Chapter 31

I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him... The land of tears is so mysterious.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Since learning that merpeople were real, Jazz had more or less walled off the unpleasant emotions connected to that revelation. Rather than focus on the merman who had kidnapped her mom and nearly drowned her little brother, or the mind-controlling leeches and half-man half-fish monstrosity that attacked the town hall, or the knowledge that merpeople loved nothing better than to eat humans al crudo, Jazz had consciously decided to focus on the positives. She was an optimistic person by nature. She could do that.

For example:

Her parents were less insane than she previously thought; magic was potentially real; and Jazz now had a topic for her thesis and an endless supply of people for her case study. It might have been the adrenaline talking, but she could almost understand the excitement that sparked in her parents' eyes when they blathered on about merhunting.

Yes, that had been the narrative Jazz was crafting for herself, in order to make sense of the chaos crashing through her life and begin putting the pieces of her worldview back in order.

Today was different. The existential horror she had been swallowing the past few weeks rose in her throat with her half-eaten breakfast. She felt cold and vaguely numb, a sensation of being disconnected from her body, of watching the world from a point over her own shoulder.

The tinny audio did not fill the room. It came from the small countertop television they'd had in the kitchen since before Jazz was born. It was not loud, and the sound would not carry around the corner into the living room. But at that moment, it was as deafening in her ears as her own heartbeat.

These feelings were coming because she knew the victim. She realized it with a brief flare of clinical objectivity: that was the big difference. That's what made this news report stand out from the dozens of photos her parents had collected from their merperson hunts.

Jazz wasn't even aware Danny had come into the kitchen until he dropped his cereal bowl. It crashed against the tile, splattering milk and Froot Loops over her ankles and sending pieces of ceramic careening across the floor.

The abrupt cold of the milk on her skin and the noise of the shattering bowl shook her out of her stupor. She leapt to her feet and spun on her brother. "Danny, what-!"

Her reprimands dwindled to nothing. Danny - who instead of improving was looking more haggard every day since his return - was staring at the little tv screen. His hands were frozen in front of him, gripping a bowl that wasn't there, his face screwed up in an expression of shock. The cereal was stuck to his pant legs and the milk soaking into his sneakers, but he didn't seem aware of anything outside of the small square of news footage across the room.

Jazz went to grab a handful of dish towels and the trash can and stooped to begin cleaning up the mess. After a few seconds, Danny joined her. Jazz offered him half of the towels and noticed that the hand he reached out to take them was trembling.

As they worked, Jazz's eyes darted to her brother every few seconds. Crouched on his haunches, he was plucking bits of cereal bowl out of the puddles of milk with his fingertips and tossing them into the trash can. Danny's eyes seemed only half focused on the task in front of him; he frowned at something that wasn't in the room.

The news report continued in the background.

"You okay?" Jazz asked quietly.

Danny flinched. His eyebrows drew together and his eyes tightened in distress. When he answered her, he sounded helpless. "It killed her."

Jazz nodded, blinking back tears. "Yeah," she whispered. Her hands were shaking, too.

Danny dropped another shard of ceramic into the trash. Then he curled forward, hugging his knees. "Why? How? I thought… I thought…"

Whatever he thought, he didn't say.

"Danny," Jazz started. She sighed. She felt so ill-equipped to be comforting him right now. She felt like she needed someone to comfort her. The victim was - had been - her classmate.

"I should have done something." Danny shook his head. "I thought Mom and Dad…"

How could he possibly be blaming himself? "Danny, sometimes terrible things happen, but they aren't anyone's fault. No one could have done anything."

Her brother's head snapped up. "Terrible things happen?" he repeated incredulously. "Terrible things happen?" Ceramic tinkled against the floor around his feet, and Jazz was puzzled to see little peaks rising in the puddles of milk, rattling the broken bowl.

What the...?

Danny pushed to his feet and glared down at her. "This wasn't some freak accident, Jazz. It ripped out her heart! Someone should have stopped this!" The fire drained out of him as quickly as it had appeared, and he wrapped his arms around himself. "I should have done something," he repeated quietly.

Jazz straightened slowly, gently - resisted the urge to reach out and touch him, knowing that he wouldn't appreciate the gesture right now. "What could you have done?"

He shrugged, staring off into a corner of the kitchen. "I don't know. I just..."

"Mom and Dad will find it," Jazz told him, even though she didn't know how much she believed those words. She realized she had no idea how qualified her parents were to hunt these creatures; it wasn't like merhunting was an established career path with licensure or credentials.

"Maybe," Danny conceded. He crouched back down to the floor and began angrily mopping up the milk with his handful of towels. "But how many more people are going to die in the meantime?"

Jazz sighed again and rejoined her brother in cleaning up the mess. She briefly wondered what had caused the floor to shake earlier and watched the puddles on the floor for any more signs of an earthquake, but there was nothing and Jazz put the incident aside.

She did the brunt of the work. Danny didn't seem willing to get his hands dirty, so it was up to her to scoop up the soggy cereal and dump it into the trash can, and to wring out the sodden towels in the sink. She tried not to hold it against him; he was upset, so he could be forgiven for not being especially helpful.

She did make him get out the Swiffer once the worst of the spill was cleared away.

While he wrapped that up, Jazz turned off the tv. By this point the news anchors were repeating themselves, showing the same images of the beach, the police cordon, the Fentons talking to detectives and sticking various devices into the water. There wasn't any point torturing themselves with this. They would have enough reminders throughout the school day as it was.

The atmosphere of Neptune High was somber. Principal Ishiyama hosted an assembly that morning, another assembly in the long line of assemblies that were coming to characterize Jazz's junior year of high school, to talk around but not actually about what happened. That became the pattern for the day: in each of Jazz's classes, the teachers felt compelled to say something, to try to talk things out, but none of the adults were willing to admit the details of Ada's death. They spoke about how Ada Brashner was 'lost', as though people were looking for Ada and just couldn't find her.

Jazz understood why Danny had been so upset with her that morning when she framed it in a similar way. He was right - what happened was not an accident or anywhere close to one. It couldn't even be called a random animal attack like when the alligator wandered onto campus. Jazz had seen merpeople, heard them talk, knew enough about them to know that they were as sentient as any human being.

What had happened to Ada was cold-blooded and wanton murder. One of those creatures had killed her by ripping her heart from her chest. To say anything less than that was unfair to Ada.

"The body was found washed up on the beach early this morning, missing its heart. Police have yet to recover the missing organ or release any details as to how the murderer accomplished this. The Fentons are on the scene, working to confirm whether or not this death was caused by…" Tiffany Snow had hesitated over that one. "Um… whether or not it was caused by a merperson."

If Ada's heart was missing, there was only one thing the merperson could have done with it.

Several students were absent from school, and plenty more were sent from the classroom throughout the day to talk to Dr. Scylla. Jazz expected more of her classmates to approach her to talk things through or to ask about merpeople, but strangely they were giving her a wide berth. Jazz wasn't sure what that was about, but she wasn't going to complain. She didn't have the capacity to deal with anyone else's emotions today, when she could barely maintain control of her own.

And she worried about Danny. No matter how she tried to focus her thoughts on her immediate surroundings, without any substantive learning happening, her mind kept returning to her little brother. She couldn't help but wonder how his day was going, what he was thinking. She wondered why he was taking Ada's death so personally, and more than that, why he seemed to be placing the blame on himself. Was it survivor's guilt, because he had survived the attack on Mr. Master's party, while Ada had not survived her own encounter with a merperson? Or was there more to it than that?

He still refused to talk to her, about anything. Their conversation that morning was the most Jazz had gotten out of him all week, and finally it was something other than the 'I'm fine's he kept repeating to her when it was obvious to anyone that he was not fine. She wondered if Dr. Scylla was having more luck with him and was frustrated that there was no way she could know.

Her biggest question was where he had gone when he disappeared last week. Her little brother had essentially vanished into thin air for as many as four days. Jazz felt like if she could figure that out, everything else would fall into place.

The end of the day arrived. Jazz hovered anxiously at the bottom of the steps in front of the school, peering over the other students' heads in search of her brother. She finally spotted him as the crowd began to clear out. He was walking between his friends, Tucker Foley and the raven-haired girl he had started hanging out with recently. Danny's hands were shoved into the pockets of his navy NASA hoodie, the hood flipped up over his head; he stared morosely at his feet as they walked. All three were solemn, and their conversation was uttered in voices so low that Jazz could not catch a single word.

When they saw Jazz, they immediately stopped talking.

It was a half-formed thought, but Jazz grabbed onto it with both hands. Danny's friends knew exactly what was going on with him, didn't they?

Jazz hastily approached them.

"Hey guys!" she said cheerfully.

"Uh, hey?" said Tucker, eyeing her strangely. The girl waved once, unsmiling, one eyebrow climbing her forehead. Danny looked off to one side and slumped his shoulders.

"So," said Jazz, "I was thinking… I know how hard these last few weeks have been, and I for one don't agree with my parents' decision to stop you guys from hanging out, so I was thinking we should all go to the Nasty Burger this afternoon. What do you say, Danny?"

"I'm not in the mood," Danny muttered.

"C'mon, Danny," she pressed. "It'll be good for you to spend some time with your friends. Besides, I'm buying."

That, at least, got Tucker on board. "Please don't make me say 'no' to free Nasty Burgers, dude."

"Is that all it takes to bribe you?" asked the girl.

"I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I am a simple guy with simple needs. And yes, I'm easily bought."

"Danny shouldn't have to do anything he doesn't want to," the girl insisted. But then she wavered. "Even if I do miss hanging out with him..."

Danny sighed and threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine. Whatever. We can go to the Nasty Burger." His eyes flicked up to Jazz. "But you are paying. You promised."

"Of course! And great! I'll drive."

Danny's tray clattered onto the table. His fries scattered, and his drink tipped precariously. He didn't sit down but instead stood there glaring accusingly at Jazz. His friends hesitated on either side of him, watching him as though he were a live grenade. It seemed Jazz wasn't the only one handling Danny with kid gloves lately.

"Do you have to sit with us?"

"I'd like to sit with you," Jazz replied calmly. "I feel like I don't get to spend time with you anymore."

"You've been chaperoning me all week," said Danny. "Anyway, you said I need to hang out with my friends, so why don't you go away and let me hang out with them?"

"Even if I wanted to sit somewhere else - which I don't - there aren't any other free tables." This was true. It was the after school rush, and every other table in the burger joint was occupied by groups of teens. They were lucky to have gotten a table at all.

"They have tables outside," her brother pointed out, smirking.

Jazz sat down. "Now you're just being petty. It's not going to kill you to spend half an hour with your friends and your sister at the same time."

Glowering, Danny sat down heavily in the chair across from her. His friends finally took the two remaining chairs, looking incredibly uncomfortable. Jazz didn't blame them. So far, this was not going well.

Danny crossed his arms and slumped halfway down in his seat, his body language the epitome of 'moody teenager'. The dark circles under his eyes were especially prominent in the Nasty Burger's fluorescent lighting. Jazz knew he was trying to appear standoffish, to discourage her from talking to him, like a porcupine raising its quills. But to Jazz, he just looked tired.

He didn't touch his food. Jazz wasn't the biggest fan of the Nasty Burger, but she picked up a fry and nibbled on it. Danny's friends cautiously approached their own meals, their eyes flitting back and forth between the Fenton siblings.

"So," said Jazz. She kept her tone light, casual. "How are things going with Dr. Scylla?"

A shadow crossed Danny's face. "Like you care."

"What? Of course I care."

He huffed. "Yeah, right."

Jazz leaned forward, earnest. "I'm your big sister, Danny. I care."

"You think I'm a lost cause," he accused. "And I know you hate this babysitting situation just as much as I do. I know you have other things you'd rather be doing. Seriously, you can leave. You know that, right? Mom and Dad wouldn't have a clue if you enforced their rules or not."

"I don't think you're a lost cause," said Jazz, ignoring his further attempts to get her to leave. "Why would you think that?"

"Never mind," Danny muttered.

Jazz was about to press, but Danny's shoulders jerked and he sucked in a sharp breath. He sat up straight in his chair and glanced around the room, looking inexplicably nervous.

"Danny?" asked the girl with the dark hair. "Do you, um… you know."

Danny nodded slowly and looked both of his friends in the eye. A moment later, Tucker said, "Got it. Do what you gotta do, man."

"And…" The girl hesitated, glancing at Jazz. She raised her eyebrows entreatingly at Danny.

Danny nodded but still didn't say anything. Then he stood up and grabbed his backpack from the floor, slinging it over one shoulder. "I've got to go to the bathroom," he informed the table.

Something about this entire interaction was off, but Jazz couldn't figure out what had prompted the sudden change in her brother's attitude or understand the messages he had just exchanged with his friends. There was definitely more to this than a bathroom break.

"Do you need your backpack for that?" Jazz asked.

Danny hugged his stomach with one hand. "It, uh, might be awhile. Maybe I'll study while I'm on the toilet. I'm really behind in Lancer's class." He grimaced, glanced around the room again, and took a step backwards. "Sorry. I'll be back."

"Danny!" Jazz protested, half rising out of her seat, prepared to follow him. But she froze when she saw that he really did go into the men's room instead of bolting through an exit. Feeling uneasy, she sat back down and stared pensively at her tray. "That was weird," she commented.

Tucker shrugged. "There's a reason they call it the Nasty Burger," he said, even as he began to unwrap his Mega Meaty Heartstopper.

Jazz glanced at Danny's food. As she thought, it was untouched. "He hasn't even eaten yet."

The other girl eyed Tucker's burger in disgust. She had ordered some sort of tofu and spinach smoothie, which Jazz had not even been aware was on the menu. "I'm sure his body remembers the trauma this restaurant has put it through. Just smelling it was probably enough to make him sick."

The idea that Danny's gut was suffering from fast food PTSD was completely farfetched. Jazz felt uneasy. This feeling was only increased by how artificial the others' behavior felt now, like forced normalcy. Something was being hidden, only Jazz could not begin to guess at what.

She decided to try a different approach, now that she had access to her brother's friends without Danny around to throw up walls. "I can't believe Danny thinks I don't care. I know we're not as close as we used to be, but I didn't realize how far apart we've been drifting." She shook her head. "I thought he would at least enjoy coming here, that it would get his mind off of what's been going on, but he's acting like this is just more punishment."

"Maybe this would feel less like punishment if Danny's jailer wasn't hanging over him," said the dark-haired girl, voice laden with sarcasm.

"I'm not his jailer!" Jazz protested. "And just because I'm his sister doesn't mean I can't also be his friend, or friends with his friends!"

"Do you even know my name?" asked the girl.

Jazz opened her mouth to say, 'Of course I do!', only to realize that, no, she did not.

"My point exactly."

"Jazz, no offense," said Tucker, "but you're kinda a buzzkill." He took a bite of his burger, and a mixture of condiments and grease oozed out the other side.

"What do you mean I'm a buzzkill?" asked Jazz, entirely offended. "I can be fun."

"I think you know what the word 'fun' means in the dictionary," said Tucker around his mouthful of calories, "but I'm not sure if you've ever had it. And trust me, there's a difference."

"And I don't think your brand of 'fun' is what Danny needs right now," the girl pointed out. "If you haven't figured it out yet, you being here? It's only making things worse. Danny has enough to deal with without having to deal with a nosy older sister, too."

"I'm not trying to be nosy," Jazz insisted. "I'm just trying to help him. If he would only tell me what's been going on, I could be there to support him-"

"Or report it all back to his parents," the girl muttered.

Jazz was starting to get genuinely irritated. "I don't know what Danny says about me, and frankly, I don't care. But I'm not our parents' lapdog, and I'm not going to tell them anything if I think it will hurt Danny. He may not come first in their eyes, but he's first in mine. So please, if you know anything that could help me get to the bottom of this and start helping him, you've got to tell me. Please."

The two younger teens glanced at each other. Another silent communication passed between them.

"Jazz, we're Danny's friends," said Tucker. "That means we keep his secrets from you. And it's going to take a lot more than a free meal to get us to break his trust.

"If it helps," he added, with the air of a person taking pity on someone, "I don't think Danny's mad at you because he thinks you don't care about him. We all know you care - Danny included. He's just mad because you didn't give him any say in the matter before making him see a therapist. That wasn't his choice, it was your choice."

"Tucker's right," the girl agreed. "I might not know your family very well, but I do know Danny, and you have to understand that recently he's not had a lot of control over the things happening in his life. Think about it from his perspective, Jazz. He's grounded and being watched twenty-four-seven. He has, like, zero autonomy right now. He feels powerless. And then you go behind his back to Lancer to force him see Dr. Scylla? If he ever felt like you were on his side, I can completely understand why he wouldn't feel that way right now."

Jazz recalled Danny's words from the other day, words which she now realized she had brushed aside: You don't get to decide that. You don't get to make decisions for me. This is my life, Jazz, so I'd appreciate you butting out of it.

"Do you think-" she started to ask but then stopped. Tucker's eyes had widened. She watched him raise a hand and point at something behind her, toward the front of the Nasty Burger. Jazz turned just in time to see the giant crab that had attacked the school yesterday swinging one of its massive claws through the front windows.

For the second time that day, a sense of surrealness engulfed Jazz. She watched the other people in the Nasty Burger scrambling up from their tables and rushing towards the side entrance near the service counter, pushing and shoving their way around the table where she was sitting. Listened to them screaming, listened to the glass shattering and metal screeching as the crab forced its hulk through the front wall of the building. She felt a tugging on her upper arm, and Tucker's face appeared. He was yelling at her to move.

Reality snapped back into place. With jerking movements, Jazz pushed to her feet and stumbled after Tucker, who was still leading her by the arm. The panicking teens fleeing the restaurant were starting to bottleneck around the side entrance, which was the only door in or out for the customers now that the front was no longer an option. The staff had vanished, but it didn't take long to figure out where they had gone. Jazz watched Dash Baxter lifting his girlfriend over the service counter and then hopping up and sliding over it himself. They were out through the kitchen's back door seconds later. Danny's raven-haired friend stood next to the counter, holding open the swing door on the right side of the registers and waving Tucker and Jazz over frantically.

Jazz let Tucker pull her along. She could not say exactly what she was feeling. Her heart pounded blood through her veins, which was making her lightheaded. She was aware, on some level, that she should be terrified, but her brain wasn't processing much beyond the details directly in front of her, as though the world was coming to her through a tunnel. Time felt stretched.

There was a monster in the room with them.

They reached Sam, but instead of letting herself be dragged to the back entrance, Jazz tugged her arm out of Tucker's grasp and hurried away along the wall.

"What are you doing?" she heard the dark-haired girl calling after her.

"Danny's still in the bathroom!" Jazz shouted back.

Jazz was about ten feet from the little hallway that led to the bathrooms when a table crashed into the wall right in front of her. Startled, Jazz stumbled a step backwards, slipped on someone's abandoned tray, and fell hard onto the floor.

The floor shuddered as the crab drew closer. Jazz was too scared to look, but some sixth sense was screaming at her that the creature must be right behind her. She could only stare at the table that now lay in pieces on the floor and the hole it had left upon its impact with the wall.

Someone ran up to her. Jazz registered their white rubber boots and black pant legs, saw a gloved hand reaching towards her. She raised her head to look at this person's face, and her heart skipped a beat. Staring down at her were two inhumanly green eyes in a face the color of snow, pupils narrowed to slits in the brightness of the room. Dripping white hair framed the figure's face and hung over his pointed ears, and water glistened over his features. There were two flaps of skin on either side of the person's neck, just beneath his jawbone.

It was the merboy.

He was frowning, and he thrust his hand at her again impatiently. His vibrant eyes kept flicking to a point somewhere behind her.

Jazz could not imagine what he wanted from her. She was too scared to move, too scared to think.

The merboy finally took the initiative, reached down, and grabbed her right hand with both of his own. At the same time, words appeared in Jazz's head, the same resonating and unnerving mental speech that the merperson who attacked Mr. Masters's party had used… only much less terrifying. If anything, the voice just sounded irritated and… scared.

Come on. You have to get out of here!

He hauled her to her feet, and Jazz let him, completely mystified by what was happening. Now that she was standing again, she just stared at the boy, jaw slightly agape. She noticed that she was taller than the merboy by one or two inches. There was some sort of white insignia pasted to the front of his rubber jumpsuit, almost like something you would see on the chest of a superhero.

And there was something very familiar about that jumpsuit…

He seemed more preoccupied with what was happening behind Jazz - the crab. Even as his hands lingered on Jazz's arm in a light grip, he watched it, tense and wary, and his lip curled up to bare his fangs. Jazz wouldn't have been shocked to hear him growl - except, according to her parents, merpeople didn't have any vocal chords.

Jazz gulped and turned around to look with him.

The crab was watching them. Even as it menaced the last escaping teenagers, snapping its claws at them and stabbing its long legs in their directions, its eye stalks leered toward the merboy and Jazz.

The merboy confirmed it when he pushed Jazz back toward the counter and said, Go! It's me this thing's after.

The last teenager was out through the door. They now had the crab's full attention. Jazz watched as it shrunk before her eyes, reducing in height and width by two whole feet. It no longer looked in danger of crashing into the ceiling - and it was much more mobile. With apparent ease, it turned to face the merboy. Its sharp, pointed legs left holes in the floor and knocked aside tables like they were made of paper.

An image, a wonder, flashed through Jazz's mind. What could one of those legs do to a person?

...Could it gouge out a heart?

The merboy shoved her again, harder. Go! I'll keep it busy. Then he began to take cautious steps toward the crab. He didn't even look to see if Jazz followed his instructions. It was so that Jazz stood there, still in something of a daze, and watched him twirl his hands at his hips. Two streams of water flowed out of the bottles he had strapped to his thighs, defying all known laws of physics to curl mid-air in a ring around his waist.

The crab raised its left claw, the larger of the two, and clicked it menacingly in the air. The sound finally snapped Jazz out of her daze, and she remembered where she had been going before the monster threw a table at her. She turned and kept running to look for her brother.

Seconds later, she crashed through the door to the men's room. "Danny!"

The room was empty. The door swung shut behind her, muffling the sounds of the fight that was just beginning between the merboy and the crab.

Even though Jazz could see in a glance that there was no one in the men's room, she didn't know what else to do, because Danny had to be here. It didn't matter that there were only two stalls and that both had their doors open to reveal their entirely unoccupied toilets. It didn't matter that there were no corners to hide behind, that neither the trash can nor the counter were large enough to hide a human being. Danny had to be here.

His backpack was sitting discarded behind the trash can. Bemused, Jazz grabbed one of its straps and picked it up. It wasn't zipped, and clothing tumbled out of it onto the floor - a navy NASA hoodie and a white T-shirt. Jazz kneeled on the tiles and ran her fingers over the familiar items. She reached into the bag again and felt the remaining items, a pair of blue jeans and two sneakers.

These were all of the clothes her brother had been wearing, right before the crab attacked.

Only Danny wasn't here. His clothes were, but he wasn't.

Memories and information began to cross Jazz's mind, seemingly at random. She remembered her parents' Merfolk Awareness lecture on Tuesday, their harangue about how merpeople could disguise themselves as human and come on land. They talked about the proof they had collected of the merboy's ability to do just that. The fact that he was here at the Nasty Burger walking around on two legs, the fact that every time Jazz had seen him he looked more human than fish, was all the proof she needed to believe her parents were right about that.

Her parents had stressed vigilance because they were afraid the merboy was hiding in plain sight among them.

Because the merboy could look human.

The backpack slipped from Jazz's numb fingers as a nebulous terror welled inside of her heart. She looked back at the door, listened to the sounds of chaos on the other side, and whispered, "Danny?"

A/N: ...

I swear I didn't plan the cliffhanger, it just happened. (You see a scene break and you go for it, right?)

Thanks to: ChangelingRin, MistFlame54, Invader Johnny, GhostWriterGirl-1, RebeccaRosewood, zixalZane, Isa Wilson, dragondancer123, Foxprints, Dp-Marvel94, lexi1220, The Girl of Many Words, SCREAMINGx4, MsFrizzle, MidnightWriter44678, ericaphoenix16, and fanfic addict for your reviews of Chapter 30!

Shout out to kyoukaalldey for their adorable rendition of Danny and Kaima! Please check it out on dey's tumblr (deyunndoodles).

An (overdue) shout out to Tytach for her depiction of a cool, older Danny in his mer-form. Please check it out on Tytach's tumblr!

And one last shout out to TTGG03 for helping me dive deep into the lore of the TreadingWater!verse. There is a lot of brainstorming magic happening thanks to their thoughtful questions and headcanons about the Merfolk and the Sirens.

By the way, I finally got myself together and made a tumblr account so I can become further entrenched in the Phandom. My page has shaped up to be completely random nonsense, but feel free to visit me at breynekai-tfc.

Next time: Danny vs. Bertrand the Coconut Crab, Round II.