantry, presenting him with a slice of bread. "Eat this, at least. You shouldn't be taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach. If you wanna talk about making yourself sick."

Danny gave in. "All right. Thanks." He took a decent-sized bite to appease her, chewed and tilted his head slightly to coax gravity into helping him gulp it down.

"And promise me you'll eat whatever I make you in the morning, okay?" Maddie thoughtfully looked back in the pantry. "You like French toast. I'll make that."

Danny smiled affectionately. "Sounds good." He held up the remaining bread in his hand. "I'm just gonna take this upstairs and go to bed. Night."

He started walking away, away from the kitchen, away from her, away from any further investigation.

"Danny, wait."

He stilled, apprehensively turned back to face her. She approached him but did not touch him this time.

"How are you really? Are you okay after what happened last night?"

Last night last night last night trapped and cornered and his dad hated him and wanted him dead—

"Yeah," Danny made himself say. "I really am sorry. I feel bad that I...that I disappointed you." He looked down at the floor. "I know I do that a lot."

"Oh, Danny." Maddie brushed her knuckles against his cheek. "Yes, I was disappointed that you snuck out, but this isn't a common thing, okay?" She stroked the hair behind his ears. "I'm very proud of you."

Danny mustered a half-smile.

"And your father is also proud of you."

His attempted smile immediately vanished.

Maddie observed his expression for a quiet moment. "Are things okay between you and Dad?"

Danny straightened and forced the smile back. "Things are just fine between us. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I know Dad was kind of snappish with you this morning at breakfast. And then you seemed a little jumpy around him today, like whenever he would speak to you."

"Oh." Danny chortled and shook his head dismissively. "That was—I mean, yeah, he seemed really mad at me last night and this morning, so I was sort of afraid to set him off again. But it's fine now." Danny widened his smile. "Dad and I talked, and...we're fine. Really."

Maddie studied him intently for several long ticking seconds. Danny maintained his pleasant neutrality.

Her hand finally left his face and moved down his shoulder and arm. "Are you sure there's nothing else you want to tell me?"

He nodded. "Yeah, Mom. I'm fine. I promise."

A final good night. He turned away from her, headed back up to his room.

He knew she didn't believe him. But she should. Because he wasn't lying. He was fine. Even his headache seemed better. The meds were working and everything was okay now.

The bread was still in his hand. But his stomach wasn't hurting at all. He didn't need to eat the rest of it. He could just throw it away or maybe toss it out the window for the birds to feast on in the morning. He had taken painkillers on an empty stomach so many times now that his body seemed adjusted to handle it.

He had adjusted to a lot of things, actually. Injury, assault, deliberate murderous attempts on his life. Last night was nothing he hadn't experienced before. A gun pointed at his head, that was nothing new. His father wanting to violently end his existence, that was normal. His dad had always hated Phantom and had ranted so many times about belting him down and ripping him apart.

He was used to this. Adjusted.

He was fine.

Really.

Chapter Text

Morning again. Jack's favorite time of the day. Morning meant he had all day to work on his various inventions and gadgets. And perhaps most exciting of all, morning meant breakfast, easily the best meal of the day. Well, except maybe dinner. And lunch was also pretty good. And snacks were really great, too.

Jack sat up in bed and stretched out his arms, stimulated his blood to circulate round and round. He moved to the window and opened the blinds, peered out at the sunlit neighborhood. Something about the light of morning was just so invigorating, so pleasantly warm.

The shower was running. Jack looked in the direction of the master bathroom. He imagined Maddie running shampoo through her hair, rinsing her smooth skin, soaping up her sensuous assets.

His core was suddenly buzzing with longing. That woman had such a way of worming into his head. He had to cool it before he got too carried away.

Or did he? This could be a great way to kick off the morning.

He quickly threw off his clothes and ran into the bathroom just in time to see Maddie wrap a towel around her body.

"Hey, honey," Maddie chirped as she towel dried her hair.

"Aw, Mads. I was gonna join you!" whined Jack with a small pout.

Maddie patted his bare chest as she walked out of the bathroom. "I need to get downstairs so I can start breakfast. I'm making French toast."

Jack perked up again. Just like that, the morning was back on track.

He cheerfully sang and hummed during his shower, water so hot it was almost scalding. Perfect temperature. Perfect pressure. And afterwards, buttery eggy bready French toast to fill up his belly. Such delight. Maybe there'd even be leftovers for lunch.

Oh, there'd definitely be leftovers. With the way Danny ate, that was never a worry.

Squeaky clean in a freshly laundered jumpsuit and hair still slightly damp, Jack whistled a lively tune as he bounded into the kitchen. Maddie was leaning over the stove and flipping over large pieces of fluffy bread soaked in eggs and cinnamon.

"Smelling good, Mads." Jack came up behind her and gave her an affectionate squeeze. When she turned her head to greet him, he silenced her with a deep kiss. Her face was lit up with a somewhat goofy grin when they broke away.

"I'll be done here soon," she said after blinking away her dazed passion.

"Do you need help with anything?"

"No, I've got it. But maybe you could set the table?"

Jack set enough plates and silverware for four around the table. He grabbed some syrup from the pantry and some juice from the fridge before taking a seat and switching on their kitchen TV. Morning news. Definitely the most exciting news of the day. He eagerly waited for any mention of ghosts, his favorite topic of discussion.

Well, except when it was that particular ghost. That punk kid.

But there was no mention of any ghosts at all. Oh well. He still had the entire day to think about them, design new machines and devices to capture them and study them and render them weak and vulnerable to experimentation.

Yup. It was going to be a great day.

Jazz entered the kitchen with brushed hair looking sleek and shiny. "Morning!"

"Hey, Jazzy!" greeted Jack. "Did you sleep well?"

"Mmm hmm." Jazz sat next to him. "Took a while to fall asleep because I was so excited thinking about what I could include in my college thesis, though. You know, the one we talked about last night?"

"You're gonna have to tell me all of your ideas. Then I can plan out how to help you."

"You're the best, Dad."

Maddie set a plate of French toast in the center of the table. Jack eagerly forked a few pieces onto his plate.

"Where's Danny?" he asked, flooding his plate with maple syrup. "He loves French toast."

"He had just gotten out of the shower when I came out of my room," said Jazz. "He'll probably be here soon."

"All right, but I might eat all these before he gets here." Jack grabbed another piece of toast.

"Jack!" Maddie playfully reprimanded. "You better not eat them all. I actually made these specifically for Danny, you know."

Jack lowered his fork. "Specifically for Danny? Why?"

"Well, he didn't eat much yesterday, so I wanted to make him something I know he likes this morning. You know, to make sure he definitely eats."

Jack quietly seethed and stuffed a large bite in his mouth to prevent himself from saying anything. Once again, she was babying their son. Treating him like a little boy, acting like his own personal chef and giving into his picky preferences just to get him to eat.

Well, at least Jack was getting French toast out of this.

Danny at last appeared in the entry, showered and fully dressed.

"Danny, there you are!" greeted Maddie. "There's some French toast on the table already. Take as many as you want."

"Oh, well, I think I'm just gonna buy something at school," said Danny.

Maddie frowned at him disapprovingly. "Danny, you promised me last night that you would eat this morning."

Jack furrowed his brow. Last night? When had he promised that?

"I will. It's just still kind of early. And French toast is pretty heavy first thing in the morning, you know?"

"I very specifically asked that you eat whatever I make this morning." Maddie pushed him to his chair at the table. "Now eat up. Here, I'll make a plate for you."

Jack watched in amazement as Maddie actually placed a couple pieces of French toast on Danny's plate and doused them with syrup. She even filled a glass with orange juice for him.

Danny was never going to become a man at this rate.

But the French toast tasted delicious. And they were all eating together as a family. And his two favorite girls were on either side of him. And at least Danny was eating, so maybe Maddie wouldn't worry about him today. They could just have a normal day together, in the lab working on new gadgets and maybe they'd even get around to other fun activities they could only do when the kids weren't around.

Danny gulped down the last of his orange juice and stood, taking his plate covered with nothing but syrup over to the sink. "Hey, Jazz, I'll be waiting in the living room, okay?"

"Wait, wait, I'm done, too." Jazz forked a final bite into her mouth before rinsing off her plate and joining Danny in the living room.

Jack brightened. Great, now it was just him and Mads, no more kids—

Maddie jumped up and ran out of the kitchen to see the kids off. Jack stood with a sigh to follow her. And well, he should give his kids a proper goodbye. And he liked saying goodbye to them. And then he'd have Maddie all to himself again afterwards.

This whole thing with Danny had really put him in a mood. He knew that. But once Maddie stopped being so overly concerned about their son, Jack knew he'd feel much better.

"Here's some money for lunch," said Maddie, handing bills to both of their kids just as Jack walked up beside her.

"We already have money in our accounts," said Jazz.

"I know, but I just want to be sure." Maddie put a hand on Danny's shoulder. She looked right at him though she continued to speak to both teens. "Buy yourself something extra today if you want, okay? Even if it's just junk from the vending machine. You both deserve it."

Danny gazed at her warily for a moment before folding the bills and stuffing them in his front pocket. "Thanks, Mom."

The teens walked together out the front door. Jack waited for it to click before hooking an arm around Maddie's waist. "Well, now that those two are—"

"Jack." Maddie pushed off against his chest. "We need to talk about Danny again."

Jack couldn't speak for a moment, his jaw dropped in stunned confusion. Had he heard right? No, he couldn't have heard right.

Maddie looked toward the front door. "I found Danny last night in the kitchen—"

"Wait, last night? When? What are you talking about?"

"After we all went to bed. I heard a noise down here that woke me up. Well, except I didn't know it was coming from downstairs right away. But anyway, I went out to see what it was and checked on Danny along the way. Since, you know, his door's supposed to be open. But he wasn't in his room. So I went downstairs and found him in the kitchen."

Jack instinctively glanced over his shoulder at the kitchen entryway. Okay, so their son hadn't snuck out again. He had stayed in the house. Was this somehow going to be important? It so far seemed pretty ordinary and not at all worth fussing over. "Uh huh. And what was he doing? Getting something to eat?"

"No. He was sitting at the table with his head down. In the dark. Clutching a bottle of painkillers. When I asked him about it, he said he just had a headache."

Jack nodded slowly, still trying to figure out why this mattered. "Okay. So he had a headache and took medication for it. Is that not okay with you? I mean, haven't we been trusting him and Jazz to take what they need from that cabinet for a while now?"

Maddie groaned and threw up her hands. "No, Jack. It's not about that. It's the way he was acting, the things he said." She paced the room for a moment. "He's just... Something's wrong with him. I mean, something is going on with him. Something serious." She stopped walking and looked at him hard. "And I think...it might have something to do with you."

A click in his head, the cock of a gun. "Me? Why do you think that?"

"He asked me if you were awake, too. He seemed actually pretty concerned about that. Like worried."

"All right, and? How is that my fault?" Jack held out his arms, palms facing Maddie. "I. Haven't. Done. Anything. To him. Nothing."

"Calm down. I keep telling you I'm not saying you did anything to him."

"Well, you're saying something. I don't know what you think is going on with him, but I have been nothing but nice to that boy."

"'That boy'? 'That boy' is our son, Jack."

Jack's tongue locked up. He breathed in deep and looked down at the floor.

"And our son needs help with something."

Her voice was breaking up. Jack's own heart was sinking low as he studied her tearing eyes.

He dropped onto the couch and bent over, holding his face in his hands. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I just don't know what you want me to do."

Maddie sat down beside him with her legs pulled up on the seat cushion. She held onto his arm and gently stroked it. "I think you need to talk to him."

"I did last night!"

"I mean really talk to him. Like some bonding time. I think you should take him somewhere, just the two of you. And have an open conversation with him."

"When? Like tomorrow?"

"I was thinking tonight."

Jack loudly exhaled, air burbling his lips. "Should I just take him out for dinner or something?"

"I think something more fun than that."

"Like a basketball game? At the college? I could probably still get tickets."

"Something he would enjoy."

Jack opened his mouth but then closed it again. What would his son enjoy? "A movie?"

"You can't really talk much during a movie." Maddie patted his arm. "I was actually thinking you could take him out to Gardner Peak."

Jack's eyebrows drew close together. "The observatory?"

"Mmm hmm. Danny hasn't been there in a while, and you know how much he loves the stars. It's supposed to be a very clear night tonight."

"But we have a telescope here we could use."

"Yes, but it's not nearly as powerful as the telescopes at Gardner Peak. You know that. And there's too much light pollution here."

"Okay, but you know that Gardner Peak is like two hours away, right?"

"Are you saying your son isn't worth a two-hour drive?"

Jack opened and shut his mouth again.

"He'll love it, Jack," said Maddie pleadingly. "And I know it's kind of far, but it would be a great opportunity to talk to him." She rested her head on his shoulder. "And it would mean so much to me, too."

Jack stared ahead while Maddie cuddled against his body. She really did seem worried about their son. And Danny had already confessed that something was troubling him. It was apparently why he had snuck out to see Tucker, after all. Maybe he could get Danny to open up to him. Maybe a few hours alone with Danny would allow a good connection between them. Maybe Danny would be able to relax while indulging in one of his passions.

Jack looked down at Maddie, stroked the side of her face with his hand.

Maybe he could be his wife's hero by figuring out what was wrong with their son and helping him to be happy again.

"All right," said Jack at last. "I think it's a great idea. It'll be fun to hang out with Danny."

Maddie lifted her head, her face glowing with delight. "Great! I'll make you two dinner that you can take with you. And you can leave right when he gets home from school!"

She jumped up from the couch. Jack stayed sitting for a moment.

"Right when he gets home?" he asked hesitantly.

"Of course! You'll get there just as the sun is setting. It'll be perfect!"

Jack sighed to himself. Well, all right. The sooner they left, the sooner they could come home, too.

"What would you want to eat tonight?" asked Maddie from the kitchen. "Pulled pork? Pasta? Fudge?"

Jack perked up immediately. Good food could make any situation a thousand times better.

He dashed into the kitchen so he could better see all his choices.

...

The French toast was not settling well in his stomach at all. Why did he eat three pieces? How had he even managed to shove that many down his throat?

But it made his mom so happy, and he really did like making her happy.

Now if only it were that easy to make his dad happy.

Danny bent over in the passenger seat of Jazz's car, rubbing and kneading his middle with one hand.

"Feeling okay?"

He looked over at Jazz, whose eyes never left the road ahead. He forced himself to sit up straight. "Yeah. Just kind of have a stomachache. From all that French toast."

Jazz nodded in understanding. "I get stomachaches in the morning sometimes."

Danny didn't reply. Maybe she wouldn't try to talk again for the rest of the trip if he just stayed quiet.

"But how are you in general? Feeling okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

Now it was Jazz who didn't reply. Danny studied her face in profile, the way her teeth grated against the inside of her bottom lip.

He was so ready to not talk anymore but he couldn't let their silence rest on this.

"You don't believe me," he stated coolly.

Jazz breathed out a sigh. "It's not that necessarily. I mean... Yeah, you don't seem like your normal self, so I'm dubious about you really being 'fine.'"

Dubious. Only his sister would use such a pretentious word. Of course she would. "And just what exactly is normal for me, Jazz?"

"If I tell you, you'll just try to be that way so you can go on trying to pretend you're fine."

Danny rolled his eyes. "God. Whatever." He wasn't about to play this game of psychotherapy with her. She could insist all she wanted that she knew a damn thing about him, but he wouldn't let this conversation continue if that was the case. He'd shut it down now before she could get even more pedantic with him.

Jazz was quiet, the sort of quiet weighed down by hurt feelings. Danny turned away from her and pretended to be very interested in the view outside his window.

But of course he had hurt her feelings again. He was always doing that. And like always, he felt terrible about it and was already imagining what apology he should give.

But why did he always have to be the one who was sorry? Why was it always he who had to apologize? Why did he only ever feel better when he was the one apologizing?

Because…

It really did seem to always be his fault. He had snapped at Jazz when she was just trying to help. He had worried his mom by acting strange and suppressing his normal appetite. He had upset his parents when he wasn't in his room and they had to go out and search for him.

And he had really pissed off his dad in that alley when he didn't let him fire that gun.

He peered at Jazz out of the corner of his eye.

Maybe he'd apologize once they got to school.

Through traffic lights and past stop signs, nothing but the whistling wind outside the car. Jazz never had the radio on any time she drove. Or when she did turn it on, she only ever listened to weird academic talk shows. Complete silence was definitely better than that.

Jazz pulled into the student parking lot and shut off the engine. Danny gathered his words and forced himself to turn to say something to her, to mumble some sort of apology. But all his thoughts were halted by her expression, so searching and uncertain.

"I know you don't want my advice." She glanced away smiling for a short second. "You never do."

"Jazz, it's not that I don't ever want—"

"I know, I know. I was exaggerating, I guess, but we both know what I'm getting at. And I know that maybe sometimes I try too hard to help when it's not really my place."

Danny only pressed his lips. He couldn't argue with that.

"But I am worried about you and I do think about you and how I can help you all the time. Especially since yesterday." Jazz looked down shyly. "I hope you don't mind too much."

He wished he could honestly say he didn't mind. But everyone constantly expressing their concern for him didn't exactly make him feel loved. It only made him feel incapable or fragile, like everyone was sure he could break at any moment and they had to figure out more ways to protect him.

"It's fine," he said quietly. "I'm pretty used to it by now."

"You know we all just really care about you, right?"

"Yeah. I know."

Jazz gazed out the front window for a couple moments. "So I've been thinking about all of this, about what's been going on between you and Dad, and... I think that maybe it's time you told him. And Mom. Both of them. But especially Dad. For obvious reasons."

Danny silently stared at her.

"I mean, um, tell him that you're—"

"I know what you mean," he cut her off softly, delicately. "But I can't do that."

The nightmares ran through his mind, everything his dad had bragged about doing to his ghost specimens locked up in the lab, everything he had actually seen his dad do to ghosts, everything that he knew his dad wanted to do to Phantom, to him.

"It'll be okay." Jazz put a hand on his shoulder. "Dad loves you. I know you haven't been feeling it much lately, but he does. He just doesn't always show it like Mom does."

Had he ever felt it? Danny honestly couldn't pinpoint an exact moment in recent history when he was certain his dad loved him. But Jazz was right. It had to be true. His dad was at least usually nice to him and sometimes sat him down for chats. Even if those chats didn't always make sense or were just a way to get Danny to do something.

Or like last night when Jack didn't really seem to want to talk to Danny at all but was doing it anyway for some reason.

He had seen Jack accept him in an alternate timeline. His dad had embraced his secret, hadn't expressed any anger or disappointment at all. But Danny had never seen beyond that initial moment of revelation, had no idea if Jack would've continued to be okay with his son being a ghost.

And now, after what had happened in that alley, Danny was more afraid than ever to find out for sure.

"Jazz." Danny put a hand over hers on his shoulder. "I appreciate your suggestion. But please promise me you won't make this decision for me. Please let me be the one to tell him."

Jazz lifted her armrest and leaned over the gear lever of her car, wrapped her arms around him. Danny made no movement, only took in the soothing contact of her embrace.

This was an indication of love. Definitely. He could feel it.

Jack had hugged him. Many times. Crushing hugs that pressed all the air from his lungs.

But he never felt this when Jack hugged him, this feeling he got from Jazz holding him.

But perhaps love didn't always feel the same? Did everyone have their own version of love to give?

What was Jack's version of love? Maybe it was his own fault for never trying to figure it out.

At lunch, Danny sat with Tucker and Sam outside in the budding spring air. Flowers were springing up all around them in the grass.

Normally, new flowers in the grass made him smile. The end of winter, still so far from Christmas. He really hated that time of year.

But this time of year. He loved spring.

Normally.

He normally would've been smiling right now.

But this wasn't normal. He was with his usual friends at their usual table. But he wasn't present with them. He felt distant even though they were right next to him.

"Danny, you gonna eat that?" asked Tucker, pointing to the bag of chips that came with his purchased lunch.

His mom really wanted him to eat. She had given him money, looked him straight in the eye and told him to buy something to eat.

He hated disappointing her.

But she didn't have to know.

He pushed the entirety of his uneaten meal toward Tucker. "You can have it all."

"Have you eaten at all today?" asked Sam.

"My mom made French toast this morning, and I ate a ton. I feel kind of sick, honestly." Not a lie. His gut was knotted and kinked. Eating right now probably would make him feel worse. Maybe even throw up. And that certainly wouldn't make him look good when he was trying to get everyone to stop worrying about him.

"They took all of my games," Tucker was suddenly saying. "Locked them all up."

Danny blinked back into focus. "Oh, you mean your parents? For…?"

Tucker shrugged. "Yeah. But I have backup games, so I'll be just fine."

"Tuck, I'm so sorry I got you in trouble like that."

"Nah, dude, it's really fine. Seriously."

"But it was wrong of me to put that on you without asking."

"We're all in this together," said Tucker firmly. "I agreed to take on whatever trouble you're in the moment we formed Team Phantom."

"Me, too," affirmed Sam with a proud grin.

Danny said nothing, overwhelmed by the unwavering loyalty of his friends. They seemed genuinely willing and even happy to help with everything pertaining to his ghostly identity, but it pained him all the same that they so often had to hurt right along with him.

The guilt he felt that they were tangled up in this, following him as he was pulled in deeper and deeper, offshoots from the chains forged primarily for him winding and tightening around them as well.

"Thanks, Tuck," said Danny. "You really saved me."

Tucker smiled at him, then became serious again. "So, I told my mom that you came over to check out a game, but she didn't really seem to be buying it, so I ended up telling her that you had something private you wanted to confide in me."

Danny breathed a sigh of relief. "That's actually what I ended up telling my parents, too. You didn't give her any specifics, did you?"

"Nah. I insisted that I had promised you I wouldn't tell anyone."

Danny smiled appreciatively. "You really are the smartest guy I know."

Sam nonchalantly popped a baby carrot in her mouth. "Yeah, sometimes."

Tucker glared at her. "Sometimes? And just what does that mean?"

Sam and Tucker started joking and laughing. Silly asides, humorous anecdotes. But none of this was amusing or interesting to Danny. Nothing was enjoyable right now.

Everything was. Just.

Empty.

What was it that used to fill this emptiness? What had he lost? What had been taken from him?

What had his father taken from him?

It had only been a couple days, but he already couldn't remember. Had there really been a time he hadn't felt this way? Whatever 'this way' even was?

And what had he done to deserve this? Was this a consequence he just had to accept for lying to his parents so long, for not being as intelligent as Jazz, for not being the son his father really wanted?

Had he been trying hard enough to be what his father wanted?

His grades were terrible, and he probably couldn't bring them up even if ghost-fighting wasn't running him into the ground. But maybe he could do other things. Maybe he could feign more interest in his dad's research papers or inventions or—

—ghosts?

But his dad hated ghosts. But then he loved them. But then he hated them. He loved studying ghosts, cutting them up, ripping them apart. But he hated ghosts. Or maybe it was just one ghost he hated. Just him.

His dad didn't hate him—

His dad hated Phantom not him—

His dad maybe didn't like him all that much but he didn't hate him.

But his dad did like him at least a little, right?

"Danny?"

Sam and Tucker were gravely studying him.

"You okay?"

They were searching, searching for something that was lost even to him.

He hugged his arms close.

"I don't know."

Hung his head, shut his eyes.

"I don't know. I—I don't think so."

Shaking, trembling. His friends were upon him instantly, reassuring him with words he couldn't quite understand.

He had to do something about this.

He couldn't go on feeling this way, like he was breaking up.

He had been almost killed. His dad had almost killed him. And not only was he being punished for it, but he was letting himself be punished for it.

He was letting it happen because...it was what his dad wanted to happen, perhaps.

But despite allowing his dad to treat him however he wanted, their relationship was still somehow falling apart.

What would it take for his dad to just be okay with him again?

What would it take for him to feel safe around his dad again?

If he didn't find a way to rebuild trust with his father, failed to repair this damage between them, then it would be only a matter of time until there was nothing left to salvage.

Chapter Text

Mountains and mountains of fudge reaching to the clouds raining chocolate syrup drenching his hair sticking to his forehead creased with joy and rapture.

Then rocking and knocking him into darkness. Jack groggily opened his eyes and peered up at Maddie. She leaned over him, uncolored in the lack of light.

"Jack, Danny's gone." Her voice was strained with worry.

Using his elbows, Jack pulled himself into a sitting position on their bed. "Gone? What do you mean?"

"I mean he's gone! He's not in his room. He's not anywhere in the house. He's not answering his phone."

Jack didn't reply for a moment. Maddie seemed so stressed, so upset, really worked up over this. Was she assuming the worst? She often did when it came to Danny. "Do you think he snuck out?

"I don't know," said Maddie. "I mean, that doesn't seem like him, but I don't know what other explanation there could be." She chewed her lip, put a hand to her chin. "I mean, unless—but who would—?"

Her fingers were chafing her chin, rubbing it raw. Jack imagined all of the terrible scenarios running through her mind.

He was sure Danny was fine. He could think of no reason for someone to abduct Danny, so if he really was gone, he had left on his own. And he could take care of himself wherever he was.

But there was no way he could ever make Maddie believe that. Not until their boy was safe at home again.

Jack stood and placed a hand on her shaking shoulder. "Do you want to call the police?" Totally unnecessary at this point. He knew that. Danny was probably fine and it'd be a terrible waste of the police's time. But if it would make his wife feel better, then okay. And it would also teach Danny a good lesson.

"I want to go out and look for him myself," said Maddie.

Jack watched her move to their closet and pull out one of her jumpsuits. Very typical of his wife to want to go find their son herself. Still not something he felt was necessary, though.

But as she threw off her clothes, he was more than willing to do anything for her. Her ample hips, her jutting bust. Just a quick romp, maybe? Just something to calm their nerves before they went out?

"Honestly, I think we'd take this far more seriously than the police would," continued Maddie as she stepped into her suit and pulled the zipper up to her neck, "especially since we just saw him a couple hours ago."

"Right," said Jack. "He was here when we went to bed, for sure. And that was what, around ten? What time is it now?"

"After midnight." Maddie pulled her jumpsuit hood over her hair. "Are you going to come with me?"

Jack glanced back at their bed. It looked awfully warm and comfy. "Do you really think this is necessary? I'm sure he's okay. We could just wait for him to come home."

"But this isn't like him, Jack. This doesn't feel right to me. I could never forgive myself if something happened to him and all I did was wait around for him to come home." She headed to the door. "I'm going to grab some weapons. You know how ghosts are this time of night."

Ghosts! Fighting ghosts! Fighting ghosts with weapons! Fighting ghosts with weapons they had created themselves! Fighting ghosts with a weapon he had created all on his own!

"Ooh, yeah!" Jack's adrenaline spiked with sudden enthusiasm. "I can try out my new Fentonuzi!"

Maddie left the room. Jack grabbed his own suit and opted to just zip it up over his clothes. Except it was a bit of a tight fit. He struggled with the zipper, fought to pull it over his girth. Had he gained weight? Surely not since a couple hours ago. Or maybe this was one of his older suits. He really should go through them one of these days, throw out any that were too worn or stained. Maddie could sew new suits for him in no time.

He tossed the suit aside, took off his pajamas as well. He pulled out another suit and was able to pull the zipper up to his neck with little trouble. All right, there, he didn't need to lose weight. The suit still fit just fine. He kicked aside the suit on the floor. It'd be going straight to the trash in the morning.

He glanced at himself in their full-length mirror. Boxy, bulky, bulgy, but he still had his brawn.

And his woman still fit so perfectly in his arms. Their bodies still latched together nicely, still looked great next to each other in their matching jumpsuits.

The fatigue and grogginess were completely gone, replaced with eager excitement. He had been working on a new weapon all week, and he just had to try out tonight. What a perfect opportunity. Ghost hunting with his wife, the fearsome duo, famed for their pioneering work in the supernatural and paranormal field.

He strolled out of the room and through the hall and down the stairs toward their basement. He just needed to his grab his new gun and then he'd be ready to go.

Ready to fight ghosts and—

Well, yeah, search for Danny, too.

Jack entered the lab and observed Maddie pressed against a counter, loading up a dart gun with her own recent invention, a concoction that could render ghosts nearly powerless, preventing their molecules from changing in any spectral way. Intangibility, invisibility, healing, and even ecto-rays were all effectively dismantled.

He had named it for her. The Fenton Ghost Solidifier. A perfect way to disable ghosts and hold them down and prevent them from moving during various procedures without the use of expensive and power-draining equipment.

She had created it to aid their research, yes. But he knew there was one ghost in particular that drove her to finally figure out how to mix it.

One ghost he really wanted to strap down to their table, too. That enigma, that oddity, that phantom. That punk kid never showed up when they were actually looking for him, but maybe they'd get lucky tonight while looking for their son.

Jack moved to his workspace and latched a Fenton Thermos to his belt, then picked up his newest ectoplasmic assault gun. His Fentonuzi.

"Ready?" he asked Maddie. She turned to look at him. Jack held up his gun with a grin.

"You sure you want to take that one?" asked Maddie. "Wouldn't it be better to take a gun you know definitely works?"

"What better way to test it than on a real ghost?"

Maddie shrugged and led the way out of the basement. After switching on their ghost shield that surrounded their house, they took to the streets, opting to leave their Assault Vehicle to be as inconspicuous as possible. They could more easily get around and sneak up on any ghosts on foot.

"Do you have a plan where to look, Mads?" asked Jack as he followed her. He scanned darkened windows reflecting glaring orange streetlights. "Nothing's even open this time of night."

"Parks. Near the school. Maybe he's with some friends," replied Maddie as her goggled vision darted in all directions.

She suddenly looked ahead in just one direction. Jack followed her gaze to a flash of green light farther up the street. Only one thing could ever produce that sort of eerie luminescence.

Maddie clutched her ecto-gun and started running toward the light. Jack also broke into a run and quickly caught up to her.

"All right, a ghost!" he whooped, running gloved fingers along the length of his newest gun. "I can't wait to try this baby out."

They sprinted onto the scene, skidding to an abrupt halt when they caught sight of the ghost, a huge entity that resembled a spider. Jack stared up at the creature's dripping fangs and couldn't stop a huge grin from spreading his lips.

"That's what I'm talking about!" He aimed his Fentonuzi at the spider ghost. Steady, right in line. He pulled the trigger.

Click.

Maddie groaned. "See, Jack, I told you—"

"No, wait, I got this." Jack inspected the gun, turned it over several times, snapped some parts in and out of place, shook it out a couple times. Something seemed a little loose, a little out of place, not snug like it should be. What exactly?

The spider ghost shrieked and advanced toward them with slinking legs. Maddie raised her gun and locked onto it. He had to figure this out quick, had to help her, couldn't let her fight alone.

A blast knocked the spider ghost away, a blast that was not from Maddie's gun. Certainly not from his gun either.

Jack stared at the spider ghost that had been whacked away a fair distance, then looked around for the source of the blast. There was another ghost hovering in the air above.

No, not just another ghost.

The first ghost he had ever seen, the ghost that had restored his belief in the existence of ghosts, the ghost that was nothing like any of the others that haunted their town.

"Hey, it's the ghost kid!" cried Jack.

Tousled frosted hair, gleaming toxic eyes, boasting such a small frame in his tight jumpsuit that for some absurd reason all the girls in this town swooned over.

Jack worked furiously on his gun, prying and prodding at everything. He really needed to get it to work now. Phantom would be a perfect first victim for his Fentonuzi.

Beside him, Maddie was silent, barely moving. Jack stopped his fiddling to observe her. She was staring up at Phantom, eyes locked right on him. She seemed tranced. Hypnotized.

He didn't like that look. That slight hint of color in her face, that small part between her lips.

Just what was she thinking about as she looked up at this ghost punk? How many times had he heard her say she wanted to get at him underneath his suit? Who even talked like that about a guy that wasn't her husband?

Phantom had some sort of effect on the women of this town. Perhaps some sort of ghostly ability of his. And lately, Jack had to wonder if it was working on his wife as well.

Maybe even right now. Maddie and Phantom were staring right into each other's eyes. Perhaps this was Phantom's power at work.

Maddie began reaching for the dart gun attached to her belt, but her eyes never disengaged with Phantom's.

He had to break this spell somehow.

"Mads, ah—"

Maddie turned on him with a fierce scowl. Jack flinched and shrugged. All right, maybe interrupting her wasn't his best idea. He returned to tinkering with his gun. If he could just get it to work he could shoot that punk ghost maybe even in the head kill it so that Maddie could never be aroused by the sight of him ever again.

She snatched the weapon away from him and began working on it herself, huffing and muttering under her breath.

Jack watched her for a moment, observed her steeped eyebrows and twitching temples. Then he moved his attention up to Phantom with a glare. Phantom cocked a brow in response.

This ghost was so often on her mind. Everything she did in the lab seemed to be oriented around this strangely human-looking specter. Jack didn't like the rouge that would rush to her face when she spoke about him. He didn't like the way she'd describe his toned physique or his magnetizing eyes.

His wife was obsessed with this ghost. And the only way he could stop her from obsessing was to eliminate the object of her obsession..

He would capture this ghost. And then he would rip him apart molecule by molecule. And then she would have nothing left to fantasize about.

Phantom turned his attention back to the spider ghost, which was now scurrying away behind a building. Jack's glare intensified.

I will kill you. Someday.

Phantom took off at top speed. Maddie looked up and yelled at him, but he ignored her. Jack only watched him fly away.

Good riddance.

Maddie thrust the Fentonuzi back into Jack's arms. "We need to split up."

Jack fumbled the gun before attaining a firm grasp. "Why?"

"Because we need to find Phantom. We can't let him get away this time."

Jack held in a groan. "But aren't we supposed to be looking for—"

"Jack, don't argue with me. You have your radio, right? So we can talk to each other easily?"

"Yes, of course—"

"Here. Take this." Maddie pushed a dart gun into his hand. "It's the Solidifier. Use it on Phantom if you find him. Corner him so he has no chance to get away."

Jack studied the dart gun loaded with the solution. "But isn't this yours?"

"I have my own. Radio me the second you find him."

"Ah, but Mads—"

"And take this gun." Maddie unclipped another ecto-gun from her belt and held it out to him. "I don't know why you insisted on bringing a gun that doesn't work, but I don't want it screwing up our chances of finally capturing Phantom."

Jack's face muscles twitched. Was that what she thought of him, a screw-up?

She was gone. Sprinting away and disappearing around a corner. Jack glowered and spat out a curse. Once again, this punk ghost had ensnared his wife's attention. He had even managed to make her forget all about the real reason they were out here in the first place, had actually taken her attention away from her own darling boy who was missing.

Phantom's hold on his wife was unforgivable.

Jack scanned the stars.

You better hope I don't find you.

He trudged along the streets, kicking at curbs, huffing and puffing around buildings and under streetlamps. His enthusiasm for ghost-hunting was gone, replaced with irritation that this had turned into a hunt for Phantom.

Of course he wanted to catch Phantom as much as Maddie did.

But at least his intentions were scientific.

An ethereal light from an alley caught his attention. He stared down the darkened passageway.

Frustration and hate. So much hate.

He crept into the alley, kept his steps as soundless as possible.

There.

His breath flared hotly through his nostrils. A tall gate, two silver trash cans, and the ghost he wanted more than any other to tear apart in his basement lab.

The ghost was facing away from him, looking down at the ground. His stance was normally confident and cocky, but here he seemed only pensive, lonely even. There was a sense of melancholy longing in the silent way he held his arms.

The bounty on his head was remarkably high. So many others wanted him, the Guys in White and other ghost hunters.

And perhaps most of all, his wife.

She would love Jack forever if he brought her Phantom.

But then how long until she loved Phantom more?

I can't let her have you.

Jack held up his dart gun, steadied and aimed it.

I can't let you take her from me.

He pulled the trigger, watched the dart pierce through the air and hit Phantom in the back near his neck. The ghost yelled and immediately pulled it out. Jack could see his hand shaking as he tried to understand what it was.

Phantom began to turn around.

"Hold it there, ghost!" Jack shouted. He aimed the ecto-gun Maddie had given him, the one that worked because apparently his Fentonuzi was just a failed screw-up.

Phantom's whole body tensed. The dart fell out of his hand and clattered to the ground.

"You've just been injected with the Fenton Ghost Solidifier," said Jack, pride sifting into his voice. "It won't let you change your molecules in any way for a while. You won't be able to become invisible or intangible."

It really was an amazing solution. It had already saved them so much money and made ghost experimentation so much easier. His wife was just so brilliant for figuring out a way to create it.

He faltered.

His wife had created it.

For...him. This ghost right in front of him. She wanted most of all to prevent him from using his powers, wanted to render him helpless and vulnerable.

"My wife's creation," Jack informed with falling tone.

Phantom tried to turn again.

"Don't move," snarled Jack.

The ghost halted.

Jack approached him until he was close enough that he didn't have to yell for Phantom to hear him. "Put your hands up where I can see them," he ordered gruffly.

The ghost remained motionless.

"Now, Phantom. Don't make me shoot you." He kept his gun trained on the ghost, hoping he could hear its whirring.

Phantom raised his hands with open palms facing the gate in front of him. "Like this?"

"Shut up, ghost," spat Jack. "Don't speak unless I tell you to."

Phantom obeyed, did not even move.

Well, that was easier than Jack thought it'd be. He was sure this chickenshit would put up more of a fight.

"But yes," said Jack somewhat awkwardly. "Like that."

Phantom still stayed quiet, kept his hands up near his head. Trapped and cornered and at his mercy, under his power. Phantom was submitting to his authority, complying with his commands, surrendering to his captor.

A collection of molecules just begging to be ripped apart and scattered all over his basement lab.

Phantom turned his head to try to look behind him.

"Keep looking forward, ghost," hissed Jack.

He obeyed, but Jack could hear his irritated sigh. He smirked to himself. Phantom hated this.

"How long are you going to keep me like this?" asked Phantom. "My arms are getting tired."

"Do you really think I care about your arms?"

"Are you going to capture me or not? Because I feel like you would've captured me by now if you were going to."

Jack's eyes narrowed. This punk kid was in no position to act so defiant and bratty. "What did I tell you about speaking?"

His radio crackled with a voice. His wife's.

"Jack? Jack! Come in, Jack."

Jack didn't answer right away. He knew what she was going to ask. He knew what she wanted.

He unclipped his radio and held it to his mouth. "Yes, Maddie?"

"Did you find Phantom?"

Jack looked at the back of the ghost's head. All that glowing hair, so much hair.

"No," he replied. "Not yet."

"All right," said Maddie wistfully. "Let me know the moment you find him."

"Of course."

He reclipped the radio to his belt. Phantom continued to stay still with his trembling hands near his head.

Want to take a rest, Phantom?

Jack moved until he was close enough to touch the ghost, angled so he could see the ghost's face in profile.

Want this all to just stop, Phantom?

He could almost certainly ring Phantom's neck with just one hand. Crush his larynx, splinter his bones. His molecules wouldn't be able to morph to lessen the trauma.

He stared at Phantom's thin frame, his fragile shoulders, his small arms. He could tear this punk apart right now. His body would break and fracture with so little effort.

"What are you waiting for?" asked Phantom, his tone surly.

Jack growled a warning. He was not about to let this ghost talk to him so disrespectfully.

"My wife wants to be the one to capture you," explained Jack.

She wanted to do so many things to him, things she was surely keeping secret from her husband.

Things she couldn't do if her coveted ghost was dead.

"But maybe I should just shoot you instead."

Jack raised his whirring ecto-gun right next to Phantom's head. Phantom flinched before straightening again.

"Shooting you might be better," Jack said, his voice low, his gun steady.

Phantom's head tilted toward the sky. Jack resisted the urge to slam the grip of his gun right on the ghost's crown.

"Shooting me," said Phantom. "What do you mean? Like shooting to kill?"

"Yes, like shooting to kill. What do you think?"

"And then what?"

"And then I'll take you back to our lab and rip you apart."

"Like dissect me? Wouldn't you rather me be alive for that?"

"My wife would prefer you be alive," said Jack bitterly, irritably. Oh, yes, she wanted him to be alive so that he could react to her prodding and groping and molesting. She wanted to elicit screams and moans and pleas.

A pout pulled at Phantom's lips. "So you don't care if I'm alive or not for your experiments?"

"All I care about is getting you out of the picture."

Phantom made no reply. He continued to stare straight ahead, brows knitted in contemplation. His shaking arms began lowering.

"Keep those hands up, Phantom," Jack yelled.

Phantom immediately raised his arms again. "Look, Jack, um, can I call you Jack?"

"No."

"All right, well... What do you mean by 'out of the picture'? I mean, what picture am I in exactly?"

"Quit talking."

Phantom said nothing. Jack contemplated what to do now. He couldn't tell Maddie he found Phantom. He didn't want her anywhere near him. But then he couldn't just let him go. So should he capture him? Suck him into a Thermos?

Or should he just kill the damn thing? Shoot him right in the head? Blast a hole straight through his neck?

"Seriously, what are you waiting for?" asked Phantom.

"I said don't speak," snapped Jack.

"Or what? If you were going to shoot me, you would've done it. And I'm not just going to stand here in silence," spat Phantom, staring straight ahead, his hands still up. "So why don't you tell me what you want from me already? Or at least tell me what your problem with me is."

Jack groaned, drawling a disgruntled huff. Figured this punk wouldn't just be quiet so he could think.

Jack held his gun steady, trained right at the ghost's snowy strands.

The only way to silence him would be to kill him.

But it didn't seem right to just kill him, not without an explanation. He wanted Phantom to know exactly why he deserved to be torn apart and splattered all over this alley.

"I was so excited the first time I saw you," said Jack quietly. "Do you know you're the first ghost I ever saw?"

Phantom's eyes fluttered upward.

"I was all set to renounce ghosts," continued Jack. "After years and years of what seemed like wasted effort and drained bank accounts, I was finally ready to give up on this venture. Ghosts. I had never seen one. My wife had never seen one. Our kids thought we were insane, especially our daughter. And I started to believe it."

The way Jazz would look at him with so much disdain and disappointment. He hated that look. He just wanted his daughter to understand, to believe, to be proud of him. He wanted to prove her wrong, show her that her father was intelligent and capable and absolutely not wasting his time. That he was worthy of her admiration.

But as the years went by, even he began to grow weary. Their failed portal creation was a huge setback. Even after their son somehow managed to get it working, the blow to his confidence in his work had already torn in deep.

And he still had yet to see a single ghost. That was, until…

Jack stared at Phantom, observed the way the ghost's gaze fell on the ground in front of him.

"But then you appeared," said Jack. "Out of nowhere. This punk ghost kid single-handedly renewed my faith in our work. Your existence proved we were right all along. My wife and I were ecstatic." Jack paused. "And then more ghosts appeared, and we finally had real specimens to capture and work with, study."

"And vivisect," bit Phantom.

"Yes," affirmed Jack with a sneering bite of his own. He was damn proud of his ghost research and was only amused at Phantom's attempt to chide him. "We've torn so many apart, maybe even buddies of yours. Do you want the details, Phantom?"

Phantom's expression sobered.

"Then shut up," said Jack. "Nothing you say is going to get any sympathy from me."

Phantom's fingers curled slightly, his gaze lowered. Jack opened his mouth to say more when his radio crackled to life again.

"Jack? Come in, Jack."

He didn't want to answer. He wished he didn't have to answer. But at last, he unhooked his radio and held it to his mouth. "I'm here, Maddie."

"Did you find Phantom?"

He was absolutely expecting this question and yet it still pissed him off. He exhaled heavily. "No, Maddie. Not yet."

"Well, be sure to—"

"Yes, yes, I know. I'll be sure to call you if I find him."

He relatched the radio to his belt and glared at Phantom. This stupid kid. This stupid ghost. All of this was his fault. His wife was getting more and more distant from him and more and more obsessed with this punk each day.

"We were both so fascinated by you. My wife and I. You were at the top of our list from day one. Our first ghost. And I wanted nothing more than to rip you apart, study each and every nerve and fiber as I tore them away."

Belted down to their operating table. Chest and arms breached and broken apart.

Jack studied Phantom from behind, his pulsing back and quivering legs.

I keep thinking about slitting you deep, spilling everything you are until you're gone.

"That's what I want to do. Study you." Jack paused. "But my wife…"

Her soft skin, her bedroom eyes that used to be just for him.

"She wants to study you as well, of course. But lately...sometimes I wonder…"

And where was she now? She wasn't with him. No, she had left him. She had left him to look for another man. This ghost standing right here. Not even a man, just a boy. Sure he had grown taller and developed some decent muscle mass over this past year and a half, but he was still nothing more than a dumb kid.

"You're the only ghost she ever seems to think about anymore," griped Jack. "Whenever we're operating on another specimen, she's always relating it back to you somehow. 'I wonder if Phantom would have this?' 'Do you think Phantom would react this way?' 'I bet Phantom is different.' And every new invention from her lately is created with you specifically in mind. She'd never admit it, but I know that's the case." Jack huffed. "Might as well call it the Phantom Solidifier. I know she created this solution just for you."

Jack pressed the barrel of his ecto-gun directly to Phantom's head. Phantom's head bent forward in response.

"And you wanna know why, Phantom? Why that inhibitor coursing through your veins was meant for you?"

Phantom did not respond.

"Without it, ghosts have to be contained in special ways. Huge containers, bulky anti-ghost restraints. Makes dissection difficult a lot of the time. We often have to anesthetize them to prevent them from shape-shifting or becoming intangible or invisible. Or else we have to keep them in special restraints that neutralize their powers but then make it difficult to work on them. Also very expensive to keep running. You should see our power bill."

The expense, the cost of their research was indeed sky high. They had been alone in their endeavors for so long with no government grants or funding, no support from everyone who just thought they were crazy. They had nothing but the very generous inheritance Jack's parents had left him. Without that, they wouldn't have been able to afford any of this.

But it was still so expensive.

"My wife created that Solidifier so those cumbersome measures could be eliminated."

Jack moved the barrel of his ecto-gun back and forth along Phantom's head, rippling through his illuminated locks. Phantom shivered and moved his head away, but Jack pressed the gun against him again.

"And that way, you'll be completely vulnerable. A powerless ghost. And she'll be able to do whatever she wants to you without an excess of anti-ghost measures." Jack chuckled and shoved his gun into Phantom's head, forcing it to tilt toward the ground. "Real close and real personal. Just as intimate as she wants to be with you."

Phantom's legs were quaking and his arms were spasming. Jack smirked at the sight. Excellent. He wanted this ghost's last few moments to be agonizing.

His radio buzzed again with Maddie's metallic voice. "Jack?"

Jack cursed under his breath as he unhitched the device. "What is it, Maddie?"

"Did you find—"

"No, Maddie. No, I did not find Phantom," snapped Jack. "And anyway, aren't we supposed to be looking for Danny? Wasn't that the whole point of us traipsing out here in the middle of the night?"

Danny. That boy. This whole thing was his fault. His wife would've been sleeping next to him in their bed right now if it weren't for their son daring to break one of their parental rules.

"Jack, watch that tone," scolded Maddie. "Of course we should be looking for Danny as well. But it's just that—"

"I know, Maddie. I know. We saw Phantom. We know he's out here. This could be our only chance. I get it. I promise I'll tell you if I find him, all right? You don't need to keep asking me."

Silence from the radio. A very long pause. Jack could practically hear her frustration and irritation growing through the static.

"Fine," she said evenly before signing off. Jack gripped the radio in his hand hard, so hard he could surely crush it into pieces if he squeezed any more than this.

He turned his attention back to Phantom, who was still standing submissively with his arms raised.

"It's you," murmured Jack. "It's only you. You're all she wants. The more I've realized her intentions toward you, what she's really thinking about you, just how much you dominate her thoughts, the more I don't want her anywhere near you at all. You're a sickness. Her sickness." Jack turned the blast setting on his ecto-gun to maximum. "If I get rid of you, maybe she'll be cured."

He placed his finger on the trigger. He'd burn a hole through this ghost's head and render him nothing more than a spectral corpse. Maddie could rage and scream and curse him out, but she'd be too late.

All this ghost's silly fangirls thinking he looked so pretty. Didn't they know how much prettier he'd look flooded over the ground and drained of color?

Phantom suddenly spun around with a swift lower kick that connected hard with Jack's shin. Jack's grasp loosened on his gun, allowing Phantom to latch onto it and wrench it away at such an angle that Jack was forced to let go. A beaming discharge raced past Phantom's head and crumbled part of the wall beside them. The ghost leapt backwards with the gun in his gloved hands and aimed it at Jack, shoulders heaving with shallow breaths.

Jack stared with wide eyes and slacked jaw before regaining control of his senses. He clenched his fists and straightened his spine to tower over the ghost even from a distance.

The way the punk held the gun, so unsteady, looking like nothing more than a frightened child.

"What are you going to do, Phantom?" he asked with a leer. "Are you going to shoot me?"

Phantom's gaze dropped to the weapon in his trembling arms. He switched it off and tossed it behind him.

Jack laughed cruelly. He was not at all surprised and yet it was still hilarious that Phantom had even tried to intimidate him. "Of course not. You always have to be a hero. You'd never hurt me because I'm not a threat to this town. You're compelled to protect even me. It's embedded in your composition. You can't disobey your obsession."

"We're not enemies," insisted Phantom with a tremor in his voice.

Enemy. Ha. Phantom being his enemy would mean that the punk posed some sort of danger to him. This kid really shouldn't flatter himself to think Jack would ever see him as anything more than a pest to exterminate.

"I hope you never stop thinking that," said Jack coldly. "That will continue to give me an advantage over you."

They stood apart in tensed suspension, their only weapons the strength of their stares. Jack used his to its fullest capacity, bearing right into Phantom's gleaming gaze no matter how much its bright light made his own eyes tear up.

"Jack!" another voice cried, the unmistakable voice of his wife. Only this time it was not coming over a radio.

Jack turned to look at Maddie, who was standing at the beginning of the alley with a gun in her hands. Her stance indicated distress, but she straightened in shock. "Phantom! That's—" She growled and began angrily stomping up to him. "You promised you'd tell me if—why didn't you—"

The spider ghost he and Maddie had confronted earlier appeared in the alley behind his wife, but she did not stop her march.

"Maddie!" hollered Jack.

The spider ghost advanced and grabbed Maddie with its front legs. She turned her gun on the ghost, but the shrieking arachnid knocked it out of her hands toward Jack. The sight of his wife in trouble took over as he completely turned his back on Phantom. He immediately picked up the weapon and began firing at the spider's legs.

The spider shrieked and squinted at Jack. Jack continued firing at the spider, but it would not relinquish its hold on his wife.

"Jack, look out!" cried Maddie.

Jack turned too late to see the spider ghost aiming a shot of webbing straight at him. He sailed backwards and hit a wall, the ecto-gun he had been holding skidding across the ground away from him. He struggled to break out of the silky entrapment, watched with rage as his wife, still in the spider's grasp, had no way to defend herself. The spider stared down at her hungrily.

But she had a great shot if she only had a gun.

He broke his arms through the webbing and unlatched the Fentonuzi from his belt. He turned it over in his hands, trying yet again to locate the problem. The bolt was slightly out of place. How had he not noticed that before? It would have to be properly fixed later, but for now, Jack slammed it in tight and raised his arm to throw it. "Maddie!" he yelled.

Jack threw the gun hard and precisely, watched it soar through the air and land neatly in Maddie's gloved hand. She snarled and aimed it right at the spider's face, pulled the trigger and delivered a powerfully focused beam of ectoplasmic energy in the spider's many eyes. Green sludge burst from its eye sockets as the ghost staggered backwards and rolled onto its back with legs curling toward the sky.

Maddie sealed the ghost in a Thermos, then stayed where she was with her back to Jack, her shoulders rising and falling, her one fist clenching.

Jack never took his eyes off of her as he pulled out of the webbing he had been trapped in. He knew that body language way too well.

After gathering the two ecto-guns that had been thrown across the ground, he cautiously approached her. "Hey, Maddie. You okay? You're not hurt, are you?"

She rounded on him with bared teeth. Her eyes were not visible through her goggles, but he knew all the same that they were hot with anger.

"Where's Phantom?" she demanded. She pushed past him and scanned the now empty alley. "Where is he? Please tell me you captured him."

Jack also searched the alley, but Phantom was indeed gone. His eye twitched. "Ah, well, he was right here—"

"Where is he now, Jack?" yelled Maddie.

Jack flinched and once again looked around the alley. "I... I guess he got away."

"He got away?" Maddie's voice was shrill. "You let him get away?"

Jack's gaze hardened. "I didn't let him get away. You were in trouble. I was trying to save you. That was a little more important to me than keeping track of some punk ghost kid."

"He's not just 'some punk ghost kid,' Jack. He could be the link we've been searching for, the crux for everything we've been—"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I get it. Phantom is special. So special that his capture is apparently more important than your safety." Jack scowled. "I'm real sorry I chose you over him, okay?"

Maddie's whole body shook as she seethed. She said nothing for a long moment. "How long was he here?" she finally asked.

Jack furrowed his brow and shook his head to indicate he didn't understand her question.

"When exactly did you find him?" Maddie lifted her goggles on top of her hood and fixed him with a glare. "And why didn't you tell me you found him?"

"I… I found him not long after that last time you radioed me. And I just didn't have the time to contact you and let you know."

"Really? You really expect me to believe that, Jack?"

Jack held her gaze as long as he could before looking down at the ground.

"You liar." Maddie's eyes were filling with anguished tears. "You are such a liar. I asked you directly if you found him, and you lied to me. Why, Jack? Why did you lie to me?"

"I—I'm sorry—"

"Sorry doesn't make up for this, Jack. Sorry isn't going to bring Phantom back."

Phantom. That was all she cared about. That was all she was really mourning over. Jack's arms tightened with bulging veins beneath his jumpsuit. "Okay, well, he's gone now, all right? There's no point in—"

"He's only gone because you didn't tell me you found him," cried Maddie. "Because you lied to me. If you had just told me you'd found him, I would've been right here with you, and then he definitely wouldn't have gotten away." Maddie angrily held up her Thermos. "You realize Phantom could've been the one trapped in here? Right now? Do you? But no, you decided to lie to me instead. And now Phantom has once again gotten away from us."

Jack groaned. "Maddie—"

"No. I'm done with you."

Maddie turned her back on him and latched the Thermos to her belt. She stayed silent for some time, her arms and back trembling. Jack wanted so much to embrace her, rub her shoulders, kiss her hair. But he instead kept his distance.

She finally shook her head and straightened up. "Let's just get back to looking for Danny." Her eyes suddenly widened with panic. "Oh, God, Danny. What if a ghost got him? What if that spider ghost got him first?"

Jack sighed, rolled his eyes, handed her an ecto-gun and took his Fentonuzi back from her.

Danny. His wife was upset with him, and it was all that boy's fault.

"He's fine, Maddie."

"But he doesn't carry around ghost-fighting weapons like we do."

"He's fine."

The two returned to the streets and looked for any further signs of ghosts and, more importantly, their son. But despite Jack's attempts to walk beside her, to make conversation with her, Maddie was always a few steps ahead and spoke very little to him, and anything she did say to him was curt and laced with irritation.

All Danny's fault—

All Phantom's fault—

This was both of their faults and he definitely wasn't going to go easy on either of them once he found them.

Especially not Danny. Not this time. Danny knew better than to sneak out in the middle of the night and yet he did it anyway. Maddie was worried that the worst had already befallen their son. Jack knew damn well that the worst would not befall Danny until Jack got a hold of him.

But no, no, he had to restrain himself. Maddie would never forgive him if he did anything to Danny. He couldn't even hurt Danny's oh-so-sensitive feelings without getting chewed out.

He grimaced and sulkily followed behind Maddie as she desperately looked for any signs of their son.

And she was probably still hoping to catch a glimpse of Phantom, too. Of course she was.

Maddie's cell phone rang. She looked at the screen and answered the call without even bothering to tell Jack who was calling. But at least she had the courtesy to stop walking. Jack listened to her side of the conversation.

"Jazz, what is it? Did you hear from Danny?" Pause. "Really? Is he there with you?" Pause. "Thank God." She put a hand to her chest. "Is he okay?" Pause. "Okay, we're coming home right now." She disconnected the call and looked at Jack. "Danny's home."

Jack gave her a tentative smile. "See? I told you he was okay."

She did not return the smile, only sharply turned from him and headed back in the direction of their home. Jack followed behind her with heavy steps that kept getting angrier.

Danny better have had a really good explanation for this blatant disrespect.

In their living room, Danny and Jazz stood up from the couch as Jack and Maddie walked in.

His somber expression. His arms down at his sides. Their boy looked guilty, upset.

Good. Jack was at least glad to see that he was showing some remorse over worrying his mother and forcing his father to get out of bed just to look for him.

"Danny!" Maddie ran and threw her arms around him. "I was worried sick."

Jack narrowed his eyes as Maddie proceeded to coddle their son. He didn't deserve this. He deserved to be yelled at.

Maddie pulled back, her hands now on his shoulders. "Where have you been, young man?"

"Yes," said Jack tiredly, walking up beside her so that Danny would be forced to look up at him. "What was so important that you felt you had to leave the house in the middle of the night?"

Danny's voice was quiet. "Sorry. I was with Tucker."

Maddie cocked a brow. "Tucker?"

"Yeah, um... Well, we were just—"

"With Tucker?" Jack stared down at him in disbelief. "Like at his house?"

"Well, yeah—"

"Why didn't you answer your phone? Your mother was trying to call you, sent a ton of messages."

"Ah, well, I wasn't looking at my phone. I'm sorry."

"Well, it certainly would have saved us a lot of trouble. You know we actually went out to look for you, right?"

Jack bore into him with a glare. Danny shrank back and averted his own gaze.

"Well, we're definitely going to have a talk with Tucker's parents tomorrow," said Maddie. "And we'll have to think of a suitable punishment for you, Danny." Her expression softened. "But I'm so relieved you're safe."

"Yes," said Danny quietly. "I am."

Jack irritably stared off to the side. He just couldn't believe his son would waste his night like this. That he'd waste all of their night like this. Even Jazz was awake. How could Danny be so inconsiderate? And all to visit Tucker? Could he even believe such a flimsy excuse?

"Are you okay, Danny?" asked Maddie.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just...really sorry. And tired."

"You seem... I feel like something's wrong."

She ran her fingers through his hair. Mothering and comforting him, how like her. Even when he didn't deserve it, even when he needed to be disciplined instead, she was just so easily distracted by his pouting lips and large sad eyes. Actually staying mad at their son was apparently a real challenge for her.

Jack's vexed gaze snapped back to Danny. Danny quickly turned his head away in response.

"Danny?" asked Maddie with alarm.

Danny smiled. "Sorry, I'm just tired. So, um, is it all right if I go to bed now, or do you still want to talk about this?"

Maddie glanced back at Jack. Jack in no way thought this should wait until the morning. He wanted to demand that Danny explain himself right now.

But instead, he shrugged. Maddie was already upset with him, and he wasn't about to push her by insisting that they interrogate and emotionally batter her favorite child.

"Yes," said Maddie. "Yes, we'll talk tomorrow."

She placed a tender kiss on his head. Jack glowered at Danny, but his son did not meet his gaze.

Maddie released him, and Danny briskly walked away. Jack watched him ascend the stairs with Jazz right behind him.

"What do you think's going on with Danny?" asked Maddie in a low voice.

"I don't know," replied Jack dully. "I guess we'll find out tomorrow."

"But what do you think he was doing with Tucker? At this hour?"

"I really don't know," said Jack, more irritably this time. "Do you want to make him talk tonight? Instead of letting him go to bed? Because that's the only way we'll find out."

"Don't take that tone with me. I was just asking."

"Yeah, well, I'm tired." Jack started leading the way upstairs. "So for now, let's just be glad he's okay and get some sleep, all right?"

Maddie said nothing more as she followed Jack. Jack glanced at Danny's closed door as they walked past.

Yes, Danny was okay. Safe at home. Where he should've been before. In his room. That he never should've left.

Maddie pushed past him without a single word.

This was all Danny's fault.

Chapter Text

The school day was over. In Jazz's car on the way home, Danny didn't tell her about the conversation he had had with Sam and Tucker, didn't tell her what he had at last admitted to himself, didn't tell her that he had for once decided to take her advice.

Standing before the front door of their house, mentally readying himself, knowing he had to do this. He had to tell his dad the truth, had to reveal everything or else this would only get worse.

And his dad would understand. His dad would be okay with it. His dad wouldn't be mad at him for lying.

Well…

He wouldn't be too mad, anyway.

WELL…

He wouldn't kill Danny, at least.

Danny stared down at the door knob in his hand.

He wasn't even sure of that.

"Danny? You okay?" asked Jazz as she walked up beside him.

Danny nodded and opened the front door. He stepped inside to find Jack and Maddie waiting in the living room.

"Hey, you two! How was school?" asked Maddie brightly.

"Uh... Fine," said Danny.

"Yeah, it was great," said Jazz.

Jack was smiling. Big. At him. Danny warily studied his father. He hadn't seen him looking this happy since before... Well, since before.

"Hey, Dannathan!" Jack's grin broadened even wider. "How's about we head out to Gardner Peak, huh? Just the two of us!"

Danny cocked his head slightly and blinked a couple times. "Gardner Peak? The observatory?"

Jack nodded with an emphatic hum.

Danny glanced at Maddie, Jazz, then back at Jack. "Just... Just the two of us, you said?"

"Of course! You and me, man to man!"

Danny's gaze moved from his father's face to just past him.

Alone with his dad. Miles away from home.

And what for? Did his mom once again put his dad up to this? His dad didn't actually want to spend time with him, did he?

Or was his dad just looking for an excuse to get him out of the picture at last? Gardner Peak was in such an isolated area. The cell reception wasn't very good. There'd be no one to rescue him, no one to help him. Sure he had ghost powers but his dad had so many weapons and so much training and he was so much bigger than Danny and he could absolutely overpower Danny if he had the right equipment.

But if he refused to go…

His dad was so happy now. What if it just made him angry again if Danny declined this invitation?

"Okay." Danny cleared his throat and refocused on his dad. "So when are we going?"

Jack clapped his hands. "Right now!"

"Right... Right now?"

"Yeah! It's the weekend, so your homework can wait until tomorrow."

"But isn't Gardner Peak like two hours away?"

Jack smirked. "I'm pretty sure I can get us there in just one."

Danny didn't doubt this. His father's driving was notoriously reckless and insane.

But he needed time to prepare. He couldn't do this yet. He couldn't be alone with his dad right now. No, no, he needed at least another day or two or week.

His resolve to tell his dad the truth was dissipating fast. He wasn't ready. Nope.

"Sweetie?"

Danny looked at his mother.

"You like Gardner Peak, don't you?" she asked. "It's been a while since you've been there. Won't it be fun?"

It had been a while. A couple years. He recalled how much he had loved it last time, all those huge telescopes and a dark sky untouched by light pollution. All the constellations in clear view, all the stars sparkling between them as well.

He had been wanting to go again. Just...not with…

He mustered an enthusiastic nod, a cheerful smile. "Yeah. Sounds like a lot of fun."

Maddie clasped her hands. "Wonderful! Come help me carry the food out to the RV."

She skipped lightly toward the kitchen. Jack eagerly stepped in line behind her. Danny stole a glance at Jazz before heading to the kitchen himself.

"Carry the what out—" He stopped, gaped at the pile of filled small plastic storage containers on the kitchen table. Maddie and Jack were cheerily scooping them into their arms.

"Yeah, Danno!" Jack gave him yet another wide grin, as if he had never been mad at Danny at all just the day before. "Your mom made us tons of vittles for the trip!"

"Tons of—what?—wait—"

"Holy—jeez!" gasped Jazz as she walked in behind Danny.

"Your father had a lot of requests," explained Maddie. "He just couldn't decide, so I made everything."

"Come on, son! Help carry these," said Jack..

Danny approached the table and stacked a few containers in his hands. "Is this all seriously just for the two of us?"

Maddie kissed the side of his head as she walked by him out of the kitchen. "All for you, dear. So you better not come back hungry."

Danny followed his parents outside with a growing heaviness in his step. Expectations. His parents had expectations for him. His dad was not just taking him on this trip solely to bond. His mom did not just make all this food solely to be kind.

They both wanted something from him. Answers, explanations, behavior changes.

And he really didn't want to disappoint them.

But he knew he would. Because he always did.

Outside, Maddie and Jazz said goodbye after all the food was appropriately stored in the built-in warmers in the back. Danny hauled himself up into the Fenton Assault Vehicle and smiled softly at how much easier it was to get in now that he was taller, just a short hop aided by the ceiling handle. No more jumping and practically having to crawl into the front seat.

And he was still growing. He so hoped he'd get to at least six feet.

He watched his father walk over to the other side of the car, towering far above the ground, not much shorter than the RV itself.

Danny certainly had the genes to reach at least six feet. Maybe he'd even be taller than that. Maybe even taller than Dash. That'd be way too perfect. The look on the jock's face when he had to actually look up at him would be priceless.

Jack effortlessly slid into the driver seat with just one step. The hair on his head grazed the ceiling. Danny held in a smirk. This vehicle was huge and yet his dad still just barely fit in it.

After a final wave to Maddie and Jazz, Jack put the car in drive and raced out of the neighborhood at breakneck speed. Danny grabbed onto the car side handle for support.

Alone with his dad. Completely alone. And no cell phone to keep Sam and Tucker apprised of any possible trouble.

But his dad seemed happy, so this could be okay, right?

"All righty, Danno," said Jack as he wove in and out of traffic. "What do you say we get some milkshakes first? That sounds good, doesn't it?"

"Milkshakes?" Danny glanced back at the warmers behind their seats. "Don't we have enough food already?"

"But we don't have milkshakes!"

Jack sharply turned into the Nasty Burger drive-through line and pulled up to the menu where a peppy voice asked for their order. Danny sighed to himself, wishing it could've been Valerie's voice. He hadn't interacted with her in months now, only just occasionally passed by her in school.

His first real heartbreak…

"What do you want?" Jack turned his head toward Danny. "What kind of milkshake?"

A milkshake didn't actually sound all that bad. His dad was in such a good mood, and he had to admit he was feeling better than he had just less than an hour earlier. Good enough to maybe eat a real meal. Maybe even good enough for a milkshake.

"Vanilla," said Danny.

"With fudge syrup on top? Or candy bar pieces?"

"No, um, just vanilla."

"Just vanilla?" Jack eyed him, looking utterly flabbergasted. "That's it? The most boring flavor? That's all you want?"

Danny ducked his head with a cringe. "Ah—well—okay, um, how about you just choose for me? Whatever you want me to get, that's fine."

Jack stared at him a short moment longer before leaning out his window toward the speaker and ordering a double chocolate milkshake with extra hot fudge and a "plain ol' vanilla shake yup that's right just a plain vanilla shake." At the drive-in window, Jack picked up the shakes and handed Danny's vanilla to him.

"Enjoy your vanilla boringness," laughed Jack. "You definitely didn't get that from me."

Are you even really my son? 'Cause you don't seem like my son. Not the son I wanted.

Danny tentatively took the shake. "I said you could order me whatever you—"

"I'm just teasing you, Danny." Jack patted his shoulder. "It's fine."

Jack smiled at him. Kindly, fatherly. Danny attempted to smile back before staring down at his shake that no longer seemed appetizing. It would almost surely twist up his insides with sloshing nausea.

He couldn't even make his dad happy with his milkshake preference. How could he screw up something this simple? How could even the smallest things he did be such a disappointment to his dad?

He took a sip. His dad was right. Totally bland, entirely boring, completely tasteless.

But he had to drink it all. His dad had spent money on it, had spent money on him. He didn't want his dad to think he was ungrateful by wasting it.

Any stomach sickness that came as a result, he'd just deal with it later.

On the freeway at last. Danny tried to take large gulps of his shake, anything to make it go away faster.

And luckily for him, his dad was driving like a maniac as usual. Anything that could make this trip go faster was also welcome.

"So, Danny." His dad's tone was lively, enthused. "Tell me what's been going on with you."

"What's been going on with me?"

"Yeah! It's been a while since you and I have actually talked. What have you been up to lately?"

"Um... Well... I mean, nothing interesting. Just school. I mean, is there something specific you want to know about?"

Jack clapped a gloved hand on the gear shift. "Well, how about your love life?"

"My love life?"

"Yeah! I mean, last I recall, you were dating Sam, but then that didn't seem to go anywhere."

Danny absently stared ahead. Sam. He wondered what she was doing now. He wished he could text her. She was probably out with Tucker somewhere, maybe indulging in some sort of vegan snack while looking so pretty with those shapely cheekbones and lovely chin he so longed to take hold of and tilt up toward his waiting lips.

"Did you two break up?" asked Jack.

Danny clutched his milkshake, chilled pain icing through his fingers. "Dad, um... Sam and I... We were never dating."

"What? Get out! Yes, you were! I even got you a ring inscribed with Sam's name, remember?"

"Yeah, I know, but it wasn't Sam I was dating at that time. It was a different girl."

"Well, was her name also Sam or something?"

"No, Dad."

"Then why did I think it was?"

"I really don't know." Danny took a long guilty sip, sure that the misconception was definitely somehow his fault.

Jack was quiet for a long moment before snorting with quick laughter. "Well, I feel pretty dumb now."

"Don't." Danny turned to him imploringly. "I really did appreciate the ring. It was really great to have your support like that."

"So you really were dating someone, right?"

A freeze from his shake was traveling up his fingers through his arms into his chest. "Yes. I was."

"What was her name?"

"Valerie." He bleakly stirred what was left of his milkshake.

"You two must not have dated very long. I don't recall you ever bringing someone named Valerie over."

"No. Not long at all."

"What happened?"

Danny hesitated. "Would it be all right if we don't talk about it?"

Asking permission. If his dad said no, then he'd of course surrender and tell him whatever he wanted to know. His dad was in charge here.

Jack smiled softly. "Had your heart broken, huh?"

Danny said nothing.

"I know what that's like." Jack stretched out his arms over the steering wheel. "Not fun. It can hurt for a long time."

A long time. It had been well over a year since Valerie had rejected him. Was that a long time? Or was it still too soon for his heart to stop aching?

"But then I met your mom and haven't had heartbreak since."

Jack grinned, but Danny could hear a strange crack in his voice. He glanced at his father's face and noticed the corners of his mouth twitching, his temples pulsating.

"You and Mom do seem really happy together," said Danny, hoping to stop his father's mood from swinging before it could start.

Jack's grin snapped into stability, no twitching at all. "Yeah," he said brightly. "Yeah, we really are." He placed a hand on Danny's shoulder and energetically shook it. "And you'll find someone, too. Don't let the setbacks discourage you."

Fatherly contact. Playful. Not at all threatening.

It felt...nice.

"Okay, but what about you and Sam?" asked Jack. "Why haven't you asked her out yet?"

Danny blushed. "Sam, what? Why would I—?"

"Because you like her! We've all known for ages. And I'm sure she likes you. How could she not?"

The heat in his face was enough to melt the remainder of his milkshake.

"You should ask her out," said Jack more firmly. "Mom and I both really like her."

"Y-Yeah?"

"Of course! And if you need any tips, I'd be stoked to help you out. I was quite a ladies' man back in my high school days, you know."

Jack proceeded to brag about all his teenage exploits, his romantic late nights. Danny's muscles loosened, his posture relaxed. Even his milkshake suddenly tasted better, cool cream frothing against his lips.

His dad was so happy, so animated.

Maybe his dad really wasn't mad at him anymore. And maybe his dad actually did like him.

Amidst more enthusiastic chatter from his dad that had rambled in and out of different topics, the RV finally pulled up to the observatory. Danny opened the vehicle door and jumped down to the ground, shielding his eyes from the lowering sunlight.

"All right!" cried Jack with a broad smile. "We've still got time to eat before it gets dark!" He opened the back door of the RV and began shoveling as many plastic containers as he could into his hulking arms.

"You sure we have enough?" quipped Danny as he took several containers into his own arms.

"No," said Jack very seriously with a frown. "But we can always buy some snacks from inside if we're still hungry. Pretty sure they have some. Or at least a vending machine."

Danny held back a chuckle and an eye roll as he and his father took a seat at one of the outside tables, feeling just a little embarrassed by the huge amount of food they set down. A few other chatting and eating families glanced over at them with expressions ranging from incredulous to amused.

And normally he might've been attempting to hide himself under the table while his dad gorged away on whatever he picked up first, not caring if the flavors blended well or not.

But his dad was so happy now. Happy to be here with him. Not grumpy or irritated or even disappointed.

It was nice to feel like his dad actually wanted to be around him again. Even if this whole trip was his mom's idea, his dad seemed to genuinely want to be hanging out with his son.

"Here, Danno, try some of this casserole." Jack pushed a container and fork toward him. "Your mom makes the best casseroles."

Danny opened the lid and scooped a clump of noodles and chicken out onto a paper plate. "It does smell pretty good."

"That's because it's been infused with ectoplasmic radiation!"

Danny halted mid-scoop.

"I'm just kidding!" Jack clapped him on the shoulder. "Although we do sometimes store ecto-samples in the kitchen fridge when our fridge in the basement is full. There are probably traces in all of our food."

Danny hesitantly resumed serving himself before snapping the lid back on. "Yeah, well... Maybe that's why we're all so much more resistant to ghost-related diseases and contaminations."

"Right you are!" cried Jack proudly, clapping his shoulder again. "We Fentons are ecto-resilient!"

Danny smiled and recalled his portal incident, the concentrated blast of ectoplasmic energy that absolutely should've killed him but somehow made him stronger instead.

He had decided earlier to tell his dad about that. Should he still? Maybe his dad would actually be excited about it, excited that his own son was so "ecto-resilient" that he not only survived an ecto-shock but was transformed by it into something extraordinary. And all because his parents had exposed him to so much ectoplasmic radiation throughout his whole life.

Why, Jack would probably take full credit for Danny being able to live through that at all.

And whether it was true or not, Danny wouldn't mind as long as it gave his dad some reason to be proud of him again. Something that made him just as impressive as Jazz.

Danny smiled as he took a bite of the casserole. Something to bring him up to Jazz's level in his dad's eyes at last.

And wow, this casserole really did taste so good. Oozing grease, textured crunches, sliding in and under his tongue and smoothly pouring down his throat. He loved times like this when food actually tasted good, when he actually wanted to put more in his mouth. Because most of the time, eating was something he could easily forget to do. If it wasn't for the designated lunch hour at school and his mom calling him to dinner each night, he could probably go an entire day without eating.

"You're really tearing into that, son," observed Jack.

Danny swallowed a large bite. "I didn't really eat a whole lot at lunch. I guess I didn't realize how hungry I was."

"Well, your mom will be happy to hear that you're actually eating. She was worried you wouldn't."

"Oh, yeah, this tastes so good. I'm totally gonna eat all of it."

"So does this mean that you're feeling okay right now?"

Danny lifted his head and swallowed another bite. "Yeah, I am. I mean, we're about to look at the night sky through huge powerful telescopes. How could I not be feeling great?"

Jack smiled fondly and paused to take a few bites of his own. "And you're feeling okay...being here with me?"

"Yeah." Danny returned the smile. "Yeah, being here with you is... It's nice. We haven't hung out like this in a while. Not since... Well, I don't really remember the last time. It must've been over a year ago. Maybe it was that fishing trip."

"Oh, yeah. That was fun. We caught something way better than fish." Jack grinned and gazed up at the sky in recollection. "That ghost was huge."

Danny recalled himself just how excited his dad had been about that particular catch. His dad was never happier than when he had a new ghost to rip apart.

And he knew one phantom in particular that would make his dad happiest of all to tear into—

Stop, stop. He couldn't shoot his good mood down already.

He opted to let this particular conversational thread drop by shoving a huge bite in his mouth as an excuse to not say anything.

"Well, just so you know," Jack finally said to break the short silence. "Your mom and I... We do still want to talk about what happened. You know, when you snuck out."

Danny lowered his head.

"We're not mad about it anymore. I'm not mad at all. We're just still concerned why you did it. I mean, the reason you gave us... It's just kind of concerning."

"You don't need to be concerned. It was dumb."

"You said you had something personal to talk to Tucker about. Was that true?"

His neck was growing hot. He really wished he was better at making up excuses. He had always sucked at that. In the past, his parents usually bought his lame stories, but now they were actually employing more parental scrutiny. Just his luck.

"Yes, it's true," said Danny. "But I realize now that it was just me being dramatic. It really was nothing that couldn't wait."

"But it had to have been something to you at the time," said Jack. "We still need to know what it was you wanted to talk to him about. Because maybe it's something we should be helping you with."

"But it really was nothing."

"It can't have just been nothing, son."

Danny stared ahead in thought. But he couldn't think for too long. That would just make his dad suspicious. But he also couldn't keep putting this off, dodging this elaboration his parents were going to keep demanding.

He had to make up something. And this time, it really had to be something satisfying.

or you could tell the truth

NOT YET not ready yet

"Um, well." Danny placed a hand on the back of his neck to rub out the building tension. His skin felt so hot against his fingers. "It's sort of embarrassing, but...I kind of went to talk to him about...Sam."

"Sam?"

"Yeah, well, you know, I was just... I mean, you were right, in the RV, I do...kind of have a thing for her, so... I just wanted to get his—Tucker's, I mean—perspective on...things. Like if he thought she likes me back or if she'll reject me."

Jack laughed and shook his head. "Danny, you really do worry too much. I don't even know where you get that from. Not from me or your mom."

Danny blushed and shrugged. He didn't know why he wasn't more like his parents either.

"But Danny."

Danny flinched at the sudden sharp change in his dad's tone back to serious.

"That can't be all it is," said Jack. "You had mentioned that you're going through a 'rough time' and so you needed to talk to Tucker about some things."

"Well—yeah—I mean, I know I said that, but I was just too embarrassed to tell you the real reason."

"But you've definitely been a lot more secretive ever since you started high school, and Mom and I have noticed that you're not as happy as we remember you being. And that's fine, it's normal to start feeling kind of depressed in high school. But that doesn't mean we should just let you continue like this. We've let it go on too long now."

The urge to assure his dad that he was fine was rising up through his airway, but he forced it back down. Why was it always his impulse to lie? How had he let this become his compulsive habit?

It's not like lying made him feel better. His dad was right. He had only gotten more depressed since he started lying, since the beginning of this secret life.

"So we're just really concerned," Jack continued, "and we want to start opening up some communication between us again. We really want you to know that we're here for you." He paused. "We don't expect you to tell us everything, but we do need to know if there's something major going on in your life. We need to know if something is troubling you."

Jack studied Danny. Danny did his best to not look away.

"It really seems like something is troubling you, son."

This man, this man he was keeping eye contact with, this man almost killed him—

No, he almost killed Phantom

SAME THING

He had to tell his dad. He had already talked it over with Sam and Tucker. Jazz thought it was the right thing to do, too.

And his dad seemed to be okay with him right now. He didn't seem to be angry anymore. And more than that, his dad was imploring him to open up, to say what was troubling him.

Keeping this secret was definitely troubling him.

And this was the time to tell him. When he wasn't angry. This was the only time.

Either his dad would be proud of him for finally being something extraordinary…

...or he'd be disappointed that his son was a freak.

Well, Danny had experienced disappointing his dad so much already. It wouldn't be anything he wasn't used to.

"Okay, Dad." Danny pulled in a shaky breath. "There...is something that's been going on...pretty much ever since the start of high school. But I just, um... I haven't told you yet because... Well, it's really complicated. I mean, it didn't start out so complicated, but it's become that way just because it's been so long. And I'm not sure how you'll handle it or what you'll think of me."

He looked down at the table but could see Jack studying him intently out of the corner of his eye.

And there were so many people around, so many more now that the sun was finally starting to disappear.

And he was still...so…

afraid

"I've been wanting to tell you since the beginning." Danny continued. "And I want to tell you now." He looked at Jack apprehensively. "But can it maybe wait until we're about to go home? So I can tell you more privately? In the RV?"

Jack's eyes narrowed as he stared at Danny.

"I just, um... It's really hard for me to say, and I'd just like to work up to it a little more. Is... Is that okay, Dad?" pressed Danny pleadingly. He wasn't even sure why he was begging for this favor, as if he needed permission to keep it secret a little longer. What if his dad said no? Would he surrender and tell him right now?

Or would he just come up with another lie?

"Yeah, it's okay," said Jack, standing up and peering out at the horizon darkening past twilight. "Come on, the sun's setting. Let's put these leftovers in the RV, okay? And then let's look at some stars! Or planets!"

Danny smiled with relief as he gathered what plastic containers he could. Most of them were empty.

"You got enough to eat, right?" asked Jack, juggling the majority of the containers in his beefy arms.

"Oh, definitely."

He smiled at his dad, and his dad smiled back.

And up above them, the vast expanse of stars was shimmering into view.

Ten optical telescopes, two radio telescopes, and not a single cloud blocking their view of the cosmos beyond and all around them. How remarkable it was to Danny that they were simply spinning through this darkness, constantly falling toward the sun and yet never hitting it because their speed kept them in orbit. How incredible that their own moon was getting farther away each year, changing their rotation little by little.

He wasn't sure if he'd ever actually officially get to go out into space as a part of NASA. But he had been out there once before, and his poor grades and difficulty with math wasn't ever going to stop him from going again. He already had the perfect suit, after all. He could head out any time he wanted, and no one could ever stop him.

He really was so powerful.

Leaning against a railing looking out over the empty landscape surrounding the observatory, Danny tentatively looked up at Jack, who was grinning up at the dark sky.

So powerful and yet…

This man beside him would always be his superior, an authority over him. And in many ways, his father was still more powerful than he was, stronger, taller, larger.

Without his ghost powers, Danny knew he'd be nothing.

But his father was naturally powerful, a might that could eclipse him, a might that had eclipsed him not too long ago when his powers had been disabled.

He shivered and forcibly reminded himself that he was fine now, safe now, that his dad was just standing beside him and that was all. Not a threat.

"Amazing how far we could see with those telescopes," said Jack, still gazing up at the sky.

"Yeah. We could see Saturn's rings really well." Danny leaned forward over the railing. "I wish I could get an even closer look."

Jack hummed a soft chuckle. "As an astronaut?"

Danny sighed. "The older I get, the sillier I feel telling people that. It sounds like such a little kid's dream job."

"Nothing wrong with wanting a dream job. You wouldn't believe how many people used to laugh at me when I told them I wanted a career in ghost research."

Danny looked at his dad again, at the glint of excitement in his eye.

"If there's one thing you got from me, it's passion," said Jack with a tone of fond pride. "Your passion is the stars. Mine is the paranormal."

Danny paused for a moment, collected his thoughts, gathered his words. He knew their short trip was coming to an end, and he was growing more and more nervous about revealing his secret at last.

But maybe if he prepared his dad for the news first, it wouldn't be too difficult.

"Why exactly do you love ghosts so much?" he asked. "I mean, I love astronomy because I'm just fascinated by what's out there, how we're just a tiny part of something so much larger than we can even really imagine, how all the answers to our questions are probably out there if we could only find a way to reach them."

Jack laughed. "Well, that doesn't seem too far off from why I love ghosts. I'm fascinated, just like you. They're strange, they're unusual, they'll all so different, so unpredictable. And then at the same time, they are all exactly the same and very much predictable."

Danny frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"They all have their unfinished business from their previous existence, their obsessions that underlie literally everything they do, compulsions that they literally cannot disobey. They're all completely self-serving and will never stop trying to satisfy their obsessions."

Danny thought about himself, about what his dad had claimed was his obsession back in that alley, about how he wanted to protect everyone. But this was truthfully not something he fully understood, certainly not about himself. Protecting people, he didn't think it was as simple as that. Because he could do so much more if all he wanted was to protect people. How much crime did he let go every night? All he ever went after was ghosts, after all.

"Ghosts are cunning, crafty, resourceful," continued Jack. "It is incredible what lengths they will go to while pursuing completion of their obsessions. And they literally can't help it." Jack glanced at him with a smile. "And that's why I love studying them. I love discovering all their quirks and powers and what exactly it is in their brains that spurs them toward their unique obsessions."

Jack sighed and stared back out at the landscape.

"But this is also why your mom and I are committed to hunting them all down. They're just too dangerous. They can't be reasoned with, and they don't care if they hurt anyone. Ghosts are in no way benevolent or rational. They have one-track minds, and combined with their formidable powers, they are all a huge threat to humanity."

Danny looked down over the railing. "All... All of them?"

A sudden mood shift. He could feel Jack glaring at him. But he kept his own gaze down at the ground below.

"Yes," said Jack at last. "All of them."

Danny wrestled with his thoughts, with his conviction. Did he have the courage to continue this conversation? The will to challenge his father?

"You—" Danny paused, stalled just a moment to convince himself to keep going. "You don't think there are any ghosts that maybe aren't a threat to humanity?"

Jack didn't reply right away. Danny still opted to look at the ground.

"No," said Jack. "I really don't think so."

The night breeze suddenly felt much colder against Danny's neck.

"You don't think that there are any ghosts that aren't a threat, do you?" asked Jack.

His tone was low and uninviting. His father was looking for only one answer. Only one answer would restore his good humor.

But it wasn't the answer Danny wanted to give.

"Well, I…" Danny began, but he had no idea what to say next without escalating his father's darkening mood.

"Come on, Danny." Jack's volume raised. "Trust me. All ghosts are self-serving and dangerous. Every single one of them. They're just pests, like termites or rats. They're all an infestation that needs to be destroyed the moment they cross over into our world." He paused and looked out at the sky again. "They're all bad."

Danny breathed as deeply as he could without being too loud. He had a choice to make. Either agree with his father and make him happy again…

...or disagree and enrage him.

Normally, he'd choose doing anything to make his dad happy, even if it meant lying or being deceptive, even if it meant making a personal sacrifice.

But he was not a bad ghost, and he couldn't just agree with that no matter how angry it made his father.

He cleared his throat. "Well…" A quick stall. "Well, I don't think they're... I don't think that they're all bad."

Jack shot him a look that Danny didn't even need to see to know that he was being warned.

"Some are bad, sure!" said Danny quickly, holding up his hands. "In fact, yeah, I mean... I'd say most of them need to be sent back to the Ghost Zone, too."

Not destroyed. Not ripped apart molecule by molecule. Danny always did his best to maintain his capture-and-release approach because even though his ghostly enemies irritated him to no end, he still had compassion for their plight, compassion for their inability to do anything else beyond what their spectral compulsions forced them to do.

As far as he could tell, ghosts were insane, not criminal.

and you're just as insane aren't you Danny boy? isn't that the real reason you don't kill them? because you're one of them?

"I'm just saying that…" Danny tapped his fingers against the railing. "That I don't think all of them are bad."

His father said nothing. For a considerably long time. Long enough that Danny was regretting his decision to be honest more and more with each passing second.

"Yeah? Really?" said Jack quietly. "Is that what you think?"

Danny sank lower. "Well... Yeah."

"And how long have you been studying ghosts?"

A sudden flush of blood warmed his face. "Ah, well—"

"Certainly not nearly twenty-five years, right?"

"N-no—"

"Because you know that's how long I've been studying ghosts, right?"

"I—yeah, I know—"

"So, tell me, Danny, with all your expert knowledge and study and research and lab experience." Jack turned to him completely, leaning against the railing with his arms crossed. "Exactly which ghosts do you think are not bad?"

Danny tentatively met his father's gaze.

"No, come on," said Jack more forcefully. "Tell me. You must have an example. Surely there are some specific ghosts you're thinking of." He paused. "Or perhaps just one specific ghost."

Danny ducked his head slightly.

"And I bet I know which it is," said Jack.

Danny drew in a breath. "Ah, well—"

"Say it, Danny."

Danny's jaw muscles tensed.

"Say it," said Jack. "Come on. Tell me which ghost you're thinking of."

Jack said nothing more. Danny couldn't look up at his father as he realized he had to commit to this. There was no backing out. His father knew his answer already, and it wouldn't help him at all to lie or attempt to backpedal.

And if he wanted to salvage any hope of telling his father the truth, he had to stay committed. He had to be strong with his father for once.

He pulled in a breath, stalled for just one last moment.

"Danny Phantom." He looked at his father. "I don't think Danny Phantom is a bad ghost."

"I knew it." Jack bellowed a derisive laugh. "Danny Phantom. He's the worst of them all."

Danny furrowed his brow.

"Easily the most dangerous ghost there is," Jack elaborated. "And the fact that you don't see that only proves that I'm right."

"But he's never hurt anyone," protested Danny. "In fact, he's saved our town many times."

"Yeah? And why do you think he does it? Because he's just such a selfless soul? Because he actually cares about our town? About any of us?" Jack paused, looked at him hard. "About you?"

Danny's mouth hung slightly open. Did he even know the answer to this question?

"Phantom only cares about himself," said Jack. "Phantom is using us to satisfy his selfish obsession. He wants us to adore him, to think he's a hero. Our hero." Jack shook his head with a slight roll of his eyes. "And who knows what his plans are for us if he does win us all over. Which he is definitely on his way to doing."

"But—"

"He gets more popular all the time. His approval rating climbs every day. And maybe that's part of his power. Maybe he has the power to win people over with his valiant charm and boyish good looks." Jack paused. "The power to make people obsess over him."

Jack looked out at the landscape again. Danny watched his face, which was darkening with each passing second. Danny could feel color in his own face draining.

Jack's eyes returned to Danny's face, his expression suddenly morphing into a mocking smirk. "Looks like he's been working his powers on you, too."

Danny stepped back, as if physically pushed by this accusation. "What? No, Dad, that's not—I don't—I'm not—I don't think—"

"You don't think. That's definitely true," said Jack thickly. "Not only don't you think. You don't know, Danny. You don't know a thing about ghosts. I've been studying them since before you were born. I've been laboring away day after day and night after night researching and operating on specimens." Jack held out an aggressive hand toward him. "And what has your ghost research entailed? Reading up on Phantom in the news? Hearing about his latest rescues on TV? Listening to dumb girls at your school swoon over him?"

Danny shrank away. He held steady control over his molecules, which wanted so much to turn invisible.

"This is my expertise, Danny," said Jack with unsettling calm. "I have advanced degrees in this field, many long hours of practical application and study. I know more about ghosts than you do. I know more about Phantom than you do."

Jack towered above, his eyes narrowing coldly. Danny was suddenly reminded just how small he really was compared to his father. His father had real power. Danny's power was artificial, granted to him through an accident that should've never happened.

"When it comes to ghosts, I have the final word," said Jack. "Not you. And when I finally have Phantom locked up, I will drag you down to the lab and show you just how right I am about him and how wrong you are."

How wrong he was. He had been set on telling his dad the truth but he was wrong. He had thought his dad was okay with him now but he was wrong. He had thought that confrontation in the alley was over but he was wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Danny leaned over the railing again and turned his head away.

"Let's go," said Jack dully. "I'm tired."

The older man stepped away from the railing and didn't even wait for Danny as he headed toward the parking lot. Danny watched him walk away and wished that he could just stay here, wished that he didn't have to follow him, wished that he didn't have to get into the RV with him.

But he had to hurry and catch up before his dad yelled at him.

He had thought he was safe with his dad this time, but he was wrong. Like always.

Chapter Text

"So? How'd it go?"

Dressed in a thin cotton shirt and pants that Jack normally would've found irresistibly sexy if he weren't so damn irritated, Maddie anxiously sat on the bed as she watched Jack change out of his own jumpsuit.

"Did you get Danny to say anything? Did he eat? Did he have fun?" Maddie combed a worried hand through her hair.

"It was fine," said Jack dully. "Danny had a great time looking at stars, and yes, he ate quite a bit. I even got him a milkshake. He drank it all."

"That's good." An unsure frown pulled at her expression. "But... Well, he still seems a little skittish. I mean, when he came home. He barely said anything about it, just insisted on going straight to bed."

"Yeah, well, it was a long drive, and it's late. I think we're both pretty tired," said Jack with a shrug as he pulled on his pajama pants. Keeping his back to Maddie, he scowled as he recalled the drive home and the conversation preceding it. His own son questioning his expertise, his own son suggesting that he didn't know what he was talking about, his own son defending his most hated ghost.

"Did he say anything about...you know?" asked Maddie.

Jack paused for just a moment but did not say anything even though he knew exactly what she was referring to.

"I mean, did you get him to open up about anything?" Maddie elaborated. "Did he tell you anything about what he wanted to talk to Tucker about Wednesday night?"

Jack finished getting dressed and stepped into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth. "Uh, yeah," he said over the running faucet. "He said he wanted to talk to Tucker about...Sam."

"Sam?"

"Yeah. He said he's been thinking about her a lot lately and that he really likes her but he's not sure she likes him and so he wanted to talk to Tucker about it." Jack stuck his toothbrush in his mouth as an excuse to not say anything more. The paste foamed and bubbled over his tongue and gums as he aggressively scrubbed away the plaque and film build-up.

Maddie was quiet for some time. "That can't be all," she finally said. "That can't possibly be the only reason."

Jack continued brushing his teeth. Two minutes, that was the recommendation from the American Dental Association. One minute for each arch, thirty seconds for each side. He couldn't reply until he had thoroughly followed this strict rule.

Danny had told him there was more. While they were eating dinner. He had admitted that there was something else he wanted to say, something that had been going on since he started high school. He had declined to say what it was in that public setting, but he had promised to reveal it later in the privacy of the RV.

Jack had asked Danny about it while they were driving home, but the boy had once again sunk into his familiar timid and sullen mood and barely spoke at all. No matter how hard Jack pressed him for information, Danny only insisted that it was actually nothing and that he didn't want to talk about it anymore, that maybe he'd talk about it later but not right then.

Jack admittedly didn't try very long to get Danny to reveal anything and was content with spending the majority of the drive home in silence. He still couldn't believe that Danny would dare question his research and authority, that his own son opposed him on something so important to him.

He was done trying to figure Danny out. He had given it a very fair try, but he was just done now. If Danny wanted to keep his problems secret, then fine. Jack had his own problems to worry about, and Danny was old enough to take care of himself.

He was not happy with Danny right now.

But he couldn't let Maddie know that.

Jack spit in the sink and rinsed out his mouth before finally giving a reply. "Well, I guess you can try asking him yourself if you think there's more. But he seemed pretty open with me." Jack switched off the bathroom light and headed to his side of the bed. "He was actually decently chatty."

Maddie visibly perked up as Jack climbed into bed. She sidled up close to him. "Really? Was he really?"

Her eyes were glittering with hope. Jack smiled at the reaction.

"Yeah," he affirmed. "He told me about a lot of things, about the girl troubles he's had and some of the challenges he's had with school work. And of course, he talked my ear off about all the stars and planets."

"Girl troubles." Maddie's lips drew together with curiosity. "He talked to you about girls? Like girls other than Sam? What did he say?"

Jack didn't reply right away as he once again considered his next response. Sure, Danny apparently had his heart broken and was currently going through some inner turmoil with Sam. But that was normal. Nothing unique to him. Every teenager experienced those problems.

And he just wanted Maddie to stop worrying already. He wanted her to stop begging him to talk to their son. He wanted concerns about their son to stop dominating their conversations. He wanted to get back to his work, his ghost research.

All this getting worked up over Danny, he just wanted it to end already.

"Ah, you know," said Jack casually, dismissively. "He just hasn't had much luck with dating any girls, and this whole business with Sam has made him particularly nervous." He forced a small yawn. "Danny's fine, really. He's just a normal kid going through normal high school drama. I'm not worried about him at all."

Maddie's face melted into a small expression of relief. "Really? You think he's okay?"

"I do." Jack nestled himself down into the bed. "And I think as long as we continue to check up on him more often than we did before, he'll get through this."

Maddie smiled brightly. Exactly the response he was hoping to elicit. He had successfully done his job of being a caring father, and now maybe she'd let up on this whole ordeal with Danny.

And maybe she'd reward him for being such a good dad and hanging out with their son all night, too.

He switched off his bedside lamp and moved in closer to her, running his fingers along the side of her body and stopping at her hips. "What do you say we kick the weekend off right?"

Maddie's eyes lidded an affirmative. She turned back to switch off her own bedside lamp before returning to his embrace and placing a palm against his wide chest. "Mmm, but first, I have a cute story to tell you. About Jazz."

Jack smiled with pleasant surprise. "A cute story about Jazz? Haven't heard one of those since she was little."

"Both of our kids are still adorable. You just don't observe them as much as I do."

"Well, what's the story?"

Maddie bit the inside of her lip with a grin. "Okay, so while you two were gone at the observatory, Jazz and I decided to hang out, too."

"Girls' night. Sounds very cute so far."

"So we got dinner and did some shopping and then we came back home to watch a movie and we ended up talking about things."

"Things, huh?"

"Yeah, you know, like how she's excited to be graduating in a couple months and going off to college and how we're going to get her a new car for graduation."

"She'll definitely have earned it."

"Mmm hmm. Anyway, we started talking about her college thesis—you know, the one she told us about the other day—which naturally meant we started talking about ghosts."

He had been extremely proud of Jazz for deciding to write her thesis about ghosts, but now Jack tensed as he recalled his own conversation with Danny at the observatory that had also been about ghosts. Odd coincidence. Or was it a coincidence? Was a ghost somehow responsible for these parallel conversations? Ghosts were behind everything strange as far as he could tell.

"Ghosts?" he echoed simply, attempting to hide his suspicion.

"Yup. And of course we got to talking about Phantom because what ghost is more interesting than him, right?"

Jack restrained a scowl.

"And I was telling her the reason we're so interested in him is because he's so humanlike compared to other ghosts. I was telling her about how his emotions almost seem real and that's why so many people in our town just adore him. And she seemed really interested in that and started talking about how maybe his emotions are actually real and that he's not an imitation of a person but perhaps a real, genuine person." Maddie snorted. "And then—" She snorted again and broke into a fit of giggles.

"What?" asked Jack more impatiently than he meant to. Something about Phantom just—ah—really pissed him off. Even just talking about him.

Maddie took in a deep breath. "Well, she was just so insistent on defending him that I just had to ask if she had a crush on him. You know, like a bunch of silly girls her age do." Her grin looked set to break her face. "And she turned so red and couldn't even say anything else. It was just so cute."

Jack's expression hardened, but Maddie seemed too mirthful to notice as she started giggling again.

It was one thing when his son dared to defend Phantom—he was used to Danny disappointing him—but his daughter?

And his wife...

Jack studied Maddie with narrowed eyes as she laughed. Sure, his wife agreed that Phantom was only a simulation and not a real person with real feelings at all, but he knew she was just as obsessed with the roguish ghost boy as any other "silly" girl in this town.

"Ah, so, anyway, I think Jazz has a crush on Phantom." Maddie curled up against his chest. "And I guess I can't blame her. I mean, Phantom is pretty good-looking."

Jack's jaw clenched. He knew what his wife thought about Phantom and yet to hear her blatantly say it like this was causing all the veins in his head to bulge.

"I guess she has more in common with other girls than she thinks she does," said Maddie amusedly.

Jack's hands were no longer on her at all. "Yeah. I guess so."

Her fingers groped and prodded at his skin. "Well, anyway, thanks for taking Danny out tonight. That really meant a lot to me, and I'm so happy to hear that he had a good time and that you two were able to talk."

"Yeah. He had a great time."

Maddie hummed and placed her mouth against his. Jack could only bring himself to passively return the affection, could barely part his lips at all to meet her passion. He allowed her to take the lead, following her guidance, allowing her to stimulate him just enough so that he could work on autopilot and give her the thrill she demanded, his mind distracted long enough to bring his own gratification to burst.

But when she finally rolled away with a contented sigh and a happy smile, his temporary bliss was quickly replaced with the irritation that had been building before. No amount of serotonin and euphoric aftermath was enough to quell his frustration this time.

His wife dropped off into a tranquil sleep. He could tell by her steady breathing. But his mind was racing, far too disgruntled to give him any peace as he fumed in all sorts of positions.

He just couldn't stop thinking about him. That ghost. That Phantom.

What even was this power Phantom had? This power to steal hearts, ensnare sensibilities, drive everyone absolutely wild with lust for him? All while acting like the attention made him oh so shy and uncomfortable, which only made him even more irresistible to his fans.

His enchantment over the whole town had permeated his own family. This punk had a hold on his wife, his son, and his daughter? His wife was completely obsessed with him and surely wanted to experiment not just on but with him, his son was convinced that he was good and meant no harm to anyone, and his daughter was actually in love with him?

Unacceptable.

He couldn't let this ghost get away with bewitching his family.

Phantom had to be eliminated.

Chapter Text

Danny lay on his bed above the covers, still fully dressed, his body slightly diagonal with the mattress, one leg hanging off the edge. In the dark, blinds closed so that not even moonlight could get in, the same moon he had been gazing at through a huge telescope not too long ago.

With his dad.

He couldn't find the will to get ready for bed. Couldn't even place his head properly on a pillow or at least get himself under the blanket. He'd have only to turn the blanket intangible and pull it up and through and over his body.

But even that was just far too much work.

The only thing he had energy for was thinking and fretting and worrying. Things he had become extremely skilled at this past year and a half since he shocked himself in that damn ghost portal that he really shouldn't have been playing around with in the first place why oh why was he so damn stupid.

He was also pretty stupid for thinking his dad could possibly be okay with him being a ghost.

All of that build-up, all of that agonizing, all of that time he spent gathering his courage to finally tell his dad the truth. All of that optimism and growing premature relief was destroyed with just one disagreement, and it hurt. Being so viciously denied the payoff he had been heading toward was legitimately painful.

The ride back home in the RV had been excruciatingly silent and frustrating. All of his father's previous cheerfulness was replaced with palpable irritability. No more smiling, no more joking, no more fatherly contact or conversation.

But Jack had still pretended to care about him somewhat. Danny had to give him credit for that, he guessed. Jack had tried to get Danny to reveal what he had promised to while they were eating dinner, the secret that he had been keeping since the beginning of high school.

"It's nothing," Danny had insisted in a small, quiet voice. "Forget about it. It's stupid."

"Anything that's bothering you isn't stupid, Danny," Jack had replied, but his tone was monotone and distant. "Come on. You said you'd tell me once we were alone in the RV."

"I know, but I don't really want to talk about it anymore." Danny kept his body turned from Jack. "I'm just...kind of tired. And it really is nothing. I don't want to bother you with something so dumb."

"Stop that, Danny," said Jack gruffly. "Stop acting like your problems are not important. They're important to us because you're our son. So just knock it off, stop playing such a whiny victim, and tell me already."

Playing a whiny victim. That's how his dad saw him. His dad didn't think that his problems could possibly be that significant.

And maybe his dad was right. Maybe he was just being weak and none of this was a big deal. Maybe he was feeling depressed and anxious over issues that were actually really minuscule. Maybe he should feel guilty for daring to feel this bad when so many others had it worse than he did.

But he still didn't want to talk about it. Not anymore, not ever. His dad could never know the truth.

"Sorry," he had mumbled. "But I really am tired. Maybe I'll talk about it later. With both you and Mom."

Jack never replied to that and remained tight-lipped the remainder of the trip home. Danny sat alongside him in equal silence with not even a cell phone to distract himself.

And now as he lay on his bed, he contemplated what new excuse he should give his parents when they inevitably asked about the mysterious trouble going on in his life that he had promised to reveal. It had to be something really good but not too serious. Something that wouldn't compel them to send him to therapy or something.

Where was Desiree when he needed her? He wanted so much to just wish this all away.

Well, there was one way he could just make this all go away. At least for a little while. He had a stash of narcotic painkillers hidden in his wall. Sam had been stealing them from her parents and sneaking them to him to help him deal with his aches and severe pain from ghost-fighting. Just one or maybe two tablets, and he could drift off peacefully and forget about all of this for at least eight to ten hours.

Sounded like a plan.

He managed to drag himself up into a sitting position, then pushed off until he was standing. He began heading to the wall where he kept all of his contraband he didn't want his parents finding when he was stopped by a soft knock at his open door. Danny looked over in dread, fearing he'd see his mother, or worse, his father.

"Can I talk to you, Danny?" asked Jazz in a whisper. "Mom and Dad are both in their room."

Danny stared at her for a moment, catching his breath and letting relief assuage him. He moved away from the wall where his narcotics were stored and instead opened the blinds of his window so that he could look out at the neighborhood and town instead of at her.

"I'm glad you're here, actually," he said quietly. "I need you to talk to Sam and Tucker for me. Tell them to let you know if there are any ghost threats I need to take care of. Tell Tucker to hack into Vlad's security cameras he has set up around the town."

"Uh, okay—"

"Tell them that I'll only go out and take care of ghosts that pose a real threat. I won't resume my normal patrol until next Thursday when I'm no longer grounded."

"Danny, wait—"

"Until then, I'm going to work on duplicating myself." Business as usual. The time to feel sorry for himself and lie despondently on his bed was over. "Maybe I'll be able to do it well enough by Thursday, but if not, the Ghost Catcher will have to do. I mean, splitting myself in half is not something I ever enjoy doing, but my superhero half is pretty good at fighting ghosts on his own, and I can't let Mom and Dad catch me out of my room again."

"Danny!" hissed Jazz. "Are you really going to go on keeping this a secret from them? From Dad?"

She was right behind him now, but Danny still faced away from her as he stared out his window.

"Oh, right," said Danny evenly. "Tell Sam and Tucker that I changed my mind and decided not to tell Dad after all."

"So you were going to tell him?"

"I was. Not anymore."

"Why not?"

"I've just changed my mind. I think it's better for him to not know."

"How can it possibly be better for him to not know? With all that this has been doing to you? Why do you think it's better this way?"

Danny seethed but continued to keep his back to her while looking out the window. "What exactly do you think this has been doing to me, Jazz? What the hell do you think you know about me?"

"You just seem so unhappy, Danny. So unhappy and...afraid."

"I'm not afraid. I'm just cautious."

"Danny—"

"I would think you of all people would understand, Jazz. Our parents—our dad—they're—insane! Their view of ghosts is crazy. Of course I have to continue keeping my double life secret from them."

"They'd accept you," said Jazz pleadingly. "Dad would understand, Danny."

"I don't care. It's honestly not even about that."

"Then what is it about?"

"He doesn't deserve to know." His voice was low, almost a whisper. The way his father spoke to him earlier, the way he didn't even care to let Danny voice any of his own thoughts and opinions, the way he just completely disregarded Danny because he was only a child and subordinate.

"Dad thinks of my ghost side as a pest with no real feelings, a selfish narcissist that only cares about himself and is only using the town for adoration and approval." He paused, his tone darkening. "And he doesn't think much more of me as his son either."

"Did he say that?"

"Yes. And he wants nothing more than to strap me down and cut me open no matter how much I scream for him to stop. Because he hates me and believes I'm part of an infestation that needs to be exterminated."

"No." Jazz moved closer to him and put her hand on his shoulder. "I mean, did he say that about...you? As his son?"

Danny looked at her for as long as he could before he simply had to avert his gaze. "Everything I do disappoints him. I couldn't even get the right flavor of milkshake."

He broke away from her hold and headed toward his bed, set to simply sleep in his clothes without washing his face or brushing his teeth. "I'm going to bed," he said, his voice cracking.

"Danny, please." She was following close behind him.

"Don't, Jazz." He dropped onto his mattress. "I can't do this right now. I don't want to do this right now. I just want to go to bed."

"You're right. You can't do this, Danny. This isn't healthy, this is wrong." Jazz sat down on his bed with him and took his hands in hers. "You have to tell him."

"No," said Danny sharply, taking his hands from her. "I've already told you no. He doesn't deserve to know the truth."

"You're trying to rationalize it," said Jazz with an authoritative tone. "I can see that. You're trying to convince yourself that this is really the best choice. But what you're really doing is grasping for an excuse to not tell him. Because you're still afraid of him."

Danny made no reply, didn't even look at her. He just really wanted to drug himself into a deep sleep; was that so much to ask?

"But you can't keep doing this to yourself," Jazz continued. "You'll keep being afraid of Dad unless you tell him. Is that really what you want, Danny? Do you want to be afraid of your own father for the rest of your life?"

"Wow, that's such an exaggeration. The rest of my life, really?"

"Don't avoid my question. If you don't tell him, you'll never have a good relationship with him again."

"Oh, because we had such a good relationship before?" asked Danny mockingly. "Dad and I have never had anything in common, Jazz. Yeah, we've hung out sometimes, but I've never felt like I could confide in him, and he's certainly never taken a real interest in me. He didn't even care to learn the name of the girl I was dating last year, just assumed it was Sam and gave me a ring inscribed with her name. In fact, any gift he's ever given me has always been something he wanted me to want, not something I actually wanted."

Danny paused, suddenly overwhelmed with a bitter gloom.

"Dad only notices me when I'm doing something he actually wants me to do," he said sullenly. "Otherwise, I'm a major disappointment to him."

"That is so not true," said Jazz. "And if it really feels that way to you, then you need to try to connect with him more, and a good place to start would be to stop all this secrecy and hiding."

"So the burden of fixing our relationship is all on me? Are you saying it's my fault we're at this point?" Danny glanced up briefly with a quick exhale. "I mean, maybe you're right. Maybe all of this is my fault. I should pretend more often to share his interests. I should work harder to actually be the son he wants." He glanced at Jazz. "I should try to be more like you."

"No, Danny—"

"Why not? Dad actually likes you. You never disappoint him."

"Of course I've disappointed him," Jazz bit back. "I've disappointed Mom, too. But I don't obsess over those moments."

"And you think I do?"

"It kind of sounds like it, yeah. Since you seem convinced that Dad only sees you as a disappointment and that you're not the son he wants."

"Dad is only happy with me when I'm doing what he wants me to do, saying what he wants me to say. The moment I stray from what he wants or I disagree with him, he completely turns on me. Being just me is never good enough for him."

"Are you even hearing yourself?" Jazz stared at him in bewilderment. "Are you really this delusional?"

His nerves and veins were heating up. He couldn't even respond to her.

"Dad does not hate you," insisted Jazz. "And Dad doesn't want you to be anything you're not."

Danny put his hands over his face for a quick second before pulling them away with a loud sigh. "Okay. I'm done with this, seriously. Just leave."

"Danny—"

"No, Jazz. You don't know what you're talking about, and I'm not going to talk about this with you if you're just going to keep telling me I'm wrong."

"I'm not saying you're wrong," said Jazz pleadingly. "But I don't understand why you think carrying on in the exact same way you always do is going to work. Keeping all this secret, it hasn't been working, so why do you think something is going to change if you keep trying this way?"

Still sitting on his bed, Danny turned his body from her. Jazz's hands went to his shoulders, gently squeezing them near the base of his neck.

"Don't you see how much this is hurting you, Danny?"

His eyes were suddenly aching with pressure. He swallowed a few times to relieve the strain. "You're right," he said with shaking voice. "This is really hurting me. This has been destroying me in ways I didn't even know I was vulnerable."

"So then why do you keep doing this to yourself?" Jazz's hands were still on his shoulders. "Why do you keep letting yourself get hurt?"

Danny turned back to her, forcing her hands off his shoulders. "I think the real question is, why do you think I'm so weak?"

Jazz only stared at him, stunned into silence.

"You seem to think that I'm broken and injured and that I need to be sheltered and coddled. Well, I'm not broken, Jazz, and I don't need you to protect me. Just because this has been hurting me doesn't mean it's been defeating me. I am not nearly as fragile as you think I am."

"I didn't say you were—"

"I have taken on so many enemies, have fought and won so many battles that I've lost count. I went through a shock from our ghost portal, a shock that would've killed anyone else." He pointed to himself. "But I survived it. Because I'm not weak."

"I'm not saying you're weak," pleaded Jazz. "I can just see that you're struggling with this so much—"

"Oh, you can see that, huh? And you think you know exactly what will fix all of my problems, do you?"

"Well, I mean, I've studied up a lot, you know—"

"You really think you know just because you've read some psychology books?" Danny scoffed. "You know nothing about me, Jazz. You don't know what it's like to be me or how this has been affecting me."

Jazz gritted her teeth. "I'm not going to let you keep doing this to yourself. All this secrecy and suppression has done nothing good for you. If you won't tell Dad the truth, then I'll—"

"Jazz, I swear if you tell him, I will never trust you again," said Danny in a low, serious voice. "I will never forgive you."

Jazz made no reply, only looked at him with tears shining in her eyes.

"This is not your secret to tell, not your decision to make." He stood up from the bed to get away from her. He was at the window once again, looking out at the neighborhood and skyline of the town. "Don't make me regret you discovering my secret anymore than I already do."

She was quiet. He didn't dare look at her, didn't want to see the pained expression he was sure she was wearing.

"If you really want to help me, then please tell Sam and Tucker to let you know if there are any ghosts I need to take care of," said Danny quietly. "Let them know we're going to have to work out some way for me to fight ghosts again without Mom and Dad catching me out of my room. I'll work on duplicating, but once I'm no longer grounded, we'll probably want to pretend I'm spending the night at Tucker's house on the weekends more often. Things like that. Can you tell them for me, please?"

Jazz never said a word, only left the room with soft footsteps that faded into the hall. Danny put his forehead against his window and breathed deeply. He hated doing that to his sister, one of the few in his life who sincerely cared about him. He knew he had hurt her, but he also knew that hurting her was the only way he could get her to respect his wishes, the only way he could protect himself.

He knew she meant well. It was too much to expect her to understand that revealing his secret would surely make things worse, not better.

His father didn't like him. His father hated Phantom even more.

And if he found out the two boys were actually the same person? It would certainly be an unfavorable combination his father would never accept.

He glanced out his open door. No one was there. He would have to listen carefully so that he could detect anyone possibly coming down the hall.

He focused and willed his molecules to change, felt their mortal and biological properties infuse with something not of this world. No alarms went off, no anti-ghost weapons aimed at him. Tucker had successfully reprogrammed the house system so that it would ignore his own ecto-signature.

He looked down at his now gloved and glowing hands, ethereal wisps of ectoplasmic light pulsating around and within him.

His thought processes were already being taken over by his spectral neural oscillations, brainwaves that carried and transmitted messages of self-preservation. He had to figure out a way to continue protecting the town without telling his father the truth. He had to figure out how to duplicate himself. He held out his hand and targeted its individual cells, mentally commanded them to split and replicate.

Not something a normal human could do. Of course not.

But that didn't mean he wasn't a person. That didn't mean he wasn't capable of normal human feelings.

Could his father ever believe that? Or would he always believe that Phantom was just a contamination that needed to be destroyed?

Chapter Text

The following morning, Danny wanted nothing more than to sleep the entire day. The narcotic painkiller he had taken before bed after he had failed over and over trying to duplicate was still settling over his clouded head quite nicely. A whole week of insomniac restlessness finally being relieved at last.

But then his mother was shaking his shoulder. Danny groggily opened his eyes to look at her, trying his best to not look drugged up on hydrocodone he had illegally obtained from Sam.

"Danny, sweetie, it's almost nine."

Maddie combed her fingers through his hair. Danny shifted his position but did not sit up.

"I know it's Saturday," Maddie continued, "but I'm making a big breakfast for all of us. So get dressed and come downstairs, okay?"

Danny moaned and slurred some sort of response but he quite honestly had no idea what he was saying.

"Come on. No more sleeping." Maddie patted his shoulder. "I want you to eat with us. Be down in twenty minutes."

Danny watched her leave the room before curling up again and closing his eyes. Just another hour or two, that was all he wanted.

But he couldn't disobey his mom.

He forced himself into a sitting position, groaning through the horrible heaviness in his head as he stood and blinked away the temporary vision loss and dizziness. He just needed to wake up. His mind just needed time to adjust and pull through the grogginess brought on by the narcotic, and then he'd be fine.

Hot water from the shower was enough to stimulate his muscles into a state of normal alert. After dressing and massaging his face in an attempt to get some blood flowing to his cheeks for an energized glow, he made his way downstairs and entered the kitchen. The smell of pancakes pummeled his nose and assaulted his stomach.

"Danny, there you are!" Maddie moved from the stove top and placed a kiss on his head. "Ooh, your hair's wet. Did you just shower?"

"Mmm hmm."

"Well, go ahead and sit down. There's some eggs and bacon on the table already."

As Danny approached the table where Jazz and Jack were already seated, the greasy smell of bacon did not fare much better against his nostrils and insides. But even more unsettling was his father, who was staring down at his plate and eating heartily but, oddly, not saying a word. The TV was set to the news channel like it always was during breakfast, but the older man wasn't watching it intently like he usually did.

Danny pulled out his chair. Jack lifted his head to look at him but remained quiet. Jazz also looked at Danny, her expression appearing somewhat sad and unsure. His previous conversations with both his father and sister had not been particularly favorable, and Danny was sorely reminded of that now.

He slowly lowered himself in his chair and quietly scooped some eggs onto his plate. He kept his eyes averted, pretending he didn't even notice his father or sister at all.

No one spoke at all for some time. All that could be heard was the sizzling of cooking pancake batter behind them while Maddie hummed to herself at the stove.

"Did you sleep well, Danny?" asked Jazz at last, a bite of egg held in her cheek.

Both Danny and Jack snapped their attentions to her. Jack wore a betrayed glare, as if he couldn't believe that Jazz would dare to greet Danny.

"Yeah, fine," said Danny carefully, focusing on making sure his words did not slur due to any lingerings effects of the narcotic. "Um... Did you?"

"Yeah. I slept okay."

She gave him a small smile, hesitant and unsure. Danny returned the smile. Jack glanced between them but still remained quiet.

Jazz stretched her arms behind her and looked out the kitchen window. "Mmm, it looks like a nice day today. Maybe I'll do some studying outside. That sounds fun."

Danny playfully rolled his eyes. "Only you would think studying outside could somehow make it fun."

"Hey, studying is fun," insisted Jazz. "You could join me if you want. Then I could prove it to you."

"No," said Jack gruffly, stabbing into his eggs with his fork. "Danny has to do all of his homework and studying in the living room where we can keep an eye on him. He's grounded, remember?"

Danny and Jazz fell silent, the short sibling bonding after their small spat the night before ending sharply. Jazz glanced at Danny with furrowed brows, but Danny only shrugged and looked down at his eggs, picking up a forkful that he forced himself to place in his mouth. Gooey and soggy and tasteless and he really wished he didn't have to swallow it but his mom was counting on him to eat.

He gulped hard, the bite hitting painfully against his esophagus.

Maddie finally joined the rest of the family at the table, setting a plate of pancakes down. "I made tons, so please, eat until you're uncomfortable."

Danny waited for his father's normal quip, Can do! or I don't know any other way to eat, Mads! But Jack continued his very uncharacteristic silence and only placed a couple of the pancakes onto his plate.

Jazz was also quiet again as she poured syrup over her freshly buttered flapjacks.

Ache and fatigue settled at the front of Danny's head, a weight that begged to be set down but he somehow managed to keep his head up anyway.

Escaping all this by retreating back into his room for another drug-induced nap sounded really great right now.

"Oh, hey." Maddie's attention was on the TV behind Jack. She grinned cheekily. "Jazz, it's your lover boy."

All eyes turned to the screen. Old video footage of Danny Phantom was being shown. Jazz's eyes dilated as she choked on her orange juice. Danny stared at her with a confused grimace.

But out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jack scowling.

"Mom!" shrieked Jazz. "Don't say things like that! He is not my—" She glanced at Danny, her face suddenly looking sunburnt. "I mean, I am not—just don't say things like that in front of Danny, jeez!"

"Oh, Danny's not going to tease you for having a crush on the ghost boy, are you, Danny?" Maddie gently touched his shoulder. "Not like you're the only girl in town who does."

Amidst Jazz's sputtering and protesting, Danny could feel his own face turning red. He looked down at his plate to hide it.

"I wonder what they're saying about him?" asked Maddie curiously. "Can you turn it up, Jack?"

Jack practically punched the buttons on the remote. The local news reporter Tiffany Snow was addressing the camera in her ever-bubbly voice.

"All of Amity Park has been watching the skies for a glimpse of the ghost boy, but he's been noticeably absent the past couple nights." Tiffany Snow cocked her head and smiled brightly. "Ghosts have been up to their usual shenanigans in our town, even going so far as to tear down a couple power lines last night. And we are all wondering why our resident ghost hero, Danny Phantom, has not been around to stop them?"

"Is no one even considering that maybe Phantom tore down those power lines?" griped Jack. He stabbed hard at a bite, the tongs poking straight through and clanging against the plate. "Or that maybe he's staging these 'shenanigans' so that he can show off his supposed 'heroics'?"

Danny kept his head low and quietly slipped manageable bites of pancake into his mouth. His dad was still obviously irritated with him as his son and also still very much hated his ghost half. Great. Now how was he supposed to act around Jack? Avoid him? Ignore him? Or should he maybe try to apologize and pretend that he had changed his mind and that yes, all ghosts were bad including Phantom and that Phantom most of all needed to be eliminated?

He just really wanted things to go back to normal. He didn't want to feel so uncomfortable around his own father anymore. Maybe pretending to side with his dad would make everything okay again.

He could sense Jazz looking at him. He moved only his eyes to meet hers. She blushed and quickly turned her head to Jack.

"I really don't think Phantom would ever do anything like that, Dad," said Jazz.

Jack gave her a stern scowl. "Oh, really? And what makes you think that?"

"Well, because—I mean, we've never—no one has ever caught Phantom on video ever staging his heroics or causing any unprovoked damage or mischief himself. Don't you think someone would've caught him on video by now?"

Maddie smirked and swiveled her head smugly. "You really do like him, don't you, Jazz?"

Jazz banged her fist on the table. "Mom! No, I don't!" She briefly glanced at Danny, who could not even bring himself to meet her gaze this time. "That's just—ugh, no way!" she further insisted.

"Why do you keep defending him so much, then?" Maddie teased.

"No one is defending him," said Jack very seriously. "Ghosts are dangerous. Phantom is dangerous. Neither of you kids are allowed to have anything to do with him."

Danny and Jazz both said nothing.

"We're just having fun, Jack," reassured Maddie. "The kids know to stay away from ghosts. Right, you two?"

"Yeah," said Jazz quietly.

Danny gave a small nod, chewing the current bite in his mouth slowly as an excuse to not say anything.

This was definitely one of the most awkward and uncomfortable mealtime discussions he had ever experienced.

For the remainder of the day, Danny worked on his homework in the living room while the rest of the Fenton family did what they normally did on Saturday. Jack and Maddie mostly worked in the basement while Jazz kept her brother company in the living room reading her own books.

"Danny, I just want you to know that I do not have a crush on you," whispered Jazz from the sofa once their parents had disappeared into their lab at last.

Danny stiffened and kept his back turned to her from his makeshift desk. "I wasn't even going to bring that up again," he muttered.

"I was just trying to stick up for you, and Mom thought it meant that I'm in love with your ghost side." Jazz exhaled loudly. "So much for that, huh? Defending you never gets me anywhere."

Danny said nothing, only frowned down at the textbook open in front of him.

Maybe it was a waste of time trying to defend himself. Maybe he just needed to give up and accept that his parents were always going to view him as an enemy, that his mom was always going to want to torture him, that his dad was always going to want to destroy him.

He began to read, to really study, to lose himself in his homework because he just didn't want to think about his parents' vendetta against him anymore.

But every time Jack came upstairs, Danny involuntarily tensed and pretended to be completely absorbed in his work, too absorbed to even notice the older man's presence at all.

Jack certainly wasn't being mean or rude to him, but Danny could definitely sense that he was not happy with him. He only ever bellowed a greeting if Jazz was also in the living room. When Jazz went outside to study in the sunlight, Jack never said a word at all, ignoring Danny completely.

And so he did the only thing he could think to do, the only thing he could do. His homework. All of it.

Maddie made him a sandwich for lunch and brought it to his desk, placing a kiss on his head like she always did. He hyper-focused on getting that into his stomach somehow, another welcome distraction. He only wished it didn't taste so bland.

Dinner was as awkward and uncomfortable an affair as breakfast that morning. Danny obediently cleared his plate just to get his mom off his back, but he was otherwise withdrawn and only spoke when he was spoken to. More importantly, he consciously worked to never once make eye contact with his father.

"You feeling okay, Danny?" Maddie soothingly rubbed his back. "You're so quiet."

Danny gave her an appreciative smile. "I'm fine," he insisted enthusiastically. "Just tired from doing nothing but homework all day, you know?"

"Yeah, well, I guess this means you'll think twice before breaking our rules again, won't you?" said Jack brusquely.

"Jack," murmured Maddie with disapproval.

Danny kept his eyes down. "I wasn't complaining," he said quietly. "I was just...explaining why I'm tired." He lifted his head to look at his mother, only at her, aimed to somehow convince her she didn't need to worry about him. "But this has been good for me, I think. I got a lot of studying done, and a lot of things make more sense to me. I'm feeling good about the assignments I completed. I think I can raise my grades a little."

Maddie smiled and smoothed back a couple locks of his hair. "That's wonderful, sweetie."

Jack said nothing at all.

After dinner, Danny helped his mother and sister with the dishes while Jack disappeared somewhere, probably the basement lab again. Danny washed each dish that could not fit in the dishwasher in something of a trance, warm soapy suds reaching up to his elbows. He handed each cleaned dish to Jazz, who dried them and put them away.

"Thanks, kids," said Maddie as she sprayed and wiped down the counters. "Do you two want to watch a movie tonight? We could order something off Amazon."

"Yeah, I have a whole list of movies I've been wanting to see." Jazz took out her phone and began scrolling through something on her screen.

Danny rinsed the soap off his arms before switching off the faucet. "Um, actually, I'm really tired." He looked down into the sink. "Would it be all right if I went to bed early?"

Maddie's brow creased. "Are you feeling sick?"

"No, it's just... It's been a long week, and I'm exhausted. I think maybe I need to catch up on my sleep for once."

Maddie moved up to him and placed her gloved hands on the side of his face, studying him intently. "Okay, sweetheart. Get some good sleep tonight. You're looking a little pale."

Danny nodded and headed out of the kitchen into the living room and toward the stairs, glancing around for Jack.

But Jack was nowhere to be seen. Danny quickly ran up the stairs, relieved that he wouldn't have to see his father for the rest of the night.

Dressed and ready for bed, Danny lay under his covers in the darkness of his room. So tired, so drowsy, and yet his mind was buzzing too quickly to let him sleep.

He glanced at the wall behind him in which his opioids were kept.

Maybe he could take another hydrocodone tablet tonight. He needed it. He deserved it. Plus, he was feeling a little sore from trying to get the hang of duplication the night before. All of that constant tearing and splitting of his cells.

And then whatever happened between him and his father the next day, well, that was later. This was now.

Beyond the safety of his walls, outside of their neighborhood, he could only hope that ghosts weren't causing too much of a problem without him around to stop them.

Chapter Text

The night passed quickly and dreamlessly for Danny, the narcotic dose keeping him down and out until his mother once again roused him in the morning for breakfast.

In the kitchen, Jack continued to mostly ignore him as he had the day before. Danny was not sure if this was preferable to being yelled at or not. What did it mean for his father to not acknowledge him at all?

After breakfast, his parents went down into their lab while Jazz went off somewhere to study, either in her room or outside or maybe she had driven out to some coffee shop. He couldn't remember what she had said to him last he saw her.

He himself sat on the sofa in the living room because this was where he was supposed to be, still grounded and unable to go out with his friends or even up to his room. His homework was completely finished, a first for him in a long time. Sunday was usually a day of scrambling to half-ass assignments and begging Sam or Tucker to help him with an essay.

He stared at the TV set across the room, wondering if he was allowed to turn it on, too tired to get up and ask his parents for permission, too tired to get up and turn it on even if they said okay.

Too tired…

There was nothing to do and nothing he even wanted to do. Study astronomy or read one of his comic books, none of that sounded enjoyable. It all sounded like far too much effort.

He looked toward the staircase in the direction of his room, itching to take another opioid. Something to knock him out again so he could pass the time sleeping.

But what would his dad say if he caught him sleeping?

What would his dad say if he woke with the narcotics still in his system and he could only mumble and barely keep his head up?

Danny slumped into the sofa, defeated and bored and just way too tired to do anything about it.

Footsteps coming up the basement stairs. Far too light to be Jack's and yet Danny tensed anyway. Maddie appeared at the basement door and swept her hood and goggles off her head, wiping away a thin layer of sweat from her brow. Danny relaxed and sank into the couch again.

"Danny?" Maddie stared at him curiously. "Shouldn't you be doing your homework?"

Danny glanced at the table in the living room that was temporarily serving as his desk. He had already organized all of his books and papers neatly. "I finished."

"You finished? All of it?"

Danny nodded.

Maddie moved to stand in front of him. "Are you feeling okay?"

Danny looked past her. Why did she keep asking that? "Yeah. I'm just a little bored. Nothing to do. You know, being grounded and all."

Maddie stared down at him for a long time, each passing moment weighing on him. How could he have possibly thought sitting on the couch doing nothing was acceptable?

"But, um... I guess I could do some chores or something." Danny sat up straighter. "If you want me to, I mean."

He'd do chores to make her happy, sure. And maybe it would show Jack he wasn't as lazy and useless as he seemed to think his son was.

And it would provide a way to make this day go a little faster, prevent his thoughts from wandering somewhere he really didn't want them to go right now. Or ever.

Maddie tapped her fingers against her crossed upper arms, her lips pursed.

Danny hesitantly stood. "I could clean out the fridge, maybe? Wipe off the shelves?" He started backing in the direction of the kitchen. "I'll, uh, I'll just do that."

"Let's go to the mall," said Maddie authoritatively.

Danny blinked. "The mall?"

"Mmm hmm. Yeah, you and me. Let's go to the mall." She looked him up and down. "Anything you need to grab first, or are you ready to go now?"

"Wait, why the mall?"

Maddie approached him and placed her hands on his shoulders, running them down his arms. "You've grown so much this past year. I need to buy you new clothes, go through your old clothes and get rid of anything that doesn't fit you anymore."

Danny blushed. "Well I—I can do that on my own—"

"But you won't. I've been telling you to buy new clothes, even gave you money for it, and you still haven't."

Danny looked at the floor. "I, uh—that's because—"

"It's okay." Maddie smiled. "We'll just go together now. Sunday's always a nice day for shopping."

Shopping. With his mother. For clothes. One of his absolute least favorite things to do. She always insisted he try on everything even when he knew for sure something wouldn't fit him. And she always picked out so many things for him to try on, throwing them to him while he was in the fitting room so that he ended up with a sizable boutique of his own. And then she always forced him to model everything for her so that she could make sure the clothes she was buying him actually fit.

He would absolutely rather do chores than that.

He frantically scanned the room. "Um, wait, maybe there is some homework I still need to do—or actually, there's a history test coming up I should probably study for—"

"You really need new clothes, sweetie." Maddie wrapped an arm around him and kissed the side of his head. "Come on. It'll be fun. We never hang out anymore."

Danny physically resisted for only a moment before giving in with a sigh. Fine. He really didn't have anything else to do, and it would probably be nice to get out of the house.

Especially if it was away from his father.

Maddie called a quick goodbye down to Jack in the lab. Danny stayed several steps away from the basement door, hoping his dad wouldn't care enough to come up the stairs.

"You're taking Danny to the mall?" yelled Jack from below. "Isn't he supposed to be grounded?"

"This is an errand," insisted Maddie. "I've been meaning to buy him new clothes, and this is a convenient time for me to do it.

Jack yelled back a huffy "okay" and said nothing more, didn't even ask to come along. Danny said no goodbye of his own, simply followed his mother out of the house in submissive silence. He was sure Jack didn't want to hear his voice right now anyway.

"Do you want to drive?" Maddie held up her car keys as they walked to the curb where her car was parked.

Danny didn't even have to think about his answer. "No. That's okay. I'd rather not."

"You know you're gonna be sixteen in just a couple weeks, right? You need to practice if you want to pass the test."

Danny lowered his head. His mother always found something to criticize or yell at him about when he drove with her, and he just didn't have the mindset to deal with that right now.

"The mall is real close," assured Maddie. "It'd be easy."

"I know. But... Is it okay if I don't? Please?"

He couldn't look at her, felt too pathetic and guilty for begging like this. But he knew that if she ordered him to, he'd obey. He couldn't turn down a demand from his mother, after all.

To his immense relief, Maddie lowered the keys.

"Okay," she said with a kind smile. "You don't have to drive."

Danny gratefully returned the smile. He opened the passenger side door and lowered himself inside while his mother moved to the other side of the car. Maddie started the engine and began driving out of the neighborhood.

"So." Maddie paused for a long moment. "You finished all your homework early, huh? No late night cramming?"

"I know, I know, shocker," said Danny. "But it was pretty easy considering I had nothing else to do."

"But now you can just relax tonight. That must feel good, huh?"

"Yeah. I guess so."

Except not really because there were ghosts out there that needed to be dealt with and it was agonizing to force himself to stay in his room and not go out on his usual patrol. How could he really relax when he wasn't fulfilling his obligation to protect the town?

"You guess so?" echoed Maddie.

"Uh, I mean…" Danny mustered up enthusiasm. "Yeah, it does feel good. Really good."

His mother didn't respond right away. Danny inwardly chided himself on not doing a better job at hiding his emotions. He really should've been a master at disguising himself by now.

"You can talk to me, Danny," said his mother in a gentle voice, staring straight ahead as she continued to drive. "If something's bothering you."

Danny studied her face in profile for a quiet moment as he tried to formulate the best response.

"Yeah," he said. "I know, Mom."

"I'd really like it if you did talk to me. If you could tell me what has been making you so sad these past few days. Sadder than I've ever seen you before. And I want so much to help you, Danny."

Danny lowered his head in an attempt to hide his face from her. He hated making his mother feel this way, making her feel as if she wasn't doing enough to help him, as if she needed to do more for him. How terrible, how awful a son he was. She didn't deserve that from him.

"I'm okay," said Danny with forced confidence. "I guess maybe I just still feel bad about upsetting you and Dad so much Wednesday night when I snuck out. But really, I'm fine."

Maddie drove in silence for a couple minutes. Danny stole glances at her solemn expression.

The car at last pulled into the mall parking lot. Maddie parked the car and looked at him.

"You've never acted this way in the past when you got in trouble," she said in a murmur almost accusatory in tone. "Are you really going to keep insisting to me that you're fine?"

Danny stared back at her, all utterances and words caught and suppressed in his throat.

She gave him a small heartbroken smile before switching of the engine and climbing out of the car. Danny slowly walked to meet her, guilt flooding him for rousing her suspicions, for making her look at him that way.

He was perfectly fine with being sad himself. Used to it, even. But he couldn't bear the thought of her being sad as well.

Especially if it was because of him.

Inside the mall, Maddie led the way through a number of clothing and department stores. Danny resignedly followed her and did not complain even once that this was taking too long or that he was sure something would fit and that he didn't need to try it on. He had nothing else to do anyway. Might as well try to make her happy. Maybe she'd forget all about their uncomfortable conversation in the car. Maybe she wouldn't try to ask him again if he was really okay or not.

So he conjured a bright smile and acted as pleased and excited as he could about the dozens of shirts and pants and belts and shoes that she handed to him to take into the fitting room. Anything to lift her mood. His own mood didn't matter. He'd be just fine.

Eventually.

A couple hours, hundreds of dollars spent, and five shopping bags in Danny's arms later, Maddie finally called his new wardrobe good and led the way to the mall's food court.

"We're going to have to go through all your old clothes," she said as they walked. "When we get home today. Get rid of anything that doesn't fit you anymore or is just old or worn. Probably most of your clothes, honestly."

"Oh, yeah. Sounds good," said Danny. Having his mom go through anything in his room was always a huge embarrassing pain, but she was right. Most of his clothes were either faded, riddled with tiny holes or pills, or were simply too small for him altogether. He'd of course rather just go through his clothes himself, but she typically never trusted him to do things like that. And he couldn't blame her. He knew full well he had a tendency to be lazy or put things off or think that something was "good enough" or "still okay" and opt to keep it when he probably should toss it.

"What do you feel like eating?" asked Maddie, looking around the food court.

Danny shrugged. "Whatever you want. Doesn't matter to me. I'm not hungry."

Maddie frowned at him, making Danny internally wince.

"Oh, I mean, um…" Danny checked out all of the options, trying to find something that didn't twist his gut. "Sub sandwiches sound pretty good."

Maddie placed a gloved hand on the back of his neck and gently massaged him. "You're right. They do."

She rubbed his back with lingering strokes. Danny's shoulders relaxed.

"Why don't you sit somewhere so you don't have to carry those bags anymore?" suggested Maddie. "Just tell me what you want. I'll order it for you."

He could see the return of all her concern and worry from earlier in her expression, hear it in her tone.

"Okay," he said with a small defeated smile.

As he waited for her to bring back lunch for the two of them, he contemplated the story he was going to tell her. She wouldn't let him get away with "I'm fine" anymore, that was for sure.

Could he tell her the truth?

Absolutely not. He knew she'd accept him. Of course he knew that. She loved him. But that wouldn't necessarily stop her from trying to run experiments on him.

And besides, if he told her, she'd tell Jack, and…

There was no way he could ever let his father know that his son was the ghost that spurred him to such hateful violence.

So he'd have to lie to her. Again.

Sure. Why not? He had gotten so used to lying to her this past year and a half. What was one more, right?

Maybe he could blame it on struggling in school. Or bullying from Dash. She had already called the school about Dash and thought she had solved the problem, but Dash hadn't actually let up on him. Physically, sure. Dash no longer physically assaulted him, but the insults and taunts were still as prevalent as ever, even more so than they ever were before.

Maybe he could just throw the blond jock under the bus again. Not like he didn't deserve it.

Of course, Dash would surely have his revenge, but Danny wasn't actually afraid of his classmate. Definitely not now when he was larger and had gained a decent mastery of most of his powers.

Now if only he could learn to duplicate properly...

Maddie returned with foot-long sandwiches, sodas, chips, and even cookies. Danny graciously accepted everything but secretly grimaced at the sight of it all. This was all going to feel so heavy in his stomach, was going to weigh him down and make it harder for him to act like he was okay.

He took a sizable bite of his sandwich and chewed it quietly, aware that his mother was looking at him as he pretended he was far more interested in the couple sitting a few tables over.

"You know…" Maddie began slowly. "I talked to Dad about it, but I didn't get a chance to ask you yet."

Danny turned his attention to her.

"How was your trip to Gardner Peak? Was it fun?"

"Uh, yeah," said Danny. "It's pretty much the same as I remembered from the last time we were there. But it was really cool looking at all the stars and planets."

"Yeah? Did it make you want to be an astronaut even more?"

Danny blushed. He really hated when his parents brought up his longtime aspiration to be an astronaut. It just sounded so childish and far-fetched to him now, especially with his terrible grades. "I mean, yeah, it'd be great, but I don't think I could actually be an astronaut."

"No? Why not?"

"Well... I'm not really smart enough." He smiled with good humor. "I mean, if I was smart like Jazz, maybe I'd have a chance. Or smart like you. But... Well, you know. Academics don't come as naturally to me."

"Danny, you're so smart. Don't go thinking you aren't."

Danny shrugged. "Even if that were true, it's so competitive. I mean, you know the most active astronauts there has ever been was a hundred and forty-nine? And right now there's only like a hundred. And none of them have ever even left Earth's orbit." He paused. "I really just don't have a chance, honestly."

"Well, your father and I have some pretty good connections now that our research has taken off and garnered more respect. We could probably help you at least get some sort of position at NASA. I mean, if that's still something you want to do."

"Yeah. That'd be awesome. Now I just need to raise my grades."

"You'll get a clean slate in college. I bet you could get all As if you really tried hard enough."

Danny took a bite of his sandwich so he'd have an excuse to keep quiet. He didn't want to tell her that he was already trying pretty damn hard. Best to let her just think his poor grades were due to lack of time management and discipline and not just simple stupidity and ineptitude.

"You do believe that you could," said Maddie carefully, "right, Danny?"

Danny hummed and pointed to his mouth to indicate he couldn't talk and proceeded to take his time chewing while he tried to come up with an answer.

"Do I believe that I can get better grades in college?" he finally echoed after swallowing his bite. "I don't really know, honestly."

Maddie said nothing. Danny grew warm as he tried to find something to fill the silence again.

"I mean, I don't want to make any promises." He looked down at the sandwich in his hands. "I'll certainly... I'll try, but... I don't want you and Dad to be disappointed if my college grades end up just...being a repeat of my high school grades."

"You're always so concerned about disappointing me and your dad," said Maddie, her eyes turning down. "Are you really that afraid of disappointing us?"

Danny kept his head down and shrugged.

"I'm worried about this self-destructive thinking of yours, Danny." Maddie leaned over the table toward him. "It really seems to be hurting you."

He had known since the car ride over that this moment was coming but he still wasn't prepared for it. "No, it's—I mean, yes, I really hate disappointing you guys, but I don't think it's hurting me. It just makes me want to be better. Isn't that a good thing?"

"It can be if it's not preventing you from being happy or from doing things. But you definitely don't seem very happy these days, and it seems like you're afraid to even try things sometimes."

"Try things...like what?"

"Well, for one, giving up on your dream to be an astronaut. Because you're afraid that you'll fail and disappoint us or maybe disappoint yourself and so you don't even want to risk it. So you'd prefer to just not even try."

Danny's mouth hung open briefly before he could even try to speak. "That's not—I didn't mean—I'm just trying to be realistic, it's not that I'm afraid to try—"

"And you don't want to make any promises about doing better in college because you're afraid you won't succeed. You don't want to commit to something you're afraid you won't be able to do. So you'd rather just accept failure now than dedicate any effort to actually trying."

This onslaught, this attack, his defenses were not prepared at all, and he had no excuses or reasoning to fight it, not right now. Maybe if she gave him some time to think first—

"And you never want to practice driving," Maddie went on. "You always have some sort of excuse or reason, and it's a real fight for me to get you to do it. In fact, I usually have to make you do it. Because I want you to pass your driving test the first time."

Danny flinched, wondering if this was a jab at how it took him three times to pass the writing test just to get his permit. "I know, I know. I just didn't want to today because—"

"Today might've been because something is really troubling you," said Maddie gently but firmly. "I understand that. But what about other days? Why are you always so reluctant to practice driving?"

"Ah, well, because... I don't know. It just makes me so nervous, and I always seem to do everything wrong and make you…" He squeezed his sandwich.

"Make me what, Danny?" asked Maddie. "Tell me."

"Just...kind of mad, I guess," he said as softly and casually as he could. "I don't like making you mad."

"Oh, sweetie." Maddie sighed. "So you don't want to practice driving because you're just so convinced that you'll do something wrong? You don't want to work at trying to get better because you don't think you can? And you're afraid of making me mad so you'd rather just never learn to drive at all?"

Danny reddened and shrugged.

"I don't mean to get mad at you when you drive, sweetheart," said Maddie more kindly. "I'm sorry for yelling at you sometimes or being too harsh when I correct you. It's just sometimes you do things that scare me, and I react strongly. Which is normal, by the way! It's normal for new drivers to do things that are kind of scary. I certainly scared my own mother when she was teaching me to drive, so you shouldn't feel like you're somehow a worse driver than other teens." She smiled at him. "You're doing just fine."

You shouldn't feel this way.

He hated when anyone tried to tell him how he should or shouldn't feel.

But he bit back the feeling. "Yeah. I know. I'll try to not resist so much when you ask me to drive, okay?"

Maddie exhaled loudly. "Danny, this isn't about the driving. This is about how you feel. How you're feeling right now." She paused. "Why have you been acting...well, the way you've been acting lately?"

Danny held his half-eaten sandwich in front of his face. "The way I've been acting?"

"Something is troubling you. Something is bothering you. Something has taken all the life and energy out of you. You just seem...empty. You don't seem like...like Danny right now."

He raised his shoulders, ducked his head. He wasn't even sure if he remembered how he usually felt. What did it even mean to feel or act "like Danny"?

"Danny."

He looked up at her.

"Please talk to me, Danny." Her eyes misted. "Please don't keep me out like this. I really want to help you, and I can't if you won't tell me what's wrong."

Danny's own eyes stung in response. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right for her to feel sad. She had done nothing to deserve this.

How could he make this stop? How could he make her feel better? What excuse could he give her? What story could he give?

Not the truth, no. Never.

But maybe, perhaps…

Just a part of the truth?

"Okay, um…" Danny struggled with his thoughts, attempted to untangle them and weave them into coherent narrative. "I just kind of feel like... Well, Dad seems really mad at me." He talked down to the table. "And I just feel like I keep making him madder."

"You mean lately? Since you snuck out?" Maddie sighed. "I do agree with you that he has been a little impatient with you the past few days. I tried talking to him about it, but maybe I need to say something to him again—"

"No!"

Maddie blinked, mouth still open but all words stopped.

"No, please," said Danny more calmly. "Don't say anything to him, please?"

Maddie eyed him warily. "Danny, you're not afraid of Dad, are you?"

Danny's muscles tensed, but he did his best to conceal their shuddering by shaking his head and moving his arms. "No, of course not. But... I just keep screwing up with him, and I don't want to make things any worse between us."

"You keep screwing up with him? How? What do you mean?"

"Well... Like at Gardner Peak."

"What happened at Gardner Peak? I thought you said you two had a good time."

"Yeah, we did! Until the very end."

Danny shakily drew in a breath. He had already committed; no backing out of this now.

"I just, um... Well, I kind of disagreed with him about something, and he... He really didn't like it. I mean, you know how he gets when someone disagrees with him."

"Oh, yeah," said Maddie with a roll of her eyes. "He and I actually fight about things all the time. He's very stubborn."

"Yeah, well... I'm just not sure how long it'll take before he lets this one go."

"What exactly did you disagree with him about?"

He tensed again. Dare he say it? After all, his mother had some pretty strong opinions about ghosts herself.

"I, um... All I said was…" He stalled with a sizable breath. "I told him that I don't think all ghosts are bad."

Maddie furrowed her brow.

"And Dad just didn't really like that I disagreed with him on that point."

Maddie slowly nodded. "Oh. I see." She leaned back in her chair and nodded again. "Yes, your father definitely feels ghosts are all set to do us harm. That's always been his stance. That ghosts want to use us for their own terrible purposes."

Danny shifted in his chair. "But do you think they're all bad, too?"

Maddie's bottom lip protruded as she shook her head. "No. I actually agree with you. I don't think all ghosts are bad. In fact, I don't really think any of them are bad."

Danny's head moved forward. "Really?"

"Not in the way humans can be bad, anyway. They're more like wild, vicious animals."

Danny's head moved back.

"Animals don't have a sense that anything they do is ever wrong. And that's how it is with ghosts. They don't have the intelligence and ethics and morality we do. They're animals that need to be detained and kept away from the general public. For safety reasons." Maddie sipped her soda. "Their obsessions make them insane, and they simply can't stop themselves from doing whatever they can to satisfy their obsessions."

Danny's eyes lowered.

His dad thought he was malicious, his mom thought he was deranged.

Both thought he was dangerous.

Both wanted to remove him.

"Danny?"

He lifted his head again with a jolt. "Sorry, kind of spaced out there. Um, anyway, Dad just seemed really offended. When I told him my thoughts about ghosts."

The look of warning Jack had given him for even daring to continue to oppose him, the way he towered above and looked down at him so coldly.

"Honestly, I'm just... I'm not sure..." Danny paused, his sandwich still uneaten in his shaking hands. "I don't think Dad really likes me."

"Oh, Danny," chided Maddie. "Danny, how could you think that?"

Oh, great. Nice. Just what he wanted. Now he had successfully disappointed his mom, too.

"Danny, your father loves you very much. I promise you that."

"Yeah, I'm not—I'm not saying he doesn't, it's just…" Danny glanced off to the side. "We don't really have anything in common, you know?"

"Oh, that's not true! You and your dad have a lot in common." Maddie clasped a hand under her chin as she looked at him fondly. "I see so much of him in you. Your mannerisms, your expressions." She laughed. "Your clumsiness."

Danny groaned. "Okay, maybe, but I mean we don't have any interests in common. Like when we do things together, it's usually... Well, we're usually not doing something we both enjoy. Fishing, going to the observatory, usually it's just what one of us wants to do and the other just goes along with it."

"You don't like fishing? I thought you loved fishing."

"No, I don't really like any outdoor activities. What I really like about fishing is just...spending time with Dad." Danny paused. "Or at least, that used to be what I liked about it. But I just always seem to make him mad. Somehow."

"Danny, is this something you've been feeling for a long time now? Or just the past few days?"

"The past year or so, I've kind of been feeling it. But I guess it's been worse the past few days. Ever since I really pissed him off. When I snuck out."

"You didn't piss him off," said Maddie gently. "It wasn't your fault Dad was in such a bad mood. Or not entirely, anyway. Something else happened that night, you know."

Danny didn't react. He already knew all about the "something else" that had happened that night.

"Your father and I had a pretty big fight that night."

Danny's brows lowered, his attention immediately snapping to her with sharp focus. Okay, maybe he didn't know after all.

"It's nothing you need to worry about," said Maddie. "I won't tell you the details. But that's the real reason your father was in such a bad mood that night."

"But this happened...when? While you were out looking for me?"

"Well, yes, it happened—" Maddie's mouth hung open for a moment. "Oh, sweetie, the fight had nothing to do with you, okay?" Her mouth scrunched. "Your father just kept something from me that he shouldn't have. Something really important. It wasn't about you at all."

Danny thought back to that night. Hands in the air and arms growing so tired, his back toward his father, an ecto-gun aimed right at his head.

And his mother's voice crackling over his father's radio, asking if Phantom had been located yet.

And his father always answered no.

When his mother finally found the two of them together, her teeth bared as she stomped up to them.

Danny had never seen her look so furious before.

His mother was wrong. Their fight had been about him. It had everything to do with him.

"But…" Danny blinked slowly down at the table. "But you wouldn't have fought at all if...if I hadn't…"

"Danny, your father gets into bad moods," said Maddie. "Really bad moods. He's always been that way. Most of the time, he's pretty happy and very little can bother him, but when he does get angry, suddenly even the tiniest things can set him off. And he'll sometimes take it out on people who have nothing to do with why he's in a bad mood. It's his own problem, not yours."

Danny didn't look up from the table.

"And he does like you," assured Maddie. "He's told me so many times that we couldn't have asked for a more wonderful son."

Danny lifted his head. "Really? He's actually said that?"

"Of course! He's crazy about you, sweetheart. He's so proud to have you. And I promise that his bad mood right now isn't about you at all. It's about someone else. Not you."

"Someone else?"

Maddie flinched. "Oh, I've said too much. Listen, you might be getting the brunt of all this, but it's not because of anything you did, okay?" She moved her chair enough so that she could reach over and touch his shoulder. "Please try to believe that, sweetie. You always think everything is somehow your fault. But it's really not this time."

Her touch felt nice, kind, soothing. Danny's expression softened while his mind churned.

It's about someone else. Not you.

No. It was about him. A him she didn't know was sitting right beside her.

She was wrong.

But…

She was also right.

His dad hated Phantom. He could never change that. No matter how hard he tried to prove himself, Jack could never possibly change his mind about a ghost, certainly not about his most hated ghost.

But his dad didn't hate him. His son.

He had dealt with his dad hating Phantom. This was nothing he hadn't already accepted before, nothing he hadn't already learned to cope with. He just had to remember how to cope with it again.

And his dad's mood always swung back eventually.

Things would certainly go back to normal soon. He just had to hold out for it. And perhaps he could begin by trying to lift his own mood instead of waiting for his dad to become happy again first.

The rest of his sandwich wasn't too difficult to swallow down. It even tasted kind of good.

"Ready to go, Danny?" asked Maddie, collecting their trash to throw away.

"Yeah." Danny stood, shopping bags hooked around his arm. "So, um... I did bring my permit. So I could drive us home. If you want me to."

Maddie stroked a couple strands of his hair. "I'd love it if you drove us home."

He smiled appreciatively.

Things would definitely get better.

He dared to actually believe it this time.

Chapter Text

His vision was starting to blur. Jack removed his goggles and shut his eyes, gently massaging them with gloved fingers.

Maddie came down the stairs to join him in the basement lab, releasing a humming sigh. "Mmm, I'm exhausted. How are you doing down here, Jack?"

Jack checked the clock on the wall. "Were you out shopping with Danny this whole time?"

"No, no. We actually returned a couple hours ago. Then we went through his old clothes together and got rid of anything he didn't need anymore. We'll need to make a run to Goodwill tomorrow."

Jack grunted his assent.

"And then I went ahead and threw a casserole in the oven. It should be done in about an hour." Maddie stretched her arms behind her. "So what have you been working on?"

"A couple things," said Jack. "Worked on improving the accuracy of our weapons targeting systems. Also started figuring out how to begin construction on that new spectral X-ray machine we've been talking about."

"Oh, yeah. That's perfect."

Maddie moved up beside him and wrapped her arms around his waist as she looked over his workstation and studied his blueprints. Jack smiled down at her and placed his large hand on her toned upper arm.

"An hour until the casserole is ready, right?" His finger trailed down toward her elbow.

"Jack." Maddie chuckled. "Tonight, okay? There's actually something I want to talk about first."

Jack's torso stiffened. He knew that tone, and considering she had just spent a whole afternoon with their son—

Please don't be about Danny please don't be about Danny this time please let it be about something else literally anything else.

"I talked to Danny, got him to open up about some things." Maddie's embrace around him strengthened as she nuzzled her head against his suit. "We need to discuss what he said."

Jack held in a groan. "Is he okay? Is he in any sort of trouble?"

"No, no. Not at all. He just said some things that made me really sad." She paused. "Things that you really need to hear."

Jack turned his head and rolled his eyes, making sure she couldn't see his face. "All right. I'm listening."

"Let's sit down."

She tugged and pulled at him, leading him to the chairs set up in the lab. Jack glanced back at his unfinished work with a grimace before giving in and taking a seat beside her.

"Okay, so what did Danny say?" he asked with faux enthusiasm.

"Well, I know that you talked to Danny at Gardner Peak and thought that he was doing okay, that he was just going through some normal teenage drama, but I just wasn't really convinced," admitted Maddie. "He still just seemed so sad and like something was really bothering him. And so I decided to ask him myself, and he told me something a bit troubling that I really think you need to know."

Jack's eye twitched. "Yeah?"

Maddie reached over and took his hand in both of hers. "Jack, I really need you to keep calm right now, okay? I'm not accusing you of anything or telling you did anything wrong, but you really need to know this so that you can try to help Danny."

"What are you talking about?" Jack tore his hand away from her. "What did Danny say?"

"Jack, can you please just listen without getting angry right now?"

Jack inhaled deeply and waited.

"Danny is very sensitive," began Maddie. "We've both always known that about him. Whenever we yell at him and discipline him for something, he always takes it much harder than we intend him to. Which is why I try to be more careful with how I word things around him, what I say to him."

"Yes," said Jack dully. "That's true." He knew very well that she always coddled Danny and let him off easy because she hated hurting his feelings in any way, but what good had that done? Now he was even more sensitive these days, probably too brittle to ever handle anything on his own. How did she expect their son to toughen up if she never gave him any opportunity to do so?

"So." Maddie pressed her lips together briefly. "You're already aware that us getting upset with him for sneaking out Wednesday night and then punishing him for it really hurt him."

"Yes. But wasn't that the point? We needed to let him know that what he did was not okay."

"I know, but—"

"What else were we supposed to do? Let it go? Not express that we were disappointed in him? Not give him any negative consequences at all?"

"No, of course not. We had to discipline him. That was the right thing to do." Maddie paused. "But we both could've handled some of it better. Like when we both first came home after Jazz told us he had returned. The first thing I did was yell at him." She looked down at her lap. "I wish that hadn't been my first reaction."

"It was a perfectly reasonable first reaction," said Jack. "What could you have possibly wished you had done instead?"

"I wish I had just told him first that I was happy he was safe and that he was home, waited until the next day to lecture him when we were all in a calmer state."

"And you think that would've somehow been better for him?"

"I know it would've been. Then maybe Danny wouldn't be beating himself up over this as much as he is."

"He snuck out of the house after curfew, Maddie." Jack's volume rose. "He broke one of our biggest rules. He should feel bad about that."

"He shouldn't be feeling this bad, Jack," said Maddie imploringly. "What he did wasn't anything that any other normal teenager hasn't done. It was nothing illegal or immoral, nothing that caused harm to anyone."

"Still something we definitely don't want him doing again," Jack reminded her sternly.

"No, of course not. For his safety and for our peace of mind. But we also don't want him feeling like he can never make mistakes, that we expect him to be perfect or else we'll be upset with him. Or that he's a disappointment to us. We really need to emphasize that we're only ever disappointed in some of his actions, not in him as a person. As our son."

"He should really be able to figure that out on his own. That should be common sense."

"Yeah, well, it's not for Danny."

A beat of silence. Jack altered his weight in his chair and glanced back at all of the unfinished work at his station.

"Look, Jack." Maddie squeezed his large hand with both of hers. "Danny told me something...really sad, and I know you don't want him thinking it. So I'm just telling you this so that...so that you can be mindful of how you talk to him and maybe...maybe be more careful around him?"

Jack inhaled hard to prevent himself from saying anything because he knew there was no way anything he'd say right now would be kind.

"There's no easy way to say this." Maddie tapped her fingers against the back of Jack's hand. "Danny is hurt that you still seem to be mad at him, and... He thinks you don't like him."

Jack's eyelids fluttered, his jaw shifted position as he tried to formulate a response. Maddie raised uncertain eyes to him.

"What do you mean he thinks I don't like him?" demanded Jack.

"Well—"

"What could possibly make him think that?"

"I'm trying to tell you, Jack. He feels like the two of you don't really have anything in common and that you sometimes do things with him begrudgingly. Like he's not sure if you ever actually have fun with him."

"I just spent an entire evening with him on Friday. I drove us all the way out there and back in just one night. Why would he think I'd do that if I didn't enjoy being with him?"

"But were you completely nice to him during that trip, Jack?"

He recoiled.

"Jack?" she pressed again.

"What did Danny tell you?" he asked cautiously.

"Something that you should've told me if it's true." Maddie narrowed her eyes. "He said that the two of you got into a bit of a disagreement? About ghosts?"

Jack loudly huffed.

"Jack, I know you have really strong opinions about ghosts, but that's no reason to get so angry with someone for disagreeing with you."

"You don't understand, Maddie. You weren't there. He was being really difficult and trying to act like he knew better than me. Don't tell me you don't get offended when someone who knows nothing about ghosts tries to challenge you on the topic."

"I don't when it's a child. Danny is just a boy, Jack. And your own son, for that matter. There's no excuse for hurting his feelings like that."

"Oh, but he's allowed to offend me by insinuating I don't know what I'm talking about? He gets a pass for that because he's just such a sensitive child?"

"There are ways you could've handled it without getting so angry with him."

"What makes you think I was angry?" snapped Jack. "You weren't there. You don't know how I handled it or what I said to him. You're only getting Danny's side, and of course he's going to perceive it as worse than it was because that's what he always does!"

"Yes, but I know you, Jack." Maddie's voice did not lose any strength. "I've been in arguments with you before. I know how you handle disagreements."

Jack's jaw clenched.

"And I've seen the way you've been treating Danny the past few days. You've been impatient with him, and your tone with him has definitely been... Well, I can see why he thinks you're still mad at him and that you don't like him."

"I'm not mad at him."

"Well, he thinks you are."

"Well, I'm not. Reminding him that he's still grounded is not me being mad at him."

"Jack, just—" Maddie groaned. "Please just try to talk to him more kindly, okay? Please?"

"I'm the one who has to change?" Jack glanced up the basement stairs, wondering if their son was in the living room like he was supposed to be. Like he had been ordered to be. "Danny shouldn't just learn to toughen up and not take everything as a personal attack?"

"Well, yes, you're the one who should change, Jack." Maddie's expression was almost incredulous. "You're the adult here, and not just the adult but the parent. He's your son, Jack! Your child! You don't want your child to feel this way about his father, do you?"

Jack glowered at the floor. Fuming. Flaring.

No. He didn't want Danny to feel this way about him.

And he certainly didn't want Maddie fretting over Danny feeling this way about him.

"Did Danny really say that?" asked Jack quietly. "That he thinks I'm mad at him and that...I don't like him?"

Maddie stroked his hand and arm. "He did," she said somewhat apologetically. "But I think that he's just going through a hard time and that maybe...maybe if you just try to be more careful with him, maybe he'll stop feeling that way." She scooted her chair closer so that she could hug him. "I'm certain I've made him feel bad like this at times, too. I agree that we should try to work with him to help him not automatically assume that everything is an attack against him. Maybe therapy is what he needs. But I also think we both need to try to be mindful of the way we talk to him."

Her cheek nuzzled against his triceps, her fingers interlaced with his. Jack stared ahead at the far wall of the lab.

"Okay," he said in a low voice.

Maddie remained cuddled against him until the oven timer upstairs chimed. Jack followed her up to the kitchen and made eye contact with Danny, who was reading one of his textbooks on the couch.

Danny smiled at him. Jack smiled back.

Neither said anything.

During dinner, Jack observed Danny closely and took special care to only speak kindly and enthusiastically to the boy. Danny certainly seemed far more interactive and smiley, definitely a far better mood than Jack had seen from him in a long time.

But as Jack returned all the smiles and laughs and family-friendly conversation, he could not cease his inward fuming.

What was really going on in Danny's head? Was he putting on a front just like Jack was? Pretending to be okay? To be happy? Putting on an act so that his mother would stop worrying? So that his father would like him again?

Why couldn't Danny ever just be honest about his feelings? Why did he always just insist he was "fine"?

All the secrets and laziness and sneaking around after curfew, what did Danny even expect from him? To just dismiss it all with fatherly compassion? To just let him get away with being a slacker and rule breaker?

If anything, he had been too easy on the boy. Danny clearly needed more discipline and yet he would never get it because his mother was convinced he was too sensitive for it.

Across the dinner table, Danny laughed at a detail of an anecdote Jazz was telling. He caught Jack's eye.

They exchanged smiles.

Hours later in bed, Jack listened to his wife's deep breathing and tried to focus only on that and nothing else.

But he could not stop thinking about his son sleeping just down the hall.

He could not stop thinking about his son's betrayal.

Not only did his son dare to think such a terrible thing about him, but he actually had the audacity to confess it to his mother and get him in trouble. Jack knew he didn't deserve that. Being cross with Danny when he had done something wrong did not make Jack a bad father. Not going easy on Danny did not make Jack cruel. And it certainly in no way meant he didn't like his son. Expressing anything short of praise and adoration did not mean he had disdain for Danny.

The vessels in Jack's temples and neck were buzzing. The top of his crown was twitching.

How could Danny do this to him? How could Danny possibly think or feel or dare to say that Jack didn't like him?

He could not sleep. His brain would not shut off, refused to stop oscillating over this frustrating information.

He had to know. He had to ask. He had to demand. He had to do this now.

Jack quietly slipped out of bed, watching Maddie closely as he moved to ensure he didn't wake her. Despite the rage in his veins, he forced himself to step lightly and gently out of their bedroom and strengthened his pace as he walked down the hall.

It was after midnight. Danny had school the next day.

But if Jack couldn't sleep, why should Danny get to?

Why should he even bother to be nice to Danny now when he already thought Jack didn't like him? Danny had NO IDEA what it was like to actually be on Jack's bad side. The boy might as well see what it was really like!

He walked right up to and through Danny's open door without a pause. He groped the wall for the light switch and flicked it on, squinting for just a moment as his eyes adjusted. Danny bolted up into a sitting position on his bed and held his hands out in front of his chest.

Jack glared at him, glared at his defensive reaction, as if he really thought Jack was here to hurt him.

He shut the bedroom door behind him, closing the two of them in. Danny lowered his hands but stiffened in posture.

"Dad!" he gasped out. "What're you—?"

"Why did you tell your mother that you think I don't like you?" Jack demanded in a harsh whisper.

Danny blinked, his eyes darting in several directions. "Why did I—what—?"

Jack moved to right beside his bed. Danny leaned away from him.

"Why did you tell your mother that you think I don't like you?" he asked again more slowly, more carefully, not giving Danny a chance to play dumb again.

Danny's shoulders visibly moved with each breath. "She—Mom told you?"

"Yeah, she did," said Jack in a mock playful tone. "Doesn't feel so good to be betrayed like that, does it?"

Danny stared down at his lap.

"Answer my question, Danny," ordered Jack.

"I—" Danny's mouth opened and closed a few times. "I didn't mean it like that, I just—"

"At the mall today," cut in Jack. "Did you or did you not tell your mother that you think I don't like you?"

Danny did not answer right away. "We—we were just talking about—"

"Danny," growled Jack. "Just answer the question. Did you or did you not say those exact words? Did you pointedly tell her that you think I don't like you?" He narrowed his eyes, his arms resolutely by his sides, hands clenching slightly. "Do not make me ask again. Just give me a yes or no."

"I—"

Jack intensified his glare at the boy, daring him to give anything other than a straight answer this time.

Danny winced and looked down at his blanket, clutching at the fabric. "Yes," he said in a hush. "I... I did say that, but—"

"Why would you say that? How could you say that? What could possibly make you believe that?"

Danny held up his hands. "Dad, please, let me explain—"

"And even if you do really believe it, why would you say so to your mother? If you have some problem with me, Danny, you bring it to me, got it?" Jack crossed his arms and scowled in the direction of his and Maddie's bedroom. "Now your mother thinks I'm being hostile or abusive to you." He looked down at Danny again. "Which is not true. And you know it's not true. But you decided to make me look like the bad guy anyway because you apparently don't know how to solve your own problems and your mom has to do everything for you."

Danny shook his head. "No, Dad, that is not—please just listen—"

"Listen to what?" snapped Jack. "All week you've been acting weird around me, and I haven't done anything to you. And you know I haven't."

"I—yes, I know, but—"

"What exactly have I done to make you think I don't like you?"

Danny's lips thinned, but he did not respond.

"Danny?"

"N-nothing, Dad, it's just—"

"No, don't say 'nothing.' Obviously there's something I did that makes you think that, that would make you tell your mom that. So what is it? What did I do?"

"I—you—it's not what you—"

"Is it because I was angry with you for sneaking out Wednesday night? You broke one of our rules and forced me to get out of bed in the middle of the night, Danny, of course I was angry. That doesn't mean I don't like you."

"No, Dad—"

"Or because I didn't accept your opinion about ghosts at Gardner Peak? You were wrong! Completely wrong! I'm always going to tell you when you're wrong about something, Danny."

Danny was fumbling again, stumbling over more denials and excuses. But still no actual words, no real explanations. Jack wasn't even sure he wanted Danny to say anything at this point; he just wanted him to know that this was not fair and not okay.

"I just really don't get it. Have I ever told you I don't like you?" Jack kept his voice low but amped up the aggression. "Have I ever hit you? Threatened you? Made you feel unsafe?"

No blundering sputters this time. Danny's gaze turned downcast, his brows pushed together. Jack's mouth fell open at the sight.

Danny swallowed. "No," he said in a choked stammer.

It was silent for a few seconds.

"You hesitated," said Jack darkly.

Danny looked up.

"Why did you hesitate?" asked Jack.

Danny's eyes became very round. He shook his head. "I didn't—it's not what you—Dad, please—"

Jack turned and put all his focus into not stomping out of the room, into not throwing Danny's door open so hard it would hit the wall stopper and potentially wake his wife or daughter. He shut off Danny's light and headed toward the stairs to the kitchen. He needed to just sit in silence, in the dark. He needed a drink

No, he couldn't drink. There was no alcohol in the house anyway. He had maintained his sobriety for so long, Maddie would never forgive him if he relapsed over this. Over their son.

No way he could go back to their bedroom now, no way he could sleep, no way he'd be able to stay quiet enough to not disturb Maddie, no way he'd be able to hide his anger from her.

No way he'd ever tell her anything that had just happened.

Chapter Text

The bleating of his morning alarm hurt so much. Every note sank deep into his head and behind his eyes and through his sinus cavity and yanked on all his nerve endings.

Danny reached over to his bedside table and blindly felt around for his alarm clock. He couldn't open his eyes: The light coming in through his closed blinds was painful enough as it filtered through his eyelids. No way he wouldn't pass out if it hit his eyes directly and he couldn't pass out because he had to get UP and go to school.

His arm fumbled and flopped and then he heard the distinctive thud of his clock falling to the floor, its speaker muffled against the carpet. He groaned. Now he'd have to work up the strength to actually get out of bed to make this horrible skull-drilling noise cease.

"Danny?" His sister's voice from his doorway. "Is that your alarm going off?"

Danny kept his eyes closed and waved a weak hand in her direction. "Yeah, sorry. I'll turn it off in a minute," he said. Or at least he thought he said it. It was what he meant to say, anyway, but his whole mouth felt slick and full.

Jazz's footsteps approached his bed. Danny cracked his eyes open with a wince to find her bending down to pick up his clock and shut off the alarm. She then placed it back on his nightstand. "That was getting really annoying."

She stood over him with her hands on her hips. Danny opened his eyes a little more, a small tear trailing down his face onto the bed.

"You don't look so good, Danny." Jazz frowned. "Your eyes are all red. Are you sick?" She placed a hand to his forehead.

Danny pushed her hand away and used his elbows to raise himself into a sitting position. "Yeah, I'm fine. Really. Just didn't get as much sleep as I wanted."

"What? You're mumbling. I didn't catch that."

Danny covered his face with his hand. His head felt so heavy and swimmy and all he wanted was to lie down again. "I said I'm fine," he articulated carefully. "I just had trouble sleeping."

Jazz cocked her head, her bottom lip protruding. "Did you go out ghost fighting last night?"

"No, Jazz," said Danny more forcefully. "I need to shower. Can you go now?"

Jazz stared at him a little longer before turning to leave his room. She halted by his door.

"There are some eye drops in our bathroom cabinet," she said in a sober hush before disappearing into the hall.

Danny waited until he was sure she was definitely gone before lowering himself back onto his mattress and pulling his blanket over his head.

He had told her he was tired. That was not a lie. There was so much drowsiness settled behind his eyes. But he had also told her he had not slept much, and that was absolutely one hundred percent a lie. He had definitely slept. He had slept hard.

With some help.

After his dad came into his room and closed the two of them in and berated him for daring to confess hidden feelings to his mother, he knew he wouldn't be able to fall asleep again on his own. He popped one pill and then a second but managed to stop himself from downing a third.

But now his head hurt again and his eyes felt so dry and puffy and his arms and legs felt so stiff and heavy.

With a labored groan, Danny threw off his blanket and hoisted himself onto his feet. After finding his center of balance and stretching his aching back, he stumbled out of his room toward the bathroom he shared with Jazz. In only the natural light coming in through the small window, he leaned over the sink toward the mirror and stared into his bloody eyes rimmed with swollen ducts.

He couldn't let his mom see him like this.

He located the eye drops in the bathroom cabinet and tilted his head back, applying a couple drops to each eye. He blinked and brushed away the excess moisture with his fingers.

He studied his eyes again. Completely betraying all his secret feelings and habits.

He had forgotten just how much he hated looking at himself.

Back in his room after showering, Danny tried cracking the blinds open just a little and could only squint against the invasive brightness and resulting headache.

But he was going to have to join everyone in the kitchen eventually. The very bright kitchen.

With a moan and a brace, Danny opened his blinds entirely, a fresh stream of tears leaving each eye as he rapidly blinked and massaged his pulsating temples. All right, okay, this wasn't so terrible. This wasn't as bad as he thought.

He gazed at his bed.

God if he could just go back to sleep in the dark.

But at least his eyes looked much clearer now, clear enough that all the broken blood vessels probably wouldn't even be noticeable unless his mother stared right at them. He'd just have to avoid making eye contact with her for too long.

And his father—

Danny's nerves caught fire and flooded his heart.

He looked over at the wall behind which he hid all of his contraband including his narcotics. He seemed to always be looking at this wall now, a familiar habit, a nervous twitch.

He had already taken two pills just a little less than seven hours ago.

The half-life of hydrocodone was about four hours.

So…

He definitely needed to take another if he wanted to get through the day, if he wanted to keep it together when he had to face his father again.

Even without water, the pill went down without a hitch. Dry swallowing was not a problem for Danny anymore. Gather enough saliva first, pop in the pill, tilt and coax it down. Easy.

He forlornly gazed at the nearly empty bottle in his hand. Just a few pills left.

He was going to have to ask Sam to steal some more from her parents.

After hiding the narcotics behind his wall again and checking his reflection one final time, he headed out into the hall. But not before grabbing his sunglasses from off his dresser and hooking them into the collar of his shirt.

The light outside of his room was even brighter and more painful. Danny leaned on the stair rail as he made his way down to the living room, his body so top-heavy he was certain he'd fall over if he let go. Downstairs at last, Danny again reminded himself how to maintain his center of balance and staggered only slightly into the kitchen.

"Hey," he said as cheerily as he could in greeting to his family. He squinted in the harsh kitchen lighting and against the filmy grease wafting on the steam rising from the stovetop. The eggy cheesy smell prickled his sinuses.

"Good morning, sweetie!" Maddie smiled at him from the stove. "I'm just about done making quiche. Go ahead and sit down."

Danny looked at her for a very quick moment, not allowing her a prolonged chance to see the blood in his eyes. He very carefully turned his head so he wouldn't topple over. The TV was playing the morning news. Jazz was sitting in her usual place at the table, her ever-studious gaze directed at him. Beside her was their father, intently watching the news report and not paying any attention to him at all.

If he just stayed completely quiet, maybe his father would never know he was here at all.

He lightly lifted each shoe as he walked, setting them down one in front of the other in gentle taps against the kitchen tile. Jack was still staring at the television screen, one huge hand holding up his chin with elbow propped on the table.

So close, almost there, just had to keep being quiet, shhhh, silent as a ghost.

Ha, ghost, that was... That was good, that was really clever of him. He could maybe laugh about it later if he remembered but right now he still needed to be super quiet.

Danny reached the table and clutched the back of his chair, leaning on it to help him reclaim balance. Jazz was studying him with eyebrows so close together they were practically a unibrow. But Jack was still not acknowledging him at all. Good. This was totally working.

His chair was pushed too far in to the table. He'd have to move it out first. He raised it off the floor, pulled it back, set it down with just a delicate thump.

Jack's cold stare turned to him sharply. Danny stared back, numb and paralyzed and not even able to breathe.

He had seen this exact look before, these exact hateful eyes glaring at him in that dark alley.

But that look had been directed at Phantom before; this was now directed at him, his son.

Why had he decided to confide in his mother? How could he have thought for even a second that that was a good idea? Why was he always making things worse for himself?

"You gonna pick that up, Danny?" asked Jack.

Danny blinked and tried to swallow the heavy coating of saliva in his mouth. He looked down. Pick that up, pick what up?

He stared at the floor, tried to make sense of what he was seeing. His chair was on its side against the tile. But when had that happened? He had set it down so carefully.

Had... Hadn't he?

"Oh, shoot. I almost forgot." Jazz abruptly stood, the legs of her chair scraping along the floor. "I'm supposed to meet one of my teachers early this morning before class. We've gotta go right now, Danny."

The muscles in front of her ears were twitching. Danny studied them curiously, focused on their pulsating pattern so that his father's visage beside her blurred.

"You have to leave?" Maddie glanced over before frowning down at her nearly finished quiche. "But Danny needs to eat first. I mean, you both need to eat first."

"We have Pop-Tarts, right? I'll just grab some." Jazz power walked to the pantry and grabbed two silver-wrapped packages of toaster pastries. One of the packs almost fell out of her hand as she zoomed over to Danny and placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing and prodding and dragging him out of the kitchen. "We'll see you guys later! Save some quiche for us when we get home if you can!"

Danny allowed Jazz to lead him through the living room and out the door and to her car parked curbside. If he tried to resist, he'd probably fall over with the effort. He had to concentrate on keeping his body upright and his shaking legs as stable as possible.

The sun was so white, so flashy, so scalding. Danny removed the sunglasses he had hooked into his shirt collar and placed them over his eyes. Jazz let go of his arm just as they reached her car. She unlocked it and walked around to the driver side, but not before giving him another of her way too familiar puzzled judgmental expressions.

He lowered himself into the passenger seat of Jazz's car and placed his backpack between his knees. He didn't remember grabbing it and yet he obviously must have because here it was.

"Seat belt, Danny," said Jazz as she buckled her own and threw the wrapped toaster pastries up on the dashboard ledge in front of him.

Danny pulled his belt over his shoulder and locked it in place. "So, um, we're going to school early so you can meet with one of your teachers?"

"No." Jazz drove the car away from the curb and onto the neighborhood street. "I just said that to get you out of there."

"Get me out of...where? The kitchen?"

Jazz sighed loudly. "The house, Danny. Away from Mom and Dad." She halted at a stop sign and looked at him. "What is going on with you? Why are you acting so weird?"

Danny shrugged. "Just tired."

"What? You're mumbling again."

Danny groaned. "I said I'm tired," he stated more slowly with raised volume.

"Really? You're tired?" Jazz turned her attention back to the road. "That's really it? That's the only explanation you're gonna give me?"

"Yeah, it's the only explanation I'm gonna give you." Danny spoke even louder, each syllable feeling very thick on his tongue. "Because it's the only explanation there is, Jazz. Okay? I'm tired. I'm tired all the—all the time, like you know that about me." His s's were lisping, his l's were yawing. "I don't even know why you bother asking how I am all the time 'cause—like—you know my answer already."

Jazz did not reply, an uncharacteristic silence. At the next intersection, she turned the car in the opposite direction of where they were supposed to go, away from Casper High.

"Hey, where—what—" Danny tried to make sense of where they were going now. Was this just another way to get to the school? Was there road construction she was avoiding? Or was he just too...er, tired to recognize that this was actually the way Jazz always went?

She pulled the car into a lot near a park. The trees surrounding the area were in full flowery bloom, and a large raft of ducks was paddling and diving in the glittery pond. Danny gazed at the view through the front car window, tinted through his sunglasses. God, he loved spring. Definitely the best season. And lying in the grass beneath a blossoming tree sounded so nice, so heavenly, could probably give him the very best sleep of his entire life.

Jazz cracked open the windows and shut off the engine. Danny turned his attention back to her.

"Wait, Jazz, why are we—"

Jazz shook her head and picked up her phone from out of the cup holder. She tapped the screen a few times before holding it to her ear. "Yes, hi, this is Maddie Fenton," she said in a lower, sultrier tone. An admittedly good imitation of their mother. "I'm calling to let you know Danny and Jazz won't be attending their first period class today. A family emergency has come up."

She paused, listening to the other side of the call. Danny could only stare at her with a slack jaw he couldn't remember how to close.

"Okay, thank you so much, dear. Bye." Jazz disconnected the call and placed her phone back in the cup holder. She gazed ahead out the front window for some time, her eyes not appearing to be focused on anything.

"Jazz, I—" Danny turned to her more fully with a cocked head. "Did they really buy that?"

"Of course. If I had just called you out, they might've been suspicious. But both of us? They'd never believe I'd lie to skip class."

"But why? Why did you call us out?"

"Because you can't go to school like this, Danny." Jazz unbuckled her seat belt. "You're kind of freaking me out right now."

Danny shot her a glare. He hated that word, hated being told that he was "freaking out" anyone. He got enough of being called a freak at school, definitely didn't need it from his sister.

"I'm fine, Jazz," he stressed hard, also unbuckling his seat belt. "I really am just—I'm tired. Really."

"'I'm tired.' 'I didn't sleep much.'" Jazz pursed her lips. "You know, you keep trying to give me that excuse for everything, always expecting me to just buy it. But this isn't how you act when you're tired, Danny. I've seen you when you're actually tired. I know how you act, and this isn't it."

"Oh, right. My bad. I keep forgetting you know everything."

"Don't try to dodge this, Danny. Something is definitely going on with you. So what is it?"

"What, you can't figure it out on your own after reading all those psychology books?"

"Stop it, jeez, you are so—" Jazz sharply exhaled with a quiet growl. "Just the way you were acting back at home, and now you're wearing your sunglasses—"

"So wearing sunglasses means something is wrong with me?"

"You don't wear those sunglasses unless you're trying to hide something. Like an eye injury. So what are you trying to hide this time? Bloodshot eyes? Or something else?"

"I'm not trying to hide anything. It's just bright today."

"Really? And what's causing this sudden new light sensitivity, huh?" Jazz cast him an awry glance. "Why are your eyes so red?"

Danny shrugged. "I dunno. I haven't washed my sheets in a while. Maybe it's something on my pillowcase. My eyes were kind of itchy this morning. I was rubbing them a lot." He pulled down the car visor in front of him and lowered his sunglasses just enough to view his eyes in the mirror. Most of the broken blood vessels from before had shrunk and vanished. "But look, see, they're not that red anymore." He turned to her with his sunglasses still low on his nose.

Jazz scrunched her mouth and narrowed her eyes at him. "I know that's not what it is, Danny. I can't believe you'd even try to get me to believe that."

Danny sharply pushed the sunglasses back up over his eyes. "Okay, yeah. Fine. You're right. As usual, Jazz, you're completely right and I'm a liar and stupid for thinking I could fool you." He faced forward, crossed his arms, leaned back in his seat. "Can we just go to school? I don't know what you're trying to get out of me here, but I'm really not in the mood to be psychoanalyzed right now."

"You are always brushing me off like that, but me worrying about you and asking why you're acting strange is not psychoanalysis, Danny. It's just me caring about you."

Danny shrugged.

"Why do you keep doing this?" Jazz's voice began wobbling. "Why do you keep shutting me out?"

Danny placed a couple fingers against his forehead. He had been considering getting out of the car and just flying to school, but now he had to stay because Jazz was sad. Sad because of him.

He really hated when she toyed with his ghostly obsession. Even if it wasn't intentional.

"Come on, Jazz," he moaned. "Don't do this."

"All I want to do is help." She lowered her gaze and ran her hands down a thick strand of her hair. "But you never let me."

Danny scoffed. "All you want to do is help, huh?" A somewhat involuntary smirk tugged at his mouth. "Why do you suddenly care so much about me, Jazz?"

Jazz looked at him again with a creased brow. "Suddenly? I've always cared about you."

"No, Jazz." He chuckled. "No, you definitely didn't."

"Yes, I—"

"No, you definitely did not care this much about me before you found out about my ghost powers, and don't try to pretend you did."

"What are you talking about?" she asked with distress. "I always cared about you. I always tried to help you."

Danny turned to her, all set to tell her exactly what he was talking about, about how she used to constantly remind him that he wasn't as smart as she was, how their parents would buy her more things and give her more privileges because she always did so well in school and tried so hard while he was apparently just lazy and didn't try at all. About how she'd intentionally use big words that he didn't understand and then giggle and pretend that she just conveniently forgot he didn't have as sophisticated a vocabulary as she did. About how she'd try to give him "advice" and "tips" and "helpful information" but he knew she just wanted to show off something she had learned from one of her books.

All of her patronizing "help" before and often even now, it only ever made him feel like he was a failure, like he could never measure up to her, like he didn't deserve their parents' love and acceptance as much as she did.

But as he studied Jazz's warbling lower lip and misted eyes, he knew he could not break her heart any further. He'd be the worst brother ever if he intentionally made her cry.

It was always okay for him to feel bad. Not okay for him to make others feel bad.

Danny took off his sunglasses and placed them on his lap, squinting in the painful sunlight. He could see Jazz's perplexed expression out of the corner of his eye.

"Okay. Maybe you're right," he said quietly. "Maybe I'm not fine. Maybe I'm going through a hard time. With... With Dad. But this isn't new for me, Jazz. This isn't something you need to be worried about. I frequently go through these times when it comes to both Mom and Dad, you know that. And not just them, but everyone. I'm always battling these feelings about people not liking me or wanting to hurt me."

He leaned back in his seat and looked at Jazz. Her face was lined with so much concern.

"This really isn't something you need to help me with." He smiled weakly. "But it does mean a lot to me that you want to help."

Jazz sucked the inside of her cheek. "I just... I don't understand what happened. You were doing so much better yesterday afternoon, last night. You seemed like you were in an okay place. Not exactly happy, but okay, at least."

Danny glanced down at the space between them.

"Just…" She paused. "What happened between last night and this morning? Why are you...like this now?"

"What exactly is 'this'?" asked Danny genuinely.

"Like...unsteady? A little zoned out? But also kind of…" She pursed her lips. "Empty. Like you're just not...you."

Danny turned to face forward in his seat.

"Why are you acting this way, Danny? There's a reason, isn't there? Can you at least tell me why? Even if you don't want my help with it?"

Danny remained facing forward but inclined his head slightly as he recalled the previous night. He had gone to bed feeling okay, just as Jazz had said. Not happy, but yeah, okay. Like he could get better, like he could definitely be happy again eventually. He had even gone to bed without being tempted to take a painkiller.

But then his dad entered his room in the darkest part of the night and closed the two of them in so that he had no way to escape and no one to come rescue him.

Just him and his dad all alone in that dark alley. Trapped with his hands up and a gun to his head.

"Nothing happened," he said in a hush.

For a long moment, all that could be heard was the breeze rustling through the slightly open windows. A few blossoms detached from the trees above them and fell onto the hood of Jazz's car.

"I was trying to get you to bring it up first." Jazz was also now staring ahead. "I didn't want to just ask about it, but... I heard Dad in your room last night."

Danny whipped his head to look at her, his neck kinking. He raised a hand to massage it out.

"I just heard voices from across the hall," said Jazz softly. "So I got up to check and saw that your door was closed. And your light was on. And I could hear Dad's voice on the other side of the door. Your voice, too. Sometimes. Mostly Dad's."

Danny's eyes strained against the harsh sunlight as his mind churned over some sort of explanation or excuse that she might believe.

"I couldn't hear anything," Jazz continued. "I tried to hear through the door, but you were both speaking too quietly. But I could hear your tones. Dad sounded angry, and you sounded…" She looked down. "Afraid."

A wall of pressure pounded behind his eyes. He immediately covered them again with his sunglasses.

Afraid. How could she dare to use that word? How could she dare to think he was that weak? He had been up against terrifying enemies, had almost been killed countless times, had nearly lost people so precious to him. Did she really think he could possibly be afraid of his own father after all the true horrors he had experienced?

"Dad and I are just going through a rough patch," said Danny in calm monotone. "It's between him and me."

"Danny, please—"

"I'm not going to talk about this with you."

Jazz exhaled heavily. "I don't understand why you keep doing this to yourself."

Danny did not respond.

"Okay. I guess... Maybe it's not my business what Dad was doing in your room last night." She moved her armrest out of the way and leaned closer to him. "But is there any way you can at least tell me...why you're acting so odd? Why you keep mumbling? Why you're not walking quite straight? Why you knocked over the chair back in the kitchen?" She reached for his sunglasses. "Why your eyes are red?"

Danny blocked her approaching hand with his own. "I'm just tired. Really. I just didn't get good sleep. Especially after Dad came into my room last night. "

Jazz studied him for a long time in silence before finally leaning back and lowering her gaze in defeat.

Neither sibling spoke for some time. More spring blooms fell onto the car's hood. The ducks quacked and splashed out on the pond.

Mesmerizing.

"Are we really going to skip first period?" asked Danny, his arms feeling heavy as they dropped hard beside his thighs.

"Yes," said Jazz softly.

"Like you're really going to skip, too? And ruin your perfect attendance record?"

"Yes. I guess I am."

"There's still time, Jazz. We can make it before the bell."

"You're too...tired to go to class right now, Danny. I think you should just rest. Really. You haven't done that in a while. You need it."

Danny groaned but could not exactly argue with her. Just keeping his head up was a struggle. How could he possibly stay upright at a desk? And the last thing he needed was one of his teachers calling home and telling his parents he was sluggish and falling asleep in class.

Danny slumped in his seat. "Well, you don't need to skip with me."

Jazz reached for his hand. Danny let her take it, allowed her to caress his knuckles.

"I'd like to rest with you. If you don't mind. I think I really need it, too."

Her touch felt so good, such wondrous pressure dotting his skin in pleasant ripples.

He looked out at the park scene before them.

He knew what would feel even better than this.

"Can we at least sit outside, then?" he asked. "On the grass? Until we have to leave?"

Jazz straightened up and followed his gaze. "We could. But truant officers sometimes come through here, you know."

"I'll just turn us invisible if we see one."

Jazz chuckled. "All right." She grabbed the toaster pastries from off the dashboard ledge and threw one pack in his lap. "But only if you promise to eat that, okay?"

Danny clutched the silver-wrapped pack in his hand but did not reply. His grip tightened; he could feel the pastries crumbling slightly behind the foil.

Outside, Danny lay back fully on the grass beneath a tree, digging his fingertips into the soft soil, breathing in the slightly damp earthy smell, feeling the breeze against his face, listening to the ducks gliding across the pond.

All of his senses so perfectly filled.

Beside him, Jazz sat hugging her knees, her lovely red hair stirring behind her and catching glints of sunlight breaking through the tree branches above.

Despite his best efforts, he knew she was still concerned about him and would not stop being suspicious until she figured him out.

He picked up the wrapped toaster pastry and studied it with a grimace. He already felt so heavy all over; eating this was only going to make it harder to stand straight.

But he tore it open and took a big bite so that Jazz could see just how fine and great and totally normal he was right now. Nothing for her to worry about.

She glanced down at him with a smile that did not match her downturned eyes.

Chapter Text

The grass felt so clean and soft and the air so warm and fresh that there was no way Danny could stop himself from falling asleep. When Jazz shook him awake, everything still felt so comfortable. All of his effort and strength was required just to pull himself up into a sitting position.

"Time for second period already?" he asked through a yawn. The sun didn't seem as bright as before.

"Time for lunch, actually," replied Jazz, showing him the time on her phone.

Danny's mouth dropped open. "You let us skip our first three classes?"

Jazz smiled as she held on to his arm and helped him stand. "You looked so serene. I thought I'd just let you sleep a little longer instead."

Danny did not return the smile as he followed her back to her car. He had been feeling so good just moments before, but now he felt terrible for allowing himself to fall asleep and cause Jazz to skip more classes when he knew how important school was to her.

How could he be so selfish?

"It's fine!" said Jazz, turning to glance back at him as they walked. "I had some books to study, some homework to get ahead on. It was a really good break for me too."

And now she was trying to comfort him. Why was he so easy to read? He really needed to work on hiding his feelings better.

Danny climbed into the passenger seat and lowered his sunglasses to study his eyes in the visor mirror. His eyes looked clear; no need to hide them anymore. He set his sunglasses on the dash of Jazz's car and attempted to wake himself fully during the drive to Casper High.

He and Jazz entered the school building just as the bell for lunch rang. He spotted Sam and Tucker walking down the hall and caught up with them. His balance was back, at least. He did not need to look down at his shoes to keep himself upright.

"Danny, you're here!" greeted Sam.

"Sure was boring without you, dude. I was so bored I actually paid attention in class," quipped Tucker.

"You made it just in time for lunch," said Sam as she placed her hand on his shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze.

"Yeah, well, you know how much I love to eat," said Danny with a wry smile.

Sam and Tucker continued chatting with him as they walked toward the cafeteria, small talk, catching him up on what he missed in class.

But they never asked where he had been for the first part of the day.

Danny had been all set to give them a story and yet they did not seem to be curious. Normally, they'd be expressing concern and demanding all the details of whatever ghost fight he had been caught up in.

But now, they seemed to actually be avoiding the subject.

Danny gradually slowed before finally coming to a full stop right outside the cafeteria. Sam and Tucker also stopped and turned back to him. Impatient students hastily shoved past them to get to the lunchroom.

"Did Jazz text you guys? About where we were this morning?" he asked with no hesitation, figuring he might as well get straight to the point.

Sam and Tucker glanced at each other. That was enough of an answer for Danny.

"We were going to talk to you about it once we were at our table," explained Sam, wringing her bagged lunch in her hands.

"Yeah, really. We weren't going to keep it secret from you," said Tucker.

Danny narrowed his eyes for only a moment before sighing and shaking his head. "No, it's fine. Really. I was just wondering why you weren't asking where I was. But I guess it's just because you already know."

Sam and Tucker looked down at the floor.

Danny gave them a reassuring smile before leading the way into the cafeteria. "It's really fine, guys. We'll talk at our table."

The three waited in line together, but their attempts at small talk faded into quiet. Once they were situated at their normal table outside, Danny opted to go ahead and dive right into what was on all of their minds.

"So." He picked up a fry, brought it to his mouth, set it back down on his tray without taking a bite. "What exactly did Jazz text you two?"

"She, uh…" Sam quickly scanned for any eavesdroppers before continuing. "She told us that both of you would be skipping class. Which Tucker and I couldn't even believe. Jazz, skipping class?"

"Yeah, she always practically killed herself to get perfect attendance each year in the past!" remarked Tucker.

"Yeah, she... Yeah, I thought it was weird, too," murmured Danny, his guilt rekindled over making his sister miss out on something he knew was important to her. "Did she tell you why?"

"She said you weren't, um...feeling very well," said Sam. "She said you didn't sleep enough last night and that you needed more rest before coming to school."

Danny quirked a brow. "Really? She said that?"

Sam and Tucker nodded.

"Is that all she said?"

"She said that we could, er, ask you more about it when we saw you," said Tucker. "So, I mean, if you want to tell us what's up... You know we're here for you, dude."

Sam and Tucker said nothing more. They ate quietly with small, discreet bites. Sam daintily slipped pieces of veggies into her mouth, and even Tucker refrained from inhaling his burger.

Danny drummed his fingers on the table and moved the fries around on his tray to give himself something to do, a way to stimulate his mind so he could figure this out.

He really didn't want them to be aware of just how much he was struggling. How much he was hurting.

But they already knew. He had even admitted to them that he was having a hard time just a couple days ago. All he was hiding from them were the specifics.

He sighed, brought another fry to his mouth, dropped it, sighed again. "Okay, well, I already told you guys that things have been...not so great since my dad trapped me in that alley."

Sam and Tucker raised their eyes to him with rapt attention. Too late to back out now.

"So, Friday—and maybe Jazz told you this already, I don't know what she's been texting you—Dad actually drove me up to Gardner Peak after school."

"She did mention that to us, yeah," said Sam. "But she didn't tell us anything that might've happened."

Danny kept his expression calm, not wanting to betray just how skeptical he was that Jazz would actually respect his privacy for once. "It didn't go very well."

Sam and Tucker leaned in a little closer to him.

"I thought it was fine at first. It seemed fine at first. We were getting along and having a good time. But then I was stupid and told him I didn't think all ghosts are bad, and... Well, you can imagine how my dad took that." He sighed. "And he's just been mad at me ever since."

"We definitely know how your dad gets," said Sam.

"Especially when it comes to ghosts," said Tucker.

Danny lifted a fry to his mouth once again and this time managed to get it past his lips. He forced it down with a hard swallow.

"Um, so…" Sam chewed the inside of her cheek. "When you say your dad is mad at you, what exactly does that mean?"

"The usual, I guess," said Danny. "Being short with me. Finding even the smallest things I do irritating. But mostly just ignoring me, only saying something to me if I do something that bothers him."

"And that's...all?"

Danny looked at Sam curiously.

"I mean, um." Sam looked down at the table and hunched her shoulders. "He doesn't...hit you, does he?"

Danny balked. "What? No, of course not. Why would you even ask that?"

"Well, it's just—"

"You know my dad wouldn't do that."

"We also know your dad can get pretty violent when he's mad," said Tucker.

Danny glared at him. "With ghosts. Not with people. Not with his family." He shakily inhaled. "Not with me."

"It's just—I mean—your dad's been mad at you before," said Sam. "But... We've never seen you act like this."

"Like what?" demanded Danny.

Sam opened and closed her mouth a couple times, but no words ever came out.

"It's not like you're ever happy when your dad is mad at you," said Tucker. "But you at least... In the past, you'd at least smile sometimes." Tucker indicated Danny's barely touched tray. "And eat."

Danny took a sizable bite of his sandwich and kept it in the side of his mouth as he spoke. "And that somehow means my dad must be hitting me?"

Sam groaned. "Okay, I'm sorry I asked that. But you just seem kind of distant and...sad. And the way you broke down with us during lunch on Friday—"

"I didn't break down."

"Yeah, you kind of did. We were both there with you, Danny. We saw you. And last we heard, you were going to tell your dad the truth, but then Jazz tells us later that night that you changed your mind?"

"Yeah. So? I decided it wasn't a good idea after all." Danny shrugged. "That was my choice. I'm allowed to make choices."

"No one is saying you're not," said Tucker.

Danny did not respond.

"This is really hard for us too, Danny," said Sam. "But you seem so empty right now. You don't seem like you, not our friend."

"Yeah," said Tucker. "So we just can't help but wonder what is different this time."

Danny's airway was clenched tight. These concerns, these accusations. On trial for not being himself anymore, for not being a good friend anymore. What defense could he provide?

He took another bite of his sandwich, a bigger one than before, big enough that he wouldn't have to talk for a minute or so. Too big to comfortably go down his tightened throat. The bite pricked his esophagus like a rusted razor.

"Are you still—I mean—" Sam paused. "Are you still trauma—er—bothered by what your dad did to you in that alley?"

"Stop." Danny stared down at his stupid lunch, hating the look of it, the smell of it, the taste of it. "This isn't helping me. You're not helping me. My dad is not hitting me. He's not hurting me."

He might've told them more. If they hadn't charged him with not handling this well or being traumatized—he couldn't believe Sam would even think to use that word!—he might've told them about what his dad said at the observatory, about how his dad would never see his ghost side as someone who could ever be more useful than as a science experiment, about how he clearly wasn't the son his dad wanted. He might've told them about how he stupidly confided in his mom that he thought his dad didn't like him, how his dad came into his room in the middle of the night and yelled at him about it.

But now he never wanted to tell them. If they were just going to blow this out of proportion and accuse him of being too delicate to get through this on his own, then he'd just rather they not know at all.

you liar. why do you always lie? there's no point in lying to yourself. you want them to know.

Yes. He did want them to know. But he did not want their judgment, their pity.

His friends and sister constantly worrying about him was not comforting. It was insulting.

And now it was also tiring and he was just completely done with it.

Sam and Tucker did not try to get him to say anything more on the topic. They played it safe with their normal mundane interests. Teachers, classmates, tests coming up, new video games coming out.

And Danny made it a point to force down everything on his tray.

When the bell rang signaling the end of lunch, Danny walked a short distance behind Sam and Tucker on their way to class, debating his next action. He did not feel particularly comfortable with his friends at the moment.

They were completely right, though. He was definitely not doing very well.

But he hated just how obvious it apparently was.

And he hated most that they seemed to think his situation was worse than it actually was because yes things weren't great between him and his dad but not that bad and he certainly wasn't some traumatized victim who needed their coddling. He was so much stronger than that, and now they had revealed just how frail and powerless they actually perceived him to be.

He really did not want to talk to them for at least the rest of the day.

But...

He really needed more hydrocodone. He definitely did not want to run out, did not want to need it but not have any to take. And Sam's mom had so much of it from various surgeries and all her connections with rich doctors. And it wasn't like he didn't deserve it after all of the pain he suffered daily fighting ghosts. How could he continue being a hero for the town if he was in too much pain to rescue anyone?

Really, it was his obligation to keep himself in good condition for his dangerous vigilante activities.

"Sam."

Sam and Tucker both stopped to turn and look back at him.

"Can I talk to you, Sam?"

"Right now?" asked Sam, checking the time on her phone.

"Yeah, it'll be real quick," said Danny. "We'll make it to class on time."

Tucker grinned, his eyes twinkling. "I'll see you two later, then." He gave a small wave before taking off, leaving the remaining two friends alone with bustling students shuffling past them.

"Here, let's get out of the way." Danny put a gentle hand on Sam's upper arm and guided her to a wall. He checked to make sure that no one was around to notice them or eavesdrop.

"So what is it?" asked Sam, her voice sounding a little softer than usual.

Danny noticed the light blush spread across her cheeks. He took his hand off of her arm and tried to stop his own face from warming.

"Well, um… First, I'm...sorry for being kind of snappish earlier. At lunch." He had thought this apology would be insincere, but as the words came out, he actually did feel bad for being so short with her and Tucker. They were only trying to be good friends. He knew that. "I just... I don't know. I guess I just don't want you guys to think I need serious help or something. That I'm weak."

"Danny, we would never think that," said Sam with the tiniest chuckle. "We just don't like seeing you so unhappy and...distant." She glanced away. "We just miss you, you know? Things haven't been the same between us for a while now, and we don't know what we can do to fix that. Or if there even is a way to fix that."

Danny's whole torso ached with weighty guilt. In his efforts to keep his friends safe and not burden them with too much, he had only ended up making them think they weren't really friends anymore.

"I know, I know." Danny groaned. "This past year and a half has just been so crazy. And I miss us, too. Really."

She smiled at him. She always looked so pretty when she smiled, especially when it was so genuine and not painted with any snark or derision. Just that look of serene approval in his direction was enough to make his heart sigh.

"It's... It's been really hard," Danny continued with a stammer.

He swallowed, rubbed his arm, stalled, tried to choose his next words carefully but they all sounded so stupid all of a sudden, why was he so awkward and stupid. Sam's smile dropped a little.

"I've, uh... I've actually been running kind of low on hydrocodone for a while now."

What a lie, such a lie, he had gone through more in the past week then he had in the past couple months.

"I just kept forgetting to ask you for more. 'Cause, you know, I don't think about it that often."

He thought about it every day, every hour.

"So if there's any way you can get me more, that'd be great because... Well, I'm gonna start going out to fight ghosts again pretty soon—once I'm no longer grounded—and I don't want to run out."

"But I gave you some at the beginning of the month." Sam's smile had now reversed completely into a frown. "How could you already be running low? You're only supposed to use it for emergencies."

"Yeah, I know—"

"Have you been in that much pain lately? Like pain so bad you're needing to take that many narcotics?"

"Ah—"

"Because then why haven't you told me and Tucker? If you're getting beat up that bad, we need to know, Danny! You can't just let yourself get hurt that bad and not tell us."

"It hasn't been that bad," insisted Danny breathily. "I promise. Really. Nothing serious."

"Then why are you running low on the narcotics I gave you? You shouldn't be."

Danny's mouth stayed open for a beat before he could actually get any words out. "It's not like—I mean, it's a lot of pain, but not like—like serious pain, you know? Nothing I've needed first aid for, nothing I'd need a doctor for. Pain like—like soreness, bruises, headaches, sprains."

Sam's brow furrowed.

"You know, pain that's bad but not critical. Not serious."

"And normal painkillers weren't enough? You really needed to take hydrocodone for that?"

"Ah, well, you know. It kept me up at night, made it hard to sleep. And you know how I sometimes come home at three and then have to get up for school just a few hours later. I need as much sleep as I can get."

"Hydrocodone isn't sleeping medication, Danny."

His words were stuck again momentarily. "I—I know, but—"

"You're not supposed to take it to help you sleep. You're supposed to take it when you're in really bad pain. Like really bad pain. Serious pain."

"I know, I know, but it's sometimes hard to sleep when I'm in even a little pain, okay? And Tylenol and Advil aren't always enough to take it all away but hydrocodone is—"

"That's not how you're supposed to use it, Danny," said Sam with a disapproving whine. "I told you this. You promised you would only use it for emergencies. I trusted you, Danny."

Danny felt a twinge in his chest, a stab of something terrible, an awful feeling. "Okay, wait, I think—maybe I didn't explain it correctly. I—I really was in a lot of pain, okay? I promise I'm not lying."

He really wasn't. He knew he wasn't. He was sure he wasn't. Right? It was real pain, for sure. He was only lying about the timeframe in which he swallowed the meds, the number of pills he had taken in a single day, at a single time. But that wasn't something she needed to know.

She stayed silent, waited for him to continue. But her expression did not soften.

She wasn't going to let up. He knew this about her. Maybe it would be better to just let her believe she was right and not argue.

When it came to Sam, that was typically the best course of action.

"Okay, maybe I did take too much," said Danny. "Maybe I should've held back a couple times. But it just… It felt really bad to me, you know? I'm really not lying about that."

"Then maybe we all need to talk about this more," said Sam, her tone sounding pained and pleading. "We don't want you to be in pain, Danny. Maybe this is something we need to have a discussion about. All of us together. We need to figure out what we can do to help you more so that you're not hurting so much."

Oh, he hated that idea. He really, really hated it.

"And maybe we can talk about...ways to get you healthy again." Sam looked at the floor. "Because you know painkillers and meds aren't the only answer, right? You might be getting headaches because you're not getting enough sleep. Or you're really stressed. Or…" She paused. "Or if you're not eating enough."

Danny stopped himself from rolling his eyes. "Yeah, sure," he said dully. "We can maybe talk about that. When I'm not grounded. Maybe."

Her lips curved into a small smile. Danny tried to make his own smile as unstrained as possible.

"I should try other ways to relieve my pain, you're right," said Danny with what he hoped was a convincing nod. "But, um... I still am running low on hydrocodone, and emergencies, um... They definitely do happen, you know that. And I can never really know when, so... I'd just rather not run out." He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. "So if that's something you could do for me, I'd really appreciate it. And I promise I'll be more careful using it."

He really did mean this promise. He could not risk this situation happening again. He had been going through a hard time, but he was sure everything would be fine once Thursday rolled around and he was no longer grounded.

He meant it. Really.

So why did she look as if she didn't believe him?

She rubbed her lips together. "I don't think I can, Danny."

Danny's eyebrows drew close together. "Doesn't your mom get new prescriptions for it like every three months? She has a ton, doesn't she?"

"Yeah, she does because she also likes taking it sometimes, but—"

"So she won't notice if you take a little more ahead of schedule, right?"

Sam checked the time on her phone. "We really need to get to class, Danny. We have two minutes."

"Sam, will you do this for me or not?"

Sam sighed and looked off to the side. "I don't know, Danny. Just—with how you've been lately—and how strange Jazz said you were this morning—"

"You said she only told you I was tired," said Danny.

Her face froze in an expression that betrayed so much.

"You said that's all she told you."

"It—it was, but—"

"What did she really say?"

"That you were tired!" Sam sputtered. "Really, that's what she told us! But she... She also told us some of the things you did. You know, because you were tired."

"Like what?"

"Danny, please, she just wanted to—"

"Just tell me, Sam."

"Just...how you were stumbling a lot. And you apparently knocked over a chair?" Sam kept her eyes down as she wrung her hands. "She just wants to help you, Danny. And we want to help you, too."

"I told you how you can help me," said Danny sharply. "Are you going to help me, Sam?"

Sam raised her eyes. "I really don't think it's a good idea right now. I think we need to talk about it first."

Danny shook his head and started walking away from her.

"Danny, come on, don't—"

He could sense her reaching for him. He willed his cells into intangibility. Her hand went right through his shoulder and caught nothing.

Her pleas faded away, far away.

Chapter Text

"Well, Jack, we have plenty of quiche since the kids left before I could finish." Maddie set the entire pie on the table. "So eat as much as you want."

Jack took in the egged-up oniony aroma of the quiche as Maddie served a piece onto a plate for him. Strain and tension in his face seeped away as the heat from the dish hit his skin and the smell settled on his taste buds. Home-cooked meals from his wife were always so therapeutic.

He stuck a large bite in his mouth, which exploded with savory cheese and cream and vegetables and seasoning. This was good, this was so good, this was maybe even better than fudge—well okay maybe not better but still really really good and he was already salivating for the next bite.

He could definitely eat the entirety of this quiche. Absolutely. Right now. In one sitting. And then he'd probably have enough energy and serotonin to keep him going for hours.

Maddie hummed to get his attention and pulled out her phone. She swallowed her bite of quiche before speaking. "I think we should go over the status reports Danny's teachers sent me over the weekend."

Danny. Of course she was somehow going to find a way to bring him up again and make him the focus of yet another conversation. Jack had hoped this breakfast would be as stress free and blissful as it was delicious, but that was apparently too much to ask of his wife who was completely obsessed with their son.

"Status reports?" asked Jack

"Yes. I asked them to let me know how he's been doing in all his classes in light of his recent depression the past week." She tapped her phone's screen a couple times. "I really think we need to be more proactive in his life. We've been letting him do things on his own too much, and while that works just great for Jazz, Danny isn't Jazz, and I think we forget that sometimes."

Jack definitely never forgot that particular detail. He was all too aware just how not like Jazz Danny was.

"He isn't self-motivated like she is," Maddie continued. "And just with how down on himself he's been lately, I want us to try to help him more."

She scooted her chair closer to him so that they could both see her phone screen. Jack stuffed another bite of quiche in his mouth and leaned in to look.

"So, the good news first. Danny's actually getting a B in P.E. Ms. Tetslaff says he's significantly improved in strength and endurance and that he'd definitely be getting an A if he would just come on time more often." Maddie sighed. "We're going to have to talk to him about that."

"How many times are we going to just 'talk to him about it'?" asked Jack irritably. "Tardiness has been a problem for him since the beginning of freshman year. Just talking to him never seems to be enough."

"He has gotten better at getting to his classes on time," said Maddie. "We want him to know we've noticed that. Positive reinforcement is best, Jack. All the parenting books say so."

Jack grumbled through another bite of quiche.

"Well, that's where the good news ends." Maddie pulled up another e-mail. "He's getting Cs, Ds, and even one F in all his other classes. And considering that we're about halfway through the semester, we really need to get all of these up to at least Cs."

"An F? Really?" Jack stabbed his fork into his plate. "In what?"

"English."

"Of course. It's always English. His teacher is Rob Lancer again, right?"

"Yes."

The number of talks and conferences they had had with Danny's English teacher was high enough to put them on a first-name basis with him. And yet nothing ever changed. Danny never changed. Danny was still failing in far too many ways.

"All of his teachers have said that his low grades are a combination of tardiness, absences, not turning in assignments, turning in assignments late, and then just poor performance on assignments and tests he does complete." Maddie scrolled through the comments over and over again. "They said they'd all be willing to give him full credit for any late assignments he turns in. They're willing to give him a couple hours of after-school help or even during lunch. But a few of them have expressed he may need more help than that."

"Okay, so, what do we wanna do? Get him another tutor like we did last year?" asked Jack. "Because that managed to save his grades last year."

He hoped it would be as simple as that. Just hire a tutor, force Danny to actually study and do his homework, and just be done with all this worrying.

Maddie pouted as she continued to read the e-mails. Judging by her expression, Jack had to guess it was not going to be as simple as that after all.

"Well, I was thinking." Maddie set her phone down. "Maybe we should try tutoring him this time."

"We? As in you and me?"

"Yeah, I mean, we've always passed him off on others to help him in school, but you and I are smart! We did well in school. We know how to study. And I think the bonding time would be really good for him. Don't you think?"

Jack puffed out his cheeks. "How often? Once a week?"

"Oh, no. Probably every day until the end of the semester. Or at least three times a week."

Jack lightly drummed his fingers against the underside of the table. He had a lot of work to do, so many inventions to finish. He didn't mind assisting his kids with their homework every now and then, but to actually tutor Danny each day? That was really going to cut into his time.

"Look. Here." Maddie picked up her phone again. "He's really struggling in physics. His teacher says he seems to understand the concepts but has trouble with the math. I know that's something you could help him with. You'd be great at that."

Jack read over the e-mail and slowly nodded. He did enjoy physics. And it was a shame that a son of his couldn't enjoy it just as much.

"So do you think you can help him with that for a couple hours when he gets home today?" asked Maddie.

"Today?"

"Yes. I think it's best we start this new routine with him right away."

Jack's teeth grated against his fork.

"You can, right, Jack?" Maddie massaged his upper arm. "It'd be a great way to show him that you do like him."

There it was. He knew she'd be bringing that up. And as much as he had tried not to think about it, it had been on his mind all night and all morning.

His blood raced hot as he remembered the night before when Danny dared to imply that he didn't feel safe with Jack. And just mere moments ago that morning, the strange way Danny spoke and toppled his chair over, as if his thoughts were somewhere else, as if he wanted to be somewhere else and nowhere near Jack.

What sort of thanks was that from his own son, after all he had done as his father? What was even the point of trying if Danny was just going to somehow get the impression Jack didn't like him?

But he could never let his wife know about how he had woken their son up in the middle of the night to confront him directly. He could never tell her what more Danny had revealed to him.

He could never let her know just how much their son had hurt him because of course she'd just take Danny's side. She'd probably scold him for intimidating Danny because their boy was so very sensitive and just a child and could not handle too much conflict.

"You do want to show him that you love him, right?" asked Maddie. "That you care about him? I think this could be a good way to improve your relationship with him."

Jack thoroughly chewed his bite of quiche, which tasted so amazing and hit every part of his tongue with such perfect flavor and coated every section of his mouth so that the taste lingered even after it slipped down his throat.

Danny had really crossed a line with him the day before. Had really upset him last night. Had acted so strangely that morning.

But…

Danny was still his son.

And this was so important to his wife.

Jack stole a glance at Danny's chair at the kitchen table, remembered the talks they had engaged in together right here about girls or school while eating ice cream even if Danny only ever ate a couple bites and Jack devoured almost the entire carton. And maybe that was because it was usually rich chocolate fudge ice cream and Danny apparently preferred vanilla.

Maybe he should've paid more attention to that.

Maybe he should've let Danny choose the flavor of ice cream every now and then.

He definitely did not want Danny to think he disliked him because of course he didn't. Even if they didn't share any interests and weren't good at the same things, Jack valued their relationship.

And he was the adult here. As Maddie often had to remind him. If it was anyone's responsibility to make his son feel comfortable with him again, it had to be Jack's.

"I think it's a great idea," said Jack. "Me and Danny studying some physics together, it sounds like a grand ol' time."

"Oh, that's wonderful! Thank you." Maddie kissed his cheek. "And while you tutor Danny, I can take Jazz to look for her new car."

"Her new car? For her graduation gift? You want to buy it so soon?"

"Well, Danny's going to be getting his license in a couple weeks, and I just figured it might take us a while to decide what car to get, so we might as well get started," explained Maddie. "And it'll give you an opportunity to be alone with Danny. Just the two of you. So you can really bond without us girls around to distract you."

Jack laughed. "All right. But promise you won't buy a car without at least showing it to me first?"

"Of course not, dear. We'll get your input first."

"Okay. And now a more important question."

Maddie waited with a pleasant but inquiring smile.

"Can you make this quiche again tomorrow morning?"

Maddie giggled, her gorgeous eyes sparkling, her cheeks filling with rosy color. So beautiful he could take her right here if she'd let him.

Why had he allowed himself to be so angry before? It felt so much better to be happy.

And with food this delicious to start the day, the rest of the day was certain to be just as good.

-DP-

Danny wished he could've just skipped the whole day. Not like actually attending class helped him get better grades anyway. And it definitely didn't help today because he could not focus at all.

Every lecture was only in the background of his conversations with Sam and Tucker that kept replaying in his head. Both of them asking if his dad was abusing him because he seemed so miserable and distant lately. Sam refusing to give him painkillers because she was concerned about him overusing them.

It didn't even matter to him anymore that they were just trying to be good friends, that they were just trying to help, that they really did care about him. He didn't want their pity, he didn't want their judgment. And he definitely didn't want their protection.

He was supposed to protect them, not the other way around. And if they really thought he needed protection, then he was failing at being a hero.

Well. Not like he didn't already know that.

But he expected his friends to raise him up and reassure him that he was doing a good job, not remind him just how much of a struggling failure he was.

His friends really weren't helping him at all right now. Just like everyone else, they were only making him feel worse.

Ignoring them the remainder of the school day was not too difficult. They didn't try very hard to talk to him anyway. A few comments during passing periods, a couple jokes here and there. But Danny did not respond to any of their attempts to engage him.

When the final bell rang, the three teens opened their lockers and prepared their backpacks in silence. Danny positioned his bag on his shoulders and began walking away.

"See you tomorrow, Danny," said Sam, her rise in tone at the end sounding like a question.

Danny paused to look at her before turning away without even a nod. He power walked through the halls and out the door, barely noticing all the students blurring past him.

Each step away from the school and toward the student parking lot felt weighted. His chest was bristling with all the rage that originated from his head and circulated through his body. Everyone was against him. His dad was against him. His friends were against him.

He spotted Jazz's car. She was already inside and waved to him with a cheerful smile.

But he wasn't fooled.

Jazz was against him, too.

He opened the car door and settled into the passenger seat.

"Hey, Danny!" greeted Jazz. "So how was—"

"Why did you tell Sam and Tucker about what happened this morning?" asked Danny.

Jazz blinked. "Oh, well, I just thought they'd be worried, so I wanted to let them know you were okay. I mean, I would've normally let you tell them, but you didn't have your phone, so I just thought I'd do it for you."

"Did I ask you to do that for me?"

"Well, no, but—"

"You should've let me tell them, Jazz. Let them worry. They can worry sometimes. They can handle it." He huffed. "I just can't believe you did this to me again."

Jazz scowled and drove out of the parking lot and away from the school. "We're supposed to be a team that supports you, Danny. We can't support you if we don't all know what's going on."

"The 'team' is me, Sam, and Tucker," said Danny. "You're only part of this because you found out my secret by accident, not because I trusted you enough to let you in."

She did not look at him. Of course not. She was driving. But her expression in profile drooped with such hurt. And he normally might've felt guilty for hurting her if this wasn't the second or third or fourth or however many times she had told Sam and Tucker something without his permission and with no regard for how he might feel about it.

"And right now, none of you are helping me." Danny's volume was low but his chest was tense. "All this you guys are doing, all this 'support' you're trying to give, it's not helping. I've never felt less supported by you guys."

"Danny, just because you don't like the way we're trying to help doesn't mean that—"

"No, don't finish that sentence. I don't care."

Her expression hardened, but she did not speak for some time. Danny glared out his window.

"We really are trying to help you," she said with shaking emotion. "But maybe we've been going about this the wrong way. Maybe we've been too nice about this with you. Because clearly, trying to be nice and sensitive with you isn't working. You just won't stop hurting yourself."

"Jazz," said Danny in warning.

"Like we try so hard not to upset you or offend you, but where has that gotten us? Where has it gotten you? You're only getting worse, Danny!"

"Jazz—"

"So you're right, maybe we really aren't helping you right now. Maybe we aren't supporting you. Maybe we need to change the way we help and support you. Maybe we need to be more forceful with you about some things."

"Maybe you need to be more 'forceful' with me? Did you really just say that?" Danny's voice rose. "You have no control over me, Jazz. None of you do. I'm not a child. I don't need this from you. I don't want this." He calmed his breathing before leaning back in his seat. "If you really don't know how to support me, then I will tell you. And I have told you guys, but you don't listen to me."

"Because the ways you want us to support you aren't healthy," said Jazz. "Not letting us talk about certain things with you, allowing you to just shut us out on only your terms…"

She gave him a quick glance, a glance that made Danny wary.

"Helping you get opioids illegally," she said.

A bolt hit the nerve in his upper chest.

No, wait, how could Jazz know—

Sam wouldn't—

No, surely Sam wouldn't betray him twice in one day.

Perhaps Jazz was bluffing. Perhaps she was just making an educated guess.

"What are you talking about?" Danny asked, deciding to take a chance.

"Sam texted me. Now before you get all upset—"

God damn it, she was so goddamn patronizing. "I'll get whatever I want."

"Just listen to me for a minute, okay? Sam told me because she's really worried that she's been making you sick with these drugs you shouldn't be having."

"They're not drugs."

"Yes, they are. And in conjunction with how you were acting this morning, it all made sense to me when she told me. You took some pills last night or this morning, didn't you?"

"Why are you asking me?" Danny shrugged sardonically. "You're the one who knows everything."

"I was actually already suspicious that you were under the influence of something," said Jazz through a slight grit of her teeth. "So Sam telling me that she's been supplying you with opioids was not a surprise to me."

"Oh, really?" Danny stared straight ahead and did not look at her even once. "Me being a drug user doesn't surprise you. That's real nice, Jazz."

"That is not what I meant, and you know it. Why do you always try to make me look like the bad guy? When you know I just care about you and want to help?"

Danny had a thousand retorts to throw back at her. He actually didn't know if she really cared about him, if she really wanted to help. Sometimes, he was sure she just liked hearing herself speak and brag about her superior intelligence.

A thousand retorts that could bring her to tears.

But he forced them all back and locked them down.

"It doesn't feel like you actually care about me," he said quietly. "When you say things like that. Especially since what you're saying isn't even true."

"What isn't true?" asked Jazz. "Are you not taking hydrocodone?"

Danny's shoulders tensed. "No, that's... That's true."

"Do you have a prescription for it?"

"Erm... No."

"So Sam is stealing it from her mom for you?"

"Well, yeah, but it was her idea first. I would've never even thought about it if she hadn't offered it to me."

"Yeah, I know, she was trying to be a good friend." Jazz sighed. "You do get hurt fighting ghosts, and I can see why she'd think it was a good idea to give you something to take the edge off. Neither of you could've known that you'd start overusing it."

"I am not overusing it." Danny's irritation rekindled almost immediately. "I'm using it for exactly what it's meant for. Pain. And I always use it for pain that's really bad, especially if it's keeping me from sleeping. But I don't actually need it. It helps, sure, but I could go without it. I'd rather not be in pain, of course, but I could do it. Because I'm not dependent on it."

Jazz's lips pressed and swiveled to the side. "Then you shouldn't mind giving all of it to me."

Danny didn't answer for some time. Jazz was also silent but quite loud about it.

"No," he said.

"No?"

"No. I'm not doing this with you."

"And I'm not going to just let this go, Danny. I can't just let you have drugs."

"I'm not going to give them to you."

"You said yourself you don't need them!"

"That doesn't mean I'm going to give them up just because you ask me to!"

"I'm not asking," said Jazz forcefully. "If you don't give them to me as soon as we get home, I'm going to have to tell Mom and Dad."

"Tell Mom and Dad? Like actually tell on me? Like we're kids again?" An incredulous scoff caught in Danny's throat. "Did you really just say that?"

"I did, and you know what, Danny? You are a kid. You never stopped being one. You're probably more of a kid now than you've ever been."

"Oh, and you think you—"

"I'm eighteen now and graduating this year, so yeah, I am an adult."

"I can't believe—"

"Yeah, I'm sure you can't." Jazz's eyes flickered upwards. "I know you don't believe me. You never do. But I'm really not trying to hurt you. I'm trying to help you. And right now, that means taking your drugs away from you."

"They're not—"

"And I bet I know exactly where you keep them, so don't think you can hide them from me. They're in your wall, right? Where you keep other things you don't want anyone to find?"

Danny did not reply. His breaths were hot and shaky.

"So when we get home, I want to go to your room and I want you to give me all of your narcotics. And if you refuse, I'll have no choice but to tell Mom and Dad."

Jazz pulled the car up to the curb in front of Fenton Works. Danny grabbed his school bag from the floor and kept his gaze averted from her.

"You're just lucky I'm not going to tell them anyway," said Jazz. "If this wasn't related to your ghost fighting, I absolutely would have told them."

Lucky. Yes. What a perfect word to describe him. He was so lucky to have friends who doubted his mental strength and emotional stability. So lucky to have a sister who would take away the one thing he had to make his life just a little more bearable.

Venting a ghostly wail had never been more enticing.

He threw open the car door and slammed it closed. Jazz was calling after him but he shut her out as he walked toward the house. He went over all possible solutions in his head. He couldn't give her his painkillers, definitely not. Even if she was right—which she WASN'T—he couldn't let her control him like this. She had no place, no authority.

But if he refused to give her his narcotics and she really did tell their parents, he knew they'd believe her. They wouldn't even question it. Not only because Jazz never ever lied and never ever did anything wrong as far as they knew but because they both already thought he was troubled and a failure and this would be a perfect reason for why he was such a disappointment to them. Danny was a drug addict, of course! It all made sense now! Because why else would Danny be so tired and moody all the time! Why else would he be getting terrible grades! Drugs explained everything!

And no amount of denial would ever convince them otherwise.

Especially not his dad.

"Danny! Danny, wait! Please!"

She was sprinting behind him. He quickened his pace because he had to beat her to the door, had to get inside the house before she did, had to somehow get up to his room first and do something to keep his painkillers from her and prevent her from telling their parents. He wasn't sure what he'd do, but he'd figure it out as he went along. He always did.

Danny prayed the front door was unlocked so he wouldn't have to risk his parents seeing him if he phased through—it was!—and he flung it open. He locked it before Jazz could get in. Anything to stall her. He could just tell his parents it was a silly prank, just typical sibling fun because he was a very normal teenage boy and there was nothing about him they needed to worry about because he was fine and not a ghost and definitely not taking illegal painkillers.

Jazz started jiggling the door knob just as he dropped his bag on the floor and dashed out to the living room toward the stairs. She had her own key and would be in soon. He had no time to waste, had to get up to his room before—

"Danny, what's the rush? You running from something?" asked Maddie with a laugh.

Danny came to a quick stop, nearly stumbling forward in the process. Jack and Maddie were standing in the living room, looking as if they had just gotten up from the couch.

"Oh, uh, just gotta use the bathroom," said Danny through slightly clenched teeth.

"Well, can you wait a sec?" asked Maddie. "Just so we can go over what's happening tonight."

Jazz ran into the room but slowed and stopped right next to Danny. Danny looked up the stairs.

Shit.

Maddie beamed. "Well, as we all know, Jazz is graduating in a couple months, and with Danny getting his license in a couple weeks, Dad and I figured this is a great time to start looking to buy Jazz a new car!"

Danny and Jazz both stayed quiet.

"You heard what I said, right?" asked Maddie.

"Oh!" Jazz jolted. "Oh, yes, wow, that's awesome! Thank you so much."

Danny observed Jazz's plastered smile. She glanced at him. He promptly looked away.

"Danny will take Jazz's old car. So you'll have your own to drive right away, sweetie!" gushed Maddie. "Isn't that great?"

Danny normally would've complained and whined and griped that he definitely did not want Jazz's super lame convertible and he definitely didn't want to be caught dead driving it. Dash had enough fodder as it was.

But he nodded agreement. Now could they please let him go up to his room so he could figure out how to keep his narcotics from Jazz?

"This is all assuming Danny actually passes his driving test," bellowed Jack with a laugh.

Maddie's mouth scrunched. "Jack!"

"What?" Jack laughed again. "It took him three times just to pass the writing test for his permit."

"Danny's been practicing, and he's been doing great," insisted Maddie.

"I know, I know, I'm just giving him a hard time."

Jack flashed Danny a huge grin. Danny wasn't sure if he was expected to return it or not.

"You know I'm just teasing you, don't you, Danno?" asked Jack.

They held eye contact. The muscles in Danny's face were too paralyzed to contort into any semblance of a smile.

"Yeah," said Danny with a slight choke. He cleared his throat and managed to revive his face, pulling off an amicable expression. "Yeah, I know, Dad."

He could hear the whirring of his dad's ecto-gun aimed right at his head.

Maddie gave Jack one last scowl before turning back to Danny and Jazz. "Anyway, we don't actually need the new car just yet, but we've decided to go ahead and start our search today."

"Today?" echoed Jazz.

"Mmm hmm! And if we happen to find one that is perfect, then Danny will be able to start getting used to your old car. He's been practicing with my car, after all."

"Today, so like right now?" asked Jazz. "We're all going?"

"No, no. Just you and me." Maddie patted Jack's upper arm. "Danny and Dad are going to stay here together."

A hard thump resounded in Danny's chest. Every nerve in his body fell toward the floor in rushing cascades.

"We—we are?" he asked, his voice definitely not as strong as he would've liked but he for once hoped they would just attribute it to puberty this time.

"Yes," said Maddie. "Dad's going to help you with your physics homework."

A few stunted syllables escaped Danny before he was able to speak. "No, that's—it's fine, I don't need Dad's help."

"Sweetie, I asked your teachers to e-mail me about how you're doing in all your classes."

Danny's shoulders dropped. No point in arguing now. He couldn't defend himself, had no excuses to offer.

"It's all right, Danny. Dad and I aren't angry or disappointed. We just want to help you." Maddie took Jack's hand and squeezed it. "Your father here is an expert at physics, and we think it'd be a good idea for you to study with him, get all his inside tips and knowledge."

"Yeah, Danno!" Jack raised a determined fist. "We're gonna get this together, you and me. And I bought a whole bunch of fudge just for the occasion. The secret to good studying is fudge, you know."

Every internal component in Danny's body quaked.

"Well, you two should get started," said Maddie. She let go of Jack's hand. "Come on, Jazz. Let's get going. Lots of cars to see." Maddie put a hand on Jazz's shoulder and began leading her out of the living room.

"Wait," said Danny in a somewhat squeaky voice. He managed to bring his tone down as he continued. "You're really going to leave?"

Maddie and Jazz turned around. Both of their eyebrows pinched, Maddie's eyes wide while Jazz's narrowed.

"Is that okay?" Maddie asked.

Danny could see his father's frown on the edge of his vision.

No. This was not okay. Wasn't she supposed to be a genius? Shouldn't she know this wasn't okay? Didn't she remember what he told her on Sunday at the mall? Why would she do this to him? How could she?

"You and Dad need more bonding time," said Maddie. "We won't be gone too long. Just a few hours. And we'll bring back dinner."

He could hear his breathing. The blood reverberating in his ears.

But he managed a smile. "Yeah, it's fine. I was just wondering." He glanced at Jack. "And I really could use the help. That'd be great."

Maddie's eyebrows relaxed. "Wonderful. Well, like I said, we'll be back."

She again led Jazz out of the living room. Jazz looked at Danny one last time over her shoulder, and Danny realized that she was going to be alone with their mom and there was nothing to stop her from revealing his use of stolen opioids.

He shot her a look: Don't. Don't do it. Don't say anything. Don't you dare.

She gave him a look of her own. But he could not decipher her meaning.

And then she and Maddie were gone. And he was alone with his dad.

Jack gestured to the table in the living room that had been set up to be Danny's desk while he was grounded. "Ready to get started?"

There was nowhere for him to run. No escape. No choice. He could only put his hands up and surrender.

Chapter Text

"Danny? You there, kiddo?"

Danny blinked himself back into mobility. Jack gestured toward the table in the living room on which his computer was set up and his school supplies were laid out.

"Yeah, sorry," said Danny with a stilted laugh. "Just kind of spaced there for a second. You know, long day at school."

"School can definitely do that," agreed Jack. "We could chill first if you want. We don't have to hit the books right away."

"Chill?"

"Sure. We could watch something on TV." Jack searched the couch for the remote. "Fudge and TV is the best combination."

Jack mirthfully grumbled under his breath as he searched for the remote, playfully demanding why it was never in plain sight.

Danny's stomach knotted. This didn't seem right. This couldn't be right. This didn't feel right.

His dad looked happy.

But that was impossible because his dad came into his room just the night before and yelled at him.

Was this another trap? Was his dad going to ambush him again after this elaborate setup of false security?

"I also went out and bought vanilla ice cream," said Jack. "I can go grab it once I find this dang remote."

"Uh, Dad, um…" Danny scanned the room. Not that he was actually looking for anything. Just the right words. "I'm pretty drained. Would it be all right if I was just by myself for a bit?"

Jack stopped his search. "No, Danny. That's not all right."

Danny's mouth fell open but he otherwise did not move.

"You're grounded, remember?" Jack reached behind the couch cushions. "You can't go off on your own right now. You're supposed to stay in the living room where we can see you."

Danny inwardly groaned. Damn it, that was right. How could he have forgotten?

"Found it!" Jack triumphantly held the remote in the air. "Come on, Danno. You can relax here with me. We don't even have to talk if you're feeling too drained." He grabbed a box of fudge that had been placed on the study table. "Can't forget these, of course."

Jack settled onto the couch and switched on the TV. He smiled at Danny.

But Danny could not move toward him.

And Jack's smile faded.

"Oh, right, the ice cream. Of course." Jack looked toward the kitchen. "You wanna grab it? The vanilla carton. Or whichever you want."

He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to be with his dad right now. He didn't want to be with his dad alone.

But there was no other option.

Fine. All right. He could do this. But first, he needed to go up to his room. Once he safely stashed a few painkillers in a place Jazz wouldn't be aware of, he'd feel better and he'd be able to handle being with his dad. And then later he could figure out some way to obtain more hydrocodone. He had ghost powers, after all.

"Um, well…" Danny pulled at the skin on his neck. "Can I just go upstairs real quick first? I'll be right back"

Jack eyed him warily. "Upstairs? Why?"

To hide his goddamn painkillers from his goddamn sister, could he please just let him go now without the interrogation?

"To use the bathroom," said Danny, attempting to sound as pleasant and polite and nonchalant as possible and not like a moody irritable teen. "Like I said, long day at school."

"There's a bathroom down here," said Jack, his tone darkening, an aspect Danny felt in his gut. "Just use that one. You don't need to go all the way upstairs."

His dad was getting provoked. Danny wasn't entirely sure why, but Jack's words and voice and expression were tripping every alarm in his body.

Danny's gaze moved up the staircase as he attempted to calculate a new plan. All right. Okay. There was indeed a bathroom on this level. He could go to that one and then transform and phase up through the ceiling to get to the second floor and then—

"Is there something you need upstairs?" asked Jack. "Because I can go with you to get it if it's that important."

"No!" said Danny quickly. "No, I—there's nothing up—I don't need anything upstairs."

Jack frowned deeply, creasing the lines in his aging face. Damn it, this was not what Danny wanted. This was not good. His dad in a bad mood was never good.

"Yeah, it's fine. Let's watch some TV." Danny moved quickly toward the sofa.

"You don't want to use the bathroom first?" asked Jack.

"Nah, I'm okay." Getting up to his room and hiding his painkillers was going to take more time, more time than his dad would probably give him right now, more time than he could probably take without making his dad very suspicious. He had to get his dad back to a good mood first. "So what're we watching?"

He flopped down on the couch next to Jack but not too close. Half a seat cushion apart, that was plenty close enough. Okay, actually, he lied, this was definitely too close, but it was too late now, he couldn't move away without his dad noticing.

Jack did not speak. Danny put on his most practiced smile to diffuse the situation.

And to his relief, Jack's expression relaxed. He held up the remote and switched on the television.

"There's a series I've been enjoying on Amazon," said Jack. "It explores all sorts of supernatural phenomena, and—well—I mostly just like to point out all the inaccuracies. Especially when they discuss ghosts. I want to write them a letter someday."

"Oh?" Hearing his dad rant about ghosts did not appeal to Danny, but if it could make Jack happy again, he would put up with it. "Yeah, okay! Sounds good."

"All right!" Jack watched the screen carefully as he pulled up the show. "Do you wanna grab that ice cream from the fridge?"

"Sure, yeah, which do you want?" asked Danny, standing up halfway.

"Whichever you want! I bought vanilla just for you."

"I'm not hungry, so I'll just grab whatever you'd like."

Jack's face tightened again, and Danny realized he had somehow managed to make yet another mistake.

"You're not hungry?" asked Jack. "You're a teenage boy who just got home from school and you're telling me you're not starving?"

Danny shielded his distress with a blank face. Why was he never normal? Usual? Ordinary? Was everyone right? Was his dad right? Was he a freak?

"Besides, you don't eat fudge and ice cream because you're hungry," said Jack more jovially, picking up the fudge and holding it out to him. "Haven't I taught you that?"

Danny laughed and hoped it sounded completely natural and not like he was trying to mask any insecurity. "Yeah, you did."

He plucked a piece of fudge out of the box and pushed it into his mouth. It stuck to his palate and thickened over his teeth and glopped down his throat. The lingering remnants on his tongue were muddy and sweet.

Jack set the box down between them and shoved a couple pieces into his own mouth while aiming the remote at the TV. "I haven't seen this episode yet, so this should be fun for both of us!"

The show began with appropriately spooky music and low-pitched narration. Danny kept his face toward the screen, but his eyes kept darting up to the ceiling in the direction of his bedroom.

Jack was already eagerly engaged with the show, introducing the hosts and their backstories to Danny, giving his opinions on their techniques and ideas. There was never not a bite of fudge in the side of his mouth as he spoke and sometimes grabbed Danny's knee to shake it.

Danny wanted to scoot away so that his dad couldn't touch him anymore, but he stayed in place and let his dad do whatever he wanted so that he'd remain in this good mood.

Jack blabbed and chatted in his familiar zealous tone. Danny paid close attention to that tone, barely hearing the actual words. The words didn't matter as long as his dad's voice remained happy.

But his painkillers were still upstairs where Jazz knew they'd be. They were still there and he needed to hide them before she came home, needed to hide a few of them somewhere she wouldn't know about so he could figure out how to get more before he completely ran out—

He popped fudge in his mouth like pills to distract himself. Really squishy chewy sugary pills. He focused on the filmy texture and moist taste and clingy crumbs. Yes, yes, he'd get upstairs eventually. He had plenty of time. Jazz wouldn't be home for a while; he did not have to worry about this now, calm down. He just had to eat this stupid fudge to make his dad happy. He just had to not freak out like the freak everyone thought he was.

The fudge was not settling well in his gurgling gut. Maybe he should just try actually watching this show instead. Maybe that would be a better distraction.

"The EMF meter is picking up on something very strong right here," said one of the hosts, bathed in green light from the night vision camera as he stood to one side of a room decorated with floral wallpaper and velvet sofas.

"Your mom and I used to use really primitive equipment like that," said Jack. "When we were just starting out. Then we started creating our own ghost-hunting equipment. Far more accurate. These guys could really use Fenton gadgets."

Danny kept back a grimace by chewing harder. More people with his parents' far-too-accurate and much-too-painful ghost inventions, spectacular.

"And it's so much stronger now than it was during the day," the host continued. "Which makes sense because ghosts tend to be more active at night."

"I'll give them that. That is true," said Jack. "Ghosts pull crap during the day too, but they definitely prefer the cover of night."

Yes. Danny also knew that was true. There were times he had to fight ghosts during the day, of course, but most of his battles happened in the deepest part of the night, especially nights with only a sliver of moonlight hanging in the sky, nights with few clouds covering the stars.

Even he felt drawn to the night more than ever now, even apart from his fascination with astronomy. Twilight made his molecules hum and then buzz once the sun disappeared completely beneath the horizon. Phantom called to him in those hours, in that darkness.

"They do, yes. You're right," said Danny.

Jack glanced at him and smiled. Danny smiled back.

"I do not get the sense that this ghost has any malicious intent here." The host looked up at the ceiling of the quaint house. "This ghost is haunting this place, yes, but it does not seem to want to do harm to anyone. It almost seems like it wants to help whoever is living here."

Jack snorted. "It wants to help. Yeah, right. These guys are always letting themselves get played by these ghosts." Jack stuffed another piece of fudge into his mouth and chewed it on one side. "They so often think these ghosts are benevolent. But that's how you know they're amateurs. Because they don't get that ghosts pretend to be benevolent for their own gain. To get humans to do things for them."

Danny's shoulders stiffened.

"Ghosts only ever act in their own best interests," Jack continued. "They don't know how to do anything else. And they literally can't do anything else; it's an obsessive compulsion."

Danny kept his gaze straight ahead on the TV screen but his eyes were no longer focused.

"Danny? You okay?"

He could see Jack's face turned to him out of the corner of his eye, but he did not want to return the look.

"Yeah!" chirped Danny. "Yeah, just really into the show, sorry. Did you ask me something?"

"No, but…" Jack cocked his head. "You still don't agree with me."

"Agree about what? Hmm?"

"About ghosts not ever being benevolent. How they only act selfishly. How they never have good intentions for humans because they only want to use us. But they can be very good at pretending they want to help us, that they are good."

Danny continued to stare at the TV.

"Danny, it's all right if you don't agree," said Jack. "But it's rude to ignore someone when they're talking to you."

Danny pressed his lips into a tight smile. "Sorry, yeah, you're right. I mean, I agree with you, yeah." He pointed to the TV. "So, um, what do you think of what they're doing now?"

"I know you're lying, Danny," said Jack with a quiet sigh. "And you don't have to lie, I promise. I don't want you to feel like you can't have a different opinion from me."

"I don't," said Danny, shaking his head, lying through his smiling teeth but only because he knew his dad didn't actually mean a word he said. "I don't feel that way. Really."

"Come on, Danno," said Jack, his voice sounding more cheerful. "I'm a scientist; you're going to be a scientist someday when you join NASA. We should talk about our hypotheses and thoughts! It's what scientists do."

Jack was leaning toward him, an act that seemed aggressive to Danny, but was he just being sensitive? Was he just imagining the dangerous hint in his father's tone?

Regardless, Jack wasn't going to let this go. Continuing to insist he did agree would probably upset him. But admitting that he disagreed couldn't possibly end well for him either no matter what his dad said.

Damned either way.

"Well." Danny's eyes drifted as he searched for the right words. "Well, um, I don't know. I mean, how do you know for sure, I guess? How can you know for sure what a ghost's actual intentions are? Without actually talking to the ghost yourself?"

"Because all ghosts are the same," said Jack. "Your mom and I have run countless tests and trials and interviews. No data has ever suggested otherwise. Selfish compulsion and manipulation is an inherent part of a ghost's psychology. Without it, well, they aren't ghosts."

Danny nodded slowly, not in agreement but to stall. "Right, yeah. Okay. But, um, I'm just saying, how can you possibly know for sure that there isn't one ghost that's maybe...like a mutation, you know? Different from the others. A ghost that is actually good. Like how can you know one hundred percent unless you study each and every ghost?"

"I suppose you're right," said Jack. "Scientists can never claim to be one hundred percent certain about anything. Science is, after all, not truth itself but the constant pursuit of truth. You never actually obtain truth in science, only more and more evidence that strongly supports a theory."

Danny sat up a little straighter.

"But your mom and I have not yet found any evidence that opposes our theory," said Jack firmly. "So I am very confident that the ghost in this show is only acting according to its selfish obsession and will bring only misery to the people living in the house."

Danny's lips parted, stunned, numb. Was that all he could ever be to his dad? Someone who brought only misery to everyone living in this house? Someone who could never make anyone in this house happy? Someone who would just leech off every member of his family without ever contributing anything?

Can you possibly deny that it's completely true, freak?

Danny sank back into the sofa. "Okay, yeah, makes sense," he mumbled.

Jack lowered his brows. "What is this attitude now? Why are you being so sulky?"

Danny groaned. "I'm not. I'm sorry."

"We're just talking now, you know. It's really okay if you disagree with me. I know that I made you feel like you couldn't on Friday, and I'm sorry about that, Danny. I don't want you to feel that way. I want to get better at this with you."

"Yeah. Okay. It's fine."

"No, it doesn't seem fine. What's on your mind?"

Jack wore a smile but Danny didn't trust it and he just didn't want to do this anymore but his dad was never going to let him go, was going to keep him cornered in this alley until he was finally kind enough to shoot him in the head.

"I don't know," rasped Danny. "I mean, I guess... Well, what if a ghost's obsession is...to not hurt anybody? What if a ghost's obsession is just...to help people? Is that possible to you? Could a ghost be good then?"

His final try, his last effort. But Jack didn't miss a beat in answering, did not even pause to think.

"No," said Jack. "A ghost's obsession is harmful to humans no matter what it is because it involves manipulation. It's not based on anything selfless or generous, it's based solely on what that ghost desires most for itself, for its own gain. Even if its obsession is to help humans, the ghost still isn't doing it for the sake of humans."

Jack patted his knee. Danny's blood itched in his veins.

"I think these are good questions you're asking," said Jack. "And you can disagree with me, but I'm not going to back down on what I've come to discover about ghosts. Bottom line, they don't have to be actively doing anything to cause harm. Their mere existence is a hazard on its own. They are a threat to us no matter what. We can't risk trusting even one of them."

Danny's fists clenched against his thighs.

"Not even Danny Phantom," said Jack. "Especially not him."

Danny shot to his feet, twitches rippling under his skin. Jack stared up at him with a slightly open mouth.

"What's going on?" asked Jack, looking him up and down.

Danny's fingers jerked to curl into fists, but he controlled the impulse with a deep breath. "I just need to go upstairs real quick. To use the bathroom, I mean. Right now."

"Why do you want to go upstairs so bad?" asked Jack. "There's a bathroom down here."

Danny shut his eyes with a small shake of his head. "Right, yes, downstairs. That's what I meant. I need to use the one downstairs. So can I go?"

He began walking away from the sofa. Jack stood and blocked his path.

"No, Danny, you can't leave now."

Danny choked on a gasp. His dad wasn't letting him leave, his dad was holding him hostage again, his dad was going to blow a hole straight through his head.

"You seem very eager to leave," said Jack. A prominent vein in his temple gently bulged. "Why? Why do you want to leave?"

Danny kept a solid stance as Jack opposed him, but his heart was pounding against his ribs. "I—I don't, I just need—"

"You really want to get away from me that bad?" Jack scoffed. "Is that it? Just tell me the truth, Danny."

"No." Danny's voice was shrill. He swallowed to regain strength. "Of course that's not it."

"Then why are you acting so weird around me? Why are you trying so hard to leave?"

Danny's shoulders rose, his arms lifted, but the right words weren't coming to him.

"It's obvious you don't want to be with me," said Jack. "That's how you've been acting around me all week now. And I know it was unfair of me to confront you in your room last night. I apologize for that."

"It—" Danny's breath hitched. "It's okay, really—"

"But I've been nothing but nice to you since you got home today." Jack continued as if Danny hadn't said anything. "I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to make it up to you. I even went out and bought vanilla ice cream just for you. And this is what you're giving me right now? Really?"

"Dad, please, that's not what this is," said Danny. "You're—you're taking this too personally. You're reading too much into this. I just want a few minutes to myself. You and Mom just kind of sprung this on me, and I wasn't ready yet. That's all. So if you'd just let me have—I mean, just a little time to myself, then—"

"You're not supposed to be anywhere by yourself right now, Danny," said Jack. "You're supposed to be where we can see you at all times while we're all awake. And that's how it's going to be until Thursday."

"I—I know, and I'm not asking for a ton of time, just enough to—"

"If you don't like it, that's the point. Then maybe next time you'll think twice before sneaking out past curfew."

Danny stopped himself from rolling his eyes and sucked in a hard breath instead. "Okay, well, then I just need to use the bathroom."

"I said you could go earlier and you didn't," said Jack. "What is it you really want to do?"

"You know, I'd prefer to not give the specifics of what I want to do in the bathroom."

Danny again attempted to walk out of the living room, but Jack continued to block his path.

"I want the truth, Danny. Do you want to get away from me right now?" asked Jack.

"No, Dad. I'll be right back."

"You had your chance to go earlier and didn't take it. So no, you can't leave right now. We're not done talking here yet."

"Dad." Danny raised his arms briefly before letting them drop with slaps to his sides. "I'm not going to stay here just so you can yell at me."

"I'm not yelling at you. I can yell at you if you want." Jack's voice rose. "Is that what you want?"

"No," said Danny. "I just want to leave for a moment. Let me just—"

He made a dash past his dad but did not get far. Jack grabbed his arm and stopped him short.

"Tell me the truth, Danny." Jack's huge hand wrapped around his forearm entirely.

"Let go." Danny tugged but could not get out of his father's hold.

"Not until you tell me your problem with me," said Jack. "Tell me what I've done to you, Danny. Tell me why you're acting like this around me."

Danny wrenched and pulled harder. Jack's glove rubbed against his skin with hot friction.

"I haven't done anything to hurt you," said Jack. "Why are you acting like you're afraid of me?"

"Let go," begged Danny. "Let go. Let go. Let—"

His molecules pinched into intangibility, allowing his arm to phase through his father's hand. Jack stared at his empty fist.

"Wait." Jack's forehead creased. "How—"

He had to take advantage of this confusion. He couldn't let his father catch him.

He tore away, ran away, ignored his father's cries and demands.

Out of the living room, out the front door, down the street, toward the clouds.

Chapter Text

Danny usually didn't fly this high.

This wasn't the highest he'd ever been, no. Of course not. He had even gone beyond the atmosphere once. But he typically liked to stay below the clouds.

At this height, the air was thinner and harder to pull into his lungs. And it felt cold even against his frigid spectral skin.

But he couldn't go lower, had to stay up here. He had to stay far away from his dad.

The sky was such a deep blue up here, rich and saturated. The sun was still well above the horizon, flaring out from its center with warming rays. He could actually stare straight at it without damage to his retinas in this form, could hypnotize himself by watching its radiating light that seemed to spin, could make himself forget everything for this small moment.

The clouds beneath him rolled with feathery vapor. They looked so soft. If only he could rest on them because keeping himself aloft actually did take a fair amount of strength, and he was exhausted.

He ran a hand through a large puff of cloud. He couldn't feel it through his glove, but the condensation clung to him in beads.

Maybe he could just pretend that nothing at all existed below these clouds.

He tried to keep his mind as empty as possible, tried to focus on only the spots created by the sun or the shapes in the clouds. But his mind kept conjuring the last words his dad said to him, his dad's painful grip on his arm, how he had to actually use his powers right in front of his dad to get away because his dad was far stronger than he was.

Without his powers, his dad really could take everything from him. And he sure seemed to be trying these days. Trying to detain him, to take his freedom, to remove him completely because he could never be what his dad wanted and he had never been what his dad wanted because he wasn't good at physics like his dad was and wasn't good at creating anything like his dad was and didn't agree with his dad's fervently held viewpoints and his dad would probably be happier if he were just gone

He had to stop thinking about this. Had to think about something else.

He shook the beads of cloud moisture off his glove, watched them disperse into the air.

Well. Something else to think over. He still needed to figure out what he was going to do about his narcotics.

Jazz had made it very clear she would not let this go. If he didn't give her his narcotics, he had no doubt she'd tell their parents about his "drug problem." And of course they'd believe her. Even if they couldn't find any in his room because it was hidden in his wall, they would still take her side. Because they always did. Throughout his entire life, when it was his word against Jazz's, they always believed her. Because she was perfect and he could never be.

He could never let them know just how even less perfect he had become since he nearly killed himself in their portal.

So he had to give Jazz at least a few of his pills to satisfy her, to get her off his back. But then what? He would run out of whatever he kept from her, and Sam had refused to steal any more from her mom for him.

He had to get more. Somehow. Running out was not an option. Ghost fighting came with pain, so much pain. He couldn't continue without strong medication, absolutely needed some way to relax his nerves and abate his pain at night so he could sleep.

He had to get more.

He had to.

And with his powers, it would be so easy. He could just phase through the ceiling of the Manson home and—

No, no, he couldn't do that, he couldn't steal from his best friend's parents. Or any individual persons, for that matter. That was just wrong, that was just terrible. Sam's mom already thought so little of him, thought he was a no-good hoodlum. He definitely didn't want to prove her right.

Okay, what about one of the pharmacies? They probably had tons of painkillers, maybe something even stronger than hydrocodone. And surely they wouldn't notice a few pills missing, right? They could easily get more, couldn't they? Or did they manufacture the tablets themselves? He had absolutely no idea, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that they had what he needed.

His chest shuddered, his hands shook. He ran them through the clouds again, watched the wisps curl around his fingers.

Was he seriously thinking about robbing a pharmacy? Him? Danny Phantom? When he was trying to prove to this town that he wasn't a criminal? That he was good?

When he was trying to prove to his dad that he could be trusted?

His body was growing wearier. Engaging his anti-gravity center was becoming more difficult, requiring more concentration than he had the strength for.

He needed to rest. Somewhere distant from the town. Somewhere he wouldn't be found.

He ventured below the clouds. He was flying over the far outskirts of Amity Park, no people in sight, nothing but grass and trees.

The trees over here had fully embraced spring, aglow with white and pink blossoms. They reached toward him on beckoning branches, and Danny did not need to be begged twice. He settled himself on a branch near the trunk and allowed his molecules to return to their less excitable human states.

He pressed his forehead against the tree trunk, clutched at the branch beneath him with his bare hands. Tiny splinters gathered under his nails.

He sighed in a trance, watching the new budding flowers stir in the calm breeze.

The sun was warm and the weather was nice and it was spring.

Right here was so perfect.

He never wanted to leave. He never wanted to go back.

He leaned over and pressed his head into his hands. All of the tears he had been keeping back streamed down his face and onto his jeans.

But it was okay. He could cry now. Because nobody was around to see. Nobody ever had to know that he was not as strong as he pretended to be.

Then again, from the way his friends and sister kept expressing pity for him, they apparently already knew.

And his dad, well, his dad had never thought he was strong.

And how could he have ever thought he was strong, really? When he only ever ran away from his problems, ignored them hoping they'd disappear somehow?

If only he had someone to turn to, to talk to. But there was no one. Not his parents. Not his sister. Not his friends. No one was on his side. But he wanted to believe in someone, anyone. He wanted someone to know what he was feeling even if that someone couldn't help him.

But there wasn't anyone. There was no one here.

He had to do this on his own. And he couldn't hide from it forever.

He rested his elbows on his thighs and stared out at the horizon. The last of his tears trickled down his face.

He couldn't stay here.

He had to go home.

The spring sun felt so good on his skin and he could absolutely fall asleep against this tree, but he had to get home before his mom and Jazz returned from their car shopping. It would absolutely not end well for him if he was still gone by the time they returned. Even if Jazz had decided not to tell their mother anything about his secret narcotic habit while out shopping, there was no way he could expect her to keep it quiet anymore if she knew he had run away like this.

And maybe… Maybe he could patch things up with his dad before they came home. Maybe he could fix all of this. Maybe he could make everything go back to normal. Somehow. If he apologized profusely enough. If he came up with a good enough story to tell his dad. He had been stressed about school, he was doing poorly in his classes, maybe he could even throw Dash under the bus for still bullying him. Anything his dad might believe. Anything that might make his dad soften and forgive him and stop hating him.

And then maybe they could just pretend none of this happened. Maybe they could just ignore everything. Drown it all in fudge and vanilla ice cream.

He wrung his hands as he pulled in deep breaths and thought over exactly what he was going to do next. One step at a time. He would fly home, phase into his room, and hide at least a few of his narcotic pills so that Jazz wouldn't find them. He'd only turn over a few just to appease her. He'd figure out how to get more later. Right now, he just needed to make Jazz happy so she wouldn't rat him out to their parents.

And then... Then…

Then he'd figure out how to approach his dad.

He turned over his molecules back to their ghostly counterparts, feeling their frequencies chatter through his skin as he took one final look at the horizon and all of the pretty blossoms speckling the tree.

He could see this again. Later. When everything was better.

He pushed himself off the branch, engaged his anti-gravity core, and covered himself in invisibility as he flew toward home at a somewhat leisurely pace. He had to get home, yes, but that didn't mean he had to hurry. These few extra moments with the wind rushing past his face and blowing his hair back wouldn't hurt anything.

He was stalling. But at least he was admitting it.

The big, obvious sign boasting Fenton Works was the first thing he saw, then the rest of the house. He aimed straight for his window—he never knew why he always came in through the window, he could of course just go in through the wall—and phased through without a pause, landing on the floor of his room and changing back into his human form.

He stood still for some time, listening for the sound of his dad's heavy footsteps on the stairs, ready to barge into his room and reprimand him.

But there was no sound at all.

Was his dad even home anymore? What if he had left to search for him?

He closed his eyes and bowed his head, breathing to collect himself. He'd find his dad later. First, he needed to go to his wall, phase his hand through, and retrieve his stash of narcotics. Then he had to hide a few of the pills somewhere Jazz wouldn't think to look for them. Perhaps just another section of his wall. Or maybe in his mattress. Or hell, just in his sock drawer. She'd probably never look anywhere as mundane as there.

He straightened and walked over to his wall, his arm outstretched, already intangible.

A chill shook him, stopped him short. His breath blew out in icy crystals.

A ghost? In the house?

He looked around his room, his head turning slowly. Not in here.

He gave his wall a final glance before walking toward his door. Hiding his drugs would have to wait. Stopping ghosts was his foremost responsibility. His obligation. His penance for bringing them to the town in the first place.

Out in the hall, he looked first in the direction of his parents' room, then the stairs. His breath continued to come out in billowy vapor.

Silence.

And then a distant crash followed by loud shouts and curses from his father.

Sounds coming from the basement lab.

Danny immediately power walked to the stairs and practically jumped to the ground floor. He turned in the direction of the closed lab door. The sounds of a struggle between his father and what he had to assume was a ghost continued.

He paused outside the door, listening to the ethereal ghostly shrieking and the blasts from an ecto-gun.

He imagined one of the blasts blowing a hole straight through his head, his chest, splashing everything inside of him all over the lab.

His dad cried out again, this time in pain.

Danny ground his teeth and shut his eyes before giving the command to his molecules to switch. The familiar light glided over his body and settled inside him.

He relaxed his fists and let go of gravity, phased through the lab door and flew down the stairs.

Ready for whatever would happen as a result.

Chapter Text

Danny paused at the base of the lab stairs and hovered, assessing the situation. Jack had his gun trained on a hulking mass of a ghost, a monstrous entity for which Danny could not even determine a terrestrial resemblance. Where had it come from?

Didn't matter. It couldn't stay here.

The ghost took a swipe at Jack's face with its huge hand. Jack held up his ecto-gun to parry the blow. With a low but shrill cry, the ghost grabbed the gun and wrenched it out of Jack's hands. Jack's jaw dropped as the ghost now held the gun. It hollered triumphantly.

Jack looked around wildly and made a quick dash for another ecto-gun lying on a counter. The ghost stretched out an arm and wrapped it several times around his leg, forcing Jack's heavy body to the ground with a hard thud.

The ghost cackled and kept a tight hold on Jack's leg, turning him over onto his back. It aimed the ecto-gun at Jack's face, charging it to full power, enough shock to stop any human's heart.

Danny launched a precisely concentrated ecto-ray at the gun, smartly knocking it out of the ghost's grip and against the floor where it skidded into a wall. The ghost and Jack both turned in his direction.

"You," Jack snarled.

Danny gave him only a glance before plunging himself into the ghost, ramming a hard elbow infused with ghostly energy into its middle. The ghost slammed into a lab containment device, shattering glass and denting metal.

"Hey, that's expensive," yelled Jack, pulling himself up into a sitting position.

Danny rolled his eyes. So like his dad to criticize him even when he was saving his life.

The ghost sent a hard focused punch in his direction. Danny threw himself back in a flip only for the ghost to come at him again with breakneck speed. Danny continued moving backward as he either blocked or avoided each blow, knowing exactly where he was headed. The Fenton Thermoses were always kept in the same cabinet.

His back hit the counter. He turned quickly and opened the cabinet, grabbing a Thermos and jumping out of the way just as the ghost threw another punch. It hit the counter instead, causing a section of it to crack.

Danny pulled the lid off the Thermos and aimed it squarely at the ghost. The ghost's fierce eyes switched to panic as it shrieked and attempted to get out of the way, but there was no escaping the beam of energized light once Danny pressed the button. The ghost's body elongated and then shrank into the confines of the device. Danny replaced the cap and exhaled. The chill of his ghost sense ceased its shocks to his system.

He held the Thermos to his chest for a few moments, then set it down carefully on the counter behind him. A shuffle across the lab caught his ears. Jack stood not too far from him, staring at him, his hand held up beside a wall.

No. Not just a wall. A large button.

Jack's eyes narrowed. Danny's widened.

He knew exactly which button that was.

Jack slammed it hard. The lab filled with green light as the ghost shield activated and permeated the walls, ceiling, and floor. Danny looked at the glow of the shield blocking the stairs leading out of the lab.

Jack walked toward him holding an ecto-gun. Danny had no idea where he had even gotten it. Perhaps the same gun Danny had knocked out of the ghost's grasp earlier?

"You think you can just barge into my lab uninvited, Phantom?" asked Jack with a harsh bite.

Danny leaned back against the counter as Jack came closer, his hands gripping at its edge. "I—uh—"

"What are you doing here?" Jack stopped a short distance away from him, the gun held in his arms but not aimed. "What do you think gives you the right to be here?"

"I just—" Danny frantically fought his mind for a story. "I saw you were in trouble, so I—"

"Really? And how did you just happen to see that? Were you somehow already in my house? Were you spying on me?"

"What? No! Of course not—"

"Have you been spying on my family?"

"No, never—"

"Then how did you even know there was a ghost here at all?"

Danny let go of the counter and attempted to keep himself steady as he straightened. "Look, I just saved your life."

"I don't need you to save me, Phantom," spat Jack. "I don't need you to be a hero for me. I don't want you to be a hero for me. I could've handled that myself. I don't need you. I don't ever want you around."

Danny lowered his head, his eyes focused on nothing.

I don't ever want you around, Danny.

Danny clenched his fists. "I didn't mean—I only wanted to—"

"I'm never going to change my mind about you. Don't bother trying."

Danny kept his head down. He could see his father on the upper periphery of his vision shifting the gun in his hands, aiming it at him.

"But now that you're here," said Jack, "I'm not letting you go."

They stood apart from each other in silence for some time, staring each other down.

Ghost and man coming to their high noon.

Jack's gun charged with a high-pitched whir. Danny sprang into the air, a blast from the gun destroying the counter that had been behind him.

Jack aimed the gun up at him and fired more concentrated beams. Danny wove around all of them, glancing up at the holes in the ceiling as Jack paused to recharge.

"That's how you want to do this, huh?" Jack moved to a control panel and keyed in some configuration. The ghost shield surrounding the lab shrank, forcing Danny into a smaller space so that he could no longer fly high enough to avoid Jack.

Jack continued throwing several more blasts in his direction. Danny's dodges became less and less accurate, some shots only narrowly missing him, others singeing his suit, a few charring sections of his skin.

How was he going to—

What was he going to—

He couldn't escape. He couldn't leave. And he couldn't reveal who he really was. It didn't matter who he was. Danny or Phantom, human or ghost, his dad didn't want him either way.

Another shot grazed his arm, then another drilled into his shoulder. Danny cried out and fell to the floor, holding a hand to his aching shoulder. Ectoplasm oozed through his fingers.

Jack walked up to him, pointing his gun to his head where he knelt and nursed his wound. "I have no interest in keeping you alive, Phantom. My wife does, sure, but she's not here. She might yell at me for being so careless with you, but I'll just tell her it was an accident."

Danny stared into the barrel of the gun as it glowed a vibrant magenta. This was it, this was all, this was the end of his life, his existence.

My God, he's really going to kill me.

The gun sputtered, crackled, sparked. Its magenta light blinked out into darkness. Jack snarled and pulled it back toward his chest, hitting it a few times. "Damn it, I thought this was fully charged."

Danny choked on a sob and rose to his feet, staggered away. Where? Nowhere. He couldn't phase out through the ghost shield. But he had to get away somehow. He had to figure this out somehow because he was Danny Phantom and he couldn't just give up and let his dad kill him.

His dad wanted to kill him his dad wanted to kill him his dad wanted to—

He couldn't see. The afterimage from the light within Jack's ecto-gun was burned hard on his retinas in a large green splotch directly in the center of his vision. Everywhere he looked, everything was blocked. He blindly reached one arm out, the other arm incapacitated by the wound in his shoulder.

Jack's huge hand roughly grabbed his outstretched arm. Danny immediately turned himself over into intangibility.

"You're really gonna be a coward now, Phantom?" demanded Jack.

Danny tried to blink away the bright afterimage that continued to blot out his vision. His wounded shoulder spasmed, disarming his concentration to stay intangible. Jack grabbed his arm again and managed to pull him a couple feet across the lab before Danny was able to regain enough focus to slip away.

"Why won't you fight me?" asked Jack.

Danny shook his head. "I—I don't want—"

"Why are you so pathetic? I wasn't expecting this from you."

Why are you such a disappointment, Danny? Why can't you just do what I want you to do? Why can't you be what I want you to be?

He still couldn't see anything. Nothing but this green light, could only see around it, anything he tried to look at directly was hidden from him. Dizzying. Hot. Another shock of pain in his shoulder disabled his intangibility.

He had to find a way to shut off this ghost shield. That was his only way to escape. Where was the control panel again? Oh, God, no, it was outside of the ghost shield now. He couldn't reach it. This was it, he was going to die—

A section of a thick metal frame appeared at the edge of his vision. Danny blearily looked right at it, trying to make sense of what it was, what larger structure it belonged to.

The portal to the Ghost Zone.

Yes, yes, there was his escape, if he could just activate it and throw himself through to the other side—

Jack's hand clamped hard onto his blown shoulder. Danny cried out as the pain radiated through his arm and upper chest, blocking all communication with his molecules, all commands to turn intangible. Jack squeezed tight, shocking all sorts of light and color into his vision as his head filled with all manner of vertigo.

He was falling. Forward or backward, he wasn't sure. He only knew his balance was completely gone.

But then something caught him. Someone.

Jack wrapped a single arm around him, pinning his arms to his side. Danny blinked and shook his head, regathering his wits. The portal was still ahead, he just had to slip out of his dad's grasp using intangibility and then he had to bolt for it. He could see well enough now, he could do it—

Jack jammed something into his neck, a needle stabbing through the fabric of his suit and right above his collarbone. Danny yelped and twisted in Jack's tight grip. Jack removed the needle and threw him into an observation table, knocking the wind right out of his lungs as he collapsed to the floor.

Danny pressed a hand to his now throbbing neck. He raised his head to look up at Jack.

Jack smirked and triumphantly held up an empty syringe.

No, please, tell him it wasn't—

"Fenton Solidifier," said Jack. "I told you my wife invented this specifically for you, didn't I?"

Jack paused for some time, long enough that Danny wondered if he was supposed to respond. But he kept quiet, still down on his knees.

"All so she can keep you powerless without the use of expensive machinery or devices. All so she can freely do anything and everything she wants to any and every part of you."

Jack's grip on the syringe tightened. It cracked and shattered in his glove.

"Now you can't evade me anymore, Phantom." Jack tossed the shards aside. They clinked against the floor. "No more turning intangible or using any of your powers. Now you have to fight me."

Danny groaned and reached up to place a shaky hand on the observation table. He pressed against it and pushed himself to stand. "I don't want to fight you," he gasped.

"Oh, I'm sure you don't. You're nothing without your powers. You know you stand no chance against me now."

Danny tried to send a small amount of ectoplasmic flow to his palm. But nothing emerged. Powerless, nothing to even the playing field.

"And I won't go easy on you," said Jack. "This ends tonight, Phantom. My wife is obsessed with you, my daughter has a crush on you, my son keeps defending you. No more. You won't corrupt my family anymore after tonight."

The energy being exchanged between their stares was hot with a charge Danny could almost swear he felt flickering on his skin. Jack glared at him with ferocious intensity. Danny could only return a poignant sadness.

There's no convincing you otherwise, is there?

Time slowed as Jack's fist sailed toward Danny, restarted as he ducked and stumbled a couple steps away. Another punch grazed the side of his head, hairs standing on end and vibrating with the close contact.

A third punch popped the side of Danny's face. Blistering sparks blinked in his eyes as the pain permeated throughout his whole head and neck.

He could see another punch coming his way. Straight for his face. Straight for him—

He had to do something—

Or he was going to die

This huge man with three times his strength and size was going to beat him to death if he didn't—

DO something—

STOP this assailant—

Now—

Danny moved his head out of the way of Jack's rushing fist and bent his arm, sending his own fist upward in an uppercut to Jack's chin. Jack's head was thrown with the force. He took a step back and rubbed his chin.

But to Danny's surprise, Jack smiled.

"So you can fight without your powers," remarked Jack. "That was a pretty solid punch, Phantom."

Jack gripped his chin and moved his jaw side to side, his jaw joints clicking in response. Danny stared at him, noted his expression, his reaction. Danny had put all of his strength into that punch, and his dad barely seemed fazed at all.

His heart beat in his temples, his breath dried out his throat. Jack was already coming at him with another punch. He jumped out of the way and caught sight of the portal again.

That was still it. That was still his only chance to get out of this without revealing his secret. His only chance to get out of this alive.

Because even if he did tell his dad who he really was, he had no way to prove it without the power to change back.

Because even if he did somehow convince his dad he was his son, his dad would probably still kill him for what he had dared to become.

Danny raised his arms to block his face, his wounded shoulder crying only a little as adrenaline pumped hard through his body and ignited his nerves. Jack came at him from all angles, no pausing, no holding back, bruising Danny's arms. Danny dodged strategically, edged toward the portal.

A few more steps, a little closer, then he could break into a sprint and switch on the portal and get out of here and maybe never come back and—

Jack's hand gripped at the hair on the back of his head, whipping and snapping him into a halt. Danny struggled to break free, but his dad's fingers only tangled in his hair further, painfully twisting the locks against his scalp.

Oh, God, his mom had been insisting he cut his hair the past few months; why hadn't he listened?

Jack whirled him around, didn't speak, didn't even grunt, only kept a firm hold on the back of his head and smashed his face into the nearest table once, twice, three times. Ectoplasm gushed down his face and into his mouth and he had no idea where it was coming from.

Jack slammed him a final time into the table before tossing him aside against the activated ghost shield. A quick jolt of pain shot through Danny's entire body before he fell to the floor, his limbs twitching.

Jack's boots moved closer to him. Danny weakly propped himself up on his bruised forearm. The left side of his face throbbed as ectoplasm continued to drip down his aching upper jaw and off his chin.

Danny did his best to raise his pounding head, his watery eyes. He could see out of only one, the left eye screwed shut.

"You're so weak without your powers," said Jack. "I don't even need a gun to kill you like this. I could easily snap you in half right now. Crush your neck. Pop off your arms."

Danny dizzily tried to shut the corresponding images out of his head. Jack pressed his boot into Danny's chest, forcing him to lie on his back.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you."

Jack's boot pressed harder. Danny's breaths were shallow against the weight.

He couldn't fight anymore. Even if he had the energy, he could never surpass or even match his dad's strength.

His dad only had to apply all his weight to crush Danny's ribs and lungs until he suffocated.

And maybe that was exactly what he should do.

"I can't," said Danny, realizing one of his front upper teeth was loose. Pain surged through his jaw as he continued to speak. "I can't give you a reason why you shouldn't kill me. You probably should just kill me. I don't think I should be here anymore."

Jack's expression softened into confusion, surprise. The weight of his boot eased.

"I've been nothing but a disappointment to you." The words scraped raw his aching vocal cords. "I always have been. I tried but I was never what you wanted."

He wasn't even sure if Jack could hear him, understand him. But Jack hadn't been hearing and understanding him for so long, so it probably wouldn't make any difference if his words were intelligible.

"I'm useless and I fuck up everything. There's no reason for me to keep existing. Maybe you all really would be better off without me. Your wife could return to her normal research without obsessing over me. Your daughter could live her own life without worrying about what I'm doing, without trying to protect me all the time. And your son—"

Ectoplasm oozed from around his loose tooth and dripped down his throat. He tried to imagine nonexistence, simply ceasing to be. No more stress, no more bullies, no more failing classes. No more fighting ghosts, no more hurting his friends and family. No more disappointing anyone.

"Your son would definitely be better off without me around," sighed Danny. "I've only made his life hell."

Jack pulled back his boot entirely from Danny's chest, but Danny remained lying on the floor, choking on his own saliva and ectoplasm, swallowing what he could. Jack stared down at him but said nothing, made no movement. Who was he in this moment? Still his father? Or someone else, his murderer, his executioner? Who did Danny want him to be?

Danny turned his head to look at the fabric of his suit covering his arm, the wound in his shoulder from his father's ecto-gun. "I thought I could help him. I thought I could make him better. Not so useless and disappointing. I thought I could help him be good at just one thing for once. I thought I could give him some purpose in life. Some reason to be here, some reason to make his existence worth it so he's not just a waste of space, a waste of everyone's time."

I should shoot you, Phantom. Shooting you might be better.

All I care about is getting you out of the picture, Phantom.

You're a sickness, Phantom.

If I get rid of you, maybe my family will be cured, Phantom.

I can't believe I let you get away, Phantom.

I want to destroy you, Phantom. I want you to be gone, Phantom.

An affliction. A disease. A disorder.

Your teachers keep e-mailing us, Danny.

You were late to class again today, Danny.

Why are you acting like this, Danny?

I haven't done anything to hurt you, Danny.

You can't keep doing this to me, Danny.

Stop lying to me, Danny

What is wrong with you, Danny?

His dad didn't want him. In either form.

Perhaps he really did need to just leave. To be taken out. Destroyed. Eliminated. Maybe his dad could finally breathe easy knowing he didn't have to worry about both his hated ghost and useless son anymore.

If he couldn't please his dad alive, maybe he could dead.

"I don't want to wait anymore." He sucked in more air. His body refused to breathe on its own. "That's what I've been doing since Wednesday night. Just waiting for you to yell at me. Just waiting for you to hurt me. Trying to stay out of trouble but only making you angrier. Trying you to keep you out with denial. Trying to drown you out with painkillers. But this always had to happen. There was no way I could outrun you forever."

Still on his back, he swallowed and pulled in a deep breath, attempted to open his airway to strengthen his speech that had been breaking with tremulous frustration.

"So just kill me already. Because I don't want to keep living like this."

Who was wrong? Who was right? It didn't matter. Jack was the one in control. He'd just have to realize his mistake later.

Or not.

Did Danny even want Jack to know who he really was? Or would it be better if his father remained blissfully unaware, happy to have finally destroyed Phantom even if he had no idea where his son went?

"But can you answer me one question before you kill me?"

Jack did not nod but did not shake his head either.

"Do you love your son?" asked Danny in an unintended whisper. "If he were to...somehow be gone forever, would you miss him?"

He just wanted to know. This one final request. He wanted to know once and for all if his dad actually did like him. He had no reason to lie to a stranger, to lie to Phantom.

If his dad did say he loved him, it'd be a comfort before he died.

And if he didn't, well, at least Danny would know for sure his death could make his dad happy in every way.

He stared up at Jack as he waited for an answer, looked into aged blue eyes that focused right back on him.

Eyes that always reminded him just how much of a disappointment he was. How ashamed he should be.

Danny swiftly turned his face away.

Just let me make you happy for once. I don't want to make you angry anymore.

Nothing was said for some time.

And then Danny could sense Jack moving.

Danny tentatively turned his head to look up at Jack. Jack's face was directed toward him but his eyes seemed blurred. He lowered himself to his knees beside Danny. Danny kept his position on his back, in too much pain to move even if he tried.

Right above him. Jack's expression was no longer cold and menacing. No, now he seemed to be…

Surely Danny was imagining this?

Jack looked horrified. Dazed. Pale. As if he had seen something even more terrifying than a ghost.

"Of course I would miss you," Jack murmured. "Of course I would."

Jack placed a hand under Danny's head. Danny flinched, his shoulder roared with pain.

"Danny."

Danny blinked at the sound of his name. He had subconsciously convinced himself he'd never hear it again.

"Danny."

He met Jack's eyes. Jack's face was lined, grey.

"Danny." Jack took his hand and gripped it hard. "Danny. Why did you let me do this to you, Danny?"

Danny searched his heart, his soul for an answer. The right answer. The answer that would make everything better and would make his father happy and would end this.

An answer that didn't exist.

"I thought it was what you wanted," admitted Danny with a voice shaking so much even he barely understood himself.

Jack's eyes shut as he held Danny's hand up to his forehead and covered his face. His other hand held the back of Danny's head. Danny tensed but stayed still as his father held him in silence.

His father's breaths were deep and hard, filled with such agony and suffering. Pain so terrible that it would never subside on its own if it were ignored.

Danny wanted to make it subside. He wanted to rescue his father.

He attempted to lift himself into a sitting position but yelped when his injured shoulder forced him back down. Jack uncovered his face, appearing alarmed.

"I'm sorry," Danny gasped out in a strained whisper, the sound whistling around his loose tooth. "I'm so sorry, Dad."

Jack moved his hand to Danny's back and helped him into a sitting position. "Sorry for what?"

"For—for—" Danny moaned and clutched at his shoulder.

"Here. Let me—"

Jack effortlessly scooped Danny into his arms, one arm supporting his back and the other his knees. Danny laid his head against Jack's chest. He couldn't even remember the last time his father had picked him up, certainly not since he was a small child.

He couldn't decide if this felt good or not but he was in too much pain to resist. Physical and emotional, all of it was too much.

Jack set Danny down in a chair. Danny leaned back and closed his eyes, opened them again when he heard the sound of the ghost shield shutting off. He could escape now, he could leave, he could go up the stairs and run away for real this time.

Jack returned with a needled syringe. "It's the cancelling agent. Could you—?"

Danny nodded and unzipped his suit, lowering a sleeve to bare his upper arm. Jack rubbed his skin with alcohol before inserting the needle. Danny hardly reacted, wasn't even sure he felt it. What was a little more pain now?

Jack stepped back. Danny waited until he felt his molecules sparking with their normal energy. He didn't even need to send the command to change back, too broken to willfully maintain his ghost form any longer.

His eye and upper jaw throbbed with new intensity, blood from his shoulder soaked his shirt. Parts of his skin that were burned by blasts from Jack's ecto-gun prickled. His arms discolored from defending against Jack's punches.

"Oh, God, it really is you," said Jack. "Oh, God, Maddie's gonna kill me. Oh, God—"

Jack walked away, muttering to himself as he opened drawers and cabinets and then returned with a first aid kit. He ripped Danny's sleeve and bandaged his wounded shoulder, rubbed a wet towel over his face and neck to clean away all the dried blood.

So gentle but so uncomfortable coming from his father. Danny was afraid to move or even acknowledge the contact, unsure if this was even real, unsure if some disturbance could set Jack off again.

Jack placed his hands on the sides of Danny's head and stared at him intently. "How quickly do you think all this could heal if you switched back to ghost form?"

Danny creased his brow. "I—I don't know."

"You have supernatural healing abilities like other ghosts, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"So how long do you think it would take? Before your mom gets home? Can you make it go faster? Do you have control over it?"

"I—uh, I've never tried. How bad is it?"

Jack grabbed a mirror from one of the lab's drawers and handed it to Danny. Danny held it and winced at the sight of the many broken vessels reddening and purpling the left side of his face, swelling his eye shut, splitting open his upper lip.

Danny lowered the mirror and fought back pressure behind his eyes because he was going to have to give his father an answer he wouldn't like. "I can't heal this. Even in my ghost form, this would take days to heal."

Jack groaned. "You've got to be kidding me. I can't let Maddie see you like this."

Danny trembled as Jack snatched the mirror from him. "I'm sorry."

Jack was now pacing the floor. Danny had to apologize, couldn't make his dad angry, had to explain this shortcoming before he changed his mind and pointed another ecto-gun in his face.

"I mean, maybe it'd be quicker if I was transformed twenty-four-seven for a while, but I've never had to heal anything quite this bad. At least, not on my face. Usually I can just cover up anything on my face with Jazz's make-up—"

Jack turned back to him sharply. "Jazz's make-up? Does Jazz know about this, too?"

Danny hesitated. "Uh—well—"

"Are you telling me Jazz knew about this and didn't tell us?" Jack's voice rose. "That both of you kept this a secret from us together?"

"We didn't mean—I mean—"

"I don't believe this. I just can't believe—"

Jack cursed in a distressed, throaty growl. Danny stiffened and looked down at the floor, restrained the urge to turn invisible.

"How did this happen?" Jack leaned against a counter and scanned the ravaged lab. "Why did this happen? This is impossible."

Danny said nothing. His father didn't seem to want any actual answers to these questions, at least not the answers he could give, not the answers Jack wanted to hear.

Danny held his arms and wondered to himself, yes, how did all this happen and why couldn't he have just been what his dad wanted?

Beyond the lab, upstairs, the sound of the front door opening and shutting. Danny and Jack froze.

"Danny? Jack?" Maddie called. "Where are you two?"

Neither answered.

"Boys? Are you home?"

"Maybe they went out?" offered Jazz's voice. "Maybe Dad wanted more fudge?"

"But the Fenton RV is still parked outside. Danny, Jack? Are you here?"

Jack's head dropped to his chest. Danny's stomach churned.

"I could phase through the ceiling," said Danny. "I could go up to my room. I could go into ghost form, try to heal as much as I can for a couple hours. You could just say I'm taking a nap or something—"

"No, Danny. You're not supposed to be taking naps or even in your room alone at all, remember? You're grounded. And besides, I was supposed to be helping you with physics."

"Then we—we could—"

"No." Jack sighed. "We can't hide this from your mom." He placed a hand on Danny's back and guided him to stand. "We have to tell her."

Danny's upper chest twinged. He didn't want his mom to know. He didn't want his dad to know. He wanted to reverse all of this. He wanted to lie again.

"Jack? Danny?" called Maddie's voice from the top of the stairs as she opened the lab door. "Are you two down there?"

"Yes," answered Jack. "Yes, we're both here. We're coming up."

"What are you doing down there?"

"Ah—just hang on, we'll be up."

Jack led the way out of the lab. Danny folded his arms against himself and kept his head down, attempted to cover his injured shoulder with the ripped fabric of his shirt but gave up. Every step hurt so much but he had to keep going.

Because his dad said so.

Upstairs in the living room, Jack was large enough for Danny to hide behind. He only wished he could stay out of sight.

"Finally." Maddie held up her phone. "I have a list of cars here for us to go over. Quite a few good deals, but we're not sure—"

Jack stepped to the side, allowing Danny to be seen fully. Danny raised his head but kept his folded arms pressed to his body.

Maddie did not move or speak for a moment. Jazz gasped and covered her mouth.

"Danny!" Maddie rushed up to him and placed her hands on his arms. "What happened to your face? And your shoulder? And your arms, they're all red." She shook him. "How did this happen?"

Danny tried to stop his shivering, tried to keep his words clear and not slurred as they whispered past his loose tooth. "Um—well, we—I mean, I, um—I was—"

He glanced at Jack. Jack returned his glance but said nothing.

"It's—what happened was—" Danny drew a harsh breath. "I—"

"Danny."

Danny looked at Jack again.

"I'll take care of this, Danny," said Jack quietly.

Maddie's mouth curved in a stern frown. "Jack?" Her tone was dark. "Who did this to Danny?"

"Maddie, just let me finish speaking before you say anything—"

"Jack. Answer me."

Jack blew out a long breath through his nose. "I… It was me. I did it."

Maddie gripped Danny's arms so hard he could feel her nails through her gloves. "What?"

"Maddie—"

"You—it was you—you beat up our son?"

"Listen—"

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I didn't know it was him!"

Maddie scoffed. "What do you mean you didn't know it was him? What the fuck does that mean, Jack?"

"He was—he didn't look like himself! He was in—in—ghost form!"

"Ghost form? What are you talking about?" yelled Maddie. "Are you seriously trying to justify beating up our son?"

"He's telling the truth, Mom," said Danny weakly.

"Danny, please, just let me handle this," said Jack.

Danny looked at the floor. On the upper edge of his vision, he could see Jazz's mouth hanging open.

"Maddie, I...really don't know how to say this." The muscles in Jack's face strained. "Danny, our son...is a ghost. Not just any ghost either, but…" He exhaled sharply. "He's Danny Phantom."

There was a hard silence.

"What?" Maddie stared at Jack, glanced at Danny briefly. "That's impossible. What do you mean?"

"I mean—look, I know. It is impossible, but it's true."

"No." Maddie shook her head many times. "No. You're not getting away with what you've done here, Jack."

"Maddie, I saw him. He even changed back right in front of me."

"No. No. No!"

"Yes!" shouted Jack. "Even Jazz knew. Right, Jazz?" Jack held his hand out to her, his expression hardening. "You knew and didn't tell us for some reason, right? Even though you should've. Even though both of you should've!"

Jazz shrank back and only sputtered in reply.

"No, Jack." Maddie's voice was loud but weak. "No. I don't know what you think you're doing, but this isn't going to work." She studied Danny hard. "I'm not going to believe this. Our son is not Danny Phan—" She panted and clutched at her chest. "I mean, he's not… He's not… He can't be…"

Her eyes unfocused, her face whitened. Danny's heart thrummed with longing to take all of this back somehow.

"It's true, Mom," said Danny quietly. "Remember the accident I had in the ghost portal? The beginning of freshman year?"

Maddie's eyes widened but she did not nod. But oh yes, he could tell she remembered very well.

"I'm sorry, Mom." Danny fought through his closing throat. "I'm so sorry. I should've told you and Dad right when it happened, but—I—I don't know why I didn't. I guess I was just—I was afraid you'd be mad and then it all got so complicated and—"

"No," said Maddie hoarsely. "You wouldn't do that to me, Danny. You would've told me. You can't be—you can't be—it's not true—"

Danny gently took her hand in his. He held it up between them and gazed into her eyes, eyes that begged him to tell her what she wanted to hear.

If only.

He willed his hand to turn intangible and pulled it through hers, their cells mingling and overlapping before separating again.

Maddie stared at her hand. She gaped and stepped back, her hand covering her mouth, looking as if he had just completely betrayed her. Danny stopped himself from trying to comfort her, to embrace her and assure her that everything was okay.

Because everything was definitely not okay.

"I was cleaning up in the lab, organizing some things," said Jack, bringing Maddie's attention back to him. "I dropped a Fenton Thermos and accidentally released the ghost inside. And of course it started attacking me. And then Danny showed up in his ghost form to—to help me, I guess." Jack shut his eyes and huffed. "I didn't recognize him at all. I… I just saw him as Phantom. And…"

He looked at Danny. Danny pretended he didn't notice.

"I wasn't going to let him escape," murmured Jack.

Maddie sniffled. "What were you even doing in the lab? You were supposed to be helping Danny with physics."

"I know—"

"That was the whole point of me and Jazz going out to look for a car together, so you could concentrate on helping Danny."

"Maddie, yes, I know, but—"

"You were supposed to help him, not beat him!"

Danny hunched over. His parents were fighting again, fighting because of him again. All his fault, all his fault.

"I don't expect you to forgive me for this," said Jack. "But I really didn't know—"

"This can't—I can't. This is too much." Maddie threaded her fingers through her hair and paced the floor. "First Jazz tells me Danny's been taking opioids, and now I'm finding out he's—he's—"

Danny felt blood leave his face.

"What?" Jack's voice was harsh. "Opioids? What are you talking about?"

"I was going to talk to you about it privately," said Maddie. "And then we were going to have a talk with Danny about it after dinner."

"But where has he even been getting them?"

Danny glared at Jazz, his face and neck rewarming. "You told her?"

All eyes turned to Jazz. She took a small step back before strengthening her stance.

"Of course I told her," said Jazz, rubbing her arm.

"Why? Why would you tell her?" yelled Danny, not even sure why he was so angry because it wasn't like things weren't already the worst they could possibly be.

"Why? You know why!" snapped Jazz. "Because I knew you were going to hide your pills from me while we were gone!"

"Hide them?" Jack rounded on Danny. "Is that why you were trying to go upstairs by yourself? Because you wanted to hide drugs?"

Danny lowered his head. "I—well—"

"Okay, shut up," cried Maddie. "Everyone just—shut up."

Maddie collapsed onto the sofa. She propped her elbows on her thighs and pressed her palms to her forehead. Her breaths varied, some quiet and small, others loud and shaky.

Danny pretended to be interested in the frayed edges of his ripped sleeve. This wasn't the way he wanted his parents to discover his secret. He had always known this moment would one day come—no way he could be smart enough to keep it from them forever—but this was not the reveal he had envisioned.

He could sense Jack staring at him. Danny met his eyes briefly before turning away.

"Danny."

Danny looked at Maddie. She held her arms out to him.

"Danny. Come here. Please."

Danny didn't want to. He wanted to disappear, fly somewhere far away and sleep for a long, long time.

But of course he obeyed.

He walked to the sofa and shot a quick glare at Jazz, who maintained a stoic expression. Maddie wrapped her arms around him when he sat down and pressed her forehead against the side of his face. Danny did not return the affection, simply let her hold him.

Across the room, Jack ran a hand down his face, tugging at his aged skin.

"I love you, Danny," whispered Maddie. "We all love you. So much."

Danny did not reply.

"Okay." Maddie placed gentle fingers against Danny's chin and guided him to look at her. "We have a lot to talk about this week." She looked at Jack and Jazz. "All of us together. I'm going to call the school tomorrow and tell them Danny's sick." She paused, shook her head. "No, I'll tell them we're all going on a trip. A family emergency." She pulled out her phone. "I'm going to look at some hotels, see what I can get for tomorrow night and the rest of the week."

"Wait." Jazz quirked a brow. "You're pulling us out of school?"

"Yes." Maddie scrolled through her phone. "Like I said, we all need to talk."

"But why do we need to miss school?"

"Because we can't let anyone see Danny like this, Jazz."

Jazz blinked a few times rapidly. "What, so you're just going to cover it up?"

"Do you want Dad to go to prison, Jazz?"

Maddie's words echoed around the living room. Jazz's fierce glare softened into uncertainty. Jack stared at the floor blankly with wide eyes. Danny's body stiffened, his shoulder aching with new pain.

"Do you want Danny to be taken away?" Maddie held a hand out toward Jazz. "Do you want to be taken away? Because that's what will happen if anyone sees Danny like this."

Jack groaned. "Maddie, maybe we should talk about this more—"

"No," shouted Maddie. "No, I'm not letting our family break apart over this. You didn't know it was him. We didn't know it was him. I didn't know it was him. That's—that's not our fault." Tears began streaming down her face. "How were we supposed to know? This is supposed to be impossible. All these months, I had no idea the ghost I was chasing and shooting at was—I mean, it's not my—I wouldn't have if I had known—"

Maddie sobbed and buried her face in her hands. Jack placed an arm against the nearest wall, his head falling to his chest.

Danny could only watch their suffering.

Why had he let this happen?

He had to do something to help, something to rescue both of them.

"But we can't—" Jazz wildly shook her head, her long hair splaying all across her shoulders. "We can't just hide this. We can't just pretend—"

"Jazz," said Danny quietly but boldly. "We can hide this. We can pretend."

Maddie continued crying. Jack's forehead creased. Jazz's lips parted.

Danny knew he wasn't good at many things. He couldn't play sports. He struggled with studying and passing tests. He was terrible at socializing and making good first impressions.

But hiding and pretending and lying? He knew exactly how to do that. So much so that he actually sometimes felt uncomfortable being honest these days.

"We've been covering up my ghost powers for a year and a half," said Danny. "What's another cover-up at this point? What's one more lie? What's another fake phone call to the school telling them we won't be attending for a few days?"

Maddie and Jack looked confused but did not say anything.

"That—what I did was different," said Jazz. "It was only a couple classes, and we weren't covering anything like this up."

Danny shrugged. "At this point, the lies are all the same to me."

Jazz's bottom lip trembled but her eyes were hard. "You're so bad at doing what's best for you."

"It's not just me now," said Danny. "It's all of us."

Maddie brushed his arm with her fingers. Jack's eyelids fluttered.

Jazz threw her hands in the air and stomped up the stairs. No one went after her. No one called for her to come back.

Maddie stood from the couch while dialing a number on her phone. She walked to the kitchen and began speaking to someone about their hotel's immediate availability. Danny fell back against the sofa, every ache in his body making itself known.

Jack looked at him from across the room but continued to keep his distance. Danny looked right back at him, at this man who almost killed him.

How did his father view him now? A ghost who nearly destroyed his family? Or his son who did the same thing?

Perhaps both.

Chapter Text

Jack ran down the hall. Oh, when he caught up to that boy, he was going to really let him have it this time.

He threw the front door open, the door knob breaking through the wall's plaster with a loud bang! He looked outside up one street, down the other, harsh air flaring through his nose.

No sign of Danny. How had he disappeared so quickly?

Jack moved close to the street and again looked in each direction. Gone. Danny was just gone somehow.

Shit, shit, shit. Where did he go? What if he wasn't back by the time Maddie came home? She'd blow every gasket, she'd chew him out, she'd never let him hear the end of this—

She had been berating him for being unkind to Danny and if she found out he ran off because Jack yelled at him—

But he didn't mean to yell at Danny, Danny was just being so difficult—

Jack had to find him. Somehow. He had to find Danny and drag him home no matter how much he insisted he just wanted to be alone and away from Jack.

Jack grabbed the keys for the RV from inside the house and dashed back outside. Surely Danny couldn't have gotten far. Jack would find him and then maybe just forget having a relationship with him anymore because what was the use? Jack had tried so hard this time to bond with Danny but if Danny wasn't going to meet him halfway, then maybe it was just a waste of time.

The RV's huge engine roared to life. Jack quickly pulled out onto the street and sped through the neighborhood, keeping an eye on the police radar tracker he had installed because he was definitely not in the mood for another traffic violation today. And he didn't have time either; he had to locate Danny before Maddie came home.

But Danny was nowhere. Nowhere in the neighborhood, at least. But he was on foot; he couldn't have possibly gotten far, right? And he didn't have a phone to call for someone to pick him up.

After a third trip around the neighborhood, Jack pulled off to the side of the road and slammed the RV into park. He looked through his phone, hoping he still had Sam's and Tucker's phone numbers saved somewhere.

He called Sam first; she didn't answer. So typical, kids these days never answered their phones. He sent her a text: Is Danny with you?

Tucker also didn't answer. Jack sent the same text and took in some deep breaths as he waited for responses. His blood rippled under his skin. This could not be happening, Danny could not be doing this to him. And Maddie would take Danny's side if she found out and—

Jack wasn't going to let her find out.

Sam and Tucker at last responded that no, Danny wasn't with them, but what was wrong? Did something happen? Was Danny not where he was supposed to be?

Jack threw his phone into the passenger seat without sending them replies. They were of no use to him now, no help at all. No need to waste any more energy to explain the situation.

He drove around the neighborhood a fourth time, his grip on the steering wheel getting tighter, the gear shift almost cracking in his hand. His suit started to feel uncomfortably hot as the back of his neck burned. Where was Danny where was he where was he—

A few muscles in Jack's face unclenched as he desperately scanned the neighborhood. Between houses, behind cars, against fences.

He was still angry, so angry.

But he was also starting to worry.

Danny didn't have his phone. Danny was rather small and timid. He knew how to fight a little after Maddie had enrolled him in martial arts classes for many years, but Jack didn't really think Danny could hold his own for long if he were actually in trouble.

No, Jack was overthinking. It was broad daylight. Danny was fine. He just didn't want to be found at the moment.

Jack glanced around one final time.

He was not going to find Danny right now. This was pointless. But he was sure Danny would come home when he was ready.

Hopefully soon. Hopefully before Maddie returned.

And maybe Sam and Tucker were lying. Maybe they both knew exactly where Danny was but were hiding him.

He almost wished that could be true. Just so he could believe Danny was definitely okay.

Jack drove back to Fenton Works and headed into the house. He groaned at the sight of the hole the door knob had punched into the wall when he had thrown the door open. But no matter. He could patch that up now. He already had everything he needed.

And then Danny would come home soon. Surely. And Maddie would never know anything had happened.

He just had to trust his son.

If only Danny would trust him, too.

Repairing the wall was almost therapeutic. He loved science, of course. He loved working on all of his complicated inventions. But construction and building were also enjoyable pastimes. So many holes had been blown in the walls of their home from ecto-guns or experiments gone wrong that it was barely even an inconvenience for him at this point. He actually welcomed any opportunity to make repairs.

He made careful measurements, cut out an appropriate piece of drywall, trimmed the edges, secured the new section in place, covered it with joint compound. He'd have to let it dry overnight, but as long as Maddie didn't study the wall, he was in the clear.

But Danny still wasn't home.

Jack sat on the sofa in the living room, popping squares of fudge in his mouth while trying to distract himself with the supernatural phenomena show he usually enjoyed even if it was only to criticize it.

He glanced toward the front door. Once. Twice. Again. Surely Danny would walk through any minute. He wouldn't want to get in any more trouble than he already was in. Surely.

Jack leaned over and massaged the back of his neck. He looked toward the door again.

Still no Danny.

Jack stood. He needed some new form of therapy, maybe another wall to fix or—

Or an invention to work on.

Jack headed to the lab without another thought. A perfect distraction, a perfect way to calm his nerves and stop thinking about Danny for a while. He had so many inventions to work on, so many that caused him frustration because they still didn't work but he loved the process anyway. He loved the failures because they meant he could try again and again and again, and that made the successes all the more elating.

When he reached the lab, he looked up the stairs a final time, hoping to hear the sound of Danny walking through the front door.

He really wanted to be there the moment Danny returned. But he also really hated being idle. He couldn't just do nothing while he waited for Danny to come back.

And Danny had better come back soon before Maddie found anything out. Jack swore if that boy got him in trouble with his wife again—

Jack stormed over to his work station and picked up the latest device he had been working on, one designed to emit a pulse to immobilize ghosts. Complicated and difficult, but if he could just get it to work then maybe the day wouldn't be a total loss.

He reached for his pen to jot down some calculations but God damn it where was his pen? He searched his entire station, stepped back and scanned the floor. There it was. Jack huffed and bent to pick it up, straining just a little with the effort but it was fine now, he had his pen, now he could—

Where was his screwdriver! His calculator! He had left them right here, hadn't he?

He was sure he had, or maybe Maddie put them away. Or maybe he had misplaced them again—

The whole lab was a mess, actually. He hadn't noticed before. When was the last time he and Maddie had gone through everything in the lab and made sure it was all in order? Lately, they had been somewhat haphazard in their cleanups.

Maybe that would be a better use of his time for now, reorganizing the lab, putting things away. He couldn't find his damn screwdriver anyway, so maybe he'd find it if he just cleaned up a little first.

He sifted through drawers, not sure why there were scissors in this one when they were supposed to be in this other one, no idea why the batteries were scattered throughout a bunch of the drawers when there was one clearly marked for them. He and Maddie really needed to be more careful.

Except it was just so much easier to throw something into the nearest drawer rather than walk a little farther to put it in its correct drawer. That was his excuse, anyway.

As for Maddie, Jack couldn't help but think her mind was just elsewhere these days, a little too preoccupied with a particular white-haired ghost boy.

Jack studied the test tubes of the Fenton Solidifier held in a rack on one of the counters, wondering if he should "reorganize" them by smashing them on the floor.

No, his goal right now was to keep Maddie from getting angry with him; he definitely couldn't destroy one of her greatest achievements. The Fenton Solidifier allowed them to control ghosts while cutting down on their power bill, a way to prevent ghosts from changing their molecules in any spectral way.

But Jack knew Maddie had designed it specifically for Phantom even if she'd never admit it. He knew all too well that Phantom was the ghost she desired to render powerless most of all so she could do everything she wanted to him no matter how inappropriate.

He hated Phantom. Absolutely and completely hated everything about that punk who had somehow bewitched his family. Didn't they realize this was exactly what Phantom wanted? Didn't they understand they were falling for his ploy to control them in order to fulfill his ghostly obsession of being some adored hero?

One day, Jack would rip that ghost to shreds. One day soon. He would see to it.

He shoved the tube rack farther back on the counter and stomped to the cabinet containing the Fenton Thermoses. He had made so many of them over the past year and a half since he and Maddie actually started needing them to capture ghosts, enough to fill an entire cabinet.

And somehow, the Thermoses kept disappearing. Jack had no idea where he was misplacing them, but rather than trying to find them, he usually just created more. That was easier.

He opened the cabinet and huffed at the sight. The Thermoses were all just carelessly shoved inside on the shelves, many toppled over or piled together.

And what was this! The Thermoses with red lights indicating ghosts were contained inside them were supposed to be on one shelf while the empty Thermoses with green lights were supposed to be on a separate shelf. They were all just thrown together.

Was this somehow Danny's fault? Hadn't he told Danny and his friends to stop playing around in their lab? Hadn't he taught Danny how to organize things in the lab when he did chores down here?

Jack grumbled and scooped a large number of Thermoses in his arms. He was going to have to take all of them out and then place them back in one at a time while checking their lights.

He held as many Thermoses as he could in his arms because he was not about to make a ton of trips just to get them all to the nearest counter. His boots thumped heavily as he walked—

And one Thermos with a red light slipped out of his grasp—

And clattered to the floor—

A hulking mass of a ghost was unleashed amidst a concentrated beam of light. Jack froze as he watched it, the rest of the Thermoses still clutched in his arms, hoping that the anesthetic effects of the Thermos would be enough to keep it sedated.

The ghost was a monstrous one that had no clear resemblance to any terrestrial animal, simply a volume of ectoplasm with a torso, limbs, and a head. It blinked its glowing eyes in a daze before locking onto Jack.

This ghost was definitely in no way sedated, apparently too large for the anesthetic to take effect. He and Maddie really needed to recalibrate the dose some time.

But not now because he had a ghost to recapture.

The ghost roared and lunged for him, flinging itself past Jack as he dodged. Jack ran to the nearest counter and thrust the Thermoses in his arms onto it before picking up an empty one and pointing it at the ghost. The ghost swung at him, knocking the Thermos to the far side of the lab and sending Jack straight into a wall.

Jack groaned and picked himself up just in time to see the ghost coming for him again. He shouted and cursed as he ran out of the way. A gun, a gun, he needed a gun—

The ghost pitched toward him while Jack jumped as far forward as he could. He grabbed the nearest ecto-gun from one of the counters—definitely not where it was supposed to be but for once the disarray was to his benefit—and switched it on to high power.

The ghost came for him again. Jack circled and aimed ecto-blasts. The ghost ducked and wove, the blasts soaring past it and blowing holes in the walls and ceiling and floor instead. More for him to patch up, great. And there was no way he could fix all of this before Maddie came back. What excuse could he give her this time?

The ghost continued to chase him around the lab while Jack maintained his fire. Damn it, why couldn't he just land one shot, that was all he needed—

The ghost slammed into him, knocking him into a wall again. Jack cried out as the pain radiated through his shoulder blades and spine. He clenched his jaw so tight he could almost feel his teeth crack.

He trained his gun on the ghost as it raced toward him. He didn't need to recapture this damn thing. He could just kill it. He and Maddie had so many other ghosts to experiment on, what was one less

The ghost swiped at Jack's face with its huge hand. Jack held up his gun to parry the blow. With a low but shrill cry, the ghost grabbed the gun and wrenched it out of Jack's hands. Jack's jaw slacked as the ghost triumphantly hollered while holding the gun.

Jack scanned the lab. Another gun, another gun, yes, there was yet another ecto-gun on a counter where it wasn't supposed to be, perfect. Jack dashed toward it, just had to grab it—

The ghost stretched out an arm and wrapped it several times around his leg, forcing Jack to the ground with a hard thud. The ghost cackled and flipped Jack over onto his back. It aimed the stolen ecto-gun at Jack's face and charged it up to full power.

This was not good. That power could kill him immediately. He had to break out of this hold somehow, some way—

A concentrated ecto-ray knocked the gun out of the ghost's grip and against the floor where it skidded into a wall. Jack turned his head in the direction from which the ray had come.

Another ghost with white hair and green eyes, floating at the base of the lab stairs.

"You," Jack snarled.

Phantom gave him a quick glance before launching himself forward and plunging into the ghost, ramming a glowing elbow into its middle. The ghost slammed into a lab containment device, shattering glass and denting metal.

"Hey, that's expensive," yelled Jack as he pulled himself into a sitting position, not even believing that Phantom was already destroying his property.

Phantom rolled his eyes. Actually rolled his eyes. Jack was absolutely going to gouge out those eyes one of these days—

The ghost sent a hard focused punch right at Phantom. Phantom flipped backward, but the ghost came at him again with breakneck speed. Phantom continued moving backward while blocking or avoiding each blow. Well, of course he'd be evading instead of actually fighting, the coward.

Jack took the opportunity to get off the floor while both ghosts were completely distracted, groaning with the effort as he stood. He walked with purpose but also leisurely, picking up his ecto-gun that Phantom had earlier blasted out of the ghost's grip. Jack knew he didn't need to hurry, after all. Phantom wouldn't be going anywhere until he defeated this ghost because that was what his obsession was apparently prompting him to do.

Jack headed toward the large ghost shield button on a wall not too far from the scuffle. If Phantom wanted to "rescue" Jack, fine. But Jack would make him regret it.

Jack watched Phantom grab a Thermos from the cabinet. How did he even know the Thermoses were there? Had Phantom been in this lab before, secretly spying on them? Jack's blood heated as his hand hovered over the ghost shield button.

The ghost threw another punch that Phantom dodged. It hit the counter instead, causing a section of it to crack. Jack continued to seethe. So much damage, all Phantom's fault.

Phantom pulled the lid off the Thermos and aimed it squarely at the ghost. The ghost shrieked and attempted to get out of the way, but there was no escaping the beam of light once Phantom pressed the button.

Jack ground his teeth. This proved it; Phantom had definitely been spying on them. How else would he know how to use a Fenton Thermos?

The ghost's body elongated and then shrank into the confines of the Thermos. Phantom replaced the cap and exhaled audibly. Jack watched him hold the Thermos to his chest for a few moments.

Relieved, was he? Not for long.

Phantom set the Thermos on the counter behind him, and Jack took a couple steps back and then forward to get his attention. With his hand still hovering over the ghost shield button, Jack waited until Phantom looked over at him.

Phantom's eyes widened. Jack's narrowed.

This punk wasn't going anywhere.

Jack slammed the button hard. The lab filled with green light as the ghost shield activated and permeated the walls, ceiling and floor. Phantom's gaze darted everywhere, including at the blocked stairs leading out of the lab.

Jack walked toward him but kept his gun down by his side. "You think you can just barge into my lab uninvited, Phantom?"

Phantom leaned back against the counter as Jack came closer. "I—uh—"

"What are you doing here?" Jack stopped a short distance away from Phantom, still not aiming his gun. "What do you think gives you the right to be here?"

"I just—I saw you were in trouble, so I—"

"Really? And how did you just happen to see that? Were you somehow already in my house? Were you spying on me?"

"What? No! Of course not—"

"Have you been spying on my family?"

"No, never—"

"Then how did you even know there was a ghost here at all?"

Phantom let go of the counter and straightened. "Look, I just saved your life."

"I don't need you to save me, Phantom," spat Jack. "I don't need you to be a hero for me. I don't want you to be a hero for me. I could've handled that myself. I don't need you. I don't ever want you around."

Phantom lowered his head, then clenched his fists. "I didn't mean—I only wanted to—"

"I'm never going to change my mind about you. Don't bother trying."

Phantom kept his head down. Jack wasn't sure what he was trying to do. Make him feel sympathy? This timid behavior only made Jack hate him more.

Jack lifted his gun and held it in both hands, aiming it right at Phantom.

"But now that you're here," said Jack, "I'm not letting you go."

They stood apart from each other in silence for some time, staring each other down.

Man and ghost coming to their high noon.

Jack charged the gun, which emitted a high-pitched whir. He pulled the trigger just as Phantom sprang into the air. The blast destroyed the counter instead. But at this point, the damage didn't matter to Jack. As long as this ended with Phantom dead, he didn't care if the whole lab was destroyed.

Jack aimed his gun up at Phantom and fired more concentrated beams that blew holes in the ceiling as Phantom snaked his way around all of him. Jack grunted and paused to up the charge on his gun. Not yet full power; he wanted to save that for when he was sure he had a clear shot.

But Phantom was keeping too close to the ceiling, avoiding him because he was too afraid to actually fight. Jack had to force him down.

"That's how you want to do this, huh?" Jack moved to a control panel wired into the wall and keyed in a code to decrease the area of the ghost shield. The shield shrank in response, forcing Phantom to fly lower.

Jack threw several more blasts at Phantom, smirking as Phantom's dodges became less accurate. Some of the shots only narrowly missed him, others singed his suit, a few even charred sections of his skin.

And Jack could see the panic building all over Phantom's face.

Phantom's final moments being terrifying for him was just perfect.

One of Jack's shots grazed Phantom's arm, another drilled into his shoulder. Phantom cried out and fell to the floor. He held a hand to his wounded shoulder, ectoplasm oozing through his fingers.

Jack walked up to him and pointed the gun to his head where he knelt. "I have no interest in keeping you alive, Phantom. My wife does, sure, but she's not here."

He imagined Maddie's response to Jack killing Phantom, her anger, her frustration. But at that point, Jack really wouldn't care. It would be in the past and nothing would ever change it.

"She might yell at me for being so careless with you," Jack continued, almost to himself, "but I'll just tell her it was an accident."

Jack charged the gun to its fullest capacity. Phantom stared right into the barrel, his frozen expression illuminated by its vibrant magenta light.

Such a perfect ending.

Jack's finger tightened on the trigger. The gun sputtered, crackled, sparked. The magenta light blinked out into darkness.

No, no, no, come on this could not be happening he was so close

Jack snarled and pulled the gun toward his chest, hitting it a few times in an attempt to reignite it. "Damn it, I thought this was fully charged."

Phantom rose to his feet and began staggering away. Jack hit the gun harder. One shot, just one shot, that was all he needed out of it! Turn on just for a moment, just one, come on—

Phantom dizzily stumbled across the lab with one arm outstretched. Jack tossed his gun aside and stomped up to him. He didn't need a gun to kill him.

Jack grabbed Phantom's outstretched arm, intending to yank and turn him around. Phantom turned himself intangible, the arm slipping out of Jack's hold.

"You're really gonna be a coward now, Phantom?" demanded Jack.

Phantom still seemed dazed as his body spasmed, ectoplasm dripping from the shoulder Jack had shot. Jack grabbed Phantom's arm again and managed to pull him a couple feet across the lab before Phantom returned to intangibility and escaped his grip.

"Why won't you fight me?" asked Jack.

Phantom shook his head. "I—I don't want—"

"Why are you so pathetic? I wasn't expecting this from you."

He had at least expected Phantom to try to fight him. Was his desire to impress humans and obsession to be their hero really that strong? Was he literally incapable of fighting Jack even if his life depended on it?

Only one way to find out. Jack had to leave him with nothing but his natural strength and abilities, no ghost powers.

He looked across the room at the counters, knowing exactly what he had to do. Maddie had created the Fenton Solidifier just for Phantom, after all. Might as well use it for its intended purpose.

Phantom was again staggering forward. Jack kept an eye on him as he moved to the counter where the tubes of the Fenton Solidifier were kept. He loaded up a syringe with a full dose of the solution, tapped it a few times and aspirated it to get rid of bubbles. Not that it mattered if there were any air bubbles, though. If he ended up giving Phantom an embolism, he honestly wouldn't care.

Jack ran back to Phantom and clamped a hand onto his wounded shoulder, causing him to cry out. Jack could feel the tremors radiating through Phantom's body as he squeezed tighter, not allowing him any focus to turn intangible this time.

Phantom's body seized and then laxed before falling forward. Jack wrapped an arm around Phantom before he could reach the floor, pinning his arms to his sides. Jack poised the needled syringe containing the Fenton Solidifier over his neck.

Phantom's body regained some of its tension as he shook out his head. Jack gave him no time to become intangible and stabbed the needle through his jumpsuit right above his collarbone. Phantom yelped and twisted, but Jack only tightened his hold as he pushed the liquid into Phantom's neck. Once the syringe was empty, he pulled it out and threw Phantom into an observation table. Phantom hit the table hard before collapsing to the floor on his knees.

Phantom gasped a couple times before pressing a hand to his neck. He raised his head and looked up at Jack.

Jack smirked and held up the empty syringe. He could see realization dawn in Phantom's expression.

"Fenton Solidifier," said Jack. "I told you my wife invented this specifically for you, didn't I?"

During those countless hours she spent on this one concoction, he was sure she was fantasizing about what she could do to Phantom once he no longer had any power to escape her, to fight her off. He remembered the way her body hunched over her work space as she scribbled out chemical reactions and possible solutions, how he sometimes swore he could hear her muttering "Phantom" as she talked herself through her notes.

"All so she can keep you powerless without the use of expensive machinery or devices," murmured Jack more to himself than to Phantom. "All so she can freely do anything and everything she wants to any and every part of you."

Jack tightened his grip on the syringe. It cracked and shattered in his glove.

"Now you can't evade me anymore, Phantom." Jack tossed the shards aside. They clinked against the floor. "No more turning intangible or using any of your powers. Now you have to fight me."

Phantom groaned and shakily rose to his feet using the observation table as support. "I don't want to fight you," he gasped.

"Oh, I'm sure you don't." Jack held back a laugh. "You're nothing without your powers. You know you stand no chance against me now."

No invisibility to hide from him. No intangibility to escape him. No ecto-rays to keep him back. No supernatural strength to overpower him. Phantom had only the abilities of a man now, a man so much smaller than Jack was.

"And I won't go easy on you," said Jack. "This ends tonight, Phantom. My wife is obsessed with you, my daughter has a crush on you, my son keeps defending you. No more. You won't corrupt my family anymore after tonight."

Jack glared at Phantom with the most combative intensity he could muster, challenging him, daring him. Phantom's own gaze was sad, weak.

Don't even try your tricks. You will get no pity from me. No mercy.

Jack curled his fist and sent a hard punch straight toward Phantom. Phantom ducked and stumbled a couple steps away. Jack attempted to punch him again, this time managing to graze the side of Phantom's head. His third punch popped the side of Phantom's face. Jack could actually feel Phantom's cheekbone against his knuckles, could actually see the stunned daze in Phantom's eyes.

Jack wanted to feel it again, wanted to feel Phantom's bones crack, wanted to see ectoplasm streaming down his smashed face.

He put even more strength into his next punch, aimed it right at the center of Phantom's face. Phantom moved out of the way and directed his own fist into Jack's chin in an uppercut. Pain jolted through Jack's lower jaw as his head was thrown back with the force, causing him to take a step back.

Did that just happen?

Jack rubbed his chin, massaged out the sharp pain into a throbbing ache.

Phantom actually fought back. Phantom actually punched him.

And if that really was all he had, then Jack had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Jack smiled, enjoying the surprise crossing Phantom's face.

"So you can fight without your powers," remarked Jack. "That was a pretty solid punch, Phantom."

Jack gripped his sore chin and moved his jaw side to side, enjoying the pleasant clicks in his jaw joints. There, that should do it. He was ready to continue this fight. Not that Jack could really call this a "fight" considering Phantom's weak attempt, more like a beating at this point.

Jack launched at Phantom with another punch. Phantom jumped out of the way. No matter; Jack simply went in from another angle. And another. And another. Phantom raised his arms to block his face. Jack could practically feel the ecto-vessels in his arms breaking and popping as his fists smashed into them over and over.

Phantom was no longer trying to hit him now. He was only stepping backward as Jack continued his assault, backing toward the portal.

Jack watched Phantom's path more closely. Yes, his steps didn't seem random at all. He definitely seemed to be headed for the portal.

So he was going to try to run away?

Pathetic. Disgraceful.

Jack was not going to let Phantom get away from him this time. Never again. This was the last encounter they would ever have, and Jack intended to personally make certain of that.

Jack lurched forward and grabbed at the hair on the back of Phantom's head, whipping and snapping him to a halt. Phantom struggled, but Jack only tangled in his hair further, twisting the locks as hard as he could. He kept a firm hold on the back of Phantom's head and whirled him around, smashed his face into the nearest table once, twice, again, again, again—

It wasn't enough. It could never be enough. Even if he managed to burst Phantom's skull open, it just wouldn't be enough.

Ectoplasm sprayed and gushed all over the table. Jack slammed Phantom's face a final time before tossing him aside against the activated ghost shield. Phantom's body spasmed before he fell to the floor with twitching limbs.

Still conscious. Still suffering.

Good.

Jack walked to where Phantom lay. Phantom propped himself up on his forearm. The left side of his face was swollen with a deep green color and covered with ectoplasm that dripped down his jaw and off his chin. His left eye was screwed shut, the other teary.

He looked terrible.

But it still wasn't enough.

"You're so weak without your powers," said Jack. "I don't even need a gun to kill you like this. I could easily snap you in half right now. Crush your neck. Pop off your arms."

He could imagine exactly how each act would feel, could see in his head exactly how Phantom would look.

I won't even have use for your miserable corpse.

Jack pushed on Phantom's chest with his boot and forced him to lie on his back.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you."

Jack pressed onto Phantom's chest harder. Phantom's breathing sounded shallow, labored. His face displayed only a trace of his usual determination.

But then something changed.

Phantom's expression softened into something far sadder, something Jack had seen so many times but never on him. Jack sharply focused and tried to make sense of it.

"I can't," said Phantom. Ectoplasm trickled from his mouth. "I can't give you a reason why you shouldn't kill me. You probably should just kill me. I don't think I should be here anymore."

Jack eased his weight on Phantom's chest. Phantom's tone was tapping some part of his soul he couldn't even identify, begging it to bend in the most peculiar way. But also in a way he was certain he had felt before. But when? The recollection wasn't forming.

No, this was the sort of thing Phantom did. The sort of thing ghosts did. Phantom was trying to imitate something familiar to trick him. Jack couldn't let himself be tricked.

"I've been nothing but a disappointment to you," Phantom rasped out with whispery cadence. "I always have been. I tried but I was never what you wanted."

Phantom's words were hardly intelligible, suffocated by constricting torment, asphyxiated by shivering defeat. I'm useless, I'm no good, I do nothing right. I have no reason, no purpose, no excuse. You don't need me. None of you need me. You shouldn't be forced to deal with me. You shouldn't have to worry about your wife obsessing over me. You shouldn't have to think your daughter has any interest in me.

"And your son—"

Phantom paused, more ectoplasm oozing over his gums and teeth.

"Your son would definitely be better off without me around," sighed Phantom. "I've only made his life hell."

Phantom's train of thought was so strange, his utterances seemingly unrelated to each other. Jack pulled back his boot entirely from Phantom's chest, his forehead pinched with this perplexing wave of familiarity.

Phantom stayed on his back but turned his head toward his shoulder wounded by the shot from Jack's ecto-gun. "I thought I could help him."

Better, not so useless, not so disappointing. A reason to be here. Not a waste of space, a waste of time. Someone that mattered.

I just want to leave for a moment. Let me just—

"I don't want to wait anymore." Phantom continued with a gasp for air, his words still so low and strangled and indiscernible.

Find me, yell at me, hurt me. Trying to please you but only angering you. Keeping you out, drowning you out. But this is it. I can't run from you anymore.

Let go. Let me go.

"So just kill me already," Phantom pleaded in a tortured voice. "Because I don't want to keep living like this."

Jack had seen this before. He had heard this before. This was more than imitation. This was not even an exact replica. This was the original. Somehow. Impossible and yet he was sure because he had seen it before so many times across so many years and could never mistake it for anything else. Phantom's expression of remorse, so contrite, so repentant. His cocky valor replaced by something so timid and void of self-esteem. Giving up and giving in, submitting to Jack's authority, it reminded him of—

"But can you answer me one question before you kill me?" asked Phantom.

Jack heard but could not respond, couldn't even nod.

"Do you love your son?" whispered Phantom. "If he were to...somehow be gone forever, would you miss him?"

His son—

Why was Phantom asking about—

Danny

Danny! Danny was still gone! Wasn't he?

He wasn't here, right?

Phantom stared up at Jack, such a pitiable gaze, one eye swollen shut, the other glistening.

And then he swiftly turned his face away, as if he were too ashamed, too afraid to look Jack in the eyes anymore.

Just like Danny so often did.

Why was Phantom reminding him of Danny?

Over the past week, the way Danny didn't want to be alone with Jack, the way Danny acted afraid around Jack, the way he seized up when Jack approached.

That night Danny snuck out, that night Jack terrorized Phantom.

Terrorized Danny—?

Danny had slipped out of his grasp somehow before he ran out of the house. Jack had been holding him so tightly; how did he get away? It couldn't have been—

—intangibility—

NO it couldn't have been that was a ghost power impossible—

There is something that's been going on since the start of high school. But I haven't told you yet because I'm not sure what you'll think of me.

What did Jack think of him? Of Danny or Phantom?

I know more about Phantom than you do, Danny.

Did he?

You really think all ghosts are a threat to humanity?

A threat to his humanity.

How do you know there isn't one ghost that's different from the others?

A ghost that wasn't all ghost?

I don't think Danny Phantom is a bad ghost.

Jack stared at Phantom. Phantom refused to look at him.

I don't think I am a bad ghost.

It couldn't be true. He didn't want it to be true. It didn't make sense for it to be true and it certainly wasn't fair for it to be true.

He was just a researcher. He was just a scientist. He was just a parent.

He was only human—

Was he?

are you?

Jack lowered himself to his knees beside Phantom, connected the dots of his silhouette lying on the floor, lined them up with someone Jack knew too well, hoped that they somehow wouldn't align at all so he could be spared from this horror.

But as he stared at Phantom's broken face, it was only all too clear where Jack had seen this exact expression of sorrow and insecurity and regret before. His son had been wearing it all week.

"Of course I would miss you," Jack murmured. "Of course I would."

Jack placed a hand under Phantom's head. Phantom flinched.

No, not Phantom—

"Danny."

Danny blinked but did not move.

"Danny," Jack tried again.

Danny met Jack's gaze. Even though he was keeping only one eye open, the glow of his stare was intense.

"Danny." Jack took Danny's hand and gripped it hard. "Danny. Why did you let me do this to you, Danny?"

Danny's good eye closed halfway. Jack studied his face intently, resisting the urge to shake him and demand why, why, why he let things get to this point, why he didn't say anything earlier, why he just let Jack do this to him.

"I thought it was what you wanted," said Danny in a voice so tremulous it almost sounded like the words were causing him pain.

What he wanted.

Oh, God.

He did want it.

He had wanted so much to hurt Phantom. To beat him. Kill him.

And that meant he also wanted to destroy his own son.

Now he understood why Danny thought he didn't like him. He was absolutely right. Danny had been afraid of him, had been scared of his father hurting him, and he had every reason to be.

And Jack had wanted him to be afraid of him. As a ghost.

But as his child?

Nothing could be more horrific than his own child being afraid of him.

Jack shut his eyes and pulled Danny's hand up to his forehead to cover his face, his other hand still holding the back of Danny's head. His lungs collapsed. Everything collapsed.

As Jack held him, Danny stayed still.

But then Danny moved, sat up a short distance before yelping and falling back to the floor. Jack uncovered his face, his heart racing as he looked Danny over and realized the extent of what he had done. Half of his face was flooded with ectoplasm, his eye was turning dark shades of sickly green and blue, and his shoulder had an oozing hole blown right through it.

He had done this, he had done this, he had done this—

"I'm sorry." Danny's voice was struggling; his sound whistled. "I'm so sorry, Dad."

Jack moved his hand to Danny's back and helped him into a sitting position. "Sorry for what?"

"For—for—" Danny moaned and clutched at his shoulder.

Jack's chest jolted at the sight. He had done this, he had done this.

"Here. Let me—" Jack scooped Danny into his arms, one arm supporting his back and the other his knees. So easy, so effortless. Danny seemed to barely weigh anything. He seemed so small.

Jack couldn't believe he had been capable of doing this to someone who now seemed so small.

Danny's head lay against Jack's chest. Jack stared down at him, remembering that the last time he had held him like this had been so very long ago.

He couldn't believe he had been capable of doing this to his child.

Jack set Danny in a chair as delicately as he could before shutting off the ghost shield and retrieving the cancelling agent for the Fenton Solidifier. He returned to Danny's side and held up a syringe filled with liquid. "It's the cancelling agent. Could you—?"

Danny nodded and unzipped his suit, lowering a sleeve to bare his upper arm. Jack tried not to think about how he had to hurt his son yet again as he sterilized the area with alcohol and inserted the needle.

One more time. This was the last time he'd hurt him. Just this once and then never again.

He pushed the liquid into Danny's arm, then pulled the needle out and stepped back. He didn't have to wait long for Danny's molecules to glimmer and then darken, revealing his usual jeans and normal dark hair. Red splotches decorated his arms, blood covered his face and seeped through his shirt from his shoulder.

Too familiar. Under all the blood, he was far too familiar.

"Oh, God, it really is you," said Jack. "Oh, God, Maddie's gonna kill me. Oh, God—"

A sudden burst of adrenaline forced Jack to step away, move, shake out the spike of panic. Maddie would never understand, Maddie would never forgive him, Maddie would scream at him for hours and hours for so brutally beating their son—

He didn't know who he was!

It didn't matter. She would accept no excuses. She would hate him and curse him and cry and cry and cry—

Jack hastily searched for a first aid kit, muttering to himself about how this was yet another thing he had misplaced. Where was it! He had to clean Danny up. Maybe Maddie wouldn't be as mad if he made Danny look more presentable.

He located the first aid kit at last and breathed in deeply, steadied his shaking chest. One step at a time. Maddie wasn't even home yet. He'd patch Danny up first, treat his wounds, and then go from there.

He returned to Danny with the first aid kit and knelt beside him. He ripped Danny's sleeve while leaving his collar intact so that he could clean and bandage his wounded shoulder. He took a wet towel and rubbed it over Danny's neck and face, wiping away the dried blood. The battered side of his face felt hot even through Jack's glove.

He hated looking at it but had to. Because he had to clean it up before Maddie saw.

After removing the dried blood, Jack placed his hands on the sides of Danny's head. Danny's swollen left eyelid fluttered but did not open. The left side of his face was a deep crimson, parts of it already purpling, a web of broken veins and tiny capillaries extending to his forehead and split upper lip.

Damn it. He didn't look any better.

But his son had ghost powers. Jack hated that, absolutely hated that his son was a ghost, least of all Phantom, but maybe, just maybe, it was what Jack needed right now.

"How quickly do you think all this could heal if you switched back to ghost form?" asked Jack.

Danny creased his brow. "I—I don't know."

"You have supernatural healing abilities like other ghosts, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"So how long do you think it would take? Before your mom gets home? Can you make it go faster? Do you have control over it?"

"I—uh, I've never tried. How bad is it?"

Jack grabbed a mirror from one of the lab's drawers and handed it to Danny. Danny held it up to his face and stared at himself for some time.

Jack waited, hoped, prayed his son wouldn't let him down, please, he really needed this, if his son could do just one thing, please let it be this.

Danny lowered the mirror. "I can't heal this. Even in my ghost form, this would take days to heal."

Jack groaned. "You've got to be kidding me. I can't let Maddie see you like this."

He snatched the mirror from Danny's hand. Danny mumbled some pitiful apology but Jack didn't acknowledge it. What good was an apology to him now? He needed a plan, he needed to figure something out, maybe some sort of invention, some sort of serum to enhance ghost healing abilities, maybe—

Jack paced the floor, tried to think of something, anything to solve this problem before Maddie came back and discovered the most terrible, unforgivable thing Jack had ever done.

Danny was speaking again. Jack wasn't exactly sure why because if Danny couldn't heal himself immediately, then he was currently useless.

"I mean, maybe it'd be quicker if I was transformed twenty-four-seven for a while, but I've never had to heal anything quite this bad. At least, not on my face. Usually I can just cover up anything on my face with Jazz's make-up—"

Jack turned to Danny sharply. "Jazz's make-up? Does Jazz know about this, too?"

Danny hesitated. "Uh—well—"

"Are you telling me Jazz knew about this and didn't tell us?" Jack's voice rose. "That both of you kept this a secret from us together?"

"We didn't mean—I mean—"

"I don't believe this. I just can't believe—"

Jack cursed in a distressed, throaty growl. Danny lying to him all this time, okay, that was frustrating but not completely surprising. But his daughter? How could Jazz have kept something like this from him? He had always known her to be completely truthful about everything. Had he just been wrong? Could he just not trust either of his kids?

How had he been so completely blind this entire time about what was going on in his own house? About who both of his children really were? About what his son really was?

His energy surge from before was retreating, dizzying him. His suddenly exhausted body ached with the need to lie down and recover.

"How did this happen?" Jack leaned against a counter and took in the state of the ravaged lab, the destruction, the splatters of ectoplasm, ectoplasm that belonged to his son. "Why did this happen? This is impossible."

It made no logical sense, had no scientific explanation he could imagine.

But it was a truth he could never escape.

A horror he could never hide from.

Beyond the lab, upstairs, the sound of the front door opening and shutting. Jack and Danny froze.

"Danny? Jack?" Maddie called. "Where are you two?"

Neither answered.

"Boys? Are you home?"

"Maybe they went out?" offered Jazz's voice. "Maybe Dad wanted more fudge?"

"But the Fenton RV is still parked outside. Danny, Jack? Are you here?"

Jack dropped his head to his chest. Time was up.

"I could phase through the ceiling," said Danny. "I could go up to my room. I could go into ghost form, try to heal as much as I can for a couple hours. You could just say I'm taking a nap or something—"

"No, Danny. You're not supposed to be taking naps or even in your room alone at all, remember? You're grounded. And besides, I was supposed to be helping you with physics."

"Then we—we could—"

"No." Jack sighed. "We can't hide this from your mom."

No hiding what he had done, no denying it. Everything he had been doing to Danny all week, everything he had been doing to Danny since the first time Jack saw his ghost form. All of the pain and fear he had inflicted on his son, Jack had to face it at last. He had to admit it, confess it, accept it.

He placed a hand on Danny's back and guided him to stand. "We have to tell her."

He breathed in these last few seconds, these final moments before Maddie would find out and nothing would ever be the same between them again.

"Jack? Danny?" called Maddie's voice from the top of the stairs as she opened the lab door. "Are you two down there?"

"Yes," answered Jack. "Yes, we're both here. We're coming up."

"What are you doing down there?"

"Ah—just hang on, we'll be up."

Jack led the way out of the lab, took each stair slowly, listened to the sound of Danny's steps. When they reached the living room, he could feel Danny standing right behind him, hiding. Jack wished he could keep Danny hidden.

"Finally." Maddie held up her phone. "I have a list of cars here for us to go over. Quite a few good deals, but we're not sure—"

Jack stepped to the side, allowing Danny to be seen fully. Danny raised his head, pressed his folded arms to his body.

Maddie did not move or speak for a moment. Jazz gasped and covered her mouth.

"Danny!" Maddie rushed up to Danny and placed her hands on his arms. "What happened to your face? And your shoulder? And your arms, they're all red." She shook him. "How did this happen?"

Danny shivered as he spoke in a whispery stutter. "Um—well, we—I mean, I, um—I was—"

He glanced at Jack. Jack said nothing at first, hoping that somehow, some way, Danny could come up with some sort of answer, something to explain this all away to Maddie.

"It's—what happened was—" Danny drew a harsh breath. "I—"

But Jack knew there was nothing Danny could do to save the situation, and he couldn't let Danny keep struggling like this. This wasn't Danny's responsibility. Jack had to take it all on himself.

He had to be a good father. For once.

"Danny."

Danny looked at Jack again.

"I'll take care of this, Danny," said Jack quietly.

Maddie's mouth curved in a stern frown. "Jack? Who did this to Danny?"

Jack could tell by her dark tone that she already knew. "Maddie, just let me finish speaking before you say anything—"

"Jack. Answer me."

Jack blew out a long breath through his nose. "I… It was me. I did it."

Maddie's hold on Danny's arms tightened. "What?"

"Maddie—" Jack tried to begin.

"You—it was you—you beat up our son?"

"Listen—"

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I didn't know it was him!"

Maddie scoffed. "What do you mean you didn't know it was him? What the fuck does that mean, Jack?"

"He was—he didn't look like himself!" Jack knew exactly how crazy that sounded but how else could he say it? "He was in—in—ghost form!"

"Ghost form? What are you talking about?" yelled Maddie. "Are you seriously trying to justify beating up our son?"

Oh, God, was he?

"He's telling the truth, Mom," said Danny weakly.

"Danny, please, just let me handle this," said Jack, already feeling tired, like he had been trying to explain himself for a very long time now.

Danny looked at the floor. Maddie's red lips curled into a snarl while Jazz stood behind her with an open mouth.

"Maddie, I...really don't know how to say this." Jack clenched his facial muscles, bracing himself for whatever would follow. "Danny, our son...is a ghost. Not just any ghost either, but…" He exhaled sharply. "He's Danny Phantom."

There was a hard silence.

"What?" Maddie stared at Jack, glanced at Danny briefly. "That's impossible. What do you mean?"

"I mean—" Jack tried to think of a new way to explain it but no, there really wasn't any other way to say it. "Look, I know. It is impossible, but it's true."

"No." Maddie shook her head many times. "No. You're not getting away with what you've done here, Jack."

"Maddie, I saw him. He even changed back right in front of me."

"No. No. No!"

"Yes!" shouted Jack. "Even Jazz knew. Right, Jazz?" Jack held his hand out to Jazz, hardening his expression so that she could know exactly how disappointed he was in her for not telling him sooner. Maybe all of this could have been avoided if at least one of his kids had been honest. "You knew and didn't tell us for some reason, right? Even though you should've. Even though both of you should've!"

Jazz shrank back and only sputtered in reply.

"No, Jack." Maddie's voice was loud but weak. "No. I don't know what you think you're doing, but this isn't going to work." She studied Danny. "I'm not going to believe this. Our son is not Danny Phan—" She panted and clutched at her chest. "I mean, he's not… He's not… He can't be…"

Her eyes unfocused, her face whitened. But Jack had nothing else to tell her, no explanation to give. None of this made sense to him either.

"It's true, Mom," said Danny quietly. "Remember the accident I had in the ghost portal? The beginning of freshman year?"

Maddie's eyes widened. And in that moment, Jack also remembered exactly what he was talking about, the day Danny shocked himself in their ghost portal he and Maddie were convinced was broken.

But Danny had been fine! Or at least Danny had said he was fine, that nothing happened, that the portal didn't hurt him.

Just how many lies had Danny told them?

"I'm sorry, Mom." Danny's words sounded strained. "I'm so sorry. I should've told you and Dad right when it happened, but—I—I don't know why I didn't. I guess I was just—I was afraid you'd be mad and then it all got so complicated and—"

"No," said Maddie hoarsely. "You wouldn't do that to me, Danny. You would've told me. You can't be—you can't be—it's not true—"

Jack knew exactly where she was coming from. Indeed, Danny surely wouldn't do something like this to them, would he? Why wouldn't their own son just come to them from the beginning with the truth? Why would he allow his own parents to hunt him and never say anything, never even try to stop them from doing something they would so deeply regret?

Danny took Maddie's hand in his. He held her hand up between the two of them as they looked each other in the eyes. He then pulled his hand straight through hers, their cells mingling and overlapping before separating again. Intangibility. As Maddie stared at her hand, Jack was reminded of how Danny had slipped out of his hold earlier while they were arguing, before Danny ran out of the house.

Maddie gaped and stepped back, raising her hand to cover her mouth, looking as if Danny had just betrayed her. And as much as it relieved Jack that Maddie was currently upset with Danny and not him, he knew he had an obligation to tell the whole story of what happened.

"I was cleaning up in the lab, organizing some things," said Jack. Maddie's eyes so swiftly returned to him that he almost flinched. "I dropped a Fenton Thermos and accidentally released the ghost inside. And of course it started attacking me. And then Danny showed up in his ghost form to—to help me, I guess." Jack shut his eyes and huffed. "I didn't recognize him at all. I… I just saw him as Phantom. And…"

He looked at Danny, recalling just how sincerely he wanted to kill him less than half an hour ago.

"I wasn't going to let him escape," murmured Jack.

Maddie sniffled. "What were you even doing in the lab? You were supposed to be helping Danny with physics."

"I know—"

"That was the whole point of me and Jazz going out to look for a car together, so you could concentrate on helping Danny."

"Maddie, yes, I know, but—"

"You were supposed to help him, not beat him!"

Jack kept his face turned from Danny as much as possible, not wanting to see again what exactly he had done to his son. "I don't expect you to forgive me for this. But I really didn't know—"

"This can't—I can't. This is too much." Maddie threaded her fingers through her hair and paced the floor. "First Jazz tells me Danny's been taking opioids, and now I'm finding out he's—he's—"

"What?" Jack's voice became harsh, rage replacing his guilt, almost a relief to again bring the focus off of what he had done. Just when he thought Danny couldn't possibly find any new ways to surprise him, deceive him. "Opioids? What are you talking about?"

"I was going to talk to you about it privately," said Maddie. "And then we were going to have a talk with Danny about it after dinner."

"But where has he even been getting them?" asked Jack.

Danny glared at Jazz. "You told her?"

All eyes turned to Jazz. She took a small step back before strengthening her stance.

"Of course I told her," said Jazz, rubbing her arm.

"Why? Why would you tell her?" yelled Danny.

"Why? You know why!" snapped Jazz. "Because I knew you were going to hide your pills from me while we were gone!"

"Hide them?" Jack rounded on Danny, so many connections clicking in his mind. "Is that why you were trying to go upstairs by yourself? Because you wanted to hide drugs?"

Danny lowered his head. "I—well—"

"Okay, shut up," cried Maddie. "Everyone just—shut up."

Maddie collapsed onto the sofa. She propped her elbows on her thighs and pressed her palms to her forehead. Her breaths varied, some quiet and small, others loud and shaky.

Jack hated seeing her this way. And he knew there was nothing he could do to console her.

But this could have all been avoided.

Jack stared at Danny, who was fingering the frayed edges of his ripped sleeve. Why didn't Danny say something sooner? Why didn't Danny stop him from going too far? Why didn't he tell them right away that the ghost portal incident had had a far more devastating effect on his body? Why did he lie and insist he was okay?

Why did he always do that?

Danny met Jack's eyes briefly before turning away.

"Danny."

Jack turned his focus back to Maddie. She was holding her arms out toward Danny.

"Danny. Come here. Please."

Jack could see Danny stiffen and tremble before slowly walking toward Maddie and sitting beside her on the sofa. Maddie wrapped her arms around him and pressed her forehead against the side of his face.

She was always so affectionate with him. Jack wasn't sure he had ever been that affectionate with Danny.

But he could certainly be violent with him.

Jack ran a hand down his face, his glove sticking and tugging at his skin.

Maddie whispered something to Danny. Jack tried to figure out what she might've said by studying Danny's expression, but he did not react.

"Okay." Maddie placed gentle fingers against Danny's chin and guided him to look at her. "We have a lot to talk about this week." She looked at Jack and Jazz. "All of us together. I'm going to call the school tomorrow and tell them Danny's sick." She paused, shook her head. "No, I'll tell them we're all going on a trip. A family emergency." She pulled out her phone. "I'm going to look at some hotels, see what I can get for tomorrow night and the rest of the week."

"Wait." Jazz quirked a brow. "You're pulling us out of school?"

"Yes." Maddie scrolled through her phone. "Like I said, we all need to talk."

"But why do we need to miss school?"

"Because we can't let anyone see Danny like this, Jazz."

Jazz blinked a few times rapidly. "What, so you're just going to cover it up?"

"Do you want Dad to go to prison, Jazz?"

Maddie's words echoed around the living room. Jazz's fierce glare softened into uncertainty. Danny stiffened. Jack stared at the floor, his eyes widening as he realized dear God she was right he would be arrested if this got out.

"Do you want Danny to be taken away?" Maddie held a hand out toward Jazz. "Do you want to be taken away? Because that's what will happen if anyone sees Danny like this."

Jack swallowed his hitching breaths. She was right, she was right, but would covering it up make it worse? What if someone later found out what Jack had done and discovered they lied about it? What if at some point Danny's secret was revealed to everyone and they went digging to figure out exactly who owned the ghost portal that shocked and mutated his body in the first place? What if they then discovered all of the terrible things Jack and even Maddie had unknowingly been doing to Danny? All of which would look like child abuse no matter how they tried to explain it?

Jack groaned. "Maddie, maybe we should talk about this more—"

"No," shouted Maddie. "No, I'm not letting our family break apart over this. You didn't know it was him. We didn't know it was him. I didn't know it was him. That's—that's not our fault." Tears began streaming down her face. "How were we supposed to know? This is supposed to be impossible. All these months, I had no idea the ghost I was chasing and shooting at was—I mean, it's not my—I wouldn't have if I had known—"

Maddie sobbed and buried her face in her hands. Jack placed an arm against the nearest wall, allowing his head to fall to his chest.

"But we can't—" Jazz wildly shook her head, her long hair splaying all across her shoulders. "We can't just hide this. We can't just pretend—"

"Jazz," said Danny quietly but with a surprising boldness. "We can hide this. We can pretend."

Maddie continued crying. Jazz's lips parted. Jack's forehead creased.

"We've been covering up my ghost powers for a year and a half," said Danny. "What's another cover-up at this point? What's one more lie? What's another fake phone call to the school telling them we won't be attending for a few days?"

Jack glanced at Maddie's face to see if she understood what Danny was referring to in the last sentence, but she appeared as confused as he was. But then why should they be confused? Of course Danny and Jazz had told other lies and made fake phone calls he and Maddie didn't know about.

"That—what I did was different," said Jazz. "It was only a couple classes, and we weren't covering anything like this up."

Danny shrugged. "At this point, the lies are all the same to me."

Jazz's bottom lip trembled but her eyes were hard. "You're so bad at doing what's best for you."

"It's not just me now," said Danny. "It's all of us."

Jack's eyelids fluttered as he realized just how true that was. Now this was a lie they all had to keep telling. Danny was fine, their family was fine, everything was fine.

Jazz threw her hands in the air and stomped up the stairs. Maddie stood from the couch while dialing a number on her phone. She walked to the kitchen and began speaking to someone about their hotel's immediate availability.

And Jack and Danny were alone again.

Danny fell back against the sofa. Jack looked at him from across the room. Danny made eye contact, did not look away this time. Jack almost wanted him to.

Danny's face was so shattered, but Jack could still recognize him.

So why hadn't he been able to recognize him as Phantom?

Maybe Danny was right. Maybe it was what he wanted.

Maybe he just didn't want to see Danny.