It was early. He could tell by the color and angle of sunlight currently streaming through the window that he'd forgotten to draw closed last night.
He didn't want to be awake.
After his mother had tucked him into bed-something she hadn't done since he'd turned eight and informed her that he was too big for stuff like that-Danny had slept like the proverbial rock. He hadn't so much as tossed once in the night. Now however, he was wide awake-despite the determined attention he was giving the insides of his eyelids. Even worse, he'd come to consciousness without the precious moment of amnestic bliss allotted to nearly everyone in the world upon waking.
He remembered the entire night immediately.
He wanted it desperately to be a dream.
It hadn't been a dream.
A hundred thoughts were rattling in his brain, completely ignoring his valiant efforts to slip back into oblivion. Part of him was considering just phasing out of the house and going to school, regardless of his Mom's offer of a free day. He could probably avoid her for a good long time, if he put his mind to it. All he'd have to do was stay invisible for a few weeks...
It was a silly, childish thought, and he knew it.
The least painful way to deal with this would be to run straight through—the same way he seemed to deal with all of his toughest problems these days. Part of him wondered whether that was a result of ghost hunting, or of being his father's son. The question was pushed out of his head before too long-he wasn't quite ready to find the answer to that.
Besides, he smelled food. And he was starving.
With a weary sigh, Danny rolled out of bed and began to change his clothes. It was going to be a long day.
When he came down the stairs and slid his way into the kitchen, he could feel his mother's eyes on him, and it was seriously wigging him out. He risked a glance in her direction a few times, trying to read the look on her face...but it was difficult. He wished she'd stop staring at him.
"Good morning, Danny. How are you feeling? Your bruises look a little better than last night. I made pancakes."
Danny's eyes widened slightly as his eyes followed her gesture towards the kitchen table. "Yeah...you definitely made pancakes."
Maddie met his eyes briefly. "Are pancakes okay? Do you want something else? I can make eggs, or bacon, or pizza..."
Danny worked his mouth a few times, then settled for shaking his head and sitting down at his seat. "No, no, pancakes are fine. Better than fine. That's just...a lot of pancakes."
There were two large plates on the table, each piled high—and his mother was methodically filling up a third.
"I'm making some plain ones now, if you don't want blueberry or chocolate chip. I thought I should make some, because I'm not sure if the blueberries were actually blueberries. They might've been one of your father's experiments..."
Danny eyed the violet-tinged and slightly glowing stack in front of his seat with a wary eye. "Just out of curiosity," he said, "when are we expecting the Roman army to come through?"
Maddie glanced at the table and frowned slightly. "Hm. I guess I got a bit carried away."
"Are you sure you don't want some bacon too?"
Danny got up, walked to the stove. He was starting to worry a little. Had his mother changed her mind about him, now that she'd had time to think? Danny studied her intently, catching her gaze and holding it with apprehension. "Are you okay, Mom? Because you don't sound okay." He relaxed when her face softened. She reached out to him, smoothed his hair back from his face, gave him a kiss on his forehead. "I'm fine, Danny. Nothing's changed."
Maddie turned back to the stove a little too quickly. "Your father and sister will be down any minute now, so if you want first pick you'd better load up your plate."
"Alright, alright, I'm eating," he groused, missing the small smile his tone pulled from his mother as he returned to his seat. He grabbed a fork and, giving the maybe-blueberry a wide berth, pulled a chocolate pancake from the top of its stack. His mom didn't want to talk until the rest of the family was gone...he could appreciate that.
Even if he was dying—ha ha—to get it over with.
It was only five-thirty in the morning—Jazz and his dad would most likely be down the stairs in an hour. Jazz, at least would be out the door by seven-thirty...he wasn't quite sure how his mom would get his dad out, but he guessed he wouldn't be much longer than that. Even so, that was two hours...an eternity to let his mind jump around in dangerous paths...
"Can I go upstairs to call Sam and Tucker?" he asked suddenly. "I'll only be a minute, and I'll come right back down to finish eating..."
"This early in the morning?"
"I want to let them know I'm not coming to school."
Maddie gave him a searching look, but nodded without another complaint. Danny jumped out of his chair and ran for the stairs. He didn't think he had to be worried that his mom would strap him to a table and slice him open anymore…but he had to let his friends know what was going on. They knew he'd been after a dangerous ghost the night before, and if he didn't tell them he wasn't going to show up for school, they'd worry. And they did stupid things when they worried.
Not that he was one to talk...
Danny firmly shut the door to his room behind him and grabbed his phone. Four rings later and a very groggy voice answered.
"Tucker? That you?"
Tucker sounded slightly more alive as the tone in Danny's voice registered. "Yeah, Danny? You alright?"
Danny sighed and sat wearily down on the floor. "Yeah, more or less. Mom knows."
"Knows? What do you mean knows? Knows-knows?"
"She was waiting in my room when I got back from the fight with that weird feral shape-shifting thing. Saw the bruises and the blood. On top of me sneaking out, and my weird behavior since the accident... She knew it was something, Tuck. I had to 'fess up."
"Jeez, you sure you're alright? I mean, you're talking to me—that means you're not strapped to a table to be sliced open…which is good, but what's going to happen now?"
"Dunno yet. She's keeping me home from school today and she's not telling Dad or Jazz. We're supposed to talk when they leave. She made about a hundred pancakes..."
Danny gave a dry chuckle. "Not yet."
There was a long pause over the line. Finally Tucker said, "Anything I can do, man?"
"I wish there was, Tuck," Danny replied. "Just…call me later, I guess?" Unspoken was the "to make sure I'm still alive and not imprisoned." He didn't want to say it out loud, didn't want to think there was still a chance of that. Tucker knew what he meant, Danny could tell by the tone in his voice when he answered.
"Will do. Let me know if anything changes, alright?"
"I will. And…thanks."
"Hey, what are sidekicks for?"
After Tucker hung up, Danny dialed again—this time a bit more hesitantly. The phone rang six and a half times before he was greeted with a half snarled, "Someone had better be dead."
"How 'bout half dead?" Danny joked with a small smile.
"Danny?" Sam's voice cleared up immediately as she realized who was calling. "What is it?"
"Man, you and Tucker...just because I'm calling at five-thirty in the morning, you assume something's wrong."
"Mom found out last night," he blurted out. "And I'm kinda freaked. When Dad and Jazz leave, she's going to keep me home to talk. I don't think she wants to trap me anymore… but I really need some moral support…."
There was silence on the other end of the line for too many seconds, and Danny blushed, suddenly feeling rather foolish. "Sam? I...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"Danny, shut up. I'm on my way."
"I'm coming over."
"Idiot, I'm not going to leave you alone with that. I'll be there soon as I'm dressed."
"Sam, it's really okay. I just wanted to talk a little…no one's up but mom right now and it's kind of weird…."
He heard rustling in the background and frowned. "You're getting dressed, aren't you."
"I told you, I'm coming over."
She cut him off with an abrupt "Bye, Danny."
The line clicked and Danny hung up his phone with a rueful smile. One of the things he liked about that girl—she could be more bullheaded than he could. Not that he would ever tell her that…. He glanced at the clock and mentally put her at his door before six. With Tucker, if he knew his friends as well as he thought he did. If he was lucky, Jazz and Dad would be down soon to fill the empty spaces for him until they arrived.
Getting to his feet again, he took a long breath and slowly made his way downstairs for the second time that morning. When he walked into the kitchen this time, his mother wasn't staring at him. She was making a desperate point to not stare at him. He wasn't sure if it was better or worse.
"Tucker and Sam are coming for breakfast," he said quietly.
"Oh good," she said. "I was worried about who was going to eat all of these. Not that you and your father won't make a decent dent..." She gave him a genuinely affectionate smile that faltered when she saw his face. "Danny, eat," she instructed, and turned back to the stove.
He only spent a minute picking at his rapidly cooling pancake before hunger pushed worry to the wayside. By the time his father and sister came downstairs and joined him at the table, he was on his fourth helping.
"Good morning, Maddie!" Jack Fenton said cheerfully, swinging his wife into a tight hug. "Is this all for us?"
Maddie gave her husband a kiss on the cheek and what she hoped resembled a bright smile. "Sam and Tucker are going to be joining us for breakfast too."
"Wow, Mom, what's the occasion?" Jazz asked, ruffling her little brother's hair as she sat down next to him. "It looks like you're expecting a small army!"
Maddie's smile grew plastically. "Can't a mother cook for her family once in a while? I just thought that it's been too long since we've had a good hot breakfast together. Dig in, those pancakes aren't going to eat themselves!"
"Er…are you sure?" Danny asked, poking a knife at the blue-maybe-berry stack.
Maddie brought the last towering plate of pancakes to the table and took her seat next to Jazz without rising to the bait. Jazz gave her a strange look when she picked a single pancake from a stack and started to cut it neatly into squares, but didn't say anything. For a while the only sounds were of silverware clinking and chewing. Jack was too engrossed in breakfast to say anything. Jazz was too busy trying to figure out the sudden air of discomfort that had invaded her family. Danny was too busy trying to look tired and grumpy to make small talk. Maddie cast a glance around at her family, and finally cleared her throat. "Jack, dear, do you remember when we were talking about checking out that new Ghost Research and Testing Facility over in Whitecrest?"
"Of course I do!" Jack said with a grin. "They're rumored to have the most high tech R and D equipment ever developed by American civilians! I've also heard that their Weapons Development and Ectoplasmic Endocrinology divisions are above and beyond anything we've ever..."
"Exactly," Maddie interrupted with a smile. "I was looking online last night, and I found out that they're holding a very selective tour and lecture workshop beginning at eleven o'clock, today. They're only accepting twenty experts in that field—and they had one slot left open when I signed you up for it."
Jack face lit up like a kid who'd won the lottery after celebrating his birthday on Christmas morning. "Really, Maddie? Are you sure you don't want to go instead?"
"I'm positive, Jack. I thought you'd be happy about it."
"Boy, am I! Maddie, you're the best!"
Maddie's smile warmed slightly, and she reached between the probably-not-blueberry and chocolate chip pancake stacks to squeeze her husband's hand. "Be sure to take lots of notes, and tell me all about it," she said.
"Oh, you'd better believe I will!" Jack said. "And I can't wait to ask..."
The doorbell rang, and Danny sprang out of his chair fast enough to make it rock. "I'll get it," he said as he left the kitchen.
"Wow, he's a little jumpy," Jazz commented.
"You'd be too," Danny grumbled under his breath as he flung the front door open. Tucker and Sam were both standing there, he knew they'd be.
"Are you okay?" Sam asked. Danny just shook his head and gave her a small smile.
"I told you you didn't have to come."
"Nowhere else we'd be," Tucker told him firmly. "I was on my way out the door same time Sam called."
Danny's mouth quirked up slightly and he said, "You just wanted pancakes and you know it."
"That's it man, you saw right through me," Tucker chuckled, and pointed to the hallway. "Lead the way to the food!"
Danny couldn't help grinning as he turned and led the way back to the kitchen.
Maddie was startled by the looks her son's friends were shooting her. They must know about him, she realized...and the fact didn't surprise her as much as it should have. The three of them had always been close...but since the accident, Tucker and Sam had stuck closer to Danny than they ever had before. They were always making excuses for him and getting into trouble with him…they had become extremely defensive and protective on his behalf. So many things were clicking into place, now. So many things made sense. It hurt, knowing that he had trusted these two young teenagers with something that he felt he couldn't trust his own mother with.
She realized her mask was slipping when Samantha's hostile expression began to fade into something resembling pity, and she had to bite her lip to keep from losing it completely.
"Sit down and eat, kids," she said, jumping to her feet and grabbing her half-empty plate. "I'll just start cleaning up."
Danny exchanged a look with Tucker and Sam as they sat, but none of them said anything as they loaded up their plates. They didn't say much for the rest of the hour, either—instead listening to Jack rattle on about different aspects of the Whitecrest facility. Jazz interrupted several times in a desperate attempt—as usual—to divert the conversation away from ghosts, but the few times she managed to succeed it didn't last long.
For once, Danny was grateful for his father's tendency to ramble right over everyone when he was excited. He didn't have to try to talk. All he had to do was avoid his Mom's gaze, and ignore the disturbingly concerned expressions that Jazz was giving him.
It was over too soon. And not soon enough.
Danny wondered if that would make more sense to someone else, and decided it wouldn't.
Jack left first—it was only a two hour drive to Whitecrest but he'd decided it'd be better to get there an hour early, so he could look around a bit before the lectures started. That, and he was simply too excited to sit still. Jazz went next—though she put up quite a fight when Maddie said that Danny wasn't feeling too well, and she wanted to keep him home for the day.
She'd said that she'd drive him so he wouldn't have to walk, said that missing a day of school would put him even more behind with his already-miserable grades, and the ensuing stress would be sure to weaken his immune system and make him fall ill far quicker than a little cold might. Because look at him—he'd had no loss of appetite and his color was good. Clearly the only symptoms he was feeling were fatigue and soreness of the muscles, and that could be easily attributed to another growth spurt..."
Danny raised an eyebrow at his big sister's tirade. She'd gone into full lecture mode—something that she'd been doing a lot of lately when it came to their parents and their dealings with him. He never questioned it because she'd proven pretty darn good at swaying their opinions. And the swaying usually occurred at times where he desperately needed a way out of trouble or a way out of the house because of some ghost-related problem or another...
At that thought, he shot a mildly suspicious look at Sam and Tucker. He tilted his head in Jazz's direction, and they threw a glance at her, and back to him. He nodded slightly at their inquisitive expressions, and Sam's eyes widened slightly. "Are you sure?" her expression seemed to say, and he gave her one back that said "Not really, but it sure looks like it. See what you can find out." Sam and Tucker nodded imperceptibly. Neither Maddie nor Jazz had noticed the silent exchange, but Danny suspected that even if they had they wouldn't have made much of it. He and his friends had gotten pretty good at communicating without words. Their lives so often depended on it, these days...
Tucker had looked at Jazz again with a thoughtful expression and Danny realized that she'd nearly run out of steam.
"Jazz, I appreciate your concern for your brother's well-being," Maddie had said with a slight quirk to her lips, "but I am his mother, and I want to make sure that nothing is wrong with him, today."
"Wrong with him? What would be wrong with him? There's nothing wrong with Danny. Danny is a perfectly normal adolescent. Yep, absolutely, completely normal in every way."
Maddie's smile grew a little and she said, "If the exhaustion and soreness are signs of pneumonia, there will be something wrong with him. Don't argue with me, Jasmine. He's staying home to rest, you're going to school, and that's the end of it."
Jazz's shoulders had slumped slightly in defeat, and she gave her brother an unreadable look. Danny smiled encouragingly at her and said "Don't worry about me, Jazz. I think after a good day of rest, I'll be fine. And you can help me catch up on the work I miss, right?"
Jazz searched his face, then brightened considerably-even offering to drive Sam and Tucker to school on her way out the door. Sam looked like she was about to fight to stay, but Tucker's hand on her elbow and another look from Danny stayed her tongue.
"A ride would be great, Jazz," Tucker said, silently telling Danny that they would try to find out what his sister knew without giving anything away. "Feel better man. Call if you need anything."
"We're calling later to check up on you," Sam said, somehow making it sound like a threat, as they closed the door behind them.
Danny and his mother looked at each other for a moment, and then Maddie shook her head. "They all know, don't they."
"Sam and Tucker do. I didn't think Jazz did, but…."
Maddie shook her head again, offering her son a sad smile. "She definitely knows. It's obvious, now that I know what I'm looking at. She's protecting you and your secret from your father and me."
Danny looked slightly lost. "Why wouldn't she let me know she knows?"
Maddie sighed and gently guided her son to the living room. Part of her wondered how she could fail so miserably as a mother that neither of her children could trust her with her son's life. The other part of her noticed how slowly Danny was moving . "How are you feeling, sweetheart?" she asked. "How's your back?"
"It's fine. I heal pretty quickly these days, and I don't think I've ever gotten an infection from a ghost attack. Not in the traditional sense, anyway…"
She sank down onto the couch and asked, "Will you let me look at it later?"
He nodded and sat stiffly on the corner of the couch next to her. "So, you know," he said. "Now what?"
Maddie smoothed a lock of hair out of his face, as she had that morning. "Now you tell me everything."
"Everything's an awful lot," Danny said. "You might want to narrow it down some."
Maddie stared at the floor for a moment, and then pinned him with a firm gaze. "Start with what happened in that porthole."
It was Danny's turn to stare at the floor, as he tried to keep the nightmare from his eyes. "I tried to fix it. When I was inside I bumped the switch by accident. It turned on and infused my DNA with residual ectoplasm, or something like that. Tucker could tell you better."
Maddie nodded a little, took a breath. "Now I want you to tell me what really happened."
"What do you mean?"
"I've spent my whole life studying paranormal science with a focus on ghosts. It shouldn't be possible, but I'm perfectly capable of figuring out the scientific results of your accident—especially when presented with your...powers, for lack of a better word. The structure of your DNA would have to have changed somehow, to make things like intangibility and energy generation physically possible. I didn't ask what happened to your DNA. I asked what happened to you."
"Daniel," she said sharply, and Danny's eyes briefly flashed green.
"What do you want to hear?" he snapped. "That it hurt like hell? That I felt every nerve in my body burn and freeze and twist and smash and pull at the same time? That my eyes exploded? That I knew that I was dying?"
It was something he never talked about, never allowed himself to think about. The memories would drive him mad if he let himself dwell on it-on the pain, on the absolute knowledge that he was fourteen years old and that this was death. On the memory of waking up. On the ache in his skin, his bones, his muscles for weeks after. On the panic of finding out that he really had died...or close enough. How dare she make him relive it? How could she?
He was yelling now, and didn't care. Couldn't care. "Do you want to hear all that? Or do you want to hear about how I had to wake up?"
Maddie's eyes were full of water, but she didn't back down. "How did you have to wake up?" she whispered.
Danny stared at her, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. "I...I..."
"It's okay, Danny" she said. "You can tell me. I need you to tell me."
He mutely shook his head.
"Are we really going to go through this all over again?" Maddie asked with a trace of a smile.
He swallowed hard as his initial burst of anger finally burned itself out. "How...how would you feel if you woke up and found out..." his voice was a whisper now, and he rubbed a hand over his face, "...found out that you had just become the one thing in the world that your family despises more than everything else in existence?"
Silence followed his question, and Danny couldn't bring himself to look at his mother's face. He was too afraid of what he would find in it...too afraid of what she would see in his. "I wanted to be dead, Mom. Better dead and completely gone than a ghost...a half ghost...an evil, undead freak..."
He knew he should stop talking, should just leave it where it was, but he couldn't. Something had broken inside him, and all the things he'd been piling into it for the last year were loose and spilling through his mouth.
"You were going to hate what I'd become. The only good ghost is a wiped-out-of-existence ghost. You'd be the ones to wipe me out...I knew you would. Especially when you really did start shooting at me... And even if you didn't kill me and never found out and never hated me and only thought I was a lazy good-for-nothing juvenile delinquent, what if being half ghost made me evil? What if I became like all the other ghosts and tried to kill you? What if other ghosts killed you because of me, and that made me evil? That happened once, I had to…. Or what if you killed me, and I became full ghost, and had to live in the Ghost Zone with all the ghosts I've been fighting? All the ghosts that already think I'm an abomination who needs to die? They'd make the rest of my immortal existence miserable. They'd go after everyone I love just to spite me, and I wouldn't be able to stop them because I'd probably be locked in Walker's prison for eternity..."
Danny knew that he couldn't possibly be making sense. He was going in circles, spewing out every nervous thought and fear he'd entertained since the accident. Finally, it was less his efforts to shut up and more an ending of his ability to form words that silenced him. And he still couldn't look at his mom. Not even when she reached out and pulled him into a crushing hug.
"My baby," she whispered, rocking him back and forth as though he were still just that. "I'm so sorry."
Her words were like an absolution, and Danny clung to them even as he said, "It's not your fault, it's mine." Or at least tried to say. Sobs he'd been holding back for nearly a year were making it difficult to talk.
But his mother was his mother, and she understood. She found herself stroking his hair as she used to when he was small. To her, he was still small. For all that he'd endured, all the danger and responsibility he'd willingly taken on, he was still a fourteen year old boy. Her fourteen year old boy. In many ways he'd been forced to grow up so fast. But despite that...he was still young. Far, far too young to have gone through all this without her. Too young to keep going the way he had been.
This time she found herself without words—but she didn't need them, yet. She had already told her child everything he needed to know. She loved him. She wasn't going to leave him. She wasn't going to hate him, or look at him with disgust. He could be her son again, completely—no part of him would ever again be her enemy. She felt the tension go out of him, felt his breathing even out. "What now?" he finally whispered.
"We go one day at a time," she said. "We figure this out together."
Author's Note: I want to thank everyone who reviewed the first chapter of this story so, so much! I never expected to receive so much positive feedback, and I truly do appreciate it. I really had planned on leaving it as a one-shot—I was worried I'd spoil the story if I kept writing. I've been playing with the scenario off and on again since my initial post in '06 though (boy, does time get away from you…!), and thought—why not? This second chapter is for all of you—so please let me know what you think! If you like it, maybe I'll find another chapter down the way.