The Ghost of Christmas Present: Part XIV
December 23, 7:00 am EST
As Mr. Fenton had predicted, when they opened a portal back to the Human World from the place near the Realm of the Far Frozen where they'd entered the Ghost Zone just two and a half hours earlier, it spit them back out into the tunnel that ran between the Rayburn House Office Building and the Capitol Building. Valerie didn't kill the throttle on the sled until they were out of the tunnel and in the Capitol Building itself, but at least this time Tucker was ready for it and wasn't thrown off the sled when she stopped. He pulled off his helmet and gave her a quick kiss. "Good luck finding Dani. I'll call you as soon as we're through."
"Take those bastards down, Tuck."
"You know it."
She took off again, going back the way they'd come, towards the Rayburn Office Building, where there would be fewer Capitol Police to scare with her sled. Tucker ran in the opposite direction, up towards the second floor and the House Chamber.
When he got there, he found a small crowd of staffers, Capitol Police, the Sergeant at Arms, and his administrative assistant, Allison Erin. When she saw him approaching, she rushed over. "Mr. Foley! I got the report about ten minutes ago, and I've e-mailed it to every representative on our side of the ecto debate, but there hasn't been a recess, so I haven't been able to talk to anyone."
"It's okay. I'll take it from here. Did you print out any hard copies, by any chance?" She thrust a file folder with a thick stack of papers into his hands and he smiled at her. "You so seriously rock, Al. Thanks for being on the ball this early in the morning."
"It only took two pots of coffee."
Tucker headed for the door to the House Chamber, and the Sergeant at Arms gave him an odd look. "I thought you had a family emergency."
"I did. Now I have a bigger one here. If you'll excuse me…" He brushed past and, with a deep breath, entered the Chamber.
As he entered, Colleen Kath from Michigan was speaking. She was arguing against the flu vaccine bill, a fact Tucker only was able to surmise from knowing her and not from anything she was saying, because he caught just a few words before his entrance caused a minor disturbance. The Speaker of the House looked at him, her eyes widening in surprise, and Tucker coughed. "Madam Speaker, will the gentlewoman from Michigan yield to me?"
The Speaker held up her hand before Representative Kath could reply. "I was under the impression that the gentleman from Indiana was excused to attend to a family emergency and was en-route home."
"Yes, ma'am, that is correct, but an urgent matter regarding the current bill under debate has come to my attention. Will the gentlewoman from Michigan yield to me?"
Again, Colleen tried to respond, but the Speaker, clearly irritated with Tucker, stopped her once more. "The gentleman from Indiana has been excused for a family emergency!"
Forgetting all decorum and procedural rules, Tucker shot back, "Which is directly related to the bill under consideration! The flu vaccine in question—Fluumbrazin—is actually a highly caustic anti-ecto chemical compound known as Umbranol." He held up the file folder in his hand. "I have a report from Dr. Madeline Fenton, who holds Ph.D.s in the fields of parabiology and chemistry and is one of the nation's foremost experts on ecto physiology. Umbranol, or Fluumbrazin, might well be toxic to individuals who have had extreme or unusual exposure to ecto energy. The DNA testing measure that this body voted down several weeks ago would have merely pinpointed humans with ecto markers in their genetic profile. The flu vaccine will instead attack the systems of such individuals. People could get sick. They could die."
The Speaker pounded her gavel on the podium. "The gentleman from Indiana is out of order! The report from the FDA, which shows quite clearly that the Fluumbrazin vaccine is non-allergenic and safe for all humans, has already been entered into the record. But perhaps the gentleman from Indiana does not know this because he was excused from the floor!"
"I've seen the FDA report. The question is, how exactly does it define 'human'? Because it fails to mention that, in addition to the documented studies, the vaccine was secretly tested on an individual whose DNA was altered by ecto-energy and, as you will see in Dr. Fenton's report, it is…" Tucker swallowed. "It might be killing him."
"What individual?" Colleen Kath blurted out before the Speaker could stop her.
This caused a murmur on the floor, and the Speaker pounded her gavel, but Colleen ignored her, gasping in shock. "What? How could you know that? Isn't he being held incommunicado?"
"He was released a few hours ago."
The murmur around him turned into an uproar as the Speaker continued to pound her gavel, then shouted to be heard over the din. "The gentleman from Indiana is out of order, and the gentlewoman from Michigan will refrain from addressing other members and direct her comments solely to the Speaker!"
The crowd settled somewhat, and Representative Kath inclined her head, but her eyes looked less than repentant. "My apologies, Madam Speaker." Before the Speaker could respond, however, she added, "I yield my time to the gentleman from Indiana."
The Speaker looked back and forth between Tucker and Colleen, glaring at both of them. Then, with a sigh, she pounded her gavel once more. "The gentleman from Indiana has the floor."
The sky was rapidly lightening as Valerie steered her sled over the streets of Washington towards Alexandria, trying to quell the sick feeling in her stomach. Why now? Why would Danielle disappear at the exact same moment that Danny had been so unexpectedly returned to them? She tried to chalk it up to coincidence. Dani had chickened out on going back to Amity Park and hadn't wanted to face Valerie afterwards, so instead of coming home, she'd gone… where? She hadn't really made any friends in Alexandria or D.C. She had a part time job at a Queequeg's coffee shop two blocks away from their apartment, and was a volunteer tour guide at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but she'd kept her coworkers and fellow volunteers at arm's length, mostly in an effort to stave off questions about her famous "cousin" and his arrest. When she wasn't working or volunteering, she spent much of her time at the Library of Congress trying to keep up with her medical studies so that she wouldn't be too far behind when she went back to school in the fall.
There are plenty of places to go, Valerie told herself as she raced home. Bars, clubs, twenty-four-hour internet cafés. The malls and shops were open late for last-minute Christmas shopping, too. She could've gone anywhere to wait for Congress to adjourn and Valerie and Tucker to leave D.C. so she wouldn't have to admit that she'd been unable to follow through.
But the very night Danny came back? Valerie swallowed, clamping down on any thoughts that there could be some connection. The Guys in White didn't know about Danielle. They couldn't. It was just coincidence. Valerie would get home and find her asleep in the spare room—her room. Valerie would wake her up, she'd apologize for chickening out, and Valerie would interrupt to tell her the good news, that Danny was back, and they'd all go back to Amity Park—no, the Ghost Zone. The Fentons were taking him to Frostbite. They'd meet him there in the Realm of the Far Frozen, and everything would be fine.
She wasn't surprised, however, to find the apartment empty and exactly as she'd left it nearly three hours earlier after getting the phone call from Nick. She went straight to Dani's room and turned on the desktop computer, then went through the closets and dressers while she waited for it to boot up. Nothing seemed out of place. Most of her clothes were gone, packed into the suitcase she'd brought with her to the airport. Her books were gone, too. Valerie had convinced her to take them, hoping that the reunion with the Fentons would go well and she'd stay with them in Amity Park after Christmas.
Don't wait for me and Tucker, okay? she'd told Dani at the airport. Go see the Fentons first thing tomorrow morning. They really miss you. Maddie and Jack—
She'd nodded. I know.
And Sam. You'll see Sam? She misses you, too, Dani. You know that, right?
Yeah. And… I get what she did and why she did it. I do.
Then tell her, okay? These last five months have been so hard on her.
I know. I want… I'll make it up to her, Val. And Jack and Maddie and Jazz and everyone. I promise. Then, she'd thrown her arms around Valerie's neck. I love you so much, Valerie. Thank you for everything.
Valerie bit her lip, pushing back on the uneasy feeling again. It hadn't been a good-bye. She was emotional about the prospect of seeing her family again, about speaking to them for the first time in five months, that's all. And that's why she didn't get on the plane, because she was afraid of seeing them after so long. She wasn't saying good-bye!
A musical trill indicated that the computer had finished booting up, and Valerie seated herself at the desk and started looking through Dani's files. She wasn't sure what she was looking for—anything that would indicate she'd been planning something, that she had somewhere else to go. Valerie found nothing, not in any of the file folders, not in her e-mail, not anywhere. She even hacked into the security section and did a scan for deleted files, but there was nothing.
The only thing she did find that troubled her was that Dani's internet browser history showed that she rather frequently viewed the security video from the night Danny was arrested. Why she would want to see it even once, let alone daily, was beyond Valerie, who herself was more familiar with the thing than she would have liked.
She and Tucker had been the first ones Sam had called that night after Danny was taken away. While Tucker stayed at Sam's side and helped her call the rest of the family, Valerie had taken care of Danielle, bringing her back to the townhouse to keep her from going off and doing something stupid. Later that morning, after Dani had finally fallen asleep, Tucker had returned with a copy of the security video that had recorded everything from the feds' initial entry into Danny and Sam's home until the point where Sam had gotten up and turned off the camera. Together, Valerie and Tucker pored over every frame, looking for anything that showed Dani using her ghost powers. Sam had vowed to destroy the video if there was even a hint of evidence that Dani was anything other than fully human, despite the fact that she would be disbarred if anyone ever found out. Fortunately, Dani was either off-camera or there was too much haze to see anything. Even when Tucker ran it through an extensive enhancement program, there was nothing on the video that indicated that she had used anything other than standard ecto-weapons.
That had been fortunate, because the video had become one of their greatest weapons against the Guys in White and their supporters in the days and months that followed. It had run on every news channel, was posted on every video file sharing site on the internet, and when the anti-ecto politicians tried to justify the Guys in White and their extreme use of force, it cost a great number of them the election.
Still, it was an awful, gruesome thing that Valerie couldn't stand to watch, and she avoided doing so whenever she could. She found it disconcerting, then, that Danielle, who had lived through the ordeal, would spend so much time dwelling on it. Was she looking for something? Was she using it to feed her anger at Sam or, conversely, to try and understand why Sam did what she did? Or was she trying to hone her rage at the Guys in White themselves? That last thought concerned Valerie the most, although if Danielle had made some sort of ill-advised attack on the Guys in White for revenge or to try and get Danny back, surely it would have been all over the news by now. And Danny hadn't been freed in some sort of rescue attempt. He'd been released.
Frustrated, Valerie considered what to do next. If Danielle wasn't here and wasn't in Amity Park, then where could she be? Valerie wasn't even sure where to start looking. She checked the clock on the bottom corner of the computer and saw that it was about ten 'til eight. The Queequeg's where Dani worked opened at seven. It was possible she could have gone there. They did have free internet access, and she'd had both her phone and her tablet with her…
Valerie frowned. Her tablet. Danielle did a lot of her web surfing on her tablet, which could explain why Valerie didn't find anything on her desktop computer. She shook her head. No point in ruminating about what she couldn't check out. She needed to just get out there and look for her.
She went to close the browser, but a news alert caught her attention. Danny Phantom Released? Indiana congressman claims famed half-ghost home, but in failing health due to anti-ghost chemical in new flu vaccine. Related story: Mandatory flu vaccine bill fails House as marathon session comes to a close.
Valerie smiled. Way to go, Tuck. At least that was one piece of good news. Now she just had to find Dani. Maybe she'd already seen the news and was on her way home…
Powering down the computer, Valerie grabbed her coat and headed out again. She ran through places to go as she started down the porch steps of her apartment building, pulling her coat around her against the cold December air. She'd start at Queequeg's, then hit a few of Dani's other hangouts—
"Excuse me, Ms. Gray? May I have a moment of your time?"
Valerie stopped on the steps as a tall, lean Hispanic man in his forties, wearing an expensive-looking leather trench coat, approached her. She pasted on a smile. "I'm sorry, but if you have any questions for the congressman, you'll have to speak with him at the Capitol like the rest of the press." She continued down the steps and turned away as she reached the sidewalk.
The man followed behind her. "No, no. I'm not a reporter, Ms. Gray. My name is Miguel Sanchez. I'm an attorney. I represent Danielle Fenton."
Valerie stopped short, her heart squeezing in her chest as she whirled around to glare at him. "You represent … what? Why on earth would Danielle Fenton need an attorney?"
He stepped forward, holding out a thin, white, letter-sized envelope. "She asked me to give this to you. It will explain everything."
"Explain what?" Valerie took the envelope from him, but didn't look at it. "What's going on? Do you know where she is?"
"The letter will explain—"
"Where is Danielle?" It was everything she could do to keep from grabbing the man by his lapels and shaking him.
He gave her a sympathetic smile. "She's a courageous girl, Ms. Gray. It's been an honor working with her the last few months. Her letter will explain. And…" He reached into his coat, pulling out several more letter envelopes and one large manila one. "I assume you'll be returning to Amity Park soon? I was wondering if I could trouble you to pass these along to her family as well? The large one contains copies of all the legal documents. I've already messengered copies to Samantha Fenton's attorneys, and I'll be having a conference call with them in…" He looked at his watch, frowning. "Ooh. In about five minutes. I'd better get a move on." He faced Valerie again. "But I assume Mrs. Fenton has a little too much on her plate right now to sit in, so please give these to her for me. Everything she'll need is in that file."
Valerie frowned as she took the other envelopes. The large envelope had a printed address label with Sam's name and the address of the Human-Ecto Alliance on it, but she recognized Dani's neat scrawl on each of the five letter-sized envelopes. Valerie. Jack & Maddie. Jazz. Sam. Danny. Valerie gasped, her eyes narrowing as she looked up at the lawyer. "There's one for Danny. How could she—?"
"The letter explains everything, Ms. Gray. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really don't want to keep Mrs. Fenton's attorneys waiting." And before she could ask any more questions, he turned and walked away.
Shoving all the envelopes but the one with her name on it into her own coat pocket, Valerie took the one addressed to her and tore it open. Inside were three pages, computer-printed, single-spaced. Her heart pounding, she began to read.
It was a good forty-five minutes later before Valerie found herself climbing the House steps on the east side of the Capitol Building, barely aware of how she'd gotten there. Congress had finally ended the session, and reporters were milling around, interviewing various members. She caught sight of Tucker near the top of the steps, surrounded by reporters, and she headed slowly in that direction. There was no need to rush. There wasn't anywhere to rush to. Certainly not back into the Ghost Zone, where she would have to face Danny with only a letter to explain how she'd completely and utterly failed him and Danielle.
She waited off to the side and below Tucker and his knot of reporters, just close enough that she could hear the questions about Danny's return and about the flu vaccine, but her thoughts were too scattered to really listen to Tucker's answers. It wasn't long, however, before he spotted her. An anxious look crossed his features before he schooled them into the somewhat tired but polite expression he was giving the press. He quickly wrapped up the questions, directing them instead to his press secretary, who was standing behind him. He then excused himself and hurried to Valerie's side.
"What's wrong?" He took her by the shoulders. "Did… did something happen to Danny?"
Valerie could only nod, unable to stop the tears now wetting her cheeks.
She blinked. He? Then, she shook her head as she realized the misunderstanding. "No, not Danny. Dani. Tucker, she…" Unable to speak anymore, she just handed him the three-page letter that had been addressed to her.
Confused, Tucker took it from her and started to read. He barely got halfway through the first page before he let out a long breath of air and pulled her into his arms. "Oh, baby. I am so sorry."
As he held her, the last of her reserves crumbled, and she buried her head in his shoulder, sobbing in his arms. She was dimly aware that they'd attracted attention from the press, and she felt more than heard Tucker wave them off as he put himself between her and them, shielding her from view. "Come on, Val. Let's go somewhere a little more private." He guided her down the stairs, then they ducked around the corner and under an archway, leaving his press secretary and a few other members of his staff to handle the press.
Not that she cared. They'd all know soon enough.
When she regained enough control to speak again, she pulled back just enough to look up at him. "I was supposed to look out for her," she whispered. "To protect her."
"Valerie, she's not a child. You can't protect her forever, and you can't keep her from doing what she felt she needed to do."
"Everything Danny did, everything he went through—it was all for nothing."
"No, it wasn't for nothing. And what Danielle did won't be for nothing, either." He took her chin in his hand. "I promise you, Val. It won't be for nothing."
"But look at what they did to him! If they could make him so sick… She's not as strong as he is!"
"She's obviously stronger than any of us gave her credit for. Val… look at me." He guided her chin gently back again as she tried to turn away. "After what happened to Danny, and the report from Mrs. Fenton, not to mention the whole flu virus scam, the public outcry is gonna be massive. They just put the last nail in their own coffin, and we're gonna hammer it home."
It didn't help. "How could she do this? Why, Tucker?"
"Oh, baby, you know why." He shook his head and offered her a sad smile. "She's her father's daughter."
"This is gonna break his heart, Tuck. All he wanted was to protect her. How am I supposed to tell him I let her do this?"
"You didn't 'let' her do anything. She's twenty-three and stubborn and is gonna do whatever she thinks is right, no matter what anyone else says." He dabbed at the tears on Valerie's cheek with the back of his finger. "After all, she's her mother's daughter, too."