As soon as she walked into the control room, I knew.
It was T-minus one hour and counting until the asteroid hit Earth’s atmosphere, and I was hard at work, making some last-minute adjustments to the code that was going to run the antenna that would harness all the ghosts’ intangibility power and spread it across the planet. Around me, the room buzzed with activity, as the rest of the tech crew, some eighty people, scrambled to get everything operational before Danny got back with the ghosts.
But somehow, through the crowd and the haze of my own busyness and sleep deprivation, I still managed to spot Sam when she stepped off the elevator after seeing Danny off. My first thought was, Guess he got off okay, and I was about to return my attention to my work, but something about the way she was moving, sort of drifting in an aimless way that was so not Sam, who was usually so full of purpose in everything she did, that I took a second look. And when I did, a smile spread across my face.
It’s about dang time.
With a few quick keystrokes, I finished the line I was working on, then slid out from my seat and headed toward Sam. She was looking out the window toward the portal that Danny had used to get into the Ghost Zone, and didn’t notice me, not even when I came up behind her.
“That must’ve been some talk.”
Jumping nearly a foot off the ground, she shrieked, then turned on me. “Tucker! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Who’s sneaking? I could’ve driven a tank up behind you and you wouldn’t have heard me. Just what happened out there that’s got you in such a daze?”
Riiiiiiight. “Don’t give me ‘nothing,’ ’cause you’ve got ‘something’ written all over your face. I mean, look at you! You’re floating! And last I checked, you don’t have ghost powers. Although I’m kinda thinking a certain ghost had something to do with it. So spill.”
I expected her to tell me off, or smack me upside the head, or any of the usual things she did when I bugged her about Danny, but she looked like she’d been given a shot of morphine and couldn’t have managed a frown if her life depended on it. “He kissed me.”
I could feel my jaw unhinge. I’d hoped one of them would have the guts to actually say something, but a kiss? That was more than I would have dreamed possible, given how skittish the both of them were about their feelings for each other. “He kissed you? Like, a real kiss?”
Still looking dazed, she nodded.
“Ha!” I jabbed my finger at her in victory. “I told you! I told you he liked you!”
“Tucker, shut up! The whole tower doesn’t need to hear about it!”
“Why the hell not? It’s about dang time!”
She looked ready to breathe fire on me. “For the ‘Ghost Boy’ to kiss me?” She made air quotes as she said the words Ghost Boy.
I snapped my mouth shut. Everyone knew Danny Fenton and Sam Manson had the hots for each other. But if they heard about her in a liplock with Danny Phantom... “Good point.”
Grabbing her wrist, I dragged her toward the elevator and jabbed the call button. The doors opened immediately, and I pulled her inside the car, pressing the button for the next level down, which housed the computer mainframe and hardware for the control room tech.
When the doors slid open, I dragged her back out, grateful to see that there was no one there. Someone had set up some cots around the mainframe, and we’d been using it as a sort of barracks to grab catnaps when we got too tired to keep working, since it was too long a haul to go all the way back to the dorms at McMurdo Station to sleep when there was so much work to do and only three days to do it. But with less than an hour to go now, everyone was awake and upstairs, leaving me and Sam alone.
As soon as the elevator doors shut behind us, I pounced on her. “Okay, spill. I want all the details. What did you say? What did he say? Who started it? How did he kiss you? Just a small good-bye peck, or were there tongues involved?”
I thought she was going to kill me for that one, but she just pushed me around a bit. “You’re a pig, you know that? I’m not telling you anything!”
“Oh, come on, Sam! He actually kissed you! This is huge! You know you wanna talk about it. What gave him the courage to do it? Did you tell him?”
She sighed. “It wasn’t that big a deal, okay? I just... I gave him back his ring.”
This was unexpected. “You gave it back? Why?” That ring, with her name engraved in it, had been the tipping point, the thing that finally convinced her she had a shot with him. I’d expected her to use it to boost her confidence, not break up with him before they even got together.
“Like you said, I wanted to give him something to come back for.”
“I meant you, not some dumb ring!”
She glared at me. “It’s not dumb. I gave it to him and told him to take it with him and promise to bring it back. Like a good luck charm, or a talisman. To keep him safe.”
“Wait. You asked for it back? Like, you wanted it back back??”
“Not exactly. Although, I guess I did kind of tell him I knew about the engraving and that I had a feeling the ring was meant for me.”
Aha. Finally, something... well, not direct, but at least pointing the right direction. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about. What did he say?”
“Just that he wanted to talk to me about something when he got back.”
“Like, maybe, telling you he likes you as more than a friend?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. He didn’t really say.” Her glow was starting to fade a little. “He could have meant he wanted to tell me that the name in the ring was a coincidence or something, and that he doesn’t like me that way.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Right. And I don’t like meat.” Leave it to Sam to talk herself out of being happy. It looked like it was gonna be up to me to kick it back in the right direction. Again. “But you said he kissed you, right? How did that happen? He said he wanted to tell you something after he got back, but then just lays one on you then and there anyway?”
“Well, I sorta kissed him first.” I raised my eyebrows at this, but she was quick to explain. “Just a kiss on the cheek. You know, for good luck. That’s when he kissed me back.”
Now we were getting somewhere. “But not on the cheek.”
“No,” she admitted.
I smiled as the whole picture came into focus. “So, you clued him in, and that gave him the courage to finally make a move. Awesome!”
But Sam, whose ability to make lemons out of lemonade when it came to Danny bordered on a super power of her own, shook her head. “I don’t know, Tuck. It might not have been like that at all. I mean, everything’s riding on him getting all those ghosts and bringing them back here. It might have been just one of those, you know, impulsive things people do in a crisis situation. You know, like that famous picture of the sailor kissing the nurse at the end of World War II. It might not have meant anything more than Danny wanting to kiss someone just in case the world ended, and since the only other person besides me who happened to be around was his sister...”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at that one. Rumors had been flying around Antarctica ever since we got here that maybe Danny Phantom and Jazz were an item.
But now wasn’t the time to share that joke with Sam. For some reason, this girl, who had no problem pissing off the entire student body of Casper High to get dirt masquerading as food put on the cafeteria menu, or reading the riot act to a couple of armed federal agents, or chewing out a ghost who was twice her size and better armed than your average militia member, was absolutely petrified of her own feelings. Here she was, on the brink of having what she, I, and everybody else in the world knew was exactly what she wanted most, and she was talking herself out of it faster than I’d talked myself out of going goth when she’d threatened me with body piercings.
No way I was gonna let her do it to herself, though. Not when she and Danny were so close. Putting my hands on her shoulders, I looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not how it was, and you know it.”
“No, I don’t know it, Tucker. It was just a kiss. It could have meant something, or it could mean nothing at all. I won’t know until he gets back and we can talk about it.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “Are you gonna talk about it, or are you gonna do what you always do and avoid the subject?”
“No. We’ll talk. He said he had something to talk about when he got back, right? I just don’t know what he’s going to say.”
“Well, I do.”
She gave me a suspicious look. “Why? Did he say something to you? Did he tell you he likes me?”
She had me there. I was absolutely certain Danny liked her, but it wasn’t anything he’d said in words. So I played the best friend card. “I’m not gonna tell you what my best friend tells me in confidence.”
She wasn’t buying it. “Because there’s nothing to tell, is there, Tuck? He’s never told you he likes me, has he? And don’t you think he would have if he did? You’re his best friend.”
I sighed. She wasn’t going to let me dance around the truth, so I’d have to go with full disclosure. “No, he hasn’t said anything, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you. He’s worse than you with the avoidance and denial. It’s obvious, though. We’ve been best friends forever, and I know when he’s into someone, whether he admits it or not. So trust me when I tell you, he is totally into you. Would he kiss you if he wasn’t?”
I almost choked at her dragging up that little incident. Like me getting a little too into a roleplaying exercise could ever compare to the real deal from Danny. “So not the same thing. And don’t give me no line about fake-out make-outs, either, ’cause there was no one around who needed to be faked out. It was a for-real kiss because he likes you for real. It’s all gonna work out, Sam. You’ll see.”
She nodded, but was far from convinced. But that was okay. When Danny got back, he’d convince her.
It never occurred to me that maybe Danny wouldn’t come back. I mean, he was the hero, right? The guy who saves the day and gets the girl? He couldn’t fail, because failure meant Game Over. For everyone. So, it wasn’t until the moment the Fenton Jet returned from the Ghost Zone, and the cheers of the control tower technicians turned to gasps of horror when the jet flew straight at us, practically taking off the roof of the tower in the process, then crashed into the side of Mount Erebus some twenty miles away, exploding in a massive blast of fire and smoke, that the possibility that Danny might not come back ever even crossed my mind.
Your mom used the word “fatal.”
It was something I’d said to him back when he’d been about to face the Ghost King. That had been the first moment that I’d actually understood that all those cool powers I was so envious of could cost him his life.
Since then, I’d done a pretty good job of pretending I’d never had that particular epiphany, sort of metaphorically plugging my ears and singing La la la I can’t hear you! whenever the possibility presented itself that Danny might not survive whatever ghost of the week he was up against.
It was the same thing with this plan. Yeah, I knew capturing every ghost Danny had ever fought was dangerous. Yeah, I knew he’d barely gotten away last time. But it never really occurred to me that he wouldn’t pull it off. He had to, so he would, right? Didn’t he always?
But the smoke curling up from Mount Erebus begged to differ. And the world around me just stopped.
My best friend was dead.
“NO! He can’t be...” I thought that was my own thoughts, echoing so loudly in my head I could actually hear the words out loud, but then I realized it was Sam. Oh, God, Sam...
Tucker, what if he doesn’t come back?
Well, in this case, we won’t have long to miss him.
I wanted to throw up. I’d said it as a joke because I knew— knew —it would never happen. But it had. The impossible had happened. My best friend was gone, and that meant...
Without even realizing I’d moved, I found myself at the radar screen that was monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere. Sure enough, there was the blip. So small and green and innocuous-looking on the screen. “It’s coming!” I cried out, not really knowing why I did it. It didn’t matter anymore. We’d failed. Danny was gone, and we were doomed.
I wanted to go to Sam. She needed me, I needed her. We were all we had left. If the world was going to end, we should end it together. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t leave the radar screen and the computers and everything I’d been building over the last three days. My beloved technology, humming with life and ready to go, but with no ghostly power source to turn us all intangible, it was worthless.
Still, I couldn’t leave it. Not when Jazz started crying. “I… oh, Mom…. There’s something you need to know.”
Not when Mrs. Fenton started screaming. “Where’s Danny? Jasmine, where’s your brother?” Even when Jazz’s answer was to look at the smoldering remains of the Fenton Jet in the side of Mount Erebus, she still didn’t want to believe. “Jack! Where’s Danny?”
But when Sam shouted, “Look! The portal!” that got me moving. Because Sam wasn’t screaming in panic or grief like everyone else.
She was crying out in hope .
And hope got us all moving, every last person in that crowded control room, like a tidal wave headed for the window Sam was pointing toward. And when I looked out, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Ghosts . Hundreds and thousands of ghosts were streaming out of the portal.
And leading them was one ghost. He was just a speck in the sky, but I knew. My best friend wasn’t dead. He was saving the world, just like I knew he would.
A cheer rose up from the crowd as we watched Danny lead the ghosts— lead , not force—to the antenna. And then it was time to go to work. I ran to the main communications console where radar and satellite imaging were tracking the asteroid. As the ghosts descended on the antenna, we powered it up, and then the loudspeaker crackled. “Tucker! How… much…longer?”
His voice was strained, like he was pouring every ounce of his energy into that antenna, but it was unmistakably Danny, and no voice had ever sounded so good to my ears. Turning to the satellite image, I waited until, halfway around the world over the Arctic Circle, the asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
“NOW!” I shouted into my headset. And the world disappeared.
I was the third one out the door, right behind Sam and Jazz, when the world was solid again. Sam hadn’t bothered with the elevator, instead taking the emergency stairs at a dead run, and Jazz and I followed on her heels.
As we made it to the bottom and out into the sunlight, I could see a figure landing in the snow, and I picked up my speed a notch. It was him. Really him.
Sam hit him first, not just hugging him, but throwing herself at him, wrapping arms and legs around him like he was a life preserver.
Which is exactly what he was.
Jazz was on them a second later, throwing herself on Sam and Danny both, and then it was my turn. I launched myself at Sam’s back, smothering her between me and Danny, and that was all she wrote. Not even Danny’s ghost strength could take all that weight and momentum, and we went down, landing in the snow in a heap. I rolled off Sam, then Jazz followed suit, but Sam took an extra few seconds to cling to Danny. Who could blame her? If it was anyone other than Sam, I’d have shoved her aside so I could grab him myself.
When she did let go, she looked up at him. “Awesome.”
It was more than I could get out, I was so completely overwhelmed by the fact that he wasn’t dead, that none of us were dead. Jazz seemed to have it together, though. She patted him on the back. “Nice job, little brother. Or should I say, hero.”
That’s when we noticed the ghosts.
A lot of ghosts.
I don’t think even when Danny fought the Ghost King had we ever seen so many ghosts all in one place. Hundreds of them were standing in a group around us, with Skulker in front of them, looking down at Danny like he was planning where in his lair he was gonna hang Danny’s hide.
Danny didn’t seem worried, however. He got to his feet, thanked Skulker and the others, barely even flinching when Skulker grabbed him by the shirt and reminded him he’d never stop hunting him.
I don’t think Danny believed him, because he was smiling. It was almost like the whole hunting thing had turned into some private joke between them, leaving me to wonder what exactly had happened in the Ghost Zone that resulted in an empty Fenton Jet flying back on its own and crashing, and Danny leading the ghosts willingly to come save the world.
There wasn’t time to ask him, though, because as soon as the ghosts took off, the rest of the humans were there. The next thing I knew, Danny’s folks were standing in front of him. “Nice job, Danny,” his dad said sarcastically, and I thought he was gonna whip out some ghost weapon or a Fenton Thermos or something, but then his face cracked into a wide grin. “Or should we say... Danny.”
Whoa. He knew. And then I remembered all that screaming just before, with Jazz crying and their mom shouting for Danny. She’d told them. Jazz thought her brother was dead, that we were all dead, and in those final moments, she wanted them to know who their son was and all that he’d done.
Looking around at the other humans, a horrible thought occurred to me. It’s not just his parents. Everyone else heard, too. They know. Everyone standing here knows exactly who and what Danny is.
Danny hadn’t quite caught on yet and was trying to pretend he didn’t know what his dad was talking about, but his mom stopped him. “Isn’t there something you wanna tell us?”
There was nothing I could do. No defense I could make, no lies I could tell to cover for him, nothing. Jazz tried to reassure him but, really, only Danny could decide what to do next. Looking trapped, his eyes darted around at the crowd, eventually meeting mine. I smiled, hoping he’d know no matter what, I’d have his back. He looked to Jazz next, then Sam and, finally, back to his parents.
Then, he just let go, like maintaining his ghost form was an effort and he was just too tired to do it anymore. The familiar rings of light formed at has waist, then traveled in opposite directions toward his head and his feet, transforming him back to human, right there in front of everyone. And then it was just Danny Fenton, a sixteen-year-old kid in jeans and a t-shirt, standing in the middle of a crowd of people, waiting to see what they’d do to him.
And what they did was cheer. Every last one of the eighty or so people surrounding us cheered for my best friend, the kid who’d just saved the world.
Things moved kinda fast after that. Helicopters arrived from McMurdo station to take us all back there, to dorms with hot showers and real beds. On the short flight back, three days of no sleep and running on pure adrenaline finally caught up with me, and all I could think about was sleep.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder where I’d be sleeping, however. The original plan was for me to bunk in with Danny and his dad while Sam roomed with his mom and Jazz. But with what the Fentons had just learned about their son, they decided to take one room for the four of them so they could talk in private—and I hoped “talk” wasn’t just a euphemism for “grill.” That left me and Sam on our own, until Mr. Gray took us aside and told us the Fentons had asked him to look out for us. The next thing I knew, Sam and I were standing in a tiny dorm room with Mr. Gray.
Now, under other circumstances, rooming with two hot girls, especially when I kinda had a crush on one of them, would have made my year, but there were a couple of flaws in this arrangement. The first was the fact that the girl I was kinda crushing on had a very large and overprotective ex-marine father who was rooming with us. The second was that that girl was Valerie. Danny’s ex, who dumped him to devote more time to ghost hunting and her obsession with taking out his alter-ego.
And now, she knew who he was. And she was not happy about it, judging by the way she wouldn’t even say a single word to me or Sam. To Mr. Gray’s credit, he didn’t seem to share his daughter’s anger at Danny, and he even tried to engage us in small talk to ease the tension, but Valerie wouldn’t even look at us. Eventually, he gave up, and we all went to grab some hot showers.
I was the first one done and was hanging up my towel over the end of my bunk when Sam returned. She grimaced at me. “Well, this’ll be fun. And people think I’m an ice queen. Maybe we should just sleep outside. Might be warmer.”
“No doubt. We’d better warn Danny when we see him. She’s gonna be out for blood. If his parents don’t take him apart molecule by molecule first, that is.”
Sam looked at me like she was going to take me apart molecule by molecule. “That’s not funny, Tuck.”
“Hey, I’m just joking. You saw them out there. They’ll be cool with everything. Now, Valerie, on the other hand—”
“Is not the only person in the world who’s ever hated Danny Phantom. It’s great that his parents seem to be taking it well, but once word gets out—”
The door opened, and Valerie and her dad came in together. Sam snapped her mouth shut, and I waved at Valerie, hoping maybe a hot shower had warmed her up a little.
No such luck. She just glared at me and Sam, then crawled into the bottom bunk across from me and curled on her side facing the wall.
Mr. Gray sighed. “Well... it’s been a long few days. I know it’s barely three in the afternoon, but maybe we should all catch a little shut-eye. If you want, we can get up later and check out the celebration they’re setting up over in Building One-fifty-five.”
I was so exhausted I couldn’t see straight. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m too tired to party. Just show me to my bunk and wake me when it’s time to go back to Amity Park.” With that, I climbed up into the top bunk and was out before anyone could even turn off the lights.
I woke up in the pitch dark with no idea where I was. All I knew was, I had to go to the bathroom really bad, so I started to sit up, only to hit my head, hard, on something above me. The ceiling? What was I doing so close to the ceiling?
Then I remembered. Antarctica, the asteroid... I was in the top bunk of a dorm room at McMurdo Station.
I tried again, this time sliding toward the foot of the bunk and the ladder there rather than sitting up all the way. I managed to get down without falling or waking anyone and made it to the bathroom without incident. When I was finished, I went back to the room, but as soon as the door closed and I was in darkness again, I decided I was too wide awake to go back to bed. Instead, I felt around for my PDA, which I’d left on top of my suitcase plugged into a charger, and my glasses and beret, which were right next to it. A quick check of my PDA told me it was only two-thirty in the morning, which surprised me. I was too awake for it to be that early. Then again, it had been about two-thirty in the afternoon, three at the latest, when I crashed yesterday, which meant I’d already slept twelve hours, so I decided to stay up anyway.
With the beret on my head, the glasses on my face, and the PDA in my hand, I headed back out again, this time going to the big common area in the middle of the dorm. Hopefully, I could get an internet signal there, but if not, at least there was a TV, and I was pretty sure the base had cable of some kind.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to test that theory. I was able to get a strong enough signal to do some web browsing on my PDA, so I flopped down on one of the couches, putting my feet across it and resting my head against the armrest and checked my e-mail. My inbox had over 300 messages, which wasn’t too unexpected, since I hadn’t had time to check it since we left Amity Park. But when I started scanning the senders, I did get a shock.
Many of them were from news organizations. TheAmity Park Journal, the Amity Park News, and even some national media, like USA Today and CNN. And they all wanted interviews. Shelley Makamoto from Channel Two wanted me to do a whole segment on Good Morning Amity Park. There was even an invitation from Purdue University College of Technology to do a guest lecture on the transfer device.
All addressed specifically to me. Me. Not just Danny Phantom’s sidekick, but the guy who made the tech side of the plan happen.
While I was wading through all that, kind of dumbstruck, I found something else that piqued my interest. It was an article on the Amity Park Journal website about how the Amity Park City Council had unanimously voted to impeach Vlad and remove him from office as mayor. A formality, really, since he’d pretty much vacated the office by way of revealing he was an evil ghost and trying to blackmail the world.
But what was interesting was what would happen next. Sometime within the next week, the City Council was going to convene a special session to appoint a new mayor to fill out the remainder of Vlad’s term, which had another three years left on it.
For a while now, I’d been really bugged by the losers that kept getting elected mayor. Vlad was the worst, of course, but Mayor Montez before him hadn’t been all that great either. He’d been responsible for the stupid curfews and everything back when Walker invaded Amity Park that first time, and everything he did was all because he cared more about votes than the kids he was supposedly protecting. With the next mayor being appointed rather than elected, the time was ripe for some new blood. Someone who cared about the town and about the students. Someone who actually had a clue about what to do when ghosts became a problem.
Maybe it was the hour or the high I was on from the world not ending, but something about reading about the City Council appointing a new mayor back-to-back with all those requests for interviews and that invitation from Purdue got me thinking. For a very short window of time, I was a hot ticket, and if a sixteen-year-old kid could be a guest lecturer at a prestigious university...
A little bit more searching, and I found a PDF file of the Amity Park City Charter online. I downloaded it, skipped to the sections that pertained to the mayor’s office, and settled in to read.
“Tucker! Dude, it’s, like, three-thirty a.m. What are you doing up?”
I looked up from my file, surprised to see Danny standing at the door to the lounge. Something about seeing him there in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms looking so normal, like it was just another day and he was spending the night over or something, rather than me having spent part of yesterday convinced he was dead, made my throat hurt.
“Me? What about you? I figured you’d need weeks to recover from everything that went down yesterday!” I set my PDA on the end table behind me, then sat up, putting my feet down on the floor to make room for him. Thus situated, I took a moment to give him the once-over. “You don’t look like you’ve been taken apart molecule by molecule. Can I assume that things went okay with your folks?”
He flopped down on the couch beside me. “Yeah, actually. Things went pretty well. I think it was a little hard for my dad to wrap his head around the fact that maybe not all ghosts are evil, and my mom... Well, I could just see the gears turning in her brain with all these scientific questions and tests she’d love to run. But I think overall, they’re okay with it. We talked for hours, mostly about how it happened, what kinds of powers I had, what kinds of things I’d been doing with them the last two years, that sort of stuff. They had a lot of questions.”
“No doubt. So, they know everything now?”
“Well, I glossed over a few things, like alternate realities and evil future versions of myself.” Now it was his turn to give me the once-over. “But seriously, Tuck. Why are you up? You haven’t slept for days.”
“Are you kidding? We crashed the second we got back to the dorms at, like, three in the afternoon yesterday. I woke up about an hour ago and couldn’t get back to sleep.” Then, remembering the atmosphere in the room before I’d collapsed onto my bunk, I rolled my eyes. “Besides, it was a little too chilly in that dorm room for my taste.”
“It’s the South Pole. What do you expect?”
“I’m not talking about the South Pole. Sam and I are rooming with the Grays. Your parents asked Mr. Gray to play chaperone last night since they were kind of busy. And let me just tell you how thrilled Valerie was to be rooming with your two BFFs. Not.”
Danny’s face turned three shades of pale. “Oh, my God, Valerie. With everything going on with my parents finding out, I forgot Valerie did, too.” He winced. “She wasn’t too happy about it, I take it?”
“Let’s just say Sam and I were seriously considering sleeping outside where it would be warmer.”
Danny looked like he wanted to phase right through the couch and disappear. “Right. I need to talk to her, don’t I?”
“Probably. But seriously, dude, I’d wait until she cools down.”
“I thought you said she was already pretty cold.”
“To me and Sam, yeah. It didn’t take a genius to work out that we were in on your big secret. But you... I’m thinking there might be a little fireworks involved the next time she sees you, and not the good kind. Especially considering her array of big, scary weapons all designed to destroy ghosts. So you might wanna give her wide berth until she has a chance to chill a bit.”
Danny buried his face in his hands. “This is so messed up. I should never have hid it from her in the first place.”
“She would’ve blasted you where you stood if you’d told her.”
“Still. She deserves an explanation. I owe her that much.”
“You don’t owe her nothing, man. She dumped you, remember?”
“Partly because she didn’t have all the facts. She has every right to be mad at me. I made this mess, and I need to clean it up.”
“Fine. Do whatever you need to do. I’m just saying, you might wanna wait until she’s ready to listen with her ears and not talk with her guns.”
He considered a moment before relenting. “Yeah, okay.”
After that, he got kind of quiet, processing the unpleasant confrontation ahead. Poor guy. It was a lot to deal with all in one day. Parents finding out his secret, ex finding out his secret, saving the world. Then, I remembered something else that that happened to him yesterday, and I flashed him a wicked grin. “So... besides saving the world and everyone from your parents to your ex finding out you’re a ghost, anything new happening with you? Do anything interesting? Make any new friends? Kiss anyone?”
All the ghosts I’d watched him face down, and I’d never seen him look so panicked. “What? I... uh... well....”
I crossed my arms and waited. Finally, he realized he wasn’t going to get away with playing dumb, and he slumped down into the couch, defeated. “You know about that?”
Just how stupid did he think I was? “You’re not my only best friend, you know. Just the only one doesn’t talk to me.” I gave him a pointed look.
I thought he was gonna look all guilty, but instead, his panic amped up from Code Orange to Code Red. “She told you? She actually—” Sitting up, he grabbed my shoulders. “What did she say?”
“Whoa, dude, chill!” I smacked him off of me, then backed away. “I’m not gonna be anybody’s messenger boy. You can just talk to her yourself. It’s long overdue.”
Danny leaned back again, banging his head against the back of the couch. With a sort of strangled groan, he covered his face with his hands. “Oh, man, I am such an idiot! What was I thinking? She’s one of my best friends, and now everything’s gonna be all weird and wrong—”
My stomach soured at his rant. “Wait. You’re freaking out?”
“Of course I’m freaking out! This is Sam we’re talking about.”
The sour feeling in my stomach curdled into a hard knot of anger. How could he do that to Sam? All that work I’d done to convince her his feelings were real, and he was gonna let it all explode in her face just because he was a big, fat, coward? “Oh, no, no, no.” I wagged my finger at him, furious. “You do not get to freak out. Not now, not after kissing her. You wanna take half a century just to figure out how you feel? Whatever. You wanna explore your options with stupid crushes on girls like Paulina or Valerie before going after what you really want? That’s your prerogative. But you do not get to kiss Sam and then freak out. Because I don’t care how long we’ve been best friends or how many ghost powers you have, you mess with her head like that, and I will flatten you. And that’s a promise.”
He looked surprised that I’d take Sam’s side. “Wait. What? What are you talking about? How am I messing withher head? Because I read too much into an innocent kiss on the cheek for good luck and made a colossal ass out of myself? I think that qualifies more for messing with my own head than hers. God, she must think I’m a total loser, turning a nice, little friendship gesture into a whole thing like that.”
Little friendship gesture? I shook my head, confused. “Hold up. That’s why you’re freaking out? ’Cause you think she doesn’t like you?”
“Well, yeah. Why else would I be freaking out? You won’t tell me what she said, and—what?”
Anger and confusion both evaporated on the spot, and I started to laugh. How was it possible to be that clueless? Did he really not notice the way she looked at him pretty much every time they were together? And here I was getting ready to deck him because I couldn’t stand the thought of Sam getting crushed in exactly the way she was afraid she would, and all the time he’s freaking out that she doesn’t like him.
The more I thought about it, the more hilarious it became, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Gasping for air, I shook my head at him. “Oh... dude.”
Now Danny looked ready to deck me. “Thank you so much for your sympathy while I’m having a crisis here.”
Crisis? “Dude.” My eyes were watering, and I had to take off my glasses to wipe them dry so I could see. When I was calm enough to start breathing again, I put my glasses back on and shook my head again. “You are seriously the most clueless guy on the planet, you know that? ’Cause if your only problem is how she feels about you, you are golden.”
His face took on a sort of sick-but-hopeful look. “What are you saying?”
Seriously, did I have to spell it out for both of them? “I’m saying you’re good, dude. It’s in the bag. So stop freaking out and start making out.” I paused as I realized what I might be starting, and I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “Only, let’s not get too crazy, okay? Just ’cause I approve—and expect to hear the highlights—doesn’t mean I want to be around you guys playing tonsil hockey twenty-four-seven. The googly eyes are bad enough.”
He was so focused on what Sam thought of him, he didn’t even bother to smack me for that crack. “What makes you so sure? Did she actually say that she—?”
It was my conversation with Sam all over again, and I was tired of the both of them. “She never actually comes right out and says anything, except for telling me you kissed her before you left to get the ghosts. But she doesn’t have to. When she came back in after seeing you off, she was glowing. Like...” A memory came to me, and I snapped my fingers. “Oh! Remember that time she scored fifth row tickets to the Morbid Anti-Social Youth concert on the exact same day that her parents said they were going out of town for a week and the Amity Park Mall announced that the Sweet Li’l Princess store was going out of business and would be replaced by that organic, earth-friendly, all-vegan bath and body shop that sells all that funky incense she likes? She looked like she did on that day.”
Danny blinked, stupefied. “Then... she was okay with everything?”
Have I mentioned how clueless he is? “Yes, Danny. She’s ‘okay’ with you kissing her. Like I’d be ‘okay’ with SmartTech making me their beta-tester for life and the entire cheerleading squad fighting over me. Okay like that.”
If he’d been a girl, I would’ve thought he was flirting with me, his eyes were blinking so fast now. “Really?”
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing again. “Really.”
He sat back, quiet for a moment, and I watched him work through what that meant for him. At first, he looked like he was gonna be sick, but not in a bad way. More like in an I’m-about-to-go-on-the-coolest-scariest-roller-coaster-ever kind of way. Then, he sort of got a glazed look in his eyes, not unlike the way Sam looked when she’d first come back into the control tower after he’d kissed her. And finally... I’m not sure how to describe the expression he ended up with. It was like... awe.
“Wow.” His voice was hushed, almost a whisper, and again the word that came to my mind was awe.
I’d known since seventh grade it was only a matter of time before those two would get together. It wasn’t that they liked each other back then or anything like that. It was just this feeling I’d had when Danny first started talking to the scary girl with the shaved head, like there was something bigger about them than what you could see on the surface.
And I knew it the moment he’d actually started liking her, back when they were dancing together at that freshman dance, even though she was my date. I knew it when he’d finally woken up to the fact that he’d fallen for her, when he went completely insane over her crushing on Gregor, and it’d been like a downhill ride with no brakes ever since, with them getting together the inevitable conclusion.
But not until this very moment, watching him really internalize what everybody else in the world who wasn’t him or Sam already knew, that their feelings were mutual and getting together was a matter of when, not if, did I realize just how serious his feelings were. No wonder he was so freaked. I shook my head at him. “You’ve really got it bad.”
He blushed. “Is it that obvious?”
“Only to pretty much everybody. Friends. Neighbors. Strangers on the street. The ghosts. Dash’s pet Chihuahua....”
“Okay, Tuck, I get it. I’m Joe Obvious.”
“Seriously, dude. Anyone with eyes can see you have a thing for her. Except for Sam. She never could see it.” I leaned toward him to drive home the point. “Although I think maybe you kissing her might have clued her in. So don’t screw up, okay? Make sure she knows you meant it. Because I will have to hurt you if you mess with her.”
This time, he didn’t wig out. He actually grinned at me. “Yeah, you and what—? Scratch that. You probably could recruit an army of ghosts that would love an excuse to wail on me. But I don’t plan on giving you any reason to go all big brother on me, okay? I was gonna talk to her right after the asteroid, but then there was the little matter of my parents finding out I’m half ghost...”
I had to give him a pass on that one. “Yeah, I could see where that could have been a bit of a distraction.”
“But they’re good now, so first thing when Sam gets up, we’ll talk.”
“What are you gonna say?”
He didn’t answer right away but, instead, reached into his pocket. “Actually, I’m thinking about giving her this.” He held his palm out, showing me what he’d fished out of his pocket. His dad’s class ring. “Something... I don’t know. Something solid, so she really knows how much I... how much she means.... You know.” He winced, still completely stumbling over actually saying the words. Instead, he said, “It’s lame, isn’t it?”
“You got that right.” I meant his complete inability to just say what he felt, but it worked just as well for the concept of giving a girl a class ring. If it weren’t for the history and how that ring had been the thing that had set everything into motion in the first place, I would have ribbed him mercilessly.
Looking a little deflated, he closed his hand over the ring and started to put it back in his pocket. “Never mind. I—”
I put my hand on his, stopping him before he could put the ring away. “Dude. You’re not giving it to me. Who the hell cares what I think? It’s what Sam thinks that matters. And she’ll love it.”
He gave me a hopeful look. “You think so?”
“She wore those stupid Fenton Phones like earrings for three days just because you gave them to her. So I’m gonna go with yeah, I think she’ll love it.”
He blushed again as he looked at the ring in his hand. “I hope so.” After a moment, he turned to face me. “So... are we good? You’re not mad?”
I frowned, confused. “Mad? Why would I be mad? I’ve only been expecting this since the seventh grade. Besides, the way I figure, you two couldn’t possibly spend as much time making out with each other as you do pretending you don’t want to.”
“Okaaaaay, you’ve really gotta stop saying stuff like that. It just sounds wrong. And I wasn’t talking about that anyway. I meant, you’re not mad that I never talked to you about this, are you? You’re my best friend, and I know we’re supposed to share everything. It’s just—”
I waved him off with a Gregor-style pfft! “I get it. It’s not the same as talking to me about Paulina or one of the random beauty contestant hotties or whatever. It’s Sam. She’s one of us. That makes it kinda weird.”
Well, yeah, but... it’s more than that. I don’t know if I can explain it, but... it’s like, if I talked to you about it, then it would be real. You know? And I wasn’t really ready for it to be real yet.” He grimaced, like it was a struggle to find the right words. “I know that doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it kinda does.” But he couldn’t stay in that place anymore. It was time for him to man up and say what he felt. “The question is, are you ready for it to be real now?”
He looked at the ring again, turning it over in his hand to see Sam’s name engraved inside, then nodded. “Yeah. I really want this to work out.”
Almost, but not quite. “Okay, but I couldn’t help but notice you keep dancing around actually saying the words.”
He pressed his lips together, then looked down. “I know. It’s hard to—” Then, he stopped. His head popped up like he’d made some kind of decision, and he looked me directly in the eye. Without hesitating or faltering, he told me, “I really like her, Tuck. A lot. I’ve never felt like this before.”
I smiled at him, feeling like a parent whose kid just took his first step. “Well. It’s about dang time.”