Chapter 1: The Halfa's Tale
1. The Halfa's Tale
Long after she went back inside, he sat on her front steps, alone, trying to get the bad taste out of his mouth. Not from the tofu corndog—although that was bad enough—but from her words.
I'll always be your friend, Danny.
He knew that. If there was anything in life he was sure of, it was that he and Sam would always be friends. And Tucker, too. No matter how badly he screwed up, no matter how bad a fight they might have, their friendship would remain. And yet, her words had been like a brick to his stomach. Not a comfort, but an accusation. I'll always be your friend, Danny. In his head, he heard the continuation, the words she didn't say: And nothing more.
He wasn't sure exactly when he'd started wanting more. When he'd danced with her at that school dance freshman year? When she'd knocked him off his feet—literally and figuratively—with his first kiss, a "fake-out make-out" that had felt more real than he'd wanted to admit? When Ember had put that love spell on him, and even when it was broken, the memory of her kissing Dash still felt like it was ripping out his heart? When he'd watched her kiss Gregor—not a fake kiss, like the one with Dash, or the fake-out make-outs they'd shared, but a real kiss that she obviously wanted—and it had hurt more than the beating he'd just taken courtesy of the Guys in White?
It wasn't something he could actually pin down. His feelings had moved from friend to more so gradually, in such small increments, that he hadn't even seen it coming. Even when he'd had that dream where she was his girlfriend—even when he got to go inside her dream and saw she was having the same dream—he hadn't wanted to admit it. It was too huge, too terrifying, more than fighting ghosts had ever been.
It was such a cliché, he knew. Best friends fall for each other, but are afraid to admit it because they don't want to screw up their friendship. But if he was honest with himself, that wasn't what immobilized him when he thought about Sam. I'll always be your friend, Danny. He knew that. He could tell her he wanted more and she could recoil from him like he was her mother waving a frilly pink dress at her, and still their friendship would remain. It would be awkward for a little while, sure. But it would remain. Never once did it even cross his mind that he would risk that.
Rather, it was the hugeness of what it meant to have a crush on Sam. She wasn't Paulina, the safe-from-a-distance crush that was never gonna happen. She wasn't even Valerie, someone he'd actually had real feelings for based on her, not how she looked in a half-shirt—although that battle suit of hers was undeniably hot. She was Sam. One of the two most important people in his life outside of his family. He couldn't just crush on her. He couldn't just date her and see what happened the way sixteen-year-olds were supposed to. He couldn't just have fun and then move on. If he… if they… that would be it. Because when he looked at his future, not much was clear to him. He'd see himself as an astronaut, or as a ghost-fighting superhero, or… well, he didn't know what now that his powers were gone. But the one constant was Sam. She was as integral to his future as psychology was to Jazz's or technology was to Tucker's. And at barely sixteen, he just wasn't ready.
And now, he may have blown it. I'll always be your friend, Danny. And I'll always be there for you. But I can't live life just sitting on the sidelines. I'm surprised you think you can.
The irony was, he'd done it for her. He was tired of putting her in danger. And Tucker. And his family. So he'd stepped into the deactivated Ghost Portal, powering it up from the inside. Nearly two years ago, he'd done the same thing and had accidentally given himself ghost powers. Now he'd done it intentionally, giving up those same powers so that he could be normal once more.
But Sam hated normal. In the dream they both shared, she'd been Danny Fenton's girlfriend, but it was Danny Phantom who was the hero. And now? You're just an average, everyday, not-special human again. Translation: without his powers, he wasn't good enough for her anymore.
Except… that wasn't really fair. Sam was not the hero-worship type. She wasn't Paulina, who mocked Danny Fenton's unpopularity while fawning over the heroic "Ghost Boy." Nor was she Valerie, who liked normal Danny Fenton just fine but hated Danny Phantom with something bordering on obsessiveness. She was Sam. She'd been there from the beginning. Before the ghost powers. Before he'd ever been anything but an average, everyday, not-special human. Had he been good enough for her then? Had Danny Phantom raised the bar to a height Danny Fenton could never hope to reach?
You're not you anymore. You're just a normal kid. And a selfish one at that. Danny, don't you get it? Your powers gave you a chance to change things. A chance no one else had, and I was thrilled to be helping you. When you had your powers, I knew this town was protected from evil. But now? Who knows where we're headed. I'll always be your friend, Danny. And I'll always be there for you. But I can't live life just sitting on the sidelines. I'm surprised you think you can.
With his powers, he'd made a difference. Without them, he watched as others fought the battles he used to fight.
But that was a cop out. None of those other people had ghost powers. Masters' Blasters were just regular kids with a truckload of Vlad's money and technology behind them. The problem was, the money and technology were pretty much all that they cared about. Valerie was another human ghost fighter backed by Vlad's money and technology, but she fought as if destroying ghosts could somehow bring back the life she used to have. His parents fought ghosts for the sheer love of it, never once backing down from helping others even when their strange obsession and outrageous behavior made them the laughingstocks of the town. And Jazz, who had once wanted to be normal more than he did, but had somewhere along the way become a kick-ass ghost fighter in her own right. And Tucker. And Sam. They had been there from the beginning with nothing more than a Fenton Thermos, a Specter Deflector, and their unshakable faith in Danny Phantom.
And now, Danny Phantom was gone, and Danny Fenton had stopped caring about anything but protecting Sam, a girl who didn't want to be protected, but who wanted to fight for what was right. So she would always be his friend, but she would find someone else who actually cared. Not some lying phony like that Gregor jerk, but someone who really wanted to make a difference in the world. Someone who didn't eat meat and who took up causes with the same passion she did. Danny, the forever friend, would stand up at her wedding, be Uncle Danny to her kids… The thought made him more nauseous than any tofu corndog possibly could. He'd be living life on the sidelines, just like she said, always wanting what he couldn't have. He'd be—
He'd be Vlad.
Danny shuddered, forcibly pushing images of himself as a creepy old bachelor with a goth plushie and a cat named Sam out of his head as he rose to his feet. Brooding on her front steps wasn't exactly going to make him less Vlad-like. He had to get out of here, he had to do something, he had to fix this. Sam's right. Here I'm sitting, worried that by giving up my powers I lost her, when what I really lost is me
It was then that the weight of what he'd done hit him. The accident two years ago hadn't just changed his DNA, it had changed him. Somewhere along the way, Danny Phantom had become more than just a persona he put on to play the hero and fight ghosts. That was a lesson he should have learned back when he'd tried to split himself in two with the Ghost Catcher. Neither Danny Fenton nor Danny Phantom alone was who he was. Not anymore.
Some of the ghosts had once had a name for him: the "halfa." Half a ghost, half a human. Getting rid of the ghost half hadn't made him fully human. It had just made him… half.
He didn't have to be, though. The powers were gone, but the person who used them to help others was still there somewhere. The person who cared enough to put himself in the crosshairs again and again because it was the right thing to do.
The person Sam had always challenged him to be.
He's not gone, Sam. I'll find a way to get him back, powers or no powers. I promise.
Chapter 2: The Fool's Tale
2. The Fool's Tale
Jack Fenton was a fool.
He knew he was a fool—that he was the joke of the town, an embarrassment to his children, and not even close to worthy of the amazing woman who, defying all logic and reason, had married him. He didn't mind being a fool for the most part, because he knew it meant he believed in something others couldn't see. He believed in ghosts long before their presence in Amity Park became impossible to ignore. He believed in his inventions, even if they didn't work right the first time. Or the thirty-first time. He believed in never giving up.
He'd never given up on his friendship with Vlad. They'd lost twenty years to the accident that had given Vlad his ecto-acne and stolen a chunk of his life, but Jack had never wavered in his belief that time would soften Vlad's anger and that their friendship would prevail. He was thrilled to be proven right at the reunion, when Vlad did forgive him, when their friendship took up where it left off, and they could finally reclaim those lost years.
He'd been a fool.
Their entire friendship was a lie. The twenty years that Jack thought had served to soften the anger and melt it away had instead crystallized it, hardening it and honing it into a sharp weapon. A weapon he pointed back not just at Jack, but at Jack's family. At Jack's home. At the world.
How could you hold the world hostage like that, Vladdy? And after all the good fortune you've had in your life!
Good fortune? You infect me with ghost DNA and then steal the love of my life, and you call that good fortune?
Infected with ghost DNA…
The accident had done more than just given Vlad ecto-acne. It had actually turned him into a ghost. Not killed him, which up until this point had been the only way Jack knew of for a human to become a ghost. No. It had infected him, changed his DNA somehow. The scientist in Jack was reeling with the implications. A ghost that was still human? How was this possible?
Jack the scientist was a fool, then, too. There was no humanity left in Vlad. But it wasn't the ghost powers that had taken it from him. Even a fool could see that. He'd given it up freely, choosing to replace it with rage and bitterness, and then seeking to lay it all at Jack's feet. It was Jack's fault he was a ghost. It was Jack's fault Maddie didn't love him. It was Jack's fault he was miserable and alone.
I never meant to hurt you. What happened was an accident. I'm your friend, Vladdy! I've always been your friend!
But Vlad had never been interested in friendship, had he? He'd only wanted whatever it was he wanted. Power. Wealth. Maddie.
Maddie… Jack ground his teeth, biting back his own growing rage. He'd believed in friendship, in never giving up, and for that, Vlad had made a fool of him. He'd been making a fool of him all along.
Until now. Now, Vlad needed him. Jack didn't know what "ectoranium" was, but from what he could piece together listening to Vlad over the communications system, it meant that his plan had failed. He couldn't make the asteroid intangible, and he couldn't make good on his promise to save to the Earth.
"The Earth is doomed! And if even it wasn't, I could never go back. I've revealed my true self. I'll be forever hunted."
As Jack watched through the viewport of the Fenton Rocket, his oldest and closest friend, with nowhere else to turn, turned once more to him. "Jack! You have to help me! You wouldn't turn your back on an old friend, would you?"
Jack considered their past history and everything he'd thought they'd meant to each other. "An old friend? No." He sighed. "You? Yes." And without giving himself time to change his mind, he fired up the jets that would send the rocket back toward Earth, leaving Vlad behind. "If the Earth is doomed, you're better off up here, right Vladdy?" he said to no one in particular—he'd turned off the communications system. "You're a ghost, right? You can survive the vacuum of space without a pressure suit, but even ghosts can't survive the complete obliteration of an entire planet. So what do you need me for, 'old friend'?"
But Jack didn't really believe that. The Earth wasn't doomed. They would find a way to stop the asteroid; he was sure of it. He couldn't imagine not getting to see his Jazzerincess off to college in just a few short weeks, or missing that all important father/son rite of loaning out the keys to the Fenton RV once Danny got his driver's license next month. He couldn't imagine never growing old with Maddie. No, someone would find a way to save the world. He was fool enough to believe that.
But to believe in Vlad enough to bring him back to the world he only wanted to manipulate for his own ends? Even he wasn't that big a fool.
Chapter 3: The Rookie's Tale
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
3. The Rookie's Tale
She'd known for almost two years that her little brother was a hero. That's why she'd been so surprised when he'd purposely gone back into the deactivated Fenton Portal to remove his ghost powers, making himself a regular human once more. Not that she begrudged him a normal life. She was, after all, the Queen of Wanting a Normal Life. For years, she'd railed against her parents' obsession with the paranormal, trying in vain to bring the tiniest shred of sanity to the Fenton household. It was all for Danny's sake, she'd told herself.
How ironic, then, that instead of changing their parents for Danny, she was the one who had changed… because of him. Jasmine Fenton, straight-A student, valedictorian, future psychologist and devotee of all things rational and reasonable now spent her spare time practicing her aim with the Fenton Bazooka and the Jack O'Nine Tails, and working on her clever quips so that her brother's friends would stop rolling their eyes at her.
Once, she'd thought the greatest day of her life would be when the acceptance letter from Harvard—or Stanford, or Yale—would come. Then, she would move away from all the craziness and begin the career that would end the twenty-year association of the name "Fenton" with whackos, instead elevating it to the other side of the couch, where it belonged.
Months ago, the letters had come. All three of them, among many others. It had been a proud moment, yes. Her mother had beamed, and her father had gone on and on about the legacy of the brilliant Fenton minds, and even Danny had been happy for her, treating her to a burger and shake down at the Nasty Burger to celebrate.
And then came the night not long afterwards when Danny had awakened her from a ghost-induced dream because he needed her help to catch said ghost. Her brother was a hero. His friends were heroes. And they had come to her. She was one of them, a member of the team. Still the rookie, but one of the team nonetheless. That night, they'd saved the entire town from having their dreams sucked out of them and never waking up. She'd even personally taken out several of the Creepwalkers, or Sleepwalkers, or whatever they were called, and had single-handedly kept them off Tucker's back long enough for him to disable the antenna controlling everyone's dreams and keeping them asleep. Now that had been a moment to be proud of.
That was why Danny's decision to give up his powers had bothered her so much. Not because he wanted a normal life, but because after eighteen years of maintaining a white-knuckled grip on rationality in the face of her parents' craziness, she didn't want a normal life anymore. She wanted the life she already had. The one with parents who walked around town in day-glow hazmat suits. The one with the little brother who shouted "I'm going ghost!" and snuck out in the middle of the night to stop some weird ectoplasmic something or other from running amuck through town. The one where a well-stocked backpack included a few ecto-weapons and at least one Fenton Thermos, even if that meant there wasn't room for The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease.
So when the letters from Harvard, and Stanford, and Yale had come, she'd pressed them into her scrapbook along with the other mementoes of her academic achievements. But Harvard didn't have a parapsychology degree. Stanford didn't accept entrance theses on the Classic Indicators of Ghost Envy. Yale had a fencing team, but nothing to help her hone her skills with the Fenton Ghost Peeler. (She couldn't let Sam one-up her, after all.) So instead of her Ivy League favorites, when it came time to choose where to begin her undergraduate studies, she'd enrolled in Crane College, a small but prestigious liberal arts school with excellent programs in both psychology and parapsychology. Instead of making her great escape all the way to Cambridge or Palo Alto or New Haven, she was going only as far as Canterville, not thirty miles away from Amity Park. That way, if Danny needed her—when Danny needed her—she could be there at a moment's notice.
But then, Danny gave up his ghost powers. He wanted a normal life. Jazz, the Queen of Wanting a Normal Life, would be at Crane double-majoring in psychology and parapsychology, developing her undergraduate thesis on the Comparative Analysis of Human and Ghost Cognition, while Danny, the Ghost Boy who started it all, would be doing nothing more unusual than changing the ecto-filtrator on the Ghost Portal and attending Goth Poetry Slams with his almost-girlfriend.
Of course, that was before the world was going to end, making the whole issue irrelevant anyway. Vlad's plan to make intangible the asteroid that was bearing down on the Earth had failed. They were out of options.
What she'd forgotten was that her little brother was a hero. Powers or no powers, he had a plan, and the world didn't have to end. Not if we make the Earth intangible.
Sam and Tucker had been incredulous. The whole Earth? Intangible? Are you kidding?
Yeah, you'd need, like, a bazillion ghosts to do that!
Danny had merely smiled as he produced a small scroll. Behold the addresses of a bazillion ghosts.
The scroll turned out to be a map that directed them to a portal into the Ghost Zone. Jazz had never been to the Ghost Zone before, unless you counted that time the Ghost King had dragged the entire town of Amity Park into it, but from within the safety of Fenton Works and the Ghost Shield, it had still seemed far away, somehow. Now, flying through it with nothing but the Specter Speeder between them and the weird, glowing green ecto energy, it was a completely different experience, and she needed a moment to take it in. Danny, on the other hand, barely blinked. A ghost himself—or former ghost, anyway, she had to remind herself—he seemed quite at home. Even Sam and Tucker acted as if they'd done nothing more extraordinary than cross the state line while on a road trip. It made her painfully aware that she was still the rookie and they, though two years her junior, were the veterans.
The wonder ended abruptly when some sort of blue ectoplasm blast hit them, sending the Specter Speeder tumbling backwards, out of control. The ghosts, apparently, blamed them for the imminent destruction of the world, although they didn't seem to care about it beyond the fact that it made the Ghost Zone more crowded as every kind of spirit and specter imaginable fled here. Tucker had tried explaining that the Ghost Zone and the human world were connected, that the Earth's fate would be theirs as well, but that only served to make that big armored ghost—Skulker, that's his name—angrier. He attacked again, and Danny fought back, temporarily freeing them with a jamming signal from the Specter Speeder's microwave dish. But there were too many ghosts, and they were pissed, chasing after them as if Danny himself had personally set the asteroid on its collision course.
She'd known for nearly two years that her brother was a hero, so when he shouted at them to get into the escape pod, she obeyed without question. Danny knows what to do. Danny will take care of it. Tucker was close on her heels, but Sam protested. Just for a moment. Then she, too, was in the escape pod, and Danny ejected them far from the Speeder. Tucker, who seemed to know her father's vehicle better than she did, cloaked them, and the ghosts all raced after Danny while they watched through the small porthole in the escape pod, helpless. He didn't get far before he crashed into some giant red monster thing, and then he was surrounded, with all the ghosts blasting the Specter Speeder with every kind of ectoplasmic energy imaginable.
Jazz dug her nails into her palms. What is he thinking? Why doesn't he go—
It was only then that she remembered—he doesn't have any ghost powers! We left him alone and he doesn't have any ghost powers!
They couldn't see what was happening through the mass of ghosts. Sam screamed out Danny's name and pressed against the porthole, while Jazz threw herself at Tucker, grabbing a fistful of his shirt. "We have to do something, Tucker! There must be some weapons, something we can use—"
Tucker looked panicked. "I don't know, Jazz! I—"
"You knew how to activate the cloaking! I know you guys have messed around with this thing way more than my dad even realizes—"
A blinding flash of light and another scream from Sam cut her off, and her attention was drawn back to the porthole again. "What's happening, Sam?"
"I think they just blasted apart the Specter Speeder!"
"Where's Danny? Is he—?"
There was another flash of light, and the ghosts' assault came to an unexpected stop. Jazz's stomach dropped to her knees. He's okay, he has to be okay, he can't be—
A low, mournful wail chilled her to the bone, stopping her cold. She was afraid to even think what it might be, but to her surprise, Tucker and Sam exchanged glances, both of them lighting up like they'd just heard the final bell on the last day of school. Then, everything went to hell as something hit the side of the escape pod, knocking them back away from the ghosts and the source of the horrible noise. Tucker dove for the control panels, smashing his fist down on one of the switches. "Spectral Filter on!"
The sound abruptly ceased, and the escape pod's backwards motion slowed and evened out. Its three occupants gathered around the porthole again. Jazz was amazed to see ghosts flying everywhere, flung back by whatever force had hit the pod. "What's happening?"
Sam ignored her, looking to Tucker instead, her eyes alight with hope. "If he can do the Ghostly Wail, then…"
"Ghostly what?" Jazz strained to see out the porthole while Tucker turned off the Spectral Filter and worked the controls to maneuver them back towards the place they'd last seen Danny. And then Jazz could see him, only…. She sucked in a ragged breath. It was Danny, floating alone and unharmed, but not the little brother she grew up with, with his black hair and ratty t-shirt and jeans. It was the white-haired, black-jumpsuited Danny Phantom. "How on earth…?"
"It must be like when Vortex blasted him and gave him weather powers. All that ectoplasmic energy must have jump-started his ghost powers." Tucker's voice was a mixture of wonder and relief as he edged the pod closer to Danny. "And doing the Ghostly Wail didn't even drain all his energy and revert him back to human. Man."
Finally, Danny saw them and started flying toward them. Sam made a gurgling sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a cry. "Danny! It's you! Well…" She paused, fumbling for words. "It was always you, but…."
Jazz and Tucker backed away to give them a moment as Danny reached the escape pod and put his hand against the glass, his eyes locking on Sam's. "I… know what you mean, Sam. Thanks."
Jazz shook off her surprise and relief. She may be the rookie of the group, but she was still the logical one, and her mind clicked automatically into analysis mode. "Those ghosts are going to come back. And something tells me they're not going to be too happy about helping us."
"You're right. We'd better get out of here until we've got this thing figured out." Danny pushed against the pod, guiding it back in the direction of the portal through which they'd entered the Ghost Zone.
A squeamish look crossed Tucker's face. "If we went into the billboard's mouth, I don't wanna know where we're coming out!"
Jazz rolled her eyes. And they think my quips are lame. She turned to the porthole to watch her brother as he pushed them along. She had to admit that, like Sam, she was overjoyed to see this Danny, white hair, green glowing eyes, and all. Fenton or Phantom, he was still her little brother, and she was so glad to have him back. Because Sam was wrong, it hadn't always been him. He'd lost himself when he'd given up his powers, but he'd finally come back Not now, not when he became Danny Phantom once more, but the minute he picked up that map to the Ghost Zone and announced he had a plan.
Tucker leaned in toward the porthole and looked out at Danny. "Dude, you scared the crap out of us. You know that, don't you? I can't believe you took off alone like that with no powers."
Jazz could believe it, though. She'd known for almost two years that her little brother was a hero.
The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease is a collection of works by Carl Jung. It sounded like the kind of book Jazz would consider light reading the way Hermione Granger considers Hogwarts: A History light reading.
While Harvard, Stanford, and Yale are all real schools, Crane College is not. In keeping with the show's tradition of naming places after ghosts and horror stories, I named the school after Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Irving Washington, and the town of Canterville after The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. It sounds like the sort of pretentious place Jazz would want to study. ;)
Chapter 4: The Third Wheel's Tale
4. The Third Wheel's Tale
"What? You're not even done packing yet? Danny and Jazz are picking us up any minute!" Tucker dropped his own hastily-packed duffle bag onto the floor beside the door to Sam's bedroom. It landed with a thud—the tech-to-clothes ratio was about three to one.
Sam was examining two black tops she had laid out on her bed beside a suitcase that was half filled with more black things. "Actually, Danny just called to say they're running a little late. His dad is having trouble getting the Ghost Net to work right after he stripped down the Fenton Jet, so Danny's helping him. He said he and Jazz will come by and get us as soon as he's done. He's hoping it won't be more than another fifteen minutes or so."
"Oh, yeah, no rush. It's not like the world's gonna end in three days or anything. Oh wait. It totally is." He sat down with a disgusted harrumph in Sam's desk chair.
"Oh, keep your shirt on. We're talking fifteen minutes here. And since we weren't able to talk the ghosts into helping, the Ghost Net is kinda crucial." She held the tops up to Tucker. "Which one should I bring?"
"They're exactly the same! And Mr. Fenton shouldn't have wasted time stripping down the Fenton Jet in the first place."
"And lug their entire Ops Center all the way to Antarctica?" Sam shook her head. "They needed to make it as light as possible, since Danny will be dragging back a few tons of ghost."
Tucker thought about this a moment. "How is it that ghosts weigh anything, anyway?"
"When they're not intangible, they must have mass. Danny does, right? And Skulker's suit alone is probably three hundred pounds." She selected one of the two tops and threw it into her bag. "How about skirts?"
"It's the South Pole, Sam. You might wanna think long pants and thermal underwear."
"I'll be wearing them over my thermal ski leggings, lamebrain. And it's not the South Pole. It's McMurdo Station on the coast."
"Were you even paying attention when we planned this? It'd be kinda hard to run everything out of the actual South Pole, since it's like ninety-seven degrees below zero and the sun won't come up for another month. The sun's already up at McMurdo for, like, four or five hours a day, and it's a lot warmer there. I just checked the weather online, and the highs have only been a few degrees below zero all week. Thank you, global warming."
"Oh yeah, three below—that's almost tropical."
"Compared to ninety-seven below it is." She put both skirts in the bag even though, like the tops, they looked exactly the same to Tucker.
He leaned back in her desk chair. "So what about your folks? Are they really okay with you going all the way to the South Pole?"
"McMurdo Station," Sam corrected. "And are you kidding? Antarctica with the Fentons? Please. They had a cow. Danny was just gonna overshadow them and be done with it, but then my grandma got involved, and she was awesome. She actually started chewing them out. Told them they should be proud of me for helping to save the world. Then she made them go with her to temple for a special prayer service." She flashed him a wicked smile. "My parents in temple on a non High Holy Day, praying for Danny Phantom. Can you imagine?"
"Your grandma rocks."
"She totally does. If it weren't for her, I'd be absolutely positive I was abducted as a baby." She went into her closet, pushing aside racks of summer clothes and some intriguing-looking vinyl things to get at the winter clothes in the back. "How about your parents? I guess they couldn't make too big a fuss, seeing as you're a pretty key player in the whole save-the-world plan."
Tucker shrugged, glad she was in the closet so she wouldn't see how much he enjoyed being called a key player. "Yeah. My mom did the whole 'my baby' crying thing and all that, but they didn't tell me I couldn't go or try and talk me out of it or anything."
"Actually, I'm surprised they aren't coming with. I mean, my family can't, because there's no way my grandma could handle the environment, but most families want to be together with everything that's… well, you know."
Tucker nodded, feeling the weight of what they were attempting. "Just in case, you mean."
Sam emerged from the closet, her black parka with the white fake fur trim in her arms. "It'll work, Tuck."
"Yeah, it will." He nodded in determination. "Anyway, my parents have decided to go to Mount Rushmore. A lot of ground support is needed where the cables are gonna be laid, so they both volunteered for that."
Her eyes widened. "That's really cool! I knew I liked your parents."
"But you know who is going with us?"
Sam gave him a look that was almost but not quite a scowl. "I know. Valerie and her dad. Imagine my joy." Her cynicism was only half-hearted, however. Tucker knew she liked Val for the most part, however hard she tried not to.
"Well, yeah, of course they're coming. Axion's supplying a huge amount of the equipment, and Mr. Gray is one of their top tech guys. And Val's not so bad with the tech herself. That suit of hers is pretty high end. But that's not who I'm talking about—and if you think you're unhappy about Val coming…"
Sam looked horrified. "If you say Paulina, I'm gonna hurl."
"I wish! No, it's Lancer."
She blinked. "Lancer? Why's he coming? So if this doesn't work, he can bore us to death with nineteenth century poetry and save the asteroid the trouble?"
"Would you believe it was our presentation? Said it inspired him. He's gonna just go and do whatever grunt work needs to be done. And I guess he used to be a short order cook or something."
"Another reason why it pays to be an Ultra Recyclo-Vegetarian. I'm packing my own food."
"Is it too late to convert?"
"You'd have to eat vegetables, Tuck."
He stuck out his tongue in disgust. "On second thought, I'll take my chances with Lancer's cooking. If we survive the hours crammed into the Fenton Jet with him first."
"If the world doesn't end, we'll be wishing it had." She tossed the parka toward her bed, but underestimated its bulk. It swept across her dresser, knocking over a black jewelry box and spilling its contents onto the floor. "Oh, crap!" Sam picked up the parka and tried again, this time making the bed, and then knelt down to start picking up the scattered jewelry.
Tucker jumped up from the desk chair and knelt beside her. "I'll get this. You finish packing."
She nodded and went back to the bed to work on getting the parka into her suitcase while Tucker began scooping up spider web earrings, black chokers, and some small studs that he hoped to God were earrings. Then, he saw something among the sea of black that didn't belong—a gold ring with a neon-green stone. Curious, he picked it up, his eyes widening as he recognized it. With a wicked grin, he turned to her. "So, Sam. Isn't this Danny's dad's class ring?"
Sam looked over her shoulder at him, then wrinkled her nose when she saw what he was holding. "Yep."
"The one he was gonna give Valerie? To ask her to be his girlfriend?"
"That's the one."
"And you have it because…?"
She put her hands on her hips and gave him her best goth scowl. "He asked me to hang onto it after Valerie dumped him."
He arched an eyebrow at her. "He asked you to 'hang onto it?'"
She heaved a weary sigh. "Yes, Tucker. He asked me to hang onto it for him. That's it. So don't go there, okay?" She turned back to her packing.
Tucker rolled his eyes. Rocking back off his knees to sit on the floor, he crossed his arms and regarded Sam, his jaw clenched in irritation.
He'd first noticed the sparks between his two best friends at a school dance—never mind that she was supposed to be Tucker's date. Sam had asked Danny to dance, and something had just clicked. At first, Tucker had worried about what might happen to their trio if the two of them actually hooked up. He couldn't imagine anything worse than becoming the third wheel. It didn't take him long, however, to decide that it wasn't an issue. He and Danny had the guy thing and several years of friendship prior to Sam entering the picture, and that would never change. He and Sam had the whole non-superpowered-friends-of-the-guy-with-superpowers thing, giving them a common ground even Danny didn't fully appreciate.
Danny and Sam's thing was, well, the thing they had for each other, and Tucker decided early on that he approved. And lately, he was beginning to think that he'd be less of a third wheel once they finally did get together. Ever since Sam's brief relationship with that fake Hungarian exchange student, Danny had started waking up to the fact that he liked her as more than a friend, and the electricity between the two of them amped up considerably. They were constantly staring at each other, or blushing, or grinning stupidly when they thought Tucker wasn't looking. He'd even caught Danny doing the old yawn-and-stretch move at summer camp when they'd thought Tucker was asleep. He was to the point where he just wanted to knock both their heads together and scream: Would you just kiss already and be done with it?
But neither one of them seemed likely to make a move anytime soon. Danny still hadn't completely admitted to himself how he felt. And Sam? Tucker didn't have a clue what her problem was. He spent a lot of time trying to nudge her into telling Danny how she felt, but she was resistant. She avoided actually admitting anything, even to Tucker, although she never really denied it, either.
Which meant it was up to him to kick this thing in the right direction. Again.
"So, Sam. With the world maybe ending and all that, don't you think it might be a really good time to have a little talk with Danny?"
"Shut it, Tucker."
"I mean it, Sam. How many times have we been through this? How many times have we watched him almost get himself killed, and you won't say anything? Are you really gonna let the world end without telling him?"
"The world's not gonna end, Tucker. That's the whole point of this little excursion, right?"
"Okay, so the world's not gonna end. All the more reason to tell him."
"For what? So he can talk himself into going out with me just because he can? No thanks."
Tucker frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means he's a sixteen-year-old boy, and not exactly in touch with his feelings."
He rolled his eyes. "This is true. He really is clueless. That's why you have to make the first move."
"I don't think so. He needs to figure out what he wants on his own. I can't decide for him, and I don't wanna be the girl he's marking time with until something better comes along, like a Paulina, or a Valerie—"
"Whoa!" Tucker threw up his hands to stop her. "Where's this coming from? Since when do you think Paulina is better than you?"
"I don't think she's better than me, but Danny does."
He blinked. "Are you kidding me with this?"
"Come on, Tuck. I've been friends with him long enough to know his type, and I'm not it."
Tucker blew out a huff of air. "Have you completely not been paying attention the last few months? Seriously, Sam, when was the last time he even mentioned Paulina?"
This stopped her cold, and she frowned slightly as she thought about it a moment. "I guess he hasn't really talked about her much since he started liking Valerie," she admitted.
"Okay. And when was the last time he mentioned Valerie?"
"I don't know, Tuck—"
"Well, I do. I remember the exact moment. It was the beginning of last school year. We were at the Nasty Burger, and he was all making goo-goo eyes at her while she worked behind the counter."
She tapped her foot impatiently. "Thank you for that joyous journey down memory lane. Your point?"
Tucker stroked his chin, as if in deep concentration. "Let's think a minute. What could have happened, like, say, twenty seconds later that just might have made him forget Valerie ever existed? Something like, oh, I don't know, some fake foreign exchange student putting the moves on his best girl friend?" He crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow at her.
Sam groaned. "Ugh! Do not even mention that loser to me. And I don't see what that whole mess has to do with anything."
"Hello! Danny going completely mental? Using his ghost powers to spy on you? That ringing any bells?"
"So he went all protective big brother. He did the same thing with Jazz when Johnny 13 was hitting on her."
Tucker gaped at her. "Big brother? I don't think so. He was jealous, Sam. It made him absolutely nuts that someone else went out with you. That someone else kissed you. And he hasn't given Valerie or Paulina or anyone else a second thought since then. He likes you. You like him. So one of you has to make a move already!"
She attacked her suitcase, trying to stuff her parka into it. "Tucker, can we just drop it already?"
Tucker ground his teeth in frustration. What was it going to take? He squeezed the ring still in his hand, then looked down at it. You'd think the fact that she ended up with his ring would be a big frickin— Hello, what's this? He squinted, examining the ring more closely.
Big. Frickin'. Sign. In neon.
Raising his eyebrows, he looked up. "Hey Sam. Did you know there's engraving on this ring?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. 'Wes.' I figure Danny's dad must've bought it used or something."
"'Wes?' What are you talking about?" Tucker got up off the floor and went over to her, holding out the ring. "It doesn't say 'Wes.'"
"Yes it does." She took it from him. "Look."
He squinted at it again, then rolled his eyes. "Uh, you're holding it upside down." He flipped it over in her hand. "Look again."
Now she examined the ring, and her mouth opened in surprise. "I-it must be a coincidence. I mean, Sam's not exactly an unusual name."
"It's Danny's ring, and it has your name engraved in it. That doesn't sound like a coincidence to me."
"So you're telling me he was gonna give Valerie a ring with my name engraved in it?"
Tucker smiled at her. "But he didn't give it to Valerie, did he? He gave it to you."
She shook her head slowly. "He asked me to hang onto it for him because she dumped him. That's not the same thing."
"You have it, and it has your name in it, Sam. If you were waiting for an engraved invitation, this is it. Literally."
She stared at the ring a moment, and when she spoke again, it was almost a whisper. "It'd change everything."
"Yeah, but in a good way, right?"
She looked up at him. "But everything works the way it is now. You and me and Danny. We've got the whole thing down to a science, and it always works. If we change everything—"
He frowned. "You're not worried about me being the third wheel, are you?"
"I'm worried about everything! If everything stays the same, then… everything stays the same. As soon as it changes, as soon as it becomes real and I let myself think about how much it… how much he matters, then that's when Fate's gonna lay the smackdown and… Tucker, what if he doesn't come back?"
"Well, in this case, we won't have long to miss him."
"You're delusional! Do you really think you're some kind of star-crossed lovers doomed to a tragic end? Bleak, much?"
He scoffed. "Goth or not, you're the one who keeps saying this is gonna work, that the world's not gonna end. That kind of implies he makes it back, right? And you're also the one who got all over his case when he gave up his powers."
"You think that means I don't get the risks he takes? Or that I don't care? You know as well as I do that it's all or nothing with him. He's either out risking his neck for somebody else or he's a completely self-focused jerk. How many times have we seen it happen?" She ticked off the examples on her fingers. "When he split himself with the Ghost Catcher, when he got all that money from his parents selling out Fenton Works, and now when he gave up his powers. I can't stand by and watch him lose his soul just because I'm afraid of him losing his life. But if I tell him… if everything changed…. what if that's when he doesn't come back?"
Tucker sighed. "Do you honestly think it would hurt any less if you just stayed friends?"
Her shoulders sagged. "No. It wouldn't."
He leaned towards her and flashed a conspiratorial grin. "Then give him something he'll really want to come back for."
"Argh, Tucker! You are so—"
"Right? Persistent? Devilishly handsome?"
She rolled her eyes. "I was thinking more along the lines of grating and pig-headed." Then, without warning, she threw her arms around him in a huge hug. "What would I do without you?"
"Schlep after Danny with a Fenton Thermos all by yourself."
She pulled back, her nose wrinkled in distaste. "No thanks. We're in this together."
"That mean you're gonna tell him?"
"Hey Sam! Tuck! Anybody home?"
Sam closed her fist around the ring and put her hand behind her back just as Danny poked his head in her bedroom door. "What are you still doing up here? Jazz is waiting—" He stopped short as he saw the open suitcase on Sam's bed. "You're not even packed yet? Sam, we've gotta go!"
"I'm packed. I just have to get this parka into the suitcase, and I'm good to go." She quickly went back to wrestling with the coat—but not before slipping the ring into one of its pockets, Tucker couldn't help but notice.
"You need some help with that?" Danny went over to the bed and leaned heavily on the top of the suitcase so that she could zip it closed around the parka. Her hand brushed against his as she tugged the zipper around, and their eyes met a moment before they both blushed and averted their gazes. Sam finished zipping up the bag, and then Danny grabbed its handle and pulled it off the bed. "That it? You ready?"
She tilted her head at him. Her eyes flicked to Tucker for a moment before focusing back on Danny. "Yeah, actually. I think maybe I am."
Tucker hissed out a YES! under his breath, but Danny didn't notice. So long as Sam was in the room, Tucker figured he could strip to his underwear and do the Macarena on her bed and Danny wouldn't notice. He was too busy trying to look like he wasn't looking at her. He shifted the suitcase to get a better grip. "Okay, let's get going then. My dad wants to take off in half an hour."
"Don't mind me," Tucker said. "I can get my own bag."
Danny blinked. "Oh, Tucker. Yeah."
Ah, the joy of being the third wheel. Tucker rolled his eyes as came around the bed and picked up his own duffel bag from where he'd left it by her door.
Sam brushed past him as she exited the room. "Thanks for… helping me pack, Tuck."
Tucker just grinned at her, and then as soon as she was out the door, he grabbed Danny's elbow. "You so owe me, dude."
Danny frowned. "For what?"
"For being grating and pig-headed."
Tucker shook his head and chuckled. "Never mind. Let's just go save the world."
Chapter 5: The Phantom's Tale
5. The Phantom's Tale
She smelled like licorice and incense, and some kind of spice that made him think of Halloween. Not that it was the first time he'd noticed, but standing pressed together in a cramped utility closet, it was hard not to be really distracted by it. He could lose himself in that scent. And it didn't help matters that most of what little space there was was taken up by a cot they'd dragged in… with a little help from his intangibility powers.
"See, Danny? It's perfect."
Perfect… Danny shook his head, trying to clear it so he could think rationally. "I don't know, Sam. With everything going on, it just doesn't seem right."
"I don't care. In less than twenty-four hours, you're gonna have to leave for the Ghost Zone, so this is it. The last opportunity. We have to take advantage of it." She moved closer to him, which he would've thought impossible. "You know you need this, and I'm not taking no for an answer."
His mouth went dry. Focus, Fenton… "Sam—"
He sighed, knowing he wasn't going to win this battle. But it just felt so wrong. "How am I supposed to sleep when everyone else has to settle for grabbing catnaps down in the mainframe?"
She put her hands on her hips—quite a feat in the cramped space. "Everyone else doesn't have to go drag a bazillion ghosts out of the Ghost Zone."
"I'll be fine, really. It's not like I haven't pulled all-nighters before."
"Yeah, and look how well that always turns out. Besides, that was Danny Fenton. You've been in ghost form for what, thirty-six hours now? And I know that takes more energy for you to maintain."
She did have a point. Never before had Danny spent so many consecutive hours in ghost form. From the moment the Fenton Jet had touched down in Antarctica, Danny Phantom had been in constant demand. Not to do anything, really—his role in the plan didn't come until the very end. Mostly, people just wanted to talk to him. He'd become the face and voice of "Operation Spirit," the rallying point around which everyone centered. While Tucker's construction team of engineers from every continent were working around the clock getting the transfer device up and running, and Danny's parents were off circumnavigating the globe laying the cables with their cabling team, Danny was busy acting not only as a liaison between them, but also as their representative to the rest of the world. He suddenly found himself in the global spotlight, addressing international media outlets and world leaders via satellite. It would have been completely overwhelming had it not been for Jazz and Sam.
Jazz had been his constant shadow, becoming his speechwriter and personal assistant all in one. The Queen of Pep, she could dash out a brilliant motivational speech at a moment's notice, while simultaneously keeping track of satellite schedules, time zones, and the progress of all the various teams.
Sam wasn't with him nearly as much as Jazz. A lot of her time was spent on the Fenton Jet, acting as sort of an interpreter of Jack Fenton Logic to the mechanics who were prepping it for the trip into the Ghost Zone, including striping it down even further, removing the extra seats they'd needed to bring nine people up from Amity Park, and anything else that wasn't absolutely essential for the mission. When she wasn't doing that, however, she was at Danny's side, the one who kept him grounded and centered, reminding him that this wasn't about Danny Phantom, but about the entire world coming together for one common purpose. Every piece of the puzzle mattered.
Fortunately, the puzzle seemed to be coming together very well. The transfer antenna was being built next to a communications tower several miles north of McMurdo Station, an American research base on the Antarctic coast, south of New Zealand. The majority of the activity of the construction team was divided between two groups: a building crew of engineers and construction workers who were erecting the actual antenna, and a smaller technical crew responsible for setting up the controls in the communications tower, which was serving as their base of operations. Someone—Mr. Lancer, Danny guessed—had hauled cots over from McMurdo and set them up between rows of computers and wiring in the room that housed the tower's mainframe one level below the control room. The trip back to the base and its more elaborate accommodations would've wasted too much of their precious time, so the technical crew instead slept at the tower in shifts. The place reminded Danny of Mission Control from the Apollo 13 movie, which was a fitting analogy. Failure was definitely not an option.
The problem with the crowded conditions and rotating schedules became evident when Sam started insisting Danny needed to get some sleep. When Danny slept, he had no control over which form he took, and usually he would revert to human form. As it would've been a little odd for Danny Fenton to be seen sleeping when he hadn't been around any other time, he needed privacy, and there was none to be had. Jazz had solved the problem when she'd located an unused utility closet on the ground level behind the elevators. It was just large enough to hold one of the cots, making it a serviceable arrangement—except for the crushing guilt Danny felt taking a whole chunk of time to sleep when no one else was getting any.
"Listen Danny, I know you're a lot stronger now than you used to be, but if things go south…" Sam looked at him with wide, solemn eyes. "You only got away last time because of the Ghostly Wail, and even if it doesn't sap you dry the way it used to, if you've been running yourself ragged not sleeping and keeping up your ghost form for three days straight…"
He put his hands on her shoulders. "If it gets to the point where I need the Ghostly Wail, we're kinda sunk anyway."
"Don't even joke. You're coming back, and this is gonna work. Just keep telling yourself that."
He hadn't been joking, but he nodded. "This is gonna work."
Their eyes locked for a moment. The closet suddenly seemed even smaller than it had a moment ago, and he was finding it hard to breathe.
The door opened, and Danny and Sam flew apart—or as close to apart as they could get in such cramped quarters. Jazz stuck her head in. "Danny! You are never going to believe who you're going to address!"
Danny had never wanted to kill his sister more than he did at that moment, but Sam rounded on her first. "Dammit, Jazz, he needs to sleep! No more addresses!"
"I don't mean now," Jazz said as she squeezed in so she could shut the door, forcing Danny onto the cot to make space for her. Jazz looked around the closet. "Oh, the cot fit. This is perfect!"
"It was," Danny grumbled under his breath, propping his elbows up on his knees and resting his chin in white-gloved hands.
Jazz kept going, obviously on some sort of adrenaline rush. "At noon tomorrow, Danny is going to address the United Nations!"
Danny wasn't convinced that was worth the interruption. "So? I've already talked to, like, every president, prime minister, or grand high poohbah in the world. How is this any different?"
"Because it's the United Nations, Danny. We've been talking for two days about all the nations coming together for a common goal, and that's the whole point of the United Nations. This is kind of a big deal!"
"You know, this could be a really cool opportunity," Sam said, and Danny stifled a groan as he saw the wheels turning behind her eyes. "You could use the whole saving-the-world thing to segue into things we need to do long-term to save the world—"
"Ugh, Sam!" Jazz rolled her eyes. "For the millionth time, we are not doing this to push your agenda. This is about rallying the world to pull together—"
"Which is kinda pointless if we're just gonna keep killing the planet when we're done—"
Danny exhaled in a noisy sigh. "Would you two mind taking this somewhere else, since you're the ones who keep bugging me to get some sleep?"
"Right. Sorry, Danny." Sam looked contrite—but just a little.
Jazz's eyes shone with excitement once more. "The U.N. wanted you to address them at noon so there will be enough light outside to show them the progress on the transfer antenna. That's eight P.M. in New York. I don't mind telling you, Danny, I'm more than a little jealous. Addressing the United Nations." She shook her head as if scarcely daring to believe it.
"Well, it kinda is you. It'll be your words, anyway."
"True." She smiled. "My little brother, the most sought-after speaker on the planet. Who'd have thought?"
Danny tilted his head onto one hand and put the other one down across his knee. "It's weird, though. Everyone wants to talk to me, but have you noticed how no one here really wants to be around me? I mean, back home, the popularity thing seems to come in cycles. They're either ignoring me or chasing me down for autographs or something. But here, it's like…" He paused, trying to explain what he'd been feeling. "It's like they want to hear from me, to know that I'm here and that I value the contribution they're making, but they're… afraid of me, or something."
"You are a ghost," Sam pointed out. "In Amity Park, ghosts are kinda routine. But the rest of the world is just beginning to come to grips with the indisputable proof they even exist."
Jazz looked thoughtful. "And I don't think they're afraid of you so much as… they want to preserve the mystique."
Danny sat up straight, grinning. "I have mystique?"
"You're an enigma wrapped in a mystery," Sam said, the sarcasm so thick he could almost see it dripping off her tongue. She turned to Jazz. "Come on, let's get out of her so Mystique Boy can get some sleep."
Jazz may have been right about the whole ghost mystique thing keeping everyone at arm's length, but apparently it wasn't enough to keep them from gossiping about him.
When Danny woke up, he wasn't sure how long he'd been sleeping, but judging by how well-rested he felt, it must have been a long time. He phased through the closet wall into the small space between the elevator and the service stairs just as two of the building crew were coming in from outside. He could see through the open door behind them that it was dark out, but that didn't tell him much since it was dark almost twenty hours a day.
"Excuse me, do you guys know what time it is?"
The workers stopped and shrugged, saying something in what Danny guessed was German. He pointed at his wrist, and the men smiled and nodded, but Danny couldn't understand the answer they gave him. "Oh well, danke anyway."
The men waved and stepped into the elevator.
Danny decided to head up towards the control room himself and grab something to eat from the vending machines before going to look for Jazz and Sam. Three times a day, Lancer brought hot food over from the galley at McMurdo Station, but Danny had discovered pretty quickly that that the idea of a ghost needing or even wanting to eat kinda creeped people out, so he'd avoided eating with the others, sticking to the vending machines or letting Sam or Jazz bring him a hot plate and eating it while invisible.
Not bothering with the elevator or stairs, Danny flew straight upwards, phasing through the floor of the mainframe, then up towards the control room above. Before he went through the ceiling into the control room, however, he spotted Tucker below him, next to one of the cots that was set up in a relatively secluded corner behind two panels of cabling. Tucker collapsed more than sat on the cot, then removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Danny had seen very little of his best friend since they arrived, and he was both really happy to catch him when he wasn't working at a fevered pace, and more than a little guilt-ridden at how exhausted he looked.
Danny changed direction and alighted on the floor beside his friend. "Hey, Tuck. They actually letting you have a break?"
Tucker stopped rubbing his eyes and put his glasses back on. When he looked up at Danny, the tiredness was gone in an instant, replaced by a gleam in his eye that Danny knew all too well. It was the look he got when he was about to watch some poor sucker fall victim to a practical joke. He leaned forward to peer past Danny around the corner of the cabling panel, and when he saw that no one else was nearby, he schooled his features into something resembling a pout. "Dude! I thought we were best friends! How come I'm the last to know?"
Danny sighed. "All right, I'll play. Last to know what?"
"That you've got a girlfriend!"
Danny groaned. "You know good and well she's not my girlfriend." But he felt his gut tighten. He was used to people calling Sam his girlfriend—they'd been doing it for years, long before he'd actually starting thinking of her as anything more than a friend—but that was Danny Fenton. For most of his dual existence, he'd taken great pains to try and disassociate his ghost half from his friends so people wouldn't get to wondering. The asteroid crisis, however, had made detachment a luxury he couldn't afford, and from the very first time he'd announced his plan, Tucker, Sam, and Jazz had all been at his side. Still, it made him very uneasy to have people start thinking of Sam and Danny Phantom as a couple when he was finally just admitting to himself that he hoped maybe Sam and Danny Fenton really might become one.
Tucker's expression remained positively gleeful. "But everybody's talking about it. How she's hanging around you every second. How she just beams at you with such pride. They just can't stop talking about the Ghost Boy… and Jazz Fenton."
"Tucker, I—" Danny stopped and recoiled as hard as if Tucker had just shoved one of Sam's disgusting soy melts into his face. "What?"
His so-called friend started laughing. "Just tell me I'll be invited to the wedding."
"Ew! That is just so gross!" Danny slugged Tucker in the shoulder.
"Don't blame me; I didn't start the rumor. I'm just really, really entertained by it. And you have to admit, it would make a good cover story. No one would ever think you and Danny Fenton are the same person if you're dating his sister."
Danny considered how Tucker would look with an ectoplasmic blast through that red beret of his, but he settled for sitting down beside him on the cot and punching him in the shoulder again. "It's only because you're an only child that you don't get how sick and wrong that is."
"Ooh, then Sam'll think it's hilarious, too."
The thought of Sam hearing this particular rumor filled Danny with an irrational horror. "Just give it a rest, will you? And speaking of Sam, do you know where she and Jazz—oh grow up!" He elbowed Tucker when he started laughing and making kissy-faces at the mention of Jazz's name. "Have you seen them lately or not? Apparently I'm addressing the U.N. in… what time is it, anyway?"
"A little after five A.M."
"Five? Really? Man, that means I just slept for about twelve hours."
"That's good. You'll need to be well-rested when— Wait. You're addressing the U.N.? As in, the United Nations?"
Danny gave him a sheepish grin. "Yeah. That's what Jazz tells me, anyway. I hope she didn't spend the whole last twelve hours writing a speech, though. She and Sam could really use the sleep. You too, dude. You look awful."
"Thanks. And last I heard, Sam and Jazz were both out at the Fenton Jet making sure the flight mechanics didn't mess with anything when they finish prepping it."
Danny rolled his eyes. "Again? Sam's spent half her time since we got here at the Fenton Jet."
Tucker looked at him, his expression sober. "She's worried, dude. We all are. I did mention how big a scare you gave us the last time you tried to get the ghosts' help, didn't I?"
"It'll be fine. I'll zip in, grab a few bazillion ghosts, and zip back out again. No big."
Tucker nodded, but the grave expression didn't lighten.
"Well, you were about to get some sleep, so I'd better let you get on with it." Danny got up off the cot.
"Yeah. Can't miss my whole two hours of beauty sleep."
"Two hours? Geez, Tuck, now I really feel bad."
Tucker brushed it off with a wave of his hand. "I'm not the one zipping into the Ghost Zone for a few bazillion ghosts."
"Sam already gave me the lecture."
Tucker looked up at him, his head tilted as if he were weighing something. "You should talk to her before you go."
Danny frowned. "What's that supposed—?"
But Tucker cut him off his hand held up in a stop gesture. "Just talk to her. Seriously." He stood up beside Danny. "And just in case I don't see you before you go …" He threw his arms around Danny in a tight embrace. "Make sure you come back, okay? And not just 'cause the world needs to you to."
Danny returned the hug, then let go and took a step back. "You got it. And you know, Tuck, you're the only person in the world I'd trust to handle the tech side." He held up his fist.
Tucker bumped it with his own. "That's what I'm here for."
Just as Tucker had said, Danny found Sam and Jazz in the cockpit of Fenton Jet along with two flight mechanics from McMurdo. Danny phased inside. "Are you guys still obsessing over this?"
"Just doing one last check, sir," one of the mechanics said, looking up from under the control panel.
"You know no one can figure out how Dad's got everything wired without me or Sam. You get a good night's sleep?" Jazz came up to him and put an arm around his shoulders to give him a sideways squeeze. He involuntarily flinched away from her, and she frowned at him. "What's your problem?"
"Trust me when I say, you are so much happier not knowing. And yes, I did. Please tell me you guys at least slept a little."
"I got like five hours after I wrote your speech, but Sam was out here all night."
Danny crossed his arms and leveled a stern look at Sam. "After that lecture you gave me?"
Sam mirrored his pose. "Again, not the one going into the Ghost Zone to—"
"I know, I know, you don't have to remind me. Still, you look wiped. These guys have gotta be done with the Fenton Jet by now. Go get some sleep."
"That's a good idea," Jazz said. "Danny and I need to go over his speech, and Mom and Dad are supposed to be radioing in at seven with an update on the cabling team. They should be done by now and on their way back."
Sam looked at Danny, unsure. "I don't wanna miss your U.N. address."
"That's, like, six hours from now. And it's no big deal, anyway."
"Yeah, it is."
Danny rolled his eyes. "Save the rainforest, don't eat meat… I got it covered, Sam. Please, get some sleep."
Her look turned more troubled. "But you're leaving not long after that. I wanna make sure… I wanna be there when you go."
"I'll only be gone an hour," he assured her.
"I know. Still…"
"I'll wake you."
She hesitated. "Promise?"
One of the mechanics flipped a couple switches and powered down the Fenton Jet's auxiliary batteries. "Okay, everything checks out here. We're gonna head back to McMurdo. You guys need a ride?"
Jazz shook her head. "We're gonna stay here at the tower." She looked at Danny. "Let's you and I find someplace to go over your speech before Mom—er, my parents call in."
He waited until the two mechanics climbed out of the cockpit. "I wanna get something to eat first. I'm starved."
Sam looked at her watch. "It's almost six. Lancer will be bringing over some breakfast from the base. Why don't I get you a plate? You can eat it in the mainframe and then meet Jazz back in the control room when you're done."
"That sounds good to me." Lancer had turned out to be a surprisingly capable short order cook, and Danny's mouth was watering at the prospect of food that didn't come out of a vending machine. "That work for you, Jazz?"
"Just don't take too long. A lot of people are gonna be wanting updates today."
He nodded, then held out both his elbows. "You two ladies care for a ride back to the tower?"
It was one of the immutable laws of the universe, like gravity or the fact that school lunches would be inedible: high school students couldn't stand their teachers. This was especially true if the teacher also happened to be the assistant principal. But Danny was finding it hard to keep disliking Mr. Lancer. Although the man had made the flight down from Amity Park seem endless, once they'd arrived, he'd thrown himself into whatever support work needed to be done. He set up cots, cooked food back at the base and brought it over for the construction team, ran any errands that needed to be run, and even kept up morale—thankfully without resorting to lame cheers from his former pep-squad days.
When Danny, Jazz, and Sam returned to the tower, Lancer was just arriving in a snowcat with breakfast. The three teenagers pitched in and helped him bring it up to the control room, then Danny went to wait in the mainframe below while Sam got a plate for him. Phasing through the floor, he found a place near the elevator to wait for her, and was surprised when only a moment later, the doors opened. Instead of Sam, however, it was Lancer, carrying a tray of eggs and bacon. Danny watched as the teacher wound his way through the racks of computer hardware to a panel of cables.
"Breakfast time, Ms. Gray." He kept his voice low so as no to wake any of the several people trying to sleep. "Your father asked me to bring you a plate down here."
Valerie Gray stepped out from behind the panel where she obviously had been working on rewiring something. "No time, Mr. Lancer. Gotta get these cables repatched so we can test the booster amp before the antenna goes online."
"You need to eat."
"Not much point in eating if we don't get this wiring done on time." Valerie plucked at one of the cables, pulling it loose from the housing. "Now this one goes… dammit! Stupid engineers, I can't make sense out of their stupid labeling system!" Then she winced, remembering who was standing right next to her. "Er, I mean, darn it."
Lancer ignored the lapse and carefully set the tray down on the floor so he could put a hand on her shoulder. "Valerie." His voice was gentler than Danny had ever heard. No, come to think of it, he had heard that tone before. Back in freshman year, when Lancer had helped Danny study for a makeup exam on nineteenth century poetry, when Danny had finally buckled down and gotten serious about studying and had come to him with a question, Lancer had answered him with that same tone. It almost sounded like he cared.
Valerie shook his hand off. "I don't have time for this! If I don't get this right, we're all gonna die!" She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes in a brusque movement.
Lancer firmly put his hand back on her shoulder. "We're not going to die, Valerie. Everyone is here, working hard to make this happen. And you're going to make it happen. You're one of my brightest students, and you have certainly inherited your father's technological skills. I've seen you do more with the hardware here than half the techs who are twice your age. But I promise you; the world won't end in the next five minutes. I'm sure the cabling will make more sense on a full stomach.
He kept his hand in place until Valerie's shoulders sagged, and she sighed. "Yeah, okay. You're right, Mr. Lancer. Sorry."
Lancer released her and bent down to pick up the tray of food. "No apologies necessary, Ms. Gray. I owe you a debt of gratitude for what you're doing here. We all do."
She took the tray from him with a small smile, then sat down on one of the cots nearby, balancing the tray in her lap. "Thanks, Mr. Lancer."
"Anytime." He turned, then jumped when he caught sight of Danny. "Legend of Sleepy Hollow! You startled me!"
Danny grinned, feeling sheepish. "Yeah. We ghosts tend to do that." Lancer didn't seem to know what to say to that, so he just nodded and went back to the elevators, and Danny looked down at Valerie. "He's right, you know. You're really good at this, and you and everyone else here are what's gonna make this happen."
"I didn't ask for your opinion, spook. We humans can cover this end of things. You just worry about the ghost end."
Danny sighed. He liked Valerie, and they got along great when he was Danny Fenton, but whenever he was Danny Phantom, she was a complete pain in the ass. "I thought we were all in this together."
She barked out a haughty laugh. "Please. You may have everyone else fooled, but you can't fool me. You're in this to save your own… whatever it is you have that passes for skin. Don't think that just because you're playing the hero, I'm gonna change my mind about you."
Danny tried not to grind his teeth. "No, of course not. Why should this be any different than any of the other times we've teamed up?"
"Having a common enemy on a few occasions doesn't make us a team, Phantom."
He blew out a breath in frustration. "No, I guess it doesn't." As he turned and flew off, leaving her to her breakfast and her work, it occurred to him with some surprise that this was what he really regretted about his history with Valerie. Not their aborted relationship, but the fact that they could have made an excellent team.
"She really can hold a grudge, can't she?"
Danny started to see Sam watching from near the elevator. He rolled his eyes and snorted as he landed beside her. "If grudge-holding were an Olympic event, she'd be a gold medalist for sure."
Sam regarded him a moment as she handed him the plate of eggs and plastic fork she was holding. "I'm sorry it never worked out between you two."
He raised his eyebrows. "Really?" Why would she be saying this to him now, more than a year after the fact? He looked down at the plate to avoid looking her in the eye. "'Cause I'm not."
He could feel her watching him as he kept himself busy by pushing at the eggs with the fork. Finally, she broke the somewhat charged silence. "Sorry I couldn't bring you any sausage or bacon. Everyone would've wondered why I was putting meat on 'my' plate."
Back in safe territory, he looked up and arched an eyebrow at her. "You are so not sorry."
She grinned. "Well, not very sorry."
"Just tell me these are real eggs and not tofu or something."
"Yes, you big baby, they're real eggs. See what sacrifices I make for you?"
Yes, he did see, and he felt a rush of gratitude for so much more than a plate of eggs. "Thanks, Sam. Now go, sleep."
She nodded. "You'll wake me before you go?"
"I already told you I would."
"I know, but it's important."
This time he met her gaze. "I know."
Frostbite had once told him that the Infi-Map took you where you needed to go. Danny hadn't realized the full significance of that until the moment they'd decided that the South Pole—or as near as they could get this time of year, anyway—was the best place to set up their transfer device. He needed to get into the Ghost Zone and back from a location reasonably near where they were building the transfer device, and so it appeared on the map: a portal that would open up in the sky near McMurdo Station about an hour before the asteroid was due to enter Earth's atmosphere.
Danny stood outside the control tower with Jazz and Sam, consulting the Infi-Map one more time. "Gotta go. According to the map, a portal's gonna open up over the Pole any minute now."
The next thing he knew, Jazz had flung herself on his neck. Despite the rumors going around the station, Danny couldn't bring himself to back away. He was suddenly very grateful for the relationship he'd developed with his sister over the past several months.
"See you back here soon, little brother. And thanks."
He smiled as she walked away, and then Sam was at his side. She took his hand, and put something into it.
Danny looked down and blinked in confusion. His dad's class ring?
She took a breath, as if steeling herself. "It's the ring you were gonna give Valerie. You asked me to hold it, remember? Something tells me it was really meant for me." She flipped the ring over in his hand so that the word his dad had engraved into it was right-side up. Sam.
His heart leapt to his throat. When he'd given her the ring to hold, he'd forgotten that her name was engraved in it. Did she think he'd done that on purpose? Was that why she was giving it back? Was she trying to tell him she didn't want it… didn't want him?
She swallowed. "Take it with you, but promise to bring it back."
He looked up from the ring to meet her eyes, his heart pounding. Bring it back? She wanted it back?
Taking his hand in both of hers, she folded his fingers over the ring. "If you promise, then… then I know I'll see you again." She let go of his hand, looking embarrassed.
He looked down, trying to work up his courage as he slipped the ring into his pocket. This is your opening, Fenton. You have to say something to her. He looked back up at her, determined. "If we make it through this—"
"When we make it through this."
He smiled. "Right. When we make it through this…" His stomach took an alarming dip, but he forced himself to go on. "I… I have a few things I… need to talk to you about."
Her smile lit up his whole world. "I think I'd be willing to listen. And no matter how this thing ends… This whole ride we've been on together? I wouldn't change it for the world." She took both of his hands in hers and squeezed. "Not one little bit."
Pulling his hands free to grasp her shoulders, he drew her a little closer to him until he was breathing in that wonderful licorice-incense-Halloween-ish scent. "Me neither. I—"
He had no idea what he'd been about to say, because his mind went completely blank when she leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. It was a chaste kiss, just a quick good-bye, but the feel of her lips, like ice against his cheek, made time stop. His eyes followed her as she pulled away, and when she looked down to avoid his gaze, he took her chin in his hand to tilt her face up to his. For one breathless moment, they were staring into each other's eyes, and then he pulled her towards him, his lips claiming hers in a kiss. Not a fake-out make-out, but a real kiss. It wasn't particularly deep or passionate, but soft and warm despite the cold, and it flooded his whole body with a sort of electric energy. His hands moved of their own accord from her chin up onto her face and into her hair, and he wished more than anything that he was in human form so he could feel the sleek strands twist around his fingers without gloves to get in the way.
And then, much too soon, it was over. He rested his forehead on hers for one more moment, trying to jar his brain into functioning again, but he couldn't get it off its continuous loop: I just kissed Sam! I kissed Sam! Sam and I, we just kissed… He took a breath. "Wow." Her smile made him feel electric once more, and it was all he could do to not kiss her again. And again. "Remind me to save the world more often."
She looked like she was going to laugh. "Go," she told him, and her voice was breathy, which made it even harder leave. But it was time, and he turned quickly and flew off to the Fenton Jet before he could find another excuse to stay longer.
As he settled into the one remaining seat in the newly stripped-down jet, he saw the portal open up above his head. "Right on cue." He started up the engines, then looked down as he lifted off. She was standing below, totally alone in a field of ice and snow. It was only then that he remembered Jazz. How the heck did she disappear so fast? He grinned. Maybe she's half ghost, too.
Sam looked up at him and waved, and he smiled back at her, feeling completely energized and alive. He could feel the ring in his jumpsuit. Promise to bring it back. If you promise, then I know I'll see you again. He guided the Fenton Jet in through the portal, then checked the Infi-Map to see where to start his search. "One ghost power source, coming up."
He had a promise to keep.
Chapter 6: The Mother's Tale
6. The Mother's Tale
Her first thought when the Fenton Jet flew over the control tower and crashed into Mount Erebus was: Well, there goes our ride home. It was a completely irrational thought, Maddie knew. The crash meant the Ghost Boy had failed. None of them were going home. Ever.
It wasn't just her, though. All around her, everything was irrational and absurd. She heard Jazz call out Danny's name. Why is she calling Danny? No, not our Danny, she realized. She means the other Danny, the one that just crashed the Fenton Jet into Mount Erebus.
Someone—Sam—pushed past her to run to the window facing the plume of smoke rising from the side of the mountain. "NO! He… he can't be…"
Can't be what? Dead? More absurdity—they were mourning a ghost. He was already dead, which meant he couldn't die, but they were mourning him. It was easier, she supposed, then mourning for them all. And when we're all dead, the ghosts will cease to exist, too. And somehow, that seemed the most absurd thing of all.
Then they saw the asteroid. It eclipsed the sun as it hit Earth's atmosphere north of them, above New Zealand. Maddie had seen all the data on its expected trajectory, how it would circle halfway around the world before colliding with the Earth somewhere in the Arctic Circle. And then she was overcome by how tired she was. Tired of the asteroid. Tired of flying, first here from Amity Park, then around the world laying cables, only to be met with yet another crushing failure. Tired of the feeling that she was missing something, something big and important that dwarfed even the approaching asteroid, something that had been eluding her for a long, long time, and now it didn't even matter because in a few minutes they'd be dust.
She felt Jack's arm snake around her shoulder. He did the same to Jazz with his other arm, pulling both of them back against him. He was a solid mass behind her, and that stabilized her. She closed her eyes, leaning into him as he spoke, his voice choked with emotion. "Listen. I just want you to know that... I love you. And I'm so proud of each and every one of you for trying your best."
Jazz answered for all of them: "We love you, too, Dad."
Maddie opened her eyes, the tears starting to fill them. "At least we're all together." She looked toward Jazz, then tried to find Danny in the crowd.
"I… oh, Mom…." Jazz was crying in earnest now. "There's something you need to know."
The sickening feeling returned, that feeling that she was missing something, something vital, as she followed Jazz's gaze to Danny. But… she felt a rock sink down in the pit of her stomach. That doesn't look like Danny. Why isn't he standing with his friends? He'd be with his friends, but Sam is alone at the window, crying for the Ghost Boy… Leaving Jack and Jazz behind, she went over to Danny, but she saw right away it wasn't him, it was something hard and soulless in a black wig. She tugged at the wig; it slipped off easily in her hand and she gasped. "A robot? Where's Danny?" Fighting the rising panic, she turned to her daughter. "Jasmine, where's your brother?"
But Jazz didn't answer her. Instead, she turned her head to look out the window at the smoking wreckage in the side of Mount Erebus. No, not that Danny. Our Danny. Where's myDanny… She gasped again, as the sickening feeling began to coalesce into something with a form, with a name… ghosts are dead ghosts can't die… but she shoved it aside before it could fully realize. She couldn't take her eyes from the window… ghosts can't die… Sam, crying for the Ghost Boy… crying for Danny… as her mind searched for some other answer.
Jack. Danny had been flying with Jack. In desperation, she cried out to her husband. "Jack! Where's Danny?"
He never answered, because then Sam was shouting for them to look, and she was pointing out the window, but not toward Mount Erebus and the Fenton Jet. She was pointing back the other way, toward the ghost portal.
The crowd moved as one back to the other side of the control room, facing the portal. And then Maddie could see what Sam saw, a speck of something—someone—flying out of the portal, with more specks behind, green glowing specks. The Ghost Boy—Danny Phantom—not on the Fenton Jet after all, but leading the ghosts, thousands of ghosts, back to them. A cheer rose up around her, but Sam, her son's best friend, the girl who Maddie was reasonably certain was in love with him, stood dead still, as if she'd just been granted a reprieve, not of her own life, but of something even more dear to her.
Behind her, Jack stared out the window, open-mouthed, trying to process what was happening, just like Maddie was. She scanned the crowd, her eyes landing on Jazz. Her daughter's eyes were closed and her mouth was moving like she was whispering a prayer of gratitude.
Jazz opened her eyes and looked at her mother, tears overflowing. "He's alive! He didn't crash, he's alive, Danny's alive…."
Ghosts are dead… ghosts can't die… "Jasmine, which Danny are you talking about?"
A laugh, almost hysterical, bubbled up from Jazz. "Mom, don't you see? There's only one Danny. There's always only been one."
Maddie did see, but she didn't understand. It didn't make any sense.
It was Jack who questioned Jazz further, however. "How can that—" And then he stopped short, and Maddie turned to look at her husband and saw the realization dawning on him. "The accident, with the Fenton Portal. Like Vladdy. Just like Vladdy—"
"No!" Maddie shook her head against the thought that her son, her Danny, could be anything like Vlad.
"No, Dad, not like Vlad." Jazz went up to her parents, taking each of their hands in her own and squeezing. Jazz, the future psychologist, eighteen going on forty, comforting them. "Never like Vlad. Danny's a hero. And not just today. He's been doing this for two years, using the powers from the accident to save people."
"But…" There was so much Maddie wanted to say, so many questions that needed asking, but the activity around her pierced through the fog in her mind and she remembered the asteroid as the technicians all ran to their stations. Maddie shook off her shock and took her place at a console below the main screen, while Jack took his across the room. Never one to stay down, he turned back to her with a thumbs up and a goofy grin. Outside, she could see the ghosts all lined up along the antenna, turning it a glowing green as they activated it with their ecto energy.
Then she heard a voice over the speakers—his voice, her son's voice—and how she could have missed it before was beyond her. "Tucker! How… much…longer?"
Tucker, her son's best friend, the person Danny Phantom had turned to for help in his plan, shouted into his headset, "NOW!"
And then everything around her disappeared.
The ghosts were gone by the time Maddie and the rest of the adults from the technical crew and cabling team had made their way out of the tower to surround the Ghost Boy, who was flanked by Sam, Jazz, and Tucker. His own Secret Service, the ones who always protected him, right from the beginning. She stared at him, unable to take her eyes off his face. The curve of his jaw, the shape of his nose and eyes… save for the white hair and green eyes, it was her son. She was both so proud and so ashamed. She'd seen this Ghost Boy a thousand times, but she'd never really looked at him before. How could she have been so consumed with her own beliefs—her prejudices—that she couldn't see beyond the ghost to the boy?
Behind her, Jack was rigid, as if he still saw him as just another ghost. "Nice job, Danny. Or should we say… Danny?" And then his face broke into wide, proud grin as he draped his arm over Maddie's shoulder
Danny made a show of denial, but Maddie finally found her voice as she pulled away from Jack to grab Danny's arm and stop him. "Isn't there something you want to tell us?"
He blinked at them, a trapped animal looking for an escape. Jazz offered him one, but not the one he was expecting. "It's okay, Danny. They know."
His eyes widened, and he looked back at Maddie and Jack. She could see him struggle as he tried to work out what to do next. She wanted to help him, to make it okay for him, but he had to come to his own decision, so she backed away, returning to Jack's embrace once more to give Danny space. Placing both her hands over Jack's, she waited with him to see what their son would do. He scanned the crowd around him, realizing that the "they" to which Jazz had referred meant more than just his parents, and a look of acceptance, then determination crossed his features.
Maddie had to bite back a gasp at what happened next. A bright light originated around his midsection, resolving itself into an iridescent ring around him, like a hula hoop, which separated into two rings that moved away from each other, one up to his head and the other down to his feet. As they passed over him, the rings changed him, first turning his black jumpsuit into a white t-shirt she recognized immediately. Gloved hands became bare, boots turned into jeans and red sneakers, green eyes became blue, white hair became black. And when the rings of light disappeared, it was her son standing before her. He looked around him again, to his friends for support, and to the throng of strangers in uncertainty.
The response was instantaneous. The crowd erupted in cheers and moved in to congratulate him. Danny, her son, the hero that had saved them all. Maddie was there first, and she pulled him into her arms. "I love you, Danny. We're so proud of you."
He didn't say anything, just hugged her in return, until Jack pushed her aside for his chance. Then everyone wanted a turn, as hands reached in to clap him on the shoulder or shake his hand. Somewhere above she heard the sound of helicopters flying in from the base, coming to bring them back to McMurdo Station and its fully equipped dormitories.
The crowd was starting to disperse, some back to the control tower to retrieve personal belongings, and others towards where the helicopters were landing. Maddie moved to put her arm around Danny to shepherd him away, but she suddenly realized it was five degrees below zero and he was wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved t-shirt and jeans. She pulled her own coat off—her jumpsuit would keep her warm enough for the time being—and draped it around his shoulders, but he shrugged it off, saying something about not getting cold anymore since he learned how to channel his ice powers. She wasn't sure what any of that meant, and it hit her that there was a whole world her son lived in that she knew absolutely nothing about. But she was a mother, and she wasn't about to let her baby stand around in the freezing air with no coat on, so she put hers on him once more, and this time he didn't argue, although he did roll his eyes in that way only teenagers could. She put her arm around his shoulders, keeping him close as if he might disappear—literally—if she let go. Jack, Jazz, Tucker, and Sam all clustered around them in a protective shell as they headed towards one of the helicopters. All Maddie could think about was getting one of the dorm rooms that was big enough for four and locking her family behind closed doors so she could talk to her son.
Behind her, she could hear one of the helicopter pilots asking about the ghosts. What happened to all the ghosts? Where did they go? She mostly tuned out Mr. Lancer's explanation, until she heard the pilot ask, "And what about Phantom?"
Maddie stopped, pulling Danny closer to her as her mother's instinct took over. "All of the ghosts are back where they belong." She looked around, as if daring any of the crowd from the control tower to elaborate. No one did.
"But the plan was for Phantom to capture the ghosts. He just let them go afterwards?"
Danny gave the pilot a hard look. "The ghosts came to help, of their own free will."
Maddie dug her fingers into his shoulder to stop him from saying more, but before he even had the chance, Jack stepped in, his tone leaving no room for questioning. "And they left the same way."
Maddie beamed at her husband. He could be clueless at times, but he always had their back. Always. She turned to the pilot and let her voice take on its sweetest tone. "I'm sorry, but these kids have been up for three days straight with very little sleep. Will we be returning to the base soon?"
The pilot nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Just climb in and we'll have you back to the base in no time."
The sun had been down for hours and the dormitory around them was quiet as a tomb—a simile Maddie thought was quite fitting, considering their room housed a ghost.
A ghost. My son's a ghost. It was hard to wrap her mind around that. He was currently sleeping in the top bunk above his father, despite the fact that the latter was snoring loud enough to wake the—
She sighed, already tired of ghost puns. Putting her hands behind her head, she looked up at the springs of the bunk above her where Jazz slept, a pair of Fenton Ear Plugs lodged firmly in her ears. Maddie alone was still awake, her mind too full for her to even close her eyes.
Danny had talked for hours, long after any sounds of life from the other rooms in their dorm had ceased, leaving only the distant echo of music and laughter from the huge celebration taking place in the building at the center of the base. He'd used terms like Phasing, Overshadowing, Ghost Sense, and Ghostly Wail. She learned of his many trips into the Ghost Zone, and that he didn't consider all ghosts enemies to fight or vanquish. Some were merely petty annoyances, others were benign, and still others he counted as friends. She learned what a "halfa" was, and that besides Danny and Vlad, he knew of only one other such half-ghost. He'd refused to give them any details about this third half-ghost, however, other than to say that she was a girl, someone they didn't know, and she had not become a ghost hybrid through any Fenton invention. His expression had been so fiercely protective of this girl that they'd never even heard of before that Maddie had let it drop, remembering how she'd felt when the pilot had started asking questions about him.
Some of the things Danny told them were phenomena she'd studied for years, with her so-called scientific detachment, always viewing the beings who had such powers as, at best, lab rats to study and dissect for knowledge. It had never once occurred to her that these were sentient beings, some former mortals who had died, others with origins much more mysterious and fantastic.
Other concepts were completely new to her, and her mind wanted to categorize and process all the new information, but how could she when it was so personal? This was her son, and she never knew. Despite over twenty years of inquiry and investigation, what she'd known about ghosts up to this point had barely even scratched the surface. To Danny, it was all just a part of the world he had been thrust into two years ago, but questions swirled in Maddie's mind that demanded answers. Would a ghost/human hybrid be mortal or immortal? Would he age like a normal human, or would he watch his friends grow old and die while he stayed the same? Would he be susceptible to human illnesses and diseases? Could the DNA mutation have compromised his immune system so that human diseases were even more dangerous for him? Were there such things as ghost diseases, and would he be susceptible to those? Could he reproduce, and if so, would his offspring inherit any of his ghost traits like they might his eye color or his smile or the way he would curl up on his side when he slept? It appalled her that she didn't know, not because she was a scientist who always thirsted for answers, but because this was her son. She needed to learn more, not to increase the world's body of knowledge, but for Danny's life and his future.
She let out a frustrated sigh and slipped out of her bunk. Standing up in the cramped dorm room in the space between the two sets of bunks, she found herself at eye-level with Danny in the top bunk across from her. He was curled onto his side as he always did when he slept, and he looked perfectly at peace. An angel—my angel—not a ghost. She had to resist an urge to reach out and touch his hair or his face to reassure herself that he was still flesh and blood. He saved the world. He put his own life at risk, and he saved the world. She was so proud, but so afraid for him. He was only sixteen. He'd been doing this since he was fourteen. His biggest worry over the past two years should have been whether or not he'd get a date to the school dance, not whether or not he could make it into and out of the Ghost Zone alive with a few thousand ghosts in tow. The crash of the Fenton Jet replayed over and over in her mind, her own self-absorbed reaction plaguing her. She'd almost lost her son today, and at the time she couldn't even be bothered to mourn.
And yet, she couldn't blame him for the risks he'd taken. The responsibility fell squarely on hers and Jack's shoulders, not just because their lax security around their lab and inventions had allowed the accident to occur in the first place but, rather, because of the choices Danny made from that moment forward. The choice to stand up and fight. Hadn't they encouraged that in their children since they were little? Hadn't they pushed Danny and Jazz both to take an interest in ghosts and ghost hunting, despite all its dangers? Hadn't they been proud rather than worried when a grudging Jazz had finally started practicing with their weaponry? Hadn't they been thrilled to have finally won her over, while disappointed that Danny still seemed so apathetic?
Maddie bit her lip at the irony. Far from apathetic, Danny had been more involved than they'd ever suspected, and it had been he who had won Jazz over, not them. Maddie turned around to the other bunk to watch her daughter sleep. Jazz had always been much more observant—or at least less distracted—than Jack and herself, and she'd discovered what the accident had done to Danny early on, so she'd learned to accept the otherworldly for his sake. She'd covered for him, protected him, and learned to fight for him simply because he was her brother.
Maddie looked back and forth between her two children, almost overwhelmed by how much she loved them and how proud she was of them both. They did what they did, not for the thrill of it like she and Jack, nor for the desperate need to acquire more knowledge, but because they each saw a need that they were uniquely able to fill. Danny could have chosen bitterness, he could have been self-serving, like Vlad, but he chose to be a hero. Jazz could have chosen to walk away, to ignore her brother or betray his confidence, but she chose to stand at his side in a world she hated. And this they each did with no guidance from parents who were too absorbed in their own pursuits to even notice what was happening under their own roof and in their own children's lives.
With a hand on the rails of each bunk, Maddie gripped them until her knuckles turned white. That was about to change. Her children would no longer have to navigate these strange waters alone. She would be there to guide them. She would find the answers to the questions that plagued her so that Danny could have any future he chose. She would listen to Jazz's concerns—really listen—and trust her daughter's insight. She would love them, and fight for them, and hang on tight to them. But mostly she would let them go, let them be the young man and young lady they had already become without her even knowing.
It was absurd, really, to let a sixteen-year-old boy and his sixteen-year-old friends and eighteen-year-old sister save the world. But Maddie had built her whole life around the absurd, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
Chapter 7: The Teacher's Tale
7. The Teacher's Tale
At first it was just a feeling—a seed of suspicion, planted when the pilots arrived to pick them up and take them back to McMurdo Station.What happened to all the ghosts? Where did they go?
Mr. Lancer had taken it upon himself to explain. "They went back through the wormhole, or whatever that was, into their own realm."
"And what about Phantom?"
The question had seemed harmless enough. Yes, what about Phantom? Well, as it happens, in addition to being a ghost, he's also a human. A student of mine, actually. Bright kid, but a bit of an underachiever. Or, you know, so I thought. I expect saving the world cuts into his study time…
But there was something about the pilot's tone that put Lancer off. The pilots were Air National Guard, responsible for transporting people into and out of Antarctica. They were the only members of the military at McMurdo, which gave the question a more… officialair. It made Lancer leery.
He wasn't the only one. The Fentons themselves had just walked past on their way to one of the helicopters, and Mrs. Fenton stopped short to answer the question. "All of the ghosts are back where they belong." The finality in her voice was unmistakable.
The pilot looked distinctly unhappy. "But the plan was for Phantom tocapture the ghosts. He just let them go afterwards?"
That was when Danny spoke up, and the ice in his voice almost made Lancer take a step back. "The ghosts came to help, of their own free will."
His father, tone no less frosty, finished for him. "And they left the same way."
The Fentons continued on their way to board the helicopter, but Lancer narrowed his eyes at the pilot. "I suppose you wanted to thank him personally."
The pilot gave him a tight grin. "Yeah. Thank him."
The next morning, the suspicion blossomed into full-grown alarm.
The base was quiet when Lancer awoke at five A.M. and left the residence hall where the technical crew and cabling team were staying. McMurdo Station housed over a thousand people during the summer season, but less than three hundred remained on base during the winter, leaving many of the residence halls empty from March through September. Three of the largest dormitories had been opened specifically to house the approximately two hundred and fifty people who had come to Antarctica for Operation Spirit. Two of those were already being used by the engineers and construction workers who had built the transfer antenna, while the third had been set aside for the control tower crew to use once the work at the tower was completed. Sixty-five technicians, seventeen pilots from the cabling team and, apparently, one ghost.
Lancer pulled his parka tightly around him against the frigid night air as he made his way from the residence hall to Building 155, which served as sort of a town center. When he arrived, he could see the remnants of the post-asteroid celebration that had probably only broken up a couple of hours ago, although pretty much everyone who had been pulling all-nighters at the tower, including himself, had left in favor of sleep before it really got going. The Fenton family had been notably absent from the entire event.
In the galley, the morning shift was already at work cleaning up and making breakfast. A few non-staff people were scattered around some of the tables, most of them tower crew who had bailed on the party early. Lancer spotted Damon Gray sitting near the big-screen television in the corner, which was tuned to a newscast from the U.S. Besides the Fentons and himself, Mr. Gray was the only other adult from Amity Park who had witnessed Danny Phantom's extraordinary transformation from ghost to human, and Lancer was anxious to sort through it with someone for whom it was more than just a remote curiosity. After a quick trip through the line to get some breakfast and coffee, he headed for the corner table.
"Mr. Gray, mind if I join you?"
He looked up. "Mr. Lancer, please, have a seat. And it's Damon."
Lancer sat across from him. "Quite an afternoon yesterday."
"That's for sure. Not every day we get to save the world. Did you get to go to the party?"
"For a little while. I was too tired to stay very long."
Damon nodded. "I hear ya. I didn't even go. Valerie just wanted to hole up in our room, and the Fentons asked me to keep an eye out for the other two kids that came with them while they were… you know. Otherwise occupied."
Lancer shook his head slowly. "They must be in shock. That was pretty astonishing, seeing Danny Phantom change into a human—a boy weknow. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how his parents must feel."
"I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. I thought ghosts had to bedead." Damon curled his hands around his mug of coffee. "When Mayor Masters turned out to be a ghost, I thought that comment about his 'human half' was just an expression, that he'd only been pretending to be human. It never occurred to me that a ghost could still actually be part human." He frowned and looked at Lancer. "The Fenton boyis actually a human, isn't he?"
"I'm not sure exactly how it works, but I think it's safe to assume that his parents would have noticed sometime over the past two years if their son had died."
Damon gave him a dry look. "You'd be surprised what kids can keep from their parents."
Lancer had the feeling he wasn't just talking about the Fentons. "The kids all seemed to know, though. Did your daughter?"
"I… don't think so. She…" Damon sighed. "The Ghost Kid is why I lost my original contract with Axion, and our lives haven't really been the same since. And the last time he ended up at Axion wasn't a whole lot better, although in looking back, I'm pretty sure he was there to get some other ghost out of the Cybertron Mega-Computer. I mean, he's been a hero around town for a long time before this, which just doesn't gel with him wrecking Axion—twice—on purpose. But Valerie?" He shook his head. "She never really got over it. And now… Danny Fenton is a friend of hers. I think… I think it might take her some time to reconcile that."
Lancer blinked. Even with more than two decades of teaching under his belt, plus several years as an assistant principal, it never ceased to amaze him how much drama teenagers could make out of their lives. Although, he did have to admit that this situation was a little beyond the usual teen angst.
Something over Lancer's shoulder caught Damon's attention. "Speaking of…"
Lancer turned around to follow Damon's gaze to the television, where Danny Phantom's picture stared back at him from a box over the anchorwoman's shoulder. "People around the world are celebrating the success of Operation Spirit, the brainchild of famed 'Ghost Boy' Danny Phantom of Amity Park, after the asteroid that would have destroyed the Earth instead passed harmlessly through it." The screen cut to a shot of Danny standing outside with the construction crews working behind him while the anchorwoman continued talking. "Last night, just two hours before the asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere at ten-fourteen P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, Phantom addressed a special session of the United Nations via satellite from Antarctica, the hub of Operation Spirit."
The voiceover stopped, and Danny's voice came up full. "If we all come together, not as separate nations, but as one world, we can do this."
The shot changed again, this time showing people in various different countries celebrating, many with Danny Phantom banners or plushies or other memorabilia. There were several shots of screaming girls, reminiscent of the Beatles arriving in America. The anchorwoman continued in voice over once more. "Around the world, Danny Phantom is being hailed as a hero, with many nations calling for an international holiday in honor of the teen ghost. An anonymous donor has already commissioned the creation of nearly two hundred identical statues of Danny Phantom, one of which is to be placed in every capital of every nation in the world, in addition to Phantom's hometown of Amity Park."
Lancer raised his eyebrows and looked back at Damon. "It looks like our local celebrity has gone international."
Damon shook his head. "That boy's never gonna get a moment's peace now, especially when the world finds out who he is when he's not being Danny Phantom."
"The popularity won't last long. They'll wait like vultures for him to screw up and become the next Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton. It's just a matter of time before it turns ugly." Lancer curled his lip in disgust. While Fenton wasn't the most brilliant student he'd ever had—that would be his sister, actually—he was one of the ones who held a lot of potential—if he'd just get serious about school. It aggravated Lancer to think that this sudden, intense celebrity might ruin any chance Danny had at living up to that potential. Chaucer and Tennyson lacked enough teen appeal on their own without having to compete with screaming fangirls and worldwide acclaim.
The news story continued. "Not everyone is quick to praise Phantom, however. A growing number of people in the U.S. and abroad are expressing concerns about the Ghost Boy and his otherworldly allies." The scene changed to show a man speaking in what sounded like Russian or some other Slavic language. A voiceover translated into English: "He saved the world, but at what price? Not four days ago, that Vlad Plasmius showed us that these ghosts are more than capable of turning their powers against us in order to take over the world."
A new face came on screen, an American with slicked-back hair and a polyester suit. "I'm concerned about the future of mankind. Do we really want to put our lives—human lives—in ghostly hands? Do they even have hands?"
"You weren't kidding about it turning ugly soon," Damon said, a dark edge to his voice.
Lancer glanced back at him, frowning. "I didn't mean this soon." He turned back to the TV to watch the rest of the report.
"The president addressed these concerns at his press conference this morning, where he called Operation Spirit a complete success."
A shot of the president on the White House South Lawn filled the screen. He said a few quick words about Operation Spirit, playing up American involvement in the effort and almost making it sound like it had been his own idea before his speech took a more ominous turn.
"While our nation is grateful to Danny Phantom and to the ghosts who lent their support in our time of need, we are mindful of the concerns that many of our citizens and humans from around the world have expressed about what ghosts are capable of. We have not forgotten the recent example of Vlad Plasmius who, posing as a human, actually held an elected office and used it to plot the overthrow of not just our country, but our entire world.
"This administration takes the security of our nation and the safety of the American people very seriously. The Federal Anti-Ecto Control Act was created to govern the activities of ghosts and other ecto-entities to ensure that the American people are protected, and we will continue to enforce these laws.
"Today, we hail the 'Ghost Boy,' Danny Phantom, as a hero, just as we hail as heroes the thousands of human men and women from around the globe who made Operation Spirit a success. But we must remember that heroes are not above the law, and the commendable actions of the ghosts who worked with us to save our mutual worlds does not grant them free reign to use their unnatural abilities however they wish. Any ghosts found to be operating in the United States in violation of federal law, and particularly any ghost found to be impersonating a human, will be detained and prosecuted."
"Nineteen Eighty-Four!" Lancer stared at the television in disbelief before turning around to fully face Damon. "'Unnatural abilities?' 'Security and safety of the American people?' How safe and secure would we be if those 'unnatural abilities' hadn't kept us all from becoming space dust?"
"If it's different, it's something to be feared." Damon shook his head sadly. "We're all guilty of that. He had to save our entire town from the Ghost King before we even considered the possibility that ghosts might not be all bad. It took some of us even longer."
"True," Lancer admitted. "I'm certainly guilty of that myself, with all the ghost drills at the school and whatnot. But when he did get us out of the Ghost Zone and back into the real world, we didn'tarrest him for his trouble." Lancer leaned in close to Damon and lowered his voice. "Did you hear what the president said about impersonating humans? What do you think they'll do when they find out Danny Phantom is also Danny Fenton?"
Damon took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "But he's notimpersonating a human, right? He is one."
"Don't you think that's a bit too fine a point for the administration that brought us Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?" Lancer scoffed. "It'll be worse. They'll treat him like a frog in biology class." He clenched his jaw. "I was afraid this was coming. Did you hear the pilots asking about the ghosts yesterday? We were barely in the asteroid's rearview mirror, and all they wanted was to know where the captured ghosts were. And I don't think they were asking about Danny Phantom to thank him. His mother certainly didn't think so, judging by the way she answered their questions."
"I'm beginning to think he had the right idea keeping his identity a secret. He shouldn't have revealed it, at least not to everyone."
Lancer's eyebrows went up. "Actually, he didn't reveal it to everyone, did he? He revealed it to the people who were manning the tower at the time. Everyone else was back here at the base. That's… eighty-two people, at least three of whom already knew, and two of whom are his parents. That leaves seventy-seven, including the two of us, and most of them strangers who wouldn't know Danny Fenton from any other scruffy American teenager."
Damon put his glasses back on and narrowed his eyes as he regarded Lancer. "Seventy-seven people is an awful lot, and for all we know, any or all of them could think like the president or those other yahoos. And there was a party last night, with lots of alcohol."
"Yes, but everyone in our group had just gone three days without sleep. No one stayed long enough to get drunk. And in those three days that we've all been living and working together in close quarters with Danny Phantom, I haven't heard one negative thing, have you?"
Damon snorted. "Only from my daughter."
"Who you yourself said is Danny Fenton's friend. These people think he's a hero, Damon. You saw the reaction outside the tower."
"Butseventy-seven people! Word will eventually get out."
"We owe him our lives. We owe him his life, and a chance to grow up and live it as he chooses. He's onlysixteen."
Damon nodded slowly, then looked around. "We are all conveniently housed in one residence hall. We could have a meeting in the lounge, before the rest of the base gets up."
"Yes." Lancer took one last look at the television, where the president was now shaking hands with two government agent-types dressed in white suits whom Lancer was sure he'd seen before. "I think it's time to give our dormitory a wake-up call."
Lancer could hardly blame the Fentons for being more than a little disconcerted when they emerged from their room to find the entire control tower crew packed into the dormitory lounge for a meeting that hadn't included them. Mr. Fenton merely seemed offended that he hadn't been invited, but Jasmine clutched her brother's arm nervously, and Mrs. Fenton looked like a mother bear preparing to defend her cub. Danny, for his part, had a sort of vulnerable look, as if he'd just realized he was stark naked. His gaze immediately fell on his two best friends, but Lancer doubted he found much comfort there. Foley's lips were pressed together in a thin line, and Manson's expression was even angrier than Mrs. Fenton's, as if she were ready to tear someone's still-beating heart out of his chest.
"What exactly is going on here?" Mrs. Fenton demanded.
Tucker Foley braved a response. "It's kind of a good news, bad news, good news thing."
Danny's brow furrowed in confusion. "You wanna be a little more specific?"
"Here, just watch this." Foley indicated the TV screen in the corner of the room, then pushed a few buttons on his PDA, which was connected to it by a long cable. The PDA contained a download of the same news broadcast that Lancer and Damon Gray had watched back in the galley.
The Fentons watched the newscast, at first beaming with pride (and Danny blushing in embarrassment) at the first part about the world hailing him as a hero. "That's the good news," Foley explained. "Now here's the bad news."
The rest of the broadcast played, ending with the clip of the president's press conference and the final shot of him shaking hands with the white-suited government agent-types. Danny grunted in disgust. "The Guys in White. Figures."
"They don't care that you're a hero, Danny," Manson said. "If anything, it makes you a 'much more valuable prize.'"
He scoffed. "Who knew they'd have something in common with Skulker."
"Yeah, but Skulker doesn't have the backing of the U.S. government," Foley said.
Mr. Fenton shook his head and looked down at his son. "But you're not just a ghost, you're human. The Guys in White won't—"
"Care," Danny finished for him. "Trust me, Dad, I've had enough run-ins with these guys to know how they work. As soon as they find out I'm human, it'll only make them that much more motivated. Look how you guys reacted. You wanna know how it's possible, what it means. And Mom, don't tell me that you aren't already planning some tests—"
Mrs. Fenton looked at him in horror. "You're our son, Danny! We love you! Of course I want to understand what's happened to you! But I would never—"
"I know, Mom. That's the point. You care about what happens to me, but they don't. I'd just be a scientific curiosity. A lab rat." He curled his lip in disgust. "Even with all their technology, there's still not a whole lot they can do to most ghosts because ghosts can't be hurt or killed in the same way humans can, and they haven't quite figured out how to do permanent damage yet. But there's a lot they could do to a half-human—" His eyes widened and he blanched, whispering something that sounded to Lancer likeDanielle, although it probably was his own name in self-reproach, because he then slapped himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. "How could I be so stupid? I didn't even think how this would effect anyone but me…"
Mrs. Fenton was incredulous. "This is crazy, Danny! They can't just take you away because you're half ghost. You have civil rights—"
"Not according to the Federal Anti-Ecto Control Act, he doesn't." Manson spat it more than said it, still looking even more furious than Danny's mother.
"And how do you know so much about—?" Mrs. Fenton stopped short, realizing the answer to her question before she even finished asking it.
"I am so gonna protest," Manson went on. "This is so wrong. Ghosts should have rights, same as humans. I mean, sure, we kick plenty of ghost butt, but only to send them back to the Ghost Zone, and only if they're messing with people. This guilty even if proven innocent crap is bull—"
Lancer coughed. "Ms. Manson…"
Jazz Fenton was still hanging onto her brother's arm. "Sam, you're right, but you're talking long-term. It'll take years to make any kind of progress. What happens to Danny now, once they find out he's half human and know where he lives?"
Danny exchanged what Lancer thought were significant glances with his two friends. "'Experiments. Lots and lots of really painful experiments.'"
"So, you ready for the other good news, then?" Foley asked.
Danny raised his eyebrows, hopeful. "There's good news?"
Foley and Manson grinned at each other, then at Danny before Foley explained. "There's a lot of good news, actually. First, you're wildly popular to like ninety percent of the world, so they'd have to be really careful about making any moves against you."
"That never stopped them before."
"But it did complicate things for them and make it easier for you. And second, they don't know there's such a thing as half-ghosts."
Danny frowned. "How could they not? Vlad—"
"Did you listen carefully to the news report?" Foley indicated his PDA with a jerk of his head. "The president said Vlad was posing as a human. He doesn't know that he was human. Everyone assumed he was just a regular ghost pretending to be human, like Ember or Spectra. So they have no reason to be looking for half-ghosts to slice and dice, or to think you're any different from any other ghost."
"It's true," Damon Gray said. "All of us here thought the same thing until we saw you change yesterday." He nodded to the overly-crowded room behind him.
"Okay, but the fact is, you did see me change. Even if Vlad didn't let the cat out of the bag, I did."
Manson smiled. "Which brings us to good news number three." She stepped forward and handed Danny a piece of paper.
He blinked, confused. "What's this?"
"A promise." She pointed to the bottom half of the page, then turned it over so he could see the back. "There are seventy-nine signatures here. That's everyone in this room, except you and your family. Everyone who was there outside the tower and saw you change. No one's going to say anything, Danny. Not about you changing, and not about the existence of half-ghosts."
Danny turned the paper back over and scanned it, his parents and sister huddled close to read over his shoulder. After a moment, he looked up at Manson. "You got everyone to agree to this?"
"Actually, it was Mr. Lancer."
Danny's eyes widened in surprise as he turned to Lancer. "Mr. Lancer? You did this?"
Lancer shrugged. "Mr. Gray and I arranged this little confederacy, yes, but the decision was unanimous. It's not much. It isn't legally binding, but we wanted give you something… tangible, if you will. To show our gratitude to you and what you have sacrificed for all of us. You chose to reveal your secret to us, and we are honored by that. Whether and to whom you choose to reveal yourself in the future is your business, not ours."
There were general nods of assent, and then someone started clapping. Gradually, others joined in, until everyone in the room except for the Fentons, Manson, and Foley were applauding. It was almost an exact repetition of the reaction he'd received back in Amity Park when he'd first announced his plan. They'd come full circle.
Danny looked around the room, stunned, as the applause died down. "I… I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything at all, Danny. Which is exactly the point." Lancer narrowed his eyes. "But in exchange, I'd like to make a deal with you."
Danny looked wary. "I knew there was a catch."
"Of course there's a catch. As your assistant principal, I'm in the position to excuse certain tardies and absences that might occur during one of the many ghost-related crises we tend to face in Amity Park. But I'm only willing to do so if you pull your grades up. After seeing this little plan you came up with, and how hard you worked to implement it, I am convinced that you can do better on your schoolwork. I want to see all A's and B's from now on. And if your… extra-curricular activities aren't giving you enough time to study, then I would be happy to arrange for tutoring or extra study halls if necessary." He looked to Foley and Manson and even Valerie Gray, who was trying to go unnoticed in the far corner of the room. "And that goes for all of you."
Danny looked like he didn't know whether to be thankful or groan in complaint. His parents weren't quite as ambivalent. Mr. Fenton reached past Danny and held out his hand. "That sounds more than fair."
Lancer shook the elder Fenton's hand and Mrs. Fenton smiled at him. "Thank you so much, Mr. Lancer." She looked down at her son, who still looked rather stunned, and nudged him. "Danny?"
Danny jerked as if he'd been nodding off and his mother had just awakened him. "Yeah, thanks."
That served as sort of an unofficial end to the meeting, and people started getting up to go to breakfast or back to their rooms to pack for their flights home. Danny grabbed both his best friends in a hug. Lancer watched for a moment before turning to go, his mind already working on the backlog of work that was waiting for him back home. School had been closed ever since the news of the asteroid had been announced, and had only been back in session for the fall term for three days before that, so there was a lot of work to catch up on. He was wondering if the district would revise the calendar to account for the missing days or if there was enough pad to account for possible snow days or other unplanned cancellations, when Danny interrupted his musings.
"Mr. Lancer? I just… I really want to thank you. For everything."
Lancer arched an eyebrow at him. "You're my student, Mr. Fenton. Contrary to popular opinion, most teachers actually care what happens to their students." At Danny's somewhat dubious look, he grinned. "Why else would we do what we do? Heaven knows it isn't for the money."
Chapter 8: The Ghost Hunter's Tale
8. The Ghost Hunter's Tale
She sat in the corner of the crowded lounge, her hands gripped into tight fists on her lap, as the applause died around her. She'd applauded him once; he would not get more from her.
Before, Valerie had just been so relieved to know that he was alive. In the confusion between the Fenton Jet crashing and the arrival of the ghosts, she'd caught just enough of his mother's panicked searching for him and his sister's tearful explanation to believe he was dead. Somehow, he'd gone off with Phantom in the Fenton Jet, and now he was dead.
But then the ghosts arrived, and she'd heard Jazz say he didn't crash, he's alive, Danny's alive…but she didn't have time to process that, because there was work to do. And when it was over, she was the fourth one out the door, hot on Sam's and Jazz's and Tucker's heels because she knew they knew something she didn't, that Danny was alive. But she stopped short when she saw that it was Phantom whom they'd tackled, and before she had time to process that, Danny's parents were there and a whole crowd of people, then he just… changed. Right before her eyes, her worst enemy transformed into her—friend? Her one-time, briefly, almost something more? And her world turned itself inside out.
But in that moment, more than anything, there was overwhelming relief that Danny was alive and safe. And a hero. Who knew that the scrawny but sweet kid she'd rejected for his own protection had it in him to save the entire world? So she'd clapped and cheered along with everyone else.
It was later that the pieces started to come together, and she began to understand what it meant. He may be a hero, but he would get no more applause from her.
What she really wanted was to get as far away from him as possible, but her father had made her come to this meeting. She'd tried to make her escape after the paper had come around for everyone to sign, but then the Fentons showed up and she was trapped against the wall by the mass of people crammed into the dormitory lounge.
But the more she listened to Danny, the more it dug the knife further in. He sounded so… the same. So the sweet, friendly, occasionally smart-alecky kid she'd come to really like. She couldn't reconcile this with the spook that terrorized Amity Park and tore her whole life apart, and she became more and more consumed with the need to confront him, to find outwhy. No matter how much the answer would hurt, she had to know, so by the time the meeting started breaking up, instead of slinking away, she found herself heading straight toward him.
She hung back a moment as he talked with Mr. Lancer, but while they were talking, a man with McMurdo Station insignia on his parka came in from outside and announced a meeting in one hour in the galley of Building 155 to discuss transport off base and back home, which would begin as soon as possible. This served to add a little more urgency to the crowd as they headed off to breakfast or back to their rooms to pack.
A hand came down on Valerie's shoulder and she looked up to find her dad standing next to her. "Valerie? You gonna get some breakfast?"
She turned toward Danny, who was now talking with his family and Tucker and Sam. "In a minute, Daddy."
Her father followed her gaze. She looked away, but not quick enough, and he faced her once more with a small nod. "Make sure you eat soon, though. Since our ride home sort of crashed into a mountain, we're taking military transport back with everyone else. We need to be ready to go by the time that meeting starts."
She'd forgotten that they'd come in the Fenton Jet and that their ride home was a mass of smoldering ruins in the side of Mount Erebus. Although at this point, riding home with a whole lot of other people on military transport sounded a heck of a lot better than being in a small jet with Danny, his family, and his closest friends. "I'm pretty much packed, and I'll get breakfast before the meeting."
"Okay. I'll be in our room getting my things together."
When her father left, she turned her attention back towards the Fentons in time to hear Danny make a similar promise to his mother. "I'll get breakfast in a little bit. You guys go on ahead." His parents and sister left, and he turned to Tucker and Sam, his cheeks a little red. "Uh, Tuck…"
Tucker looked between him and Sam, his eyebrows raised, then his face broke into a ridiculous grin. "I should go on ahead, too, shouldn't I?"
Danny's blush deepened, and it looked to Valerie like Sam was blushing as well. Danny shuffled his feet. "Um, if you wouldn't mind. I kinda need to talk to Sam."
Valerie paused, her stomach turning sour. It didn't exactly come as any great shock; Danny and Sam had been like trains on a collision course for as long as Valerie had been aware of their existence, and it wasn't like she still had a crush on him. Not really. But it still felt like a hammer hitting that last nail in the coffin of what could have been.
Except it probably had all just been a lie anyway.
It was that thought that pushed her the last remaining steps. "Danny? Can I talk to you for a minute?"
She might as well have been the asteroid for the way they completely stopped and stared at her, but instead of intimidating her, it fortified her resolve. She clenched her fists at her side and plowed ahead. "Alone?"
Sam and Tucker stepped in front of him like Superman between Lois Lane and an oncoming bullet. The irony would have made Valerie laugh if she didn't already feel like she was going to get sick all over the lounge floor. Sam crossed her arms, her eyes blazing. "You sure all you wanna do is talk?"
If this exchange had happened yesterday, Valerie would have thought she was jealous. And in truth, that was probably a large part of it. But yesterday was a different lifetime, and today Valerie knew exactly what Sam meant. She out her hands, palm up, as if to show they were empty. "No weapons. Masters' Bastards wrecked my sled, remember? Besides, my name's on that contract, same as everyone else's"
"And somehow, I'm not filled with confidence. Did your dad make you sign?"
"Sam—" Danny put a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm with her, dude," Tucker said. "Valerie can make that suit appear out of nowhere, with or without the sled."
Danny gently pushed Tucker and Sam aside and stepped between them, giving Valerie a look she couldn't quite interpret. "Did you really sign the paper?"
The sort of surprised sincerity in his voice stung worse than sarcasm would have. Her shoulders sagged slightly. "Of course I did." She gave him a significant look. "I can't take part in destroying a human."
He met her eye a moment, then gave a brief nod. To Tucker and Sam, he said, "It's okay, guys."
"Danny…." Sam's eyes were wide and apprehensive.
He faced her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "It's okay, Sam." The words had a weight to them now that hadn't been there when he'd said them to both her and Tucker.
Sam looked at him a long moment before nodding. "Yeah, I know. I guess we can talk later."
"Count on it."
That seemed to satisfy her. She turned to Valerie, scrutinizing her a moment, but opted not to say anything, instead grabbing Tucker by the arm. "Come on, Tuck. Let's go get some breakfast."
When they were gone, Valerie and Danny stood in awkward silence. The lounge, empty now except for them, seemed too big all of a sudden, and she felt exposed standing here with him. She almost wished he would change into Danny Phantom. Him she knew how to face.
Danny coughed, looking down at his shoes. "I don't know what to say, Val."
"How?" It was a safer question than the one she really needed to ask him. "How could you be both a ghost and human?"
He shrugged. "There was an accident with my parents' Ghost Portal, about two years ago. It somehow changed my DNA and gave me ghost powers."
She nodded, even though it didn't really make any sense. "So you're like that girl Dani Phantom? And Vlad?"
His answer was so vehement she almost took a step back. "Not like Vlad. He's a pathetic, self-absorbed, obsessed psychopath. I… I've always tried to use my powers to help people. I mean, I know I've screwed up a few times along the way, but never like Vlad."
"I know. I guess I was wrong about you. I said you couldn't fool me, but I guess I've been the fool all along."
She held up her hand to stop him. "No, I was. I said you only cared about yourself, and I know that's not true. 'Cause even with everything I didn't know about you, I do know this: Danny Fenton does care. You're… decent. And there aren't a lot of people I can say that about, at least not in high school. And I just… I…" She looked up at him, swallowing hard to stop herself from crying. "Why, Danny?"
He frowned, confused. "Why what? Why didn't I tell you the truth? How could I when you kept—"
"No!" She had to stop herself from grabbing his shirt and shaking him. "Why do you hate me?"
"What?" He looked as stunned as if she'd just turned into a ghost. "Why do I hate you?"
"Yes! Because I know you're not like Vlad, and you really don't hate humans in general, so it must just be me. Why do you hate me so much?"
He blinked. "Have you been wearing your helmet too tight? You're the one always trying to waste me!"
"Because of what you did to me!"
"Gah!" He threw his head back and clenched his fists in frustration. "Would you just let it go already? All that stuff you think I did to you? It was an accident." Leveling his gaze at her, he took a breath and continued in a softer voice. "I don't hate you, okay? I… I like you, Valerie. There was a time when I…" He trailed off, letting out a huff of air instead.
She felt something like bile at the back of her throat. "So what was that, anyway? Some kind of joke? Some kind of twisted way to get at me? Pretend to like me as Danny Fenton while Danny Phantom takes me down? Bet you had a lot of laughs over that one."
He gaped at her. "Excuse me? Exactly which part of that was a lot of laughs for me? The part where you dumped me because I wasn't as important to you as your stupid vendetta, or the part where your stupid vendetta was against me?"
"I saw what you did to my suit! You were having the time of your life ripping it to shreds! You would've killed me!"
"Except you weren't in the suit at the time!"
"You didn't know that!"
"Of course I knew that!" He pushed his hair back away from his forehead, then let it go. "You were standing right there when Technus came at me with your suit, and then he went after you, and I just lost it. Why do you think I was so angry?"
"What are you talking about? He didn't come after you! You only showed up later, flying in out of nowhere and wailing on my suit. My suit!"
He stopped and stared at her. "Valerie… think about it a minute."
"Think about what? How you blasted apart my sled? How you could've hurt Tucker or Sam or Da—"
And that's when it hit her. He was Danny Fenton. She was still thinking of them as separate people, and in her head, she was seeing Danny Phantom because it was easier to be mad at him. Danny Phantom hadn't been there when the suit had started attacking because it was attacking Danny Fenton. He had seen her. "You knew it wasn't me?"
"Of course I knew it wasn't you! You told me to run, so I ran somewhere I could go ghost, then came back to help you. I've always pulled my punches when going up against you because I didn't want to hurt you, even though you've never had a problem hurting me. But as soon as I knew it was Technus and not you, I knew I didn't have to hold back, so I took it all out on him. Or the suit, anyway."
She shook her head. "But, wait. What about later? You stole the booster rocket from Axion, leaving my dad to take the fall for that. Again!"
"So I could go after Technus, to get him out of the Cybertron Mega-Computer!"
"And you attacked me with that ghost ray of yours! I was floating unconscious in space! If I'd have stayed unconscious any longer, I might never have been able to get back home!"
"That was completely involuntary! You were electrocuting me with your sled at the time, and it fried my whole nervous system!"
"You're a ghost! You don't have a nervous system!"
He indicated his body with a wave of his hand. "Hello! Half human here!"
She blinked. She'd done it again, forgotten to take into account who he really was. "You didn't mean to—?"
"I never meant to hurt you! And I didn't take the flour sack, and the dog that wrecked Axion wasn't mine. They were all accidents, Val. I've been trying to tell you that for two years, but you never listen. You're too busy hanging onto your grudges like they're made of gold!"
Once again, her mind was having trouble processing, and it latched onto the one thing he left out, the one other thing she hated him for. "You ratted me out to my dad!"
There was a slight shift in his stance. "Yeah, I did. You got me there. But it was the only way I could think of to keep you from doing something stupid. I wasn't about to let you get yourself killed in one of my dad's crazy inventions. It almost killed me, and I have ghost powers, and you were nursing some pretty heavy injuries already."
She stared at him a moment, blinking as her mind tried to catch up, and then it hit her all at once. She collapsed into the nearest sofa and buried her face in her hands. "I ruined everything."
The cushion next to her gave way as he sat down beside her, resting a hand on her back. "You didn't ruin anything, Val. You just… you didn't know. And that's my fault."
She looked up at him. "No, it's mine. I made it impossible for you to tell me. We could've…" Closing her eyes, she let out a long, slow breath. "But I blew it."
"No, you didn't. That was just… it was never meant to be."
Blinking back tears, she faced him again. "No, I guess it wasn't. And I don't mean to make it sound like I'm still hung up on you or anything. I just… I always regretted never following through, for never seeing what could've been, but I told myself it was for a really important reason. Except it wasn't. It was for something that didn't even exist."
"Which you didn't know because I didn't tell you. We could go 'round and 'round all day on this, but what's the point? We can't change what happened or didn't happen then. But we can move forward."
He shifted again, his hand moving from her back to her arm. "I wanna be your friend, Val. I would love it if you would just hang out with us. We wouldn't ditch you like Starr always does whenever Paulina walks by just because she doesn't wanna be seen with someone who's not 'A-List' anymore."
"Hey! Starr's my friend!" The protest was automatic, but she knew there was some truth to his accusation. While Starr was the one member of the popular crowd who hadn't dumped her outright when her dad lost all his money, she would pick Paulina over Valerie whenever there was a choice to be made.
"Okay, she's your friend, and I'm sorry for bagging on her, but I think you deserve real friends who will always stick by you, and I'd like to be that. And even more than that, I want us to be a team. We may not have been meant to be together, but we were meant to fight together. We just… when we're fighting together, we fit. Against Skulker, against the Fright Knight, against Vlad. Tell me you don't get a rush from everything just gelling when we work as a team."
"You seem to already have a pretty tight team."
"Yeah, I do. I'm not saying I don't need them to fight with me, too. Tucker and Sam—and Jazz, too—I couldn't do any of this without them. But their skills are different from yours. Why can't we all work together?"
"Somehow, I don't see Sam being thrilled with this plan."
"Sam… she's just protective."
His cheeks reddened a little. "Well, she doesn't have any reason to be either anymore, does she?"
Valerie sighed. "No. I guess she doesn't." Frowning, she tilted her head and crossed her arms. "You're really serious? All that past history, all that baggage, and you can pretend it never happened and start over?"
"I didn't say that. I don't want to forget the past, and I don't want to start back at the beginning. Do you?"
She thought about it a moment. "No, I don't. You know, I told you before, I became a ghost hunter because of you, and I'm good at it. Maybe… maybe I need to rethink the whole way I look at ghosts, but I'm glad I am who I am."
"Me, too." He held out his hand to her. "Truce?"
She regarded his outstretched hand for a moment before shaking her head. "No. No more truces."
His face fell and he let out a frustrated breath, but before he could pull his hand away, she smiled and gripped it in hers. "A truce is just setting aside hostilities temporarily. I'd rather be done with them for good."
A smile spread across his face. "An alliance, then?"
"An alliance." She gave him a hopeful look. "And friends?"
He nodded, shaking her hand. "And friends."
Chapter 9: The Advocate's Tale
9. The Advocate's Tale
They were somewhere over the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Hawaii when Tucker made his announcement. "I've decided I wanna be mayor."
"Thank you for sharing," Sam grumbled without opening her eyes. She was half dozing with her head against Danny's shoulder and didn't particularly want to move, seeing as this was as close as they had come yet to spending any time together since he'd left for the Ghost Zone a lifetime and a half ago.
Every time they'd tried to talk, something had interfered. First there was Valerie. While Sam could see why that talk needed to take precedence, she hadn't been thrilled when he'd shown up at breakfast afterwards with Valerie in tow, insisting that everything had been put to rest and they were all going to be friends now. Sam probably would have broken her own cafeteria tray in half over this development had Valerie not made a pretty convincing apology—and had Danny not made a point of sitting next to her while Valerie sat on the other side of Tucker and Jazz.
From then on, it had been one thing after another—the meeting explaining how everyone would be getting home, the hasty packing, the crowded military transport flights, first from McMurdo Station to Christchurch, New Zealand, and now from Christchurch to Honolulu, with Tucker sitting beside them, Danny's family behind, and Valerie, her dad, and Mr. Lancer across the aisle.
She was hoping they would have enough time and privacy to talk once they landed in Hawaii—Hawaii!—before catching a civilian flight back to Amity Park, but in the meantime, she was happy for any indication she could get that what had happened between her and Danny had actually happened and had not been some horrible mistake that he regretted. The fact that he not only didn't seem to mind her head on his shoulder, but had rearranged himself to grant her better access, went a long way towards easing her doubts.
Tucker, however, didn't seem to be taking the hint. "No, really. I've been giving this a lot of thought."
Danny sighed. "Did you forget the whole Scarab Scepter incident? I thought after that, being in charge didn't appeal to you anymore."
"That was freshman year. I'm older and wiser, and we need some change in Amity Park. Our last mayor was an evil ghost, and the one before that only cared about looking good for the voters. It's not like I could do any worse."
Sam snorted, still without opening her eyes. "Apparently we have forgotten the whole Scarab Scepter incident."
"And isn't mayor a step down from pharaoh?" Danny asked dryly. His voice resonated in a pleasant way through the ear she had pressed against him.
"I'm serious! I've been thinking about it since Vlad's… departure from office. Every time we get a bunch of ghosts messing around Amity Park, the mayor uses it as an excuse to make our lives miserable, either to give voters the illusion of security, or to just… make our lives miserable for fun. Curfews, escorts, school uniforms, bans on tech gear… the only way to make sure we get a mayor who really wants to do right by us is if I do it myself."
"So form an exploratory committee when we get home." Sam shifted slightly so she wouldn't be resting against the boniest part of Danny's shoulder. "By the time you're old enough to run, they might have even figured out a platform for you that appeals to more than just the social-misfit-slash-geek base."
"Yeaaaah. And that reminds me—you guys are so not gonna be my campaign managers. That much I do remember from the whole Scarab Scepter thing. And you're missing the point, anyway. I've got my fifteen minutes of fame right now. Tucker Foley, techno-geek and right-hand man to Danny Phantom, savior of the world."
Now Sam did open her eyes, sitting up enough so that she could glare at Tucker across Danny. "You've got to be kidding me."
"Gotta strike while the iron's hot. In two years, nobody will remember me."
Danny gave him a skeptical look. "You're overlooking a major flaw in your plan, Queen Amidala. This isn't Naboo. You're not even old enough to vote, let alone run for office."
"Oh, you might be surprised," Tucker said, a gleam in his eye that made Sam groan. "I downloaded a PDF file of the Amity Park City Charter before we left for Antarctica, and I've been reading up on the requirements to serve as mayor." He consulted his PDA. "'To run for the office of Mayor of Amity Park, a candidate must be a U.S. citizen at least eighteen years of age, a legal resident of Amity Park for at least thirty days prior to filing nomination papers, and a legal resident of Amity Park at the time of assuming office.'"
Danny frowned. "I don't think Vlad lived in Amity Park for thirty days before he ran."
"Uh… he overshadowed the voters. Clearly he wasn't big on legalities, but that's beside the point." Sam turned to Tucker. "That said you had to be eighteen to run. Last I checked, you're only sixteen."
"Ah, but I never said anything about running for mayor. Turns out there's a huge loophole—there are absolutely no age requirements whatsoever for serving as mayor. A toddler could legally hold the position."
"Isn't the running for mayor kind of a prerequisite for serving as mayor?"
"Not necessarily. Amity Park City Charter Article Nine, Section B: Vacancy in the Office of Mayor. And I quote: 'In the event that there is a vacancy in the Office of Mayor, either through death, or resignation, or removal from office, the Office of Mayor shall be filled, for the remainder of the term, by a legal resident of Amity Park who shall be appointed by a majority vote of the Amity Park City Council.'"
He looked up at them. "Mayoral elections are held every four years, and Vlad was elected last November, so there's still a good three years left on his term. The City Council has to appoint a new mayor to finish his term, and the only requirement is that the person be a legal resident of Amity Park. Which, according to my brand-new driver's license, I officially am."
Danny stared at him. "Are you serious?"
"Straight up! I e-mailed all the members of the City Council before we left McMurdo. You know, get the schmoozing process started. I already had several replies when I checked my e-mail in Christchurch. They're planning on meeting to select the new mayor in two days. And a few of them are totally interested. The Vlad thing has the town looking really bad, but Danny Phantom being from Amity Park is making us look good. They're looking to capitalize on that."
"Oh man. This has bad idea written all over it." Danny slumped back in his seat.
Sam tapped the arm of her seat, her mind whirring. "I don't know. I think Tucker might be onto something here."
Danny looked at her like she'd grown a second head. "You've got to be joking. Please tell me you're joking."
"Think about it, Danny. He's right about Amity Park being in the international spotlight, and if we had the youngest mayor ever? That would keep everyone watching. It'd be a great springboard to start advocating for the repeal of the Anti-Ecto Control Act, or at least some heavy changes to it. Start by talking up Danny Phantom, World Hero, and then highlight other ghosts who are human-friendly, like Frostbite or Clockwork—"
"Oh, yeah, 'cause a nine-foot-tall snow beast and a ghost that controls all time and mutates from kid to adult to old man every five seconds won't freak people out at all."
"Okay, Wulf, then. Or Pandora."
"A wolf that speaks Esperanto and a giant Greek warrior goddess?"
Sam grunted in exasperation. "The point is, Amity Park could be a model for Ghost-Human relations."
"Ghost-Human relations?" Tucker rested his chin on his hand. "This could have some potential. But the real question—the one that must form the basis of any decision I make while in office—is, will it help me meet girls?"
Danny groaned, and Sam would've, too, but she needed Tucker on her side. She leaned across Danny and gave Tucker a conspiratory wink. "You'd be leading the world into a whole new era. What girl wouldn't think that was hot?"
A slow smile spread across Tucker's face. "Maybe there's room for you on my staff after all."
Between them, Danny sunk down in his seat. "It's official. We're doomed."
Tucker had been right about his fifteen minutes of fame, but four days of isolation in Antarctica with only satellite communications between them and the rest of the world had caused them all to vastly underestimate just exactly how much fame it would be. Without any way to contact Danny Phantom, the media instead focused its attention on the teenage techno-geek who helped architect Operation Spirit. From the moment they got off the plane in Honolulu, they were surrounded by reporters and camera crews, and Tucker had requests for interviews and live appearances from everything from Lettermanto The Today Show.
Tucker was thrilled, and Sam thought it was an even better opportunity than she'd hoped for to start speaking out against the Anti-Ecto Control Act, but after checking his e-mail, Tucker decided that if he wanted to convince the Amity Park City Council that he should be appointed mayor, he'd have to actually be in Amity Park. When he turned down the live appearances, Danny's dad wasted no time in stepping up to fill in the void.
The next thing Sam knew, the Fentons were on a plane to New York, while she and Tucker were headed back to Amity Park with Mr. Lancer and the Grays, and she and Danny had still never had their chance to talk.
Subject: Today Show
Did you see the Today Show? Jazz totally has a crush on Matt Lauer. She and Mom and Dad are really getting into the whole ghost rights thing. You'd be proud.
Jazz wants her laptop back, so gotta run. Letterman tonight, and Larry King tomorrow!
Subject: Re: Today Show
OMG MATT LAUER ASKED JAZZ IF SHE AND DANNY PHANTOM ARE AN ITEM! Spewed OJ all over the TV when he asked her that! And the look on her face!
She and your parents totally rock, btw. If ghost hunters can talk positively about ghosts, then people will have to realize that blanket laws against them are wrong.
Tucker gets sworn into office tomorrow. I can't believe he got the majority of the City Council to go for it! I've been really busy pulling together literature and ideas from a bunch of different civil rights organizations and advocacy groups and trying to make it apply to ghosts. It's kinda tricky, especially since Technus decided to start making trouble since he knew you weren't around. Valerie kicked his butt pretty good… and tricked him into fixing her sled, so bonus. Am willing to GRUDGINGLY admit she's handy to have around. (Tell her I said that, and you die.)
School is weird without you. I can't believe your folks pulled you out for two weeks! At least Crane College doesn't start until after Labor Day so Jazz isn't missing any of her first semester of college. I'm sure she'd rather, I don't know, DATE DANNY PHANTOM than miss any school. ;)
Subject: Re: Today Show
Mention Jazz and you-know-who again, and not only am I telling Val what you said, but that picture of you in that pink flowery dress your mom made you wear that one time is going up on the internet.
What is up with Technus? He can't wait two weeks after helping save the world before trying to take it over? You guys are ok, right?
I'd be happier about missing two weeks of school if Lancer didn't keep sending me so much homework. He wasn't kidding about making me keep my grades up. :(
Found out we're going to the White House to meet the president at the end of the week. Think a certain someone should put in an appearance? The president might wanna shake his hand. Maybe the Guys in White will be there, and they can shake his hand, too. ;)
Congratulate Tucker on his swearing in. Wish I could've been there. Can't wait to get back and see everyone. And TALK.
Subject: Re: Today Show
DP should TOTALLY shake the president's hand! That would be AWESOME!
Speaking of, found out those statues that are supposed to go in every capital and in front of AP City Hall have been put on the super fast track. Tucker's supposed to officiate at an international-via-satellite dedication ceremony. Sounds like you'll get to attend the DC ceremony if you're meeting the president around the same time. Maybe DP should put in appearance there, too?
But you really need to come back soon to stop me from killing Tucker. One day in office, and the mayor thing has totally gone to his head. He wants us to wear t-shirts that say "Tucker Foley is the Boss of Me!" Not even if they were black with red letters in a dripping blood font!
Sam read her e-mail over half a dozen times, unable to bring herself to hit SEND. There was so much more she wanted to say, but e-mail wasn't the right forum.
Or particularly safe.
Danny being around the Guys in White in D.C. worried her. She wasn't sure why they worried her so much more now than they ever had before—really high-end anti-ghost weapons and gadgets aside, they weren't the most adept ghost hunters ever. Valerie was more formidable with just her sled than they were with all of their toys. But Danny seemed somehow more exposed than ever before.
Part of it was what she'd told Tucker while she was packing for Antarctica. Now that they'd kissed, everything loomed bigger and mattered more. She couldn't shake the feeling that it couldn't possibly last, that somehow, some way, he'd be ripped away from her, now that she'd admitted, in actions if not in words, how important he was.
And then there were the short e-mails she received from him, and even the ones she sent in return, which were a source of both relief and anxiety. Relief because their friendship seemed completely unchanged. And anxiety because, well, their friendship seemed completely unchanged. She felt stuck in a time warp, like she and Danny were wearing Clockwork's Time Medallions, only they worked in reverse, with the world continuing to go on around them while she and Danny were stuck on pause, unable to continue the action that had started nearly two weeks ago. It was only through the smallest of clues, like Danny mentioning that he still wanted to talk, that she had any indication at all that he wasn't wishing it had never happened.
But the insecurity about their relationship was only a small part. It was the meeting in the dormitory lounge at McMurdo that kept replaying in her mind. Seventy-seven new people knew his secret, and that wasn't counting his parents. Seventy-four total strangers they had no reason to trust, a teacher they'd had reason not to trust prior to this, and a girl and her dad who had never trusted him. When they'd all been there in that room, it had been an amazing experience to see everyone come together and unanimously agree to do the right thing. Here, however, in the cold light of reality away from that mountain-retreat-type atmosphere, it seemed ridiculous to even entertain the notion that no one would spill. The lure of a lucrative book deal or an extra fifteen minutes of fame would be too much. Or a whispered word to a lover in strictest confidence would turn into two more words to dear friends, then four acquaintances, until the leak was so big it couldn't possibly be contained, and the world would know that Danny Phantom was Danny Fenton. That he was half human, and vulnerable.
It should be a silly fear. The ghosts, who generally posed a much bigger threat to him, had known his identity from the beginning, and it had never occurred to her or Danny or Tucker to be nervous about that fact. But the human world knowing? And the government? That was different.
She'd lived through it once before, so she knew what that was like, and that's what really scared her. The one time the Guys in White had posed a real threat had been when Danny's secret had been revealed on national television. The notoriety made it difficult for them to move, and the fact that he couldn't retreat into the anonymity of Danny Fenton gave the Guys in White all they needed to stay constantly on his tail. In the end, Danny had been able to use the Reality Gauntlet to change reality so that none of that had ever actually happened, but the three and a half days before that, when everyone knew, haunted her dreams.
That's why she was so intent on advocating for a repeal or at least a drastic scaling back of the Anti-Ecto Control Act. The thought of Danny being regarded as a thing, with no rights at all, both terrified and infuriated her down to the marrow of her bones. The sooner they could change the laws, the sooner it wouldn't matter anymore who knew.
She looked at the pile of books on her desk. Books on the civil rights movement. Books about women's suffrage. Books about social change. They all said the same thing: change takes time. Decades, if not centuries. And these were all about rights for humans, who had always been there alongside the privileged. But ghosts were new and completely alien. And half ghosts? More alien still. Hybrids were always more threatening than purebreds, and history reeked from the blood shed in the revilement of anything that was less than pure.
It didn't help matters that she knew he was a hybrid because of her. She'd been directly responsible for him going into the Ghost Portal and getting his ghost powers on two separate occasions—although, technically, the second one had been wished out of existence, so she wasn't sure it counted. And this latest time she'd been giving him so much grief about choosing to give up his powers that she figured she bore at least some blame for everything that led up to him getting them back. This gnawed at her, too, but not because she regretted any of it. She'd meant it when she'd told Danny that she wouldn't change one bit of the past two years. She knew in every cell of her body that this was how it was supposed to be, that Danny was meant to have these powers. Whenever he lost them, or the ghost half got separated from the human half somehow, everything was wrong. So she couldn't regret the part she'd played in him becoming what he was meant to be, but it bothered her that maybe she should. If she could only wish for him to be normal, none of this would be an issue. But she couldn't wish for that. She couldn't wish for his safety over his soul, and she wondered what kind of friend that made her.
No. She clenched her fist in frustration. She was right not to wish him to be less than he was. It was the world that was wrong, or at least the part of it that wouldn't accept him. He shouldn't have to change to fit some mold of what the world wanted for him, and he shouldn't have to hide who he was just to be allowed to live his life. So she would change the world. But the problem was, she didn't have decades or centuries. She had only until one of the seventy-seven slipped and word got out before he lost any chance of having the kind of life he wanted and deserved.
Forcing herself to relax her fingers, she read over one more time the e-mail she'd composed, then finally typed a few more sentences:
Be careful in DC if the GIW are there. Don't let them play with any of their toys around you. I'm sure Jazz has your back, and your folks now, too, but… I'd feel better if it were Tuck and me.
You're coming back after DC, right? Can't wait to talk, either.
And then she hit SEND.
Sam flew down the staircase, jumping over the last three steps and skidding slightly as her boots hit the marble floor. The dedication ceremony was starting in fifteen minutes in front of City Hall, and she was twenty minutes away if she took it at a dead run. Tucker was going to kill her. Of course, he was still trying to push those Tucker Foley is the Boss of Me shirts, so she just might kill him first, but it didn't change the fact that this was a big deal and she needed to be there. She slid most of the way from the stairs to the door, yanked it open—
And almost ran smack into Danny standing on her front porch.
She stopped short just in time, and all the air left her lungs in a rush. "Danny!"
He gave her a sheepish grin. "Hey, Sam."
"I…" She tried to catch her breath. "I thought you weren't gonna be home until Sunday!"
"Well, my parents decided they wanted to see the dedication in Amity Park, so… here we are."
She looked around. "So your family's here, too?"
"No, they're down at City Hall. But I…" He looked down at his feet, blushing a little. "I thought maybe we could take a walk."
The air seemed to leave her lungs again, and she chided herself for it. This is stupid. We've been friends for years, and suddenly I can't even talk to him. She nodded, then found her voice again. "Yeah, okay."
He waited for her to pull the door shut behind her and lock it, and then they walked side by side down the steps. At least until they reached the sidewalk, where they each turned in a different direction. Sam stopped and turned back. "Where are you going? City Hall is this way."
"Yeah, I know. I kinda thought maybe we'd skip it, if you don't mind. It's gonna be really crowded, and I'm sick of big crowds. We can watch from that hill east of town, though. It'll be much more quiet."
She wasn't sure what to say, so she just nodded stupidly and fell into step beside him as they walked in the opposite direction from City Hall. They were quiet for a little while, a silence that was somehow both comfortable and awkward. She'd waited for two weeks to get him alone so they could talk, and now neither one of them could find the words to say. Finally, her brain started grinding back to life again, but instead of saying what she really wanted, she opted for safe ground. "I saw on the news that the president shook Danny Phantom's hand. Did he check himself for ecto-cooties or something afterwards?"
Danny snorted. "Actually, he was pretty nice. He thanked me and everything. Called me an American hero. It was pretty cool. I felt like Superman or something. My whole family got to meet him, too."
"I'll bet your dad completely blissed out." She knew Danny's dad wasn't very political, but that he did revere almost all celebrities and people of authority.
"Yeah, he was pretty psyched." Danny chuckled. "Did I mention my whole family met him?"
"Uh, yeah." She tilted her head. "What are you getting at?"
He grinned. "Vlad's a creep, but I did learn a few good tricks from him. Like duplicating myself and having one me go ghost and the other stay human. So Danny Phantom and Danny Fenton both got to meet the president."
Her eyes widened. "You can do that now?"
"Yeah, as long as the duplicates aren't too far away from each other."
"That's so cool."
"Yeah, it kinda was. A little disorienting, but I'm getting used to it."
She nodded. "What about the Guys in White? Were they there?"
"Sorta. They kinda hung out in the back and looked official and junk, but they didn't really do much, or participate in anything."
She let out a small sigh of relief. "Well, that's good."
"And they're really not happy about the statues. We got a sneak peek of the one in Washington before we left, and I think they're considering using it as target practice."
The statues! Sam broke into a wide grin. "Speaking of the statues, I know who the anonymous donor was who commissioned them."
His eyebrows went up in curiosity. "Really? Who?" Then he frowned. "The only one I can think of with that kind of money is Vlad, and I don't think he can get back through the atmosphere on his own. I hope not anyway. I'd rather he be too busy setting up his new home on Mars or something."
"Of course it's not Vlad. And I'm pretty sure he's not the only one you know with that kind of money." Sam's grin widened.
"I can't think of—" He stopped and looked at her. "Yourparents? They didn't do this, did they?"
She scoffed. "Oh, right. My parents laid down a big chunk of change so that there could be a statue of a ghost in every capital of the world. That was right after they got those matching skull tattoos and danced in the mosh pit at a Morbid Anti-Social Youth concert."
"Okay, if they didn't do it, then who did?"
"My grandma." Sam beamed in pride. "She wasn't going to say anything, but my dad found out and pitched a fit you could hear across three states. Since she knew I knew, she came and told me she was proud of me for going to help, and she wanted to do something so that I would always remember."
"Wow. Your grandma rocks."
"She really does."
They fell silent again, until they made it to the top of a hill that overlooked City Hall. They could see the crowds and the huge statue silhouetted by the setting sun, but they were too far away to hear anything.
Sitting down next to each other under the lone tree that topped the hill, they watched the dedication for a few minutes, even though they couldn't really tell what was happening. Sam shook her head in amazement at the crowd that was gathered to honor him. "I can't believe you didn't want to attend your own ceremony."
"Well, you know me. I kinda like sitting on the sidelines sometimes."
She smiled, feeling a sudden rush of happiness just having him back. "And your folks are cool with knowing your secret identity?"
"Yeah. The time for secrets is over. The world is safe. Time for new beginnings." He grinned. "My dad even says he wants me to team up with him now. Says I can be his sidekick."
She almost laughed as she pictured Mr. Fenton, all bluster and pride, claiming his son as his sidekick. She thought of them being on The Today Show and meeting the president, and it hit her just how huge everything was. "You're a big star now. Probably the biggest in the world."
"Yeah. It's weird, huh?"
"You'll probably get pretty busy."
He rolled his eyes. "What else is new?"
She wondered if that meant there would be more weeks like this, with long trips and TV talk shows, weeks where her only contact with him would be brief e-mails when he could get his sister's laptop away from her. She looked away, out toward the ceremony at City Hall, which seemed to be breaking up. "And I probably won't see much of you anymore."
"Oh, I wouldn't count on that." He smiled as he reached into his pocket, producing the green and gold class ring. Taking her left hand by the wrist, he pulled it toward him and slid the ring onto her finger.
She stared at the ring, and the world suddenly went surreal. Ghosts and eerie realms and weird devices that should never work but somehow did, all of that was routine, but Danny sliding that ridiculous class ring onto her finger could not possibly be real. Even after the kiss, even knowing that this was where the promised talk would likely lead, she still found herself completely unprepared for it.
"Sam, I could never have done any of this without you. And I don't care what's coming next." He said it with just enough emphasis to sound defiant, and she heard the meaning behind the words: Stop worrying. We'll take on whatever happens just like we've taken on everything else. She blinked back the tears that had welled up, and he looked down, suddenly seeming nervous. "I just hope whatever it is, you're there to share it with me."
"I will be." She couldn't help but admire the ring on her hand, which was just kitschy enough to work with her usual goth accessories. And the green stone reminded her a little of Danny's ectoplasmic energy. But then she realized she was veering dangerously close to maudlin, and she shook her head slightly, putting the edge back in her voice. "I just have to warn you—I'm no pushover. You know I still have my own way of doing things."
A smile lit up his face. "That's what I'm counting on." It was so warm and infectious and so Danny, and yet so… something she'd never seen before that she caught her breath. He took her hands in his and leaned forward, and then he was kissing her. It was different than before, without the impulsiveness or the haste or the fear that this could be their last chance. This kiss was slower, starting out soft and tentative, then gradually building as she wrapped her arms around his neck and he buried his hands in her hair. Every place he touched her electrified her skin, feeling a little like when he made them both intangible, and she wondered if it was because of his ghost powers or if it were just him. It lasted a long time, but without losing its gentle, lazy quality, as if they both knew they had all the time in the world and there was no need to rush. Considering the mad scrambles and massive amounts of adrenaline that was their normal daily lives, the slow and patient kiss was surprisingly sensual. When they finally came up for air, Sam almost groaned out loud at the loss of contact.
He leaned against her forehead, twisting a strand of her hair in his fingers. "I'm really glad to be home."
"Yeah, me too."
"Speaking of, it's getting dark. Do you need to get home?"
"Nope. My parents were expecting me to be out late tonight. I was gonna go to the library and research a few more human rights advocacy organizations and see which ones might be willing to expand their circle a little to include some non-humans."
His expression turned thoughtful. "You don't have to work so hard at this."
"Yes, I do."
"It's going to be okay. You know that, right? Nothing's really changed."
"Except for the seventy-seven people—"
He took her hands, cutting her off. "Nothing's changed, Sam. I mean, yeah, it's better if people don't know. If the past two weeks taught me anything, it's that being constantly in the spotlight is not fun. But if word gets out, it gets out. I meant it when I said I don't care what's coming next, so long as we're in it together."
"And I meant it when I said I have my own way of doing things. Protesting stuff—it's kinda what I do."
He chuckled. "Really? I hadn't noticed."
"But not tonight. Tonight I have other plans."
"Oh?" He raised his eyebrows. "Anything in particular? A date with a ghost, maybe?"
She crossed her arms, affecting a bored pose. "Well, I was into ghosts, but they're so mainstream now. Now, if you happen to know any half-ghosts.…"
"I might." He leaned in and kissed her again. It didn't last as long this time, but there was that same leisurely sensuality that promised there would be much more to come. Then he rose to his feet. "Whaddaya say? Wanna go for a ride?" A bright light flashed at his midsection and swept over him as he changed to ghost form. He held out a hand to her and pulled her to her feet. "See where the future takes us?"
She smiled. "Why not?"
Chapter 10: The Halfa's Tale - Epilogue
10. The Halfa's Tale – Epilogue
Long after she went inside, he stood on her front steps, trying to lock every moment of the evening into his memory. He could still taste her on his lips and feel her cradled against his chest as they flew, aimless, just enjoying the night and each other. Talking and laughing together, their friendship still the foundation of their new relationship.
Their relationship. They actually had a relationship.
This was so much better than a statue, or TV cameras, or addressing the U.N. It was better than having to play the hero or the normal kid. With her, he could just be who he was. All of him, ghost and human.
How long ago was it when he'd sat on these same steps trying to figure out what to do next? Three weeks? It was a completely different lifetime. No powers, Sam angry with him, his parents not knowing who he was, or who he had been.
Now his powers were back, he and Sam were together—actually together!—and his parents knew everything, which meant no more pretending to them anymore, either. A whole lot of other people knew, and maybe word would get out and everyone would know. Or maybe it wouldn't. But it didn't really matter to him. He was himself again. Danny Fenton, Danny Phantom, the "halfa." He felt whole once more.
The front door opened, allowing a sliver of light out onto the porch, and he jumped as a voice called out from inside. "What are you still doing out here, young man?"
He relaxed when he saw it wasn't Sam's mom or dad, but her grandmother on her motorized scooter. Unlike Sam's parents, who disliked him for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was his family's involvement with ghosts, her grandmother had always been fairly friendly towards him. He waved his hand as he turned to head down the steps. "Sorry, Mrs. Manson. I was just leaving."
"Hold on. I wanna talk to you a minute."
He froze. Had she seen him kissing Sam goodnight? Even if she didn't hate him, that didn't mean she'd approve of them dating. She was a little more religious than Sam's parents, for one thing, and for all he knew, she might object to Sam seeing someone who wasn't Jewish. Swallowing, he turned back, standing one step down from the top. "Uh, sure."
She leaned on the handles of her scooter. "You like Sammy quite a bit, don't you?"
"Uh…" How the heck was he supposed to answer that? "I, uh… yeah. I guess I do. I mean… she's my best friend and everything…"
The arch in her eyebrow told Danny that she knew there was much more to it than that. Her smile was warm, however. "I'm glad. You're good for her, you know that?"
He blinked. "I am?"
"Yes, you are. And your family is, too. I'm so glad she went with you to the South Pole to help that Danny Phantom boy."
Danny thought of the statues she'd commissioned. Nearly two hundred, one in each capital in the world. He felt a sudden urge to thank her, but he didn't think he was supposed to know about that. But there were other reasons to be grateful. "Thank you for talking her parents into letting her go. I… I mean, Danny Phantom really needed her help."
She waved an impatient hand. "If I were younger, I would've gone myself. But Sammy needed to go. It's important to her, saving the world."
Danny smiled, thinking of Sam and her causes. "She doesn't need Danny Phantom for that. She's always been saving the world."
"True." Sam's grandma snorted and put her scooter into reverse. "Well, that's all I wanted to say. You just keep coming back and seeing Sammy, and don't let my uptight son and daughter-in-law scare you off, you hear?"
It was hard not to laugh. "Yes, ma'am."
"I mean it. As far as I'm concerned, you're mishpocheh."
He frowned. "Mish-whatta?"
"Mishpocheh. Family. Now go home. It's late." And then she backed into the house and closed the door.
Danny descended the steps, turning towards home when he hit the sidewalk. At the alley between Sam's house and her neighbor's, however, he ducked in and went ghost, then flew up into the night sky. The late summer night air was warm, with just enough cool edge to remind him that it was almost fall. He was heading more or less in the direction of his house, but wasn't in any particular hurry to get there. He wanted to enjoy the night, enjoy how it felt to fly again, to be himself once more. How it felt to be officially together with the coolest girl on the planet.
Her grandmother had told him to go home, but the truth was, there was no need. He was already home.