Chapter Seven: Moving Forward

It takes Danny a long time to pick himself up off of Clockwork's floor. He can remember it now, can remember what his parents did, how he came here and begged Clockwork to fix it, and how the ghost told him he could not change it, that this time the past was beyond his power to alter.

He remembers how he spent several weeks here under Clockwork and Frostbite's care. Clockwork froze him temporarily and placed him out of time until Frostbite came and began to heal him. How Frostbite managed to save his life, Danny couldn't begin to understand. He was certain he wasn't going to survive, and a small part of him didn't want to, either.

Yet he lived. Three weeks passed and he was, at least on the surface, completely healed with only the faintest traces of a scar, yet he continued to feel a phantom ache in his chest. And even three weeks later, he was still begging Clockwork to change it, to fix it, no matter how much the ghost claimed he could do nothing.

And then he brought in Desiree.

The wishing ghost was Danny's enemy, yet even she would not refuse Clockwork. At first Clockwork considered having her undo everything that had happened, but she was not strong enough to interfere with the time stream anymore, not after all of the battles that she had fought with Danny and his friends, and all her power was capable of doing was creating splitting the universes, creating one where Danny had suffered and one where he had not. The best she could do was to make it seem to everyone as if nothing had ever happened, and even then she was skeptical about that actually working. Some memories and some experiences, as she had so recently told Danny, were too powerful for any magic to ever completely erase, yet Clockwork and Danny both begged her and pleaded with her until she complied. She altered the memories of Danny and his friends and family as much as necessary, handed Clockwork the trigger which would allow them to be returned at the Master of Time's will, was bound from ever granting Danny and his friends another wish just in case Danny or one of his friends thought to seek her assistance, and then Danny was returned to his home with a seemingly blank slate.

Yet Desiree was proven right, for the phantom aches were still there, the whispers of a song still danced through his head, and anytime someone touched him he flinched, unconsciously remembering how the last time someone had touched him they had followed the act by cutting him open. The ghosts of his lost memories continued to haunt him, dogging his steps as diligently as Klemper stalked his "friends," and so Danny had returned.

And so he rises, now, with the weight of his past upon his shoulders, the ghost of his memories given new life by feeding off his lost ignorance. "I . . ." he begins slowly, softly, for his voice feels dry and it trembles. Danny falls to his knees, then, tears stinging his eyes, and his back arches as he tilts his head back and lets out a wail that is closer to an animalistic shrieking. The wail smashes into the ceiling of Clockwork's tower, making the chimes and bells crack, yet the tower itself remains miraculously unharmed.

He shrieks again, more piercing this time, and Clockwork listens in silence as his form shifts and Clockwork becomes a mad, permanently grinning child. Clockwork wishes to help Danny, but there's nothing he can do. He cares for Danny too much already, and all his love is hurting the boy more than it will ever be able to help.

"I don't . . . why can't you change it?" he cries, his eyes flashing brilliantly as he turns to the ghost of time. "Why?"

"We've been through this before, Daniel, countless times. And even if I had the power to alter this event, Daniel, it wouldn't matter anymore," sighs Clockwork softly. "You would still remember. The pain wouldn't leave you."

"But what—what am I supposed to do?" he moans, sobbing. "I can't—I can't—"

"You should go home, Danny," the ghost tells him. "Your parents, your friends, and your sister still don't know what happened to you. The device you are holding in your hands now—my medallion—is a trigger. Anyone who touches it will remember the truth about what happened, and ultimately, who you allow to hold it, to use it and to learn the truth about what's happened to you . . . that's your choice, Daniel."

"It would ruin my parents," Danny says, shaking his head as he looks down at it, thinking about his mom and dad, and he realizes that even they haven't completely forgotten everything, even now. Every other time his mom or dad found out about his ghost half, they accepted him with ease. Sure, they were troubled by the fact that they hunted him, but they'd never flinched when he'd used his powers or had that same intense guilt in their eyes whenever they saw him during those brief other moments when they knew the truth about his ghost-half. "They can barely handle my being half-ghost. They couldn't—my parents wouldn't be able to live with it. I don't even know if I can live with it."

"You can," the old ghost assures him gently. "It will be difficult, Danny, but you can get through this. You can survive this, and move forward."

"I can't bear this alone, though," Danny states, and then he pours everything out, the words tumbling as quickly as his tears. "It's too much. My parents, they—I mean—it's my fault. I get it. I should've told them sooner, and they didn't know what they were doing, but it's just—it hurts so much, and I can't—I don't know if I hate them, or if I can ever—I don't know."

"Then tell someone," the ghost suggests softly. "Someone that can help you deal with this. Someone that can understand and won't be broken if they help you bear the weight."

"But who? My sister, my friends . . . they'll be angry, upset, and horrified, and I know that if they find out, then . . . then my parents will, too, somehow," he says, because even as someone who's a master at adopting masks, Danny's not sure that even he has what it takes to pretend like everything is okay around his parents anymore, and if he can't, then his friends stand no chance. "And even if they don't . . . I don't think my friends can handle knowing about this, especially not Jazz. They'd never be willing to admit that . . . that it's not just my parent's fault, that it's my fault, too. I can't . . . I can't tell them."

"There are others in your life who might understand your situation better," Clockwork tells him, prodding gently, for he knows who Danny needs to go to now.

"Oh, yeah? Like who? Another ghost?"

Clockwork merely smiles at him. "You're half-right."

It's then that it dawns on Danny. He knows whom Clockwork refers to now, but he can't believe that the ghost is mad enough to suggest that he go to that man. "You think I should talk to Vlad?" he says, shaking his head. "He's almost as bad as—I mean, he's experimented on me! He tried to clone me and he practically tortured me while trying to get a sample of my mid-morph DNA!"

"Which means that he is in precisely the right position to understand the actions of both your parents and yourself," Clockwork explains calmly. "If you don't wish to burden your sister or your friends, then he is the best choice, Daniel."

Danny sighs, knowing the ghost is right, but he worries that the man will do something rash, too, if he discovers what his parents did to him. "He won't," says Clockwork, as if reading Danny's mind, but Danny knows the old ghost can't. He can merely anticipate possible futures and predict with reasonable accuracy what Danny will ask next, and in a way, it should be reassuring that he's doing this right now because it means that he's once again observing Danny's future.

Danny could still choose to question the ghost, to ask him why he's so certain, but it seems foolish since Danny knows exactly why Clockwork's so sure. "Okay, then," he agrees softly. "I'll talk to Vlad about it, and . . . and then I'll go home."

Danny doesn't want to return, but he knows that he has to. He's been gone too long already. His parents and friends are probably frantic, thinking that he's been kidnapped or something again, and he knows that Jazz probably feels betrayed since he told her her wouldn't go anywhere. Not one of them knows that anyone else's memories were tampered with, after all, and as Danny gazes down at the medallion, he intends to keep it that way. He'll hand the medallion to Vlad to let him remember what he's forgotten—if he's forgotten anything, that is, since Danny's not sure the billionaire would have known about what Danny's parents did to the boy—and then after that . . . well, hopefully he can think of something.

"I am truly sorry, Daniel," apologizes the ghost as Danny begins to leave. "For everything."

"I know," Danny sighs as he turns to leave. "But you were wrong about one thing. I do forgive you, you know. You're like my parents . . . you did something stupid because you thought it was right. Good intentions and roads to hell and all that stupid stuff. I did the same thing by keeping my secret . . . So I get it." Saying that his parents did something "stupid" feels like a gross understatement to Danny, but he's trying to protect himself. Belittling what's happened to him is part of how he copes.

So is humor, of course, but the whole incident feels too grim and weighs too heavily upon him right now for even Danny to make light of it. "Just from now on . . . keep watching my future, okay? I can't go through it twice. Please don't make me go through something like that twice."

"I've learned from my mistake," the ghost assures him, and Danny says nothing more as he leaves the ancient tower and ghost behind.

It is three months since the day that Danny visited Clockwork and was given the time medallion, and he sits now in class, barely listening to Mr. Lancer's seemingly endless lecture. Most of the other students ignore Danny, their interest in him lost over the months as his brief celebrity status fades from memory. His friends, however, have been passing notes back and forth, and when they see him glance back curiously, Sam passes him a note from Tucker—I can't believe he's giving a lecture on the last day of school! It's like the worst kind of torture in this heat!—Danny can't stop himself from thinking that he can think of many, many things that are worse than Lancer's lectures. His friends have no idea how happy something as simple as sitting in even this hellishly hot classroom on the last day of school makes Danny simply because of how normal it is and how close he came to losing it all. In his pocket is a report card that proudly lists his passing grades. To some parents his report card—a collection of mostly C's and D's—would be a mark of shame. For Danny and his family, it'll be enough cause for a small celebration when he gets home tonight, and although he dreads being in the same room as his parents, even now, it's at least become a little easier for him to put on the mask now that he knows exactly what truth he's hiding behind it.

The bell finally rings and Lancer sighs as the kids charge out, ignoring his calls to make sure they do the summer reading and to be careful and have fun. The last student to leave, however, is taking his time, and Lancer smiles at him as he watches the boy pack up. His two friends are standing beside him with arms crossed, the girl impatiently tapping her foot as they send furtive glances at the door. "So you've survived another year, eh, Mr. Fenton?" he says, smiling at the boy and breaking up their conversation, and the boy looks back at him and grins. The smile's a real one this time, too. Although the boy is a master at hiding his feeling, Lancer is an actor of a sort, too, and he's always been able to tell the difference.

"I suppose," he replies sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck, and he gestures to his friends. "I'll be along in a second, okay?"

"Are you sure, dude?"

"Yeah, Tuck, it's fine. You two go ahead. I'll catch up," he tells them and the pair head out into the hall. Danny walks to the front of the room and takes a seat on one of the desks, flashing his teacher a cocky grin as he asks, "So what do you think my odds of graduating are next year?"

"Whatever you'd like them to be, Mr. Fenton," the teacher answers simply as he leans back against his own desk. Although the situation gives Lancer a sense of déjà vu because of their conversation a few months ago, the context is so drastically different that he can't help but feel relieved. "You're more than capable of doing the work. It's just a question of whether or not doing it is what matters the most to you."

"It matters, Mr. Lancer," the boy admits. "I don't know if it's always the most important thing to me, but it's close. I don't—I don't want to be stuck in Amity Park forever flipping burgers at the Nasty Burger."

"No fries with your future, eh?" the teacher chuckles.

"Well, maybe there will be some this summer," he grumbles. "Vlad told me I ought to get a job and learn something about balancing my personal life and stuff, so the Nasty Burger seems like a place to start. Can I put you down as a reference?"

"As long as you don't expect me to lie about your attendance record," the teacher replies, and Danny gives him another one of those rare, genuine smiles. "How is your mentorship with the mayor going? I never assumed that you'd be the sort that was interested in politics."

"It's not the politics I'm interested in," Danny says, and his face gets that distant, haunted look that is painful for Lancer to see. It's rumored that the boy knows what happened to him during those three weeks, now, and that those weeks were just as traumatic as everyone suspected. Danny, however, will not discuss it with anyone, or so Lancer was told, but from the look on his face now Lancer suspects that Danny and the mayor have been speaking about it quite a bit.

At least he's talking to someone, the teacher thinks, but aloud he merely asks, "So what is it that he's teaching you, then?"

"Oh, you know, life stuff," Danny answers vaguely, and he seems to be searching for something to tell Lancer, something that isn't a lie. "Time management's a big one. He makes me write out a schedule for the whole week that I'm expected to follow down to the minute, and then—well, I mean, I've been trying to do it, but it's hard, you know? Life doesn't always follow a schedule."

"At least not the ones we write," Lancer agrees. "So, Danny, perhaps if you're keeping yourself on track this summer then you might actually manage to get your summer reading done this year, eh?"

"I'll get it done," the boy replies without any hesitation.

"And perhaps if you were willing to read more than the required amount and write a short essay on those extra books, then I might be willing to give you a bit of extra credit at the beginning of the year," offers Lancer. "A head start, if you will, that will bring you closer to graduating."

"You'd seriously do that for me?" Danny gasps.

"I'd do it for any of my students who wanted it," Lancer replies, glancing at the clock. "Your friends are probably waiting for you, Mr. Fenton."

"Ah! You're right!" he exclaims, glancing at the door, but this time they're not so anxious that they're already listening in or poking their heads over the glass in a feeble attempt to spy on the pair. After all, his disappearance and suffering has largely faded from their memories as well even though Danny hasn't told either one what happened that day. It's his burden to bear, not theirs, and although they're not thrilled about his new association with the mayor or his decision to keep everything about those three weeks a secret from them, Danny managed to convince them to go along with it for now with the promise that if he started acting too much like their less-than-beloved mayor then they could feel free to do whatever they deemed necessary.

"Thanks, Mr. Lancer. Have a good summer. Don't, like, work too much, or uh . . . what the heck do teachers do on summer break, anyway?" he asks, and an image of an overweight, balding Lancer sitting on the beach in an ugly pair of swimming trunks and tanning under the summer sun almost makes the boy shudder.

"I usually read, Mr. Fenton," the teacher replies as if it's painfully obvious, and the boy gives a look of total disgust at the mere thought. The act of reading for fun is still lost on Daniel Fenton, and although it should make Lancer a bit sad, it mostly makes him happy that some things about the boy haven't changed.

It's much, much later that night and Danny feels tired. The last day of school ought to be an easy day, but for Danny, it's been exhausting. After school he hung out with his friends for an hour before going to Vlad's. Danny still struggles to see Vlad as something other than an enemy, but it gets easier with every visit. Clockwork was right. The elder halfa is the best person for Danny to talk to and work through this with. Although Danny assumed that Vlad would regain no memories when he touched the medallion, he was wrong. Danny's parents, in that forgotten time, had gone to Vlad, had told them about what they'd done, what had happened to Danny and how they thought they'd killed him. They'd been seeking understanding in someone that they believed was a friend, someone they believed could help them figure out what to do about the whole mess and who had at least some basic understanding of the paranormal, yet as the words poured out of Maddie's mouth (for Jack had barely spoken a word since the incident), it became clear that the man was anything but understanding.

Rather than showing his parents—or at least Maddie—sympathy, he'd screamed at them and almost slaughtered them on the spot. He'd insisted that their ignorance was no excuse, that the pair should have figured out the boy's secret sooner when he started failing classes or when every single invention they made "malfunctioned" around him, or that they should have noticed his injuries despite his pathetic attempts to hide them. His parents, however, had insisted that they had made an honest mistake—how could they have possibly known, the whole idea was ludicrous and made no sense whatsoever, and really, Danny hadn't been doing that badly in school and he hadn't actually been seriously injured at any point, had he?

And at that point Vlad had lost it completely and transformed in front of them. "It's a mistake if it happens once," he'd told them coldly. "If you don't realize the effects that your irresponsibleness and inventions have on the people you care about once, then perhaps that could be forgiven. But your ignorance and carelessness has created two of us, and both times, you've failed to notice. Both times, the two of you allowed yourself to be distracted by your new toys and each other so much that you have failed to see the pain that those creations you've made have caused! You never came to see me in the hospital and how I suffered through it, yet Daniel lived with you and was clearly suffering enough for his sister and friends to notice! How could you miss something so painfully obvious?"

Of course, the answer to that was as simple and obvious as the truth: People rarely let themselves see what they don't want to believe is true. Although the signs were there, neither of his parents were willing to believe that their son could possibly be the type of creature that they had dedicated their lives to hunting, that they both despised. And even now they both struggle to believe it, for Danny sees it in their expressions every day. Every instant that he is not his alter ego or that he is not using their powers, his parents pretend that he is nothing more than their completely human son, and Danny lets them. There's no point in pushing it, or so he believes.

The memories of those weeks changed Vlad in small ways. He is, of course, still a fruit loop, but the way he thinks about Danny and the boy's family is different. His mother's name is one that rarely crosses Vlad's lips anymore—no longer is she his goddess, his dream—and the memory of those weeks without Danny, without the boy that Vlad continues to wish is his son, makes the billionaire more wary about how he treats the boy. He does not wish to lose Danny again, and although he is tough on the boy, there is a parental love behind those actions that wasn't there before, a hesitancy whenever he begins to lose his temper and push Danny too hard, a shame about how he once contemplated destroying him when Danny ruined his plans, time and time again.

Vlad quickly realized how dangerous the device from Clockwork is, for he knows that if the boy's parents or friends or sister recover the memories they've lost, it will destroy them and what little hope the boy has for a normal life left with it. Danny doesn't want Jazz to hate his parents, or for his parents to be forced to live with the guilt and self-loathing that Danny knows would break them even more than just knowing that they used to hunt their own son does. The weight is hard enough for Danny to carry, and even now he knows he can only hold it with Vlad's help. Yet inside of him he carries another weight, as well, no matter how weightless it might literally be: Clockwork's medallion.

The only way to keep it permanently out of the hands of his family and friends was for Vlad to do to Danny as Danny's future self once did: to fuse it inside of him, leaving it intangible and untouchable no matter what form Danny was in. It was the best—and only—hiding spot the boy could come up with that no one save Vlad would stand a chance of breaking into, and Danny knows that Vlad won't dare. Much as the billionaire might want his parents to suffer for what they did to Danny, he respects the boy's choice to keep it a secret from them, to keep on protecting them. Vlad thinks that they don't deserve it.

Yet Danny does.

And in the end, it's his life, his burden, and his choice, and out of respect for the boy, Vlad agrees to let it be. Danny can see that it eats the billionaire up inside, little by little, but he hopes that maybe he can keep the billionaire from losing his cool and attacking his family, in part because Danny's torn about what he himself will do if Vlad starts attacking his parents. He's not sure if he would save them or let Vlad do whatever he pleased to the two people that he still sees sometimes as monsters. It's a thought that makes him uncomfortable, and so instead of letting it come to pass, he continues to make Vlad swear not to touch them and hopes to avoid that future. From what Clockwork told him that day, it's possible.

As expected, his parents and sister did have a small celebration for him. Both his mom and dad are proud of Danny and his silly report card, since they know at least some of the burdens he carries now that he's resumed his role as the town's protector. Getting those grades was nearly impossible yet Danny succeeded, in part because getting through each day with his oblivious parents is just so much harder. He's reached a point where he can sit in the room with them, but Danny still flinches every time his mother or father touches him, every time his mother kisses his forehead or his dad squeezes him in a bear hug. The sweet moments make him want to scream, yet they also make him want to forgive them even more.

They don't know, he told himself silently as he bore their seemingly endless stream of hugs tonight. They didn't know. It wasn't just their fault. It was mine, too.

Most of the evening passes by in a blur, which is fine with Danny. There are other days where every moment is so painstakingly long that he wants to weep, but this is not one of them. Maybe it's because this time his happiness isn't completely fake. He is, after all, proud of his stupid grades, his average scores, and it's been weeks since anyone other than Vlad has even mentioned his disappearance. There are a lot of reasons to be happy, or at the very least, to be content.

Even though he knows he'll never forget what happened and even though he's still struggling to cope with it, Danny knows that eventually things will get better. They already have, after all, in the smallest of ways, and even though it will never be perfect, Danny doesn't need it to be.

The End

A/N: Bah. That's all I have to say about this ending. I wrote it, scrapped it, rewrote it, scrapped it, and after the third rewrite, I'm still not thrilled with it, but I just can't seem to get it quite right. Endings have always been tough for me, but then again, maybe I'm just being too hard on myself with this one. It's a bad habit of mine, especially when it comes to my writing. :)

Anyway, to everyone who reviewed, favorited, alerted, or simply kept reading this story, I just want to say thanks so much for all of your support! I figured that my first multi-chapter fic on this site would be largely ignored, so seriously, thanks so much, everyone! Hopefully I'll have a new story started pretty soon, although whether it's the continuation of "Ten Minutes to the End" or something else I haven't quite figured out yet since none of the stories I have in mind are cooperating with me much right now. :)

And, as always, a review would be lovely from those of you that have the time to leave one. ;)

'Til next time!