Sam couldn't help but notice that Danny was quiet the entire drive back to his house. With no more strategy to discuss, the General was gone, leaving just the crushing weight of his worry for Danielle. When Sam pulled up alongside the curb in front of his house, he was out of the car, up the porch steps, and through the front door before she could even put on the parking brake.
From the back seat, Valerie leaned forward, her long hair falling over her shoulder. In street clothes, without her battle suit, she looked every bit the fashion-conscious popular girl she used to be. "What was that you were saying about the boy being a mother hen?"
Sam sighed as she turned off the ignition. "He blames himself for what Vlad did to her."
"Duh. He blames himself for what Vlad does to everybody."
"This is different. Because of..." She hesitated. "You know."
There was an awkward silence. Thinking about who Danielle really was and what Vlad had done to... create her made Sam's head hurt just on general principle. Trying to talk about it with Valerie, of all people...
She wasn't alone in her discomfort. Abruptly, Valerie pushed forward the passenger seat so she could climb out of the car. "Well, we should get in there before he smothers her to death." There was humor in her tone, but it was underlaid with the clear message: Time to change the topic.
"Right behind you," Sam said, grateful for the much safer common ground they shared—mocking Danny. She slid out of the car and jogged around its front end to catch up with Valerie on the porch steps. "Hopefully, we'll make it up there before he breaks out the bubble wrap and starts bundling her up in it."
Danny had left the door wide open when he'd rushed in, but Valerie paused on the porch steps and looked up. At first Sam thought she was looking at the green-and-orange-lighted FENTONWORKS sign that hung out over the front steps, but then she realized she was looking past it, up to the roof and the Op-Center, a big, metal addition that had turned the Fentons' modest, two-story row house into what looked like some sort of low-rent trailer park for aliens.
Understanding what Valerie was thinking, Sam put her hand on the other girl's shoulder. "I don't think she's up there. Mr. Fenton said she wasn't that bad, so I'm betting she's in her room."
At least that's what Sam hoped. If Dani were really sick, Mrs. Fenton would be treating her in the Op-Center which, despite its ungainly, bulbous appearance, was actually a high-tech research center. While the basement lab and its Ghost Portal were the heart of FentonWorks, the Op-Center was its brain, and it was the best place to care for a half-ghost whose health was failing because of a near-lethal injection of ectoranium.
In the month since they'd rescued Danielle from Vlad, they'd learned to hate seeing that Op-Center decked out as a hospital.
Valerie nodded, and they headed into the house and up the stairs. Halfway up, they heard Mrs. Fenton's voice coming from the second floor, and they breathed twin sighs of relief. Not in the Ops-Center.
Quickening their pace, they took the rest of the steps two at a time, then hurried down the hall, bypassing the doors to both Danny's and Jazz's room as they headed for the former guest room the Fentons had converted into a bedroom for Danielle.
"Are you sure you're okay? That scratch looks nasty." Mrs. Fenton was hovering over Danny, trying to get a look at his cheek as Sam and Valerie entered the room. A slender, lithe woman with chin-length auburn hair, bright indigo eyes, and a figure that would have made Angelina Jolie turn green, Maddie Fenton seemed an odd match for her large and somewhat oafish husband.
But only on a surface level. Her obsession with all things ghostly rivaled his, and her blue hazmat suit, with its hood and bug-eyed goggles, was as ever-present and outlandish as his orange one, although she at least had the build to pull it off.
At the moment, however, hood and goggles were absent, and they could see the concern in Mrs. Fenton's eyes as she examined the gash on her son's face.
Danny leaned away from her, scowling. "Mom, it's no big deal. Just tell me what's wrong with Dani. Why'd you have to stay home with her?"
"It's really nothing more than precaution." Then, she caught sight of Sam and Valerie, and a smile lit up her face, returning the usual warmth and joie de vivre back to her eyes, the kind that put Sam's own parents' plastic "attitude of gratitude" claptrap to shame. "Oh, hello, girls." Turning back to Danny, she continued her attempt at placating him. "Dani got a little light-headed, so I thought it best to play it safe and give her another dose of ecto-purifier."
"I didn't even need that much." The pout in Dani's voice matched the one on her face as she sat up on top of the covers of her bed, fully dressed, leaning back against a stack of pillows and looking about as happy to be there as Sam would be at cheerleader camp.
And even though it had been a whole month since Danielle had come to live with the Fentons and Sam had learned the truth about who she really was, just looking at her could still make Sam's heart ache. The way she wore her long hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, leaving nothing in front but a thick crop of black bangs that framed her face in the exact same way Danny's did. The way her eyes were the exact same shade of blue as his as she gave Mrs. Fenton the exact same look of annoyance that Sam had seen so many times before on Danny's face when his parents were making him crazy. How could she have missed it? How could she have ever believed that the two of them were mere cousins and not much more closely related?
Vlad did this. Vlad did this to Danny, stole his DNA and made a whole new person with it...
Danny himself was more concerned about his look-alike's current condition, and he continued to press his mother. "You wouldn't give her a shot of ecto-purifier just for a little light-headedness. She must be sicker than you're telling me. Did she try to use her powers?"
Danielle's pout turned into a scowl. "I'm right here, you know. You could ask me. And for the record: no, I didn't use my powers."
"She didn't," Mrs. Fenton confirmed. "And it wasn't a shot. I just gave her an oral solution."
Valerie, whom Sam had almost forgotten was there, stepped closer to the bed. "What's the difference? It's still like poison for ghosts, isn't it?" Her eyes were more guarded than Danny's, but Sam could still read the worry there.
Mrs. Fenton gave her a comforting smile. "I wouldn't call it poison, exactly. Ecto-purifier is chiefly a chemical we use in the ecto-filtrator on the Ghost Portal to keep impurities from the Ghost Zone from gumming up the human technology, but it does have some medicinal uses as well. I came up with an oral solution to cure Sam and Tucker of a nasty case of ecto-acne a couple of years ago. In that form, it's like... alka-seltzer for ecto impurities."
Valerie wrinkled her nose. "What the heck is ecto-acne? Sounds disgusting."
Grimacing, Sam answered for her. "Don't ask. Something Vlad infected me and Tucker with a couple years ago."
"He had it, too," Mrs. Fenton reminded them. "And he's also taken the oral solution, with no long-term effects to his ghost powers." The slight curl to her lip indicated she wished otherwise.
Danny wore a similar expression. "But Dani doesn't have ecto-acne."
"Or a hearing problem, or brain damage." Danielle glared up at them from the bed. "So you can stop talking about me like I'm not in the room. I'm fine."
Mrs. Fenton smiled at her. "Of course you're fine, sweetie. You've come a long way since the night Danny brought you here, but you're not a hundred percent. We'll never completely flush the ectoranium from your system. It will always be there, waiting to flare up and attack you, especially if you use your powers. And sometimes even if you don't."
"Like a cancer patient in remission." Valerie's voice was low, and Sam could hear the mix of pain and anger in it.
Mrs. Fenton nodded. "Much like that, yes. And the ecto-purifier injections are a bit like chemotherapy. Much more potent than the oral solution. It suppresses her ghost powers so that the ectoranium has nothing to feed off of and attack"
"And makes it so I can never go ghost again." Dani's tone was matter-of-fact, but Sam knew she still resented the loss of her powers.
Well, not all her powers. She could still can turn invisible and intangible, and even float a little before the ectoranium would make her sick again. She even had some ice powers like Danny's, although Mrs. Fenton had said she didn't think they'd fully developed when Vlad poisoned her, and using them seemed to make her sicker than using her more standard powers.
But none of it was the same as being able to actually go ghost, and that was a loss Dani was still grieving. "Vlad took that from me, like he took everything else. My ghost powers, the first twelve years of my life, my home—"
"This is your home." The hurt in Danny's voice made Sam wince. "And he didn't take everything. He didn't take me."
"Or any of us," Valerie added.
Danny nodded. "Right. We're your family, Dani, and he can't take that from you, not ever. He can't take away who you are."
She let out a sound something like a bitter laugh. "And who is that? Two years ago I didn't even exist. I feel like I'm fourteen, but twelve years of that is all a lie made up of accelerated growth and twelve years of learning literally crammed into my brain all at once. In the Ghost Zone, none of that mattered because everyone's origin is different, but in the human world you have be someone."
"You are someone. You're Danielle Fenton."
"Only because Sam used her trust fund and her grandma's dodgy contacts from her hippie days to buy me the papers that say I am. Fake birth certificate, fake social security, fake parents, fake parents' death, fake will naming 'cousin' Jack and his wife my legal guardians, fake homeschooling records for a fake nine years of schooling for a fake fourteen years of a fake life. The best fake identity money can buy for the fake girl Vlad conjured up out of air."
Sam bit the inside of her cheek, feeling like an interloper in what should have been a private family affair. She knew she'd overstepped her bounds getting those papers for the Fentons, but she'd felt so helpless when she'd first heard who Dani was and how she'd come to be, and this was something she could actually do to help her. To help Danny.
And he'd been grateful, of course. His whole family was. But it was an uncomfortable kind of gratitude, the kind for which there was tacit agreement by all parties involved to never, ever discuss. Dani breaking that unspoken rule brought an awkward silence to the room, and Sam found herself struggling in an attempt to fill it. "Dani, I..."
Danny cut her off. "Why do we keep having this conversation? Vlad didn't conjure you up out of air, he conjured you up out of DNA. That's real, Dani, as real as anybody here. And you're not a Fenton because Sam got you a piece of paper that says you are. You're a Fenton because you were born a Fenton, and that's real, too."
"I wasn't born at all!"
Mrs. Fenton stepped around her son to sit beside Danielle on her bed. "You listen to me, young lady. It doesn't matter how you got here or if you don't have the first clue who you are. Most humans spend our whole lives figuring out who we are, so even if you did miss the first twelve years of that process, you still have a long time ahead of you to work it out. What matters is, you are here. With your family, where you belong."
While her words seemed to have the intended effect of bolstering Danielle, Sam couldn't help but notice the opposite effect they'd had on Danny. His shoulders stooped under the weight of what Sam knew he heard as an indictment of his failure to bring Danielle home sooner.
Who's responsible for her? his mother had asked the night they'd rescued her from Vlad and brought her to FentonWorks for help.
I am, Danny had answered and, even then, before any of them knew Danielle wasn't just some distant cousin, the burden and self-reproach in his voice had been unmistakable. In the month since, he still hadn't managed to forgive himself.
Unaware of the salt she'd unintentionally poured into her son's wound, Mrs. Fenton sat back, slapping her hand down on the bed. "All right then. Now that that's settled, let's hear about whatever set off that Ghost Alert. And where are your father and sister?"
Sam could've kissed her, because as quickly as her earlier words had heaped coals on Danny's head, these last ones brushed them away as he immediately shifted into General Mode. "Vlad sent a bunch of skeleton warriors to attack City Hall. Dad, Jazz, and everyone are trying to see if they can track the ones that got away back to the Ghost Zone, and maybe find Vlad's portal."
Mrs. Fenton grimaced. "Was it that mummy ghost leading them again?"
Danny glanced at Danielle. "No. He sent Aragon. And the Fright Knight."
Mrs. Fenton and Dani's eyes both widened, but for different reasons. "The Fright Knight?" Danny's mom asked. "Isn't that Vlad's second in command? That's a bold move."
Danielle crossed her arms. "And Aragon. I hope you kicked his dragon butt from here to the Ghost Zone after what he did to Dora's kingdom."
Sam grinned. "Actually, Dora took care of that herself. Talk about your dragon-girl power. She's really come a long way from her princesses-are-supposed-to-smile-look-pretty-and-l ive-happily-ever-after days"
A smile broke out across Dani's face. "Dora's here?" Then she frowned, the pout back. "And I missed her?"
"She'll probably be coming by later," Danny told her, then turned to his mom. "Actually, we were thinking of having a meeting here around six. All the key players—humans and ghosts. We need to get a report on how the weapons modifications are coming, touch base with Frostbite and what Vlad's doing to try and take the Far Frozen, and we've got some new stuff to figure out, like how to counter a nasty little power Aragon has that takes out all our tech, and why Vlad sent his number two guy to Amity Park before he's gotten all of the Ghost Zone under his control."
Mrs. Fenton looked horrified. "All those people—and ghosts!—over here? Tonight? But the house is a mess, and what am I going to feed that many people?"
"We were gonna order some pizzas from Crusty's. And the house looks fine, Mom."
She sighed. "Well, I suppose. And I have a theory I've been developing that I need to share with everyone."
"Dad said you were working on something. Will it help take down Vlad?"
"Maybe. It's just a theory, though. I have a lot of work left to do. But I suppose we do need to get everyone together, and it might as well be here. But you have to clean the house, mister. And your sister can help when she gets back."
In an instant, the General was gone, and Danny was just a teenager who didn't want to do his chores. "Mo-om! The house is fine! And I have friends over." He indicated Sam and Valerie with a jerk of his head.
"Don't worry about it, Danny," Valerie said quickly. "We can help straighten up a little. Although the house really does look fine, Mrs. Fenton. Better than our house. Sometimes I think we'll be living out of boxes the rest of our lives. Not that I'm complaining. Anything's better than that crummy apartment."
Mrs. Fenton smiled. "You and your dad just moved in a week ago. Give yourself some time to settle in." To Danny, she said, "You'd better get busy if you're going to have this house in shape for company by six o'clock. But first, let's get that scrape on your cheek cleaned up."
He scowled. "It's just a scratch, Mom. It doesn't even hurt anymore."
Sam had to admit, it did already look much better. One of the side benefits of his ghost powers was quick healing.
His mom crossed her arms. "Then get to work."
"What about Danielle? Why doesn't she help if she's so 'fine?'"
Dani scrunched down against her pillows, affecting a pained expression. "I'm recovering. Probably shouldn't do too much right now."
"That's right," Mrs. Fenton agreed. "She should rest now, then she can come down for the meeting." She shook her head. "The Fright Knight and Aragon attacking Amity Park. What is Vlad up to?"