Coming Out: Part I
Twelve years after the accident
No one knew where the rumor started but, like all rumors, by the time it hit the American tabloids just two months shy of the tenth anniversary of the asteroid crisis, it was distorted, full of half-truths and outright lies.
…anonymous sources confirmed…
…members of the "Operation Spirit" Antarctic construction team during the asteroid crisis…
…famed ghost "hero" Danny Phantom murdered one of the crewmembers in Antarctica…
…took over his body and his life…
"…saw him change before my very eyes…"
"…threatened to kill us, too, if we told anyone…"
…impersonating a human for the past ten years…
It was so absurd, nearly everyone wrote it off as typical tabloid trash, and those who knew the whole truth hoped to ride it out until it was forgotten in the wake of the next big celebrity drinking binge or rehab stint. But when the legitimate press took up the story, things got a little more worrisome. Nearly two hundred and fifty people from around the world had taken part in Operation Spirit in Antarctica, and most of the ones who the press got around to contacting laughed off the story and said they saw no such thing nor had any reason to believe that Danny Phantom was anything other than what he claimed to be—a ghost who had saved the world.
There were others, however, who simply refused to talk to the press at all. This, in itself, wouldn't have been curious had it not been for the fact that, without exception, the ones who refused to comment were all members of the core group of nearly eighty people who had been manning the control tower north of McMurdo Station at the moment the Earth had been made intangible, allowing the asteroid to pass harmlessly through it. The words "conspiracy theory" and "cover-up" started making their way into the gossip rags and water cooler conversations, but still Danny's friends and family clung with white-knuckled grips to the hope that it would all blow over without his secret being exposed.
That hope died the day Representative Frank Palisade pulled Tucker aside in a hallway of the Cannon House Building on Capitol Hill, where both of their offices were located. "I need to have a word with you in my office, if you have a moment."
Palisade, a senior congressman from Virginia, sat with Tucker on the Ecto Affairs subcommittee. Although not a member of Tucker's party, he was fairly moderate, a key swing voter on ecto issues, and someone for whom Tucker had a great deal of respect. Tucker followed him to his office, and Palisade closed the door.
"You were in Antarctica during the asteroid crisis." It wasn't a question.
Tucker groaned. "Oh, man. If this is about the whole stupid 'Danny Phantom killed someone and took over his body' nonsense, you can stop right there. You could fertilize the entire farm belt with that story."
"It's more complicated than that, Tucker. I'm giving you a heads up as a professional courtesy, and because I respect you as a colleague. The House is forming an investigative committee, of which I'll be a member. Every American who was in Antarctica for Operation Spirit will eventually be called to testify, starting with the people who were on the technical crew. As you were the head of that technical crew, and also happen to be a member of the House, you will almost certainly be the first person called."
Tucker felt the blood drain from his face. "An investigative committee? Are you kidding me with this? Frank, this is tabloid gossip. It's like investigating whether Elvis Presley is still alive and moonlighting at a bar in Kenosha."
"It's about a ghost who's being accused of killing and impersonating a human."
"And I know for a fact that he's never done either!"
"Would you testify to that under oath?"
Tucker only hesitated for a nanosecond. "Absolutely." But he knew what a quagmire that would be. It would all come down to the questions they asked. He could easily say that Danny had never killed anyone, nor had he ever impersonated a human, but if the questions got too detailed…
"There's a reason I'm giving you advance warning, Tucker. It's an election year, and this investigation is not going to be pretty. Personally, I think the gossip's at least ninety-nine percent bull. But it's that one percent nugget of truth that concerns me. Even if we say, for the sake of argument, that Phantom never killed or hurt anyone, which I think is probably true, impersonating a human is one of the most serious offenses under the Anti-Ecto Code. If you know anything… if there is any sort of conspiracy to cover up something like that, then you might want to consider making a statement. Before you get subpoenaed. It might be the only thing that saves your career."
Tucker glared at him. "My career? We're talking about a hero who saved the whole damn world, which you'd think wouldn't be so hard for people to remember, considering there's a freaking statue of him in every nation's capital, including one on the Mall that you have to trip over to get up the Capitol Building's west steps! Are you seriously telling me that it's either him or my career? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I don't need to be a congressman that badly."
"It's not just your career, Tucker. Conspiracy is a serious crime. You might want to come forward with the whole truth sooner rather than later, or it isn't only your career that'll be in jeopardy. You headed the entire project in Antarctica, you're from Amity Park, and you're a ghost fighter. Don't tell me you don't know exactly what Phantom's story is."
"This is a witch hunt, Frank."
"Then think very carefully about whether or not you want to be the one burned at the stake. More than just your career is hanging in the balance."
Tucker clenched his jaw. Yeah. Like my best friend's life.
Danny looked around his parents' living room at the group assembled there. Sam. Tucker. Jazz. Danielle. His parents. Valerie and her dad. Mr. Lancer. Nick. Dash. Patrick. They all wore grave expressions, with the exception of Patrick who, as the default babysitter for Nick and Jazz's seven-month-old whenever the rest of them, including Dash, were out fighting ghosts, now took it upon himself to keep her occupied by making faces at her so the adults could talk. The people in this room were all Danny's family, his dearest friends, his confidants. They were the keepers of his secret.
Tucker, who had flown in from Washington with Valerie just hours before, had finished detailing what he knew about the House investigation committee that was being formed to look into the supposed "conspiracy" among those who had been in Antarctica during the asteroid crisis. "I'll be the first one to testify, because they'll wanna clean House, so to speak." He looked at Danny. "So just tell me what you want me to say, and I'll say it."
Danny gaped at him. "What? You can't lie to cover for me, Tuck."
Tucker merely shrugged. "Why not? I've been doing it for nearly twelve years."
Danny shook his head, not sure whether he wanted to hug his oldest and best friend or smack him. "This is a little different than telling my parents I missed curfew because I was studying at your house when we were really out kicking Technus's butt or something. This is an investigative committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Of which you are a member. I'm not gonna ask you to lie under oath."
"Dude. You don't have to ask."
Danny let out a huff of air in annoyance. "And if you did lie, then what? You said they're gonna call every American who was there. That includes everyone in this room except for Danielle, Dash, Patrick, and Charley. Even Nick might get called, 'cause he was on base at the time and did have contact with me, even if he wasn't actually a part of Operation Spirit. I can't ask you all to commit perjury for me."
"I told you. You don't have to ask."
"Okay, but what about the other people who were there? People who have no personal connection to me, but kept quiet for ten years anyway? Am I supposed to ask them to lie? 'Thanks for going out on a limb for me and, by the way, you don't mind committing a little perjury, do you? 'Kaythanks.'"
Danny held up his hand, cutting Tucker off. "No, Tuck. It's over. It's time to come clean, before they start issuing subpoenas. I want you to call a press conference. Tell them Danny Phantom is going to make a statement to put to rest all these stupid rumors about killing someone to take over their identity."
"They'll arrest you," Jazz said, squeezing her hands together in her lap, her face pinched with worry. Nick had his hand on her back, trying to ease some of her tension, but it didn't seem to be helping. "They won't care that you've never hurt anyone and have always used your powers to help people. You're a ghost. Worse, you're a ghost/human hybrid, and that's reason enough to lock you away and do who knows what kinds of experiments on you."
"That doesn't mean I can ask seventy-some people, most of them complete strangers, to lie under oath!"
Sam leaned forward in her seat. "We don't have to lie, Danny." Her voice was low and quiet the way it always was when she was afraid for him. "Remember that paper we all signed in Antarctica, promising not to tell anyone who you are? That's conspiracy. We can all refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination."
Danny's mother gave Sam a determined smile. "Brilliant. That would keep them chasing their tails for a while."
"Works for me," his father said. "No one makes a human lab rat out of my son."
Mr. Lancer nodded in agreement. "You can count me in. It's been a privilege watching you grow from a lazy, unfocused teen into a fine young man, Danny."
"Me, too." Mr. Gray crossed his arms. "Even if you did get my daughter more involved in all this ghost business than I would've liked."
"Daddy! That was my own fault, not Danny's!" Valerie turned from her father to Danny. "And I'm in, too."
He looked around the room at the nods of solidarity from all his family and friends, gratitude and aggravation warring for control. Aggravation won out, and he hissed out another long breath. "I know you all mean well, but this is not the answer! If everyone refuses to testify, that'll only confirm their worst suspicions, that there really is some horrific crime we're covering up."
"But if they can't prove it, they can't do anything to you," Sam said.
"Oh, come on! Somebody out there leaked something, or this rumor wouldn't have started in the first place. No matter what we decide in this room, someone is gonna spill."
"They think the rumor started overseas," Tucker said. "The House committee only has the authority to subpoena Americans. There were forty-two Americans on the technical team, including the nine of us in this room."
"So? That still leaves thirty-three people. We can't seriously expect thirty-three people to stay quiet when questioned under oath. And you can't refuse to testify, either, Tucker. Your career would be over."
"Oh, screw my career. I'm not hanging you out to dry just so I can stay in office."
"And I'm not letting you ruin your life to cover for me."
"I wouldn't have a life to ruin if it weren't for you! None of us would!"
"Tucker's right, Danny," Valerie said. "All of that sorta pales in comparison to what they'd do to you."
"And believe me, it won't be pretty," Nick put in. "Take it from an Air Force brat whose dad served at Area 51. If they send you off to a place like that, you might never come back out."
Jazz shuddered. "We can't let them do that to you, Danny. I think refusing to testify might be our only option."
"But you are all missing the point!" Danny threw his head back in frustration. "Even if every single last one of the forty-two Americans who saw me change in Antarctica took the Fifth, how long do you think it'd take for the government to put the pieces together and see they all point back at me? My so-called disguise is about one step better than Clark Kent's glasses. And even Clark was smart enough not to call Superman by his own first name. Let's face it—the only reason we've managed to keep my human identity secret this long is because it never occurred to anyone that there was a human identity to keep secret. But now they are looking for a human identity that Danny Phantom has been living on the sly. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work back from that to me. I'm surprised they haven't busted down the door already."
His mother shook her head. "If they knew who you were, they wouldn't be wasting time with some investigative committee."
"That's right," Jazz agreed. "If we refuse to testify, they'll be focused on that, which will buy us some time."
"To do what?"
"To come up with a better cover," his dad said.
Sam arched an eyebrow. "Or to go under cover."
Danny sighed. She'd been planning for this for years, he knew. Since the day he'd told her parents who he was and they'd threatened to turn him into the Guys in White to keep him away from her. In response, her grandmother, who'd controlled her trust fund, had turned it over to her so that if anyone did come after Danny, she would have the resources to hide them both, and even Danny's whole family, if it came to that. Her parents never did report him, and it was two months after the fact before Danny learned any of this. While he appreciated all that Sam and even her grandmother had been willing to do for him, he had no interest in living life on the run. Not then, and not now.
"We're not running from this. It'll only make things worse." He turned to his mother. "Think about it, Mom. If we make them work to figure it out, they're gonna dig into our family. Our whole family."
Her eyes widened as she understood what he was getting at. Unfortunately, Dani understood as well, and she jumped up from her seat, her hands on her hips. "Oh, no. No way are you handing yourself over to those bastards just to shield me." She was twenty-three now, had just finished her first year of med school at Northwestern and, like most of the women in his life, was stubborn and protective.
No less stubborn and protective, however, Danny crossed his arms and gave her a pointed look. "Wanna bet? They already know enough to figure out who I am eventually, so I can either come forward now and keep them focused on just me, or I can drag you down with me. I'd say that's pretty much a no-brainer."
"They have no reason to suspect me of anything. Dani Phantom hasn't existed for almost a decade, and very few people ever knew about her to begin with, so they won't be looking for another half-ghost. And my I.D. will stand up to whatever scrutiny they want to give it. So I say, bring 'em on."
"So we're supposed to just sit by and watch you give yourself over to them?" Dani shook her head. "No way, cos. If they wanna come after you, they're gonna have to go through me."
There was more general agreement, and Danny was starting to consider whether he'd have to start knocking some heads to get some sense into any of them, until he got support from a very unexpected source—Dash Baxter.
"Danny's right, you guys. He's gotta come clean, and the sooner, the better."
Sam glared at him. "Considering you spent seven of the last fourteen years trying to find new and interesting ways to make Danny's life miserable, I'm not so sure you're the most qualified person to judge how best to protect him."
Tucker nodded in agreement. "Word up, Sam."
Dash wasn't about to be intimidated, however, especially not by two of the people he'd spent his entire teen years lording it over. "Hello! I was invited to this pow-wow for a reason. Protecting FentonWorks—and Danny—is kinda what I do. And did it ever occur to you that maybe I know a little something about living a secret life, and when it's time to stop?"
Sam's eyes flashed in anger. "This isn't the same thing, Dash!"
"Isn't it? A closet's a closet, no matter what the reason you're living in it." He turned to Danny. "You're like the closeted celebrity or politician who's about to be outed against his will. Not those guys who are in so deep they're trying to convince themselves they're straight, married and cheating on their wives with anonymous sex in the men's room. You're the guy who knows who he is, but doesn't want anyone else to know. The guy who hasn't done anything wrong—who's done more than a lot right, in fact—but who knows people will hate him just for what he is, so he keeps his private life private. But someone's figured it out, and they're gonna go public. It's no longer if the world finds out—it's when. So you have a choice to make. Are you gonna back further into the closet, maybe hide behind a few coats, hoping to put them off just a little longer? Or are you gonna walk out into the daylight on your own terms?"
Danny blinked. "You know, Dash. I think that pretty much sums it up." He smiled at his unlikely friend. "I guess you know from experience."
Dash snorted. "Not exactly. I never had to come out to the whole world."
"No, but coming out to a family who wouldn't support you is even harder." He looked around the room again. "I forget how lucky I am sometimes."
"There're more kinds of family than just the one you're born into, Fen-tonio." Dash grinned. "I'm fine with the one I ended up with." He was looking not just at Patrick, who was smiling proudly at him over the top of Charley's head, but at everyone in the room.
Danny gave a nod of understanding, but Sam grunted in irritation. "Not to ruin this touching Lifetime-movie moment, but this is so much more complicated than that. It's more like coming out in Iran. It's not just your average idiot bigot on the street you have to worry about, although they're bad enough. The government itself considers you subhuman, with no rights at all. They can imprison you just for being who you are, or kill you on a whim, and it's all perfectly legal."
"I know, Sam, but that's true whether I reveal myself or someone else does it for me. And there's a silver lining here. You know change isn't gonna happen through legislation. Not anytime soon."
"Hey!" Tucker protested.
"It's not you, Tuck. It's the system. You're working your butt off in Congress, but until there's a change in the leadership there, everything you submit is gonna die in committee."
"Yeah, but there's a good chance there'll be a change in the leadership after this election."
Valerie nodded in agreement. "It's only a matter of time, Danny. Anti-ecto politicians have been losing points in the polls."
"Well, I can't think of a better way to kill that momentum than letting people think Danny Phantom is hiding something, like, oh, say, murder. Can you?"
"It doesn't matter," Valerie began. "Tucker will—"
"Be forced to resign for not testifying!" Danny finished. "Don't you guys get it? We need a court case, and we need one soon, before Justice Hartman or Justice Marmel retire and the president can appoint an anti-ecto zealot and shift the balance against us. And a court case needs a plaintiff." He turned back to Sam. "You've been saying it for years."
She shook her head. "I did not mean for you to paint a big target on your chest just so we can file a lawsuit!"
"I know that, but if it's gonna happen anyway, then why not do it right? If I come forward, do everything by the book, and they haul me off anyway, then we've finally got a case. And if we're working both the judicial and legislative branches, with you in the courts and Tucker in Congress, things will finally change. Not just for me, but for Dani. And for Valerie, too, with whatever Technus did to her DNA when he bonded that suit to her. And who knows how many other people we don't even know about who've had their DNA messed with by ghosts and ecto energy. And even for… heck. For the Wisconsin Dairy King."
His dad blinked. "The Wisconsin Dairy King? Isn't that the ghost that used to haunt Vladdy's mansion back in Madison?"
Danny nodded. "That's the one."
Sam crossed her arms and gave him an arch look. "And he's relevant to this situation how?"
"Because he was the first one who ever told me not all ghosts are evil. Ghosts like him, who just wanna be left alone, they don't deserve to get locked away by the government any more than I do. Bottom line—if the Guys in White are gonna get me one way or another, then I'm gonna make damn sure they only get me, and maybe make things a little better for everyone else along the way."
Sam let out a weary breath. "I get that, Danny. I do, but—"
"Well I don't." Danielle was now pacing back and forth in front of the couch. "If they're gonna get you anyway, then leave. Go live in the Ghost Zone."
"I'm with her," Tucker said, crossing his arms.
"No. I'm not running away from a fight."
Dani threw up her arms in exasperation. "But you're talking about not fighting! That's the problem!"
"No, I'm not talking about not fighting. I'm talking about a different kind of fight, and I'm not letting you or anyone else get dragged down into it when I'm the one they want."
"It's not that simple, Danny," Sam said. "The rest of us are already implicated. We've been guilty of conspiracy for ten years."
"They won't care about you guys if they've got me. I can even make it part of the deal, that I'll come forward if they agree to immunity for everyone else who was in Antarctica."
She chewed on this a moment. "You'll need a lawyer."
"You are a lawyer."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm your wife and a 'co-conspirator.' If you really wanna do this, we should bring in Rob Collins, the Human-Ecto Alliance's General Counsel."
Tucker gaped at her. "You aren't seriously gonna let him do this, are you Sam?"
"It's not really my decision to make, Tuck."
"Danny…" His mother was sitting on the edge of her seat, her hands gripping the cushion like it was a flotation device and the only thing keeping her from going under. "Sam's right. I've said from the day I found out what happened to you that who and when you tell needs to be your decision and no one else's. If this is what you want to do, then I support you."
His father reached over and covered his wife's hand with his own. "Me, too, son."
"We're all behind you, Danny," Mr. Lancer said, and there were more nods and murmurs of agreement despite the concern in everyone's eyes.
"But once you tell people," his mom continued, "you can't un-tell them. The stakes are very, very high, sweetie, so just… be very sure this is what you want before you do it."
Danny had to force himself to not glance at Danielle, because he knew it would set her off again, but he couldn't help but think that the stakes were very high, indeed. "It's not what I want, Mom. But it's what's right."