I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief.
Tucker walked down the street, Sam beside him. His mom and Krum trailed a few yards behind, chatting quietly. It had dipped below freezing the night before, and all of them were bundled in sweaters, hands in their pockets. The leaves had turned the rain gutters into a bright patchwork of orange, red, yellow and brown— usually his favorite colors, but Tuck felt a little queasy looking at them now. Okay, he felt a little queasy, period. The last time he'd seen his best friend it had been on a video screen, locked in a box smeared with his own blood. Tucker knew all that was long over, but— he took a deep breath of the chilly air. The images were hard to shake.
"Your mom is amazing," Sam said under her breath, thankfully breaking his train of thought. "Krum hasn't strung that many sentences together in the entire time I've had him around. Which is all the time."
Tucker smirked; people were always underestimating Mom. "She talked your parents into letting you come over, didn't she?"
It had taken some serious negotiations to raise the double ban of being grounded and not allowed at the Fentons, but there was never a question of not going. Mom understood. Even if it had taken three excruciating days to talk the Mansons down and she felt the need to chaperone them like a kindergarten teacher.
"True." Sam had to be nervous too, but she walked briskly, with a determined flash in her eye. "Not that they could've stopped me."
Tucker grinned; of course not. "Hey, I want to be able to get online with you before we're both forty."
Tucker fingered the tamagotchi in his pocket, the devices clicking against each other. He'd pulled one apart and tweaked it to turn the little pixel creature into a ghost. It spit tiny ectoblasts as it floated around the screen. So much had changed since he'd last seen Danny. The hack, Valerie, his parents… it was a whole different world. Could anything be the same after something like that?
They turned the corner and FentonWorks loomed up ahead. Danny sat on the front stoop, a handheld game cupped loosely in his hands, though he wasn't looking at it. He stared off into the space between the buildings across the street. He wore a red jacket that hung open at the front, exposing his favorite T-shirt— the NASA one with the classic logo. His hair had that crisp, clean look of a recent haircut.
He looked healthier than the guy who'd left the hospital, his skin a warm pink instead of grey, eyes clear, without that hunched posture of somebody perpetually sore and exhausted. If he'd had his backpack, Tucker would have said he was about to head to school.
Tucker slowed, gripping the tamagotchi in his pocket. He found himself searching for some sign of the guy from the tapes. He didn't… look damaged. Maybe that's what bothered Tucker— that you couldn't tell. He felt guilty the instant the thought crossed his mind.
Danny looked up and spotted them. He put down the game and waved, then stood and waited, shoving his hands into his jean pockets.
"He doesn't look happy to see us," Tucker muttered out of the side of his mouth. His feet dragged on the pavement. "He looks like he wants to take off again."
Sam slowed with him, but she shook her head, scowling at the idea. "Wouldn't you be nervous coming back after all that time? He probably thinks we're mad."
Tucker winced. "I miight've gotten a little mad on the phone."
Sam punched him in the arm. "Tucker!"
"What? He left without saying goodbye. I don't know, it felt complicated." He'd hated being left in the dark. Like they couldn't handle how bad it had gotten. Not that they could, but neither could Danny. At least they would've been in the know.
A part of Tucker was just so fed up with Danny doing his Danny thing. Trying to protect them like he and Sam hadn't been right there with him every day, battling it up. Being so annoyingly self-sacrificing. He didn't have to do that, not with them. Couldn't blame a guy for getting frustrated.
"It's Danny," Sam shot back, taking Tucker's arm and pulling him forward. "Things are always complicated. Now go tell your best friend you're glad he's home."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Boys and their feelings."
Like she was one to talk. Tucker grinned and walked faster. The distance closed. The two friends sped up until they were running the last dozen feet. They both came to a stop, Tucker wheezing at the sudden exercise.
Danny stood there with his hands still in his pockets, looking awkward and weirdly shy. "Hi," he said.
Just like that, it didn't matter. Not the tapes, what he hadn't told them, how he'd left, anything. Tucker felt himself grinning so wide it hurt. He glanced at Sam, who had a matching grin, eyes suddenly bright with mischief. They tackled him back onto the steps in a hug, a tangle of arms and legs and warm bodies.
"Hi, what do you mean hi?! Oh my gosh Danny, you're back!" Sam threw her arms around his neck.
Tucker couldn't find any words, so he just pounded Danny on the back and tried not to tear up at the whole thing.
"Yeah—" Danny winced.
Both of them instantly sat back. Tucker scanned Danny from head to toe, taking in the bruise on his face and the way he curled his arm around his side. "Dude, are you hurt again? Don't tell me you've been fighting ghosts!"
"No ghosts." Danny shrugged, not making eye contact. "It's no big deal."
Tucker shook his head. "You've been away way too long if you think you can pull that crap with us."
"Fess up," Sam demanded. "Details."
Danny sent a desperate glance at the fast-approaching adults. "I got mugged, okay? Fractured ribs, bruises, scratches," he rattled off under his breath. "That's it, promise, and I got looked at by a doctor so it's all good. Can we not make it a big deal around your mom who just barely agreed to let you come see me? I already had to tell the police."
"You got arrested?" Sam hissed, glancing at Krum.
"No, I was a witness. There were these guys, and they…" he sighed, looking tired. "Long story. Don't tell your parents that either."
"We're getting the whole story later," Sam gave Danny a look that would've had Vlad shaking in his boots.
Danny shot a desperate look at Tucker, who shook his head. "I'm with Sam on this, dude."
"Just what I need," Danny mumbled half-heartedly. "Another set of parents."
"Considering Mrs. Fenton's track record—" Sam began darkly, but the adults were nearly there and Tucker elbowed her.
"Later," Danny promised under his breath. They switched to innocent smiles with practiced ease as Tucker's mom caught up to them, Krum just behind her with the casserole dish in his burly arms.
"Danny, honey!" Mom opened her arms with a huge smile. Danny returned the hug, though Tucker saw him wince again as she squeezed him tight. "It's so good to see you. My goodness, you got taller!" She didn't ask about the bruise on his face, though she'd definitely seen it.
"Nice to see you too, Mrs. F." There it was, that bashful smile that was worth a million bucks, or at least $378 when you were a ten-year-old boy scout selling chocolate bars with your best friend to nice old ladies. "Thanks for letting Tucker come over."
Tucker and Sam exchanged glances; then he could smile, that was a relief.
"Well," Mom said, obviously charmed. "Once your parents and I can come to terms on the safety in this house, he'll be welcome to come over anytime."
Danny's eyebrows went up. "Safety?" He glanced at the brand-new front door. "Um, one too many explosions?"
"Something like that," she agreed wryly. "I just want you children to be safe. Now let's go on in, I'm sure your parents don't want you out of their sight for long."
"It's the new trend in Amity Park," Tucker cut in. "Teenagers who are practically adults getting put on house arrest. You, me, Sam, Valerie. The ghosts have more rights now than we do!"
"Not yet they don't," Sam said, cracking her knuckles. "Though it's a matter of time. I'm wearing him down."
"Wearing who down?" Danny looked at her as they all filed through the living room and into the kitchen.
"The mayor," Tucker supplied. "Sam's into ghost protection politics now. Saving the frogs is sooo mainstream these days." He rolled his eyes and put on a Sam-like pout. "Like cell phones."
She elbowed him. "Shut up, Mr. Monopoly."
"You're just mad because you can't beat me." Tucker sniffed and gave her a superior look. Under the banter he couldn't help but tense as they entered the kitchen—no Mrs. Fenton. Not yet. He didn't know how he'd react exactly, but just thinking about it made his palms slick. Tucker knew— even if Sam and Valerie wouldn't admit it— that things weren't totally Mrs. Fenton's fault. But watching someone do what she did changed things.
Sam must be thinking something similar, since she glanced around, then subtly relaxed. "Your mom beat us both, remember?"
"She always wins."
"Don't you forget it, kids," Mom opened up the casserole dish, revealing a cake with fluffy blue icing and little star sprinkles. "I hope you're not too old for sprinkles, Danny."
Sam leaned in to swipe some icing. "Nobody's too old for sprinkles, Mrs. Foley."
"Mooom, Daaad, they're here," Danny called down the stairs. If he was nervous about her, it didn't show. Tucker shared another glance with Sam. If Danny could handle it, they could.
"Be up in five, kiddo!" Mr. Fenton's booming voice came back.
Five minutes. Tucker tried not to sigh again. This was gonna be so awkward.
A freckle-faced man with rolled-up sleeves and curly ginger hair stepped in, his nose in a folder full of handwritten notes, weaving around the group in the kitchen without so much as losing stride. A bright orange Fenton Bandage peeked out of the neck of his sweater.
Danny nodded at him. "That's Dr. Wagner, he's staying with us for a while." The man waved without looking up and disappeared downstairs to the lab. Danny turned to look at Krum, who had resumed his position behind Sam."Speaking of random strangers…."
Krum did not acknowledge Danny's stare, arms crossed, scowling at nothing.
Sam licked the icing off her fingertips and waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, that's Krum. He's my ghost hunter bodyguard." Danny eyed the man nervously. "Don't worry, he has explicit instructions not to endanger any of my friends. Especially you." She smiled sweetly at Krum, who gave her a thumbs up and a crooked grin. He had three gold teeth. All three of which must be paid for at the rate he was working.
"He takes bribes in the form of vodka," Tucker whispered theatrically in Danny's ear.
Mom looked up at that, frowning. "Where would you be buying vodka, young man?"
"Kidding, geez mom!" He smiled at her innocently, then turned around and mouthed 'so not kidding' at Danny.
Danny grinned. Tucker felt like he'd just hit the jackpot.
Danny leaned against the observatory railing, a soda can dangling from his fingertips. He'd managed to sneak one with caffeine while Dr. Wagner wasn't looking, and the extra buzz tingled pleasantly at the back of his head.
Mr. Foley had showed up in time for supper, and the adults were having a serious conversation about ectogun safety training courses over the last few pieces of cake. Dr. Wagner had decided after a close encounter with the Box Ghost that maybe there was something to these ghost theories after all. Danny grinned at the memory; he'd never been so happy to see anyone chased by a swarm of packing peanuts.
It was just a regular evening. Normal, even, except for Tucker and Sam going stiff anytime Mom came in, or Dr. Wagner taking notes on everything going into Danny's mouth, or how Dad seemed to need to touch his shoulder or slap him on the back every five minutes.
Danny was supposed to be starting a Dead Teacher marathon, but he'd slipped upstairs as Tucker fiddled with the DVD settings and Sam decided whether to start with the first film or the prequel. Danny wasn't unhappy, exactly, it was just… weird. So much felt exactly the same— but he wasn't. Sam and Tuck weren't either. That weird feeling— of belonging but not— had surged up again and he'd found himself looking for something familiar.
The view from the Observatory roof was the same as ever; bright and clear in the chilly night air, distanced from the shorter buildings surrounding them, high above the noise and movement of their neighborhood. The streets stretched out in orderly grids, street lights glittering like regimented stars, some orange, some white, some with a bluish tinge. Danny used make them into star maps in his head, turning highways into asteroid belts and subdivisions into milky ways. He'd never told Mom about that. Danny couldn't remember why.
"Hey." Tucker leaned against the railing next to him. "You disappeared on us."
Danny winced. That sounded twice as bad considering the last couple of months. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize, dude, I'm just checking in."
"Yeah, it's just—" he gestured vaguely. "Weird. Being back. So much happened."
"Tell me about it. We're going to be catching each other up for months."
"Anything life-altering I should know?" He'd said it as a joke, but Tucker looked serious.
Tucker straightened and zipped up his jacket. He took a deep breath, which clouded on the cool air. "Valerie knows."
Danny couldn't help the sudden start, the knee-jerk nerves. "About me? How?"
Tucker shrugged. "We needed someone on the team who could go toe to toe with ghosts without getting her butt kicked."
"I guess that makes sense." Not like he'd been here to help. Danny turned back to the railing. He glanced in the direction of Elmerton— he'd learned where it was during nightly patrols, because he'd always had to keep half an eye out for an attack. He thought of the rage that Valerie's visor had never quite filtered out. "How'd she take it?"
"Denial. Lots of denial, then some yelling, and guilt, and then she was okay. It'll probably be awkward between you for a while, but that whole relationship was a time bomb to start with."
"Hey, I liked our dates. She was nice." Nice in a way that he still missed—somebody looking at him, Danny, minus the superpowers, like he was something special.
Tucker snorted. "Oh, you mean the dates Technus set up? He nearly took out the internet, remember? Your girlfriend was too busy attacking you to stop the real bad guy. If that's not an unhealthy basis for a relationship, I don't know what is."
Danny scoffed and tipped back his can, draining the last of the soda and savoring the fizz vanishing on his tongue. "Not my girlfriend."
Danny turned around and tossed his soda into a trash can by the stairs. "Dr. Stein found us a therapist. Me and Mom, that is." A spry, wispy-haired old man who went by Dr. Harry, with a penchant for bowties and penetrating, intelligent black eyes.
Tucker's eyebrows went up. "I thought you swore those off after the whole Spectra thing."
"Dr. Wagner kind of insisted." In a veiled-threats way that had put Danny on edge, even though Mom had agreed immediately. "We had to tell him, you know, all the stuff that happened—like, everything, which was crazy, but he's signed a huge stack of privacy contracts so Mom thinks it's okay. He started our first meeting by saying my ghost half didn't phase him."
Tucker snorted. "You would like that."
A tiny grin curled the edge of Danny's mouth. "He asked us to have full transparency, so I turned invisible."
"What? Come on."
"Hey, he laughed." Danny hadn't wanted to talk at all, at first, but then the bad puns started and he'd felt a lot better. Mom still had a hard time with that, but sometimes pretending it was all some stupid joke was the only way he could talk about it. Dr. Harry seemed to get that.
"You two were made for each other." Tucker tapped the empty soda can against the railing. "Has it helped?"
"Dr. Harry said it would take time." Talking to Mom was still hard. He still had dreams he couldn't wake up from. Or worse, he'd space out and suddenly feel like he was back there, which spooked him more. If this guy could fix that… well, it might be worth it. Even if it was painful. "We have to talk about the lab. That sucks."
Tucker pulled a tamagotchi out of his pocket and gripped the little egg, staring at it, though the old pixel screen had to be impossible to see in this light. "Can't forget something like that."
"No, you can't." Still. He was going to try. Danny took a deep breath, focusing on the sudden cold in his lungs, the light breeze that ruffled his hair. He shut his eyes and listened to cars swish by on the streets below— a faroff motorcycle blaring, music wafting from a neighbor's house, the rustle of the fruit trees in the neighbor's backyard.
Tucker sighed and thrust the tamagotchi in his pocket. "Look, I'd better tell you this now, because otherwise it's just gonna eat at me and it'll keep getting harder and harder to say it."
Danny waited, suddenly on edge. More life-altering stuff?
Tucker pulled the tamagotchi back out again and swung it from the keychain, letting it click against the ones still in his pocket through the sweater. "I hacked into the GIW database."
Danny blinked. Not exactly what he'd expected. "You can do that?"
"With Sam's unlimited access to tech and a heck of a lot of studying, yeah." He offered Danny a weak grin. "In case you didn't notice all those times I conveniently bypassed security for you, I'm kind of a genius with software." His look hardened. "I couldn't let those creeps keep all that data on you. I figured out how to get in, and I erased it. All the backups, too."
"Wow. Thanks." The GIW wouldn't just forget about Phantom, but at least now they didn't have a record of of his every twitch.
Tucker didn't smile. His shoulders sagged and he leaned into the railing, looking at the dark street below. "The thing is… I didn't just destroy stuff, I took some. Video footage. Of you and your mom. It took me a while to decrypt it, but I did."
That meant… Danny went pale. "You watched it."
Tucker nodded, not looking at him. "Sam and Valerie saw a little bit too— though I swear, if I'd known what we were gonna see I would've wiped the hard drive first."
He remembered the cameras in the lab, their little insect eyes boring into the back of his head whenever Mom got close to figuring things out—the mingled relief and fear and suspense when she didn't. And when she shut him in and quit listening… Those cameras saw more than Mom did. Danny gripped the cold metal railing; he felt sick just thinking about it. "Why did you even try? You knew what happened there."
"I know, it was stupid, but—you just left us, remember?" Tucker swept his arm out, taking in the distant city streets. "Bam. Gone. With barely any explanation. We didn't know anything about what you'd been through, or why you had to leave again. I wanted to know." He clutched his empty soda can until it dented. "I thought I wanted to know."
"I'm sorry, Tuck." Back then he'd entertained himself by imagining smashing the stupid cameras ringing the lab— throw something, goop it up with ectoplasm. Now Danny wished that he'd at least tried.
"Dude, you're the one who lived it. Trust me, there's no amount of sorry from me that could make that up."
"It's not like it was your fault."
"I know." Tucker's eyes followed a car as it passed, the headlights just catching the rim of his glasses. "Irrational guilt comes with the friend territory."
Danny tucked his hands into his pockets and watched the traffic with Tucker. "What'd you do with it?"
"I put a clip of your capture up online for Sam. Nothing more embarrassing than AP News has caught from you, but it made the GIW look bad. Bad enough for people to demand a public investigation. We're hoping that'll shut them down for good." Tucker fished in his pocket and pulled out a flash drive. He handed it to Danny. "Everything else is on here. That's the last copy. I deleted all the rest, then cooked the hard drives. Do what you want with it."
Danny stared at the little chunk of metal and plastic for a long minute. Then he dropped it and crushed it with his shoe. "I've relived it too much already."
"One piece of tech I'm not sorry to see go." Tucker tipped his soda can toward Danny. "To better times and junk food?"
"To better times and caffeine," Danny tapped his can against Tucker's and took a long swig.
Sam came trotting up the steps, alone for a change. "Krum's still lurking in the stairwell," she said in a low voice, giving her hair an angry flick. "At least he has the decency to pretend he isn't there."
Tucker poked her in the shoulder. "I think it's endearing how leech-like he is. Your parents must be paying him a lot."
"They'd better be. I'm not sure if he even sleeps."
"Is he going to France with you?"
"Why not?" Sam groused, flopping against the railing between them, head flung back, glaring at the dark cloudless sky. "He can fend off any mimes, save my croissants from marauding pigeons. Useful bodyguard stuff."
"You're going to France?" Danny glanced at Sam. She hadn't said a word about it all evening.
She scowled and hunched her shoulders. "After Christmas."
"They've got a whole vacation planned," Tucker supplied. "All those French lessons your parents made you take culminating in two weeks of fancy coffee and stuffy old museums."
Sam folded her arms and turned to lean over the railing, staring down at the street below. "Actually… it's going to be longer than that."
Tucker swiveled to face her. Apparently it was news to him, too. "Three weeks. A month? Longer?" He looked aghast. "You'll miss your final semester! How much cultural exposure do you need?!"
"How about an entire school semester plus the summer after it? And who knows after that." She took a deep breath. "They've got a prep school all picked out for me."
Danny's heart sank. So much for pleasant illusions of normalcy. "Why?"
Sam shoved her hands into the corners of her jacket pockets, kicking at the steel-plated floor. "They wanted me away from ghosts and Amity Park. I wanted ghost protection laws." She glanced at Danny, and his heart sank even lower. This was because of him. "We made a deal."
Tucker threw his soda can and it bounced and rattled down the sloping observatory roof. "Then un-make the deal! You can't leave now, Danny just got back!"
Sam glared at Tucker. "Littering? Seriously?"
He glared back. "School in Paris? Seriously?!"
"I know! The timing is rotten and it sucks. I hate it, but it was the only leverage I had."
Danny's shoulders slumped. That quiet guilt returned, the one that gnawed at him every time he realized there was something he'd missed, something he could've fixed if he'd stayed. "You didn't have to do that for me."
They both stopped glaring and looked at him. Sam sighed and leaned on the rail again, swinging her feet just off the ground. "I had to do something. What, did you want to come back to the GIW breathing down your neck?"
"Well no, but—you're leaving. The country." Danny knew it sounded pathetic, but he didn't care. He didn't want her to go.
Sam sighed. He watched her breath twist up in a thin white cloud, veiling her face. "What's the point of being home if you couldn't be?"
"How is it home if you're not here?" Danny stiffened, suddenly awkward as he realized how that sounded. "And—and Tucker."
Sam's lips curled up in a smile he could just see past the shoulder of her fuzzy black sweater.
Tucker snorted. "Do you two need a moment? Because I can totally go chat up Franz von Friendly in the stairwell while you—uh—"
Sam kicked him in the shin. "Shut up, Tuck."
He moaned and swooned into her. "You've crippled me!"
"It won't be the same without you," Danny said firmly, determined not to be embarrassed.
Sam touched his arm. "I'll come back. It's just a few months."
A few months that involved choosing a college, becoming a legal adult, dating maybe. All kinds of important things.
Tucker straightened up, sobering. "We'll video chat. Every day. I'll be ungrounded by then."
Sam nudged him with her elbow. "With a seven hour time difference?"
"Come on, none of us sleep normal hours anyway."
Danny drummed his fingers on the railing, thinking. How far off was France, anyway? "If I could still fly..."
"That's over 4,000 miles, Danny." Sam sighed.
"Hey, at top speed it would only take him… 35 hours." Tucker whistled. "Yeah, you'd be doomed."
They both turned to stare at Tucker. "Did you just do mental math?" Danny asked, stunned.
Tucker grinned, more than a little smug. "Amazing what you learn when your parents fling you back into the stone age. With you and Sam gone and no PDA, I have to actually pay attention in class now. It's awful."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Try being suspended, under 24-hour surveillance and home with your parents all day."
Danny grinned in bleak sympathy. "Try being home all day with your overprotective family, your doctor, and the occasional ghost."
"When are you going back to school?" Tucker asked. "After Christmas break?"
"We talked about it, but…" Danny shrugged. He didn't want to deal with the stares, the weird rumors, with Dash and whatever crazy stories were going around. Dr. Harry had talked to Mom, who'd called Principal Ishiyama. "I'll get a GED or whatever and finish that way." One upside to a traumatic experience—it got him out of PE. Jazz had vowed to tutor him all next summer, even though he knew she was itching to take an internship. They'd figure something out.
"Freestyling, I like it." Sam tucked her hair behind one ear. "Then what?"
"I don't know, college? Astrophysics is out with my GPA, so maybe engineering. Dad's been showing me stuff with his inventions; if I can figure out the math part, I think I could pull it off."
Tucker slung an arm around Danny's shoulders. "We should all go to that crappy community college outside of Elmerton, find a coed dorm together, get into sitcom shenanigans and live happily ever after."
"My parents would love that after my year of fancy French education." A wicked grin crept onto Sam's face. "Let's do it."
It sounded… nice. A happy, comfortable future spread in front of him. Danny hadn't let himself think about anything post-high school since…since that one time it got screwed up so bad the Master of Time had to show up and fix things. He'd stuck to vague plans, hopes, dreams. After the GIW, vague plans had transformed into a blank gray wall, steel-plated and speckled with his own ectoplasm. Nothing else had felt real, until now.
Tucker was talking again, something about French girls. That earned him another kick in the shins from Sam. She leaned into Danny's shoulder and he felt her laugher through his jacket. He looked up at the handful of stars that gleamed through the light pollution.
Maybe there could be a future, a good one. He hoped so.
All that Remains :: tbc...
And… fade to black.
This would make such a nice ending, wouldn't it? Unfortunately (or fortunately if you love closure) we have a few more threads to pull together before the curtain closes. Bringing SoaD to completion has taken up most of my creative energy, but I'm rallying my mental forces as best I can, designing a website for my original fiction. I may not have a story complete before SoaD ends, but at least you'll know where to find 'em when they do materialize—and you can read a bit about my ongoing projects as well.
Many thanks to my dear beta readers, who powered through these last through chapters beautifully. That's MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria!
Also thank you, dear readers, for your reviews! It's been awesome hearing from newcomers and old friends alike. Shoutout to nycorrall, welcome back!
Oh, and speaking of which, SoaD is now the most reviewed story in the DP archive! Whoo! Kudos to pearl84 for holding the title for so long. I've worked hard on this story (stupidly hard… wayy too hard), so it's very gratifying to see it being appreciated by you folks in the fandom. Thanks so much for all the cheering-on along the way!
We're almost home, friends. Let's do this.