The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.

— Carson McCullers

"Why didn't you let me go?!" Tucker demanded, throwing off his father's hand and turning to glare at him. Angela clutched the vase that she still, foolishly, held in her hands. She had never seen her son so angry.

"Because they could have just as easily arrested you," Maurice said sternly. "What do you think a federal investigation would make of the technological monstrosity you have upstairs?"

Tucker threw up his hands and stalked to the far end of the room. "You think I care? They're taking her to that lab—that place where they tortured—" he paused, face contorting, then went on. "This is bad, really, really bad!"

Angela sank onto the couch and set the vase on the overturned coffee table. "What did they mean, she was ectocontaminated?"

Tucker waved an angry hand. "Just that spectral energy reconstructed her original suit by infusing the materials with extradimensional energy and fused with Valerie by aligning its electromagnetic vibrations to her brain waves. That doesn't give them the right to just drag her off like that!"

Angela glanced at Maurice, who looked equally puzzled. "It's what?"

"Ghost suit," Tucker snapped. "Ghost suit, okay?" He grabbed the coffee table and righted it with a furious jerk, upsetting the vase that Angela had just abandoned. Kicking at the monopoly pieces scattered among broken glass and fake flowers, he leaned over the side table and fished out the fallen game board. "It's a ghost-energy powered suit, that's all! She's still human, but the ecto-energy's attached to her so she reads like a ghost on their scanners. You think they'll treat her any better than Phantom?"

Tucker sank into a crouch, hugging the monopoly board. He was really frightened for Valerie, and that frightened Angela in turn. "They don't understand that it's physically a part of her now," he went on in a low voice. "If they try to force it off, who knows what will happen to her?"

"You really think they'll hurt her?" A new voice asked, breathless.

Angela turned around to find a man standing in their back garden, leaning on his hands and knees, sweat rolling down his neck and creating a wet stain down the front of his button-up shirt. He was dark-skinned and black-haired, with a thick mustache and even thicker shoulders. A familiar face from school events, though Angela had never seen him so unkempt and desperate.

"Damon Gray?" Maurice said, half in question. He hadn't seen Damon like this either.

Damon glanced around, taking in the broken window and the scattered furniture with a sort of knowing desperation. "My daughter—she was here, wasn't she?"

"The GIW just took her away," Angela said, standing up. "Damon, what on earth is going on?"

"You," Tucker growled. Tossing aside the game board, he took a step toward Damon, looking murderous. "You ratted her out, didn't you?" He yanked off his beret and threw it on the ground. "What were you thinking? You're her dad! She trusted you!"

"Tucker," Angela scolded, but he ignored her. Under the circumstances she hardly blamed him.

Damon flinched. "I thought they could help her. Free her from this ghost-hunting obsession that's taken her over, that damned suit that's stuck on her like a leech. They said they could fix things… not like this. Not hunting her down like an animal! This isn't what I wanted."

"Congratulations. You sold her out to the worst people on the planet."

Angela moved to stand by the window, staring out past their narrow back yard at the alley behind it. This felt so surreal. Surely any sensible, reasoning adult could see the absurdity of all this. They should call the police. Surely even the GIW's broad-strokes authority over ecto-incidents wouldn't apply here.

"They can't just whisk her away without a warrant!" Maurice argued, echoing her thoughts. "What about due process? What about a fair trial?"

Damon looked up, face drawn. "Technically, as her guardian, I gave them permission."

"Then change it!" Tucker snapped. "Fix this."

"It's too late." Damon sank into a crouch, oblivious to the sharp shards of glass just inches from his knees, and dropped his head into his hands. "She's gone. They're gone. What's going to happen to her now?"

Tucker picked up his beret and jammed it on his head. "Not yet, they haven't," he said grimly. "Sorry Dad, I can't sit this one out. I don't care if I have to walk, I'm going after her."

Angela gave Maurice a look and brushed the dust off her shirt, reaching for her shoes. Maurice stood up. "Not without your parents, you aren't." Wordlessly, Damon stood and stepped in through the shattered window.

"Then come on!" Tucker ran for the front door. The adults followed on his heels.

Tucker burst out the front door, nearly colliding with Mrs. Fenton, who stood on the front step with a foil-covered casserole dish in her arms. Startled, they stared at each other for a split second. Tucker spoke. "The GIW just took Valerie. She's part ghost—or close to it. We've got to stop them." Tucker pointed at the white van disappearing at the far end of the street.

Angela watched Maddie's expression go through a quick kaleidoscope of realizations, passing through surprise and horror and settling on determination. She opened her mouth, then paused and glanced up at Angela, hesitation in her eyes.

Angela knew very well what Maddie's look meant. This was exactly the sort of thing Angela had been trying to keep Tucker out of, but— the white van carrying Valerie disappeared up the street. Angela clasped her hands. "If you can help, please."

Maddie set the casserole on the stoop and took Tucker by the arm, pulling him toward her car parked across the street. "I'll drive."

Danny's head throbbed. Cold wet concrete pressed into his cheek, reeking of aerosol and grease. His ears rang , his teeth ached, every inch of him stung from the bruises already forming there. He desperately wanted to pass out, and just… stay unconscious. For a long while.

Then that weird, metallic click echoed through the alley and for some reason he couldn't quite explain all the nerves in his body tensed. An uneasy silence fell over the boys surrounding him. Quiet enough he could hear cars swishing past out of sight down the alley, the patter of rain on the dumpster lid, his own thudding heartbeat. He licked his lips; they felt weirdly numb.

"Man, maybe you shouldn't… I mean, what if the cops hear? You could get in real trouble—all of us could!"

"Shut up!" Blond's voice cracked, furious. "I'm not messing around with this—this freak!"

"Not me, I'm out. Catch you later, man." Sneakers scuffled away, splashing in the scummy water. Rotting vegetables. Old fries. The dumpsters here were just as bad as in Amity Park.

"Who needs you? I've got him right where I want."

Danny made an effort and finally raised his head. He looked up through a gap between his arms and glimpsed a smooth black metal barrel. The blond had his finger on the trigger and was pointing it right at Danny. Danny blinked at the thing with watering eyes, willing it to blur into focus. It took him half a second to realize it was a gun.

Danny felt like laughing. He was so used to being threatened by oversized ghost lasers that he didn't even recognize an actual weapon. He ought to run. At least try to get away. Danny couldn't muster up the energy. He could barely think, let alone move. He shut his eyes. He was so tired.

"Are you gonna shoot him or what?" A shrill voice this time; the falsetto guy, at least, had stuck around.

"Shut up!"

Danny was so tired. He'd been stupid. Shouldn't have lost it like that. This was so much more dangerous than anything a ghost hunter had pointed at him, but all he could muster was a chuckle.

A toe nudged his arm. "You think this is funny, freak?"

No. But it was over. Danny couldn't so much as move, forget about phasing away or going invisible. He should've run when he had the chance. He should've called Jazz. What was Mom doing right now? Would she be upset if she found him like this?

A sharp clack, clack clack cut through Danny's thoughts. Danny tensed. New fear sharpened his thoughts, broke through the haze in his mind. He knew that sound. High heels on pavement.

"Hey! What are you doing?" Nicki's voice.

A thrill of fear shot through Danny. She couldn't come over here. It was dangerous. He grit his teeth and somehow pushed himself up on his hands and knees.

That was a mistake. She saw him. "Danny? Oh my god, you assholes, what did you do to him?"

"Get lost." Blond's voice. Quavery but dangerous.

"You get lost, you little—" Nicki stopped short. She must have seen the gun. If she'd just back away now…

Five minutes ago, she'd been making pizza.

Now Nicki stood in some random dark alley, Danny lying on the ground like three-day-old roadkill surrounded by a bunch of angry teenagers, and one of them had a gun to his head. Nicki couldn't decide if she was more terrified or annoyed. Of course Danny got himself into this mess in the fifteen minutes she'd left him alone. Nobody else matched that level of stupid. And now here she was, walking right into it. Nicki scowled. Shannon owed her one.

She held out her hand, slowly, like she might to a skittish dog. "You really don't want to use that." The one with the gun looked up. He was blond, zitty, on the short side. He looked about the same age as Danny, maybe sixteen. Not a hardened criminal, Nicki thought. He looked scared. Maybe she could talk him down.

He glared at her. There was soot on his face, and the stench of aerosol hung in the air. "I get to decide what I want. I'm the one with the gun."

Nicki shook her head. "You do not want to shoot somebody, trust me on this. It'll mess up the rest of your life. Just drop it and go."

"Shut up! Your freaky friend set me on fire. This is self defense."

"Defense from what?" Nicki gestured to Danny. Blood and dirt and what looked like paint darkened his once bright-colored hoodie to a muddied mess. His arms were visibly shaking from the effort of keeping himself off the ground, head hung low. "Look at him, he's done. You had your revenge or whatever, just go already."

She stepped toward Danny. The kid fell back a step, then scowled and swung his gun up to point at Nicki instead. "Back off, bitch."

She froze. "Danny's my friend," she hissed. "I'm not leaving him here. You already beat the crap out of him, what more do you want? The police to come after you? If you want me to go around the corner and call them I can absolutely do that. Or you can just go, now." Nicki was trembling, but so was he. Any more pressure and he'd fold. She took one more step.

Something in the kid's eyes changed. Nicki went rigid, suddenly sure she'd been wrong. Her eyes locked on his finger as it moved to pull the trigger.

Suddenly Danny was up. He lurched between them and into her, shoving her off balance. Nicki had a split second to register the blood dripping down Danny's neck, his orange sweatshirt stained black with streaks of red, the sharp odor of aerosol and stale grease.

A sharp bang rang out, then another. Nicki gasped—or tried to. It felt as if someone had smashed her chest with a mallet. White spots popped in her vision. Pain blossomed down her arm and deep into her chest. Danny slumped into her as her legs gave way. They went down together.

Liz was right, that pizza would burn.

Minds that Move :: tbc...


Good thing all those cliffies got—

Uh, nevermind. ^^;

Sorry for the delay, folks! I needed one extra week in my writing plans for this month and I figured you'd rather have last week's cliffie dangling than this one. Only a few chapters left to this arc, and then we get into the endgame! I'm super excited! Speaking of which, I've continued to work hard on the draft and I am very nearly finished! Four chapters to substance edit according the betas' notes on them, some busywork going back and touching up a plot hole or two, and then all I'll have left to do is the bimonthly polish edit. So, basically, I'll be done. Holy crap.

It feels surreal, after all this time, but good. My birthday is next week, and finally bringing this baby to a close (for me, though y'all have a ways to go) will be the perfect present. :)

Life continues to zip by, partly because of all the work I've been pouring onto this project, partly because that's what life does. It's not even spring and it's already hot enough to pull out my summer clothes. I set the stove on fire last week and smothered the blaze with a cake pan, that was exciting. We still don't have a cat, to my vast disappointment. I'm trying to find a Tai Chi place around here that doesn't cost an arm and a leg to join. I'm thinking about a lot of original fic ideas, which is exciting in itself. April Wrimo hopefully give me some material to work from, in addition to my older projects that need dusting off and looking after.

Much love to my amazing and persistent beta readers, MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria! May your ice cream always be just the right kind of sweet and your edits go smoothly!

And thank you, my dearest readers, for your reviews and encouragement. Shoutout to NimbusDust and DarkPitsNipples, welcome! Turduckenail, I don't know how far you'll get on your binge read, but I hope you make it this far! YogurtBear, thanks for taking a moment to review! I also am hyped on caffeine so we're a good match. XD

Till next time,