It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
The cloud of fire blasted through them, gravel spraying up and rattling down onto the stairs. Danny felt dimly the chunks of circuitry and steel plating fly through them. His legs felt like jello, the world was spinning. Intangibility slid through his grip like water. He clenched his teeth and hung on.
"Danny! It's okay, it's over. You can—"
Reality yanked back into focus. A hand clutching his shoulder; thick, hot blood roaring in his ears; the smoking, disemboweled wreck of Skulker's suit radiating heat and reeking of hot metal. The only thing that didn't seem to want to go solid was the ground. It bucked and rolled underfoot like a vindictive ocean. Weird. Everything was going black.
"Shoot—Tuck, catch him!"
"Before we begin, I'd like to ask you to avoid mentioning anything we discuss to Danny himself," Dr. Stein said, steepling his fingers. "He has no apparent memory of the events, and until we are completely sure of what happened, it would be detrimental to his health for him to worry over speculations."
They were sitting in Dr. Stein's personal office, a modest space with all the earmarks of a professional who lived his job. Faint coffee rings in abstract patterns on the glass surface of the desk, fast food packets were scattered here and there amid the paperwork, a clean shirt and tie hung on the back of the door.
"Of course," Maddie said, trying her best to ignore the feeling of raw terror that brought on. What, exactly, had they found?
There was a bookcase against one wall, covered with a light film of dust. Twin filing cabinets flanked the desk like aged sentries. The desk itself, cluttered with expensive-looking paperweights and picture frames, had only one stack of paperwork, a thick assortment of folders and loose paper.
Dr. Stein picked this up and shuffled through the contents, frowning slightly. "Danny's baseline is already in the outliers, if these physicals from last year are correct." He was an older man, cleanshaven, with neat salt and pepper hair. He was lean and tall, with large but clever hands, which went well with the soft, intelligent eyes above a heavy chunk of a nose.
"The low body temperature, unusual blood pressure, but of course you know all this. Nothing alarming, just unusual. But even taking that into account, there was something... odd about the nature of your son's injuries."
Maddie frowned at the evasive term. "Odd?"
Ancient square glasses fought a constant battle with gravity on the bridge of Dr. Stein's nose. He pushed them into place absently as he looked up to the Fentons."Yes, strange. Unlikely. Maybe even supernaturally so. I sent some samples all the way out to Axion for some intensive testing." He pulled out a slim manila envelope and slid it across the desk. "I say maybe, but there's no doubt of it now. Axion's lab results came back just an hour ago. Danny's blood contains a notable excess of copper, plasma fluid, and trace metals, all of which point to a significant, prolonged exposure to ectoplasm."
Ectoplasm. Maddie tensed.
"You think ghosts are involved?" Jack snatched up the envelope and flicked open the flap, pulling out a few closely typed pages. His brows knit together in a thick line as he frowned at the complex chemical formulas.
"We can't be sure," Dr. Stein said carefully. "Traces of ectoplasm doesn't necessarily mean a specific ecto-entity. I didn't want to bring it up before the results came in, as it might cause any unnecessary..." his gaze flicked over to Jack, "commotion.
Maddie hid her frown at the subtle slight. This was about Danny, not Jack's reputation.
The doctor had the good graces to look apologetic."Of course you're the first to be informed. In fact, in light of what they found, I'd like to get your opinions on Danny's case, as professionals."
Jack leaned forward. "We'll help in any way we can."
"I'll show you what I mean." Dr. Stein opened the topmost file, removing a large color print and passing it to Maddie.
It was a very plain, clearly lit photograph, sterile in its simplicity, of a bare hand lying flat, palm-down, on a steel surface. The skin was mottled purple and green with bruises, but that was barely noticeable under ugly, ragged scarlet lines that criss-crossed thickly over the hand and wrist, pink and puffy with inflammation, some oozing yellow.
They had a strangely symmetrical pattern: Four jagged lines close together, over and over, in all directions.
"We think most of them are," he hesitated, "self-inflicted. The stage of healing he was in suggests that Danny's arm was broken much earlier in his absence. Dealing with the pain..."
A grim silence settled over the three. Maddie pressed her hand against her mouth. Jack's hands curled into fists on his knees, knuckles cracking.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Stein said at last. "I wouldn't subject you to this, but you are the leading experts on ghosts in our community."
Jack nodded once, stiffly. "Understood. What do you need?"
"Despite how they look, those are superficial scratches. They don't penetrate the subdermal layer of skin. In fact, none of them do. Our first theory was that his hand had been crushed—a rockslide, a bad fall, maybe even a collision with a vehicle, but that doesn't seem sufficient. Just look at the x-ray."
White bones stood starkly out from the dark ground, clothed in shadowy gray forms of muscle and skin. Maddie was fixated. It was utterly familiar. She had measured and weighed and examined every inch of Phantom's hand, and here it was in perfect parallel. Except… human. Danny's. That was different. She gazed uneasily at the faint grayish line that marked where the bone had broken.
"It doesn't make sense, because some of the connective tissue is missing—destroyed or severely damaged. There are torn ligaments, odd pockets of fluid, and If you look here, we have missing cartilage—."
Maddie was in the lab, pushing aside a stray piece of greenish-white gristle, too preoccupied with the strange cohesive behavior of the muscle-type material to bother replacing it—
"You can see the break, here, though it was half healed by the time he came to us. In an ordinary case that would have been a disaster. Bones are broken by outside pressure," he demonstrated with a sharp snapping gesture, "that leaves them crooked. When they heal back, it's in the wrong shape, deformed and painful. But in Danny's case the bone had been aligned—or perhaps realigned? Most fortunately for him, it managed to heal that way."
Phantom's forehead was glossy with sweat, but the hand stayed, attached at the wrist and glowing faintly. He looked up at her wide-eyed, with more hope in his expression than she had seen in weeks. "It… worked?""
"Even more strange, there were no signs indicating the bone had splintered from impact at all. According to my friend in the forensic department, it's as if it had been sliced," Dr. Stein made a smooth vertical motion with the knife of his hand, resting it on his own upturned wrist. "Straight through."
Maddie went numb.
"But that would've—Danny's hand—" Jack dragged his fingers through the greying patches behind his ears. "That didn't happen. That couldn't have happened. What are you trying to tell us, doc?"
"That's exactly the puzzle. While there is clear trauma to the bone and similar signs in his musculature, The subdermal and dermal layers of his hand are intact. Either Danny's skin healed over such a deep wound miraculously without a trace, or—"
"Something phased right through it," Jack growled. "Ghosts."
"Three years ago the idea would never have crossed my mind. These days, after so many victims of ectoplasmic attacks..." Dr. Stein sighed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his thick nose. "What a time we live in."
Maddie paged back to the photo. If you looked closely, there were a few stray marks, fainter and pinker than the others, that were oddly smooth and linear. Something almost invisible to anyone not looking for it. She traced it with her eyes, almost on automatic. A fat, capital "I" shape, the short lines horizontal to the knuckles and wrist, connected by a single perpendicular line.
A textbook-perfect dissection incision. She could remember it distinctly, how meticulously and carefully she'd made each cut, eager to study the remarkably dense and complex ectoplasmic matter beneath.
"We can't... jump to conclusions," Maddie heard herself saying. It was like she was standing at the bottom of a deep pit, throwing her voice toward a faraway pinpoint of light.
Conclusions. They crowded in thick and fast, some staring her in the face with obscene clarity, others wild and vague and altogether frightening. It turned every fear and worry and care from the past few weeks on its head. Who was the boy they had been caring for upstairs? Or rather... what was he? Phantom? Danny? Some unspeakable blend of the two?
"Maddie's right, Stein. Can we get a blood sample and a copy of this? We need to take this home and analyze it with our equipment. Whatever's infected our Danno, we'll figure it out."
Or maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was something completely unrelated. All a hideous coincidence, a sick amalgam of irony and parallel that some higher power was subjecting her to. She couldn't jump to conclusions. She refused to. One good look under the microscope. A handful of test results. That's all she needed, and then she would know for sure.
"That would be wise," Dr. Stein agreed. "The GIW have of course been notified, as is protocol with cases involving ectoplasm, but they tend to be...unforthcoming with their findings. I felt that having your expertise would be valuable."
Maddie stiffened. "The GIW?"
Dr. Stein caught the tension in her tone and glanced at her curiously. "It's hospital policy, yes. They'll probably send someone by, just to ask some questions and maybe do a scan of your son."
Alarm shot through her. If she could pick up the signs of Phantom, would the GIW? She couldn't let that happen. Not now.
Before she could say anything, the phone rang.
"Sorry, it's the ER. I need to take this." Dr. Stein picked up the receiver. "Stein speaking." He frowned, glancing quickly at Jack and Maddie, then nodded, standing. "What's his condition? Yes, not until Monday. Fluids are alright. See if you can get him to eat something. Understood." He hung up and strode for the door without waiting for the Fentons to leave their seats.
He called back over his shoulder, very calmly. "Would you mind coming downstairs? It seems that your children have been in an accident."
Reality went bang.
Jazz hurt. Her head had been blown to smithereens, and kept exploding, every little jolt and sway sending her careening off on another nauseating loop of vertigo. Up, down falling, standing, spinning, no matter how stiffly she planted her feet and hung on for dear life.
Understanding slithered through her fingers like eels through mud. Fragmented, writhing bits of sound and sight, jumbled together with no sense of reality or purpose.
She had some vague memory of vomiting in the elevator, the confused smells of dusty carpet, blood and bile mixing with the cold, grimy elevator wall that had slanted sideways under her weight. The right side of her face felt heavy and raw, like a cut of beef had been glued to her cheek and jacked into her nervous system.
Stumbling down a bright hallway. Strange hands. Dizzying, weaving figures darting in. A bed that kept tilting and rolling under her back as if it was riding a wave. Tucker waving goodbye as she was rolled off on a stretcher. A big machine with blue lights, flashing with rhythmic precision as it encircled her head. The universe exploding. Bang. Dark. Flash. Light. Ow.
An awful numbness eating away at the side of her face as someone pulled and pinched the gaping slash in her skin. The flash of a tiny needle held by forceps, reddish with blood that she vaguely recognized was hers.
Cold, rubbery hands rolling up her sleeve. The burning sting of a needle as something was administered into her shoulder. Then the lights went dim and she was alone, drifting in and out of a deeper darkness.
Somewhere in the dark, the jumping, skewed impressions congealed into real thought. Soon enough she'd come to the conclusion that her skull hadn't, indeed, exploded, but maybe that wasn't such a good thing. Pain. Ouch.
Jazz blinked, stirred, felt the heavy softness of a blanket shift against her. She was in a tiny examination room, lying on the table, the only lights coming from the empty x-ray reader and a light set under the cabinets.
She dragged a hand up and patted at her still-tingling head, her fingertips finding gauze with the irregular lumps of stitches underneath. The acid taste of vomit still burned in her nose and throat. Jazz groaned. She hated throwing up. Her head was killing her. Where…
The door opened, pouring in light and noise from the bustling hallway.
Jazz turned her head automatically at the sound of her name and the room spun into a crazy tilt-a-whirl. She moaned and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling her stomach lurch.
A hand rested on her shoulder. A woman's voice, someone Jazz didn't know. "Sorry sweetie. That painkiller should kick in any minute. Do you need some water?"
Jazz almost shook her head, but caught herself just in time.
"No... th'nk you." The words formed clumsily, like her tongue was two sizes too big. She frowned in frustration. The fog had started to clear—most of it—but her body hadn't caught up.
The woman moved across the room, and there was the rustle of paper. "You rattled your brains around, but there was no serious hemorrhaging in the brain tissue. You're very lucky, young lady. Do you remember what happened?"
With a monumental effort, Jazz dropped her legs off the table and pushed herself into a sitting position. She tried a shrug. The world teetered, but she didn't fall off. "Stairs?"
Falling down the stairs, an accident. No ghosts involved. It was the story Sam had drilled into her ear for five minutes straight on the long, tense elevator ride. Of course she knew it was a secret. She could lie when she had to. What had really happened was foggy... the rooftop... ghosts... a loud bang that had torn through everything…except them, because a warm hand gone suddenly icy had yanked them all into—
Her queasy stomach clenched."Danny?"
The woman nodded. "He's in the next room. You and your brother took a fall. Danny got off with bumps and bruises. He's experiencing some symptoms of shock, but it's nothing that he can't recover from."
"C'n I see... him?"
"It's better if you don't try to get up yet. Your injury is not as bad as it could be, but it's still a head trauma, and there are possible side effects." The woman tucked the clipboard under her arm, shaking her head. "You'll experience nausea, some confusion, headaches, possibly memory loss from just before the accident. The headaches could last for some time, but if they persist beyond two weeks you need to contact us immediately. I'm going to tell all this to your parents as well, so don't worry about remembering all of it."
Jazz was scowling, determined to remember none of it. She would not be doing or thinking about anything until she could see herself that her brother was okay.
"We're going to get you to sign some forms, and then you can go home and get some rest."
"I w'na..." Jazz pursed her lips and tried again. "I... want to... see Danny."
"You'll see him soon," the lady promised. "You need to recover a little bit more. Be patient. We paged your parents down from the doctor's offices, they should be here soon. Wait here, okay?" She patted Jazz's shoulder and walked out.
Jazz watched the door shut, then counted to ten. One, two... eight... five? Nevermind.
She very carefully picked herself up and, clinging to the walls for support, pulled herself out the door and over to the next room. The door was partly ajar and swung open at her touch. Good thing too, she probably couldn't figure out door handles at present.
The exam room was very similar to hers; Danny sat on the table at the back of the room, Tuck and Sam hovering at his side like watchful guard dogs. He was clutching a brightly colored juice box in his lap, and there was an oxygen tube running under his nose. Gauze-coated arms peeked out from the edges of the blanket thrown around his shoulders.
Danny's sweatpants were rolled up, and a man in scrubs knelt on the floor, dabbing at the raw patches on the teen's knees with a piece of gauze. He paused and delicately removed something with metal foreceps, dropping it into a plastic tray.
"That's the fourth one," the man said, glancing up at Danny with a wry smile. "How did you manage to get bits of rocks in your knees without ripping up your sweatpants?"
"Talent, I guess," Danny mumbled. He was looking anywhere but at the small operation going on at his knees. His skin was an unhealthy grey; the dark shadows under his eyes were suddenly more accentuated, his shoulders slumping with exhaustion. The fingers that curled loosely around the juicebox shook.
His eyes fell on Jazz in the doorway. Jazz opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and settled on smiling.
The smile Danny gave her in return was so heartbreakingly hollow.
His thoughts read as clearly as a page of her textbook. Guilt. Shame. This was his fault, in Danny's mind. She was his fault. Whatever had happened on the roof, he blamed himself.
Jazz began to shake her head, flinched, growled in frustration. He had to understand. She couldn't let him burden himself with something like that—something so stupid—
Her mother's angry voice drew her attention outside, to the hallway outside the door where she lingered.
"That's Dr. Fenton," Mom snapped.
Maddie had taken a stance in the middle of the hallway, legs planted wide apart, hands on hips, completely blocking the progress of two tall men in crisp white suits. They were almost perfectly matched, with black ties and dark shades, dark hair in identical buzz cuts. One of them held a sleek silver device with an array of buttons and cords.
Anxiety chewed through Jazz's gut.
Her father stood at the reception desk further down the hall, sticking out among all the scrubs and lab coats like an orange in a basket of eggs. He was bent over a pile of forms, scribbling signatures, apparently oblivious to the confrontation taking place.
Maddie spoke quickly to the agents in a low, firm voice. They frowned down at her like a particularly difficult speed bump.
Jazz stepped closer, trying to hear.
"Now you listen to me," Maddie was saying. "If you don't think I'd break my confidentiality contract in a heartbeat, then your organization has severely underestimated the damage it has caused to our family through its actions. Do you think that the government would still back your little ghost tech empire if your methods were common knowledge? This isn't the cold war."
The taller agent, a dark-skinned man with close cropped black hair, adjusted his glasses, his tone bored and professional. "Ma'am, Daniel Fenton's relationship to you is irrelevant. Protocol requires we investigate and interrogate the subject in all ectoplasmic exposure instances, especially in the cases of human contamination."
"If it was really mandatory, you would have had a profile on everyone in Amity Park by now," Maddie shot back. "Where were you last year when an entire high school was ectoplasmically infected?"
He looked nonplussed. "Not my division, ma'am."
"Well, I have an inkling. It wasn't an avenue convenient to your cause. The extreme prejudice with which you eliminate ectoplasmic sources wouldn't have gone unnoticed on an entire student body, would it?"
"That's none of my concern." Irritation had bled through his professional facade, and he took a step forward, standing toe to toe with the much shorter ghost hunter. He had to look almost straight down to stare at her. "Your son must be scanned and questioned. Stand aside."
"My so—" Maddie paled and her lips snapped shut. "...Danny has gone through enough," she continued quietly, but in a tone of steel. "You'll only frighten and confuse him. Leave. Now. Or I'll call hospital security and report you for harassment. And then I'm phoning the press."
The two men exchanged glances through their dark shades.
"This isn't over," the second one said, but he was tucking the device inside his coat.
"I think it is. Good afternoon."
The white suits turned on their heels and left, stalking out of the ER.
Maddie stood looking after them for a long moment, only to turn and find Jazz, who couldn't help but stare at her stupidly. Her mind wasn't working very well, she knew that... but that didn't stop the facts from slowly sinking in. Mom... and them? Mom and the GIW?
"Jazz, honey! Should you be up?"
Jazz barely registered her mom's cry of dismay at the bandages covering her face, her eyes on the GIW as they vanished through the ER entrance doors. Maddie Fenton and the government's anti-ghost organization. The organization that had…
"Dr. Stein said you and Danny fell, what happened?"
"Stairs," Jazz responded automatically. Maddie looked puzzled.
"Danny's in room 323," Jack said, coming up behind them. "Jazzy, your face!"
"'m fine, Dad."
Neither of them looked convinced, but they didn't press the issue. It was an unspoken rule in the Fenton household that people who insisted they were "fine" were humored, then ignored.
Jack glanced up at the door number, then moved past Jazz and ducked into the room. Jazz could hear her dad's voice easily through the wall. "Danny! Heard you were trying stunts on the stairs! You look pretty good, kiddo!"
Maddie offered a stabilizing arm to Jazz, who leaned on it heavily. Jazz frowned, determined to get the words out right. "Mom..."
"What is it, sweetie?"
"Those guys... you worked with them?"
Mom's hand tightened on Jazz's shoulder. "Briefly," she said at last. "And never again."
Jack stuck his head back through the door. "You coming, Mads?"
"No, I—" Maddie's free hand knotted into a fist, then she smiled. "You go on, honey. I'm sure Danny doesn't need me hovering. I want to get started on this research. I'll drive Jazz home."
The ride was strangely silent. Jazz closed her eyes and clutched her icepack, trying to ignore the fragmented thoughts that buzzed through her brain like hornets. GIW. Mom. Danny. The summer. It had to be the concussion, scrambling her worst fears together, stirring up memories of nightmares.
Some things were just too awful to imagine.
Ties that Bind :: tbc...
A/N: Just keep telling yourself that, Jazz. Like there wasn't enough denial to go around already...
Check this out! A new chapter actually two weeks after the last one! Miracles do happen. I think I may have to change my updating strategies to ensure a more regular update schedule, but I want to get through Part 1 first, so we'll leave that for another time.
Many thanks to my tireless and talented betas, MyAibou and Anneriawings! Y'all keep the wheels turning in this fic. :)
Laci, sparky, SaiyanPrincess, Snow Soar, Further, That Crazy Chick, and the nameless anons, thank you for your reviews on this chapter! It's awesome to see you reading along, especially those of you who have stuck around since early on in PoT. It always amazes me that y'all put in the extra effort to keep track of something you don't get email alerts for. I hope you enjoy the rest of the fic as well!
It's late here and I'm ready to drop, so let's keep this short and sweet. Let me know what you think of the chapter! As always, feedback and concrit are both loved.