Danielle: Part V
Two and a half years after the accident
Danny paced across the floor of the Op-Center while Sam sat cross-legged on the counter near the windows, her elbows resting on her knees and her chin in her hands. At a workbench in the center of the room, his mother was bent over a microscope. Danny stopped moving long enough to face her. "Can you tell anything yet?"
She sighed without looking up. "Not in the thirty seconds since the last time you asked."
Grunting in frustration, Danny resumed his pacing.
Finally, his mom looked up from her microscope and pushed her goggles and hood back away from her face.
Danny stopped again. "Well?"
Her eyes were round and sober, and he knew the answer even before she spoke. "It's a match."
Behind him, Danny heard a sharp intake of air from Sam. His fists clenched at his side, he closed his eyes. "That slimy sack of… Vlad. It isn't enough he has to mess with me. He just had to drag Valerie into it."
He felt his mom's hand on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes to look at her. She gave him a sympathetic squeeze. "At least we know now. That's something. But… there's something else you should know. Dani's DNA has the same sort of ecto profile as yours. But Valerie's DNA has some… peculiarities as well."
Danny frowned. "What do you mean?"
"It isn't anything like yours, but her DNA… it has an ecto profile as well. But Dani didn't inherit it. Only yours."
"Wait." Sam jumped down from the counter and came over to join them. "Are you saying Valerie has some sort of ghost powers, too?"
"Not ghost powers, no. But her DNA has definitely undergone a mutation."
"The suit!" Danny gaped at his mother. "I knew something wasn't right about the way it works now! Her first suit came from Vlad, and it was just this regular, really high-tech suit. But it got destroyed in a fight between me and Technus, who turned around and used the pieces of it to… I dunno. He did something to her, to sort of meld it to her. Now, she can outfit herself in that suit just by wanting to, kinda like I can go ghost."
His mom nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, that could be explained by the ecto-profile in her DNA. But it's odd that Dani inherited only your ecto profile, and none of Valerie's."
"What if Vlad took Valerie's DNA before Technus changed it? All that stuff with Technus and Val had already happened by the time I met Dani, but Vlad would've had to have been… growing her a while before that, right?" He winced, not liking the way that sentence dehumanized Dani, but he wasn't sure how else to put it. "The Technus thing happened in the spring of our freshman year. Dani showed up maybe six months later."
Again, his mom nodded. "You're right. It would've taken at least six months to complete twelve years of accelerated growth, including zygote, embryo, and fetal stages in addition to infancy, childhood, and pre-adolescence. Your father and I have already extrapolated a late spring 'birth,' which means Vlad must have had Valerie's DNA for at least a couple of months before that. Come to think of it, the most likely time for him to have collected it from her would've been during the Ghost King crisis, since he came into close contact with her then."
Danny clenched his fists again, burning at the memory of the way Vlad had manipulated Valerie during that whole mess, which he'd caused in the first place. "That was definitely before Technus messed with her," he ground out. So much done to her, all to get at him, and here was yet another thing…
His mom looked at him. "We need to tell her. About the mutation and about Danielle."
"Do you want me to talk with her?"
He shook his head. "No. It should come from me. At least the part about Danielle, anyway. Maybe you can tell her the part about the ecto profile in her DNA." Then, he frowned. "Mom? Can I ask you something, though?"
"Of course, sweetie."
"Uh…" He wasn't sure exactly how to put this. "If Dani is Valerie's… if Valerie is her mother, then shouldn't Dani look, you know, more…?"
His mom raised her eyebrows. "Black?"
Danny shrugged, sheepish. "Well, yeah."
"Genetics and skin color is a complicated thing, Danny. And remember, Valerie herself is bi-racial. Her mother was white. With one bi-racial and one white parent, any combination of light and dark skin is possible. There have even been cases of fraternal twins being born to a bi-racial mother and a white father where one twin has dark skin and the other has white. And who knows to what level Vlad was manipulating or even hand-choosing the genes he wanted? He was, after all, trying to get a close likeness of you. Although, that makes me wonder why he wouldn't select for gender as well."
Danny ground his teeth. "Because he wasn't really trying to copy me, not with Danielle. She was just the guinea pig. The… disposable one he could test stuff on before he tried it on the 'good' clone."
Sam let out a disgusted grunt. "Man, no matter how many times I hear it, I still can't quite wrap my head around it. He really is a piece of work, isn't he?"
Danny's mom had a dark look on her face. "You can say that again." She sighed, her expression softening back into a sympathetic one as she looked at Danny. "I'll let you work out how you wanna handle telling Valerie, sweetie. And if you need any help…"
"I know, Mom." He gave her a hug. "Thanks."
She squeezed him back, then exited the Op-Center through one of the pneumatic tubes, leaving Danny alone with Sam.
She looked down, shuffling her feet awkwardly. "It had to be Valerie."
He sighed. "Sam. This isn't about—"
"I know." She cut him off with her hand upraised. "This isn't about me. It's about Dani, and you and Valerie. And what Vlad did to all of you. It's an unspeakable violation, I know. You didn't ask for this, Valerie didn't ask for this, and Dani sure as heck didn't ask for this. But I reserve the right to be selfish about this for one minute, okay? Sixty seconds, and then I promise I'll suck it up and get over it, because I know there's way more important stuff going on here than how I feel about it. But dammit! Why did it have to be Valerie? The one girl you ever really liked more than just a stupid crush, and now you… you're connected to her forever. I hate this, Danny. I know it makes me petty and small, but there it is. I hate that it was her."
He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. "What I was going to say is that this isn't about me and Valerie and our past almost-relationship. Dani isn't here because Valerie and I liked each other once. I mean, I never even kissed her, let alone—"
"I know, Danny. I do. But the end result is still the same. You share…" She put a hand over her mouth. "Oh, God, Danny, you share a child. No matter how that came to be, no matter that it wasn't your fault or hers, or that it'll be your parents raising Dani and not the two of you, it's still a fact. It's a bond you'll have forever."
"I know," he said softly. "But you and I, Sam… we have a bond we'll have forever, too. Right?" He was surprised by just how much he needed to believe that right now, that he wouldn't have to face everything alone.
"I…" She looked up at him, nodding. "Yeah, I know." Then, she blew out a breath in self-reproach. "I know it's stupid and petty, but I've always loved that… I dunno. That you were mine first. Not that you didn't like other girls before you liked me, because I know you did, but… your friendship, your secret, and just really knowing you—these were all things I had before anyone else. Well, except Tucker, but that's not exactly the same. Only, now Valerie has this. And even though I'll get over it—heck, even hearing how lame it sounds coming out of my mouth makes me halfway there already—I still hate it."
He hung his head, hating that she had to feel like that because of his strange life. "I know. And I'm sorry, Sam."
"Ugh. Why is it that whenever you're a total jerk, I have to drag an apology out of you, but when something happens that absolutely isn't your fault, you're sorry? You didn't cause this, not any of it, and you don't have to be sorry."
"And yet, people around me keep getting their lives messed with because of me. I… I hate it, too, Sam. Believe me. But…" He looked up at her. "I love Dani. However she came to be, I'm glad she's here."
"Oh, Danny. I am, too." She snaked her arms around his neck and pulled him into an embrace. "Really. I think she's an awesome person, and I'm glad she's going to be living here with you and that we'll get to know her better. All the other stuff… we'll adjust. We will."
"I know we will." He leaned his forehead against hers. "Would it help any if I told you that you're first in every way that really matters? You're the first—the only—girl I've ever been in love with."
She smiled. "Yeah, actually. That does kinda help."
He waited until that evening to talk to Valerie, preferring to go over to her apartment after dinner rather then tell her while she was at FentonWorks with everyone else around. Even better, her dad was working late, so there was no one else at her place to overhear. They sat on the couch in her living room among cardboard boxes in various stages of packing—Mr. Gray would be closing on their new house in a few weeks, and he and Valerie were already preparing for their long-awaited move from Elmerton back to Amity Park—and Danny began like he had with Sam, telling her about Vlad's cloning project, and about how Dani differed from the actual clones.
Valerie looked horrified. "You know, just when I think I've heard every possible sick and twisted thing Vlad could do, I find out something else." She shook her head. "I can't believe I used to trust him."
"He's kinda good at manipulating people."
"No kidding. He's such a…" She trailed off, making a face rather than putting it into words. "Poor Dani, though. Does she know?"
Danny chewed on his lip. "She thinks she's a clone. I haven't told her yet that she's my… my daughter. And Val…" He swallowed, trying to calm his queasy stomach. "There's more."
"More?" She raised her eyebrows, waiting.
"Yeah. He didn't just steal my DNA to… make her." He hated using that word, like Danielle was something manmade instead of a real person. "He needed two… parents. So he stole someone else's DNA, too. Someone he had access to. Someone he loved messing with just like he loved messing with me. Someone he'd been using from the start to try and get at me."
Valerie frowned. "That could be anyone. Who hasn't he used?"
"Think about it Val. One person in particular who had a grudge against me that he could use to his advantage. Who he had access to because of equipment he'd provided…"
He could see on her face the exact moment she realized what he was getting at. Her eyes got very wide and she gasped, covering her mouth. "No. You can't mean…"
Pressing his lips together, he nodded. "Yeah, Val. I do."
"I…" She slid back on the couch, as if getting away from him would make it not true. "No. There must be some mistake. How could you possibly know—?"
"There's no mistake. I… I took some hairs off that headband you were wearing today. You and Dani… watching you together, she just seemed so much like you all the sudden, that I thought… maybe. So when you shoved your shirt and headband at me, I took some hairs off it, and my mom ran a DNA test."
"You took my hair and ran a DNA test without even telling me?"
"I…" He cringed. "Yeah, I guess taking your DNA without your permission isn't a whole lot better than what Vlad did, is it? I just… I didn't know what else to do. I didn't want to freak you out for no reason if it wasn't true. I mean, can you see me asking, 'Hey, Val, wanna give me a DNA sample so we can see if Dani is your kid?'"
She blanched, shaking her head. "My…? No. This can't be. I can't… she can't… we can't! We never even…"
"We didn't anything, Valerie. It was Vlad. He did this, to both of us. And to Dani."
"But I… I still have two more months before I'm even seventeen! How can I have a… and with you?" She looked like she was going to be sick.
"Oh come on, you know what I mean! Our history is complicated enough without… this. The whole Phantom thing, and the suit and… three dates, Danny! I kissed you once on the cheek, and we have a… a…"
"GAH! How can you even say the word?"
"Because I've had over a week to get used to the idea. Give it time—"
"Time for what? To get used to the idea that even though I've never… with anyone, let alone you… somehow a fourteen-year-old girl I thought was your cousin until five minutes ago is actually our… yours… and my…"
"Stop saying that!"
"It's what she is, Val. She's our daughter. But it's not as big a deal as it seems."
She gaped at him. "Not a big deal? Are you insane? Have you completely lost your mind?"
He sighed. "That didn't come out right. Of course it's a big deal. It's a huge deal, and I'm still… I still haven't completely wrapped my mind around it, either. I just meant it's not like we suddenly have to drop everything to take care of a baby. My parents are gonna be her guardians, and we… Well, I'm not exactly sure where we fit in, but you… I'm not looking for anything from you." He winced, realizing how ironic and backwards this all was, him telling her they had a child together and that he wasn't expecting anything from her. "I know it changes everything for all of us, but… it is what it is, Val. It's not our fault Vlad did this to any of us, but it is what it is. And when it's all said and done, I love her, and I'm not sorry she's here, no matter how it happened."
"I…" She scrubbed her face with her hands. "She's a great kid, Danny. I liked her the minute I saw her. She was a street kid, stealing apples to keep from starving, and I just felt a… connection to her. Then, I found out she was half ghost, and don't even get me started on what that was like, but still… I like her. I always have. So of course I'm not sorry she's here, either. But how am I supposed to be a… a mom to her?"
He put his hand on her shoulder. "By just doing what you've been doing and be there for her. I told you, my parents are the ones who'll actually do all the parent stuff. They know we can't do it, that none of this is our fault. If anything, they blame themselves for bringing Vlad into our lives in the first place, but it isn't their fault, either. Vlad's the only one to blame."
She looked ashen as she shook her head slowly. "I can't believe... I mean, I knew he was sick and twisted, but to do this, to steal DNA, to make a person out of it. I feel so..."
"Violated," he finished when she couldn't. "I know. Me, too."
Her eyes widened. "And he sent me after her. She was my... and he used me to go after her. I almost got her killed."
She put her hand over her mouth, and Danny thought she might throw up. He felt like he might, too. "I know. But none of that matters, now. She's here, and she's ours, and all we have to do is love her and be there for her. It's all we can do."
She looked up at him, frowning. "Are you going to tell her? That we're…?"
"Actually, I think we should tell her together. When you're ready."
"When I'm ready?" A laugh escaped her, one of those half-hysterical laughs. "This is surreal. I thought finding out about ghosts, and the suit, and you…" She waved her hand at him. "Being him. I thought that was surreal. But this? This is beyond surreal. It's unreal."
"Dang. What's my dad gonna say? He's never gonna let me near you again!"
"Why? I didn't do anything!"
"I don't know, Val. It's up to you what you tell him. Or my folks can talk to him. Whatever you want."
"And what about Sam? I… oh, man. She and I had finally gotten to a place where we were completely comfortable with each other, where she really knows that I'm not gonna either start liking you again or start trying to kill you again. We were finally getting to be good friends. And now this. What's she gonna say?"
"Um, actually… she already knows."
Valerie blinked. "She knows? You told her before you told me?"
"I didn't know about you yet. I just told Sam about Dani and me. But she was sitting right there when I started thinking maybe it was you, and she's not stupid. She saw me staring at the two of you, and it didn't exactly take a genius to work out what I was thinking. She saw me take the hairs, too, and it was pretty obvious what I was going to do with them, so… yeah. She knows."
"And she's okay with it?"
"Well… you're probably not the first person she'd want it to be," he admitted. "But she's as okay as she can be, given the really bizarre circumstances. I don't think it's gonna screw up your friendship."
"You are so lucky you're with a girl who likes everything to be completely bizarre."
"Believe me, I know exactly how lucky I am."
She gave a rueful shake of her head. "Me? I never wanted any of this. I liked my normal life and my popular friends and my fancy house and all of it. And now look at me. Ghost fighting and battle suits and best friends with the biggest geeks in the school. And now… a daughter. Who's only a few years younger than me. What else could happen?"
Danny bit his lip, deciding to save the part about her altered DNA for another day. "It's all because of that one stupid thing with me and that ghost dog, too." He closed his eyes. "I'm so sorry, Val. I really, really am."
He felt her hand on his shoulder and he opened his eyes to find her looking at him with a sort of resigned expression. "No, Phantom. It's not you. I spent too much time blaming you already when, really, it was me. I let my anger at what I thought you'd done take over everything, and because of that, I accepted high tech weapons from a complete stranger without even thinking about why he might be giving them to me in the first place. I mean, come on. We're told from the time we're four not to accept candy from strangers, and there I was at fourteen." She sighed. "I did this to myself. I didn't know what I was getting myself into at the time, but I still did it, not you. One bad choice, and nothing will ever be normal again." She started laughing again, but this time it was more ironic than hysterical. "I guess that part's no different than any other teenager who gets themselves in trouble. One careless choice, and your whole life is changed forever."
He nodded. "Yeah. My careless choice was walking into a deactivated Ghost Portal without powering it down completely."
She tilted her head. "Are you sorry, though? When it's all said and done?"
"No." He didn't even have to think about it. "No, I'm not."
"I… I don't think I am either. I mean, I'm not sure about this whole… this mom thing. But Dani… she's awesome. I love her to death, I really do. And if she's only here because I was stupid enough to accept a battle suit from a stranger, then… maybe it's not the worst thing in the world."
He smiled. "Maybe it's not."