Five years after the accident
"Okay, Maddie! Time to fire up the grill!"
Jazz winced as her father came out the back door wearing an apron emblazoned with the words Licensed to Grill over his orange jumpsuit. He was carrying a platter piled high with raw hamburger patties, hotdogs, and bratwurst. It wasn't the five tons of meat products or even the apron that made her cringe, however. Rather, it was the mention of the grill.
"Dad, you are going to use a regular grill, right? Not something you invented? Remember what happened to the hotdogs that one time."
"Or the turkey that Thanksgiving when we were little," Danny added, taking a sip of his rootbeer. "C'mon, Jazz. Nothing says dinner at the Fentons' quite like food rising from the dead and attacking."
Sam smirked at them. "Karma, baby. Serves you right, eating dead animals."
"Oh, like we've never been attacked by haunted plants." Tucker arched an eyebrow at her.
"No worries, Jazzy-pants." Her father grinned as he set the platter down next to the grill in the corner of the patio. "I just added a little something to give her a bit more juice."
Jazz groaned. "Attack of the killer hamburgers it is."
Sam patted the small cooler beside her. "And that's why it pays to bring your own food to these shindigs."
Tucker grimaced. "I'd rather eat killer hamburgers than that algae you eat."
Jazz's mom, who was setting up a badminton net in the far corner of the yard with Danielle, shielded the sun from her eyes with her hand. "Jack, don't you think it's too early to start cooking? The Grays aren't here yet."
"Aw, but Maddie! I'm anxious to try out the new Fenton Ecto-powered Propane Replacement!"
Jazz looked at Sam. "Is it too late for me to go vegetarian?"
"Welcome to the fold."
Dani came across the yard to join them at the picnic table. "Thank you all so much for helping set up the badminton net." She reached down and grabbed a diet cola out of the ice-filled plastic wading pool beside the table.
"That's one of the fringe benefits of not living here full time, cos." Danny grinned at her. "You get treated like a guest."
She rolled her eyes. "It's summer break. You are living here full-time."
Tucker looked at his watch. "So where is Valerie anyway? I thought she and her dad were gonna be here at four."
"They're bringing someone with them." Dani sat down next to Jazz and opened her soda. "Some guy who just started working at Axion. Val says he's a total hottie." She gave Tucker an impish grin.
Tucker scowled. "Greeeaaat."
"Hey, anybody home?" Damon Gray poked his head over the fence. A former marine, Mr. Gray was a burly man with dark skin, a receding hairline, a thick black mustache, and glasses that looked so much like Tucker's that Jazz wondered if they were standard issue for techno-geeks.
"Speak of the devil," Dani said.
Jack looked up from where he was tinkering with the propane tank under the grill. "Hey, D-Man, back here! Gate's open."
Mr. Gray reached over the top of the fence and opened the gate latch, then came into the back yard. Following behind were Valerie and a tall, muscular—but not too muscular—young man with short-cropped, light-brown hair and deep brown eyes. Something about him looked really familiar to Jazz, and she cocked her head and narrowed her eyes, examining him. Valerie, meanwhile, slipped past her father and his guest to join their group at the picnic table. Grabbing a soda out of the wading pool, she sat down next to Tucker, but leaned across to Dani. "Told you he was a hottie."
Tucker made a face, but Dani grinned. "You did not lie."
Sam tilted her head. "Eh. Not my type."
"Better not be," Danny grumbled, but without any real animosity.
Valerie smirked. "I see Jazz likes what she sees."
Jazz blinked, looking away from the newcomer. "Huh? Oh, no. He just looks familiar."
Sam frowned, leaning forward to get a better look around Danny. "You, too? I was thinking the same thing. Wonder where we've seen him before?"
Jazz's mother met Mr. Gray and his friend at the gate, giving the former a kiss on the cheek while taking a large, foil-covered bowl from him. "Hello, Damon. Is this your world-famous potato salad, I take it?"
"You know it." When he was free of the bowl, he put one hand on his companion's back. "Maddie, I'd like you to meet Nick Reilly. He's a hotshot new mechanical engineer that just started at Axion a couple weeks ago."
Maddie cradled the bowl in one hand, balancing it on her hip, and extended her other to shake hands with Nick. "Pleased to meet you, Nick."
"Pleasure's all mine," Nick replied. "Actually, when Damon mentioned he was friends with Jack and Maddie Fenton, I begged an invite. I have been dying to meet you ever since the asteroid crisis."
Jazz's father, hearing his name mentioned in a favorable light, jumped up from the grill and trotted over to greet their guest. "Hey, there. Nick, did you say?"
Nick nodded, sticking out his hand for Jack to shake. "Yes, sir. Nick Reilly."
"I'm Jack Fenton. So… heard of my work with ecto-technology, I take it?"
"Sort of." Nick smiled, and Jazz had to admit, he was rather attractive, although she couldn't fathom why he was kissing up to her dad. As he shook the larger man's hand, Nick explained, "I actually had the chance to work on some of your technology."
Her dad frowned. "How so?"
Everything kind of stopped as everyone in the yard looked at Nick. Jazz's mom, still balancing the bowl on her hip, was trying to look casual, but Jazz could see the suspicion in her eyes. "You were in Antarctica? During the asteroid crisis, you mean? I don't remember you."
"He wasn't on the tech crew," Damon quickly clarified. "He was stationed at McMurdo, and was back at the base when… everything happened."
Translation: he wasn't one of the seventy-some people who had witnessed Danny's transformation from ghost to human. They all relaxed a little.
"I was one of the McMurdo flight mechanics," Nick added, looking at Jazz's father. "I helped strip down that jet of yours before Danny Phantom used it to bring back all those ghosts."
Sam snapped her fingers. "That's where I've seen him before!" She'd spent a good chunk of her time in Antarctica with the flight mechanics, acting as sort of a Jack-Fenton-logic-to-human-logic interpreter.
Jazz nodded. She, too, had spent some time with the mechanics working on the Fenton Jet. Not as much as Sam, but it explained why Nick looked familiar.
Her mother, however, didn't relax. If anything, she looked more tense. "So… you were with the military, then?"
Nick frowned. "Huh? Oh, no. I was a civilian working year-round on the base, not with the Air Guard. They're stationed out of New York. My dad's the Air Force guy—kept trying to get me to go to the Air Force Academy, but I'm not the military type. Looks aside." He grinned, swiping a hand over his hair, which did indeed look like a military cut. "I wasn't just a flight mechanic—I fixed all kinds of stuff around McMurdo. Kind of a glorified handyman."
At this, Maddie finally loosened up, and her smile returned. That was when Jazz realized what exactly had been bothering her. She'd been more than a little upset with the pilots on the base after they'd come looking for Danny Phantom when everything was over.
Mr. Gray clapped Nick on the back. "Don't let the kid fool you. He's way more than a glorified handyman. Got his B.S.E. at Michigan, then did a little more than a year at McMurdo before going on to get his Master's at MIT. Axion snatched him up out of grad school, and he's already the wunderkind of the mechanics side. Mechatronics, nanotechnology, robotics… you name it, he knows it. Then, when he told me he was in Antarctica and worked on your jet, Jack… well, I knew I had to bring him over and let you show him the place. Especially the Op-Center." He turned to Nick. "That big metal thing on top of the house? It actually converts into that jet you worked on. Well, I take that back—that jet crashed in Antarctica. But one just like it."
Jazz's dad beamed with pride. "I can show you around the place later, Nick. Right now, I was just getting ready to grill up dinner. You wanna check out the modifications I made to the propane tank to get better fuel efficiency? Uses ecto-power."
"Jack, let the poor man get a drink or something first." Her mother's eyes were much warmer now as she turned to their guest. "Nick, why don't you help yourself to a soda or a beer—I assume you're over twenty-one?"
"Okay, then. Beer and soda are both over in that plastic pool by the picnic table."
"Oh, come on. He can have a beer anytime, Maddie. He's gotta see the Fenton Ecto-powered Propane Replacement before I fire her up to get the burgers going." With that, Jack dragged Nick off toward the grill.
It was a good hour before Nick escaped from Jack's clutches, leaving Mr. Gray to help him grill the burgers while Maddie hovered nearby with both a fire extinguisher and the Fenton Foamer, ready for either natural or ecto-based disaster. Nick came over to the picnic table, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm. "Cold drinks?"
Jazz nodded towards the wading pool. "Right there."
"Hey Nick, have a seat and meet everyone," Valerie said as Nick fished out a beer. "Most of us were there for Operation Spirit."
He sat down at the end of the table next to Jazz while Valerie made introductions. "Danny is the Fentons' son—he was with them for the most part, laying cables across the globe." That was the story they'd told everyone else to explain Danny Fenton's absence while Danny Phantom was around, anyway. "And Tucker Foley was the guy who headed up the whole construction of that antenna."
Nick's eyes widened. "Oh, yeah, I remember you. Not in person, but from the news. Pretty damned smart for a… how old were you, then?"
Tucker beamed. "Sixteen."
"Damn. You studying engineering?"
"Computer Information Systems, actually, at Purdue Calumet. I was thinking about doing Computer Engineering, but I'm also minoring in poli-sci, so I.S. was a better fit."
"Tucker was also Mayor of Amity Park at sixteen." Valerie put her hand on Tucker's shoulder. "He resigned last summer to go to college."
Nick whistled. "I repeat: damn! Well, speaking as an engineer, I hope you stick with the tech side instead of politics. That was quite a project in Antarctica. I wanted to work on it myself, but we had too much stuff to do back at the base with the influx of so many people. We don't usually have more than three hundred residents during the winter."
"I keep trying to convince him to stick with I.S. and stay outta politics," Valerie said. "Maybe he'll listen to you." Then, she continued the introductions. "This is Danielle Fenton, Danny's cousin. She came to live with the Fentons about a year after the asteroid crisis, so she missed out on all the fun."
Danielle arched her eyebrow, but didn't say anything. In truth, she had been there—but as one of the ghosts.
Valerie continued. "The girl in black is Danny's girlfriend, Sam Manson, and last but not least, this is the Fentons' daughter, Jazz."
Nick looked back and forth between Jazz and Sam. "Yeah, I remember you two. You helped us figure out what the heck was up with that jet."
Sam snorted. "After you've been around a while, the way Mr. Fenton's mind works actually starts to… well, not make sense, exactly. But you can kinda see where he's going."
Nick grinned. "After a long while, I'm guessing. Whatever he did to that grill?" He shook his head. "I'm so not having a hamburger tonight."
Jazz wasn't sure she liked this stranger poking fun at her father. It was one thing for family, or for as-good-as-family, like Sam, but just because this guy was some "wunderkind" didn't give him the right to look down on her father. "Dad's inventions are a little… unconventional, but they get the job done."
He turned to her. "Oh, I don't doubt that. That's one of the reasons I wanted to meet the guy. I was blown away by that jet, and how it was, like… everything that should never, ever be done in mechanics, but it worked."
"That's our dad." Danny chuckled.
"It was amazing. I'd wanted to meet him while you were all still at McMurdo, but you guys didn't show up at the celebration party after the asteroid passed through us, and they pretty much had you all bugged out by the time I got up the next day, so I never got the chance. I was really stoked when I found out Damon was in Antarctica and actually was friends with your dad." This mollified Jazz somewhat—until the next thing he said: "So, I gotta ask you. Aren't you also the girl that was dating Danny Phantom?"
The reaction around the table was instantaneous. Tucker, Sam, and Valerie burst out laughing. Danielle just gaped, and Jazz shouted out, "I did not date Danny Phantom!" at the exact same moment as Danny cried, "She did not date Danny Phantom!"
"Uh… is there something I should know about, cousin?" Danielle asked Danny.
Danny just glared in response.
Nick put his hands up, startled. "Whoa. Didn't mean to touch a nerve, there."
Jazz clenched her teeth, calming herself. "Sorry. That rumor took a long time to quash, and I don't really like it any more now than I did then."
"Don't like the idea of being hooked up with a ghost, huh?"
This time it was Sam who nearly exploded. "And what's wrong with that?"
Danny slumped down in his seat. "Oh boy, here we go."
Undaunted, Sam continued her tirade. "I'm just saying. Why should ghosts be any different than anyone else? They're sentient beings who deserve equal rights and equal treatment."
Nick blinked. "Okay, I seem to be putting my foot in my mouth all over the place. I've got nothing against ghosts, okay? I even met Danny Phantom briefly while we were working on that jet. Seemed like a nice guy… ghost… whatever. I just was wondering."
"Sam's working on starting up a ghost-rights group to fight against the anti-ecto laws." Danny glared at his girlfriend. "That's why she overreacts when people bring up ghosts."
"Really?" Nick smiled at Sam. "That's cool. The anti-ecto laws never did make much sense to me. I mean, the ghosts all saved the world, and instead of being grateful, we've got a whole government agency devoted to hunting them all down? I don't get it."
This calmed her down considerably. "Exactly! And… sorry about jumping down your throat. It's just that, with the presidential primaries less than a year away, the 'blame it all on the ghosts' smearing has already begun, and it really bugs me. So, yeah, I guess I overact a little."
Danny eyed her. "A little?"
"We're all pretty concerned." Jazz looked at Nick. "You're kind of new to Amity Park, but Danny Phantom is pretty important to people around here, and those of us who've had the pleasure of working with him resent the way the government views him just because he's different."
Nick nodded, then turned to Sam again. "So is your ghost-rights group at your college or something?"
She shook her head. "It'll be an actual five-oh-one-C-four non-profit, eventually. Maybe with a PAC arm, depending on how heavily we wanna get into elections. I just got in touch with a lawyer who might be willing to be a consultant to help me get it off the ground, since I'm still a student."
"She's already got a fund set up and everything," Tucker added. "She's… kinda loaded."
"Tucker." She let out an exasperated huff of air. "Would you—"
A loud explosion drew their attention toward the grill. Jazz's mom was hosing everything down with the Fenton Foamer while Mr. Gray manned the fire extinguisher. Her father emerged from the smoke, coughing, and wiped green residue off his face. "So," he said brightly, "who's up for pizza?"
Nick chuckled. "I'm guessing this sorta thing happens a lot around here?"
Jazz thunked her head down onto the table. "Welcome to barbecuing with the Fentons."
Over her head, she heard Tucker tell Nick, "Look at it this way: if we order pizza, we know for sure it won't get up and try to kill us."
They played badminton while they waited for the pizza to come, and then Nick sat next to Jazz again while they ate, asking her about ghosts, and her studies, and life at FentonWorks. After dinner, her father and Mr. Gray dragged him up to the Op-Center while Danny and Tucker helped Maddie scrape ecto-foam off the grill and the other four women cleared the table.
"So, Jazz." Valerie gave her a gentle nudge with her elbow while trying to balance a stack of empty pizza boxes in her arms. "Did you notice the way Nick was checking you out?"
Jazz rolled her eyes. "He wasn't checking me out. He's trying to figure out my dad."
"Yeah… I don't think so."
"I think Val is right," Sam said, coming up behind them.
Dani started singing. "Jazz and Ni-ick, sitting in a tree…"
"Oh, grow up! You're sixteen, Dani!"
"Technically, I'm only four."
Jazz glared at her.
Valerie elbowed her again. "Come on, Jazz. You like him too, don't you?"
"I dunno." Jazz shrugged. "I guess he's nice enough. And he is really smart. I mean, MIT!"
Sam smirked at her. "Oh, yeah. She likes him. And he's already seen a typical day at the Fentons' and didn't run away screaming. I think you have a keeper."
Around the time that Danny and Tucker broke out the Supersoakers and started going after Sam and Valerie, Jazz retreated into the house to stay out of the line of fire. She'd left one of her textbooks, The Coherence of Personality: Social-Cognitive Bases of Consistency, Variability, and Organization, out in the living room earlier, and she picked it up now, settling down onto the couch to thumb through its well-worn pages.
"Wow. Not exactly light summer reading."
She looked up, blushing a little when she saw Nick coming down the stairs. "Everyone says I need to lighten up, but I love this stuff."
He flopped down on the couch beside her, not too close, but not exactly at the opposite end, either. "I'm guessing that figuring out how the mind works is how someone like you survived in a family like this."
Jazz bristled. "I love my family."
"Oh, man, I did it again." He sighed. "I wasn't insulting them. I think they're great. Your dad…" He shook his head. "He's nuts. And I mean that as the highest form of praise. My dad is all stiff and formal and so… military. Everything has to be by the book."
"You seem pretty by-the-book yourself. The way you look at mechanics, anyway."
"Yeah. I guess I did get that from my dad. But I appreciate guys like your dad. Although… I don't know that I'd wanna live in a house full of his stuff…" He looked around the room, as if expecting something to jump out at him.
Jazz laughed. "You don't know the half of it. The stories I could tell you."
"Why don't you? Maybe at dinner tomorrow night?"
"Oh, no. Don't tell me my dad roped you into helping work on something-or-other in the Op-Center."
He looked confused a minute, then shook his head. "No. I meant just you and me. As in, can I take you out to dinner? I… sort of have a confession to make. When I asked you about Danny Phantom? I was kinda trying to find out if you were seeing anyone."
"Oh." Jazz blushed again. "No, I'm not seeing anyone."
"Then would you have dinner with me? Unless… your brother's not gonna kill me, is he?"
"Yeah. He seems… kinda protective of you, the way he got really ticked when I asked about you and Danny Phantom."
She snorted. "Yeah, I guess he's protective, but I decide who I go out with, not him."
"Then will you go out with me?"
"I… yeah. I guess that would be fine."
He smiled. "Good."