The Tuning Fork

Bleeding Paper Hearts


I certainly did miss this story. *Hugs it.* Sorry for taking so long to finish this up…I said by the end of Valentine's Day and Easter's over. Don't knock the college student.

By the way, Morton's Toe Syndrome is real. Not making up random genetic anomalies here.

Large paragraphs are large. Vlad talks a lot. Sorry. T_T He's got some 'splaining to do.

Some stuff happens in this chapter. Please review if you like stuff. (Okay, and faster updates.)


Next day, her joyful family found,

Her father, in the bathtub, drowned.

The same fate came to all the rest. One by one. was it done?

Theoda, who had wanted curls, now draped her head with strings of pearls.

And island natives soon took fright

When she was seen offshore, at night.

-The Tuning Fork, Conclusion.


When the water was drained and Danny rubbed off with a white towel, (Vlad thought that he looked remarkably like a rosy polar bear cub wrapped up in it) the ghost carried Danny to his room, choosing to fly rather than risking stepping on creaky floorboards.

Danny said nothing as Vlad wrapped the covers back over his body, staring down at his little enfolded hands. The silence between the two hung for awhile, and when Vlad could no longer bear it, he cleared his throat uncomfortably and looked away, cursing himself.

"…..are you alright, Daniel?"

"I like 'Danny' better," said the child, avoiding eye contact with the man. "'Daniel' is what my parents call me when I'm in trouble."

He looked up at a peculiar crack on the ceiling, and turned his head slightly, squinting at it. It was a sort of game of his, to try and deduce what the lines best resembled. Sometimes it was a pentagon. Other times it was a barn. Once, it had looked like a duck to him, but he couldn't remember which way he'd looked at it.

He shyly drew his eyes back to Vlad, who was also staring at the numerous cracks, looking unhappy.

"But you can call me 'Daniel' if you want."

The boy hadn't answered him. Did he keep pursuing the subject, or did he just leave the child alone?

Vlad just nodded absentmindedly, and turned towards Danny's mostly empty bookshelf.

"….yes, well…would you like me to read you a story?"

"Not really," said Danny indifferently. "I've read those four about a million bajillion times. Sometimes we go to the library, but not so much anymore because Jazzy lost an expensive book that she said I colored in."

"Did you?"

"No. She dropped it in a puddle by accident. So Mommy and Daddy say no more checking out books."

Again, a pause. Vlad was unnerved by how gravely and matter-of-fact the boy spoke; he sounded like an adult that happened to have a tiny voice.

"Can I get you some water?"

"No thanks."

"What would you like to do now, my boy?"

"Sit," Danny said simply. "I want to hear more about you."

Vlad swallowed, but he did sit down on the bed next to Danny. After a moment's pause, the child cuddled close to his side and he instinctively wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

"What would you like to know about me?"

Danny stared at him for awhile, head slightly cocked. Then, words came spilling out before he could stop them-

"You said you would be anything I wanted you to be. So what if I want you to be an angel?"

Taken aback, the ghost simply replied, "Then I will hold true to my word, and be your angel. I don't have to wear a white dress, sprout wings, and learn to play the harp, do I?"

Danny giggled as Vlad playfully poked him on the nose, and batted his hand away.

"No, no. That's weird. The way you talk is weird. But it's wonderful. I like it."

"Well, thank you very much."

Danny smiled for a moment, but it soon faded away again. He sighed, and then asked:

"How can you be my Daddy? Lots of the people on Mommy's shows get angry and say things about people having the wrong person's kids-I dunno what that means-but I know kids look like their Daddies. And, um, I, well…."

The man sighed, kissed him on the forehead.

"….you're right," he said, ears coloring. "I know it's difficult to believe, Daniel, but this isn't my…my natural form."

"Then what is?" asked Danny, uneasily shifting away. "Are you lying to me?"

"Oh, no, Daniel, never think that!" exclaimed Vlad sincerely. "I would never lie to you. It's just….I….well….."

He took a deep breath. Even if Danny saw him for what he was and told people about it, people would simply assume the child was making up stories. Who was going to believe a little boy spreading about wild stories about businessmen transforming into….what he was?

Nonetheless, Vlad felt deeply uneasy as a pair of black rings flashed at his waist, and abruptly split away to reveal a tall man with silver hair, and dark blue eyes. Away went the ghost's blue skin and red and white outfit-now the simple human was wearing a tuxedo with a ribbon at his neck.

Stricken, Danny's mouth dropped, and he made to run out of bed. Vlad seized him by the hand.

"Don't be afraid of me, Danny," implored the man, in Vlad's voice. "It's me. I'm Vlad."

The boy trembled, and watched as the man abruptly transformed back into Plasmius without a word. But now, he was more confused than ever.

Vlad's skin looked like his own. His eyes were darker than his, and more heavily lidded, but…

Danny felt a knot tighten in his stomach, and he turned his face into Plasmius' chest. The man started, but uncertainly put his hands on the boy's shoulders.

"How did you do that?" asked the boy, sounding muffled. "Is it something angels can do?"

Vlad opened his mouth, closed it, and nodded when Danny pulled away again, eyes red. Horrified, Vlad inwardly cursed himself for being an idiot. What sort of bombshell was that to drop on their first meeting-to a child? He'd been so eager to claim the child as his own that he very possibly alienated the boy from him! What sort of depraved, heartless, idiot was he, anyway?

The boy stared dully at the wall, despite Vlad's attempts to get his attention. At last, he bit the inside out his mouth, and said "Daniel" over and over again until the boy at last looked at him again. The man pulled Danny into another hug.

"Daniel, do you realize how these things….happen?"

Danny wiped his nose, but remained stiff.

"….sort of. In Mommy's shows, people get married. Then, they get kids. Were you married to Mommy?"

"No," said Vlad sadly. "Daniel, when two people decide to….ah…."

Vlad awkwardly rubbed the back of his head, ears turning purple as he flushed. The kid was way, way too young for this sort of talk. But he owed the boy an explanation, at the very least.

"….well, sometimes, it's not a decision. When two people…do activities together, share a bond together, things….happen, for better, or for worse."

"Like they play nice, or don't play nice?"

"….something like that. Sometimes, truly marvelous and fantastic things happen because of this bond, and at other times, something truly awful might come around as a result. Do you understand what I mean, little badger?"

Danny wondered vaguely where the name "little badger" came from. He supposed it did not matter; he liked it.

"...I guess," he said hesitatingly, turning around to better look at the ghost. "Um, but what kinds of bad things can happen?"

Vlad sighed, and rocked the two back and forth soothingly.

"If two people commit to this act, they may take a vow to do it with no other person," he said, smoothing Danny's wet hair. "Which is where marriage comes in; you agree to play a certain game-which is by no means a game-with only one person. They become very angry or heartbroken when the pact is broken and a partner decides to do it with another. People may do this act of love for entirely wrong reasons, or, they might be faithful to one another and yet still produce something nasty into the world. Your sister would be prime example."

Danny giggled; he couldn't help it. Then, a thought entered into his head:

"So...Mommy's sad all the time because she thinks Daddy is doing whatever it is grownups do with other people?" he reasoned.

Vlad stared soberly down at the young boy, and then kissed him on the forehead.

"...I suppose so. This story does begin with your parents, so I suppose this is as good a time as any to begin this story..."

"When Jack and Maddie married each other and swore to be true to each other, they were very happy." Vlad sounded all of a sudden as if he'd been forced to swallow something very bitter.

"And as a result, Jasmine was soon born as a result of this bond. But after awhile, your mother became very unhappy. She was tired all the time, and never allowed to do the things she liked best to do. Jasmine demanded a lot of her time and attention, and Jack began to be absent more and more often. When she was exhausted, and he was fooling around, as is his wont, she lashed out at him without meaning to. Now Jack started to become unhappy."

"Unhappiness spreads," said Danny sadly, and the man nodded sincerely.

"Jack began to frequent the shady places of the world where bonds classified by the ring of his finger often mean nothing. Madeline was alone in her house, having to do all the cooking, the cleaning, the repairing of things Jack broke so often, and the tending of a baby who screamed a great many hours of the day. She grew very unhappy, and, one night, she decided she'd had enough. She left Jasmine with a sitter and ventured out to visit another unhappy man who loved her dearly."

"Why didn't she decide to change her bond, and bond with him?"

Vlad's voice was very quiet when he responded:

"She preferred Jack, until this point. She and this man did the act of love, which resulted in Maddie's shame and horror when it was over. She'd broken her vow. The unhappy man who'd been so happy to have her that night was heartbroken when she insisted that it had been but a simple tryst; that she did not ACTUALLY love him-that it was a tremendous mistake. She told HIM to stay away from her and her family, and so, she left the man, who was now in the unhappiest days of his life."

"The man was you, wasn't he?" Danny's voice was not accusing. Vlad nodded. When the man found his voice again, he went on.

"And so, that act produced a beautiful child nine months later. Your father sent me a card with the details, and I then realized that something did not match up, particularly when I saw your little toes, and your neck."

Confused, Danny wriggled his ten toes from underneath the blankets. Vlad went on gently:

"Daniel, do you ever remember hearing about your older sister's surgery?"

Danny had, although he wasn't supposed to talk about it. Like Daddy, Jasmine had been born with her second toe larger than her big toe. Daddy had never bothered to get his 'fixed,' but Mommy had been distressed with the idea that Jazz might be labeled a freak at school, so when Jazz was two, they took her in for cosmetic surgery to make her little and big toes look like everyone else's. He related the story aloud.

Vlad nodded.

"Your father's trait is unusual…and genetic. Which means that if he has it, the child he has will receive it also," he explained patiently. "It's a medical term known as 'Morton's Toe Syndrome.' All of your toes were completely normal, and you have a birthmark on the back of your neck like mine."

"You do?" Vlad turned around and Danny ran his fingertips over it. "Cool."

"Yes. I was suspicious, especially about the timing. I last saw your mother nine months ago, which is the amount of time a baby usually takes before they come into the world. Your mother insisted that you were Jack's son, and I was violating our agreement by phoning her. At last, I consented to let the matter drop after she insisted that she had done tests and learned that her son was Jack's baby. I was very sad to hear this, but I believed her. She knew what I would have done if I had gotten wind that you were my son."

A pause.

"What…what would you have done?"

"Gotten the best attorney in the country to sue for paternal rights," said Vlad sadly, ruffling Danny's hair when the boy gave him a bewildered look. "It means that your mother, father, and I would have gotten in a great big fight before a judge, who handles such cases. I would've hired someone very good at arguing to convince the judge that Maddie had taken my child away from me. I most likely would have won the case, considering that your parents would have had trouble focusing on finding a good lawyer."


"Because if Jack heard that his former best friend was claiming that Jack's son was his baby, he would naturally want a test to be done to confirm whether or not you were his son or not. Trust is greatly shaken during these sorts of things, because people get very upset with each other when they realize someone had broken a vow. I figured Maddie had not told her husband about her cheat because she was frightened of losing him. If Maddie had taken the test and it revealed that you were not his, he would have been devastated. If she refused to take the test, that would mean that she was either frightened of the answer or already knew the truth. Either way, she would have been trapped if the baby was not Jack's. But I believed your mother, and dismissed my fanatical ideas as hopeless hope."

Vlad's eyes became cloudy.

"It is my greatest regret that I did; I learned a few weeks ago that your mother lied about the tests. At the time, I was afraid of ruining your mother and earning her spite for breaking her marriage, as well as putting her son through a tremendous amount of suffering. Your father might resent you for being the son of a man who made a mistake, but I-"

Vlad stopped dead as horror overtook him. Little pearls were streaming down his pale, distraught face.

"Oh, cut out my tongue….." he whispered. "Daniel, I didn't mean it that way! Oh, please don't cry-you were what I always wanted, what I was always thinking about when I was flying around the world, trying to forget my grief! I thought of you often, and wished you were my son-I thought about you more than Maddie, and looked back only on missed opportunities and broken dreams! Then, when I came back from my company in England, I decided I could stand it no longer and went to see you, myself unseen. You seemed so unhappy, but your mannerisms were so like my own at your age that I took a bit of hair from your brush, and had it tested myself by experts; I was thrilled and enraged to discover that you are my child-oh, butterbiscuits, Danny, I mean that I was enraged at your mother for lying to me, NOT because we're related!"

But the boy was frozen, though silent sobs were rumbling in his chest.

"M-Mommy doesn't want me. I'm not like Jazzy. She hates me. She h-hates me! That's why she acts the way she does now! She's sad because I'm a mistake! My mommy and daddy didn't have a bond between them, so that's why I have no friends! Because I'm not good! I-I-I…"

Vlad pulled him into a bone-snapping embrace, and rocked the boy back and forth as Danny started sobbing wildly into his shoulder.

"Oh, I am a fool," said Vlad despairingly, more to himself than anything else. "I didn't mean to cause you any harm, yet I did. Daniel, Daniel, I'm sorry, I'm sorry you found out this way. I was afraid to approach you with the truth and hurt you with it, though I so badly wanted to be able to see you; take care of you. Maddie and Jack's marriage has all but collapsed under the demons that they themselves have-never think for an instant that they are your fault. If Madeline consented to do what she did with me, and your father insists on doing what he does, this reveals that their vows were hurting for a very long time. You were born out of two people seeking solace, giving solace, which is just about the best sort of thing one person can give to another. I never regretted my time with Madeline, despite the heartache that I felt later on out of missing her. It was that precious to me, just as you are precious. Oh," he said sadly, when Danny wildly shook his head, "Never think otherwise. I won't condone it. Ever."

The man leaned his head back and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Later on, I realized you were my wish. Someone I could earnestly love and be responsible for-to protect. When I came to see you, I was appalled by how….lemon custard…."

Vlad smacked himself upside the head as Danny's sobs grew louder. But the words he'd wanted to say for so long would not cease, despite his very best attempts to control them. He had to calm the boy down, for both their sakes.

"I'm worried about you, Danny," said Vlad hoarsely, still rocking the two back and forth. "You seem so lonely, and I can't bear the idea of you growing up to be like me. I want you to be happy. For blasted sakes, I want you to be able to come home without being afraid! I've seen the rare instances when you laugh, and it dazzles me every time! It's beautiful. I want you to laugh more, and I want you to be able to be a young boy. I want you to have everything you need, regardless if you want to live with me or find another warm, unbroken home." The sacrifice was evident in Vlad's voice, but the man impatiently shoved it away. "I love you. If you want me to leave, say the word, and I'll never bother you again. Just please tell me what you wish for, Danny. Please. You're the last person I'd ever, ever want to hurt."

Vlad ran his fingers in Danny's hair when an answer was not forthwith coming, sick with dread. He'd gone too far. His son would hate him for scarring him forever, and-

"You….you'd really let me stay with you?"

Vlad froze, stopping his ministrations immediately. Danny could not have said what he had said, because it was impossible, because he meant something else, his voice was muffled, and-

Danny raised his watery eyes to the man, looking exhausted. But now, his hopeless eyes had some spark returned to them.

"I can come with you?"

Throat tight, Vlad had nodded.

"I promise to explain to you what I am someday, Daniel…. But if you think you can be happy with one such as myself….if you think you can grow to like-"

"Oh, I love you already," said Danny dismissively. "And you're an angel, because you said you'd be one if I wanted. When can we go?"


End Flashback.

Last night had been magical-Vlad had cried, but he said it was because he was happy. He'd rocked Danny to sleep and sang some strange lullaby that he said his mother had sang to him back home in Russia, before the family had immigrated to the U.S. The words hadn't made any sense to Danny, but they were spoken so tenderly and with so much promise that he'd fallen asleep almost immediately, despite his resolve to stay awake for as long as possible.

When he'd woken up, Vlad was gone, much to his great and terrible disappointment. But now, while Jack and Maddie were bickering over who had to do the breakfast dishes, Danny was reading the note he'd found on his bed for the fourth time:

If you wish to come by my side, give me one week. This will take some time, but you are most definitely worth it. Have a good day at school. Remember: There's no need to fight fire with fire when you can just as easily fight fire with water."

-Love, Vlad

It hadn't been a dream. He finally believed it.

"What are you reading, dumbotron?"

"A letter to my teacher," Danny lied, pretending to offer it to his sister as the two put on their hats and boots by the front door. "I would like you to read it, please."

"As if," Jazz scoffed as she straightened her sparkly hat. "I'm not going to read your dumb baby writing-I could find something better in a fortune cookie."

Danny turned around and smiled; if he'd tried to hide it, Jazz would have immediately wrestled it away from him and ran it to their parents, breathless with the excitement of tattling. Television wasn't completely useless-it at least taught him the merits of reverse psychology.

Jack and Maddie were still arguing in the kitchen when Danny grabbed his backpack, and looked toward the kitchen where they still were, feeling doubt plague his thoughts for the first time. Could he really leave them? Just like that? Both Mommy AND Daddy-but-not-Daddy? They had raised him. They had-

The sound of a breaking plate, and a shriek.


"Oh, come ON, Mads, is a woman six feet under REALLY going to care about some stupid ceramic she bought back in the sixties?"

"You are so insensitive!" howled Maddie. "AND clumsy! You left the bathroom window open all night, and it smelled like someone had spilled bleach again-what, did you pass out in your own sick again?"

Danny and Jazz all but ran out the door. Danny had to admit later on that the first plague of doubt did not last very long.


The message was carefully folded in Danny's breast pocket, where it remained close to his heart. The child skipped joyfully ahead of his sister through the glittering snow, beaming as he hadn't for a long, long time. The cold, wintry air seemed to have the sparkly edge of hope to it, and Danny took eager gulps of it as he hurried to school, blissfully daydreaming.

No more shrill accusations and cold eyes filled with bitterness. No more Jazz picking on him and calling him nasty names. No more cold TV dinners he had to thaw out by placing them near the radiator. No more Dash beating him around the head every day. No more Tucker to help pull his ears and throw his books into dirty puddles and then pretend to play nice at play dates. No more days living in fear. No more Mommy hitting him or Daddy shunning him...

Danny scrambled towards school, humming merrily, cheeks rosy. Vlad genuinely seemed to want him; to believe that Danny was his own. Now, for the first time, he had someone he really wanted to make a valentine for. He'd ask Ms. Star to show him how to cut a paper heart, and maybe he could write a poem by himself, and make the card black and covered with yellow glitter and make a paper sun and a paper moon and...and...


The happy, blooming flowers inside of him were abruptly covered in frost. Danny stopped dead in his tracks, breath hitching sharply at the all-too familiar sounds of jeering coming from across the street. He didn't want to look; didn't need to look. His knees trembled, and his mouth abruptly went dry.

"Hey, stupid! Are ya so stupid ya can't understand anything, stupid?" he heard Kwan merrily call out. He heard Tucker snigger from somewhere nearby, and Danny's eyes narrowed in anger as they at last unwillingly moved towards the schoolyard, where Dash and his cronies were waiting. Dash was smirking, leaning against a nearby wall, looking like a smug cat that's eaten the canary.

Dark, hot fear filled Danny's senses for a moment, and was at once evaporated by a mist of sheer resentment and fury. His little cold hands curled into fists, and he scowled at the boys, shaking with rage.

This was supposed to be the best day of his life. These boys, whom Danny had never done ANYTHING to, had no right to come in and cause him pain! They had no RIGHT to steal from him, to bully him, to step on him like he was some piece of garbage! For the first time, Danny believed that he wasn'tgarbage, regardless of how his family treated him or how his schoolmates shunned him!

Dash was staring at him, and he obviously didn't like what he saw. Instead of cowering, and obediently approaching with sagged shoulders like a sorry dog, Danny was giving him the dirtiest look he'd ever received. He growled slightly, and took a step forward, mean purple eyes fixed on the boy.

"Come here," he commanded, sounding all the while like a general very used to people following his orders.

Danny just glared at him, and stood his ground. Dash seethed.


"You'll beat me, anyways," said Danny coldly, refusing to move.

Kwan cast his best friend a staggered look, but Dash was already running across the schoolyard, howling in rage. After glancing at each other in bewilderment, Tucker and Kwan raced behind the blonde, all dead-set on making the boy suffer, and suffer horribly. Hatred flared in their eyes, and Dash was looking particularly hungry to make Danny bleed, to make him bruised, to make him suffer.

How dare he. How dare he, a rat who took up valuable space and air, make their job harder for them?

Danny staggered a step back, and felt the note rustle in his pocket. No need to fight fire against fire when you can just as easily use water.

No one was going to hurt him ever again. He'd tell Vlad about this, and make his Daddy proud.

Danny immediately scooped snow into his hands, and, upon seeing a little stone lying on the ground, immediately packed it inside. He stood up, heart racing as they zoomed towards him, faster and faster and closer and closer-!

With a deep breath, Danny raised his arm back, and took careful aim.

And the snowball went hurling towards Dash Baxter's face.


It was a perfect bull's-eye; Dash fell to the ground, screaming in pain, hands flying towards his left eye. He writhed, shouting and roaring so loudly that several students ran running across the playground to see who was being murdered. Kwan and Tucker stopped dead in their tracks, huffing and puffing as they stared at Danny, who wAS gazing down the writhing maggot that was his enemy. Terrified, Kwan staggered back a few steps, uncertainly looking at his sobbing friend.

"Geez, Fentina, what'd you DO?" he asked, sounding more amazed than anything else.

Tucker tried to meet Danny's gaze, failed, and had to stare at the snow, where a few drops of blood had landed. He shivered, and took a few hasty steps behind Kwan, where he felt much safer.

There was a gasp from behind Danny, and the familiar silhouette of his sister raced past him to meet with a playground aid who was running in their direction. Danny did not quip so much as an eyebrow at the irony of the situation. When he'd tried hiding behind the aides, they simply pushed him away, told him to stop being ridiculous and to have fun. They looked the other way when Dash was kicking him in the face because Mr. Baxter owned most of the businesses here in this stupid town.

Jazz was breathless as she approached the aid, immediately and gleefully thrusting a finger in her brother's direction.



"Now, I'll have you know, Mrs. Ives, if you don't suspend him immediately, or better yet, kick the little caitiff out of school, I'll sue! This poisonous little brat should be behind bars in an institution!"

Chest heaving with rage, Mr. Baxter glowered at Danny, who was staring dreamily out the window, admiring a small cardinal that was gathering twigs nearby. February was a bit early for the birds to start coming back, but it made him happy. He wondered if Vlad was smart enough to tell by its plumage whether it was a male or female. Scowling angrily at his lack of response, Dash's father continued:

"Probably mentally subnormal, too. He doesn't deserve to be in a schoolyard full of decent and normal young minds-this son of a shrew is a menace! A MENACE, I tell you! Mark my words, I'll sue you and his rotten family if you don't kick him out immediately!"

Mrs. Baxter nodded, eyes full of angry tears. She hugged her son, who was staring at his feet. One of his eyes was bright purple.

Immediately, Mrs. Fenton spoke up, eying Mrs. Baxter with a very incensed look, although it must be said that Mrs. Fenton had her eye around the rope of pearls Mrs. Baxter had around her neck, and the brilliant diamond ring that sparkled at her finger.

"Who in the world are you calling rotten?" she demanded, and her husband had to wearily pull her back to her seat so that she did not immediately start a fistfight in the office. "Boys will be boys, and if my son says he was genuinely defending himself-"

"'Boys will be boys?'" the blond woman repeated angrily. "I think it's more along the lines of 'terrorists will be terrorists!' There's something wrong with your son, Mrs. Fenton, and obviously something VERY wrong with you if this is the way you raised him-"

"I think it was just an accident," muttered Jack Fenton, swaying slightly in his seat. God, but he wished that everyone wouldn't talk quite so loud! "Danny just threw a snowball, and he just happened to scoop a rock in the mix without noticing. We paid for Dash's medical bill already; I think it's a little much to add 'mental anguish' to the list of charges-"

"Easy for YOU to say! Maybe YOU don't care about your son's well-being, but my wife and I won't stand for our little Dash to be traumatized!"

Jack threw his hands in the air and said nothing. The principle wearily turned her almond-shaped eyes to little Danny Fenton, who was now looking at a picture on the principle's desk.

"Your dog is pretty," commented the child, as carefree as if he were talking about the weather. "What type is it?"

"A Yorkshire Terrier, but that's not the point, Danny," said Mrs. Ives sternly, slowly sitting in her leather chair with an inaudible groan. God, but she would need a drink with her husband after today. "Mrs. Baxter, Mr. Baxter, I realize why you're so upset, but right now, I think it best if I talk to Danny and Dash alone for a few moments. No, you don't need to fear for your son's safety," she added, as Mrs. Baxter opened her mouth. "Mr. and Mrs. Fenton, I think it best if you step out also."

"Probably going to measure the little rat for a straitjacket," murmured Mr. Baxter soothingly to Mrs. Baxter as the two reluctantly stood and trooped out, but not before kissing and ruffling their child's fair hair. Without a pause, the two Fenton parents followed after. Now, it was just the principle, and the two boys. The nearby clock's ticking seemed amplified in the silence.

Clearing her throat, Mrs. Ives leaned forward in her seat, chin resting on her entwined fingertips. She sighed.

"Danny, it's obvious before I take any sort of action, you need to apologize to Dash. Is this clear?"

"No," said Danny simply, meeting her gaze. Mrs. Ives frowned, and tried again.

"What do you mean by 'no?' Danny, what I mean is that you must feel sorry for your actions, and need to let Dash know how sorry you are for them. You gave your classmate a black eye, and he needed a stitch. Doesn't that make you feel guilty for what you've done? Don't you want to cry over how much trouble you caused?"

"Not really," said Danny indifferently. "No one does anything when Dash gives mea bruise, or throws anything at me."

"I do not," muttered Dash angrily, still looking at his shoes. Mrs. Ives' frown deepened.

"Your parents look very troubled, Danny. Aren't you worried what sort of trouble you'll be in when you get home?"

"Not especially," said Danny. "Mommy will blame Daddy and Daddy will blame Mommy and then they'll both blame me and Daddy will go out to his dodgy place, whatever that is, and Mommy will cry and watch TV."

"If they say you can't do the things you enjoy for a week? Such as playing with your friends?"

"I only have one. Friend, I mean. And Mommy and Daddy can't keep me away from him. He's such a very nice friend."

Wow. If that didn't sound creepy, Mrs. Ives didn't know what did. She took a large swallow of coffee, keeping her eyes on the pale, spindly little child before her, who was kicking his dangling feet back in forth in his chair. She continued:

"So, you have an imaginary friend?"

"No one can see him," said Danny simply.

Mrs. Ives nodded wisely. Ah. "But don't you have any real friends?"

"I just told you I did," said Danny, slightly puzzled. Dash scoffed.

"Maybe if you didn't toss rocks at people, you'd make more ACTUAL friends," he said angrily, giving Danny a poisonous look. "Imaginary friends are stupid." God, how he hoped no one found about his imaginary friend chihuahua.

"I don't think it makes a difference if I throw rocks at mean people or not," Danny piped up. "I still don't have any other friends. But I don't mind, now."

"People don't particularly like being hit by rocks, Danny," said the principle sternly. "Regardless if you were provoked or not, you could have seriously hurt Dash, and you must be punished."

Danny didn't say anything. He sadly turned his gaze to his own hands, which lay folded in his lap. What good would it do for him to say anything at this point? The principle would do nothing for him.

"Danny, you will not be permitted to go out to recess at all this week," said Mrs. Ives coldly. "You have lost that privilege as a result of your unforgivable behavior. I will tell your teacher that you will be staying in to help wash the desks and the chalkboard. You will also not be permitted to have lunch with your classmates, so you will have to pack a lunch and eat with Ms. Star."

What privileges? Recess was when Dash and his cronies liked to beat him particularly hard, and now he finally had an excuse to stay inside! As if that weren't enough, Dash would not be able to take any money from Danny for over a week!

Filled with rapture, Danny tried to look sad and remorseful as Mrs. Ives continued:

"You will be assigned extra homework from your teachers."

That was fine, really. His parents would stick him in his room for quite some time for this anyway, so he would simply keep his hands over his ears when the TV was blasting or Mommy and Daddy were yelling at each other again. Focusing wouldn't be very hard.

Mrs. Ives continued:

"You will have to stay thirty minutes after school lets out every day this week, and do whatever Ms. Star tells you to do. It will be much darker around that time, so I will have to insist that your parents pick you up. And if they want to continue to send you here, they'd do well to escort you to school every day this week, too."

Yes. Yes. Yes. Danny kept his eyes to the ground and kept nodding, but inwardly, he was singing. Dash wouldn't be able to touch him one day this week. This wasn't punishment-it was paradise! Vlad had obviously known what he'd been talking about.

But even now, Mrs. Ives was not done yet: "And to sate Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, I believe that you will be suspended for a week, Danny, starting next Monday. I would begin it now, only I believe a full week will be less consequential for the school. We can't afford to have a lawsuit, especially during tax season..."

Danny knew the punishment was heavy and excessive at his expense, but it protected him. At least for two weeks. He was giddy with relief that he would not have to miss this Friday; it was the class' Valentine's Day party, and Danny did not wish to miss it for the world.

Nodding impressively, Mrs. Ives leaned back in her seat, and pressed the buzzer on her desk to let the parents back in.