I'll Be Here
Maddie stared at the ghost huddled on the bathroom sink. She stood at the threshold of the bathroom, empty glass in hand. It was well past 3 am.
Phantom had curled up in the smallest ball possible, forearms pressed against the sides of his head, fingers tangled in 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 boy was crying. Not just a little, but real, hard sobs that made his shoulders shake with each heaving breath; 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 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 this ghost. It had been six months since the Pariah Dark incident. The teenaged ghost had taken their exoskeleton and flown off outside the shield. That's all they knew. An hour later the town had returned to its proper dimension as mysteriously as the incident had begun. They had no evidence proving that Phantom had defeated Pariah Dark. People jumped to their own conclusions. They called Phantom a hero, but Maddie hadn't been convinced.
Instead, she'd developed a burning curiosity. What drove this strange ghost that everyone seemed to accept as a force for good? She'd gone out of her way to study Phantom, with suspicion at first, then growing interest. The results had been… puzzling. He did, in fact, prevent other ghosts from doing harm. He rarely exhibited the aggressive tendencies of other ghosts. In fact, he seemed to actively defend humans when they got in harm's way.
Phantom was an enigma, certainly. But an enemy? Maddie could no longer believe it.
Now here he was, inches from her, crying as if the whole world had fallen apart.
Questions circled in Maddie's mind. What are you doing in my house? How long have you been here? What do you want, ghost?
A little to her surprise, what came out instead was, "Are you alright?"
Phantom's head jerked up and he looked at her 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 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."
"Sorry." His voice sounded choked and a little too high, like he was ready to burst into tears again.
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," Maddie stated.
She looked around and realized that the first aid kit sat on the toilet, half open and with its contents spilling out onto the floor. "Were you...trying to bandage yourself?"
He curled in on himself, breath hitching. "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 fearless hero?"
Phantom looked away miserably. "I'm no hero."
Maddie blinked. That...wasn't a very characteristic response. She studied Phantom again.
Injuries littered his arms and chest, half-hidden behind a patchwork of gauze and band-aids. Bruises 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. He seemed...strung out. Exhausted. Spent.
"Let me help you," she coaxed, a little more gently than she'd first intended.
Those nervous fingers clenched into fists. "No."
Ectoplasm had begun pooling round the drain, and fell into the pipe with a faint but steady drip. "You're still bleeding."
"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.
She leaned forward and let her voice slip into a whisper. "You know what happens if you stay in that tub, right?"
Phantom stared up at her, dull fear flickering up behind the exhaustion. "What?"
Maddie put on her most serious face. "You'll turn into a raisin."
The ghost's face twisted into blank surprise. "I'll... uh?"
Maddie leaned back and crossed her arms. "It's true! 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. "That'd take far more explanations than I'd care to go through, so you'd better get out of there."
Phantom covered his face with his hands and chuckled. "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 turned to sit on the edge of the tub. There was something a little heart-wrenching in the way he so easily exposed his back to her. Maddie was his enemy; he was too naive.
Maybe so was she, sitting here unarmed bare inches from the most powerful ecto-entity 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 a brighter coating of ectoplasmic blood, tapering into ribbon-thin cuts.
Maddie folded a square of gauze in half and dabbed at the wounds. Phantom hissed and stiffened, but to his credit didn't jerk away.
"What did this?" She asked as she worked. A muddy reddish liquid mingled with the green that oozed down his back. She wondered darkly if ghosts could get infections.
"Friend of mine."
She wiped away more ectoplasm, exposing bruises on the skin beneath, blossoming out from the cuts as if from a vicious impact. "Some friend."
Maddie saw Phantom's neck stiffen. His voice turned angry, defensive. "It wasn't his fault! Walker was controlling him. Not just a shock collar either, this time they did some kind of brainwashing."
Maddie took a roll of gauze and leaned forward to wind it around Phantom's chest, looping it over his shoulder and covering the wounds inch by inch, binding it as firmly as she dared. She wanted to make sure it lasted at least a day; 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.
The ghost boy's shoulders drooped. "Wulf wasn't even in there anymore. His eyes were all… empty, you know?"
To her, all ghosts' eyes looked empty. She hummed noncommittally, but Phantom didn't seem to notice.
"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." Maddie had 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 his opponent in a stolen thermos.
"Yeah." Phantom stared down at the hands that sat limp in his lap. His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "I tore him apart."
Maddie paused, chilled by the finality of those words. She glanced at those hands over his shoulder.
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 buzzed like an exposed power line. Glancing over his shoulder, Maddie saw dark green embedded under his chipped, broken nails.
"What a monster, right?" Phantom said, voice dull.
A monster killing another monster, Maddie thought automatically, but said nothing. A strange monster, though. One that seemed completely invested in defending humans from his own kind. Who seemed to prefer fighting the same enemies over and over to destroying them. Who, day after day, gathered scrapes and bruises to prevent strangers from suffering.
Maddie shrugged, though he couldn't see it. A ghost hunter couldn't answer such a question. "What could you have done?"
"Hide—tie him up, something. Or, you know." He hesitated; picked at a scab on his thumb. "Not fight back."
She frowned as ugly green seeped through the gauze, retracing the clawmarks. She 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 didn't want to hurt him I… I just—" His voice sank so low that she barely heard it. "I didn't want to die."
"I see," she said hesitantly. She didn't see at all. For the first time, Maddie wondered just how aware ghosts might be of their own fragile claim to existence. And yet… and yet, for him, it was real. For him, it was life or death, even if she couldn't call it living in the sense that humans understood it. "Phantom, it's okay to—"
"It is not okay!" He jerked away, yanking the bandages from her hands as he turned on her. Green fire burned in his eyes, feral, dangerous, and inhuman. 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. She didn't have to know exactly what happened; Phantom wouldn't have hurt anyone if there had been another choice. 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 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.
ETA: Edited on 4/9/16