I'll Be Here
Maddie stared at the ghost huddled on the bathroom sink. It was well past 3 am. She stood at the threshold of the bathroom, an empty glass in her hand.
Phantom was curled up in the smallest ball possible, forearms pressed against the side of his head as if protecting him, fingers tangled in his messy white hair. The top half of his jumpsuit hung loose around his waist, exposing pale, faintly glowing shoulders. A pair of white gloves lay crumpled on the floor.
The ghost was crying. Not just a little, but real, hard sobs that made his shoulders shake with each heaving breath; and it was almost silent, only now and then a whimper escaping through tightly clenched teeth.
He hadn't noticed her yet.
Maddie hovered in the doorway, weighing her options. She was in her pajamas, with no weaponry to speak of. She could run back to her room and retrieve the ecto-gun from under her pillow… but the sound of it powering up was one of the few sounds that could rouse her husband from a dead sleep. Jack would want to know what she was doing, and Maddie wasn't sure she wanted to bring him into this just yet.
They weren't exactly on good terms with the so-called ghost hero. It had been six months since the Pariah Dark incident, and while many people saw the ghost as a hero, Maddie was not convinced. All they knew was that the teenaged ghost had taken their exo-suit and flown off outside the shield. An hour later the town was back in its proper dimension. Phantom reappeared shortly afterward, without the suit, and it was business as usual.
The only change was a burning curiosity in Maddie to know why. She'd gone out of her way to study Phantom particularly, with suspicion at first, then growing interest. He did, in fact, prevent other ghosts from doing harm, sucking them up in a stolen thermos. Even protecting humans when they got in harm's way.
Phantom was an enigma, certainly. But an enemy? Maddie was no longer so sure.
What are you doing in my house? How long have you been here? What do you want, ghost?
The questions circled in her mind, but a little to her surprise what came out instead was, "Are you alright?"
Phantom's head jerked up and he stared at her for a split second with wide, red-rimmed eyes. He gasped and scrambled up, then tripped over himself and fell backwards into the shower curtain. The ghost flailed and crashed through it into the tub. Shampoo bottles and soap clattered down in all directions.
Maddie winced at the racket; luckily Jack and Danny were heavy sleepers and Jazz was out of town. A pitiful groan sounded behind the curtain. She pushed it aside to find Phantom lying face-up in the bottom of the bathtub, arms and legs askew.
"Still here?" she asked mildly.
"Too tired to phase," he mumbled, eyes dropping. He glanced up at her sidelong. "You gonna shoot me?"
She raised her empty hands.
Phantom rolled onto his side, wincing, and pressed his cheek into the white porcelain. "Then could you go away?"
"This is my house."
The shower curtain was streaked with green. So was the floor, the counter, the inside of the sink. "There's ectoplasm all over my bathroom," she stated.
Maddie looked around and realized that the first aid kit sat on the toilet, half open with the contents spilling out messily onto the floor. "Were you...trying to bandage yourself?"
His voice was choked and just a little too high, like he was ready to burst into tears again. "Sorry."
Maddie sighed. This was probably a bad idea, but... Picking up the kit, she sat on the closed lid of the toilet and settled it in her lap. She patted the side of the tub. "Sit down. I'll fix you up."
The ghost didn't move. "What happened to dissecting my smoking remains?"
"What happened to the 'hero' who'd run away anytime we came near?"
Phantom looked away miserably. "I'm no hero."
Maddie blinked. That...wasn't a very characteristic response. She studied Phantom again.
He had injuries on his arms and chest, half hidden behind a patchwork of gauze and band-aids. The bruises were fully exposed, and there were plenty. They painted his young torso and arms like mottled, abstract tattoos, some aging out and almost gone, others vivid with green-black blood pooling fresh beneath the skin.
Eyes, sunken and shadowed, stared glassily into the distance, as if he'd gone days without sleep. His fingers, cradled under his chin, twitched nervously from over-exertion. He seemed...strung out. Exhausted. Spent.
"Come on, get up here," she coaxed, a little more gently than she'd first intended.
Those nervous fingers clenched into fists. "No."
"Let me help you."
"What do you care? Just leave me alone."
Maddie knew it didn't make sense. She wasn't even sure of her own motivations; only that it felt too pitiful to see him like this. Ectoplasm had begun pooling round the drain, and fell into the pipe with a faint but steady dripping.
She leaned forward and let her voice slip into a whisper. "You know what happens if you stay in that tub, right?"
He stared up at her dully, fear flickering up behind the exhaustion. "What?"
"You'll turn into a raisin."
The ghost's face twisted into blank surprise. "I'll... uh?"
Maddie leaned back and crossed her arms. "I'm serious; you'll shrivel up and then I'll have to explain to my family why there's a giant ghost raisin in the bathtub." That earned a tiny grin; Maddie felt gratified. "So you'd better get out of there."
Phantom covered his face with his hands and chuckled weakly. "That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard."
"As stupid as choosing a ghost hunter's bathroom to do your first aid?"
He peeked up through his fingers, considering. "Maybe."
She offered him a smile. "Then I win."
Phantom held his left arm close to his body and levered himself up with his right. Pulling his legs into a crouch, the ghost gingerly maneuvered to sit on the edge of the tub. There was something a little heart-wrenching in the way he so easily turned his back to her, exposed and vulnerable. He was too naive; Maddie was his enemy.
Maybe so was she, sitting here unarmed, barely six inches from one of the most powerful ecto-entities in Amity Park.
All thoughts ground to a halt as she caught sight of the jagged wounds that marred the ghost's back. Four long, deep parallel cuts ran from the top of his left shoulder and curved into his side. They started deep, dark green flesh gleaming through the brighter coating of ectoplasmic blood, tapering into ribbon-thin cuts.
Maddie folded a square of gauze in half and carefully dabbed at the wounds. He hissed and stiffened, but to his credit didn't jerk away.
"What did this?" A dark, muddy reddish liquid mingled with the green that oozed down his back. She wondered darkly if ghosts could get infections. Or was it some kind of poison?
"Friend of mine."
As she wiped away more ectoplasm, it exposed the bruises on the skin beneath, blossoming out from the cuts as if from a vicious impact. "Some friend."
"It wasn't his fault! Walker was controlling him. Not just a shock collar either, this time they did some kind of brainwashing." His shoulders drooped. "He wasn't even in there anymore. His eyes were all… empty, you know?"
Maddie took a roll of gauze and leaned forward to wind it around Phantom's chest, looping it over his shoulder and slowly, steadily covering the wounds inch by inch, binding it as firmly as she dared. She wanted to make sure it lasted at least a few days; with this ghost's tendency to get into fights, he'd be lucky to keep any kind of bandaging for more than a few hours.
"I tried to… to just wound him or knock him out, but whatever they did to him... he just kept getting up." A shudder ran down the ghost's frame. "No matter...what I did...he just..."
"But you beat him." She'd seen him tangling with ghosts before. He seemed to enjoy it, throwing out clever remarks and grinning at the news helicopters after he'd sucked up the remains in a stolen thermos.
"Yeah." Phantom stared down at the hands that sat limply in his lap, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper. "I tore him apart."
Maddie paused, chilled by the finality of those words.
The ghost's hands seemed so deceptively ordinary. His skin, though pale and faintly glowing, could have been human, but the tendons and muscles that knotted under the skin were like cords of steel. This close, the ghost's aura gave off the faintest buzz, like an exposed power line. Dark green was embedded under his chipped, broken nails.
"What a monster, right?" Phantom said dully.
A monster killing another monster, Maddie thought, but said nothing. A strange monster, though. One that seemed completely invested in saving people. Who, day after day, preferred to gather scrapes and bruises over letting strangers suffer.
She shrugged, though he couldn't see it. It wasn't something a ghost hunter could really answer. "What could you have done?"
"Hide—tie him up, something. Or, you know." He picked absently at a scab on his thumb. "Not fight back."
She frowned as ugly green seeped through the gauze, and quickly wound on another layer. "You can't mean that."
"What was I supposed to do?!" He dragged his hands through his hair, gripping fistfuls of the dirty white strands. Bright green fluid oozed through the band-aids on his knuckles. "I just—" His voice sank so low she could barely hear it. "I didn't want to die."
"I see," she said hesitantly. She didn't see at all. For the first time, she wondered just how aware ghosts might be of their own fragile claim to existence. "Phantom, it's okay to—"
"It is not okay!" He jerked away, yanking the bandages from her hands as he turned on her. Angry green fire burned in his eyes, feral, dangerous, and completely inhuman. Green static crackled through the ghost's hair and it bristled like a dog's hackles.
"I ki-I killed my friend, just to save my own hide. I did that, don't you get it?!" He swept his hand through the air in a vicious gesture. "There is nothing okay with somebody who'd do that."
Maddie gazed at him, then slowly shook her head. That wasn't the ghost she'd been studying the past few months. Neither was this frightened child in front of her.
"Phantom, it's okay," she said again, softly.
The ghost stumbled back into the wall and sank to the floor, covering his head with his arms. "I didn't want to...I didn't..." he broke off with a sob.
Maddie set aside the kit and knelt next to Phantom, putting a hand on his shoulder. A chill seeped instantly through the gauze and bit into her skin, but she ignored it. She reached under Phantom's chin and tipped it up so that his eyes, red-rimmed and wet, met her own steady gaze.
For some reason I ended up with three oneshots where Danny suffers and his family picks up the pieces. So here you go, a micro-anthology of family H/C. The remaining two will be posted sooner or later. Hopefully sooner.
This chapter is dedicated to neongreenlightning, whose cosplay post sparked the inspiration for this piece. Thanks to Anneriawings for beta reading and Sarapsys, Aqua-Twin, Lunar Mothim for your feedback and help!
As always, thanks for reading! Any concrit would be welcomed. :)
PS:If you want to know where I am with SoaD, please check the SoaD progress reports! Link's in my profile.