Chapter Twenty Five
The courtroom was cleared of everyone but Stubble, Snape and Dumbledore before the confinement spell was lifted and the door to my glass prison opened. Unable to bring myself to say anything to any of them, I moved numbly towards my abused bag and began to gently repack it.
"I thought that went rather well, old chap, don't you?" Diggory called to Dumbledore with a voice as proud as the one he'd used when he'd talked about Cedric in the elevator.
A pit formed in my stomach as my hands wrapped around the Gryffindor scarf.
I could feel the Headmaster's eyes on my back.
"I agree, Amos. Better than I dared hope."
"That hiccup with Umbridge though, yikes. Thought we'd be undone for sure. To call her heartless like that..."
He'd mentioned Umbridge before in his office. She must have been the woman next to Fudge. Bitterness coursed through me as I remembered her foul, unblinking eyes and irritatingly wide smile. There was a woman I wouldn't mind hitting with a sharp blast of ice.
"Danny's performance was otherwise perfect though, wouldn't you agree?"
"Indeed. Vast improvement if you ask me."
"Can you not talk about me as if I'm not here, please," I grunted, keeping my attention firmly on my bag. My tone was sharper than it had any right to be, only working to make me feel a hundred times worse.
"Apologies," Dumbledore replied carefully. He shouldn't have had to do anything carefully, he'd basically just saved my skin. I let out a sigh as I ran a hand over the crack in my laptop.
"No, don't apologise, I'm just…" The fabric of my glove caught against a sharp edge at one end of the computer. "You guys were amazing. Thanks for… well… coming to my rescue, or whatever. I thought-" I cut myself off, lifting the laptop and placing it in my bag along with its cord.
"Don't worry yourself about it," Stubble chirped with exaggerated cheer. "You have Hogwarts now and so long as you're there when we pop in for our little check ups, you've nothing else to worry about. Except perhaps Mad-Eye. I'm not so sure of what he'll make of your triumphant return…"
My grimace was hidden behind the box that held the snowglobe. I didn't gift him with a response which didn't go unnoticed by Dumbledore.
"It's been a long morning, Amos. Would you mind giving us a little space? I believe Danny and I need to have a talk before Severus and I escort him back to Hogwarts."
If anyone else had said those words, I might have freaked out. But after what had just happened with the Minister, my faith in the Headmaster was at an all time high. He'd said it before. He wasn't going to force me into anything I didn't want.
As tantalizing as Hogwarts was, it wasn't where I belonged.
"Oh, of course. I'll leave you all to it."
A heavy hand fell on my shoulder, making me jump.
"I'll see you in a few weeks, dear boy."
Diggory was gone before I could come up with anything resembling a response. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I pushed the last of my stuff into my bag. The zipper complained as I tried to pull it closed, contents bulging at the seams.
The quiet that settled over the room was suffocating. Dumbledore's eyes felt heavier than Diggory's hand had and I knew that he was reading the tension in my muscles.
"I take it by your silence you've made your decision," the man finally said, voice devoid of any disappointment or frustration.
I let out a sharp breath and slowly turned to face him. My expression was pained, I could feel it tugging at the corners of my eyes and mouth.
"I," I tried, but the words wouldn't come. I pressed a hand against my eyes, using the other to grip the table now behind me.
"It's okay. I understand," he soothed. I couldn't take it. My hand lowered and I fixed him with a stare so strong, my pupils felt like they were about to fly from my head.
"It's not that I don't appreciate it. I do. Like… so much. But I... I can't be what you need me to be." I grimaced. "It's just that you've done so much for me and I don't want you to get in trouble for something that's my fault."
The smile that spread across Dumbledore's face was disarming.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. I can handle the Ministry. If you believe that the place you need to be isn't with us at Hogwarts, then I shall have to believe that as well. My offer will always stand. Although, between you and I, I'd suggest making up your mind before the first review. I'd rather not run the risk of everything we've achieved this morning becoming unravelled."
"That would definitely suck," I agreed. I sighed again, glancing across at Snape who was looking at me with a gaze so passive, he could have been sleeping with his eyes open. He hadn't yet moved from his seat. "Could I… have a second? With Snape? Would that be okay?"
Dumbledore's smile seemed to grow a fraction before he gave a short nod.
"Of course. I shall be just outside if you need me."
The old wizard gave me a glittering wink before turning and making his way to the exit. It wasn't until the door closed with a click that I pulled myself away from the table. Snape didn't say a word, eyebrows lifting a fraction in askance. My hand landed on the back of my neck as I let my gaze fall to the legs of his stool.
"You were right. About the Legilimens spell."
"Of course I was," the man drawled, leaning back slightly in his seat.
"I… never really thanked you for… you know. The lessons or whatever. And for, like, not telling anyone about what you saw. That was… oddly cool of you."
The Potions Master rolled his eyes, arms folding tiredly across his chest.
"It wasn't my intention to be in anyway 'cool'. I was simply teaching you to keep your vulnerabilities to yourself to prevent others from exploiting them and putting us all in danger."
I scoffed, letting my raised hand fall to tap lightly on the side of my leg.
"And the not telling Dumbledore?"
Snape's eyes turned sharp and a small sneer curled at the corners of his mouth.
"I could, if you like. I'm sure he'd find your long forgotten past to be particularly interesting."
"Are you, like, allergic to niceness? Is that a thing? Because I was really going for a moment here."
"Yes, well you can keep your 'moment's to yourself. I have better things to be doing." With that, he stood from his stool and made his way very deliberately to the exit.
All too soon I was alone.
I let out a shaky breath as I examined the glass box.
That could have been my future. Sat behind glass as some Ministry worker looked on. 'Retrained' in the ways of the wizarding world. Whatever the heck that meant.
Refusing to let my mind wander any further, I turned and grabbed my bag from the table.
And then something unexpected happened.
An icy sensation shot up through my throat, ferocity of it taking me by surprise. The gasp that escaped me was accompanied by a powerful blast of blue mist.
My eyes widened as I spun and scanned the room once more. Before I could register the gaping green hole in the air by the glass box, I found myself wrapped in thick, black-haired arms. A large, pink, sandpapery tongue lashed my face as I struggled to break away, foul breath making my eyes water.
"Wulf?" I laughed, half in shock, half in relief.
The wolfish ghost pulled back, paws still grasping my upper arms as his toxic green eyes took in mine. The grin on his face displayed each and every one of his glistening, dagger-like teeth and his nose twitched in his apparent excitement.
"Mia amiko," he barked. His grin was infectious and pretty soon my cheeks started to hurt from the sudden strain.
"What're you doing here? How did you find me?"
Rather than answer me outright, he withdrew and reached for something under his shirt. I rubbed the lingering saliva from my cheek as I watched him pull out a large silver cog attached to a thick purple ribbon. The second I saw the insignia, I knew what it was.
"Clockwork sent you?"
For some reason, I felt less than comforted by the knowledge. Clockwork never did anything out of pure generosity. There was always a reason, usually involving me screwing something up.
"Mi prenas vin hejmen," Wulf announced, trotting happily back to his portal. I frowned as my brain fought to translate. I was pretty sure hejmen meant home. Which meant...
I let out a heavy breath as my eyes drifted towards the exit. If Clockwork had sent Wulf to take me back to Amity Park at this exact moment, it had to be for a reason. But Dumbledore and Snape were still outside and as much as I'd have liked to say goodbye, I couldn't risk them catching sight of Wulf and going into attack mode. He wasn't always the best ghost for first impressions.
But I couldn't leave them waiting outside an empty room.
I glanced up at the Minister's box and was both surprised and happy to find that the quill and the ink of the scribe were still in place.
"Hold on," I called to Wulf, jumping into the air and flying over to sit at the mind-invader's table. As though someone had known I was going to need it, a scrap of parchment rested at the centre of the desk.
I reached across for the quill and dipped it distractedly in the ink before letting it hover over the page.
"Sorry, guys," I breathed as I began my scribble.
Dumbledore and Snape,
Managed to hitch a ride with a friend.
Thanks for everything.
Short. Simple. It'd do. I gave the parchment a quick shake, willing the ink to dry faster before I made my way to the exit. Wulf gave a curious whine as I reached the shabby wooden door.
"I'll be half a second," I soothed before phasing invisibly from the room.
"Are you sure letting him go is the best thing to do? You have no idea what the Ministry will do when they find out he's gone."
I blinked as Snape's whisper drifted towards me from down the hall.
"I meant what I said before, Severus. I'm not forcing anyone to do anything. If Danny wants to leave, he is free to. I have no interest in playing prison guard." The sharpness in Dumbledore's response was staggering. I glanced wearily back at the door I'd phased through. As interesting as listening into an argument between Dumbledore and Snape might have been, the clock was ticking and I couldn't leave Wulf waiting forever. I moved silently towards them, taking note of the tension in Dumbledore's face.
Whether it was the topic of the discussion or the knowledge that Snape was right, the warmth his expression had held before was nowhere to be found. Snape's mannerisms were far calmer. Despite the seriousness of what he was saying, he seemed to throw every word away like he was plucking petals from a flower.
"So what exactly is it you've been doing for the past month? You and I both know you could have easily countered Diggory's confinement spell and sent him on his way that first day. But you didn't. You let him sit and suffer through it. What's different now?"
My flight slowed as I waited for Dumbledore's answer. The man let out a heavy sigh, peering at his employee with his head raised.
"The difference is that now we know for sure he isn't a threat to anyone. You said yourself, no matter how hard you pushed, he never physically lashed out. I needed that proof. We all did."
I didn't realise I'd stopped moving until Snape took a tired step back. The parchment wrinkled in my hand as I stared across at the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
The sessions with Snape. I'd always thought the Potions Master had volunteered himself but the way Dumbledore spoke about it… Snape had a capacity for cruelty, you could tell just by looking at him. If that was Dumbledore's plan all along...
As much as the logic made sense, I couldn't deny the sting of betrayal it sent through me. He'd always made out like he trusted me from the get go. I wouldn't have minded if he'd told me he was wary, I mean, as much as it would have sucked, I could have understood it. Instead. He'd lied to me. He'd set me up with Snape as a test in its own right. And I hadn't seen it.
Not wanting to spend another second in the hallway with these people, I let the parchment fall from my hand. The second it lost contact with my glove, it burst into visibility. Dumbledore's eyes locked onto it in that exact same moment and with a look of mild alarm, he swept forward to pluck it from the air before it hit the floor.
I was back in the courtroom before he could finish reading.
"Let's go," I instructed, ignoring the clicking of heels on the marble floor of the hall outside. Wulf cocked his head to the side, peering at me with concerned eyes before his ears twitched. Understanding visibly flooded through him as he picked up on the advancing footsteps and with only the briefest of nods, he stepped into the portal.
I didn't look back as I followed him through.
The moment the door to the courtroom opened was the same moment the portal snapped shut.
Fenton Works had once been home to a family of three. The adult couple, two women with a fancy for anything high-tech, had installed a radio transmitter to the top of the building in order to create their own radio station. While the venture hadn't been all that profitable, it gave them something to tinker with at home while their daughter learned to crawl, walk and eventually run them in circles.
There had been rumours floating around for years about occasional ghost sightings in Amity Park and it wasn't long before the radio transmitter started to send out signals that weren't initiated by the couple. Anyone that happened to tune into their station, often found themselves listening to low groans and wails of pain that sounded ancient and undying. At first, it was believed to be a prank - a cruddy joke that would fizzle out when the pair realised no one was laughing but eventually it turned into something of a horror story.
It just so happened that when the bizarre activity was at its peak, my parents graduated college and were looking for a place to settle down. When they rolled into Amity Park and heard stories about the town's ghostly past and the newest seemingly paranormal phenomena, they couldn't resist. They visited the home of the couple, admiring the technological updates they'd installed in the house, and asked a million questions about when the sounds had started and what they thought could be responsible.
The young girl in the house had turned five by this point and the couple were in the process of looking for schools. With the majority of the town blaming them for the eerie radio signals, the three of them weren't all that popular and the last thing they wanted was for their daughter to be victimised at school for something that wasn't her fault. So when my parents expressed interest in the house, they leapt at the chance of giving it over. Money was exchanged with unconventional speed and the young family was gone by the end of the week.
Since then, my parents had developed the already advanced systems that had been built in and Fenton Works slowly became less of a house and more of a machine.
As I stared up at the blindingly bright neon sign alongside the spaceship-esque ops centre, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of warmth.
I was home.
"Dankon," I murmured, unable to pull my eyes away.
Wulf's clawed hand weaved its way into my hair as he gave it a light ruffle and pulled me into a half hug. With my right ear pressed up against his chest, his garbled response was lost on me. He held me there for a few seconds before letting go and giving me a heavy thump on the back.
And then he was gone.
The sudden solitude filled me with a strong sense of foreboding. The time difference was evident in the way that the sun was still in hiding. The only light came from the lampposts, the neon sign above, and the dim glow of my ghost form.
With an uneasy glance around the street, I transformed.
The sudden weight of my backpack caused me to stagger a little, snow globe and lizard box making it heavier than I remembered.
I hitched my shoulders in determination before marching myself to the front door.
The moment my hand touched the handle, I realised there was a problem.
It was locked.
"Duh," I groaned, pressing my forehead against the door.
A sudden wave of tiredness hit, battering away at the nerves that had been raging through me for weeks. Would it be bad if I just phased through the door and went to bed for a few hours before sneaking out again and doing the whole, 'I am returned' thing properly?
My eyes slid closed in support of the idea.
It was then I picked up on a familiar tinkling sound coming from above.
My head shot up to hone in on the window the noise was drifting from.
Jazz's alarm clock.
"Going ghost," I murmured. The second the rings had finished washing over me, I jumped into the air and began to drift steadily upwards.
By the time I reached her window, the alarm had been stopped. My glow lit up enough of her room for me to see a figure roll over in her bed and shove her face down defiantly into the pillow. Just seeing the mass of ginger hair filled me with more warmth than I'd felt in a while.
Mischief flashed across my face as I glanced at the alarm clock.
Without waiting a second longer, I phased into her room and stretched myself out in the air above her bed. Duvet twisted itself lovingly around her limbs, eager to keep her safe from the hazards of consciousness. Easily fixed.
"Wakey wakey, Jazz," I whispered, holding my hand out above the exposed part of the back of her neck. "I think it's time to get up."
A grin snaked its way onto my lips as energy coursed through me into my palm. There was no sign of warning before three ice cubes slipped from my fingers down onto her neck and under her collar.
"Hey!" She gave a jolt so impressive, I had to fly back a little to avoid getting hit. Her hands slapped the back of her neck like she was swatting a fly as she leapt from the bed and gave her mattress a stunned and betrayed look.
I couldn't hold back the laughter.
"Oh, you should see your face right now. I really need to start keeping a camera with me." I wiped an imaginary tear from my eye before flipping on the lightswitch and dropping to the floor.
It took a while for her gaze to slide from the bed up to me. The moment it locked on the betrayal on her face turned to disbelief.
I gave a little wave.
"Oh my gosh, Danny!"
Before I had the chance to prepare myself, I was encased in a bone crushing hug. Her body shook as she held me and I couldn't tell if it was from the sudden cold of being around my ghost form, or the overload of emotions that I'd seen on her face a second before.
Deciding to reduce the risk of it being the former, I transformed yet again. The warmth of her body against mine was incredibly soothing and I felt myself falling further into the embrace.
"I missed you too," I announced with an unsteady laugh. She pulled away in that same second. The tightness of her grip on my shoulders was unnerving as her gaze swept across my face like an overly bright searchlight.
"Are you okay? Are you hurt? We were so worried. I thought-"
"I'm fine, really," I cut in. "Did you get my letter?"
"You mean the handwritten one that explained absolutely nothing?" she bit, voice sharpened by worry. I grimaced, pulling myself from her grip and easing my weighted backpack to the floor.
"Sounds like the one." My sheepish tone did nothing to quell the storm on her face.
"What happened, Danny? Where were you?" Without me to hold onto, she opted to wrap her arms around herself instead.
I hesitated, hand drifting to my neck.
"You honestly wouldn't believe me if I told you," I mumbled. A frustrated frown formed on her face as she peered down at me.
"That's all you're going to give me? Danny, you went missing for a month. No one, not even Vlad, could find you. The Booo-merang didn't work, Frostbite wouldn't let any of us near the Infi-map and no one's seen Skulker for like… three weeks. No phone call, no email, nothing but a letter saying 'don't panic, please cover for me'." Her voice grew louder as her speech developed. I deserved the anger, I knew I did, but it didn't stop the sting.
"There was a little more to the letter than that…" I defended weakly.
"Barely," Jazz scoffed.
Fatigue coursed through me a second time and I found myself sinking down onto the edge of her mattress. Skulker going missing was unnerving. The Booo-merang didn't surprise me - despite my parent's own brand of artificial ectoplasm charging it, it was still electronic. If magic managed to knock out my phone and laptop, it stood to reason it'd mess with my parent's inventions.
Frostbite refusing them the Infi-map though?
As much as we messed up last time we had it, I would have thought my being missing would have swayed him at least a little?
"Come on, little brother. Talk to me."
Jazz moved to sit beside me, bringing up a leg so that her knee bumped with mine.
Try as I might, I couldn't get my gaze to meet hers.
I wanted to tell her, I did. But. I'd just got back and explaining the existence of an entire wizarding world was way too much to tackle with my currently limited brain power. Plus, I still hadn't decided how much I wanted to say.
I gave a small sigh as I twisted my hands above my lap.
"Can we talk about this later? I'm tired. I didn't sleep all that well last night and this morning has been… insane. Could you just tell me what you told Mom and Dad so I can figure my story out before they realise I'm back?" I lifted my head enough to give her a pleading look which I knew she'd struggle against.
Her eyes narrowed but after a few seconds of internal conflict, she gave a slow nod.
"Promise we'll talk about it later," she demanded.
"Okay." She sighed, glancing across at her alarm clock to check how much time she could spare before she had to get ready. With her crazy long routine, it wouldn't have surprised me if she leaped into action that very second. Seven past six was cutting it close.
"We kept the Astronaut Experience Internship story. Mom and Dad think that the reason you haven't been calling is because the place you were at had some kind of boosted radio signal that screwed up communications and that your phone had to be turned off most of the time. Don't give me that look, I was under pressure and I panicked. Plus, you know our parents, they'll eat up anything if you make it sound clever enough."
Something Jazz always succeeded at and I did not.
"Radio signals. Got it," I gave a sharp nod, which was a mistake because my head was starting to pound and the sudden motion made it so much worse. "Anything else I should know about?"
"Sam has repeatedly told Tucker and I how much she's going to hurt you when she sees you next, so I'd watch out for that. Also Vlad's been lurking around a lot lately. He's playing the worried family friend, but there's something else going on."
"When isn't there?" I groaned and rubbed a hand across my eyes. Vlad I could deal with later. Sam. Sam I should probably deal with sooner.
As soon as the thought passed, I was taken hostage by a universe swallowing yawn.
"Yeah, okay. You're going to bed," Jazz announced, standing up and moving over to grab my backpack. I watched blearily as she dragged the bag up to rest on her shoulder, arms straining against the weight. "What have you got in here? A horse?"
"Abraxon. Bigger and with more wings," I quipped despite knowing she wouldn't understand the joke. I pulled myself up into standing and offered an arm to take the bag back.
"I'll carry it," she said, moving to face the door. "Before you sleep, we're knocking on Mom and Dad's door. They should know you're back."
I groaned. The last thing I needed was for my parents to be buzzing around me like over energised Bowtruckles. "Can't that wait until my brain is at least semi-functional?"
"Your brain is never in any way functional. Come on, they'll be happy to see you."
"Yeah. That's the problem."
With a dark grumble, I allowed myself to be dragged from Jazz's room.
AN: DANNY'S HOME! Ain't that some sweet stuff? Bless him. There were moments he doubted but now, there he is, back to annoying Jazz and worrying his friends. Aww.
A warm welcome to Arc Two!
Here's where the bad news comes in. So you guys know I've been super busy as of late and writing time has been basically non-existent. I want to give you early warning. I have chapters for June and July but following that, I'm a dry well. My contract doesn't finish until early November which means that if I can't get my writing brain on during my limited holidays, August, September and October may be chapterless. There's two months yet, everything could change but this is how we currently stand.
I love you guys and your support is everything to me. Here's to the next two months!