It was well past four o'clock, and the early winter sun had sunk down until it was no more than a trembling lick of flame on the horizon; yet it still managed to blaze with a last burst of vitality over the town of Amity Park, orange-tinged light slanting down through windows to illuminate the wisps of shadow that seemed to be lurking, waiting for nightfall.
The halls of Casper High were unused to such light; ordinarily the windows that broke the red-brick monotony of the building were covered not long after three in the afternoon, since no one remained to care what happened inside the building or out of it. On this particular day, however, the windows remained unshaded, though latched tight to prevent the accidental sound from escaping. Besides checkering the white-tile floor with a bedazzling pattern of light and shadow, this had the effect of magnifying any sound in the usually-silent halls to a screech that vibrated fit to shake the earth. When applied to the persistent shouting now echoing in one of the building's back halls, this reverberation served to filter noise throughout half the building, stopping any living thing in its tracks.
"Tucker! Will you stop already?"
Any living thing, that is, except the incorrigible Tucker Foley.
"Why should I stop?" he laughed over his shoulder, leaping from a square of light beneath a window into the shadows beyond. "I'm making history! I'm changing life as we know it! I am on top of the world!"
"You're insane is what you are," came the muttered reply. This achieved what the shouting had not; Tucker landed on one foot in the next patch of illumination and turned around, rearranging his face into a mask of wounded pride.
"Why, Jasmine Fenton, I'm surprised at you," he chided, his voice full of feigned hurt, one hand resting over his heart. "You don't have any faith in me at all, do you? And yet who was it that made this little operation possible? Who has the most to gain by making sure it succeeds? If anyone here is crazy, it is certainly not me. I am the soul of integrity."
The echoes of this vainglorious speech faded away into silence, and it seemed an impasse had been reached. Tucker and Jazz stood utterly still, both spotlighted by the setting sun, both looking decidedly out of place in the empty school, he with the drooping posture of a victim, she with the upright fury of a warrior; there was a moment's silence, then Tucker burst out into a peal of ringing laughter, spun on his heel, and continued down the hall. He moved in a complicated series of taps and jumps, banging out a rhythm for every shaft of sunlight he reached, humming tunelessly; yet Jazz, even striding as fast as she dared, had trouble keeping up with his buoyant progress.
"Tucker!" she roared again, the abject fury in her voice at a sharp contrast with Tucker's joviality. "Tucker Foley, call this thing off right now! It's a bad idea, I'm telling you! This whole thing is a bad idea!"
This apparently only amused him further, and he stopped again, this time to dart a mischievous grin at her over his shoulder. "Of course it's a bad idea," he called. "Those are the only kind that ever pay off enough to be worthwhile!" Having delivered this parting shot, which left her standing speechless and spluttering for words in the middle of the hallway, Tucker fairly skipped the last few yards, finally coming to rest at a classroom door. It would have been utterly ordinary, save for the fact that it was the only one in the hallway that remained lighted so unusually late. Here he waited, grinning, as Jazz recovered herself and followed, with a sullen slump to her shoulders that Tucker cheerfully ignored.
"If you're so honest, with such great intentions," Jazz grumbled, with the renewed energy of one who has just remembered an excellent point, "Then what complicated lie did you have to get Lancer to buy so he'd let us use this place?"
Tucker's grin grew a notch, if that was possible. "None," he uttered simply, watching as Jazz's mouth fell open, her eyes widening at the thought of flying so blatantly in the face of authority.
"You don't mean you snuck in here? God, Tucker, you—"
"Of course I didn't sneak in!" Indignation was mixed with the false hurt this time, but Jazz remained unconvinced, piercing him with a hard glare that demanded explanation, and demanded it fast. "I just didn't tell a lie, that's all. I went up to Lancer after school today and told him exactly what I wanted, why I wanted it and what I wanted it for. Didn't leave a single thing out. And he just looked at me for a minute, laughed, and gave me the keys."
He lifted a jangling key ring from his pocket and spun it around on his finger a few times, watching as the shock slowly faded from Jazz's face. Before she could form a more coherent reaction, though, he swung around, clicked the keys into the lock, and swung the classroom door wide open, making sure to frame himself in the doorway so as to give the small crowd inside an excellent view.
Immediate silence fell. But it was the kind of silence that comes when a loud, heated argument is suddenly cut off, and it was the kind of silence that expects to resume that argument in a short time. It was more of a temporary pause of acknowledgement than any lasting calm; that, however, was all Tucker needed. Moving with a determination of purpose that Jazz would have expected more readily from her brother, Tucker abandoned his pose in the doorway and sprang forward into the room, vaulting himself up onto the teacher's desk against the far wall, so that he was looking down into the faces of the Casper High students that immediately flocked around him.
"Good turnout," he called to Jazz before turning his attention to the questions being fired at him by the crowd. Jazz was forced to admit that this much, at least, was true; a cursory glance around the room estimated about twenty students, most of them freshmen, but a few from higher grades. Among their number she saw several faces she recognized, but surprisingly, most the people there she had never seen before.
"Classmates and peers, fellow juvenile delinquents and mischief-makers, lend me your ears!" Tucker trumpeted, calming the frenzied babble of conversation that had struck up again upon his entrance. Immediately the group quieted down again, and Tucker flashed his blazing grin at them before continuing. "Okay, first things first. Who needs an alibi?" A few reluctant hands were raised among the attendant band. "All right, all right, let's see. You two are at the Nasty Burger, you, what was the name of that pen pal you have – Robert? – okay, Robert's in town for the day and you're hanging out with him. You're at my house playing video games. Good? Excellent. And now, to make sure those alibis hold up." He turned to Jazz, beckoning to her over the heads of his fans. "Has your mission been accomplished?"
Finding herself the focus of some twenty-odd stares, Jazz caved and hid her reservations, at least for the time being. "My mission is accomplished," she responded, resisting the urge to snap to attention. "The – package – has been delivered, and, ah – Tuck, you know what I mean."
There was a questioning murmur from the students. Tucker raised his hand in a gesture of reassurance. "Due to reasons that I can't explain, only Jazz and I can know about that part of the plan. But rest assured that this meeting is entirely safe." Official business dispensed with, he waited until the murmur had turned to one of approval, and finally petered off into silence. Cracking his knuckles with a wink in Jazz's direction, he raised his hand again, this time with the air of a maestro ready to conduct his greatest symphony – and with that, the speech began.
"I trust you know why you have been summoned here today?" This was met by a rousing cheer; Tucker waved his hands for silence and plowed on. "Well, I'll tell you anyway. You are the guardians of our sanity, the enforcers of Fate, the people smart and clear-minded enough to know when something has to happen and when it's your job to step in and make it happen! We have a mission, and we cannot fail!" He had taken on a rigid military posture, and abandoned it now, his grin turning rueful. "If we do fail, I think I'll be the first to go insane." His audience laughed appreciatively. "So who's with me?"
The answering cheer was absolutely overwhelming, and Jazz feared for a moment that the sheer volume of the approval Tucker had provoked would knock him backwards off of the desk. The shout subsided into tense murmurings, however, and Tucker prevented such a disaster from occurring by leaping down from the desk onto the floor, with only a final verdict: "The topic is now open for discussion."
The explosion was immediate. The heated argument that had been truncated by Tucker's entrance burst into violent life again, and Jazz could only sigh, leaning against the door so as to keep out of the fracas, watching as factions formed, theories were put forth and hotly debated, and generally all descended into chaos. She shook her head; the answering chuckle came as a slight surprise, so when she turned her head to find Tucker standing next to her, she was unable to regard him with the stern disapproval she felt he deserved.
"So," he began immediately, cutting off the rebuke on the tip of her tongue. "Tell me about your part of the mission. You didn't fail me, did you?"
For the first time, Jazz allowed a hint of a smile to touch her lips as she slumped against the wall in a gesture, not of approval, but of resignation. "Of course I didn't fail you. Danny and Sam are off in the Ghost Zone, just like I promised they would be. Chasing down the source of a massive spike of ectoplasmic energy."
Tucker shot her a sidelong glance, the immortal grin returning. "And what is the source of the massive spike of ectoplasmic energy?"
"A Fenton Flare. Time-release. Goes off about every twenty minutes, and programmed to zigzag through the Ghost Zone like a maniac spirit for hours. Perfectly tuned into the Specter Speeder's scanners, of course." Her smile grew more pronounced. "Now who's the one with little faith?"
"I concede. You are a brilliant mastermind."
"Ah – I've saved the best for last. I've even convinced my parents to move their equipment in need of repair to the living room, blocking the only escape."
For the first time the grin faded from Tucker's face, his brow wrinkling in thought, eyes clouding with sudden complications. "But, Jazz, that might not work. Even with Sam there, he could phase out."
"But he won't. My parents know he's down there, and are expecting him for dinner. In fact, unless I'm sorely mistaken, they're taking him into their clutches –" she glanced down at her watch and allowed her mischievous grin to become truly evil "—right about now."
"Ha! Brilliant!" Tucker whooped, and for a moment she stared at him, bemused, afraid he was going to hug her. "No, not brilliant. Jasmine Fenton, you're a genius!" he burst out laughing, then settled back against he wall again, watching the chaos with the contented smile of a man enjoying the effects of a whirlwind he has unleashed.
Jazz echoed his gesture, her expression turning from one of wicked scheming to one of amusement. "Stop calling me by my full name. And speaking of genius, it looks like there's a co-conspirator in need of your advice over there."
"A what?" the unsuspecting techno-geek turned to follow the direction she had pointed, glancing through the heart of the milling crowd only to find himself face-to-face with –
Tucker gaped, gasped, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, blinked, and gaped again; but the portrait before his eyes did not change. It was still arrogantly and unmistakably Paulina, the duchess of divas, the princess of pastel colors and flawless skin. Tucker felt his jaw begin to slide open out of long-standing habit; it was only by reminding himself forcefully that there was more important business to be taken care of that he managed to lock his eyes on her face and nowhere else.
"P-Paulina." His mouth was suddenly dry, and he found himself stumbling over the simple words. "I d-didn't expect to see you here. I didn't know you knew about it."
"Oh, please." she had been filing her nails, and now flicked the file in a gesture of dismissal, as though all the world was beneath her and it was demeaningly below her station to even acknowledge him at all. He noticed, with an almost audible whimper, Dash moving up behind her, the muscular guard of honor. "I know everything that happens at this miserable little school," Paulina sighed, and even the complaint had something musical about it. Tucker mentally slapped himself, berating himself silently to get it together; he had a monumental challenge to solve.
"Well, I certainly didn't expect you to show up." Speech was coming easier, at least. "I can't think of any reason why you'd be interested at all."
She shrugged. "I had nothing better to do. Besides, if you do what you say you're going to do," here the file moved in a gesture that brought to mind the slashing of a guillotine, and Dash flexed his arms with an almost imperceptible convulsion of the shoulders, "Then it'll at least get the little Fenton dweeb to stop drooling over me. He's such an embarrassment." She huffed, and Dash responded with a low chuckle. The slight to his friend, and the quarterback's troglodytic laughter, snapped Tucker completely back to himself; Paulina was quite possibly a venom-spitting demon from another dimension, she was the undisputed enemy of the losers like Sam, Danny, and himself – but with her came influence, power, hordes of muscular boys and manipulative girls ready to do her bidding. Tucker's eyes narrowed in calculation.
"Well, thanks for coming," he said finally, breaking out into a grin and perhaps bowing ever so slightly. "We're thrilled to have you aboard. You'll be an excellent help to the cause."
"Whatever." She had immediately returned to the absorbing task of filing her nails, and her only response was to shrug one pink-clad shoulder in the direction of the abandoned teacher's desk, and with that minuscule movement force him to tear his gaze away from her and glance in the direction she had indicated. "All these losers arguing isn't going to get us anywhere. You're the one who called this stupid meeting, get up there and get something done."
The authoritative tone to the message was clear; he had been given an order by a queen, and dared disobey it only at great risk to life and limb. Tucker Foley had never been one to recklessly endanger his own life, or limbs for that matter, and so turned to push his way through the crowd without another word, resisting the urge to walk away backwards, bowing.
The press of students parted easily for him, and when he regained his soapbox atop the teacher's desk, it was to face a willing audience that became silent almost immediately, giving him control without a word, and nearly with a sigh of relief. He had been, he realized suddenly, the unacknowledged leader all along; the arguing had only been a device to take up time until he returned to give orders, perhaps lay out some kind of comprehensive battle plan. The thought made him smile, but at the same time he felt compelled to straighten his spine, looking down consideringly at his followers, in his mind already dubbing himself the general of a Great Crusade.
"Ideas," he snapped out, his military fantasies overwhelming him, turning long and complex entreaties into one-word suppositions, demands. "Theories, schemes, plots, conspiracies! Come on, people, we've got work to do! We've got to get Danny and Sam hooked up, and I can't do it alone!"
"Internet," someone called from the back of the crowd. "Instant Messenger, that way they don't know who they're talking to."
Tucker shook his head at the murmur of approval that answered this assertion. "No way. They know each other's screennames, and even if we could get around that, they know each other too well. They'd figure it out in five seconds. Anything else?"
There was a moment of restless murmuring; then someone Tucker didn't recognize suddenly pushed his way through the classroom, climbing up onto an empty desk until he faced the other boy over the heads of the crowd. "Hey, wait a minute," the stranger shouted. "What the hell do you think you're doing? How do you know this is even going to work? I came to this meeting because I heard it was about something important, not about something stupid like this! How do you know you're not wrong?"
"An excellent question." The crowd had responded to the stranger's provocation with a rustle of uneasiness, and Tucker turned back to face them, his grin not flickering for an instant. Jazz, still watching from the sidelines, was forced to admire his showmanship, if nothing else. "Allow me to explain. First of all, I can tell you for sure that this will work because Danny and Sam have both confessed to me, independently and repeatedly, what they think they're feeling and why they don't think they should be feeling it. I've been over it and over it with both of them at different times until I'm sick of it. At this rate, I'll have my life's work cut out for me; I'll be a psychologist for those entangled in hopeless causes." This was met with a ripple of laughter, but Tucker wasn't finished yet. "But you don't have to take my word for it. I have here a very reliable witness who has a little story to tell us all." He turned, bowed, and extended his hand towards the crowd. "Valerie, if you please?"
Ignoring the outstretched hand, Valerie Grey clambered up onto the desk to stand beside Tucker, to a smattering of applause. Tucker inclined his head, and she smiled briefly at him before turning to recite the story that had started out as rumor and become legend; that of the fake-out make-out in the park. Of course, Tucker noted a few missing details; she failed to mention the fact that she had been masquerading as a raging ghost-hunter, and that she had almost impaled Danny a few moments before. But the story had the desired effect. Tucker's challenger retreated, and the group of students was jostling and laughing again, ready to tackle the forces of the universe in defense of their cause.
Valerie finished to a larger round of applause, and stepped down. Tucker leaped up to replace her, smiling down at her and already designating her to be his lieutenant. Something in her answering smile resembled a salute; she knew what he was thinking, and accepted the post with honor.
"So you see," Tucker continued, "I'm not making any wild guesses in the dark. But you don't have to listen to either one of us; you've seen it for yourselves!" This was met with a rousing cheer, and Tucker raised his hands for silence. "That's enough of that; come on, people, talk to me! Danny and Sam love each other, we know that, and we're sick of them beating around the bush, for their sake and ours. So what are we going to do about it?"
"Hey, Jazz!" someone called. Shocked out of contemplation by the sound of her name, Jazz jerked upright, scanning the crowd, her brow furrowed in confusion. "Your parents hunt ghosts, don't they? Well, what about some kind of staged ghost attack? Life-threatening situation, you know?"
Tucker almost laughed, and he could see that Jazz was suppressing a similar burst of merriment. He only shook his head; he didn't bother to explain that life-threatening situations were a dime a dozen for Danny, that Danny and Sam were put through several real ghost attacks a week and, so far, nothing had come of it. Instead, he only grunted "Too risky," and pointed to the next hand that was raised.
"Blind date?" someone called, and the response that stirred from the students was unmistakably one of approval. It was an excellent idea; very little risk (besides the risk to Tucker's life if Danny and Sam found out he had orchestrated it), awkward enough to force a confession from one or both, not hard at all to arrange…
"What do you think, Jazz?" he called over the noise of the crowd. He was already beginning to think of her as his Intelligence force, Valerie as his second-in-command, the students as the troops put at his command. An idle part of his mind was sorting through code-names, planning military maneuvers through the halls of Casper High.
"Do you really want to know what I think?" Jazz answered back, and Tucker noticed with a faint surprise that she looked upset, no longer either relaxed or resigned. She began to move across the room towards him, the crowd parting for her as it had for Tucker and Valerie, and by the time she reached the desk and climbed up to stand next to Tucker, a buzz of questions had arisen in the room. Jazz cleared her throat, and instantly silence fell.
"Listen to me," she said simply. "I've known Danny his entire life, and I've known Sam for most of her life, too. I've seen them grow up together, I've seen the way they act around each other for at least ten years now. Not to mention I'm training to be a psychologist. All of you are right; they love each other, they belong together. You can all see it; hell, I can see it best of all. But this – this plotting and scheming isn't going to do anything." The murmur grew louder, and Jazz raised her voice to drown it out. "This is supposed to happen, and trust me, it will. But if you force them before they're both good and ready – all that'll do is push them into something they don't want yet, it'll possibly ruin their whole developmental paths, and lead to them breaking up inside of a week. They will always be together, unless you force them together, and thereby force them apart. It is meant to happen, and it will happen, on its own. You're making this whole issue more complicated than it is. Danny and Sam are utter simplicity. Give them time, and I bet things will turn out better in the end."
The crowd was silent. Jazz turned away, face flushed, unwilling to look into their faces; but Tucker, incorrigible Tucker, leaped in to fill the gap, shouting into the silence that had followed her speech; "That's an excellent bet! Five bucks says inside of two years! Do I have any takers?"
The clamor started up again, and the frenzy of dollar bills waving frantically in the air allowed Jazz to slip away, almost unnoticed, and press her back to the wall again, her head down. Tucker held his ground against the sudden shouting, pressing a nearby nerd into service as a scribe, haggling odds and rates with the glib quickness of an auctioneer, naming time limits that stretched from two months to twenty years. But Jazz's speech had ended his military career, and he knew it, funneling those whose bets he had already collected out the door, letting the raucous laughter and excited jeering diffuse itself throughout the school; until finally, the last of the would-be conspirators had handed over their allowance, the nerd had relinquished the hastily-written records and fled, and Tucker and Jazz were left alone in the classroom. Silence fell; but Tucker noted with a lopsided grin that it was the kind of tarnished silence that follows a buffalo stampede.
"That was an excellent idea," he chuckled, flipping through the wad of bills he clutched in one fist. "I didn't think to turn this into a betting pool, but now that I do think of it, it's a nice way to make a pretty penny. Ipod Nano Mach 5, here I come." Pocketing the wad of cash, he trotted over to where Jazz still slumped against the wall. "You really think that's the way things will go?"
"I know that's the way things will go," she replied absently. "Meddling won't do anyone any good. Especially Danny; imagine if one of your little crusaders went spying on him and learned his secret!" This was met with a guilty smile and a shrug; realizing the futility of trying to guilt Tucker into (or out of) anything, Jazz didn't bother to look at him, only staring thoughtfully into space.
"Well, maybe you're right. But still, I was looking forward to this. I was going to finally do something worthwhile for once, something that not even Ghost-Boy can do. Why'd you have to spoil my fun?"
Jazz's gaze returned from whatever veil of time she had penetrated and seen beyond, and she grinned. "I did ruin your plots, didn't I? Oh well, you'll get well-paid as compensation. In fact, put me down for twenty bucks. Sophomore year of college."
"That can't be legal, that's got to be insider trading or something," Tucker whined, but jotted down the information and accepted the crinkled twenty with a smile on his face.
Jazz shrugged. "How can it be? I'm betting on the inevitable. On Fate."
Tucker grinned, and leaped to hold the door open, following her out into the hallway. The setting sun struck him in the eyes, and he chuckled to think that Danny and Sam were together alone, soaring through infinity in the closed confines of the Specter Speeder, oblivious that their friends were debating the indisputable truth, the utter simplicity, that they already knew. "And now, all we have to do is wait."