Cassiopeia

Chapter 14


The moment Jazz's protective presence exited the RV, presumably to retrieve the Fenton Foamer from the exterior luggage, Jack leaned in threateningly. "Let's get something straight," he snarled, "Ghost or not, I don't like you talking to my little girl. Got it?"

Nervous, Danny's good hand clenched the table ledge. Even though he could understand his father's hesitance, it still cut deep to be treated like a threat. He'd never, in a million years, hurt Jazz. "Yes, uh-" Voice clipped, Danny stuttered. The light in his father's eyes was cold and steely. Threatening. Far too close for comfort. "Yes, sir."

Blue eyes searched Danny's face with intense scrutiny, perhaps trying to judge just how far Phantom's word could be trusted. Surely, if he looked hard enough, Danny's father could see past the disguise… But, to Danny's relief and somewhat disappointment, Jack broke the staring contest with a brisk nod. "Good."

"Got it!" Jazz shouted, instantly breaking the tension as she hopped back into the RV. In her hands was a unpolished prototype Fenton Foamer. The oversized machine was clutched clumsily. Sharpie decorated its unpolished surface in a frenzy of scribbled notes and suggestions for improvement. Loops and tangles of wires hung free and bare, easily accessible for last minute tweaks.

… But the foamer, despite appearances, was still a threat. Ammunition sloshed in a semi-transparent tank, glowing with the Fenton signature green. His parents never made static models. Every prototype they ever made was a working prototype. This thing, however unfinished it appeared, posed just as much a danger as the real deal.

He and his sister shared a look, one that he hoped conveyed his extreme dislike of that particular device. Jazz took the hint. She didn't bring it anywhere near the back of the RV. Choosing to keep the gun in the front, she plopped herself down side saddle in the passenger seat.

If Jack noticed her hesitance, he didn't comment on it. Instead, he smiled at her approvingly. "Good work, Jazzy! Can you get the tank out of it? We need the solution."

Frowning, Jazz wrestled the gun such that she could better see the tankard of foaming solution. "There's not much in here… A fifth maybe?"

"A fifth?" Jack eyed the tank. Then, he sized up Danny's arm. "That should be plenty."

Wait. He wants to put that on me?

"Uh- not to interrupt, but you're going to put that stuff," he indicated to Fenton Foamer, "on me?"

At the question, Jack looked up from the gutted bazooka in his lap, eyebrow arched. "Why? Don't like it?"

Oh crud! I'm not supposed to know what that is!

"Uh- uh-" Danny swallowed and shifted on the table. It was hard and cold. A lot less forgiving than the couch he was on before. "I mean," he corrected, "It's a gun right? An anti-ghost gun thing? Probably bad for me?"

Jack sighed heavily, returning his attention to the bazooka. "It's a bonding agent," he mumbled quietly. "A really strong adhesive." With a bit of strain, he snapped a couple of thin metal dowels from the bazooka. "It can injure you, and that is the point of it, but I'm not going to use it like that today."

"Oh." That explanation was a lot less comforting than Danny had hoped. "So… what does it do?"

Strangely, Jack seemed to almost perk up, shedding some of the exhaustion which was weighing him down. "Wait," he shook his head in disbelief, "you actually want to know what that thing does?"

Danny shot Jazz a questioning glance. Is this normal? Do you think he's snapped? But she only stared back, equally perplexed. Slowly, he brought his attention back to his father who was patiently awaiting an answer. "Uh- yeah? Kinda. You're going to use that stuff on me, right? I think I'd like to know what it does…"

"You're serious?" Jack was looking at Danny… no at Phantom like he had just spawned the head of a failed duplicate on his shoulder. "No one likes that thing. It's not even one of our better inventions. You know, it's been to three separate paranormal road shows and rejected on each occasion?"

Oh, I actually didn't know that.

As much as his parents liked to share their success, they did keep their losses secret from their children. Danny was learning more and more about their struggles the older he got, but never had he suspected that their inventions could actually not draw attention. Especially inventions that worked.

"Literally no one cares about this thing," Jack continued. He slouched, picking through some loose wires and pulling some more free. "You probably don't want to hear about it either."

Fidgeting, Danny tried his best to lighten the mood. "Well, it obviously works," he encouraged. "Those -uh- roadshows don't know what they passed up on."

Without warning, Jack suddenly pounded his fist against the arm of his chair. "That's exactly what I've been saying this whole time!" Eyes sparking, Jack leaned forward excitedly. "All they like is the stuff that glows and the stuff that makes noise. Absolute nonsense, most of it is! Bring out even an ounce of slime and everyone gets grossed out."

"Heh." Uncomfortable with the sudden intrusion of his personal space, Danny discretely scooted back along the table. "Yeah, and what is even up with the whole EVP nonsense. It's all so obviously doctored-"

"Yes!" Jack shouted. He turned to look at Jazz. "This guy gets it!"

"Well, not to gloat or anything, but I am actually a ghost hunter…" This was very weird. If he knew it would be this easy to connect with his dad before, then he would have done this ages ago. Apparently, all Jack needed was some mutual interest.

"You are?" Calming down again, Jack leaned back and continued his butchery of the bazooka. "I guess you are, huh? Never thought of it like that… I mean, I've seen you attack other ghosts, but... " He shrugged. "I just never made the connection."

"Yeah, I know. I need a publicist."

"Don't we all," Jack agreed. He had finally managed to work his fingers around a small board embedded within a divot. With one smooth motion, the mammoth of a man easily separated it from the metal. It would never cease to amaze Danny the level of care that his father could work with. He supposed it must have been the years of handling volatile material which had drilled a certain degree of gentleness to his father's touch.

"Well, I guess I can tell you what it does," he mused. "Ghost hunter to ghost hunter… I can't see any harm in it." He settled a look of jest on Jazz. "Jazz could also use the lecture."

Jazz raised an irritated eye up from her progress on the Fenton Foamer. Having forgone conventional tools, she was now attempting to pry out the tank with the broad side of a boomerang. Returning her attention to the uncooperative mess of gadgetry in her lap, Jazz muttered, "The day I don't hear a lecture about ghosts is the day I die."

Pretending not to hear his daughter's protests, Jack moved on excitedly. "Like I said, that stuff is a really, really strong ectoplasmic-based adhesive." By way of demonstration, he held up both of his hands with his fingers splayed and wiggling. "Let's say my hands are a couple of tiny molecular ghost bits. They like to move around and shift with the fluctuations in the ghost's frequencies. When the foam comes in contact with them…" He brought his hands together, pressing his fingertips against one another. "It sticks the molecules together. Ghost bodies are in a constant state of flux, so having portions be bonded and still…" He made of show of trying to wiggle his fingers and hands while still keeping his fingers stuck together. "It causes increasing tension which eventually leads to a breakdown in the ghost's basic form."

"Huh," Danny hummed, interested. He didn't really follow why having things stay still was bad, but if it was, he'd take Jack's word for it.

Seemingly spurred on, Jack eagerly boomed, "but this can be used to our advantage!" Caught up in the demonstration, Danny's father scooted forward and grabbed the arm. "If I'm right, there's a load of ectoplasm which is carrying some sort of interfering frequency all throughout your arm." His large finger traced up into Danny's shoulder, coming to rest near Danny's chest. "It's getting cycled through your system, disrupting whatever your core is trying do."

"... what is it trying to do?" Danny asked, uncertainty hitching his voice. He'd always tried to tell himself that the specifics didn't matter. That he didn't need to know what he was or how his new body operated. But, at the end of the day, he was curious.

"Uh-" Jack dropped his hand. "I'm not really sure… Clearly it's not holding you together, so you should count your lucky stars."

"Oh." Yeah. It would probably make sense that his father didn't know how he operated either. Kinda sucked though. "So, the foamer is going to help?"

"Yeah! At least, I think so." Once again, Jack grabbed Danny's arm, turning such that the ugliest gash was facing upwards. "I want to quarantine the ectoplasm here. New stuff can go in, but nothing can come out. The adhesive properties of the Fenton Foamer should be enough to accomplish that."

Yes!

Hope blossomed in his chest. After having this cut for so long, he was beginning to think it was just going to stay there forever.

"Or," Jack continued, "I could be wrong and just compounding injuries." His father shrugged. "This sort of stuff isn't really an exact science."

Oh. Oh, no.

On queue, a small crash and a pop sounded from the front of the RV. Jazz gasped, holding up the foaming solution like it was a golden trophy. "Got it!"

"You are both way too eager to do this," Danny observed. Knowing that there was a chance of failure was making him somewhat protective. Just how bad off could his arm get before it just… well, before it just fell off.

Graciously accepting the tank from Jazz, Jack stood up and approached the table Danny was currently perched on. "Beats sitting around and waiting for the problem to solve itself, which it won't." Then, he grinned widely exposing his very distinct inner mad scientist. "Don't worry! I did say it's not an exact science. That's because it's one part science and one part gut. And I got a lot of guts, kid. This will work."


Valerie stalked about the clearing, steaming with rage. She didn't know exactly why she was so pissed off, but she was absolutely and full heartedly enraged.

Sure, she could blame the constant electronic buzz of her suit. Sure, she could blame the attitude that the ghost kid gave her. Sure, she could blame Jazz for kicking her out of the RV. Heck, she could even blame the stupidity of this whole enterprise if she wanted to.

But, somehow, she knew that those reasons did not account for how overly upset she was. No. This was the sort of rage that didn't come from frustrating prodding or sarcastic quips or disappointing excursions.

This was the sort of rage that made her feel sick.

Never in her entire life had she ever seen anyone as destroyed as Phantom was. She should have felt gratified, vindicated, satisfied. But she didn't. She just felt wrong. She never wanted anyone to undergo that sort of treatment. She just… never thought of… Phantom… as a person worth saving?

Not that Phantom was a person… or maybe he was? He did have some Fenton brand pajamas. She knew because she found the shirt lying on the floor of her room. Was he stealing clothes? No, that seemed unlikely. He would have been caught by security footage thanks to her dad… So then, was Jazz providing personal items for him? To account for the things that he didn't have?

She knew what that felt like. To not have anything. To look at the wealth of others and wonder what you ever did to deserve nothing… not even friends.

Maybe, she saw a little of herself in Phantom…

Her fist wound and unwound, metal screeching against the hardened rubber pad on her palm.

And of all the people she expected to see get their spectral asses handed to them.

It just has to be him, doesn't it?

Because she didn't notice that there was a ghost in the Fenton household. Because she wasn't there to assist. Because she was a stupid, self-serving idiot who prioritized going to bed early over a patrol that evening.

Stupid!

Startled, she looked down at her hand to see that a side arm had materialized itself. Her suit was throwing almost as big a fit as she was. It wasn't listening, spawning whatever useless piece of weaponry it pleased. Frustrated, she closed her eyes. Focused. The gun disappeared again.

She didn't have the battery to waste on this sort of idiocy. She already couldn't fly. Grounded, she was only as good as her guns, so she was intent on conserving the ammunition.

Her eyes trailed along her arm. Green was… it was just… everywhere. It shimmered on her armor, violently clashing with the red undertones until it was a gross muddy color in the thinner spots. Phantom's blood. He lost so much of it. How much did he even have? It felt like he probably bled out twice while she was busy looking for Maddie.

… She should have just made a beeline for the RV the moment she got him. Should have never tried to search for the Mrs. Fenton. Maybe, if she got him there earlier, they'd be in better shape than they were now.

Her stomach turned, and Valerie felt like she might puke. She hoped that if it would come to that, that she could get her suit to unequip itself. Getting vomit along the inside of her visor was the last thing she needed right now.

Limp. Broken. Bleeding out. Dazed. Still conscious, but not responsive. Valerie didn't know what to expect when she forced herself on this trip, but she sure as hell wasn't expecting that. Phantom was always invincible and quick to fly away. He never stayed and invited danger. Valerie counted on that. That smug bastard would fly around dizzyingly, taunt her, and then disappear. To see him actually get caught. To see him actually get hurt…

She wanted to do that.

But now that she knew how that looked, how unnervingly human the kid seemed… How inhumane and awful the whole situation was.

It was gross. She was gross for wanting it. Spectra was even worse for doing it.

She looked at the RV maring the landscape with its glaring and reflective silver tones. She hoped Phantom was doing better. If he wasn't, then Spectra would pay threefold. Fourfold, even. She'd pulverise that monster into oblivion with every ounce of her strength and then some. And even then, Spectra would be getting off too easy.


Jack grabbed the circuit board he had snapped out of the bazooka earlier. "I want to try something. If it works, then it should lessen the damage the Fenton Foamer will cause."

Something in the back of Danny's mind supplied that the 'will cause' part of that sentence was bad, but he was more focused on what his father was proudly displaying in his hands. A small, unassuming circuit board. It appeared harmless if one pointedly ignored the large, dangerous looking battery Jack had carelessly strapped to it.

Wait. Isn't this battery the type that explodes?

He hoped it wasn't, but he couldn't be sure. His parents went through several iterations of batteries and synthetic cores, and he could never really tell the difference between any of them. Hopefully, Jack could.

"This little baby," Jack proudly declared, "is the amplifying circuit for the bazooka. Most of our guns have one, but the bazooka has a special set of parameters." Then, he leaned in, whispering like he had a juicy piece of gossip. "I say special but what I really mean is frustrating. Madds won't stop modifying it. She just can't let this thing be. Drives me crazy. Anyway!" He pulled back, indicating a small forked bit at the end. "This little guy repels ectoplasm and acts as the 'shooting' mechanism for many of our guns. The bazooka needs a lot more oomph though, so Maddie had to get creative." His fingers followed a trace line that was so small, Danny could only barely make it out. "It has a full, closed-loop feedback system which measures energy sources and dynamically adjusts to repel spectral frequencies. Basically, that's a fancy way of saying that this thing only puts out the energy it needs to."

Danny blinked as he slowly processed that information. "Uh, so you're going to shoot the foam at me? I don't see how that-"

"What? No!" Jack cradled the circuit protectively as though Danny had just insulted it. "The ammunition would be, in this case, you're ectoplasm."

Danny leveled his father an uncertain look. "... you want to shoot me at the foam?"

Groaning, Jack looked up at the ceiling and prayed for strength. "No. Nothing is getting shot at anything."

"Oh, okay?" Danny nodded like he understood everything when he really did not.

"I just…" Jack started, "want to see if this works. I mean, you're body isn't made of ectoplasm, so it stands to reason that the ectoplasm can be temporarily removed without complica-"

"You want to what!?" Alarm bells were sounding. His dad wanted to remove the ectoplasm from his body? Yeah, no thanks. Not in a million years. Nuh-uh.

"Hey!" Jack looked affronted. "Only a little bit-"

"A little bit!? Only a little bit? Jazz, do you hear this?"

"Phantom," Jazz chided. She was in the dining area already foraging for snacks and other foodstuffs. "Let Dad do his work."

"Yes, thank you, Jazz." Jack settled on an annoyed expression, but thankfully stayed calm otherwise. "No ectoplasm is being removed from your body. I think you've probably lost enough as it is. I just want to push the ectoplasm somewhere else while I apply the foam. If I can avoid having it adhere to your healthy ectoplasm, then your body will undergo less damage."

Danny narrowed suspicious eyes, but it wasn't like he knew enough to dispute that logic. "Okay," he shakily complied. "Just… get it over with."

"Alright." Now, Jack was looking a bit hesitant. He never hesitated, and that reaction was somewhat worrisome. "I guess I'll start at your fingers?"

"Um, yeah." Danny held out his hand."Here."

With a mumbled thanks, Jack took the offered appendage and brushed the fork on Danny's fingers. Like a switch, Danny's aura sprung out, hovering like tiny spectral rings around each finger.

Uh-oh. That's not good.

Jack jumped out of surprise, and took a cautious step back. "Woah! Did not expect that." His arm was fully extended as he dutifully held the circuit in place.

"That makes two of us…" Danny answered. He stared in awe at the partial transformation. It felt weird and squirmy. Phantom was likely fighting against it.

"What's happening? Oh." Jazz shared a panicked look with Danny who in turn shared an anxious look with Jack.

"I take it this has happened before?" Jack asked. "I saw- you did this earlier, except bigger." His arms were extended as far as they could be. "This is bad, isn't it?"

"Uh-" Jazz was staring open-mouthed. "You're- It's-" She was struggling, grasping at words as she tried to figure out something to say that wouldn't immediately incriminate either of them.

"It's... not really bad? Just…" Danny's eyes flicked between his dad and his sister and the hand which was becoming human at a frighteningly quick rate. "It's… uhm, not good… but I… it doesn't hurt or anything? It won't hurt you."

Jack seemed to take this in stride, taking a deep breath to steady himself. Shoulders squared, he retook his position next to the table. "Okay. I'm going to continue, then."

Danny swallowed, eyes focussing on his older sister as though he could ignore what was going on around him. He felt as the circuit touched his bare skin and climbed up his arm. He could feel it, the ectoplasm, as it was forced out of it's usual formation. Like frigid worms, it snaked up through his veins as an unsettling warmth flooded just behind. As the feeling worsened, the room around him grew continually brighter. The transformation was getting stronger, lighting up the room like a sluggish camera flash.

"This is very strange," Jack commented quietly. He sounded almost awestruck. "I expected your body to put up more of a fight. It shouldn't be this easy."

Danny didn't answer. Fear that the circuit might actually trigger a full transformation was setting in. Pointedly looking away, he focussed solely on his grip on his ghost half. Phantom couldn't get away from him. Not now. Not with this current audience.

"It's almost like your body expects to be able to do this…" Jack continued to slowly inch the circuit along his arm. Once it reached past the crook of Danny's elbow, the usual sharp stabs of pain from the wound were amplified. His nerves sung ballads of tortuous measures. Hissing and whimpering, he weakly tried to pull away. Nerves hurt so much more in human form, and he was not prepared for it.

But, Jack was prepared. His grip was strong and absolute. "Hold still," he ordered. "I can't help you if you don't hold still."

Easier said than done.

When the circuit finally, finally reached its target, Danny felt his nerve endings light up like a christmas tree on fire. He unintentionally struggled some more, just wanting to do nothing more than relieve himself of that pain. His dad yelled, calling for Jazz's help, and soon after, he felt another pair of hands restrain him.

Curious, Danny risked a glance. Jazz was now the one holding the circuit in place. The transformation ring, though near blinding and resting irritatingly close to his face, wasn't quite enough to obscure Jack. He was stood in the background, pouring a bit of the foaming solution onto a loose cloth.

This is going to hurt SO bad.

He shut his eyes again, and despite the anticipation, he didn't feel any new pains. He could clearly feel someone touching the wound, and that did hurt. But he couldn't feel the tell tale itching and burning of the Fenton Foamer.

Confused, Danny opened his eyes again to assess the situation. Dutifully, Jazz was stood strong, continuing to hold the circuit in place. The ring wavered and warped, apparently upset with having to stay still. Luckily it stayed just before his shoulder and didn't stray any farther up.

His father was frozen, hyper focused on the cloth as he held it over the wound. He was staring so hard that Danny started to get worried. "Is it… okay?" he asked.

Jack snapped out of it with a sharp shake of his head. "I thought I saw… I thought I saw ectoplasm… but… that's not right… all the ectoplasm is gone." He lifted up the cloth. A muddy brown liquid clung to it. Blood? "This is…" Jack visibly shuddered. "It's not reacting to the foam."

"So, is-" Danny licked his lips. His friggin arm was on fire, and Jack was just having a staring contest with his blood. Which, yeah, okay. Blood might be a little bit surprising. But he really wished his dad would hurry it up so he could have Phantom back. "Is it done?"

Jack straightened, eyes meeting Danny's. "Sorry. It's done."

Danny nodded slowly and was happy to have his arm released. The ring suddenly stopped warping and happily retreated back down to his hand where it fizzled out. Almost immediately, Phantom dampened the pain, but it was also now accompanied by some itching and burning. Probably from the Fenton Foamer.

"That still looks bad," Jazz commented. "How does it feel?"

"It hurts," Danny confirmed as he folded his arm back against his chest. "But not much more than usual. I can definitely feel that foam, though. Is Jack okay?"

His father was hunched over, inspecting the reddish brownish tinged cloth with a worrying degree of focus. "It's not reacting." he stated. "This is blood. Real blood."

Worried, Jazz gave Danny a light squeeze before she left his side. Danny agreed. Right now, Jack was the one who needed more help than he did. "Dad?" She questioned. "Are you alright?"

Jack looked at her. Then, at Danny. "You bleed," he said. "This is blood. I knew I smelt it earlier, but-" His eyes were once again attracted to the cloth in his hand. "I didn't want to believe it."

Jazz shot Danny a bothered glance. "Dad," she tried again. "It's okay."

"No, it's not," Jack stated miserably. "It's not okay. How did I not notice before? You're not- I haven't studied anything like youl."

Oh no. This is really becoming a worst case scenario. How long until he recognizes me?

Danny took this as his cue. If he didn't act fast, if he didn't save face, then his carefully constructed temple of lies would come crashing down on him fast.

Unsteadily, Danny pushed himself into a standing position. The ground was still slick with ectoplasm (ew), but the pattern in the metal grating helped him to get some traction. "Jack?" he ventured. "I don't… really know what to say."

Jack's attention crawled from Jazz to Danny. He reached out, but then seemed to think better of it at the last minute. "I think... after seeing everything. After knowing what you need…" He shook his head, admonishing himself. "No. That's stupid. Crazy. Impossible. Nothing could do that to any living thing..."

Oh, this is really not good.

"You just, now that I see it, now that I know what to look for, you look so much like a kid." His eyes were tearing up, and he looked like he might break down again. "You even look like you could be Jazz's age." His arms were shaking, Danny realized with a start. His dad was trembling. "Maybe younger." He sucked in a loud, shaky breath. "What are you?"

Danny froze. This was the worst possible thing Jack could have asked him. If he had the strength to, if he didn't have on those phase-proof cuffs, then he'd have bolted. And he hated himself for wanting to run, but… Really, it was the only way he knew to deal with these sorts of situations. Run away and let the moment pass. Show up again when everything is over.

Coward!

He berated himself for thinking like that. This was his father. His father would never do anything to hurt him… knowingly. Unknowingly, sure. He'd do it in a heartbeat. Now that he knew, though. Now that Jack knew… well, Danny had confidence that his father could be trusted. Danny knew this. But, he just wasn't ready for a reveal.

So many things were at risk. His freedom. His body. Would his parents want to get baselines? Medical reports? How far would they go to restrict him. Could they actually remove Phantom?

No. He was absolutely not ready for this.

"I- don't know," he settled. That wasn't technically a lie. He actually didn't know what he was, what he was doing here, why he was spared a cold, instant death at the grizzly green hands of the Fenton Portal, but… he did know more than Jack did. So it did sort of count as a half-lie. "But, you are right. I'm not, y'know.."

Jack deflated. "You're not just a ghost," he repeated. "And I've treated you like you were the casual ectopus or slime monster." Ashamed, Jack hung his head even lower between his shoulders. "Jazz, you were right. I…" His fingers crumpled and steepled and fidgeted around the tainted cloth. "We never even scratched the surface."

Danny hummed, sort of embarrassed, sort of ashamed, sort of scared. His father's attention was magnetized, and it was filled with so much emotional charge. It was hard to ignore, forget, pretend that everything was still as it was, as it should be. Calm. Safe. Shrouded by secrets and misinformation. "I'm…" He cleared his throat, and Jazz swatted his hand as he reached up to scratch where the foam was. Formulating thoughts was hard. "I'm… kind of rare," he admitted, hoping that the fact would help alleviate some of his father's guilt. "And I didn't really want you to find out…"

Breaking eye contact, Jack bent even farther into his hunch. He had gone quiet and slack, thinking and depressive. It was so against his normal, cheery self, so opposite of the behavior that Danny had internalized as his dad. It was hard, so hard, to see him this way. He was helpless, he realized.

Jazz, on the other hand, took the lead from here, easily leading their dad to the bedroom where he gratefully collapsed into the bottom bunk bed. He did look so incredibly tired. When was the last time he had slept? Grinding his arm into the groove beneath his ribcage, Danny had to remind himself that his dad was the only one here qualified (however loosely) to drive. That meant… did his dad stay up this whole time? Driving? Searching?

And to think that Spectra had mom this whole time...

It was frustrating, no, it was beyond that. Infuriating, maybe? To know that he was right next to his mom the entire time. If only he had never listened to that stupid know-it-all ghost, he'd probably have already dug her out of that hospital and dragged her all the way back home by now. As it stood now, his mom could have been moved anywhere. They'd have to get her whereabouts from Spectra herself.

Jazz and Jack were talking, whispering to each other in urgent, almost argumentative tones. The conversation was short lived, ending when his sister abruptly closed the curtain. "Phantom is fine!" she shouted. "Just go to sleep."


The sun had already crawled midway across the sky by the time Jazz exited the RV. She was stressed, tired, and her black eye ached, but she was worlds better than her father was… and her brother… she didn't think he could get so bad and still be as coherent as he was.

Valerie was the next beast to tackle, though. As far as Jazz knew, Valerie was not injured, which was good seeing as every other member of her party was. But, if her brother's intuition was correct, then Jazz knew that Valerie's core was shot. She needed to rest.

The wind picked up, blowing the dense grass and leaves and wrinkling the plastic bag in her hands. It was filled up with a few granola bars, meat in a can, and a sports drink. Not exactly a meal fit for a king, but Danny had already claimed the toaster pastries and jerky for himself. The cookies were a no go either. Her mom had made them just before going missing. If anyone needed those sugary delights, it was her dad.

"Hello?" she called, careful not to use the huntress's name. Secrets were secrets after all. Danny might slip up all the time, but Jazz was a tight lipped veteran. "I brought food."

The huntress's voice answered her from above. "Not. Hungry." Just behind some smattering of leaves, she could clearly see the red glare of the huntress's armor as her body was reclined along a tree branch. She sounded upset, but it was hard to gauge just how upset she was thanks to the distortion her voice modulator caused.

Jazz yawned, tears pricking at her eyes. These were a long few days, and she was wiped. Opting to sit beneath the tree, Jazz closed her eyes and enjoyed to cool afternoon weather. The fresh air helped to flush some of the sick citrus smell from her nostrils too.

"He's doing better, now," she said, careful to not direct that statement directly at the huntress. This was a touchy subject. If Valerie really wanted to, she could just pretend that Jazz was talking to herself. "Dad did something. Doesn't look like it's backfiring, so that's a good sign."

Metal scraped against wood. Jazz looked up to see a darkened visor peering down at her through the dead leaves. Jazz smiled up at her. It was nice to know that on some level, Valerie cared about her brother. Both forms of him, at least, and not just the one.

"He's up and about now, if you want to see him."

The huntress huffed, and her armor rattled about as she returned to her lounging. "I don't remember saying I wanted to see his mug."

"Well," Jazz argued, "he does need a sling, so you will need to take those cuffs off sooner or later."

Some silence passed. Jazz let Valerie have her quiet moment. These past few days were rough, and of everyone, Valerie was forced to take on most of the actual fighting work. She put herself in the line of fire, taking the brunt of the blows from the seemingly unending waves of animalistic ghosts.

"I'll just leave this here." Jazz stood up, almost sad to leave the clean comfort of the outside. She found herself wondering how long Valerie could keep the suit on. If it was healthy for her or if it placed some kind of strain on her. She imagined that it probably did. "You should rest," she suggested, and she hoped that Valerie would actually do it. If they were going to do this thing tonight, then having Valerie at her best would be… well, for the best. Her brother was too hurt to carry the team as it was.

Just as Jazz made to leave, something metallic fell from the tree, landing in the dirt with a soft thunk. It glinted red in the sunlight. A key? For the cuffs? Valerie was busy pretending not to notice. When Jazz picked it up, the metal was cool and slick, still humming like a plucked guitar string.

"Thanks," she called, but the huntress deigned to answer.


A/N: Another long chapter. Hope its not too exposition-y. It was hard to write. The next chapter is even harder to write, so expect a decent delay before that one gets published.

And while I usually do review responses here, I think I'm going to take up Pterodactyl's advice and do some PM's. I just got so many from the last chapter, so wow! Thanks everyone. I'm blown away by all your kindness.

Thank you to all you wonderful readers for making it thus far, for favoriting, following, and reviewing. I feel like I've come so far in the year or so that I've been writing this fic, and it's all thanks to you and this platform. I genuinely wish you all the best.