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Ghosts of Me and You

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It shouldn't have surprised him -- it really shouldn't have -- when he walked into the living room and there was Harold, sitting at the kitchen island, smiling at him in that particular Harold way.

Ward stopped. Stood there for a moment. Took a deep breath.

It was still dark outside the condo's enormous picture windows, adding to the sudden unmoored feeling, as if he'd come loose in time and landed somewhere in the past. Except he couldn't have; he hadn't had this place then. It had been part of his self-reinvention, his moving forward: he'd severed ties with every company that had Hand dealings, he'd sold the townhouse, had gotten rid of Harold's penthouse and cut loose his old apartment. He'd bought a condo with east-facing windows and had called it a win, obstinately telling himself so, while he'd watched the sun rise on those many sleepless nights after a lifetime's reliance on chemical help to drug and/or drink himself to sleep.

Even now, he still tended to wake up at odd hours, sometimes because of nightmares, sometimes because his brain for whatever reason just wouldn't stay asleep anymore. Six months of traveling around Asia with Danny really hadn't helped with that, since Danny tended to get up at the crack of oh hell no because he liked it. Sometimes Ward managed to go back to bed; more often he stayed up.

And now Harold was at his kitchen island, watching him with eyes that glittering with the reflected light of the sleeping city.

"You're not here," Ward said aloud, and instantly wished he hadn't. His voice sounded too loud in the stillness of the night, and Harold turned his head, looking at him more sharply and intently, as if he hadn't really seen Ward until Ward said something.

But then, nothing had ever worked with Harold, had it? Not pushing back, not trying to avoid notice, not running away. Harold called the shots, and Harold made the rules, and Harold changed the rules according to his own whims and then blamed Ward for not keeping up.

"You're not here," Ward said again. "You're dead."

"Now, son," Harold said, and Ward jerked in surprise. "Don't be cruel."

The voice was even right, and why wouldn't it be? This had to be a hallucination -- though he hadn't had those in a while. Or a dream, more likely. One of those hellscape dreams where he seemed to be awake but wasn't, and things went along in perfectly normalcy until they didn't. One of those dreams where he thought he was awake, only to realize he was still in the dream, and when he finally woke up for real he'd be haunted throughout the day by the crawling fear that he was still dreaming and it would all turn to violence and blood in the end.

But since it was a dream and therefore nothing he did would change the outcome anyway, he said, "Whatever, Dad," and went to the cabinet to get out the coffee beans and feed them into the grinder.

When he turned around, Harold was gone.

Ward took a few more breaths. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth ... He remembered Danny earnestly trying to teach him grounding techniques, in Jakarta or Chengdu or Phnom Penh -- earnestly and (Ward suspected) rather badly, using rote phrases Danny himself had only half paid attention to.

He wasn't sure if it helped at all, but thinking of Danny did actually help. Remembering himself sitting on a mat on a balcony in a Chengdu high-rise, morning sunlight slanting across them, as Danny repositioned Ward's arms and legs to (as Danny said) unlock his blocked chi. Ward even managed to smile a little, as he took his coffee to the couch and watched the sky turn gray and then gold above the city horizon.

But he kept glancing at the empty stool where Harold had been sitting. There was no logical reason not to turn his back on it, and yet he didn't like to; he could still feel it there, its emptiness filled with the possibility that it might not be empty the next time he turned around.

As the first shafts of morning sun stabbed through the window, he got up and shoved all the stools underneath the overlapping edge of the kitchen island, covering the seats.

 

***

 

"And the Wiśniewski deal will need to be closed personally; I don't think you can delegate that one. They've been getting cold feet every time they have to deal with the board. I have the file here -- are you listening, boss?"

"Listening. Definitely listening." He looked up from his coffee cup at Katie, his assistant, in front of his desk with a stack of files in her arms and a familiar look of half-fond exasperation on her face.

"You need to get more sleep," she said, setting the files on the edge of his desk. "Don't make me call your brother and tell him."

"No respect. It's almost like I fucked off halfway around the world and left you running the company," he said, and smiled at her, and Katie rolled her eyes and smiled back. The thought occurred to him, not for the first time, that he needed to promote her to a position with more responsibilities and a better paycheck; she was wasted keeping his files and schedule in order. She might as well have a title upgrade to reflect how much of the day-to-day management of the company she actually did; the board might not like it but who cared what they thought ...

"Anyway, the Wiśniewskis," Katie said briskly, and Ward heaved a sigh and tried to pay attention.

Dream or hallucination, it was over, dispelled by daylight. It was just that it was difficult to get out of his head.

 

***

 

The condo had never really felt like home. It was too big and too empty; it lacked the warm, friendly chaos of Danny and Colleen's place, or even the comfortable grandeur of the old townhouse. Still, it was safe. It was his. Or at least it had felt that way until tonight.

He picked his way through the rooms, unable to justify his jittery restlessness, but equally unable to let go of it. He drank coffee and then regretted it, staying up far later than the bedtime he'd ruthlessly attempted to enforce since coming back from Asia. He had to fight the urge to pick up some over-the-counter sleeping pills. They said in the program that relying on other kind of drugs, even the benign sort, increased your chances of going back on the hard stuff. He wasn't really in the program anymore; he'd gone to his last meeting before he went to Asia with Danny and just ... hadn't gone back, when he got back to the US three months ago. But he still thought about it, especially on nights like this.

Hell, he could probably find a late meeting, if he wanted to.

But he didn't, and eventually he slept, and then he woke in the darkest part of the night with the feeling that he wasn't alone in the bedroom.

He lay rigid and still in the dark. It was stupid, he told himself; he'd been jumpy all evening for no damned reason, and now he was making himself even jumpier. He just needed to get up for a few minutes, have a glass of water, and --

"You know, son," Harold's voice said out of the dark, and all the air in Ward's lungs went out of him as if he'd been punched.

He sucked it in again a moment later, because of course it was a dream, another fucking dream. He pushed himself up on his elbows. He could see Harold now, framed against the slightly brighter stripes of the blinds, just sitting there, a shadowed silhouette at the end of the bed.

The only question was ... would this turn out to be the kind of dream where he stabbed Harold, or Harold stabbed him? The kind of dream where he was moments too late, and watched Harold beat Danny to death, or break Joy's neck in front of him?

It occurred to him, through the panic tightening his chest, that he wasn't usually this aware and rational in these dreams. Lucid dreaming was a highly unwelcome development in the constant series of fresh hells that was his life.

"You know, son," Harold said again, in the exact same tone, like he was stuck in a loop and only now getting to the next part of it. "You've really let the company go to hell in my absence."

"Have I, now," Ward said dryly. He sat up and massaged a kink out of his shoulder. When he slept, he tended to sleep deeply, bursts of exhausted crashing interspersed with restless dreams and insomnia.

"Look at it analytically, why don't you," Harold said. "If you're capable of it. You're making half the revenue we were making under my leadership."

"Yeah, that's because we're not selling knockoff heroin or dealing with businesses that are fronts for the Hand, Dad." Did it help or hurt to play along with your own hallucinations? He had no idea. It was hard, though, not to fall back into the same patterns he'd always fallen into with Harold: he made a token show of resistance, and Harold treated it like the barking of a dog. It didn't matter. But it gave him something to do, something other than just rolling over and letting Harold win.

Not that he didn't roll over in the end, every time.

"See, that's what I'm talking about," Harold said in that faux-reasonable, I'm the adult and you're the child voice that Ward had always loathed. "Your squeamishness is costing us money."

"Yeah," Ward said, and laughed shortly. He rolled out of bed and got up in his boxers and T-shirt. "That's what it is. For sure."

"Don't walk away when I'm talking to you, son."

"Oh yeah?" Ward said, and he deliberately turned his back on the shadow sitting on the bed, even though it made a chill writhe down his spine. "What are you going to do about it? You're dead, remember?"

"Am I?" Harold said quietly, and his voice -- with no sense of motion, no rustle of movement -- came from mere inches behind Ward. His breath brushed the back of Ward's neck.

A stabbing dream then, Ward thought, calm in the paralyzed way of a rabbit in front of a snake. He turned around, and wasn't at all surprised (though it was hard not to flinch) when he found Harold standing exactly as close as it had sounded like.

"Just get it over with," he spat between his teeth, "so maybe I can wake the hell up and get back to sleep at some point between now and -- ow!"

It was shocked pain that tore the exclamation out of him, although there were no knives, no guns -- nothing but Harold grabbing his arm just above the wrist and digging strong fingers into his flesh, grinding nerves against bone. It was astonishingly painful. Ward's other hand shot out without conscious thought, grabbed Harold's wrist. It felt like Harold's wrist; he could feel the hair, the thick bones under the skin. And he couldn't pry him loose. Harold had always been stronger.

"Now, son," Harold said calmly, leaning close to Ward's face as his fingers dug in until Ward had to fight to keep from whimpering. "We've always been a team, you and I. That isn't going to change just because you're digging holes you can't dig yourself out of." He smiled, a flash of teeth. "I'm here to pull you back up again. Just like I always have."

"Lucky me," Ward panted out through clenched teeth.

"We're a team, Ward," Harold said, and then he was just gone, from one instant to the next, and the relief was so sudden and shocking that Ward sank to his knees and curled his hand over his throbbing arm.

He had to flex his fingers and twist his arm to make sure nothing was broken. The wrist was full of tiny bones that broke easily and didn't really show; he knew that better than (hopefully) most people. But there was none of the sharp hot pain that went along with a true break, none of the painful resistance to movement that he was half expecting as he carefully twisted his wrist. Nothing but a dull ache, and red marks emerging slowly on the pale underside of his arm.

He got up, eventually, and made coffee. And he kept waiting to wake up properly, waiting for some transition, but there wasn't one. The night passed while he idly watched cable movies he wasn't paying attention to, and tried not to feel as if the shadows were staring back at him.

 

***

 

"... and Luke has a full gym in there, just right down in the basement. I mean, it might be a mobster club, but it's a really awesome mobster club. I know Misty is worried about him, but I honestly think he's doing the best thing for the community by keeping out the ... hey, Earth to Ward."

"Listening," Ward said, his chin propped on his hand.

"Are you even awake?" Danny kicked him lightly under the table. Ward scowled at him.

They'd been keeping this up -- lunch or dinner or movie night, a few times a week -- ever since they'd gotten back to New York. Ward kept feeling like they were going to drift out of each other's orbit again, Danny getting back to his life in Chinatown and Ward getting back to his own, but so far it hadn't really happened; they kept making time for each other. Which was part of why he hadn't cancelled even though he was exhausted and edgy and generally felt like shit. Lunch with Danny was fun, and there wasn't a whole lot else in his life that was really, truly fun.

Or at least it was usually fun. He was tired and distracted, and let Danny do most of the talking, which normally worked, but then Danny reached out and closed a very light hand over his wrist. Ward jerked in reaction, but Danny's touch was so light it was almost nonexistent, not like being captured or caged; unlike with Harold, he could have broken Danny's grip easily.

"Ward," Danny said, his voice strange. "What'd you do to yourself?"

Ward looked down at the sleeve that had rucked up where he hadn't fastened the cuff well enough, the clear purple bruises on his forearm, pressed into distinct fingerprints. It was different seeing it by daylight, in this restaurant, as if it made it more real somehow, and he just thought in a vague and distant way, Oh. Maybe he had done it to himself. But he held up a hand and tried to fit his own fingers over it, and it was all wrong. He couldn't possibly get that angle, and the pad of the thumb was too long.

"Did someone do that to you?" Danny asked, with that quick-burn anger that Danny was capable of, and Ward looked up at him and saw Danny bristling with a fierce, protective fury.

He still didn't know how to deal with someone looking at him like that.

"It's nothing," he said, pulling his hand away.

Danny's fingers parted easily and let Ward's hand slide out of his grasp, but his stare wasn't so easy to escape. "Ward, seriously, what happened? That's not the kind of thing that happens in meetings and boardrooms. Are you in some kind of fight club?"

The question was so unexpected that it startled a sharp laugh out of him. "No," he said, feeling a little lighter, and reached for his iced tea. "No, Danny, I'm not in a fight club. Jeez." He shook his head and laughed again and sucked on the straw.

"So what is that, then?"

There was something about Danny that forced the truth out of him. "I had a nightmare," Ward said. "I woke up and it was like that. I swear to God, that's all it is."

"You bruised yourself in your sleep?"

"Guess so," Ward said, flexing his fingers. "I mean, it definitely happened last night while I was asleep." True, he hadn't been aware of waking up from the dream about Harold, but there was nothing else it could be. He'd done something to himself in his sleep, and that was embarrassing, but it was ... better than the alternative, by a long shot.

"If you're having insomnia again, you can call me, you know," Danny said with that particular Danny-ish earnest look on his face. Ward rolled his eyes and Danny half smiled.

"Yeah, and wake up Colleen, who will come uptown just for the pleasure of beating me half to death with the butt of her katana. You think these bruises look bad?"

Danny laughed, as Ward had hoped for. "Okay, fine. No waking up Colleen. But ... look, why don't you come down to Chinatown for dinner on Friday? We'll supply the food. You bring the movie."

"Bring the movie?" Ward said, laughing in spite of himself. Danny could always make him feel a little lighter, even on days like this. "There's the catch: I have to somehow find a video rental place in Manhattan. They have this thing called Netflix now, you know. All the movies you could want, at the stroke of a computer key."

"Okay, fine, so you pick something off Netflix. Something we'll all like."

"No pressure."

"None at all," Danny said, grinning at him. "If Colleen doesn't like it, she'll bounce her katana off your head. Not the sharp end, don't worry."

"You're the worst," Ward said, and Danny was outright giggling now, and stole a handful of fries off his plate, only to put half a cookie on the edge of Ward's plate a minute later.

 

***

 

There was absolutely no logical reason why the condo felt eerier in the evening. Ward knew, intellectually, that he brought his own demons; they didn't exist independently of him.

Or so you think. Harold had died twice and come back. Was it really too impossible to assume ...?

Yes. Yes, it was. For one thing, he'd watched Harold being cremated; he'd taken an urn full of ashes down to the seashore and -- alone, with no ceremony -- poured it into the waves. (He'd thought about flushing Harold down the toilet, but something stopped him. Maybe he just didn't want to risk Harold hybridizing somehow with the alligators in the sewers.)

Yes, Harold was dead. Which meant Ward was a victim of his own jittery nerves, and nothing else.

Still, he stayed up late again, idly watching talk shows, and then sat on the edge of his bed for a long while, feeling stupid but also unwilling to pull up the covers and try to sleep.

Finally, cursing himself for his own susceptibility to suggestion, he took a blanket and pillow into the living room, wrapped up in the blanket on the couch, and lay gazing at the nighttime view of the city until sleep claimed him.

He was awakened by a hand shaking his ankle.

"Yeah, what?" Ward snapped, fuzzy with sleep, jerking his leg away. Sleep-deprived and jolted out of uneasy dreams, he had the vague sense that it was Danny, here in his apartment for some reason.

"Son, you're slacking," Harold's voice said, and Ward woke up like he'd had a bucket of ice cubes dumped down his collar.

"Am I, now," he said darkly, sitting up with his blanket clutched to his chest. Harold was sitting on the foot of the couch by his feet, backlit by the city skyline. "What, by trying to grab a few hours of sleep without having your dream avatar waking me up all the goddamn time?"

Harold gave his ankle a hard smack right on the bony point, a briefly painful pay-attention-to-me that Ward might have, once upon a time, taken for granted. "You're letting our competitors run away with profits we could be making instead."

"Oh, so it's that again." Ward got up, shoving the blanket into a rucked-up mess on the couch, and went into the kitchen. He didn't bother turning on the lights, but he did keep his head half turned, keeping an eye on Harold while he filled a glass with water.

Harold didn't do any little-girl-coming-out-of-a-TV jump-scares this time, just leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, still backlit by the windows so Ward couldn't see his face. "I've always been the bad guy to you, haven't I, Ward? Pushing you to be better, wanting you to make something of yourself ..."

"Oh," Ward said, "is that what you think you did." He took a sip from the water glass. The water was lukewarm and the rim jittered against his teeth. And still, he didn't take his eyes off Harold, as if Harold might switch to a different part of the room if he blinked.

"It's disappointing, Ward, that's all, to learn that as many of my lessons as I tried to drill into your head, you absorbed so little of it. I built this company from its raw beginnings, built it up to new heights after Wendell died --"

"After you murdered him, you mean."

"And now, here you are. Slacking off, taking vacations --" Harold said it like it was a dirty word. "Running the company into the ground." He smacked his fist into his thigh, a sudden movement that made Ward jump and almost spill water down his own neck. "We're going to build it up again, Ward. Just like the old days. I give the orders, you follow them, and together we'll --"

"No," Ward said.

"-- rebuild it into a monument to its glory days. We'll build it better than it was. You as the public face, me as the power in the shadows, the brains behind the operation, just like our best days --"

"No!" Ward snapped. He slammed the water glass down on the counter. "No, Dad. Do you know what that word means? I'm done following your orders. I'm not that person anymore."

"I think what we'll do," Harold said, ignoring him completely, "is this: we'll start with some acquisitions. You can't make a profit if you don't take risks. That was always your biggest problem, you know. You played it safe. Too scared to gamble. But with me back in charge --"

"You're not in charge of anything. Not the company, and not me." He grabbed his pants off a chair. "You know what? I'm not staying here to listen to this."

He still couldn't quite see Harold's face, backlit by the city glow, but he caught the edge of one of Harold's tight smiles. "Tantrums, son? You should learn some self-control. You can be such a child."

"Goodbye, Harold," Ward said, stamping his feet into his shoes, and left.

 

***

 

It was late enough that the bars were closed, but he still could've picked up a fifth of something or other from an all-night liquor store. Instead he ended up walking, just wandering aimlessly, with no destination in mind. It was so cold that his breath steamed in the air, and he wished he'd thought to grab a jacket. But he hadn't really been thinking about anything except just getting away.

He'd let a nightmare drive him out of his condo. This wasn't rock bottom -- he had definitely been lower down than this -- but it was stupid, and he hated that. He just couldn't make himself go back.

He watched the sun rise from a park bench, then caught an Uber home, and found himself standing outside his own front door, feeling idiotic, until he managed to psych himself up enough to unlock the door.

"Harold?" he called. He walked around the condo, turning on all the lights, looking in every room. He got dressed in the bathroom with the door closed, and looked for a long while at the finger-shaped bruises on his arm, starting to soften into smudges of brown and yellow.

He didn't even realize until he got to the office, running a hand over his prickly jaw, that he'd forgotten to shave. Forgetting things became a theme that day: meetings, phone calls, forms to be signed. His lunch congealed, uneaten, on the edge of his desk after Katie put it there.

"You really do need to get more sleep," Katie said, clearing away the takeout bag and replacing it with a large coffee.

"I'm fine," Ward said, and as he said it, he heard the echo of his own voice saying it to Joy, ages ago, when he knew even at the time that he very definitely was not.

"Uh-huh." Katie turned away, then hesitated and turned back. She hooked a high-heeled foot around the leg of the chair in front of his desk to drag it straight, and sat in it.

Ward raised an eyebrow at her.

"I know I'm overstepping a little bit here," she said. "But, look ... it's obvious something is bothering you. The last time I saw you this bothered by something, I ended up calling your sponsor to fish you out of a bar."

"Yeah," he said with a faint, wry smile. "I remember."

"I'm just saying, if you need to talk about something, I'll listen. I understand if you don't want to." She smiled. "I know it's not the relationship we have. But ... I don't want to break in a new boss after I got you all trained up just the way I like it."

"Oh, is that how it works?"

"That's how it works." She reached out and tapped the edge of his desk. "Talk to me if you need to. I'll listen."

"Thank you." It was probably lack of sleep bringing his emotions to the edge, but her offer touched him so deeply that for a moment he was afraid he might actually cry. It was genuine, and that was what really got to him. She didn't owe him anything outside their work relationship, she certainly didn't have any reason to like him, but she was worried about him anyway, and having people outside his immediate family worry about him (or inside it, for that matter) was something he didn't quite know how to deal with. "It's, uh. It's something I don't think I can talk about. But thank you."

"Sure." She smiled again, and got up and went out. Ward stared after her for a moment, and then turned back to his computer with a kind of grim satisfaction.

See, Dad? She's worried about me. I must be doing something right. Tell me the last time someone who worked for you worried about YOU.

 

***

 

He flat-out refused to let Harold chase him out of his condo for a second night. Instead he turned on all the lights, made strong coffee, and ... fought with the temptation to call Danny and ask him to come over. If there actually was something going on other than nightmares and the contents of his own fucked-up head, Danny was one person who might actually believe him.

A dozen times, he started to send a text, then stopped.

Danny had his own life. Danny didn't need to get sucked down into Ward's problems, again. And he wasn't sure if he could take Danny, of all people, telling him that it was all in his head.

But Danny wasn't the only person he kept thinking of. He'd been thinking of Joy, off and on, ever since this had started.

If this was something real -- which it couldn't be, he couldn't believe it, but if it was ... Joy might be experiencing the same thing. Ward didn't believe Harold would deal her in quite the same way he dealt with Ward, but he could imagine it all too easily, Harold leaning over Joy's shoulder, whispering sweet insidious poison into her ear. And if Harold was still coming back worse every time, there was no telling what he was capable of; he might even be prepared to hurt Joy this time ...

He brought her contact up in the text app, and then just hesitated. He had her permission to call her if there was something important, but she'd also made it clear that it wasn't to be used for anything trivial. He had last sent her a message when Alicia was born, a picture of the baby -- Joy's niece -- and a brief message with Alicia's vital stats, weight and time of birth and so forth. What he'd gotten back had been simply Thanks. Which was encouraging, he felt. Not a rejection, not even silence.

He looked at that last message for a long while before he texted, Hey there. Are you doing okay?

The reply came back in just a few minutes. I didn't crack the door open so you could force your foot in, Ward. I said I'd be in touch when I was ready.

He looked at that for awhile, and then began, I know. I ...

Was there anything he could say, any way he could warn her, that didn't make him sound like a lunatic? Finally he typed, I might have a stalker. Someone I upset in the past. I was afraid he might have bothered you and wanted to make sure you're okay.

A pause, then: I feel I should probably be more upset about you putting me in danger AGAIN but I guess it's par for the course by now. How worried should I be? Police-type worried?

He let out a breath. She couldn't possibly be dealing with anything worse than he was, or she'd know exactly what he was talking about. If he hasn't tried to contact you already, not at all. I don't think he will then. He's not that dangerous. But let me know if anything strange happens.

Strange HOW, Ward?

Strange like dreams of Dad. Strange like bruises you can't explain.

You'll know, he typed.

Thanks for making my night a little less pleasant, as always.

He hesitated, then typed, Good night, but didn't send it. It felt frivolous to end their exchange like that, but he couldn't think what else to say, because she wasn't wrong. It wasn't fair of him to text her just to worry her, about something that was only a problem for him.

And he was doing it again, wasn't he? Lying to her. Keeping things from her. Refusing to give her the information she needed to know. Just like he always had.

He deleted the good-night text, one deliberate keystroke at a time, and typed:

I lied. It's not a stalker. I'm dreaming about Dad and the dreams feel more real than they should. After everything, I wasn't sure, you know? How real it was, and how worried I should be. I wanted to make sure you weren't having the same thing.

For a long while, he sat with his finger over the send button. Then he sent it.

Her answer came back right away. Get help, Ward.

Well ... it was an answer of sorts, a more definitive one than the other. She wasn't having the dreams too. Or, if she was, she wasn't having the same doubts about them that he was.

I felt you should know, he typed, and sent it.

There was no reply this time.

 

***

 

He tried looking up exorcisms on the Internet. It wasn't much help. Everything he found was either too religious for him, or too New-Agey. He didn't think he could scatter protective herbs around without laughing at himself.

Which was another reason not to call Danny, because if it didn't result in Danny doing some kind of K'un Lun ghost ritual, it would almost certainly lead to Danny talking about the feng shui of his condo and burning incense to lighten up the energy or whatever the hell.

He had to do something, though. Whatever this was, dreams or ... something more, it had kept him from getting more than a couple hours of sleep a night for the better part of a week. He was going to start hallucinating from pure sleep deprivation if this kept up.

"I could get a hotel," he said aloud to the ceiling, flopped on the couch. "Of course, if it's nightmares, I'll just have them there."

He flexed his hand, stirring a fading ache in his forearm where Harold had grabbed him. It felt real. And Danny had seen the bruises.

"You know what?" he said, sitting up abruptly. "Why not embrace the madness. I'm exorcising the hell out of your undead ass, Harold."

There was only so much in the way of protective herbs and ceremonial candles that could be obtained at ten p.m. on a weeknight, but it was New York, after all. To hedge his bets, he threw in anything that seemed even remotely likely to help, whether he believed in it or not -- and he believed in almost none of it, but at this point he'd seen enough weirdness that there was probably a chance anything would work. The one thing he didn't try was smudging the apartment (it seemed likely to set off the fire alarms) but he tried every other damn protective herb that he could get on short notice -- if he didn't get rid of Harold, maybe he'd use it on a nice pork roast later -- and hung garlic over the front door because why the hell not.

The various internet sites he'd consulted on advice for getting rid of ghosts seemed to be unanimous that most ghosts would leave if you just asked them to. Which seemed even less likely to work on Harold than the rest of it, but again, what did he have to lose?

"Get out of here," he said to the empty condo. "This is my place. You're not welcome here, so scram. Get along to the afterlife or wherever undead assholes like you end up."

There was no answer, but the silence also seemed strangely ... alive. Like something was listening to him.

"This is fucking crazy," Ward muttered to himself. He rubbed at his eyes. He was so tired he ached, and he was probably just making himself even crazier by indulging in this kind of thing.

It occurred to him, though, that if he stayed up all night and confirmed for himself that there was no appearance by Harold -- if he could be absolutely, definitely positive that he was awake the whole time -- he could finally believe that it was nothing but a series of particularly vivid dreams, which might make them stop or at least give him a better handle on dealing with them. The bruises were still a little weird, but maybe he really had grabbed his own wrist in his sleep. Or maybe it was psychosomatic. It was possible for people to make themselves drop dead through sheer belief, wasn't it? He'd heard of that somewhere. Raising bruises on your own wrist might not be out of the question. Couldn't people develop stigmata through pure belief?

So, right. All he had to do was stop himself from falling asleep when he was so tired that his body was about to do it whether he wanted it to or not. After all those sleepless nights when he'd have given his right arm to be able to fall asleep, it was really ironic that now he was getting tired enough to fall asleep by accident, but in order to get a proper scientific proof, he couldn't let himself.

He went down to the building's gym and walked on the treadmill for awhile. He didn't want to tire himself out too much, just keep himself moving to make sure he didn't crash.

Tomorrow was going to be ... fun. Maybe he'd call in sick. He never took sick days, so he had a few coming.

"I have to say this seems like the kind of problem-solving that I expect from you, son -- ineffectual and a waste of effort."

Ward jerked all over, and looked over his shoulder. Harold was sitting on the bench press machine's weight bench. The gym was brightly lit; it was the first time Ward had gotten a clear look at Harold in full light. There was nothing blatantly horrifying or ghostlike about him. He wasn't bloody; he didn't carry the wounds of his death. He looked exactly like he had when he was alive, like he always had -- which in its own way was even creepier.

"You're not real," Ward said flatly. He stopped moving on the treadmill and stumbled, almost falling off. He shut it down and stepped off.

"Are any of us real, Ward? Some schools of philosophy say that we can't prove the existence of anyone outside ourselves."

"Well, that sure explains a lot about you," Ward said. "You never did care about anyone but yourself."

The door opened abruptly and one of the other tenants came in. She glanced briefly at Ward, paid no attention to Harold, and went over to the exercise machines.

"You know, we've been over this, Ward, haven't we? Personal attacks are a sign of a weak mind, the last resort of someone who knows they're losing the argument. Now, about the company --"

"As opposed to your personal attacks on me?" It came out louder than he intended. The woman glanced up and pulled out an earbud.

"Sorry, what did you say?" the woman asked.

"I'm honest with you, Ward," Harold said, with magnanimous calm. "If you choose to take it as an attack instead of an opportunity for self-improvement, that's not my fault."

"I wasn't ..." Ward gestured vaguely in Harold's general direction. "I was talking to --" The blank look on her face said it all. The only person who could see or hear the son of a bitch was Ward. "Never mind," he got out. "Nothing. Talking to myself."

Turning his back on Harold gave him the creeps, but he did it anyway, and left, closing the door of the gym firmly behind him. Harold hadn't moved from the weight bench, but Ward was not that surprised to look to his left and find Harold pacing him in the hallway, strolling along with hands clasped behind his back like they were on the goddamn beach or something. Harold went on as if nothing had happened.

"Tomorrow I think we'll get to work on some of the changes to the company we were talking about. You'll need to work through the weekend, of course, but you really should be doing that anyway --"

"What are you?" Ward asked. At least there was no one in the hallway to hear him talking to himself. "Hallucination? Dream? Am I really losing it, finally?"

"Well, that's a strange question. I'm your father, Ward."

"No you're not," Ward said. He clenched his fist against the elevator call button. "You're my guilty conscience, or a stress-induced hallucination. Maybe you're some kind of ghost. But you're not Harold Meachum, because he's dead."

There was no answer. He looked around and found himself alone in the hallway.

 

***

 

If he was going to hallucinate Harold while he was wide awake, there was absolutely no reason not to go to bed, but now he was too keyed up to actually fall asleep, in spite of his gritty-eyed exhaustion.

"Have a drink, son; it'll calm you down," Harold said from behind him, and Ward gritted his teeth and looked around. It was oh-dark-thirty and he'd been trying to fall asleep for hours, finally got up to get himself a drink -- of water, thanks -- and there the old bastard was, on the couch again, one ankle crossed casually over the other.

"Water and coffee is all I drink these days, but then, you know that, don't you?"

"You're not an addict, you just think you are. It's a willpower thing." Harold shrugged. "Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself. There's a bar right across the street. Go have yourself a nice Scotch on me."

A cold shiver went through him, because it wasn't like he hadn't had thoughts along those lines himself.

"You always did use it to control me, didn't you?" he said with calm he didn't feel. Carefully he set the glass in the sink before he broke it. "It wasn't that you planned to get me addicted to that shit. You just didn't care. I got there myself, and then it was a nice piece of leverage for you."

"There you go again, blaming me for your problems."

"Pretty easy to do, since most of my problems are your fault."

"Really?" Harold said, with one of those patient, infuriating smiles. "I didn't put the drink in your hand and force you to drink it, not even once. I didn't put those pills in your hands either. Any more than I told you to try to kill Danny; remember that one? I told you not to. You went ahead and did it anyway."

Ward swallowed hard. "Okay, now I know you're a dream or a hallucination, because Harold never gave a damn about Danny. There's no reason you'd bring that up unless it's my own subconscious talking."

"Maybe I always paid more attention than you knew. Leverage, as you said. A man with no vices or secrets can't be easily manipulated, but luckily we all have them." Harold leaned back on the couch and threw his arm over the back of it. "You know, as much of a disappointment as you were in most ways, Ward, there have always been times when you impressed me with your initiative, and the Danny situation was one of those. Annoyingly so, yes, but I have to admit, you went above and beyond. Having him locked up, hiding evidence that could prove his identity, trying to murder him. There are times ... not often, mind you ... when you make me think of my own younger self."

"Fantastic," Ward said between his teeth. He was shaking, he realized -- shivering, rather. He felt cold down to his core. "Get out of my house."

"Anyway, back to business. About our plans for the company ... I was thinking we'll start by looking into military contracts for our R&D division, not just the work with veterans' services that you're doing now, but actual weapons development. There's good money in that, Ward."

"I said no. I'm not working for you, now or ever."

"... Reliable, too. They say there will always be a war somewhere --

"Get out!" Ward screamed, and he grabbed the nearest handy object -- it happened to be a glass apple in a bowl on the counter, part of the decor he'd ended up with when he hired a firm to furnish and decorate the condo -- and hurled it at the couch.

Harold caught it and set it down neatly on the couch beside him. Ward sucked in a breath; it was the first time he'd seen Harold interact with a physical object other than Ward himself.

"We've talked about that temper of yours, Ward," Harold said, in the voice of careful calm that tended to come before one of his explosions.

"We haven't talked about anything. You're dead," Ward spat out. "If we're taking a stroll down memory lane, here's a memory for you, Dad. Remember when I took a gun and unloaded it into your chest and you fell off the roof of a building? Yeah, there's a good one. If I had a gun right now, I'd empty it into your chest again, and see what that does." Probably nothing more than convince the neighbors that he'd lost his mind when they walked in and found him shooting up the empty couch, but the thought was cathartic, at least.

"You disappoint me, Ward."

"Oh, wow, what else is new? I've disappointed you my whole life, and for some reason I tore myself apart trying to make you happy anyway, but it was never gonna happen, was it? I don't need you anymore, Dad. I'm running the company just fine on my own, I have friends, I have --"

He'd somehow stopped bracing for the jump scare, so when it came, it completely derailed his train of thought. Harold was on the the couch and then he was up in Ward's face, mere inches away.

Ward stumbled backward, slamming his back into the marble-and-glass edge of the stovetop so hard that he had a vague feeling he was going to have more bruises there tomorrow.

"Ward, Ward," Harold said quietly, the sort of quiet that might come before snapping his wrist, or pushing him down the stairs. Harold crowded into his space, and there was nowhere to go, just the countertop and the stove at his back. Then, with a soft hiss, all four burners suddenly popped to maximum, with no heating interval. Heat baked into the back of his T-shirt.

Harold leaned into him, crowding him until he was forced to lean backwards, trying to arch his back over the searing heat from the stove.

"You're not real," Ward said between his teeth. "None of this is real. This is a dream. I'm going to wake up any minute."

"Do you really think so?" Harold took his wrist, the left one this time, opposite the bruised side. Ward tried to twist free. He was caught between the sharp heat of the stove behind him and Harold's forceful presence in front of him, and the easiest thing was, had always been, just ... go limp, relax, let it happen, just get through it and then pull yourself together afterwards --

And before he knew what was happening, Harold was pulling his bare arm down toward the sleek black stovetop.

That cut through his haze, and he began to struggle, lashing out, pushing back. He rammed an elbow into Harold's stomach and there was a huff of breath, and he thought in disbelief that it was actually possible to fight back -- but then Harold pressed his arm down against the stovetop, and he screamed, he couldn't help it.

"Do you like the heat, Ward?" Harold asked, dimly heard through the daze of pain. "You seemed to enjoy burning me all up. Are you still having fun now?"

No. No, he wasn't having fun, and he no longer knew how he could possibly be asleep, because pain in dreams was a muzzy and muffled thing -- even when it should have hurt, it really didn't. Not like this, not in this all-encompassing way.

"This hurts me more than it does you, Ward," Harold murmured into his ear, pushing down every time he tried to twist away: a powerful presence with arms around him, pushing him down onto the stovetop in a parody of love.

 

***

 

It was Colleen who answered the door of the dojo when he pounded on it, because of course it was.

"Oh, hi, Ward," she said, giving him a puzzled look. "Danny's taking a shower. Weren't you coming over this evening?"

"Change of plans. Can I come in?"

She stepped back, still giving him an odd look. He wasn't sure what she read on his face, but it couldn't be good. He'd taken the day off, called in and told Katie he was sick (and it was sort of true? mostly?). He was wearing casual clothes, jeans and a leather jacket that he'd very carefully pulled over the bandages wrapped around his burned arm.

As soon as Harold had let him twist away, he'd fled the apartment and gone down to the building's underground parking garage in his underwear, and spent the rest of the night sitting in his car, half dressed, shivering in pain and reaction. He told himself he was being a coward, but it didn't help. He tried to get out of the car a dozen times to go up to his condo and get some clothes, at least, for God's sake, but it was like he was locked in place. He was convinced that if he went back up there, Harold was going to kill him.

He had even ended up moving to the backseat because the fear of Harold suddenly materializing behind him was driving him out of his mind.

Eventually, when it had to be getting close to dawn outside, he nerved himself to go upstairs. So far, Harold hadn't shown up in the daytime, and he had to take a chance sooner or later; he didn't even have his phone with him. He'd gotten dressed in a hurry, wrapped up his arm in hastily applied gauze, and went back down to the car again.

He had forced himself not to head down to Danny and Colleen's place until he was sure they were both up (well, Danny had probably been up for hours, but the last thing he needed when he planned to ask for their help was to start off by waking up Colleen). And then he second-guessed himself for the entire drive. They wouldn't care, they wouldn't believe him, they'd send him away ...

"Danny might be a little while," Colleen said. She was barefoot, dressed in sweats and a loose T-shirt. If he hadn't awakened her, he'd certainly interrupted her morning routine.

"I'll wait."

"Make yourself at home, then," Colleen said, with a hint of wryness. She shut the door behind him, and Ward perched on the edge of the couch, trying not to move his arm too much. Colleen went into the kitchen. "Would you like some tea?"

"Yeah, sure." It wasn't just to be polite; he was ragingly thirsty. He'd stopped at a Starbucks halfway to Chinatown to get a venti lemonade and drank it all on the drive down. Probably something about fluid loss from burns, maybe he should be in the hospital for all he knew, and his arm hurt in a way that had gone beyond pain and straight out the other side, but mostly, he needed to talk to Danny as of yesterday.

Colleen brought him tea in a handleless clay mug, handcrafted from the look of it. "Careful, it's hot," she said as she handed it to him, and Ward, taking it with his good hand while the other lay inertly in his lap, couldn't help laughing, which made her expression develop even more puzzled overtones. Wouldn't that be a kick, though, if he scalded the hand that wasn't currently a raging inferno of pain. Harold would probably appreciate the joke. It seemed like Harold's kind of humor.

Rather than going back to the kitchen, Colleen kept looking at him, and then sat on a chair at the end of the couch, with her hands curled around her own cup of tea. "Are you in trouble, Ward?" she asked him quietly.

"Kind of," he said. Kind of a lot. "Long story. I think I should probably tell it when Danny gets out of the shower, so I only need to say it once. You guys are going to have enough trouble believing me as it is."

"What am I going to have trouble believing?" Danny asked, wandering in, naked to the waist and rubbing at his hair with a towel. "Hey, Ward! We're still on for dinner tonight, right?"

"You know, I might have to cancel," Ward said. "Something's come up." And he laughed, on the edge of hysteria.

Colleen gave Danny a wide-eyed look. Danny sat down on the edge of the couch, very carefully, and put down the towel. "What happened?" he asked in a quiet voice.

Ward took a breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth ... "I think Harold's ghost might be haunting me," he said, and it was surprisingly easy to get out. "Or maybe a hallucination, I don't know, but it seems damn real."

Colleen was now giving him exactly the look he'd expected, skeptical and a bit concerned, but Danny frowned. "The bruises," he said, as if to himself.

"What?" Colleen said.

Danny nodded to Ward. "There were bruises on his wrist the other day. At lunch. Was that Harold? Did he do that to you, Ward?"

Ward nodded, not trusting his voice. Danny believed him. He hadn't even had to explain. Of course, Danny had grown up in a mystic kung-fu city and fought a dragon; getting him to believe in ghosts was small potatoes compared to that.

"Wait, bruises, like ... what kind of bruises?" Colleen asked.

"Hand-shaped ones. Ward, could you show her?" Danny said. "I mean, if you're comfortable with it."

"I can do you better than that," Ward said tightly. He worked his way out of his jacket, biting his lip and trying not to make noise. Both of them stared at his gauze-swathed arm. "This happened last night," Ward said, and he began to unwrap it.

The bandages stuck as they peeled back. There were -- blisters, and white edges of charred skin, and he hadn't really ... perhaps ... noticed exactly how bad it was when he'd been wrapping bandages around it this morning in a clench-jawed state of numb, terrified rage. He wasn't even able to look at their faces, just stared at his own arm, as gray spots danced around the corners of his vision.

"Whoa, Ward," Danny said, and caught him gently as he kind of just ... fell.

 

***

 

"There aren't any such thing as ghosts, Danny. And there especially aren't malevolent ghosts of people we've killed. You get how absolutely fucked we are if that's not true, right?"

Ward turned his head to the side, looking for the source of the voices. He became vaguely aware that he was lying on their couch with a blanket over him. He hadn't precisely passed out, but he had only hazy, disjointed memories of Danny making him lie down on the couch, and very carefully smoothing an ointment onto his arm that first hurt like hell and then felt tingling-numb, before wrapping clean bandages around it. Colleen had done something too, something with the Iron Fist that had involved smoothing her hand down his arm and leaving a cessation of pain that rang in his senses as loud as a shout.

Right now they were standing in the dojo's kitchen and having a fierce if quiet argument with their heads close together. At some point Danny had put on a sweatshirt.

"Something happened to him, Colleen. He didn't do this to himself."

"Maybe he got drunk and fell on the stove."

Plausible, he thought muzzily. You should listen to her, Danny. He almost wanted it to be true. It was better than the alternative.

"And he got drunk and almost broke his own arm? The bruises, remember?"

"Domestic violence?" Colleen suggested. "Maybe he'd seeing someone and doesn't want to admit that they're doing this to him."

"Which means he needs our help even more, right?"

"Right," Colleen sighed, and Ward was startled by her capitulation. He'd expected her to put up more resistance. Kick him out, send him back to deal with it on his own ...

But then, things hadn't been quite the same between him and Colleen since he'd come back with Danny. It was a slow process that had started while they were on the road, because he and Danny were living out of hotel rooms and hostels, so it wasn't exactly possible to give Danny a lot of alone time for talking to Colleen. Which meant being exposed to a lot more of their lovey-dovey talk than he'd signed up for, but also meant being casually drawn into the conversation, whether he planned to or not. And sometimes Colleen would text him (Tell Danny to call me, I've texted him three times and he's not answering). It was like, little by little, he'd been pulled into the fabric of their shared life, and when they got back, it kept happening. They didn't seem to mind him stopping by their place for dinner-and-movie nights, and Colleen even occasionally dropped in on his lunches with Danny.

So they'd eventually managed "polite in-laws." Getting involved with his ghost problems was an order of magnitude beyond that, though.

Danny came over to the couch. "Hey, Ward, you awake?"

"I wasn't sleeping," Ward said, rolling carefully onto his back and trying not to jostle his arm. Whatever Colleen had done had gotten rid of most of the pain, but he was still afraid to move it too much.

Danny smiled and sat on the couch beside his legs. "Listen, Colleen and I are going to go out and talk to some people who might know how to handle this."

"I'll come," Ward said. He sat up and his head swam. Danny planted a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.

"No, you stay here and sleep. You look like hell, Ward."

"Thanks," Ward muttered.

"And some of the people we need to talk to probably wouldn't talk to outsiders. Just hang out at our place for a while. Get some sleep, help yourself to whatever, call or text if you need anything."

"While you two go and talk to exorcists."

"Contacts."

"Whatever."

Danny frowned down at him, looking deeply anxious. "Our place should be safe, right? Harold's only bothered you in your condo. Right?"

"Right." Ward's voice rasped out, sounding ragged to his own ears. He didn't see any point in mentioning the gym. It was the building. He'd never seen Harold outside the building. Not at the office. Not here.

So this felt safe. Mostly.

 

***

 

He'd been over to Danny and Colleen's place enough that it was familiar, but he wasn't used to being there without them. Sleep remained slippery and elusive despite his exhaustion. He rolled onto his side, careful of his arm, and gazed at the cheerfully homey clutter. It was about as different from the sterile steel-and-glass decor of the condo as it was possible to imagine.

Maybe clutter was what the condo needed to make it feel like a home. A few of Danny's imported art objects, perhaps. Ward hadn't really acquired souvenirs on their trip; it wasn't worth it when you were carrying around all your worldly goods in a backpack. But Danny and Colleen seemed to be people who acquired stuff. Fluffy blankets, books, records (hipsters, he thought fondly), pieces of art, weapons that were presumably functional as well as ornamental. He could tell them that he needed things to brighten up the condo, and Danny would probably hurl a blizzard of imported art at him.

"I have to say this place is about what I expected," Harold's voice said. "But then, they say taste isn't learned; it's inborn."

Ward flinched violently and sat up so fast he gave himself a head rush. Harold was in the kitchen, casually poking around, picking things up and putting them down.

"Get out of here," Ward snarled. "You don't belong here. This is their place. You can't be here!"

"What is this meant to be, a child's art object?" Harold mused, picking up one of the clay tea mugs from the sink before setting it back down. "I suppose the word for this kind of thing is 'naive'. Naive art. I always appreciated the humor, in that you'd have to be naive to buy it. I see you're feeling better, Ward."

"You gave me third-degree burns," Ward said flatly.

"You know I don't like doing things like that. You keep forcing my hand, though." Harold opened a cabinet and peered inside. "Oh, look. They like tea."

"Get out of there." Ward scrambled to his feet and caught himself on the back of the couch as he swayed.

"Be a real shame," Harold murmured, "if someone mixed something into some of their tea ... say arsenic, or strychnine ... wouldn't it?"

For a moment Ward couldn't breathe, couldn't hear anything through the pounding of blood in his ears. "What did you say?" he managed, as calmly as possible, as the world steadied again.

"You heard me. You're the one who came here, Ward. You're the one who got them involved."

"If you touch them --"

"Why would I? Only if you force my hand. Again." Harold closed the cabinet and turned to face Ward, resting his hands on the countertop, curled gently into almost-fists. "You're the one who came here, Ward. You're the one who got them involved."

"Leave them alone." He was shaking, he realized distantly, with a potent blend of fury and terror that made him sick to his stomach.

"I won't hurt them if you don't give me any reason to. The best thing you can do for them, Ward, is get out of their lives, immediately and permanently." Harold smiled, cold and sharp. "They'll be perfectly safe if you're not around."

He had almost forgotten the breathless, claustrophobic feeling of Harold taking away his choices one by one, blocking every avenue of escape, until the only thing to do was whatever Harold wanted him to do.

And yet, what the hell could he do? Leverage. It was all about leverage. And Harold knew how to push his buttons. Harold always had.

"I'm leaving." Ward reached for his jacket with a shaking hand. "I'm leaving, see? Just ... leave with me. All right?"

"Of course," Harold said, ever agreeable.

 

***

 

It was a crisp and perfect autumn day, drenched in golden sunshine and warm enough to be comfortable as long as he stayed on the sunny side of the street. In the sun Harold seemed thin and wavery, an image printed on glass. But he kept pace with Ward, which gave Ward no opportunity to text Danny and Colleen. Not that he knew what to say if he did. My dad's ghost chased me out of your place; I'm afraid he's going to come after you next?

"You and me, Ward," Harold said at his shoulder. "We're a team, son. Together we can take on the world."

"Yeah," Ward said shortly. Harold always used to say things like that, but Ward finally found out what team really meant when Danny came into his life, though it had taken him awhile to figure it out. Harold's idea of a team was worlds away from Danny's. And that was why he could never allow Harold within miles of Danny, if he could help it.

What could he really do to them? He's not real. No one else can see him --

The bulky bandages under his jacket gave the lie to that. He had a sudden vivid image of Harold forcing Danny's arm onto the stove, twisting Colleen's arm hard enough to leave bruises. And they had no defenses, they couldn't even see him ...

"Let's take a trip to the office, son. See how it's been shaping up since I've been gone." Harold smiled, that sharp stinging smile. "You learned from me. Let's see how much you learned, hmm?"

"Do I have a choice about this?" Ward asked tightly, and then Harold's fingers dug into his shoulder, leaving fresh bruises from the feel of it. He tried to push Harold off him, but only got strange looks from passersby.

"Don't be difficult, Ward," Harold said.

"Of course not," Ward said between his teeth. "When have I ever done anything but exactly what you wanted, anyway?"

 

***

 

He walked all the way to the office from Danny and Colleen's place in Chinatown -- a distance of a couple of miles -- leaving his car parked outside the dojo. There was some part of him that maybe thought Harold would give up, but mostly he was just ... going with it. Putting one foot in front of the other.

He couldn't believe how fast Harold had managed to roll back into his life and take it over. He'd thought he was done with this.

But he'd also forgotten how much of it, before, had been trying to keep Harold off Joy.

He had come to think of that as a rationalization. Joy certainly did. And ... it sort of was. He now realized that there was every possibility he could have told her the truth, had Joy in his corner the entire time ...

Dragged her into danger along with him, gotten her killed by the Hand ...

His phone vibrated.

"Who's that, son?" Harold said.

Joy had been in danger from a zombie ninja cult. Danny and Colleen were up against an enemy they might not even be able to see, who could step up behind them and drive a knife into their backs. Poison their tea. Burn down the dojo. Who the fuck even knew what Harold was capable of?

They'll be perfectly safe if you're not around.

"No one," Ward said, turning off the phone and just ... hoping, hoping that Danny understood enough to comprehend that it was a message, not just stonewalling but a desperate warning.

 

***

 

Katie rose to her feet when he walked in, her face a startled picture of surprise and worry. "Mr. Meachum! I thought you were sick."

"Felt better, decided to get some work done and I want to be left alone to do it. Don't bother me. Sorry, sorry, don't mind me, still not feeling great," he added, right before shutting the door to his office, because he really did try not to be a dick to Katie.

With the door closed and locked, he went to his desk, dropped into his chair, and looked up at Harold.

"Okay, let's get something clear," he said. "I'm not your catspaw anymore. Understand that? I'm done. I don't care how much you hurt me, or yell at me, or whatever you decide to do. I've finally figured out the thing I never understood during all those years when I did your dirty work, which is that you need me. You're as trapped now as you were then. You can't do a damn thing without me doing it for you. And that gives me most of the power. So no, I will not bid on military contracts, or start selling heroin again, or whatever it is that you think this company ought to be doing."

Harold was quiet for a moment, watching Ward, his eyes glittering. Then he said, "Oh sorry, are you done throwing your fit now? I was waiting to see if there was any more."

He's trying to get to you. He knows exactly how to do it. "I'm done, yes," Ward said as calmly as he could.

"Good. Then I suppose it's my turn to point out that if you've decided to be a child about this, I'll need to pay a visit to little Danny. He has 51% of the company after all; he'll be even more useful than you, not that that's a high bar to clear. And I'm sure he'll be eager to help once I've pointed out to him that Ms. Wing's continued health depends on his cooperation."

Ward stared at him for a long moment until he could speak without his voice shaking; then he said, "You absolute fucker."

"Is that an appropriate way to talk to your father, Ward?"

"Maybe not, but I think it's a perfectly appropriate way to talk to the abusive shithead who's been making my life a living hell since I was a kid."

"Mmm," Harold said, and then he spun around suddenly with the speed of a striking snake, snatched a stapler off the desk and slapped the business end into the back of Ward's unburned hand.

"Jesus!"

There was a brisk knock. "Mr. Meachum?" Katie called through the door. "Is everything all right in there?"

"Fine! Dropped something!" Ward yelled back, trying clumsily to pick staples out of his skin with his bad hand. Whatever Colleen had done was still damping down the pain, but he still could barely move his fingers. "You know, if there's permanent nerve damage, Dad, I'm not going to be much use to you anyway."

"At the moment, you're no help at all, so be glad I didn't push you out the window," Harold said, setting the stapler down. Ward blanched. They were on the 45th floor; he hadn't even thought of that. "Now, if you're done wasting both our time, let's get some work done."

 

***

 

It was just like falling off a bike, when it came right down to it. He'd done this for his entire adult life, after all. Harold gave him orders and Ward followed them, no matter how bizarre or contradictory or contrary to his vision of what the company ought to be.

... the latter element of which he'd never really cared about, or even thought about, during all those years under Harold's thumb. A company like Rand was in the business of making money, first and foremost. And they did make money under Harold, which was the main thing that mattered. Oh, sure, they put in a donation here, a grant there; had to keep up their image in the public eye. But Ward understood it was all part of the big shell game that involved keeping the watchdogs and oversight organizations off their backs, and making sure Rand looked good in the public eye.

But Rand had become something different in the last two years. It honestly surprised him, a lot, how much it bothered him to find himself being forced to steer the company's direction back toward what it used to be under Harold's guidance.

They could fix it again, he thought as he typed, trying to follow Harold's instructions in the least efficient possible way. So what if Harold thought he was incompetent and stupid. Harold already thought so -- another thing he'd never quite realized during all those years of doing Harold's bidding; he'd tried so hard to convince Harold of his competence, to make Harold respect him, like him, when in reality he could have gotten away with a lot more just by playing slow like he was doing now.

So he could limit the damage, and he and Danny could fix it, afterwards. Well, okay, mostly him, because Danny had made his lack of interest in the company's day-to-day operations very clear. But they (mostly him) had worked for two years to redirect Rand from Big Pharma to what it was today: severing all connections to affiliates that exploited their employees, paying their own employees a living wage, following the strictest guidelines for drug trials and chemical emissions, pouring every dollar they could spare back into investing in the communities they worked with ...

All of that hadn't happened overnight, and it wasn't going to change back overnight, no matter what Harold told him to do.

And it actually mattered to him. It really mattered. In twelve years of running Rand under Harold, he'd felt little investment in the company or connection to it. He could have walked away in a heartbeat if he'd been able to find a way to leave. But somehow in the last two years, he'd found a connection to it, and particularly to the better version that he'd turned it into.

Huh.

Odd how he'd never noticed that before. It had crept up on him. And now here he was, understanding how much it meant only when he was on the verge of undoing it.

So he tried to keep mental track, keeping his mind not just on what Harold wanted him to do, but also what he'd have to do to undo what Harold was having him do.

All of which assumed there was a time beyond Harold in his future. When he realized that, he couldn't help smiling.

"What's the joke, son?" Harold asked, leaning over his shoulder.

"Oh, nothing you'd understand, Dad."

Because that was the level of faith he had in Danny and Colleen, wasn't it? If not, he could stop this, and probably save them, just by flinging himself out one of the 45th-floor windows of his office. But he wasn't doing that. He was rolling over for Harold because he thought Danny and Colleen actually were going to come up with some kind of solution to this.

Or maybe just because it's habit. Maybe it was because you spent your whole life doing this. You justify it by telling yourself that it's for Joy, or it's for Danny, but what it really amounts to is that you don't want to die and you don't want to hurt, and the easiest thing is just to roll over and take the lesser pain, and just keep grinding along like that, holding it together day by day, telling yourself that you're doing it for a greater good when really you'd even watch them burn if it meant saving yourself ...

He swallowed, and submitted the computer form.

"Mr. Meachum?" There was a sharp staccato tap on the door.

"Quiet," he muttered to Harold, before Harold said anything, and got up, went over to the door. "Katie?"

"You've been in there for five hours," she said from the other side. "Do you ... want a sandwich, or a cup of coffee, or something?"

"No, thank you, Katie." He glanced back at Harold, sitting on the edge of the desk like a goddamn vulture. There was nothing Katie could do to help, really, and she didn't deserve to have Ward's goddamn weird life crash down on top of her. He didn't have any right.

Katie had called Ward's sponsor after he called her, drunk, from a bar; Katie had called him when Danny had announced his intentions to run away halfway around the world. Katie was smart.

And against all odds, she liked him.

Ward pressed his hand against the door, closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against it too. "Stop bothering me," he said. "You know what to do when I work through the day. Just leave me to it. Or ... no, actually, take off early. Go home for the day."

"Are you sure?" she asked, sounding uncertain.

"I'm sure. Call it a well-earned day off."

There was a hesitation before she said, from the other side of the door, "Are you all right?"

He pressed his forehead to the cool wood of the door. He had a headache; he wasn't even going to try to figure out what from -- there were just so many options right now. "I'm fine. I just want a little privacy to work. Tell the rest of the office that I'm not to be disturbed, and take the rest of the afternoon for yourself."

Silence, then a quick inhale, and she said briskly, "Yes, of course. Thank you, Mr. Meachum."

Ward listened, but all he heard was her retreating footsteps.

"I can see we need to work on your people-management skills," Harold said from about a foot behind him. Ward flinched but didn't jump. "A real man is self-sufficient, Ward. You let these people walk all over you."

"It got her out of the way so she won't bother me, didn't it?" Ward said tightly. "How long are you planning on keeping me here today, anyway?"

Harold smiled. "Until the work's done, Ward."

Yeah. And for most of his life, that had meant late nights, early mornings, and never really having a life. Joy used to tell him how much she admired his work ethic. If he'd only managed to tell her that he didn't have a choice ...

Except he did, didn't he? He always had.

"Are you going to stand there all day, or can we get some work done?" Harold asked, rubbing his hands together.

"Right with you," Ward said tightly. For as long as it takes me to figure out how to exorcise your undead ass and kill you for a third time, asshole.

 

***

 

He wasn't sure how much later it was -- his arm was aching again, his fatigue headache was starting to ratchet up to migraine levels -- when someone knocked on the door, and Danny said, "Ward? Are you in there?"

Ward was caught somewhere between Oh thank God and Oh shit. He glanced at Harold, thought briefly of just not answering. "Go away," he tried instead.

"Katie called me," Danny said through the door, and well, that was one thing going right, kind of, except Danny just showing up was ... well, exactly what he should have expected, honestly. "Ward? Let me in, right now."

Ward was still trying to come up with an argument that would make him leave when the door slammed open and rebounded off the wall, revealing Danny just lowering his foot after kicking it open. Katie was right behind him.

"I told you to go!" Ward snapped.

Danny looked wildly around. "Is --" He stopped and turned back, held up a finger to Katie, then closed the door behind him. "Is he here?"

"He needs to leave, son." Harold's voice was tight. "There's only room for one heir at this company."

Ward smiled crookedly, because what the hell. Danny was in it up to his eyeballs anyway, and was clearly determined to stay in it. So Ward had made a lifetime's worth of mistakes with Joy. Lied to her. Gaslit her. I learned from the best, after all.

You could grow up learning how to be an asshole, from the best teacher there was, but you didn't have to keep being one. It was a choice.

"Yeah," Ward said, and he pointed to what presumably to Danny looked like empty air. "Right there."

"Good," Danny said, and he dashed forward and slapped a piece of paper onto the desk.

Ward, surprised, had been looking at Danny, not at Harold, but when he looked around, Harold was gone. Completely, utterly gone. Ward waved a hand through the air where he'd been, then looked back at Danny quizzically.

"He's gone, right?" Danny said, breaking into a sunny grin. "It worked, right?"

"What worked?" Ward started to reach for the piece of paper on his desk, but Danny batted his hand away.

"No, don't touch that, not just yet."

Ward stared at it instead. It was crinkly yellowish paper, with Chinese characters written on it in red ink.

"What the hell is that, anyway?"

"It's a fu. A Taoist spell." Danny went over to the door and took a folded piece of manila-colored paper out of his pocket, which he unfolded to expose a couple more of them, which he began fixing to the doorframe. "I've been texting you all afternoon."

"Turned my phone off."

"Yeah. I figured that out. Have you been with Harold this whole time? I mean, has he been with you?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Ward couldn't stop staring at the empty air where Harold had been. "Is he, uh ... gone gone?"

"For now," Danny said. "It's only a temporary measure, though. Colleen and I have something better for later. These are general wards of protection, not specifically directed at ghosts, but it was the best I could get on short notice."

They must have been running around Chinatown all day, putting this together. Ward didn't know what to say. Well, he did know one thing to say, at least. "You really believe me. About Harold."

Danny turned around from warding the door. "I fought a dragon and saw your dad come back from the dead once already. I have -- well, technically right now my girlfriend has a light-up hand. Ward, why wouldn't I believe your dad is haunting you?"

"I ... well ... that's a good point." He was suddenly beyond exhausted, but forced himself onto his feet. "Where's Colleen?"

"Downstairs. C'mon." Danny started to smile, but abruptly his face changed and he caught Ward's arm. Startled, Ward tried to pull away, but Danny held him firmly but not painfully.

"Did Harold do that?" Danny asked, brushing his thumb very gently across the back of Ward's hand, where the place Harold had stapled him was starting to swell up and bruise.

"Uh. Yeah." Ward pulled his hand back. "Stapler." Danny took a deep breath. "Don't, okay? I think we can take as a given that I already know stapling the back of my hand is pretty messed up. Every single bit of this is messed up. You don't have to say it."

Whatever Danny was going to say came out in a huff of rather guilty laughter instead. "Okay, yeah, true. Ward, look, we're gonna get rid of him. I promise you."

There just was nothing he could say to that. He kept forgetting how easy it was to get swept along in the tide of Danny's enthusiasm and optimism, kept forgetting how Danny could make him believe in it too, if he let it happen.

The door opened abruptly, and Katie leaned inside. "Mr. Meachum, is, uh -- everything all right in here?"

"Yeah," Ward said, and grinned, really grinned. "You called him."

"Well, I was concerned," she said, scowling at him. "I told you I'd call him if I had to."

"Yes. Yes, you did say that. I'm glad you meant it." He gestured to the doorframe and its new adornments. "Tell the cleaning staff to leave those alone, okay? Make sure everyone knows."

She looked up at the paper fu, looked like she was considering asking a question, then thought better of it. "Yes, of course, I'll see to it right away."

"And Katie? Thanks. Seriously. You really can take the rest of the day off if you want it."

"You know," she said, looking up at the doorframe again, "I just might do that."

Danny got a grip on Ward's good arm. "Ward, c'mon, let's go. Colleen is down in your car with our secret weapon. 'Bye, Katie!"

"Wait," Ward said as Danny towed him to the elevators. "You have a what?"

 

***

 

As soon as he saw their secret weapon, Ward stopped in his tracks. "No, no way, no how. I think I almost prefer dealing with Harold. Are you two out of your minds?"

"One cannot make a mirror by polishing a brick," Madame Gao said complacently from the backseat. "And the blind will not see what it reflects in any case."

"See? This is what I'm talking about! Why does she say things like that? What does it even mean? Why are you working with her?" Ward turned and gripped a fistful of Danny's jacket in his unburned hand. "You realize she's more dangerous than ten Harolds put together, right?"

"We know, Ward," Colleen said from the driver's seat. "Get in."

He obstinately got in the front seat, leaving Danny to sit next to the devil-woman in the back. "So where are we going on this extremely ill-considered excursion?" he demanded. A small, dim voice in the back of his head told him he was being an asshole, but three days of almost no sleep combined with Harold had left him with even less brain-to-mouth filter than usual.

Danny leaned forward. "Your place. We're getting rid of Harold once and for all. I mean, she is."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Ward murmured. He hadn't thought they could come up with anything that was worse than Harold, but somehow they'd managed to do it.

 

***

 

"Why does your apartment smell like the spice rack at Trader Joe's?" was the first thing Colleen said when they walked into Ward's condo.

"I tried a few things on my own. So sue me." He snatched down the garlic hanging over the front door and dropped it in the sink. "Now what? We exorcise the condo, or what?"

"You could put up wards around the place, as at your office," Gao said, tapping around, looking at things. She poked a litter of discarded gauze wrappers on the coffee table distastefully with the end of her cane. Danny was looking at it with a slightly stricken look on his face; Ward had cleared out in a hurry this morning (had it only been this morning?) leaving the place in a mess, but he hadn't planned on having guests. "So you surely could do that, but he'll just follow you elsewhere. No, what you want to do is wait until he comes to you here, and then you perform the ceremony on him, not on the location. The tools, child."

Danny set down a large bag that clinked. Gao promptly made herself at home, wandering around his condo, setting up small incense burners and braziers on every surface with little pieces of paper in them. She clicked her tongue thoughtfully.

"This is what comes of not treating your ancestors properly," she remarked, placing a copper bowl on his coffee table. "Of course you end up with ghost problems. I don't know what you young people are learning these days."

"There are no such things as hungry ghosts," Colleen said. She had been following Gao around with one hand on the hilt of her katana.

Gao laughed quietly to herself. "Oh no, no, of course not. Dear me. Children."

Ward managed to corner Danny in the kitchen while Gao was setting up burners in the master bedroom, muttering to herself the whole time. "What did you promise her?" Ward whispered fiercely. "You made a deal with her, didn't you? What is she going to take from you?"

There were times when Danny's reaction to a question like that was to try to duck eye contact, but this time he stared at Ward with his jaw set in a belligerent way that made it clear there would be no apologies or compromises. Danny was so easygoing most of the time that Ward sometimes forgot what it was like when he planted his feet and refused to move. "It doesn't matter. She said she'd help."

"You did promise her something. Damn it, Danny ..."

"Do you want to be haunted by your ghost dad until the end of time?"

"Well, no, but ..."

But it just worked out so you're taking the risk and I'm not, didn't it? Because I'm a coward who couldn't tell him no.

It was a lot easier to tell himself that when he didn't have Harold standing over him and pressing his arm to a hot stovetop. He forced himself not to look at the stove, just a few feet away.

Before he could think of what to say, Gao cane-tapped her way into the kitchen. "All is in readiness," she said. "When he's here, you will need to burn the fu to send him on his way." She passed a small envelope to Danny, tied with a piece of twine. "Here are wards for the threshold, and an amulet that this one should carry on his person for a few days to prevent the ghost or other spirits from reattaching themselves to him."

"Thank you, Gao Fūrén," Danny said, with a deep bow.

"Your accent is horrendous. Please respect my ears and speak English." She turned to give Ward a long, thoughtful look, and rapped him sharply on the leg with her cane. "In future, feed your ancestors properly, and this kind of thing won't happen."

With that, she tip-tapped out.

"Why are we trusting her again?" Ward asked.

"Because we don't have a choice." Danny started to tuck the envelope into his pocket, then turned and handed it to Colleen, who wrinkled her nose but took it. Danny reached into his bag again and took out a handful of lighters and handed them around.

"What's this for, again?"

"Burning the paper releases the spell," Danny said.

"So, to be clear, now we just wait for my dad to show up." Ward tried not to shudder at the thought.

"Yes," Danny said. "We. Colleen and I will be here every step of the way." He gave Ward a searching look. "When did you eat last?"

Ward could only shrug. Last night, maybe? He hadn't really even thought about food; he just felt vaguely sick and utterly exhausted.

And it was familiar. He had spent most of his life feeling like this, perhaps not quite this bad, but the general haze of exhaustion and pain and fear was not at all unfamiliar to him. It baffled him now that he hardly even remembered it. He hadn't really understood how miserable he was most of the time until he wasn't anymore.

"... right," Danny said, reading his face. "Takeout it is, then."

He and Colleen ordered enough food for an army, and Ward moved around aimlessly, picking things up, until Danny made him sit down. They spread out food on the coffee table and end tables, and he found himself ravenous as soon as the first carton of spicy noodles was cracked open.

Outside the windows, it grew dark. Danny poked around the condo and found a deck of cards in an otherwise nearly empty cabinet, and they tried to find a card game three people could play; the only one any of them could remember the rules for was poker. They gambled with small change until Colleen won all the loose change that anyone had on them.

"You're a hustler, aren't you?" Ward said.

"Hustling implies that you thought I wasn't good at it. I don't know why you would think that." She flopped down on the couch. "I'm going to get some sleep. Wake me if any ghosts show up."

Danny shuffled the cards together and reboxed them. "You should sleep too, Ward. No need for us both to be up. I can keep watch."

"It's barely 7 p.m. And I'm way too keyed up to sleep." It was a tense, restless wariness, somewhere between excitement and fear. "I'm gonna make some coffee. You want tea?"

He tried not to make it too obvious that he wasn't going near the stove, but he just ... couldn't. Danny trailed him into the kitchen, and hung around while Ward dumped out the dregs of the coffeepot and got down the box of tea that he was in the habit of keeping around for Danny's benefit. And then he hesitated, thinking of Harold, thinking of arsenic in those little tea bags.

"You sure you don't want coffee instead?"

"Ward," Danny said, and settled a hand on his unburned arm. Ward jerked in reaction, he couldn't help it. Danny's hand stayed there, steadying, calming. "It's gonna be okay. We're here."

Yeah. That was the problem. Ward turned away and busied himself filling the coffeepot at the sink. "You should leave, you know," he said brusquely, not looking at Danny. "You and Colleen. Both of you. You're just leverage for him. I mean, I know what to do. I can set a few scraps of paper on fire."

Danny squeezed his arm. "No way. He's not going to be trouble for three of us. We've got him outnumbered. We got magic. We got the Iron Fist. All right?"

"We'll see how his soul likes a good fisting," Colleen said from the couch without opening her eyes, though a smile played around the corners of her mouth.

That startled a laugh out of Ward, even in his present mental state. "Okay -- no -- I'm the one who makes tasteless jokes around here, got it?"

"You should see her watching Monty Python," Danny said. "She knows it all by heart."

"Harold's not a Monty Python character." Ward filled the coffeemaker carefully, one-handed. "You know what he's done, you know what he's capable of, and I think there's every reason to believe the ghost version isn't any less unhinged. He threatened both of you, you know that?"

"Ward, look at me." Danny nudged his arm until Ward, irritated, turned to glare at him. "All those years, you had to handle it alone. But you're not alone now, okay? We're gonna get him."

Ward had to take a few deep breaths before he could say steadily, "Okay, fine. But I'd feel better if you don't drink tea that's been left unattended in here."

 

***

 

They ordered in from a café down the street, because what was the point of being rich if you couldn't offer an absolutely ridiculous tip to get a Starbucks-knockoff coffee place to send a barista over with a couple of venti teas and one venti coffee at eight o'clock at night? And then there was nothing really to do except hang out and wait. Colleen seemed to be asleep for real this time. Danny dealt out a hand of gin rummy. It was reminiscent of a lot of their nights overseas, passing time with games or talking or reading, often in some out-of-the-way place where they didn't even have reliable phone internet. The only difference was Colleen, making soft little snorting snores on the couch. Danny looked over at her occasionally with a typically besotted look on his face.

"You know, she says she doesn't snore. I have you as a witness that it's all lies."

"You two are ... good, then?" Ward asked, drawing from the deck. "I mean, I haven't really asked. I just assumed you'd look a lot mopier if you weren't."

Danny laughed. "Yeah, we're good. And what about you? I guess it's weird that we see a lot of each other but actually don't really ever talk about, you know. The important stuff."

"Mmm. That reminds me. Bethany texted me another picture of Alicia the other day -- want to see?"

"Yes," Danny said in obvious delight, and Ward turned his phone to display a photo of a toothlessly smiling baby on a yellow blanket. Bethany had moved to Ohio while he and Danny were overseas, and he still hadn't quite figured out what he was going to do about it, because it didn't matter now (Alicia was three months old; it wasn't like she'd even know him) but ... eventually it would. He didn't want his daughter to grow up knowing her father only as a voice on the phone and an expensive present at Christmastime.

Still, Bethany was at least open to the idea of Ward having a relationship with his daughter, which was a lot more than he'd had a year ago, so that was something he had decided to hang onto.

"She looks like you," Danny said.

"She does not." He'd never actually understood why people got the way they did about pictures of babies, until discovering that he did in fact get that way about pictures of Alicia. But it was only reasonable; she was, by any objective standard, the cutest baby in existence, so what was he supposed to do about it?

"Ward, those are absolutely your eyes and ..." Danny gestured. "That thing your hair used to do, where it stuck up in front."

Ward self-consciously smoothed his hair down. "Great, of all the idiotic things you could remember from our childhood, you remember that."

"Remember that time you tried to stick it down with butter and Joy kept licking your hair?"

He had to laugh at that. It was so long ago. They'd been so young.

Danny sobered and reached for a card. "Have you, um ... been in touch with Joy lately?"

"You mean have I talked to her about Harold's ghost, or in general?"

"Both," Danny said. "Either. Whatever."

"We talked the other day." And it hadn't been far from his mind since. He had his phone out anyway, so he checked for new texts from Joy; of course, there were none.

"Really?" Danny perked up, looking cautiously hopeful. "Did you ... talk talk? Was it a good talk?"

"Not so much, she implied something's mentally wrong with me, but I did tell her about Harold." He checked the phone again, like her last text would have changed in the last ten seconds, and shoved it into his pocket. "Like I blame her, I mean, if I weren't in the middle of this, I'd think I was ... you know. On something, again. Or losing it." He looked across the coffee table at Danny, and reached for sincerity, fighting through whatever part of him always wanted to brush off this kind of conversation with a joke or a jackass remark. "Thank you. Both of you. For believing me."

Danny smiled lopsidedly. "Ward, after some of the things we've been through, I don't know why you keep thinking I wouldn't believe you. I wish you'd come to me first."

"Me too." Ward drew a card. "Joy, though ... I'm still worried about her. I know she wouldn't call me if something similar to this started happening to her."

"We can go by there in the morning," Danny offered. "Even if nothing happens tonight. Especially if nothing happens tonight. Is she still living at the loft?"

"As far as I know." Ward realized he'd just discarded the card he needed to complete a set. His mind was a million miles away from the game.

"You need that one back? I haven't drawn yet ..."

"I don't give a damn about the cards. I can't stop thinking of him over there. Oh shit, Danny, he's got a grandkid now. What if he goes after Alicia and Bethany?"

"Calm down," Danny said, reaching out to give his hand a tap with a card. "Listen, this has been going on for days, right? Things aren't going to deteriorate too much in the next few hours. We'll get through the night, and if we're still in a holding pattern, we'll start checking in on people, making sure they're okay. Sound good?"

"Yeah. I guess." He laughed to himself, a laugh with an edge, but it was an improvement over the way he'd felt a few minutes ago. "I can't wait to find out how Bethany reacts when I explain this brand new development. At least she already knows I'm a complete flake, so it's not like it'll make things worse." Or could it? She might ban him from contact with Alicia completely if she thought he was using again.

"Maybe I could explain it to her? I can talk to Joy, too. At least right away. In case she's still mad at you."

"Oh, trust me, she's still going to be --"

He froze. Harold was standing in the kitchen, staring at them, and looking ... not happy.

"What is it?" Danny asked. "Oh." His face firmed. "He's here, isn't he? Where?"

"Kitchen." Ward didn't dare take his eyes off Harold, remembering that jump-scare thing. He was aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Danny shaking Colleen awake and murmuring to her.

"Really, Ward?" Harold said. "You think some scraps of paper and cheap incense is going to do anything to me? What a laugh. You've been watching too much television; it's giving you some truly ridiculous ideas."

"Maybe it will, maybe it won't." Ward dropped the cards and stood up. "All I know is, I'm done letting you push me around. I killed you twice, remember? What d'you say we find out if the third time is the charm?"

Harold said nothing, but he vanished, and just as Ward started looking around wildly, the lights went out.

Colleen cursed and Danny made a startled sound. "Okay," Danny said, "that's not good."

The room lit up slowly with a clear white light localized around the area of the couch. Colleen was sitting up and holding her fist in the air, shedding light like a lantern. In spite of himself, Ward couldn't help saying, "Is that a K'un Lun approved use for a mystical weapon?"

"Thanks for the helpful input, Ward." Colleen turned, hand upraised, causing a rotating kaleidoscope of shadows to spin across the room. "Do you see him?"

"No." But the room was full of shadows, everywhere except right around the three of them. Ward turned to put his back to Danny's without really thinking about it; between the three of them, they could look every direction, they had this covered --

Except the only person who could see Harold was Ward, and just as he remembered that, Danny let out a startled yelp and jerked against Ward's back.

"What?" Ward demanded, turning so fast he nearly got Danny's elbow in his side. "What, what?"

"I ..." Danny said faintly. He held up his hand, the right one, with his left hand clasped around his wrist. For a moment, in the stark light of Colleen's Iron Fist, Ward had no idea what he was looking at; there was a dark stripe across Danny's hand and a black ink blot and ... and then it resolved into actual, meaningful shapes, and he realized there was a screwdriver driven through the middle of Danny's palm. It looked like one from the unused set of basic household tools Ward had brought with him from his other place and then proceeded to not use here, either.

"Okay," Ward said breathlessly, "okay, just ..." and he caught hold of Danny and lowered him to sit on the couch. Colleen sucked in her breath with a strangled sound as the pieces of the picture went together for her, too. "Just, just don't ... Colleen, you can heal this, right? I mean, with me, you healed my arm --" He was babbling and he knew it, but there was a part of the back of his mind that was screaming, and he couldn't think clearly. It could have been Danny's forehead, it could be either one of them next, from any direction; he had to get them out of there --

"Yes, yes, of course." One thing Ward truly did love about Colleen was her perfect calm in a crisis. She put one hand on Danny's shoulder and curled her glowing fingers ever so lightly around the back of his hand, her two middle fingers parted around the blade of the screwdriver; it protruded a couple of inches from the back of Danny's hand. "Ward, I'm going to hold him. You need to pull this out."

"But -- I think you aren't supposed to pull things out when they're in a human being, I know I read that somewhere --"

"Ward," Colleen said with a slight snap in her voice, "I can't do anything to heal him if it's in his hand, do you understand that?"

"I didn't even see where it came from," Danny said. He was starting to shiver against Ward.

"Yeah, that's because it was my fucking ghost father!" Ward yelled at the room in general. With Colleen's hand resting on Danny's, its light muted to a dull glow, the shadows had taken over the room. Harold the goddamn poltergeist could be anywhere, manipulating anything; Ward couldn't look every direction at once --

"Ward!" Colleen said sharply, her voice stretched so tight it sounded close to snapping. "I need you to calm down and help me."

"It won't matter what any of us do if my dad drops a chandelier on our heads!"

"Good thing you don't have one, then, isn't it?" Danny said with a wan echo of a smile. "Do what she says, Ward."

"You should not be the calmest person in the room right now," Ward said, but he gripped the handle of the screwdriver, trying not to think about what it was sticking out of or the fact that he could feel it faintly quivering in a steady rhythm that he was pretty sure was (ohgod) Danny's heartbeat. "He could bleed to death, Colleen, are you prepared for --"

"Ward," Colleen said, "stop distracting me. Do it when I tell you."

And should we really be doing this in a haunted apartment? But there was nowhere to go; it was Harold that Ward was following around, which meant there was nowhere they could take Danny that wouldn't be this dangerous. Or, more accurately, nowhere Ward could go. Which made the solution clear. "Colleen, you need to get Danny out of here, right now. You can do this in the hall, or downstairs, or anywhere that I'm not --"

Colleen made an aggravated noise that reminded Ward uncannily of Marge Simpson.

"She told you to let her concentrate, Ward," Danny said in a distracted voice that suggested he was focusing chi or whatever you did when you were a martial arts master who'd just been stabbed in the hand. "Just let us know if Harold tries anything in the next few minutes."

There were about a million things he could have said, starting with How and What do you think any of us is going to do about it if he does? and I can't look everywhere at the same time! And also, He just stabbed you with a screwdriver and it could have been your HEAD and you both have to leave RIGHT NOW ...

But he clenched his teeth on the flood of panicked complaints and instead gripped the screwdriver as tightly as possible and steadied Danny with his other arm. Colleen held him with her free arm from the other side, both of them bracing Danny between them.

When Colleen bit out, "Now!" Ward pulled. The screwdriver resisted and then came out with a sudden horrible slipping feeling, and Danny made a terrible pained noise. Colleen slapped her hand over his, curling the fingers around his blood-sticky palm, and while Danny clung to Ward and gasped, Colleen bowed her head and the light around her hand brightened.

The brighter light picked out the blood: it was everywhere, all over Danny's hand and arm, Ward's hand, Colleen, and the couch. Ward lowered his shaking, blood-sticky hand, clutching the screwdriver because he had no idea what to do with it. The gore was horribly reminiscent of when he'd stabbed Harold.

Harold ... who could be anywhere, doing anything. Ward tore his eyes away from Colleen's blood-covered hand, tightly wound around Danny's, the light shining so brightly it illuminated their bones and veins. His night vision was completely wiped out for a moment, making the shadows in the room even blacker and more impenetrable. There were dancing sparks in his vision like an illusion of motion. But Harold was here somewhere, Ward thought absently, steadying Danny (who was breathing harshly, making no other sound) and trying to look everywhere at once. This was exactly the sort of opening that Harold would almost certainly take advantage of, but how?

There was a sudden clatter from the shadows, a hollow metallic clang. Ward nearly stabbed himself in the thigh; he felt the tip of the screwdriver tear his pants and scrape his leg. Danny flinched, and Colleen let go of Danny's hand, jerking back with a gasp as the Iron Fist light guttered and nearly died -- leaving them in near-total darkness -- and then brightened again.

"I think ..." Danny murmured. "That was one of the braziers. We gotta burn 'em."

"Stop moving your hand!" Colleen ordered, catching Danny's bloody hand in hers again. "The bleeding's stopped -- whoa --" She swayed, and Danny and Ward both caught her. "But I can't ... ooh ... do more without wiping myself out completely. So don't move it, there's a lot of damage there."

"So we just have to set fire to a bunch of little pieces of paper, right?" Ward said. "No big deal."

He stood up carefully, resting his burned and bandaged hand on Danny's shoulder. He felt a little less vulnerable like this: standing up, standing over them, with the bloody screwdriver gripped like a clumsy weapon. It shouldn't take three of them to take out one damned ghost, he thought, and suddenly he wasn't scared any more, just utterly, blazingly furious -- standing here covered in Danny's blood because they'd tried to help him.

Which was when there was movement near him, and Ward spun around to catch a glimpse of his father, blond hair gleaming in the city's night light through the windows. Harold vanished an instant later, but not before Ward lunged a few steps toward him on pure instinct, just wanting to put himself between Harold and the other two. He stumbled to a stop, finding himself outside the warm circle of Danny and Colleen's light.

"Ward!" Danny said, lurching to his feet with Colleen's help.

"I'm all right." And anyway, he had his own light. Ward transferred the bloody screwdriver to his left hand so he could use his good hand to flick the lighter. It lit up like a tiny lamp. "Let's do this."

The nearest brazier was sitting on the kitchen island. Ward expected resistance, and he wasn't wrong: as he dipped the lighter's bright spark to ignite the paper, Harold's hand came out of nowhere and caught his wrist.

"You're making a big mistake, son."

"Don't call me that," Ward snapped, and stabbed the screwdriver into Harold's arm.

There was an instant of grisly resistance -- so horribly reminiscent of the bite of a knife into semi-living flesh that he nearly lost his grip on where he was, when he was; he was back there, for just an instant, driving the knife into Harold ... and then Harold was gone, both the memory and the ghost, and Ward stumbled a step before catching himself on the edge of the kitchen island. Touching the lighter to the dry yellow paper was anticlimactic after that. It flared and caught and curled, crisping to black ashes. A sweet smell curled up along with the tendrils of smoke, little flakes of incense and herbs catching flame around the edges of the paper.

Ward looked around for Danny and Colleen. He found Colleen by the glow of the Fist and Danny elsewhere, near the door, visible by the flare of a lighter. Two more braziers lit up with flickering orange light. The air was sharp and spicy with scented smoke.

And then the building's fire alarms shrilled straight through Ward's nerves, and the sprinklers went off.

"Shit!" In all of this, it hadn't occurred to Ward that they might be thwarted by something perfectly ordinary and human. He put his hand over the flame in the brazier, trying to shield it, and saw Colleen doing likewise, and then saw -- "Colleen! Behind you!"

Colleen spun around and punched with the Iron Fist. She might not be able to see Harold, but the brief glimpse Ward had of him was shattered like a funhouse mirror image as her glowing fist tore right through where he'd been. Something clattered to the hardwood floor.

"He had a knife," Ward said numbly.

"Colleen," Danny said, his voice desperate, and lunged across the room to her.

"I'm fine," she said, her voice mostly steady. The light dimmed, darkness reclaiming the room for an instant -- the pattering of the sprinklers was suddenly very loud -- and then brightened again. "I'm okay. Ward, where is he now?"

"I don't see him." His heart was racing. She'd almost -- Harold would have -- they had to get out of here. The place was full of weapons; the kitchen alone ...

"Is there any reason we have to burn these damn things one at a time?" Colleen asked. Ward looked around and saw that Danny had his arm around her. She didn't look especially appreciative; she had her katana out. "Can't we just make a pile and burn them all at once? And we'd better do it fast before they get too soaked to burn."

They scrambled to collect the braziers, dumping their dampened contents into one, and took it into the bathroom because the sprinklers weren't running in there.

"This might just banish him from the bathroom," Ward said, closing the door firmly. It was a large bathroom, but the only light was still coming from Colleen's fist, making the room seem both too small and too large, and infinitely full of shadows and reflections.

"Well then, you'll have one Harold-free room in the house, at least." Colleen crouched with the bowl. "Who has a lighter?"

"Me," Ward said. Harold leered at him from the mirror, a study in chiaroscuro. "Oh come on, really?" Ward snapped at him. Danny looked up. "Not you. Harold. What's next, Dad, you're going to come out of the TV like a little drowned girl?" He passed the lighter down to Danny. "He's here. Get that thing burning."

The mirror shattered. Ward spun away, moving without really thinking about it to shield Danny and Colleen as glass peppered his skin. They were both curled over the bowl. The spark of the lighter flared, guttered, failed to catch.

The shower came on abruptly. So did the sink, both taps hissing full bore.

"Really?" Ward demanded. "That's all you've got?" He stood over Danny and Colleen protectively. A human shield was all he could be, but if they were going to be here, doing this, anything Harold wanted to throw at them would have to go through him. He was still gripping the screwdriver, now glued to his fist with Danny's half-dried blood.

"I've got a lot more than this, Ward," Harold said, up in his face all of a sudden. Ward took an involuntary step backward, stumbling into Danny.

"No you don't," Ward said between his teeth. Danny's back was warm against his legs, and he maneuvered his body to keep himself between Harold and the two of them. "You've got nothing. You're a poltergeist, a spook. That's what you've been ever since I was eighteen years old --"

The bathroom door slammed open, snapping the lock. The sprinklers were still hissing in the living room, and the citylight from the living room windows fell across Harold's face, close enough to touch and cold as the grave.

"It's like the yapping of a dog," Harold said. "One of those little kick-me dogs --"

"-- acting through me because you can't do anything yourself, pushing me down to make yourself feel bigger, ever since I was a little kid, and you have the absolute gall to call me weak and stupid and selfish --"

Harold's ice-cold fingers closing around his throat were welcome, almost, because it meant Harold was still here, not vanishing somewhere to reappear and plunge a knife into Colleen's back, cut Danny's throat.

"Ward --!" Danny began.

"Just burn it!" Ward rasped out. He dug in his feet as they grappled. Harold was an immovable object, too strong to push backward, but Ward wouldn't be moved, either. He'd dropped the screwdriver, but that was all right; he didn't need to stab Harold, he just had to keep Harold here long enough to exorcise his poltergeist ass.

"You are nothing," Harold whispered, leaning forward until his cold breath, smelling of dead leaves and decay, brushed Ward's damp skin. "You were never anything but what I made you. And you're mine. You'll always be mine."

No, I'm not.

He couldn't speak, couldn't even breathe, with purple starbursts exploding dancing in front of his eyes -- but the conviction of that realization startled him. He wasn't. He'd made Rand into something new. He'd made friends with the people who worked for him, at least some of them. (Okay, one of them.) There were people here who were risking their lives to help him. And that was something Harold had never had, never would have had.

"No," he whispered, and he tangled his hand in Harold's hair, getting a grip on it. He wasn't letting go, he was holding Harold here until Danny and Colleen were done. He wasn't about to let Harold fade off somewhere only to come back and hurt them. He could feel Harold trying, a weird slippery feeling, and it shocked him right down to his bones that this was the one thing Harold couldn't seem to do.

Harold was physically stronger, but he couldn't leave if Ward was hanging onto him.

And right in front of him, through his fading vision, he could see Harold's expression of fierce malice turning slowly to fear.

Yeah, how do you like that, you son of a bitch? The one thing I was ever really good at was holding on. Maybe I really am what you made me, in which case, I hope you enjoy reaping what you've sown -- I might not have very many good qualities, but I'm goddamn tenacious, as you know, and it'll take you straight to hell.

The glint of the knife was something he maybe should've seen coming, but at this point he didn't even care. What mattered was that he had the bastard, and everything Harold did to him now was the thrashings of a pinned insect.

Except it wasn't aimed at him, it was striking past his side at Danny's exposed back.

Rolling to the side to take the blow instead was instinctive, hardly worth conscious thought.

 

***

 

"Ward!"

Danny's voice. Frantic.

He opened his eyes. That ... hadn't been the end of it, he was on a hard bathroom floor and the lights were back on somehow, and he was cold to the bone and he hurt. There was no Harold anywhere, just Danny leaning over him. Ward tried to speak but couldn't.

"Colleen, can you -- Colleen ... please ..."

Danny's voice faded out, but what came next was warmth. It started in the cold-hot place under his rib cage and seeped through him and seemed to fill every flaw in him with light.

Ward opened his eyes, gazed up at the bathroom ceiling, and then, with a tremendous effort, he raised his head a little. He caught fleeting glimpses: Colleen's bowed head, her ponytail damp and draped over her shoulder; Danny with one arm around her and the other across Ward's chest, hand gripping Ward's limp fingers. Colleen's strong hands, pressed to Ward's abdomen, covered in blood to her wrists.

"Can ..." he managed, and he felt for her with his fingers, closed his hand loosely around the bones of her wrist. "Can I ... help?"

"You are," Danny said, his voice distant, and he curled his hand tightly around Ward's. "Just relax."

Danny's hand was sticky. It was the hand Harold had stabbed with the screwdriver, and Danny had somehow managed to break the wound back open. Ward turned his hand around -- even that small movement was a tremendous effort -- and closed his fingers around Danny's, and ...

It was a Danny thing, energy flow and all of that. It wasn't something he believed in, normally. But he didn't have any other explanation for what was happening here -- so he tried to help, tried to pour whatever he had to give back into whatever they were doing.

Light filling every part of the room, white and clear. Driving away all shadows. Of every kind.

They had only ever needed Colleen, was his last clear thought before losing his grip and floating away.

 

***

 

The hospital room was thoroughly bedecked with fu, red words on yellow paper, circling the door frame and adorning every surface.

"Didn't we exorcise him?" Ward asked weakly from the bed as Danny stood on a chair to fix one over the door. "Anyway, they're saying I'll be out of here tomorrow. And do you even know what you're doing with those?"

"I don't care, I'm not taking chances."

It was easier to argue with a brick wall than with Danny when he had his mind made up. Ward dropped his head back onto his pillows and rolled it to watch as Danny jumped off the chair and dragged it to a new location even more in the way, and climbed back on it.

"How's Colleen doing, anyhow? She okay?"

"She's okay," Danny said, with a quick flicker of his besotted thinking-about-Colleen smile. "Recovering. Sleeping."

When Ward thought about it, or rather, stopped trying so hard not to think about it, he could still feel that white light filling every part of him. He didn't even know what it would be like to have that inside him forever.

And he took another look at Danny, as Danny carefully set up another spell, and asked himself what it was like for Danny to be that close to it and still not quite a part of it. Like getting a tiny taste of heroin and just ... never going any farther than that.

Which wasn't a pleasant thought. He closed his eyes for a moment. Danny, he was fairly sure, had no idea that Ward had blocked a blow that Harold had intended to slide between Danny's shoulder blades. And he had absolutely no intention of Danny ever finding out. Unfortunately, he was equally sure that Colleen did know -- she'd been facing in the right direction for it -- but, well, he'd have to face the music for that eventually.

Or maybe he already had ... white light and all.

He opened his eyes again and turned his head to look at the flowers on the bedside table. Katie had brought those by earlier.

"I don't know if it's entirely appropriate to bring flowers to my boss," she'd said, as Ward turned the bouquet around to read the personal note scribbled on the GET WELL SOON card: Can't wait to have you terrorizing the office again. - K "But they're get-well flowers, so I expect that's all right. Your brother said you were stabbed in a mugging. You really can't catch a break lately, can you, sir?"

"Oh, I don't know, I think I'm pretty lucky, all things considered."

"Did they catch the person who did it, at least?" Katie asked.

"Yeah," Ward said. "They got him."

Now he lazily followed Danny around the room with his eyes, not really feeling up to moving any other part of him. It was hard to justify to himself why he was so confident that Harold wasn't coming back -- more so than Danny seemed to be, based on the way Danny was warding the hospital room. But there had been a finality to that last confrontation that stuck with him.

"How's your hand?" he asked.

Danny flexed his hand. There was a bandage on the back and the palm, but the small kind that you'd expect for a cut or scrape, nothing like the kind of thing he should have had. "It's a lot better. Hardly bothering me at all. Not your fault, anyway."

"We can agree to disagree on that."

Danny made a snorting sound and moved on to the window. "Your apartment is a wreck."

"It's a condo."

"Whatever."

"Insurance will cover it." Also, he was pretty sure he was never going to be able to sleep there again, but he wasn't about to say that to Danny because --

"You can stay with us at the dojo."

Ah yes, he'd had a feeling it was leading up to that anyway. "I need my own space. Mainly to keep Colleen from wanting to strangle me inside of a day."

"Who wants to strangle you, and can I help?" said a voice from the doorway, and Ward jerked in a reflexive attempt to sit up that was, for the record, a very bad idea in someone who'd recently suffered an abdominal stab wound, chi-healing or not.

"Joy!" Danny said. "Uh, wow. Hi?"

Joy's expression suggested she still thought they were both complete idiots, an expression that deepened when she noticed Danny was gluing pieces of scribbled-on paper to the window frame, and Ward could almost see her visibly deciding not to ask about it. "Can I come in?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Danny said.

Joy rolled her eyes. "I wasn't asking you, but all right. Could I talk to my brother alone for a minute?"

"Um, yeah, sorry." Danny gave Ward a nervous/happy look and ducked out of the room, mumbling something about tea.

Ward stared in anxious confusion at the sister he hadn't seen in person for most of a year. Joy looked ... well ... like Joy, wrapped up in a long dark coat with her hair in perfect waves. He remembered how hard she used to worked at that, struggling with a hair curler and a shelf full of products, nearly in tears at the bathroom mirror as she tried to tame hair that was naturally inclined toward frizz and disorderly curls. And then she'd finally figured it out and never appeared in public with anything less than professional waves. Very Joy.

Ward had spent his life working to present a polished and professional face, because Harold punished anything but perfection. But Joy had done it because Ward, without even meaning to, had led the way for her. Weakness, even the appearance of weakness, was failure. The facade was what mattered, "fake it 'til you make it," and even if he had learned it from Harold, even if he hadn't meant to pass that lesson along to Joy, it was still another thing he knew would be marked in the minus column when it came down to his final reckoning.

How many of their problems came back to that, he wondered: Ward having set her an impossible standard, that was never his in the first place?

"You look like shit, Ward," Joy said. She retrieved the chair Danny had been standing on, and gathered her dark wool coat carefully to avoid creasing it before sitting down.

"People who have been stabbed usually do, from what I hear." He took a (careful) breath and said, "I didn't expect to see you here."

"I'm not sure that I expected to be here. You know, Ward, he ... our father ..." She hesitated and bit her lip, making him think of the way she used to look when she was working up to confess something as a little girl. "He came to see me too. Our dad."

Ward sat up again. Still a bad idea. He didn't care. "Joy -- Jesus --"

"And you know what? I never thought to call you. To warn you. Just another difference between us, I guess." She looked away, at the wall, her upper teeth sunk in her lower lip.

"Is he gone now? Is he still bothering you? Joy --"

"Stop it, Ward, it's fine. He hasn't come back in days." She looked up, meeting his eyes. "I feel as if you might have had something to do with that."

"It was Danny and Colleen, mostly. I can't take credit."

"But he is gone," she said, and started to do the lip-biting thing again, only to realize she was doing it; she pressed her lips together instead.

"Yes," Ward said. "He's gone."

"Good." She reached out with a hand that was perfectly manicured, and bore a strangely shaped mark across the back. He was still staring at it as she laid her hand lightly over his, and finally figured it out: that was the mark of a curling iron, or something similar, that had been placed across her skin.

"Joy," he said, turning his hand to curl his fingers around hers, carefully avoiding the burn on the back of her hand. "Joy -- I'm sorry. I would have --"

"You had nothing to do with it. Don't even try to make it about yourself, Ward. If I'd wanted you to come over, I would have said so."

"Yeah," he said. It was a physical effort, backing himself down. "He, uh ... he burned my arm on the stove, you know."

"Yeah?" She turned his hand over -- carefully, gently -- to look at the back of his arm. For the most part, thanks to Colleen, the burns were healed to pink new skin, but the hair had been burned off and scar tissue puckered here and there. "Real piece of work, isn't he? Our dad. Do you think we're like him, Ward?"

"In some ways," he said. It was something he'd had a lot of time to think about, over the last year or so. "But not in others. And you know, we don't have to be him. Going forward."

"Going forward," she sighed. "How are things at Rand? You always tried to talk me into leaving, and I wouldn't go. Funny how I was the one who actually did leave, in the end."

"It's different," Ward said. "Better, maybe. But I don't know if it'd be as much your thing as it used to be. How's your company?"

"It's what I want it to be. For the most part. Is Rand what you want?"

"Yes," he said. "For the most part. Got a little cleanup to do thanks to Dad, but ... yeah. I like it."

"What do you think about staying with me while you recover?"

It simply dropped into the conversation out of nowhere. He blinked at her. She was still holding his hand. "Is that an offer, or do you just want to know what I think?"

Her smile was reluctant, but genuine. "More the last one, I suppose."

"I think it'd be a terrible idea," Ward said bluntly. "We'd be tearing each other's throats out inside of a day."

"You're probably right." She gave a soft laugh. "Funny how people grow up to be the people they do. But you know, in the end, we all do grow up." She stood up and patted his hand. "I'm glad you're doing better, Ward. You don't really look like shit. Okay, no, that's a lie. You absolutely do. But beyond the obvious fact that you haven't showered or slept in days, I can tell that whatever you're doing now is agreeing with you. So keep doing it. It's nice to see you, Ward."

"You too. Uh ... Joy?" he said, and she turned back. "If Dad comes back or, you know, you want to talk about it? You can call me. If you want. We can have a nice bitchfest about how much Dad sucks."

"An evergreen topic of conversation," Joy mused, with a slight smile. "Where did Danny go? Oh, there you are. Hovering."

"I'm not hovering," Danny said from just out of sight, somewhere in the hallway.

"Yes, you are. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

She left with brisk clicks of her heels, and Ward found himself wanting to ... to call after her, to scramble out of bed and chase her down to say a proper goodbye, but --

But that was where it had fallen apart before. And, as Danny would probably love to point out, sometimes being content with what you had was enough.

His skin felt warm where she'd been holding his hand.

 

***

 

"You sure you're good with a hotel tonight?"

"Fine," Ward said, for what felt like the umpty-zillionth time. "There's room service and a gym and staff on call 24/7. What's not to like?"

The hotel room had an impersonal feeling that reminded him vaguely of the condo, but it was a place to sleep. Danny had driven him to his place to pack a bag. There were clear signs of the condo having been cleaned up a bit, and he suspected Danny was responsible but hadn't managed to get a straight answer out of him. A lot of the damage wasn't going to be easy to fix, though -- the saturated furniture, the ruined carpets. He found that he didn't regret the idea of just getting rid of the place.

Maybe this time, he'd buy something that had more going for it than just not being the last place. Maybe something similar to Danny and Colleen's dojo, with exposed wood and a lot of character. Something that needed a little fixing up, perhaps. He wasn't good at working with his hands, but he'd found on the Asia trip with Danny that he genuinely enjoyed it.

Maybe he could get good at it. He had a feeling that if he did buy some kind of fixer-upper, he'd have help. It might be fun, remodeling something together with Danny and, perhaps, Colleen. Making it his, the way he'd rebuilt the company from the wreckage Harold had left him with.

But for tonight, he had a bland -- but dry and ghost-free -- hotel room. Danny had insisted on carrying Ward's bag upstairs; he dropped it in the middle of the bed. "Look, Ward, if you get bored or ... anything, give us a call, okay? We're just going to be hanging out around the dojo tonight. No plans."

"Yeah, sure I will," Ward said, with no intention of doing so.

After Danny left, though, he wished he'd been a little less glib. He had thought it would be easier to just sleep through the first awkward day or two of post-hospital convalescence. And he was tired, but in a way that had more to do with his healing body's physical exhaustion than actual sleep. He'd done almost nothing but sleep for the last two days. And now he found himself staring at the ceiling and thinking about all the things he hadn't brought from the condo. He didn't even have a book to read, damn it.

There was absolutely no comfortable position he could find to lie in, and the room felt too big and empty. It was too easy to imagine Harold watching him from the shadows.

Yeah, probably not sleeping tonight after all.

He was idly watching an episode of some serial-killer show on TV, and trying to pretend that he had his back against the wall because it was the most comfortable position and not because it meant no one could sneak up on him from behind, when his phone chimed with a text from Danny.

Want company?

.... Yes. Yes he did, damn it. But it wasn't fair dragging Danny out of the dojo, when Danny had more than earned a quiet evening at home. No need to come all the way uptown, he texted back.

So what if, hypothetically speaking, Colleen and I are downstairs with takeout.

Ward tipped his head back against the wall and grinned helplessly at the ceiling for a minute before he managed to get it together enough to text back, Yeah, sure.

The knock on the door came a minute later, and Ward let them in. "I could've been asleep, you know."

"I know," Danny said, looking utterly unrepentant. "We would've just gone back home in that case. I mean, we weren't just in the neighborhood because of you. There is a really amazing Bolivian place that we never get to."

"Right, because there are no good restaurants in Chinatown. Hi, Colleen."

"Hi," Colleen said. She had her arm laced through Danny's, and Ward tried not to stare at her as if he could map out her physical condition with his eyes. She didn't look unwell, in fact she looked happy and healthy and good. Which made him realize that he'd never really, properly thanked her for healing him, twice, or apologized for upending her life and almost getting her and her boyfriend killed.

As Danny spread out the takeout cartons, Colleen's smile turned wry. "Any particular reason why you're trying to drill holes in my head with your eyes, Ward?"

All he could really do was fall back on his underdeveloped (but improving) honesty skills. "I was trying to figure out how to thank you. So, uh, thank you. You saved my life at least twice, and I owe you a hell of a lot, but there's not really anything I can do except just ... well ... thanks."

Her face was, for a moment, a picture of surprise, touched with warmth; then she smiled wryly. "You don't owe me anything. But I appreciate that. Thank you."

"If you ever need anything," he said, aware of how inadequate it sounded, and also of the sheer implausibility of Colleen ever needing anything from him. "You know. Just ask."

Danny looked up from the takeout cartons. "Course you will. That's what family does. Right, Colleen?"

"If you say so," Colleen said, and she looked slightly dazed. Which reminded Ward that, from what he knew of her past (he'd gotten a fair amount of Colleen backstory from Danny on their road trip), having people to depend on was perhaps even more unfamiliar for her than it was for him.

Then Danny shoved paper plates into their hands, and there was food and a not-too-terrible movie Danny found on the TV. They all sat on the floor without really talking about it, and dragged pillows and blankets down, and before Ward knew exactly what was happening, it appeared that he was in the middle of an honest-to-God sleepover for the first time in his adult life.

.... well, okay, there had been the entire road trip with Danny, but those were extenuating circumstances. This made him think of childhood, watching TV on the floor of the big playroom in the Rands' townhouse, with Danny and Joy curled up against him like a couple of puppies. There were times when they'd all fallen asleep like that, not waking up until Ward's dad came to get him and Joy and take them home.

And yeah, he'd been an absolute dick to Danny back in those days; he'd come to terms with it, more or less, because Danny had, but it still cast a shadow over those memories, at least as much as Harold's looming presence. But there had also been times when things were easy and good. Nice memories mixed in with the bad ones, the guilty ones; even if everything about those years had run into a blur he tried to forget, he thought maybe he could try to remember the better times every once in a while.

And now here he was, twenty years later, lying on the floor in a heap of pillows and blankets, only half paying attention to the movie playing on the big-screen TV, while Danny and Colleen giggled and fed each other Bolivian pastries.

He might just fall asleep here. It seemed likely.

 

***

 

He drifted awake awhile later. The lamp was still on, and Colleen was fast asleep, a spill of dark hair coming out of the top of a blanket burrito next to him. Danny was coming back from the bathroom.

"Sorry," Danny whispered, seeing Ward with his head propped up. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"I was already awake," Ward lied. He sat up carefully, and stretched even more carefully. Falling asleep on the floor had seemed like a better life choice when he was ten. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Uh, yeah?" Danny was curled up in a blanket again, looking ridiculously young.

"What'd you promise Gao?"

A brief silence. Danny grimaced and sat up. "So we're back to that again, huh?"

"You knew I'd come back to it." He kept his voice down, not wanting to wake Colleen. "What did you promise her, Danny?"

"Dragon bones."

The impossible answer fell from Danny's lips, and Danny's gaze was so bright and sincere that Ward couldn't doubt he meant it. Ward stared at him, shook his head, and pressed his fingertips to his eyes.

"Dragon bones," he said. "You gonna go back to K'un-Lun, kill a dragon ..."

"No! Of course not!" Danny sounded horrified. "No, there's got to be another way -- I mean, if it was possible to open a gateway under the city and find the remains of a dragon, there must be something like that elsewhere, right? We just have to find it."

"So Gao's got you running her errands now."

"She helped you," Danny said. "It's worth it."

Okay, that was playing dirty. Ward scowled at him. Danny was unfazed.

"I don't know if I'd go so far as to say she helped," he tried. "I mean, we did all the work."

"She supplied the fu."

"Fine," Ward said wearily. "So it's another road trip then, I guess."

"You don't have to come. Colleen and I were just going to take a sort of vacation ..."

Ward resisted the urge to throw a pillow at his head. "Seriously? You were just going to run off and do this all on your own, without even asking?"

"You didn't make the deal," Danny said. "We did. It's not fair to expect you to hold up our end of it --"

Which was as far as he got before Ward did smack him with a pillow, even though throwing it hurt his healing abdominal muscles. "The deal you made to save my life, you mean?"

Colleen rolled over enough to grumble, "Would you two shut up?"

"We'll talk about this in the morning," Danny whispered.

"Yeah, we sure will," Ward muttered, reaching up to turn off the lamp.

The room was suddenly dark, but there was no fear in the darkness now, not when it was full of little rustles as everyone settled down again for the night. He'd just realized that he had no pillow when it reappeared out of nowhere, shoved onto his face. "Thanks," Ward muttered, pushing Danny's hand away.

"If things aren't quiet in thirty seconds, I'm going to murder someone," Colleen mumbled.

In the sudden quiet, Ward rolled onto his back (marginally less uncomfortable than any other sleeping position) and gazed up at the stripes of streetlight across the dark ceiling. He wondered how Katie would take the news that he planned to head off on another round-the-world trip for unspecified reasons. This time he considered sweetening the deal by throwing in a promotion -- hell, all the way up to COO this time, why not? Chief Operating Officer sounded about her speed; he and Danny would still run the company on paper, but he was confident by now that Katie could handle it.

Dragon hunting. Well, he'd done weirder things. Hell, he'd done weirder things in the last week.

Compared to what they'd already been through, how hard could it be?

 

*

 

Epilogue

 

"We're not hunting dragons, Ward," Ward muttered, gripping his net launcher while also trying to brace his feet against the trunk of the tree, which his rock-climbing harness was holding him onto, but not very securely. "This is a salvage operation, Ward. Yeah, sure, Danny. What the fuck am I doing with my life."

"Shhh!" Colleen whispered, in the tree opposite his, with a tranquilizer gun. "It'll hear you!"

The most likely outcome of all of this was that he was just going to fall and die, he thought, sighting down the gun as the dragon came into view.

He hadn't actually seen one before, and he found himself captivated. It was much smaller than he was expecting, though still comfortably horse-sized, if somewhat lower-slung. It had no wings, and its body seemed to ripple as it moved, ten feet of glistening scales shimmering with iridescent colors.

It was a real live fucking dragon and it was right under his tree.

Something bounced off his shoulder. It was a pine cone. Across the way, Colleen gestured frantically.

Net gun. Right.

He squeezed the trigger. It went off just like all the practice shots, and to his amazement, it actually hit on the first try. The dragon toppled over and let out a high, keening cry that actually made Ward feel intensely sorry for it; they weren't planning to hurt it, just buy Danny some time to investigate its cave for shed scales, claws, or remains of other dragons, but it didn't know that.

The dragon continued to wail. Colleen's tranq gun went off with a muffled pop, and the dragon jerked and thrashed and then relaxed. The keening subsided into a whimper followed by silence.

Ward found he was holding his breath and let it out. When the dragon didn't move, he found the thingie on his harness that would release it and send him dropping twenty feet to the ground. He landed with a light bounce and unhooked himself from the tree. Colleen was already on the ground and trotting toward the dragon.

It seemed bigger close up, a great heap of scales and claws and tangled rope. It was breathing steadily in great panting gasps, to Ward's relief. The idea of killing something like this was beyond wrong. He had to resist the urge to give its heaving side a comforting pat.

"What are you doing?" he asked Colleen. She had slung the tranq gun over her shoulder and was gripping one of its big clawed paws in both hands, stretching out the toes.

"I don't think these are big enough to make those tracks we found earlier," Colleen said, frowning.

"Wait, you mean there's two --?"

"Guys!" Danny's frantic yell came from above them. He bounded down the mountainside, parkouring off rocks and trees. Up above him, something shook the ground. "I found Mom!"

"You fucking what?" Ward yelled back.

Danny skidded into their midst, eyes bright and pine twigs caught in his hair, looking like he was having the time of his life. "Uh, so apparently our tranquilizers don't work on the big ones. I suggest running?"

Colleen paused to slash the net on the baby dragon with her knife before sprinting after them.

"I will end you, Daniel Thomas Rand!" Ward yelled. He threw the net gun aside for easier running as they dashed for the Jeep. Colleen, of course, not only caught up but sprinted past them both, and already had the engine running by the time they flung themselves into the backseat.

Colleen tore away down the mountain road. Looking back, Ward couldn't actually see the bigger dragon, just trees thrashing in an alarming way before a twist in the road and a towering stone outcropping hid that part of the mountainside from view.

"So what I'm thinking we could do," Danny said, already catching his breath because of course he was in stupidly good shape, "we come back with heavier tranqs. There's this thing they do with giraffes, where they give them a really high dose of narcotics so they go down instantly and then shoot them up with the antidote, and I bet that'd have a good chance of working ..."

Ward was too out of breath to speak; he just smacked Danny on the arm by way of expressing his feelings. "There has to be," he wheezed eventually, "an easier way ... of doing this."

"We could set up surveillance and go in the cave when they leave," Colleen said over her shoulder.

"And probably find twelve more in there," Ward panted, but he was ignored, because they were off and running with this new idea.

"I can get night vision goggles through Rand," Danny said. "And probably all kinds of other equipment. Motion detectors! This'll be awesome."

"Maybe we could tame them to eat out of our hand," Ward grumbled.

"Oh my gosh," Danny said, and the hearts in his eyes were practically visible.

"No! That wasn't a serious idea!"

"When I was in K'un-Lun, though, Davos and I used to make friends with stray cats by feeding them. I wonder if you can make friends with dragons the same way?"

Colleen looked up and met Ward's eyes in the rearview mirror. At least she looked suitably horrified by this brand new lunacy. "Danny, we're not taking a dragon home to the dojo."

"Of course not, it would be unhappy there. I was talking about making friends with it here --"

Ward flopped back in the seat and threw his arm over his face and decided to ignore the entire conversation until they got back to town. Maybe by then saner heads would have prevailed.

"Colleen, give me your phone, I lost mine back in the cave. I'm going to look up how to set up a bait station. What do you think dragons eat? Can we buy a sheep in town?"

... or not. We're gonna die, Ward thought, but as much as he tried to maintain a suitable realistic outlook on the likelihood of this entire venture not going horribly sideways, he still found himself grinning.