The Ring: Part I
Two years after the accident
Whaddaya say? Wanna go for a ride? See where the future takes us?
The future, or at least the first hour or so of it, took them to the Skulk and Lurk Bookstore. They were both hungry, and neither of them wanted to deal with running into anyone they knew—especially Tucker—at the Nasty Burger or any of their usual haunts. The Skulk and Lurk had a nice little café, their menu included both "normal" sandwiches for Danny and vegan selections for Sam and, most importantly, they could have privacy there.
After ordering at the counter, they found a quiet table in the corner to wait for their sandwiches. Sam watched as Danny fiddled with the plastic skull the girl behind the counter had given them. It had the number nine painted in red across its top to indicate which order was theirs, and Danny spent a few moments absorbed in tracing the number with his finger before finally looking up at Sam, blushing. "I guess this is our first official date."
"Yeah, I guess it is." Sam felt a little red-faced herself.
"Does it seem weird?"
"A little," she admitted. "But a good weird. An I-could-definitely-get-used-to-this kind of weird."
He grinned, setting the skull down. "Yeah. Me, too."
"You do realize, though, that we're never going to hear the end of this from Tucker. Not only has he been on my case about you since, like, forever, but now he's gonna claim responsibility for getting us together."
Danny raised his eyebrows. "How is Tucker responsible for getting us together?"
"He's the one who figured out about 'Wes.'"
"Wes?" Danny frowned in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"'Wes,' the mystery ring guy." Sam gave him a cryptic grin, enjoying his confusion a moment before she clarified. "When you first asked me to hold onto your dad's class ring for you, when you were gonna give it to Valerie, I thought the name engraved on it was 'Wes.'"
Valerie, Danny's almost-girlfriend a year and a half ago, was a ghost hunter with a high-tech jet sled and battle suit, a burning grudge against Danny Phantom, and a crush on Danny Fenton, not knowing they were one and the same. The sled and suit had been provided to her courtesy Danny's archenemy, Vlad Masters, mostly to feed the grudge. The crush she had developed on her own.
Sam might have found the irony of the situation amusing had Danny not reciprocated Valerie's feelings, never mind the fact she was constantly trying to destroy his alter ego. They'd gone out on a few dates, and Danny had planned on giving her his father's old class ring, but before he'd had the chance, she'd broken it off, choosing to focus her energies on hunting his ghost half instead of romancing his human half.
The irony of that had been impossible for Sam to find amusing. It had hurt Danny too much.
But time lent perspective. Valerie knew the truth now—about Danny and about Vlad—and Sam and Danny had both made peace with her. Well, maybe not peace on Sam's part so much as cessation of hostilities. Still, she and Danny had gotten to the point where they could find humor in the ring's history, and she was taking great pleasure in watching him try to puzzle out what she meant about the engraving.
He cocked his head, his eyebrows knit in bemusement. "And you thought the ring said 'Wes' because…?"
"It's 'Sam' upside-down." She tugged at the ring on her left hand. It still felt new and strange there, since he'd only given it to her an hour ago—officially given it to her this time, not just asked her to hold it for him. When she got it off her finger, she held it out to him, positioned so that the engraving inside the band was upside-down. "See? It looks like it says 'Wes.' I always wondered who that was—thought maybe your dad bought the ring used or something. Until Tucker found it in my jewelry box when I was packing for Antarctica, and he figured out it was really my name. Naturally, he started giving me all sorts of grief about it, and I… I guess I finally figured maybe he was right. Maybe it was meant for me." She felt her cheeks get warm again. "That's why I got up the nerve to give it to you to take into the Ghost Zone and made you promise to bring it back."
"Because of Tucker?"
She nodded, her blush deepening at the memory of how hard it had been to do even that much, despite Tucker's insistence that Danny shared her feelings. She'd been relieved when he'd seemed receptive, maybe even on the verge of telling her how he felt, which had in turn had emboldened her to kiss him on the cheek. Just a small peck to wish him luck in his efforts to gather up enough ghosts to save the world from the huge asteroid bearing down on them, but he'd stunned her by responding with a kiss of his own—a real kiss, not just a peck or a fake-out make-out, like the two kisses they'd shared in the past, but only as ploys to distract someone else from what they were really doing at the time.
She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around it all; not the kiss, not the ring, and not Danny, sitting across the table from her in a dark corner of the Skulk and Lurk, with that look in his eyes that he always used to have when he looked at Valerie or Paulina, his freshman-year crush. Only now, it was directed at her. And it had all started with Tucker pestering her. "Like I said, he's been on my case about you for a while now."
A slow smile spread across his face. "So that's what he meant!"
Now it was Sam's turn to be confused. "What's what he meant?"
"Just before we left, Tucker told me I owed him, but wouldn't tell me why." Danny shook his head, grinning. "I really do owe him. Big time."
Sam smiled as well. "Yeah, I guess I owe him, too." She slipped the ring back on her finger and toyed with it, feeling a little nervous. No, scratch that. A lot nervous.
Danny gave her a sheepish look, seeming a little skittish himself. "I hope you don't think it's weird, me giving that to you. I know you know I was originally gonna give it to Valerie, and I don't want you to think I'm just trying to repeat the same lame thing on you that I'd already planned for someone else or anything."
"It's not lame. I asked for it back, remember? And it does have my name on it." She wrinkled her nose, suddenly curious. "But that does sort of beg the question—why did you put my name on a ring you were gonna give to Valerie?"
He winced. "Yeah, about that. I… uh… sorta wasn't the one who had it engraved. That was my dad, actually."
"Your dad engraved my name on his class ring?" She blinked. "Okaaaaay. Should I be creeped out by that?"
"What?" Danny grimaced. "No! Remember how he wanted to have that 'awkward father/son chat' when he found out I liked someone? Well, he kind of assumed it was you."
"And you were gonna give the ring to Valerie anyway? Didn't it ever occur to you that she might not appreciate having another girl's name engraved on it?"
"Uh… maybe she'd have thought it said 'Wes'?"
Sam crossed her arms. "Oh, you're hilarious. Really, Danny, what were you thinking?"
"I dunno. I guess I wasn't thinking at all. When my dad showed me the ring, he said that he'd given it to my mom because he thought she could be 'the girl he fights ghosts with.' He wanted to pass it on to me to give to someone special like that, and it seemed so perfect, since Valerie's a ghost fighter and everything—until he told me he'd had it engraved with your name." Danny scratched the back of his head in a nervous gesture. "I just… I guess liked the idea so much, I sorta forgot about the engraving."
"You forgot?" She gaped at him. "Geez, Danny. You're lucky she dumped you before you gave it to her. She would've killed you instead." Sam rolled her eyes, dumbfounded by how dense he could be sometimes.
Then, it hit her. "Wait. So, if your dad was the one who had the ring engraved…" It meant she was the dense one. Looking down at the table, she cringed at having assumed too much. "I guess it wasn't really meant for me after all. It was just… a mistake."
"No, Sam, that's just it. It wasn't a mistake. It was meant for you. I just didn't get that. I know it's totally lame, but—"
"Stop saying it's lame. It's not." It came out more abrupt than she'd intended, and she shifted in her chair, trying to clamp down on the emotions that were bubbling to the surface.
Reaching across the table, he covered her hand with his. "Listen, Sam. I'm sorry I'm not the one who figured it out first, and that I almost gave the ring to Valerie—"
She looked up at him, yanking her hand away. "Dammit, Danny! I don't care about Valerie. It's ancient history."
"Then why are you upset?"
"Because I thought you were dead!"
The words were out of her mouth before she even knew she was going to say them, and it stopped him cold. He blinked a few times, looking a little thrown. "What?"
"When the Fenton Jet crashed into that mountain, and we thought you were on it. It was only, like, thirty seconds between the crash and you showing up with all the ghosts, but that thirty seconds?" She could feel her armor cracking and fought to keep her voice from doing the same. "That was pretty much the worst thirty seconds of my life."
"I…" He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not asking you to be sorry. I just… I need you to understand why it matters. I don't care that you were once gonna give this ring to someone else, or that you weren't the one who put my name in it. The only thing that matters is that you came back. I asked you to bring it back, and you did. So don't say it's lame or stupid, because it means everything to me."
His eyes opened and met hers with a look so penetrating, they were almost glowing like they did when he was in ghost form. "That isn't what I meant. I'm talking about how it might seem. You're my best friend, so you don't just know my past history, you were there for it. That makes everything weird and awkward, because it might seem like you're just getting someone else's leftovers. But I really wanted you to have this ring anyway, and not just because you asked for it back. That's what I was trying to explain, but you didn't let me finish."
A little taken aback by his intensity, she nodded. "Okay. I'm listening."
He let out a long, slow breath. "When my dad had it engraved with your name, I thought he was being clueless like usual. But really, it was me. I'm the one who didn't get it. I mean, we all know how much my dad misses, starting with the fact that his best friend was a psychotic, nut job half-ghost, and ending with the fact that his own son was one, too. Uh… the half-ghost part. Not the psychotic nut job part."
"That's debatable," she said dryly, ignoring the face he made in response. Then, she cocked her head. "Although, in your dad's defense, with you and Vlad being the only two half-ghosts in existence—"
"Three," he corrected her. When she gave him a puzzled look, he added, "There are three half-ghosts."
It took a moment before she remembered—Danny had a distant cousin, a girl Sam had only met briefly, who had somehow mysteriously ended up with ghost powers as well. Vlad and Danny had both acquired theirs through similar accidents, but she had no idea how his cousin had come to be half ghost. For some reason, Danny didn't like to talk about her, and Sam had never pressed. "Okay, three, then. The point is, no one figured out yours and Vlad's identities because no one knew there were secret identities to look for. You and Tuck and Jazz and I were the only humans who knew there was such a thing as a half-ghost." She quite deliberately pushed from her mind the more than seventy people—including Danny's parents and Valerie—who had learned his secret in Antarctica just two weeks ago. They'd all promised not to tell anyone, but seventy-some was such a huge number, and with the government still bent on destroying all ghosts, not even caring that it was the ghosts who'd just saved the world…
Fortunately, Danny derailed that train of thought by continuing his story. "The thing is, the one thing my dad didn't miss was my mom. He gave her that ring because he knew from the beginning that she was the one he'd end up with. So when he passed it on to me, he said I could give it to someone if she were special. And he was so sure he knew who it was who could be that special to me, he had the ring engraved. With your name. He knew, just like he knew about my mom, but I was afraid to see it because you're my best friend."
Sam offered him a small smile of understanding. "You weren't the only one who was afraid."
"But I wasn't afraid for any of the usual reasons people are scared of hooking up with their best friend. It wasn't really about risking our friendship, or losing what we already had, or anything like that. I know no matter what happens, we'll always be friends. We've been through too much not to be. It's just that…you're already one of the most important people in my life, and if I let myself like like you, it would be huge. It is huge. That's why I needed to give the ring back to you. It was always meant for you, Sam, and I finally get that."
It took her several seconds to absorb what he was telling her, and then she was leaning across the table, pulling him into a kiss. He tensed in surprise, but just for a moment, before his lips yielded to hers. She let everything wash away in the slightly salty taste of his mouth, and the thrill of making him shiver by just barely flicking her tongue across his lower lip—until a cough from somewhere above them interrupted.
Parting, they looked up to see a gangly boy with a Mohawk and a nose ring holding two plates with sandwiches on them. "Pastrami and cheddar on a Kaiser roll, and grilled portobello mushroom on twelve-grain?"
They nodded, and he placed the sandwiches in front of them before taking the number-nine skull and walking away. When he was gone, Danny met Sam's gaze once more. "That was so much better than a fake-out make-out." He sounded a little breathless.
She smiled. "Play your cards right, and it won't be the last." She took a moment to enjoy his glazed-eyed grin, feeling grateful for everything he was to her. "And thank you."
"No, thank you."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm not talking about the kiss, Romeo."
"Okay, then what are you thanking me for?"
For coming back. For not being dead.
"For the ring."