Three and a half years after the accident
Valerie sat in the passenger seat of her father's car, looking out the window, toying with the clasp on her tiny handbag as her father drove them to FentonWorks for all the pre-Prom pomp and circumstance. They'd decided to make that the staging area before heading out to dinner at Le Prix Gonflé in the stretch limo Sam's parents rented for them, and then after that, to the dance itself.
Her father glanced at her. "You're awfully quiet, baby girl. Everything all right?"
Valerie looked up at him. "Oh, I guess I'm just a little nervous."
In truth, she was more than a little nervous. Not since her father's bankruptcy and her subsequent banishment from the "A-List" had she been this anxious about a school event.
"About this Alex boy?"
"That's part of it, yeah."
"You really like this kid?"
Oh, Lord. He was going to turn the car ride into one of those talks. Valerie clutched her purse tighter. The last time they'd talked about her liking a boy, it had been Danny. I like him a lot, she'd said then. Maybe even enough to give up ghost hunting. But in the end, she hadn't given up ghost hunting. She'd given up Danny instead.
Now she knew there was no one she'd give up ghost hunting for. It was in her blood—literally, thanks to the way Technus had somehow melded the strange, ecto-powered suit into her own psyche, creating high-tech battle armor with which she could outfit herself at will, like something out of one of those weird Japanese animes her dad liked to watch.
But she couldn't help but wonder. If the ghost hunting had gotten in the way with the one boy on earth whose family background made it likely he would have understood—and that wasn't even getting into his secret identity, since she hadn't known it at the time—then how likely was it that the ghost hunting would always get in the way, preventing her from being with anyone, ever?
Already it was causing problems with Alex. As part of the universe's grand conspiracy to keep her from getting close to a boy, the ghosts had gotten really active over the last few weeks, usually when Alex had driven in from Gary to see her. Not only was it too soon to tell him about the ghost hunting and the otherworldly suit, but "the Ghost Hunter Girl," as her alter-ego was known around Amity Park, was linked romantically to Danny Phantom. It was a rumor neither she nor Danny had bothered trying to quash—she found it amusing for the many levels of irony, while he found it useful to keep people from speculating about him and Sam, which threatened his secret identity, or him and Jazz, which grossed him out to no end. But it made it difficult for her to admit to Alex that she was half of the infamous pair without also revealing that Danny Fenton was the other half, and therefore not a romantic rival. Sharing Danny's secret was unthinkable, not until she knew and trusted Alex a heck of a lot more than she did right now. So she kept quiet, and when a ghost inevitably attacked while she was trying to spend time with him, she'd come up with lame excuse after lame excuse for rushing off with Danny, Tucker, and Sam. It was hardly surprising that it was wearing on his patience.
She realized she still hadn't answered her father's question. How much did she really like Alex? He'd seemed like a gift from the heavens when she'd met him at the breast cancer run a month ago. When she'd officially become one of "Danny Fenton's loser friends," the only boys at school who would even come near her were Danny, Tucker, and Nathan. Nathan had been all but stalking her for three years, Tucker wasn't interested in anything beyond the kind of flirting he did with every other female on the planet, and Danny… not only had that ship long since sailed, it was she who had smashed the champagne bottle across its bow to send it on its way. So it was nice to meet a boy with whom she had a lot in common and who didn't know or care about the pecking order at Casper High School. Whether that qualified for "really liking" him, she wasn't sure. Not yet.
"I… think it's too soon to tell." She couldn't help but notice her dad's smile. "What? Don't you like him?"
"Well, I think the Dad Rule Book says I have to be wary of any boy who comes within fifty feet of my baby girl, but that aside, he seems nice enough. Too soon to tell, like you said."
Valerie arched her eyebrow. "I sense a 'but' there."
He shrugged. "I guess I'm a little surprised, that's all. I thought you were gonna go to the prom with Tucker."
She bristled. "We're just friends, and now that I'm kinda seeing someone…"
"Okay, I get it. Didn't mean to touch a nerve."
"You didn't. I'm just saying."
He had touched a nerve, though. All that weirdness the past week over Tucker and Danny and that one stupid dance a million years ago when they were freshmen was the other reason she was feeling so skittish about Prom. Why Sam thought that freshman dance was so important, Valerie didn't know—she hadn't really thought about it since then. But it was kind of ironic, now that Sam got her thinking about it, that she would end up ditching Tucker before Prom the way he'd ditched her before that dance. No. I didn't ditch him, she corrected herself. He offered.
Except, if she were being completely honest with herself, she had hinted pretty hard that she really wanted to go with Alex, which hadn't exactly left Tucker a lot of choice but to back out gracefully. She liked Tucker quite a bit, and would've had a blast with him, but she really wanted for once in her life to go to the ball with someone who actually like liked her. Tucker seemed okay with it, and he was taking Jazz instead, so it wasn't like she'd left him dateless. But Sam had been livid, and then she'd dragged Danny over to explain about how he'd been the one who had canceled on her before that freshman dance. It was ancient history, really, and yet… now Valerie was wondering. Had that been a subconscious factor in her pestering Tucker to release her from her promise to go with him? Had she been looking for some sort of payback, like Sam had suggested? She'd like to think no, she wasn't that petty. Not anymore. But now, she wasn't sure. It was nagging at her, making her feel guilty about bailing on Tucker, especially now that she knew the whole freshman dance thing hadn't been his fault in the first place.
Once they arrived at FentonWorks, however, she started feeling better almost immediately. Everyone but Alex was already there, and Jazz was so stunning in her strapless turquoise dress, with her hair done up in an elaborate French twist, that Tucker seemed more than satisfied to have her as his date. Sam, who had finally forgiven Danny for the whole stupid freshman dance incident after torturing him for the better part of a week, looked amazing in a halter-style dress with a plunging back. It was deep purple overlaid with black lace, and she was wearing matching purple-and-black-lace fingerless gloves that went up past her elbows. The boys were both dashing in their tuxes, although Tucker was still wearing that ridiculous beret of his. It made her laugh, and yet, she had to admit he actually looked kinda hot, beret notwithstanding. And it did beat the heck out that stupid top hat he sometimes wore as mayor.
Mrs. Fenton came out of the kitchen, squealing in delight. "Oh, look at all of you! Don't you look adorable!"
Danny groaned. "Mom…"
"Jack, get the camera."
Mr. Fenton, who had been standing behind his wife, turned around to go back towards the basement, while Mrs. Fenton took a look at each of the girls in turn. She got to Valerie last. "You look lovely, Valerie. Red is definitely your color."
Valerie smiled, and thanked her. She was pleased with how she looked in her red dress with the sweetheart bodice and her hair piled up on top of her head, with a few loose curls hanging free and framing her face.
"Now I want you kids to have a good time, and don't you worry about anything. Mr. Fenton, Mr. Gray, and I will keep on eye on things and take care of any pernicious poltergeists that dare to show their foul faces in our town."
"Okay, Mom, we get the picture." Danny shook his head. "You can give the alliteration a rest."
Valerie poked him in the ribs. "Hey, she can put it any way she wants, so long as we get the night off, one hundred percent ghost-free. You can belch blue mist like you've eaten an entire box of rancid Boo Berry cereal, but I'm not moving from that hotel ballroom. This is my night, got it? I'm finally gonna get to spend some quality time with Alex."
Tucker mumbled something under his breath and Danny nudged him with his elbow.
Valerie frowned. "What?"
"Nothing." Tucker stepped closer to Jazz and turned away, until Mr. Fenton returned with the camera.
"Okay, kids huddle up, and let's get some group shots. Then, each couple."
"Where's your date, Valerie?" Mrs. Fenton asked her.
"He should be here soon. He had to work in Gary this afternoon."
"Well, let's hold off on the group shots, then, and do the couples. Tucker and Jazz first."
While Mrs. Fenton worked on posing them, Valerie turned to Danny. "So where's Danielle?"
He shrugged. "She's up in her room sulking because she's not a senior and can't go."
"So why didn't Tucker take her instead of Jazz?"
Danny crossed his arms. "Yeah. I don't think so."
"You're too protective."
"Tucker's my best friend. Think for a minute how weird that would be." He shuddered.
She considered it a moment, then relented. "Yeah, okay. It'd be weird. Still, I feel kinda bad for her. She doesn't have many friends her age, so of course she'd feel left out if all of us are going—even Jazz—and she can't. Maybe I should go up and talk to her before Alex gets here."
"Okay, Danny and Sam, you're up next!" Mr. Fenton cried out, and Valerie slipped past them and headed upstairs while Danny and Sam were dragged into position to pose for photos.
She found Dani in her room, lying on her stomach on the bed, reading some science fiction novel. The door was open, but Valerie knocked on it anyway. "Hey, Dani. Don't you wanna come downstairs and make fun of the boys in their tuxes?"
She looked up from her book. "I'm kinda tired. And don't you have some pretty-boy picking you up in a few minutes?"
Valerie made a face and came in, sitting down on the bed. "It's just a dance, Dani. It's not that big a deal. I don't know why you're sulking. You'll get to go when you're a senior."
"Yeah, right." Dani closed the book and sat up. "Like I'll ever get a date."
"Why wouldn't you? You're pretty, and smart, and funny—"
"With a psychotic 'cousin' who growls at any boy who gets within fifty feet of me."
Valerie snorted. "Yeah, well. If it's any consolation, he's almost as protective of Jazz, and she's just his sister. His older sister."
"At least she's in college, so he can't hover over her all the time."
"And next year, he'll be in college, and won't be able to hover over you, either."
Dani frowned. "Yeah, I know. You'll all be off in college, and I'll be the only one left."
Valerie raised her eyebrows. "Is that what's bothering you?"
"No. Yes. I don't know!" Dani huffed out a breath of air. "It's just so hard, Valerie. Most people don't know what they were put on this earth to do, but I do. I was made specifically to be a half-ghost. To be the mirror image of Danny and everything that he is as a ghost and as a human. I lived the first two-thirds of my whole three-year existence either as the test subject for whatever Vlad wanted to do to Danny, or as a ghost on my own in the Ghost Zone. But now I'm not any of those things. I'm just this half-human kid who gets sick all the time, who can't go ghost, but has ghost powers anyway, and is trying to fit into school with fifteen-year-olds who have actually lived fifteen years, not three."
Valerie digested this, trying hard to clamp down on the surge of rage and loathing she felt towards Vlad Masters. "You listen to me, Danielle Fenton. I don't care what Vlad's intentions for you were or why he… did what he did." She couldn't bring herself to say that he made her. "None of that is why you're here on this Earth. You have your own purpose, one you have to find for yourself, not one dictated to you by a psychopath who only ever saw anyone in terms of what they could do for him. You don't have to live your life in Danny's shadow. You're not his—" She stopped short.
Dani arched one eyebrow at her. "His clone?"
She tried again. "You're your own person. Maybe… maybe Danny going away to college will be a good thing for you, so you can discover who you are separate from him. And from me, and all of us."
"But you guys are all I have."
"And you'll still have us. That's never gonna change, Dani. Not when we go to college, not ever. And it's only Hammond, fifteen minutes up the road. It's not like we won't be around."
She sighed. "I lived on my own for a year and a half. That's, like, half my entire existence. So why does the thought of being left alone now scare me so much?"
Valerie leaned over and pulled her into a hug. "You're never alone, Dani. I will always be here for you, I promise. And Danny, and the Fentons, and Tucker, and Sam. You're important to all of us. No matter where we are, no matter what's going on, if you need me, I'll be there. Count on it."
She felt Dani nod into her shoulder. "So can I go to the prom with you guys?"
Valerie snorted again. "Nice try."
The evening was turning out to be everything Valerie had hoped. Once Alex had arrived at FentonWorks—with a gorgeous white rose corsage that looked lovely when he pinned it to her red dress—her dad and the Fentons took the requisite five bazillion pictures, and then they were off to Le Prix Gonflé in the limo Sam's parents had rented. Sam tried to pay for dinner, as she usually did whenever they did something expensive, but Danny and Tucker had saved up for weeks to treat their dates to a fancy dinner before Prom, and absolutely refused to let Sam or Jazz pay. Because Valerie had invited Alex, and at the last minute no less, she'd insisted on paying their portion of the bill.
Prom itself was in the ballroom of the Garnier Hotel right on the shore of Lake Michigan. There was a great band that covered everything from Dumpty Humpty to Morbid Anti-Social Youth, an elaborate dessert spread, and a gorgeous-looking punch that they stayed away from because Valerie was pretty sure one of the jocks had spiked it. She, Alex, Danny, Sam, Tucker, and Jazz talked and laughed and danced, and Alex even seemed to be getting along well with everyone else, which was a huge relief. When it came time to announce Prom King and Queen, however, Valerie was ready to spend some time alone with him. It wasn't like it was any great mystery who would win, and she really didn't care to see Paulina and Dash get the crowns they'd always acted as if they'd deserved the entire four years they'd been at Casper High. Taking Alex's hand, Valerie led him out of the ballroom and out onto a lovely terrace overlooking the pool and the lake beyond. They walked along the balustrade, holding hands, then finally came to a stop at a quiet place in the corner. They could hear the water lapping against the shore, and there were white lights strung along the trees below, casting a perfect glow over the terrace and the grounds.
"I'm really glad you came," she told him. "I know to a college guy, Prom is probably pretty lame."
"Nah. It's nice. I didn't go to my prom last year."
He shrugged. "There wasn't anyone at my school worth going to the trouble for. Not like this one."
She smirked at him. "You use that line often?"
"Nope. Just on girls who can beat me out in the breast cancer run by two seconds."
"That's two point three seconds."
"I stand corrected." He leaned over and kissed her—not a particularly long or passionate kiss, but a nice this-has-potential kind of kiss.
She pulled back after a moment, a little too unsure of herself to let it go on too long. Looking up at him, she took his hands in hers. "I could—"
"Valerie, there you are." It was Danny, who must have come up behind her.
Alex grunted, and Valerie gritted her teeth, not bothering to turn around. "We kinda want to be alone, Danny."
"I know, and I'm so sorry to interrupt…"
He had that tone, and she turned to glare at him without letting go of Alex's hand. "No. Not tonight."
His eyes were dark, his grave expression matching his tone. "Val, my mom just called—"
"No, Danny! We had a deal! I'm sure your parents can handle everything—"
"No, it wasn't that kind of call. It's Dani, Val."
She dropped Alex's hand. "What's wrong?"
"She… had a relapse. She was coming down the stairs to get something to eat, and her legs just… gave way." By the way he paused, Valerie could tell he meant they'd gone intangible on her. "She fell the rest of the way, about half a flight, my mom said."
Valerie gasped. "Oh, no! Is she okay?"
"She's unconscious, but stable now. Mom said she debated calling us. Didn't want to ruin our night." He gave a sort of humorless half-laugh. "But then she figured we'd wanna be there when she woke up."
Valerie nodded. "Yeah, of course. Just… give me a minute, okay?"
Danny glanced at Alex behind her. "Yeah, sure. Sorry, Alex, I didn't mean…" He trailed off before looking back at Valerie. "Sam already called the limo to pick us up out front. Meet us in the lobby."
She nodded again, then turned to Alex as Danny left. "I am so sorry. I really… ugh. I was really hoping tonight we could just spend time together."
"Who's he talking about?"
"Dani—Danielle. His cousin. You know, the fifteen-year-old with the black hair? Danny's parents are her guardians."
"Cancer?" There was a sort of pained look in his eyes. He'd lost his mother only three years earlier, unlike Valerie, who now had lived almost as long without her mother as she had with her.
"No. It's… rare. She was… poisoned, about a year ago."
He frowned. "Poisoned?"
"Okay. You want me to go to the hospital with you?"
"She wouldn't be at the hospital. The Fentons take care of her at home when she gets sick."
His frown turned to confusion. "If it's serious, shouldn't she be at the hospital?"
"It's nothing they can't treat at home. She'll be fine, she just needs to rest."
"Okay. So then why the rush to go see her? I mean, if she's not serious, and she's not even awake…"
"I need to be there when she wakes up."
"Because she's my friend!" Valerie was starting to get exasperated now. "I would think having lost your mother, you'd understand needing to be there when someone you love is sick."
"Actually, what I learned from my mother is how to tell the difference between when you really need to be there and when you need to keep living life. My mom… she didn't want me spending every waking minute focused on her cancer. You… you always have something going on, Valerie. You never take time to just relax and have fun."
"How am I supposed to have fun when my friend just collapsed?"
"Because you know she's okay, and you can see her later, when she wakes up."
"I need to be there when she wakes up!"
"I told you! She's my friend, and I promised her!"
Alex crossed his arms. "She's Danny's cousin."
Mimicking his pose, Valerie set her jaw as well. "So?"
"Do you not see how your whole life is wrapped around this guy?"
She gaped at him, furious. "What?"
"Come on, Valerie! Every time I'm here, the guy snaps his fingers and you come running. What's the story?"
"There's no story, Alex! This is about Danielle, who is extremely important to me. It has nothing to do with Danny!"
It was a lie. Her whole life was wrapped around Danny—inextricably intertwined with his forever, although not for the reasons Alex hinted at. She hadn't known it at the time, but she'd signed her name in blood to this life at age fourteen, when she'd accepted the gift of ghost-hunting equipment from a complete stranger. And now, the truth she couldn't tell, about the ghost hunting, the suit, Danny Phantom, and Danielle, was a barrier between her and really getting to know and trust anyone, and only when she really knew and trusted someone would she ever be able to tell the truth. She was completely trapped by one single, irrevocable decision she'd made without ever considering the consequences.
And yet… she wouldn't go back and undo it, even if she could. She'd been handed a strange life, one that she hadn't asked for and that might require her to spend it alone, but it was still a life she embraced. All of it.
Alex shook his head, clearly frustrated. "Valerie, I don't expect you to give up your friends for me."
"Well, that's good, because I've known them for three years. I've only known you for a few weeks."
"Don't you think I get that? But I don't think it's a lot to ask to be somewhere on the priority list other than the very bottom. I rearranged my entire schedule to be here tonight, and you're telling me you can't give me a few more hours? That you have to drop everything to see Danny's cousin, who won't even know you're there?"
Valerie sighed. "She's not just Danny's cousin. She's important to me. For my own reasons. If you want me to make you a higher priority than her, then this is never gonna work. She will always come first with me."
"Fine." He started to walk away, but she called out to him.
"Alex, come on. Your car's at the Fentons' anyway. Just… come with us. I can't make you more important than my friends, but I can share them with you."
"I don't think there's enough room, Valerie. And I'll take a cab to get my car."
She wasn't sure when Alex came and got his car, but when she went outside to sit on the front porch steps, it was gone. He was gone.
And the sad thing was, it didn't feel like it was that big of a loss.
Dani was still out, and Mrs. Fenton didn't want them all hovering, so she'd sent them all downstairs. Valerie's father was up in the Op-Center with Mr. Fenton, keeping him out of Mrs. Fenton's hair. The rest of them stationed themselves in the kitchen, where Jazz busied herself making tea. Danny was a wreck, like he always was when Danielle was sick or hurt, but Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were all better suited for the job of comforting him than Valerie was, so she'd gone out on the porch to find her own solace and wait to be allowed to see Danielle.
"Hey, Val. Mind if I join you?"
She turned around to see Tucker standing in the doorway. She gave him a weak smile and shrugged, patting the spot next to her. "Sure. Have a seat."
He came and sat down beside her. "She's gonna be fine. You know that, right?"
"I know. It's just hard seeing her go through this. Vlad—" There was no real way to finish that sentence, and it was pointless anyway, so she settled for clenching her fists in frustration.
Tucker nodded, his face as hard as hers felt. "Tell me about it."
"How's Danny holding up?"
"Eh. There's no ghost to beat up, so he's flailing. Sam does a pretty good job of keeping him grounded, though."
"I so can relate to the flailing part."
Tucker put a tentative hand on her shoulder. "She's a fighter, Val. It's in her genes."
She smiled at that, and he smiled in return, squeezing her shoulder. Then, he removed his hand as a sort of reticent look crossed his features—something she didn't normally see in Tucker. "I… I'm sorry your night got screwed up."
She shrugged again. "Eh, let's face it. My life doesn't lend itself to starting new relationships. The suit, the ghost hunting, Danielle—it's not stuff I can explain to someone I don't know very well, and I can't get to know people very well unless I can explain my life."
"I dunno. I don't think it's you, Val. Any guy who doesn't get that being with a sick friend is more important to you than a stupid dance isn't worth the effort."
"It's not just that, Tuck, and you know it. It's the constant pull by everything we do. And to someone on the outside, it's all about Danny. Which makes it look like I'm all about Danny, and there's no way to make it not seem like some huge thing I've got for him, no matter how much in the past that really is." She gave Tucker a sheepish look. "Truth is, I probably deserved it all blowing up in my face. I shouldn't have bailed on you. I'm really sorry."
"Pfft." He waved his hand. "It's no big. Jazz is a pretty fun date, actually. Except I can't flirt with her, 'cause Danny would kill me where I stand."
She chuckled at that, then shook her head, becoming serious once more. "Even so, Sam was right. I was taking our friendship for granted, and that wasn't fair to you. It's just… it's Prom. I really wanted to go with someone who was more than just a friend. Someone I really like liked, you know?"
He studied his hands for a long time. "Yeah, I know. I was hoping for the same thing."
Her brow creased as she tilted her head to look at him. "But you didn't even try asking anyone else but me."
Still looking down at his hands, he nodded. "You're right. I didn't."
She frowned, confused, until she realized what he meant. "Oh." Then, it really sunk in, and her eyes widened. "Oh!" And suddenly, she wasn't sure how she felt about that—about him. He just kept looking at his hands, while she tried to sort out this new way of seeing him. "Tucker, why didn't you say anything?"
This got a snort out of him and he finally looked at her. "No one's ever accused me of being subtle, Val."
"Not subtle, but… indiscriminate. All that flirting you do, I never thought you were serious. At least not since those early early days, when my dad first lost his job."
"Hey, you remembered! Everyone always remembers that you and Danny had an almost-thing, but no one ever seems to remember that we had one first."
"Yeah, well, it's not something I'm proud to look back on, since I was just using you to find out more about ghosts. As Sam so eloquently pointed out, I was a self-absorbed bitch back then." She winced. "Maybe I still am. Now I really feel bad for bailing on you. I just… I really didn't think it was anything more than just friends. I—"
The door opened behind them and Jazz poked her head out. "Danielle's awake."
Valerie jumped up, gathering up her skirts as she turned on the step. "Can we see her?"
"She's still kinda groggy, and Mom had to give her more ecto-purifier, so she's weak, too. Only a couple people at a time. Danny's already in there with her, of course."
Tucker stood up beside Valerie. "You go now. The rest of us can wait." Putting his hand on the small of her back, he gently ushered her toward the house ahead of him.
Something about that small gesture, the way he knew without being told that she needed to see Danielle first, made her pause in the doorway, letting Jazz get ahead of her. Her hand on the knob, she turned back. "Tucker? You wanna go out some time?"
He frowned. "I don't need a pity date, Val. I wasn't trying to make you feel bad. I just figured… I dunno."
"Not a pity date, Tucker. I… I think I'd really like it if we could go out some time."
His eyes widened in surprise. "Really? Like, an actual, not-just-friends date?"
"Yeah, really. I… I can't promise a Danny and Sam we-were-always-meant-to-be or anything, but… I think I'd like to… I don't know. To see what might be possible."
His face lit up, and it actually made her feel a little flush. "Yeah, I'd like that. I'd like that a lot, Valerie."