Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.
― Hermann Broch
Danny Fenton sat in the interior of the Fenton Family Merfolk Assault Craft – or as he and his sister preferred to call it, "the Boat" – feeling bitter about life, the world, and generally everything.
First of all, he hated water. He had nearly drowned in the ocean as a kid, sucked out from the beach by a nasty riptide. If not for some observant surfers nearby, Danny would have died. Since then, he had been terrified of water and had never even learned how to swim.
His parents knew that. But did they care? Judging from how they forced him to go out on the Boat once a month, with nothing more than a life jacket and the words "You'll be fine!" – probably not.
That was second. He hated the Boat. He hated it, its name, and all it stood for. Seriously – the Fenton Family Merfolk Assault Craft. It was enough to send people running. It actually had sent some people running.
It was no secret that the whole town thought the older Fentons were nut cases. Who wouldn't? They wore brightly colored wetsuits around town at all times and hunted mythical creatures for a living. At least they had lived in Amity Beach long enough for everyone to get used to their eccentricities, to learn that despite being fruitloops, the Fentons were harmless.
It was also enough time for Danny and his sister Jazz to convince people that they wanted nothing to do with their parents' work. So, while Jack and Maddie Fenton were greeted everywhere by looks ranging from strong disapproval to resignation, Danny and Jazz usually received ones of pity or, at best, no reaction at all.
Jazz had made up for her parents' shortcomings by being the best she could at everything she did. She was the smartest kid at Neptune High School, student council president, and had recently been voted by the student body as "most likely to succeed". She was also an insufferable know-it-all and consequently had no friends. If that bothered her or not, Danny couldn't tell.
Danny, meanwhile, had gone the other route, trying to be as normal as possible. He was remarkably unremarkable and proud of it. He maintained a B-average in school and was not particularly good at anything, unless playing video games and having a disproportionate knowledge about space exploration could be counted as talents. The second one maybe, but until he brought up his math and physics grades, it was entirely useless. So what if he and his best friend Tucker were called 'losers' by the popular kids at school? Most of the time they flew off the radar, and that was just how Danny liked it.
There was a knocking and some squeaks as the hatch opened, flooding the cabin with sunlight. Danny heard his dad's voice: "Where are you going, Jazzypants? You don't want to hear the story of how your mother and I first started hunting merpeople?"
The red-headed sixteen-year-old scoffed. "Like I haven't heard it a hundred times already? No thank you." She climbed the ladder down into the interior of the Boat and closed the hatch behind her. She glanced at Danny, hunched over and tense, and rolled her eyes, clearly finding his company only marginally better than her parents'. She threw herself into a chair and opened the book she was carrying. Probably Psychology for Smart People or some other nonsense.
"Dad regaling you with stories of their youth again?" said Danny, grinning smugly.
Jazz made a show of lowering her book. "Little brother stating the obvious again?"
Danny scowled at her. "Jeez. Sorry for trying to have a conversation."
"If I wanted to have a conversation, I wouldn't have come down here. Now, shh. I have to finish reading this by tomorrow to keep on schedule."
Jazz had recently discovered the reading list for graduate psychology programs and decided she needed to start reading the books now if she ever hoped to both finish them and fully understand them. It hardly mattered that graduate school was six years down the road. That was simply the type of insufferable know-it-all Jazz was.
Continuing with his list – third of all, Danny hated being stuck on a boat with his family on a perfectly good Sunday. The last Sunday, in fact, of Danny's summer and the last day of his pre-high school life. Starting tomorrow, Danny would enter the ninth grade and start his new life at Neptune High. He had wanted to spend this day savoring the last hours of freedom, preferably by playing games at the arcade with Tuck and washing it all down with a shake and fries at the Nasty Burger.
No. Instead he had been woken up at the crack of dawn and thrown on the Boat.
Danny sighed. Suddenly, he was feeling really cramped. Surely it had nothing to do with the annoyance coming off of his sister in waves.
Speaking of waves… had they just gotten stronger? Yes, the boat was definitely rocking more than before. Danny was starting to feel sick. He needed air.
While the deck of the boat was a whole lot more dangerous than below, Danny ventured up there, first checking, of course, that his life jacket was secured and not going far from the hatch. It was a hot, sunny, August day, but currently the wind was whipping cool across the waves. Danny breathed it in with relish.
He quickly located his parents. His father was lounging at the wheel, leaning back in his seat with his feet propped up. Jack Fenton was larger than life – tall and broad and unbelievably clumsy for all of the strength he possessed. He also insisted on wearing a day-glow orange wetsuit at all times of day, so that he would always be ready to hit the water. Danny's mother, Maddie Fenton, was meanwhile seated on a bench, monitoring a device and occasionally taking notes. Unlike her husband, she was of normal proportions, with short auburn hair and purple eyes. But, unfortunately, she also insisted on constantly wearing a wetsuit. At least hers had the decency of being turquoise.
Danny still found it hard to believe that his parents had once been marine biologists. More importantly, they had been perfectly normal. There were pictures to prove it; there really had been pre-wetsuit days.
"Danny!" his father boomed upon seeing him. "I was just blathering on about my college days! Did I ever tell you the story of how your mother and I started hunting merpeople?"
"Uh, you kind of tell us every time we come out here, Dad."
Maddie shot her son a sympathetic, knowing smile and recorded another number in her notebook.
Completely disregarding what his son had said, Jack continued telling his story. "Well, when your mother and I were in college, we were studying to be marine biologists, along with our best friend, Vlad! You know good old Vlad. During our senior year, we all got the opportunity to go out on the ocean with our professor's team to study whales. It was going fine, until one night, the water suddenly went flat. We tried using our motor to sail through it, and even that wouldn't move us. It was all very strange. Then, if you can believe it, the water came alive, looking just like ropes, or maybe tentacles, and it started grabbing people right off the deck!
"We were all pretty shocked. It's not every day you see something like that. I was the first to react in a way that wasn't, you know, screaming – and I immediately grabbed our prof and your mother and hauled them below deck, and I was just on my way to get Vladdy when the water ropes got to him, too! Pulled him right over before I even had a chance to grab on. I thought about diving in after him, but honestly, I was pretty shaken up by the whole thing. By that point, the whole team had been swept right overboard! I ended up going down to hide with your mother and our prof to wait it out. We didn't come out until morning. We thought we were the only ones to survive.
"They never found the other members of the team, and for a couple of months, we thought Vladdy was a goner, too. No one would believe us when we tried to tell them what happened. Our dear old professor even lost her job over it." Jack shook his head sadly. "We even started to doubt ourselves. That is, until Vlad washed up on the shore several miles north of Amity Beach! Turns out he was being held captive by some merfolk for all that time. He managed to escape somehow – too traumatized to ever tell us how – and the rest of the team, well…"
"Yeah, I know. The merpeople ate them," finished Danny blandly. Jazz wasn't kidding when she said she had heard the story a hundred times. A few months ago, she had explained her theory on their father's bizarre, frequent retelling of the story like this: Jack liked to tell it when he was feeling discouraged about the existence of merpeople, as a reminder. It was like his mantra.
Danny guessed today was one of those days.
Jack raised his brows and nodded emphatically. "They did indeed! But thanks to Vlad, we now know all about the threat of merpeople and even have some knowledge about how to fight them!"
Danny added another mark to his list. That was right – fourth of all, he hated Vlad Masters, the biggest fruitloop of them all. He had only seen this man a few times in his life, but he had always struck Danny as a creep. Mr. Masters was some sort of billionaire, having giving up ocean science in exchange for business, but it was his DALV Corp that funded Fentonworks. In other words, it was Vlad Masters's fault that the Fentons had the means to turn merhunting into a career. Maybe if this rich college buddy wasn't encouraging Danny's parents with fat checks in the mail every year, they would have just kept on being perfectly normal, respectable scientists.
"So, son, that is why we do what we do. If we didn't, no one else would."
Wondering what Tucker was up to, Danny said, distractedly, "Right. And how many merpeople have you found so far?"
"Well, none… But, they are definitely out there! It's just a matter of time before we crack their nest. It's somewhere in these waters."
His parents had numerous buoys monitoring for the merpeople's chemical signatures – whatever that meant – but the majority of their hunting involved investigating mysterious disappearances along the North Carolina coast, or taking the Boat out and scanning the ocean floor for suspicious activity. Like they were doing today.
They spent the rest of their time inventing different weapons and shields to use against the merpeople's supposed 'powers', and deciding that the MAC was not sufficient for direct offense, they had spent the last five years designing some sort of submarine – the Fenton Siren Speeder – that they hoped to finish sometime within the next few weeks. It was supposed to withstand enormous amounts of pressure while still being able to maneuver at remarkable speeds, all the while toting various anti-merfolk weapons and shields. It would, in his parents' words, "revolutionize merhunting", taking it "to the next level".
"Yeah, so anyway, when are we going home?"
Maddie lowered her equipment to the bench beside her and looked at her son, frowning worriedly. "Are you okay, sweetie? Are you feeling sick?"
Danny rubbed the back of his neck. "Actually, yeah, a little."
"That's right," Jack said, "you start school tomorrow, don't you, Danno?" He shuddered. "I remember high school. I'd be sick, too!"
Maddie's frown deepened. "Maybe we should head back. You shouldn't be sick on your first day."
"Really?" Danny gaped. He'd never convinced them to go home early, no matter how much he protested.
He never thought he'd say this, but –
"- thank God for school," said Danny, blasting three cyber-clones off of the bridge.
"Four words I never thought I'd hear in one sentence," Tucker replied. His avatar cleared the remaining enemies, and the two started collecting the drops.
It was Sunday evening. For once, the Fentons were home early after a day of family merhunting, and Danny was using his precious free time to play Doomed 2 with Tucker. Ironically, the new Doomed game had come out just three days ago – just in time for school to start. The gaming company was probably conspiring against mankind, but Danny wasn't going to dwell on it. There was no time to waste.
"I'll say," said Danny. "How far you think we can get tonight?"
"I'm thinking we can be to the Lagoon of Viral Insanity by midnight, no sweat. That one player's already cleared it."
"You mean the guy going solo through here? The guy who's never died once and has the highest level in the game?"
"Tuck, I think you must have missed some of the sarcasm in my voice."
"No, seriously! If HPcthulhu13 could do it solo, the two of us should be able to get there easily. Come on!"
And so, the two boys played late into the night, long past either of their mothers' warnings to go to sleep, and only when they had reached the Lagoon of Viral Insanity and defeated its boss at three in the morning did they quit playing.
Seven o'clock a.m. rolled around way too soon. Danny struggled to wake up, to shower, to put on the most basic outfit, and he was still red-eyed with fatigue while he ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Not unusual and not surprising, he was alone in the house that morning. Jazz had already driven to Neptune High by that point, to take care of some sort of welcome speech she would be giving during the school assembly, and their parents always hit the water before sunup.
His parents had many years ago dubbed their house 'Fentonworks'; the name represented not only their location and business, but also their absurd desire to slap the name 'Fenton' on everything they touched. Danny didn't especially like it, but all of Amity Beach knew their address as Fentonworks, and there was little he could do now to change that.
Fentonworks was located on a beach-side cliff at the north side of town. The property and the beach below it for about one-fourth of a mile was privately owned by the Fentons, paid for by Mr. Masters. They had built a dock there where they kept the MAC and several other, smaller boats. Their main lab, meanwhile, was built into the side of the cliff itself, directly below the house, and could be reached by a set of outdoor steps or by the elevator… in the kitchen.
Afraid someone who needed merperson help might not be able to find Fentonworks, Jack and Maddie had installed a huge, neon, arrow-shaped sign on the front of the house, pointing directly at it.
And this was what Danny called 'home'.
He gave the monstrosity little thought as he left that morning. He met Tucker Foley at the other boy's house a few blocks over, and together, they walked to school. In silence. Tucker looked quite as bad as Danny felt.
"Whose idea was it to go all the way through the Lagoon of Viral Insanity?" said Danny as the high school came into view ten minutes later. He was not looking forward to stepping through those doors.
"Shut up," retorted Tucker weakly.
Sooner than either would have liked, Danny and Tucker were at the front of the school. A too-cheerful banner stretched across the entryway, reading, "Welcome, new students, to Neptune High School! Home of the Neptune Narwhals!" in bold blue and gold letters, accompanied by a smiling, cartoon narwhal wearing a football uniform.
Danny and Tucker walked inside, partially driven forward by the crowd of students flooding the hall. They escaped long enough to dig out their schedules and dove back in to find their lockers. Danny's was closest, so they stopped there first, and Tucker played on his PDA while Danny tried out his locker combination.
Danny groaned. He didn't even have time for a sarcastic quip before he was being shouldered roughly into the lockers by a big, blonde boy wearing a letterman jacket. The football player laughed and high-fived his friends, saying, "Nothing like starting off the year with a little bit of nerd-bashing." Sneering at Danny, he added, "Smell you later, Fenturd."
Danny watched the boy walk away, rubbing his injured arm. "Great. I'm still his favorite."
The football player was called Dash Baxter. Despite being a freshman, Dash was already in line for being star quarterback of the Neptune Narwhals, and he had been 'king' of the A-listers during junior high, his girlfriend Paulina Sanchez reigning at his side. No doubt it would be the same, and probably worse, now that they were in high school.
Tucker shrugged. "Hey, could be worse."
"Says the guy who wasn't just shoved into the lockers."
The techno-geek raised his hands defensively. "I'm just saying – at least you're not like Mikey, having to do Dash's homework all the time."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. And yet another reason it pays to not have good grades."
"You said it."
Tucker and Danny had been friends ever since elementary school. Danny had had a hard time making friends back then, mostly because none of the other kids' parents had wanted their children getting to close to the Fentons. The Foleys had been the only ones to take pity on Danny and not separate Tucker from him.
It may have had something to do with how Tucker was also having a hard time connecting to anyone; Tucker had been a cheerful, friendly child, but all he had wanted to do was play video games, while the other kids his age were all playing at the beach. Danny had already had his drowning incident by that point, so when he found a kid who was one – willing to talk to him and two – not the least bit interested in swimming… Well, there had been no separating them.
These days, they still did everything together. They had never stopped being outcasts, and even though it made it hard to find a girlfriend, they usually didn't care about where they were on the social ladder.
But speaking of girlfriends… Just as Danny managed to open his locker, Tucker – slack-jawed – tapped him on the shoulder and pointed.
Gliding down the hall now was the flock of A-list maidens. At their head was Dash's girlfriend, Paulina Sanchez, who had been captain of the cheerleading team in junior high school and was aiming for the position again. At her side was her best friend Star, who was currently dating Dash's best friend Kwan. These four – Dash, Kwan, Paulina, and Star – formed the heart of the popular kids in grade nine, while everyone else revolved around them.
While Paulina and Star were obviously taken, the other A-list girls were splendidly single. Danny had actually had a long-time crush on Valerie Gray, who had venomously ripped out and stomped on his heart last year when he had attempted to act on those feelings. Since then, he had just admired her from afar. Tucker, on the other hand, would be happy with any girl who would be willing to give him the time of day.
The sea of students parted in the girls' wake, and streams of drool could be seen sliding down some chins.
Summer had done something to the girls. Something was different. They seemed softer, more womanly, more beautiful.
At the back of the pack trailed the most enigmatic of the A-list girls, Samantha Manson. Her family was filthy rich and lived in a huge mansion on the west side of town; apparently someone in her family had been the one to invent the machine that swirled cellophane around deli toothpicks, and they had amassed a fortune from it. Unlike the other girls, Samantha chose to wear dark, muted colors to match her black hair, and she was more often than not reading books while the other girls did their makeup. She had always seemed aloof, almost to the point of looking bored, no matter where she was or what she was doing. That is, except for when she was swimming. Swimming seemed to be the only thing for which Samantha showed any passion.
In the middle of his gaping, somehow Danny's eyes met Samantha's purple ones. He took in her subtle, dark eye makeup and intense gaze for a second, before her ever-uninterested eyes slid away.
Danny had a brief thought – she could be very pretty if she did not look so sad all of the time.
As quickly as it crossed his mind, it was gone, just like the A-list girls. Sighing wistfully, Tucker said, "I guess I'd better find my locker."
Equally wistful, for a certain Miss Gray who had been looking strong and capable in yellow today, Danny replied, "Yeah…"
While they walked to Tucker's locker, Tucker remarked, "You know, maybe high school won't be all that bad."
Danny nodded, feeling uncharacteristically optimistic. "You're right. Avoid Dash, get good grades, find a girlfriend by prom. I think we can do this." Even he, Danny Fenton of the Freaky Fentons, could have a normal, high school life. He smiled at the thought.
Tucker held out his fist. "Fist bump promise?"
Danny knocked his knuckles against Tuck's, grinning. "Fist bump promise."
Little did Danny know, keeping that promise would be much harder than he could ever have anticipated. And all of his problems, just like his first day of school at Neptune High, would begin with Dash Baxter.