A/N: All I've got to say right now is that the reason why this chapter is a week late is 'cause I'm selfish. Sorry. I didn't want to give up this fan fiction so soon, so I hoarded the last chapter until finally deciding that I needed to let it go and be free. Goodness. This is hard. By the way, I'm still trying to answer reviews, and I'll answer all reviews from this chapter. Now, finally, enjoy the last chapter my wonderful readers!
Disclaimer: Never gets old. I don't own the Danny Phantom characters, folks.
Previously in Incommunicado: After defeating and freezing Vlad, Taj and Danny went back to the ranch house, only to find Toushiro captured by Diego and his gang. After a moment of finagling, Danny and Diego came to an agreement of settling their issues. The two say farewell to each other on good terms before Toushiro, Taj, and Danny head out for the capital, Quito.
Chapter 34 Moving Forward
It was a long and tiring journey getting back to the States, but at least we made it. Along the way we got Taj to a hospital to fix up his ankle and look into my cracked ribs. Taj left with a wrapped foot and crutches that we had to force him to use; I left with a free lollipop. Ended up my ghost powers took care of my ribs quickly, leaving my side a little sore for a few days but nothing more. It was the same with the cuts and scars. They vanished in due time.
The only injury that stuck with me was a light scar on my wrist from where I wrenched off the watch. It was a constant, bitter reminder of what had happened in Ecuador and what I'd gone through. I tried to ignore it, but sometimes I'd glance at it and be reminded of that horrible nightmare of being branded by Vlad. Every time that happened, the surprise would hit me so hard I'd have a cool shiver slither down my spine. Sometimes I couldn't help but feel I was branded by the man, not only physically but mentally as well. Couldn't lie to myself. Vlad had left his mark on me. Forever I'd be changed because of him. For better or worse? I couldn't tell at that moment. I just had to keep moving forward.
Once we made it back to the States, it was finally time for the trio to break up. Toushiro needed to get back to Japan and tell his boss about what happened with Taj and the group he was with. He also wanted to get back with his family that he missed and who needed him. I had to quickly fly back to Vlad's mansion as soon as possible because my parents were expected there the next day. Taj told us he needed to lay low for a few more months by himself and that he wanted to tie up some loose ends...whatever that meant.
That's how we all ended up at a train station in Georgia. For the most part the platform was deserted. A few stragglers were sitting on benches that were dotted around the concrete slab, waiting mutely for the next train. It was a beautiful summer day. You know how they are: blue skies, perfect temperature, sweet and mild breeze.
Taj seemed so out of place as he glanced timidly ahead along the empty train tracks. He fidgeted with his ticket, looking sad yet relieved at the same time. I had a vision of Taj taking many trains with that old nervous, forlorn look in his eyes. That look was gone now. I hadn't been the only one to change. Taj had grown too.
"Don't look so depressed, kid," Toushiro assured Taj as we joined him on the platform. "You'll be fine. You got your entire future ahead of you!"
"I know," Taj admitted with a shy smile. "It's just new. Very new. I've always had dark powers...ever since I was born. For as long as I can remember I've been on the run. Now those powers are gone and I won't have to run anymore. I never anticipated that."
"That's hard to believe," I muttered teasingly.
Toushiro laughed at the pretend glare Taj shot me. Quickly, though, he adopted a more serious face as he kneeled down to be at Taj's eye level. Fishing into his back pocket for his wallet, Toushiro told Taj, "Before you go, Taj, I want to tell you that I'm really glad to have met you. Like Danny over here, you're a good kid. I'm happy that you've been given this chance to start over, and I hope it takes you places. But to get you started, I want to help you out financially. You have a problem with that?"
Taj was speechless when Toushiro placed a debit card in the boy's hand. I don't think he had ever handled one before. He held it like it was a foreign alien specimen he didn't know exactly what to do with.
"That debit card should provide lodging, food, and clothing for you for a few weeks to help you get settled somewhere," Toushiro continued as Taj gaped like a goldfish. "Don't worry about using it all. My family is well off, and this is the least I could do to repay you for all the trouble my men and I put you through lately. I trust you to use it wisely. You're responsible."
"I wonder what it would take for you to give me one of those too," I said jokingly.
"You don't need one."
"I could need one someday."
"You're not getting one, Danny."
"That's crap," I muttered with a grin.
Shaking his head in amusement, Toushiro returned his attention to Taj who was finally snapping out of his shock. The teen sniffed, trying to hide the fact that he was about to cry with gratefulness, as he told Toushiro in a wavering voice, "Thank you so much, Toushiro. This...this means so much. Thank you."
"No problem, kid," Toushiro said with a giant smile. The two gave each other a quick, awkward hug because of the crutches getting in the way. Standing back up to his full height, Toushiro glanced over to me, catching my look and its meaning. Like a natural, he told us, "Hey, how about I go get us all some food before you go? I'll be back soon." That said, Toushiro left us alone with his hands placed casually in his pockets.
"You know, you're welcome to visit me in Amity Park whenever you feel like," I told Taj. "You could even stay at my house. I could tell my parents we're pen-palls or something lame like that. They trust me more than they should."
"Thanks for the offer, but for the next few months I think I should lay low. Maybe I'll visit after all of this has blown over," Taj said. "And no offense, but I don't want to visit the same town Vlad Masters runs. I have a feeling he doesn't like me very much."
"Really? What makes you say that?" I said sarcastically. "Seriously, though, what are you going to do now?"
"What I've wanted but dreaded to do for years," Taj answered somberly. "I'm going to go visit my mom."
"Wow," I said, taken aback a little. "That's big. You sure you don't need help with that?"
Releasing a heavy sigh, Taj said, "I'm sure. I have to do this myself." After a short pause, he added with a weak smile, "And I want to visit Julie. I want to see her in real life for once."
"Sweet!" I exclaimed. "Say hi to her for me when you see her. Without her help, I'm not sure where we would be now."
"I will," Taj said. "Also, I want to settle down somewhere. I want to rent an actual apartment for once and have a real home. I'm going to get a real paying job, make money, and maybe even go to school. It's all so odd. I never dreamed of ever living a normal life. I'm almost in denial. I think I'm just in shock."
Laughing because he sounded exactly like me the night before, I told Taj, "Dude, it's the shock, but it will go away eventually. I know what you're going through. I still can't believe I actually survived and beat Vlad."
"What are you going to do about him?" Taj asked, anxiety suddenly flooding his features.
"Don't worry," I assured him. "Trust me, I'm not done with Vlad yet. But when I am, he won't be going after you anymore. Count on it. And if he does, then he's more a fruitloop than I thought."
There was a heavy pause between us as we came upon the inevitable: our goodbyes.
Taj seemed to be searching for words as his eyes lowered to the ground. I had no clue what to say. I felt so lame. All of the sudden, I wasn't quite sure what to do with my arms; they felt stupid and awkward. With horrible realization, it just then dawned on me that it was going to be a long time before I was going to see Taj again. Also, I was really, really going to miss him. Taj had become one of my best friends. I enjoyed his company more than I had realized it. Letting him leave so suddenly left me terribly sad inside.
Couldn't believe it when tears prickled my eyes. I could not cry! Especially after all the crap I just gone through; this was nothing compared to it. It was so dumb!
"Danny," Taj finally said. Smiling meekly, he looked up into my face. "I...I don't know what to say. You-you're my best friend. I don't really want to l-leave, but I think I should. B-but we'll see each other s-some day. R-right?"
"I'll always be in Amity Park," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. Though it was annoying, I was gonna miss his nervous stuttering. "You know where to find me." Taj grinned, but I still added with a sniff, "Taj, I'm...I'm really gonna miss you."
Finally, I just decided to screw it. "Jeez, I feel like such a baby! Why does this always seem to happen around you? I swear I never do this around my other friends as much!" I said while wiping a tear away. "Why the heck am I crying? You're rubbing off on me, dude! You should go before I start sobbing or something equally ridiculous."
Wiping his own tears out of his eyes with the back of his hand, Taj laughed a little. As if thinking it the same time, Taj and I went to hug each other. I must have looked like a complete retard when all I managed to wrap my arms around was air and stumble into nothing. Taj had vanished.
Standing alone on the platform, I blinked in surprise before sighing in aggravation. "I hate that stupid power of his," I complained in a grumble while folding my arms across my chest in a pout. "So untimely all the freaking time. Hope this trip to the future doesn't take long."
A minute later, Toushiro showed up with some soft pretzels. He strolled up beside me as he munched on his meal, looking around in wonder. "Where did Taj go?" he asked, handing me a pretzel. He noticed my sour look and added, "And why do you look so unhappy?"
"Taj just vanished...again," I explained, indicating with a sweep of my hand where Taj used to be standing. Shoving the food into my mouth, I continued, "He's been in the future for two minutes now. I hope he's okay." Before I even thought about it, I muttered, "I wish I could have gone with him."
Toushiro studied me for a moment before asking, "Do you really mean that?" Taj and I had told Toushiro recently where Taj went when he teleported, so he knew about the zombie future and knew about my hard times there.
"Yeah," I answered truthfully. "It's not so bad when you're with someone; when you're with Taj, I guess. I just hate leaving him so suddenly, you know?"
"Like you said the other night," Toushiro assured me, "Taj can handle himself. He wants to be alone for awhile. You should respect that. He'll be fine. And don't worry. You'll see him again someday."
"I know," I sighed, nodding glumly. "Still, it kinda sucks."
"Well, Taj better get back here soon," Toushiro said, leaning forward for a better view of the tracks. "His train is almost here. How long has he been gone?"
"About six minutes now; six hours for him," I answered grimly.
It wasn't until the train was just slowing down at the platform that Taj reappeared. Toushiro jumped back, startled by the suddenness of Taj's magical appearing act. Seemingly frozen in place, Taj looked unblinkingly around for a second in bewilderment before relaxing. Soon as he caught his bearings, the teen broke out into a smile that consumed his entire face.
"Danny!" Taj shouted in excitement, turning toward me. "The future! It-it changed!"
"I thought that was the point of throwing the orb in the volcano in the first place," Toushiro pointed out with a wry smile.
"I know, b-but I didn't know it would be so...so drastic!" Taj exclaimed, wide eyes full of untold wonder. Focusing on me again, Taj told me in a thrilling rush, "There are no more zombies, Danny! None! I couldn't believe it at first."
"An-and there are buildings that are...I can't even describe them! And the cars! Well, they're not like cars you see now," Taj went on, oblivious to my interruption.
"But you'll have to see it for yourself to believe it. I spent at least three hours just gawking and exploring!"
"There's so much! So much to do! It's amazing, really!"
"W-what? What's the matter?"
"Your train!" I yelled, trying to knock some sense into my friend. Pointing to the stationed train, I told Taj, "It's here! And if you don't get on soon, you'll miss it and be late. You hear me?"
"Oh," Taj muttered as present reality hit him. He thought for a moment before saying, "But...the future...you...I-."
Grinning and shaking my head in amused frustration, I demanded a pen from Toushiro, used my greasy napkin from the pretzel to scribble a few addresses, and shoved both napkin and extra pretzel into Taj's arms. "That napkin has my home address and my email. Tell me everything later. Right now you have a train to catch and a mom to talk to. That's more important than chatting it up with me."
"Then what's the pretzel for?" Taj asked, flustered from so much exhilaration.
"For eating," I answered flatly.
"Oh. That would make sense, wouldn't it?"
"Don't just stand there, dude!" I laughed at my friend. Pushing him toward the train's entrance, I ordered, "Move! The train is about to leave. Go!"
"R-right!" Taj said, hurriedly jumping through the train's open doors. He turned around once inside and cumbersomely waved goodbye with all his things in hand. "I'll write!" he promised with a beaming smile. "And thank you! Both of you! For everything!" I'd never seen him so overwhelmingly happy. It was actually pretty hilarious.
Toushiro and I waved back and watched with chuckles as Taj kept talking even when the door closed on his face and we weren't able to hear him anymore. We kept waving until the train started up and sped away. Sighing dejectedly, I watched as the train traveled away into the distance until it finally disappeared for good.
When Toushiro placed his hand of console on my shoulder, I glanced up at him with a weak smile. There went one of my best companions. Now I had to say goodbye to a second. This was gonna really suck.
"Don't give me that hopeless look. You'll be fine too, kiddo," Toushiro said with a soft laugh, ruffling my hair. "Just promise me you won't get kidnapped by Masters again. The next time we meet, I don't want it to be me having to rescue your butt. Got that?"
"Sure. Got it," I chuckled.
Pressing my lips together, I tried thinking of words to describe what I was feeling. Nothing came to mind, though. Nothing would portray exactly how I felt at that moment. Giving up on words and going with actions, I surged forward and wrapped my arms tightly around Toushiro's chest. He stumbled back in surprise at first, but he soon hugged me back. "I'm really going to miss you, Toushiro," I whispered.
"Same here, Danny," Toushiro said gently. Stepping away from each other, he told me, "I know this might sound odd, but you're like a son to me."
"You're like the cool uncle I never had," I said, grinning. Toushiro laughed at this, but I soon added, "Seriously, dude! You're the only human I've seen stand up to Vlad with nothing but knives, inflict damage on him, and survive with hardly a scratch. That has to count for something. And you've always been so supportive of me."
"Well, when you say it like that, it makes me seem like a superhero or something," Toushiro said, adopting a proud, heroic pose with his hands on his hips.
"It does," I pointed out. Handing him back his pen, I pulled together enough courage to finally ask him, "Can I have your autograph?"
Laughing, he asked skeptically, "Are you serious?"
Taken aback for a moment, Toushiro stared at me blankly. Then, with a chuckle, he shrugged, took the pen, and said happily, "What the hell? It's the least I could do." He scribbled out his name on an extra clean napkin in both English and in Japanese before handing it to me.
"You should frame it."
"Oh, I will."
"Good. Now where's mine?"
"I want my own autograph, kid, so whenever I need some extra cash I can just sell it on eBay. You'll be so famous in a few years, I might even become a millionaire with it!"
"Nice," I chuckled as I scratched out my superhero name on the last napkin. "It's not very pretty," I observed aloud as I handed the paper over to Toushiro. "I don't sign things often."
He glanced at it, smiled, and told me as he carefully folded and put the napkin in his pocket, "It's perfect." Gripping my shoulder, he told me seriously, "Keep moving forward, Danny. Don't ever give up. I don't need to transport into the future like Taj to know you're going to go far. You've already done so much."
All I could muster through a clog of emotions was a pathetic, "Thanks, Toushiro."
Saying goodbye to Toushiro was the hardest goodbye I'd ever experienced.
Vlad's creepy big mansion was dark, cold, and unfeeling when the main entrance door swung open late that night. With lethargic, tired movements, Vlad twisted his keys out of the lock and pocketed them with a sigh. He quietly closed the door, ran a hand through his silver hair, and trudged with heavy suitcases in hand into his Packers decorated foyer. Obviously, the man had had a long, strenuous day. With a wince, he rubbed his sore neck after putting down his bags and moved toward a set of light switches on a nearby wall.
Before he got there, I took the initiative and flicked the lights on for him. Vlad froze, frown of disgust caught on his lips, but he wasn't surprised to see me.
In a split second, Vlad turned ghost. Only a step behind him, I lunged forward with one of Vlad's own inventions in hand. The Plasmius Maximus's two prongs hit Vlad right in the chest, instantly zapping the man and shorting out his ghost powers. Vlad gave a frustrated growl as he was forced back into human form and rendered useless for the next three hours.
With a grunt, I swung the device hard against the wall, destroying it in one powerful blow. With a sick wrench and twist of metals, the invention crumbled into dented pieces. Wires sputtered with dying life from the few forced cracks as I threw it aside. No way was I gonna keep that thing around with Vlad right next to me. Didn't want it getting used on me again. It would have ruined everything if I couldn't turn ghost at the moment.
"You really should put better security in your basement's lab," I told Vlad. "Anyone could get in there and use your stuff."
"What do you want, Daniel?" Vlad asked me evenly. Though his voice was calm, his fighting stance was tense and defensive. He was wary of me. Good.
"We're gonna have a little talk," I told him sternly. "A talk about us."
"Oh, please," Vlad scoffed, relaxing a bit as he flashed me a mocking smile. "Don't try to pretend to be in control, boy. You may have just won, but you know whatever you do to me now I'll only return to you ten fold when I'm stronger. And let's face it, Daniel, you won't kill me. Not at the moment, at least. Now, I'm tired. I'm going to bed. You should do the same."
In a flash of bright rings, I turned ghost, phased through Vlad's hand he brought up to block me, and captured in a firm grip a handful of the front of his shirt. In one swift, strong movement, I whipped Vlad up and around before slamming him hard into the wall and pinned him there. Vlad winced at the harsh impact, and the glare he stuck me with would have chilled my blood if I wasn't prepared to combat it with a flinty one of my own.
"No more smooth talk, Vlad," I growled into his face. "I'm not taking your crap anymore. Got that, dude? We're through. Permanently. Sure, go ahead and keep being your evil villain self all you want, but get the stupid notion out of your head that I will ever be yours."
"This is all very big talk, dear boy, but can you back up anything that your saying?" Vlad asked me with a degrading kind of smirk. He was trying to piss me off. I didn't take the bait. "Because this is all rather frivolous if you don't."
"If you come after me, my family, my friends, or anyone to get to me ever again, I won't only expose your ghost identity to the world," I seethed threateningly, "I'll destroy you. All your pride, money, fame. I don't freaking care. Everything you treasure I'll eliminate until you have absolutely nothing left. Doesn't matter how long it takes. I'll bring you down. I'm serious, and you damn well know I mean it this time. I pulled the trigger once, and you know I'm capable of hurting you again. I'm not afraid to wipe you out of my life completely. Hell, I probably should do it all now, but I'm not like you. I don't go around ruining people's lives for my own benefit just because I can. So this is my first and only warning, Vlad: stay away from me."
Vlad stared down at me, his face expressionless to hide his true feelings. I sensed he was taking my words in as he studied me with narrowed eyes. This time, though, I didn't feel like a pawn in his calculating gaze. Vlad was observing me for the first time as if I was an actual opponent, an equally dangerous person as himself who he couldn't quite figure out. It bothered him. A lot. He hated not knowing what I was or how I would behave. Being quick, smart, and an evil genius was what he was known for and took great pride in. This being in the dark thing was new and annoying to him. It almost made him angry.
"I understand, Daniel," Vlad finally said, voice calm but cold.
"I don't freaking care if you understand or not," I spat back curtly. "I just want you to back off. I'm not your cute science experiment, your clone, your fun pet, your chess opponent, your son, or your piece of shitty artwork who you can mold into whatever you want. I'm my own person, and if you try to take that away from me again, I won't hold back on you anymore. So stay away. Are you going to do that?"
Lips pressing into a tight, pensive frown, Vlad glared at me for another moment before answering with frigid formality, "Let me think about it."
I had wanted and expected either a yes or no answer. Eyebrows raising in surprise, I realized that my ultimatum wasn't something Vlad could ponder through in only five minutes. Pursuing, molding, and manipulating me into his ideal sidekick/clone of some kind was something Vlad had devoted countless hours to. To decide to stop such behavior in a split second would be too drastic and out of character. Though I didn't like it, I knew Vlad needed time to mull it over. At least he was considering what I'd said. That small fact gave me hope.
"Okay," I said lamely. "You think about it."
"Now put me down," Vlad demanded.
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry," I mumbled, suddenly losing my imposing and stern attitude. Letting up on my hold, I let him gently slide down the wall until he was back on his feet. Quickly, as if expecting him to lash out at me, I stepped away from him to give the man his space. Steely eyes keeping themselves on me, Vlad straightened his clothing and brushed off invisible dust patches on his clothes as I uncomfortably rubbed the back of my neck.
"You should stop using that word," Vlad muttered, watching me carefully.
"Hm? What word?"
"Apologizing only makes you look weak. It's not helping your case right now."
Closing my eyes, I gave a depressing sigh. The man could be such a stubborn baby. Putting my hands on my hips, I told Vlad tiredly, "My parents are coming over for dinner tomorrow. Be ready for them by 5. Our cover story for being all incommunicado is a crashed reception tower and that we've been too busy to notice."
The only display of being impressed was a slight, subtle raise of Vlad's eyebrows. His eyes raked over me, his thoughts and mood secret. Though I was starting to figure him out, I could never quite read Vlad fully. Some small part of him would always remain a mystery to me.
"Very well, Daniel," Vlad said quietly, giving a small nod.
We fell into another unpleasant silence, not knowing what to say or do next. Nodding back to my enemy, I decided to leave him be by flying up through the ceiling and returning to my room. Settling on my comfy bed and turning back into my human form, I chewed anxiously on the inside my mouth while staring outside my dark window. As I sat, I thought about everything that had happened, all the good and painful memories of Japan and Ecuador that had brought me up to that point. Everything needed to be processed and remembered to a certain extent, and it was something to do while I watched and waited for the sun to finally rise.
I didn't sleep a wink that night.
The next day, I got up and made my own breakfast for myself in the dreadfully quiet house. Didn't hear a peep from Vlad. He was probably still sleeping all the way into the afternoon. I would have been doing the same, but it wasn't worth it to let my guard down. For all I knew, Vlad could be plotting something diabolical in his basement all day. I wouldn't know. So I stayed quiet and stuck to myself until my parents showed up.
Vlad and I were on our best behavior when mom and dad dropped in. They wore tans and smiles as they greeted us at the main entrance. Dad went on and on about all the ghosts they caught on the beaches at night, and mom shared a few details about having some time to finally relax and have a bit of vacation in the surf and sun. I was happy for them but also pretty jealous. When was the last time I got a real vacation?
Not so surprisingly, Vlad had fabricated brilliant lies and excuses for my parents' many pressing questions about not answering their messages and for ignoring them for a full two weeks. As if we were long time partners in deceit, I naturally went along with him and came up with my own convincing stories to placate the adults. My parents were easy ones to fool. Dad trusted and respected Vlad too much, and mom was too preoccupied with her recent work and vacation to pick up on a few hints of deception.
Although we worked and laughed together during the entire meal, Vlad and I never spoke directly to each other. It was just one false smile, nod, or look here and there as we ate our food. Near the end, I just couldn't take it anymore. I hated lying so much as if it was no big deal, especially to my parents. I needed a break. Some fresh air.
Hiding my disconcerted attitude, I excused myself by declaring I still needed to pack...which was actually true. Instead of going to my room, though, I went all the way up to the roof. I arrived just as the sun was beginning its grand descent. Exploding with a sigh, I plopped myself down on the edge and dangled my feet over the side like I had done just two weeks before.
So much had changed since then. Almost too much. And no matter what I did, I could never make it change back. I could never go back to how I was before. It almost scared me, yet at the same time it was exhilarating and exciting. So much was on my horizon! I just had to be bold enough to reach out and take it.
"Care for some dessert?"
I gave a small start. Like a stealthy ninja, Vlad has snuck up behind me. Turning my head, I saw the man standing there with two plates topped with pieces of expensive and richly dark chocolate cake. Offering a calm smile, Vlad waited patiently for my answer.
"Did you poison it?" I asked doubtfully, inclining my head to get a better look. I really wanted that cake.
"The thought of pulling that trick on you again did cross my mind, I admit, but I assure you it's safe."
"Then I accept your offer of deliciousness!"
Handing me the plate, Vlad added with a snarky smile, "Besides, the ploy was getting rather old. You always fall for it."
"Oh, you're so funny," I sneered teasingly before taking a giant bite of cake. Dang, it was good! The fruitloop had one heck of a chief working for him! Patting the space next to me, I told him with my mouth full, "Park it here, V-man."
Vlad joined me on the roof's ledge before taking a quick bite of his own piece of cake. For a nice, peaceful moment, the both of us didn't talk or think about each other as we watched the sun slowly dip into the horizon, splashing colors of pink and purple into the sky. It was a rare moment (and it wouldn't last long), but I would always remember how it felt to be sitting next to the man that quiet afternoon eating cake.
"You've done a lot of thinking lately, haven't you?" Vlad finally stated without glancing at me.
"Yeah. I hope you have too."
"So what's your answer?"
Vlad paused, an inscrutable frown on his face. He set his plate of finished cake down beside him, leaned back on the palms of his hands, and then finally looked at me. I watched him as he told me seriously, "You do know this deal of yours only applies if you remain a superhero, don't you? You'll have to be on your guard constantly." Pointing at me, Vlad said with all honestly, "Because the moment you stumble, act up, or do something wrong in the slightest bit, I'll see that you're corruptible. I'll see that you really can be changed and molded into the person you most fear right now."
"That's not fair," I growled. "You're demanding me to be perfect. Nobody is perfect, Vlad. You should know that by now."
"I don't expect you to be," Vlad said, intelligent eyes cutting through me and my sarcastic comment. "But I do expect you to uphold every weak, childish moral you believe so dearly in as you continue to be a superhero. Know that I'll be watching your every move. I'll be your hardest critic. Because the moment Danny Phantom makes a wrong step or a single immoral turn, our deal is off. Those are the conditions I demand if you want me to accept your offer. Understand?"
Glaring out over the landscape, I processed Vlad's terms and conditions. They were pretty steep. As a superhero, I'd have to come off as perfect. Then again, Vlad wasn't saying I had to win or save the day all the time. He was telling me I'd have to uphold my own ethics and morals while I fought the good fight. Running a hand through my hair, I begrudgingly saw that I it was better this way. Though he knew it or now, Vlad was going to keep me in check and in balance. Vlad was going to harshly keep me accountable for all my superhero actions. Still, wasn't like I could keep it up forever. I was still human...or part human or whatever. I was bound to make a mistake and slip up.
"You do know that your conditions makes it impossible for the deal to hold up forever," I pointed out, turning my eyes back to Vlad.
Placing his fingertips together, Vlad leaned forward and told me as if he was some all-knowing professor, "Think of the deal as more like a terms of temporary truce. You remain moral, I'll remain distant in your life; you break your own code, I'm free to bring your life into my future planning."
"You make it sound so simple," I grumbled sourly.
Vlad shrugged, going back to watching the sunset with an impassive, unreadable expression. "It's your choice," he said casually. Which meant I didn't have much of a choice. It was either include his crazy demands to the deal or go all the way back to square one. No way was I gonna let the latter happen. Not after all the crap I went through to establish some sort of freedom and safety in my life.
"Alright," I sighed. Returning my gaze to the blazing horizon, I felt a weight lift off my chest, followed by a rush of relief. "It's a deal," I told him with a small smile. For the moment, I felt completely free.
"That didn't take you very long to decide," Vlad stated with a grin. "I thought for sure you would argue much longer that that."
"I'm sick of arguing with you, Vlad," I said with brazen sincerity. Losing his smile, the man looked sideways at me with curiously plucking at his furrowed eyebrows. "You're a stubborn, old man," I continued without fear. "We could have argued for hours over the dumb thing, and you would never back down just because you didn't have or want to. Nothing I say anymore is gonna change your mind, so why bother?"
For a moment, Vlad was silent and thoughtful. Then, true to his character, his annoyingly superior smirk returned. "Who would have thought that you could mature so much in two weeks," Vlad said. "I see I've finally taught you something worthwhile. At least this last trip wasn't a complete disaster."
Wincing with a surge of anger, I had to refrain from commenting as I shot Vlad a venomous glare. Receiving it, Vlad's smirk turned into a grin. "Oh, your adorable anger problem still remains, I see," he said deridingly. "One day I'll have to fix that too."
"I'll tell you what's not fixable, Vlad, is your ugly face," I returned with a cruel smile.
Vlad and I shared competitive grins with each other. Felt good to be back in the familiar sparing ring with the old adversary again. Still, something was off. It wasn't the same as it used to be. While it was nice to return to our normal bickering and banter, I still held confusing emotions toward the man.
Noticing this, Vlad asked me inquisitively, "What's the matter now, Daniel?"
I just had to say it. I'd forever regret it if I didn't, and it was the best and maybe the only time to say it. So I finally flat out asked Vlad, "Why do you act so nice to me sometimes then mean other times? It's...confusing."
Vlad studied my face, reading it like it was an intriguing book. I didn't back away. Instead, I opened everything up for him. I wanted him to know this subject meant a lot to me. From the way his frown thinned slightly, I could tell he was trying to piece his emotions and words together correctly. He cared about this issue too, I realized.
"I've already told you," he answered, voice soft but serious. "We are the only half ghosts of this world. We have a bond, a connection that can't be broken or treated lightly. I...," he paused to either ponder or summon the courage before continuing. "I care about what happens to you, Danny. I care about your future."
I noticed how he refrained from saying he actually cared about me specifically. Still, I wanted to get to the bottom of this once and for all.
"Then how come you can't remain nice to me?" I asked, keeping all accusations out of my voice. Vlad opened his mouth, but I swiftly cut him off, saying plainly, "I mean, you know by now that I respond positively when you're kind. That's what makes me so confused around you sometimes, especially when you're that way. I know you've seen how I've reacted to your weird niceness. You could very easily use it against me, and you've already faked it to do just that.
"I'll admit it," I went on in a kind of rant, "I almost fell for the act this last time. Who am I kidding? I did fall for it! If I hadn't been in the right place at the right time, things would have turned out much differently than it did back there."
Silent and still, Vlad watched me closely, all composed and in control of himself. I, on the other hand, had turned into a fidgety mess of nerves and emotions as I ran a hand through my hair and idly played with my fork on the empty plate in my lap. Heaving a heavy, laborious sigh, I plowed on and finished.
"Jeez, how do I say this? What I'm trying to say or ask or whatever is...if it-. I mean, if being nice works better than being mean to me...then...why not stick with it, you know? I hate to admit it, but...it works." Looking over at him, I said with open honestly, "When you're nice to me, Vlad, you actually are a pretty cool person."
And I left it at that.
Vlad stared at me for another minute before flashing a smile and saying with quiet resentment, "Well, Daniel, I wasn't expecting you to say something like that." Expressing a mild, restrained grin, I remained silent and let Vlad go on.
"I'm still human," Vlad said after another short pause. "Though I may want to come off as cold and standoffish toward you as I teach you all that I know, a part of me still understands the human side to the both of us. If I'm ever going to persuade you, I'll have to connect with you on a human, emotional level that you know and trust. That means I'll have to open up to you, sharing a bit of my personal life with you and in turn taking interest in yours. You understand?"
"So...it's a ploy?" I asked with a disbelieving grin. "You're nice to me only because you think it will help mold me into a clone of you someday?"
"Not precisely," Vlad lightly argued. "Sometimes I surprise myself. There were times when I acted unexpectedly nice towards you without reason besides the fact that it was a normal human reaction."
"Leave it to you to make the entire thing sound like a psychology or science project," I muttered, successfully hiding my satisfaction. I didn't think Vlad was lying. He truly believed in what he had just said, and I'd already decided not to argue with the man. I just took it all in stride. If Vlad believed he was nice to me sometimes because it was a regular human reaction he couldn't control, then so be it. Vlad was my enemy, a very powerful enemy, for that matter. Getting a truthful answer out of him was all I needed, not a philosophical discussion.
"What? Were you expecting me to express some secret emotion of fatherly love towards you?" Vlad said teasingly.
"No," I chuckled.
"Or were you hoping that I'd somehow turn from all my evil ways and reveal that I have deep wells of goodness in me?" he asked over-dramatically.
Laughing at how absurd he made it sound, I told him, "I think you have just as much of a chance of converting to the good side than I have of becoming evil."
Making a face that was a mixture of confusion and offense, Vlad asked me with tilt of his head and an amused smile, "What is that supposed to mean?"
Locking my gaze with his, I lied with a sly grin, "A joke."
"Well, then. If that's the case," Vlad said, a vicious smile consuming his features. "I'm afraid I must tell you that I poisoned your cake after all."
Eyes wide from the rush of fear and rage that hit me in that revealing moment, my fists instinctively balled into fists as I shouted angrily at the crazy man, "Wh-what? Ug! I'm an idiot! What the hell, Vlad? Why would you-? Hey! Stop smiling creepily at me like that like you know everything! I'm serious!"
"A joke, Daniel."
"Adults can make them too."
"I hate you."
"Don't be a sore loser," Vlad said smugly.
"I'm not the one who got their butt kicked and then got it frozen on a volcano the other day," I retorted with intent to hurt. "Compared to that, yeah, I'm a great, big loser over here. I'm just oozing with loser-ness right now."
Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Vlad expressed an acrid smile as my comment hit its mark. "Oh, you're sarcasm," he said with a mirthless chuckle. "It never seems to fail you."
"And it never will," I promised.
A/N: Wow. I've got to say that this was the hardest fan fiction to let go so far. I've just spent so much time thinking about and cultivating the relationship between these two adversarial characters and continually making Danny grow into a smart, powerful, confident, and resourceful young man and superhero. Took two to three years, to be exact. That's a long time in my book.
And I'll admit I've followed and shared in Danny's journey. His voice has become a little bit of my own after writing for him for so long. Also, his experiences and emotions have unexpectedly fused with a few of my own. Almost being driven crazy, living in Peru (which is right next to Ecuador), discovering my own confidence and resourcefulness, and reaching out to pursue my crazy dreams despite the dangers. Ending this fan fic is like ending an entire chapter to my life. It's hard but exciting all at the same time.
Before I finish this fic, though, I must say that two things helped me finish this thing: you awesome readers and God. God gave me this gift of writing and has influenced so much of my life, so I want to give him the proper glory. But let's not forget how awesome you reviewers are! You guys have been encouraging, cheering, and helping me along since even before Powerless for some of you. I've got to say that you guys are the reason why I write. To hear how I've impacted your lives or just to know that you guys are enjoying my odd imagination brightens my day and keeps me going. I love you all! I just want to say that you guys are my supportive Toushiro, and I want ALL your autographs! Ha ha!
Yes, that was lame, but oh so true!
Now, one last announcement for you lovely readers before I officially leave. Future projects. I have 'em! My friend Mutantlover09 (the one who convinced me to write Incommunicado) and I have decided to do something fun, different, and challenging. We're presently writing a fan fic together in a format that requires us to only have control over certain characters. She will be writing for good 'ol sarcastic Danny, and I'll be controlling the notoriously awesome yet evil Vlad. So far, the plot and characters are fun and we haven't stumbled over any rough patches. Mutantlover09 and I are always on the same wavelength. If you guys enjoyed Vlad's and Danny's interactions in this fic, you guys are bound to like 'em in the one we're writing. We'll be uploading the first chapter sometime soon on my account, so look for it! The title is: The Collector.
That said, I'll respond to reviews as quickly as possible, I'm gonna really miss this fic, and I hope to see you readers soon! I'm officially out! Peace!