Disclaimer- Butch Hartman, not me... Treat it like a game of MadLibs. This short follows onto "The Beating of His Wings," and much like Az from that one, Michael is not my property either, except this particular envisioning of him. This fanfic short is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Two Roads Diverged

That was it; he had to get out of here. Away from his father playing chess with a man who'd repeatedly tried to kill him... away from his mother, pouring tea in Vlad's mug this time, instead of on his head. And away from the arch-enemy who'd showed up at their door an hour ago, bearing gifts, a bottle of wine, and for once, bereft of any dastardly plan. There was only so much weirdness even a Fenton could take, after all.

On the doorstep, Danny took a moment just to breathe, to release the confusion and anger boiling inside of him. It'd be okay... Jazz knew about Vlad now, and she'd make sure things in their house stayed under control while he was gone. Right now, he just needed to get out and walk, since it was still too light outside to go flying.

I wonder if Vlad ever bothers with something that... small, Danny wondered, stepping onto the recently cleared sidewalk. The frosty air nipped at his ears and nose, but not enough to make him wish for a hat. Snow lay thick and neat over cars and fire hydrants, but the streets were broad and clear. It was a perfect winter scene.

"Hey, Fen-ton!"

... Including the small group of jocks having a snowball fight in the empty lot. Danny watched fatalistically as Dash's thrown snowball soared at him across the street. No time to dodge without falling into a snow bank, and no way to explain going suddenly intangible. It looked as though he was just going to have to take the hit.

The snowball stopped six inches from his face. For one crazy second, Danny thought that his life was about to flash before his eyes, then he realized that the missile was being held in a red-gloved hand, a hand attached to a tall black man in a red insulated jacket, an adult somewhat younger than Danny's parents.

The man spared Danny only a glance before lobbing the snowball back where it had come from, to splatter in a powdery fountain all over Dash's navy parka. Turning away, the stranger gave Danny a friendly smile.

"Some people just need an occasional taste of their own medicine, you know?"

Danny stared at his rescuer, mind going a hundred miles an hour. The ball had been loose-packed snow, designed to disintegrate on contact, to soak and humiliate. It hadn't been an iceball, which would cause damage. So how the HECK had the man managed to pluck it out of the air without breaking it into a million pieces?

No ghost sense, the teen thought numbly, jaw still hanging open. He's not a ghost... but is he human?

"Not exactly," the other replied, seeming to know Danny's thoughts. "Care to walk with me a while, Danny? We've got a few things we should probably talk about."

Okay, the guy knew his name. It was probably way PAST time for him to run in the other direction. But... Danny looked into the warm brown eyes regarding him, and knew he wouldn't do it. There was something in those eyes that said "trust me," and despite everything... Danny did.

They set off down the sidewalk again, Danny noticing that Dash and his crew didn't follow him with the usual catcalls and comments they generally hurled in his direction. In fact, it was as if they didn't realize he was there at all. But people on the sidewalks were stepping around him, letting him pass, even if none of them ever met his eyes. What the heck was going on?

"Making something invisible is pretty tough to do," his companion said conversationally. "You've got to figure out how to either bend light around it, or change its refractive index to air. Nasty, messy stuff. Hard to do without magic or PKE. But making people ignore you... THAT'S easy. People don't notice or remember ninety percent of what they see in a day anyway. A little nudge, and you make sure you're included in that."

"Just who ARE you?" Danny exploded. "And what's with the Gandalf bit?"

The older man laughed. "I should have figured you'd share that lack of patience with me, Danny. My name is Michael. My friends call me Mike. Sorry about the cryptic pronouncements, you just kind of forget how little most people know about magic, over the years."

"Okay, Mike... what do you want with me? "

"So young to be so paranoid... But that's good, it's a survival instinct. You've already learned the world isn't as safe as it seems to be. And you've decided to take on the role of one of its guardians. That's a heavy decision for someone your age. Your parents would be proud of you, if they knew."

A chill raced down Danny's spine. "What are you TALKING about?" he asked carefully. Was this where the other shoe finally dropped on Vlad's current scheme?

Michael smiled. "No, Danny, I'm not working with Vlad. And in fact, he really DOESN'T have a scheme right now. He wasn't even going to come down, but a friend of mine talked him into it."

"Talked him into it?" Stopping in the middle of an empty parking lot, Danny felt his fists clench, spectral energy rushing to his palms. "So you guys are playing ALL of us for some reason?"

A shake of the head. "Not in the way you're thinking, but... well, yes, we do meddle on occasion. Lots of occasions, to be honest. Divine intervention isn't dead, it's just gotten subtle."

"Div... No way. You're NOT..."

"Michael, Red Archangel, Host of the Powers of Fire. Yep, that's me." He sketched a quick bow.

At this point, Danny was seriously considering calling the men in white coats. Then again... snowball. Not to mention that the guy honestly seemed to be able to read his mind.

"Only the surface thoughts," Michael replied. "You don't shield very well, to be honest."

Blue eyes shot him a sidelong glance. "Could you not do that? It's REALLY, REALLY creepy."

"Sorry, administrative duty saps the social skills. I haven't done fieldwork in a while, you can probably tell."

Danny shrugged, as they continued across the parking lot. "I guess I'm flattered, but... why? Why convince Vlad to come to our Christmas, why come talk to me, why any of it?"

"Vlad... well, that one wasn't my decision, he's not one of mine. Az feels there's still something in him worth saving, and I gotta admit, he knows guys like that better than I do."

"Az... Azrael? Vlad got a visit from the Angel of Death... to convince him to come down for CHRISTMAS?"

Blinking, Michael broke into a grin. "You really have been studying, haven't you?"

"Sam's into that stuff," the teen replied shortly. "Don't change the subject."

"Right. Danny, I know when you look at Vlad, you see a monster... and you're right, I won't argue that. But inside that monster's a scared, lonely man. Imagine if you hadn't had Tucker and Sam to support you during your time as Danny Phantom... and that most of your life, you'd never had Tucker and Sam at all."

That quieted Danny. Alone, suddenly given his power in a world full of people like Lancer and Dash... yes, he could imagine that very well.

"That doesn't excuse what he's become," Michael continued. "But... it does mean there's a chance he can change it. Have a chance to be happy, to create, rather than spread nothing but destruction and misery. That's what we want... that's what our job is... to build up, to create, to fight decay and entropy... to keep the world from running down."

"So... why come to me?"

"A couple reasons. First of all... Vlad. Yes, you need to fight him. Yes, you need to stop him... but don't hate him. It doesn't do any good. And there are things inside of you that are like him, even if you're very different overall. You're smart. You're pragmatic. And you can be ruthless. Those aren't bad qualities, especially not in the line of work you've chosen. But get started hating Vlad... and it's very easy to start hating yourself. You've already touched the edge of that, haven't you?"

Danny sighed. "Yeah... I guess. I just... he drives me so crazy... he knows how to push every button I've got..."

"Yeah, I know. It's annoying enough when it's one of your best friends doing it... But you can't give into hating him. Pity him if you have to, but don't hate him. It'll only hurt you worse."

"So... you came to tell me not to hate my arch-enemy? No offense, but don't you guys generally delegate that stuff?"

The angel chuckled. "If that was all it was, yes. Danny... You've been Danny Phantom more than a year now. You've saved lives, stopped a lot of destruction, and held off an invasion of some of the nastiest ghosts in existence. And you've helped a lot of people in a lot of ways. You've faced your own darkness and accepted it into you... You've done enough good to balance out the scales for an entire lifetime."

"What... are you talking about?"

"We're giving you the chance to quit, Danny. Quit being Danny Phantom. Be a normal kid again, with a normal life and normal worries. You can walk away from it all now, with our thanks. But if you choose to keep going... you won't get this chance again. And from here on, it's only going to get rougher."

Danny blinked at him for a second, then looked down at the sidewalk beneath his feet. "Quit... being Danny Phantom. Just walk away. But... what about the ghosts? They'll keep coming, right?"

"There are other people who can deal with them. Your parents are more competent than they realize, for one. And they're not the only ghost hunters in the country, even leaving aside those idiots Vlad hired."

"Vlad. If he doesn't stop... who'll protect my mom and dad from him? I mean, I know Dad can take him in a fight, but Vlad's too subtle to get caught in that situation again..."

"Without your powers, there'd be no barrier to you exposing him," Michael pointed out, blandly.

"Yeah... I guess." He stopped, looking up at the grey, cloudy sky. "No more ghosts. No more failing tests. No more insomnia. No more bruises, no more broken promises, no more lying to my parents... no more screaming nightmares."

Danny sighed. "No more flying," he added. "And I'd spend the rest of my life knowing I could have made a difference and I walked away... No. I can't do that. I know it won't be easy... but at least I'll be able to look at myself in the mirror without flinching."

Michael grinned. "That's what I thought you'd say... you are one of mine, after all."

"One of yours... you said that before, about Vlad. What do you mean?"

"Didn't you know? I'm the patron saint of soldiers, police officers... and heroes."

Danny stood there for a second, eyes wide. "...Oh."

"So... ready to go back for an evening of Christmas cheer?"

Looking up, Danny saw that their walk had led the two of them into the heart of downtown Amity Park. He grinned. "No... I think I have one more thing to take care of before I go..."

About half an hour later, Danny Fenton walked back through his front door, whistling happily (and badly off-key.) Sitting on the couch, Vlad looked up from the book he was reading.

"Daniel... that was quite a long walk. Is everything all right?" the millionaire asked. For once, the concern in his tone seemed entirely unfeigned.

"Everything's fine," the teen assured him, setting down the large box he carried. Shucking his jacket, he continued, "I just had to pick up your Christmas present. I didn't realize I was going to get the chance to give it to you so soon."

Vlad raised one eyebrow. "A present? For me? What a touching surprise."

"Oh, believe me, it's something you definitely deserve..." Danny's grin held the slightest hint of wickedness in it.

The rest of the Fenton family drew around as Vlad took the proffered box, gingerly settling it in his lap. It rustled slightly, and he frowned, gaze taking in the series of holes punched in the plastic lid. Shrugging, he reached out and opened the box.

"Mew!" the box chirped. Or rather the contents of it did.

"A cat," Vlad said, deadpan. "Daniel... you shouldn't have." But his hands were gentle as he reached in and lifted the kitten from its nest.

Maddie clapped her hands together. "Oh... she's ADORABLE!"

"She is, indeed," Vlad agreed, turning the small, cream-colored kitten so that he could check beneath the tail. The animal protested the indignity with an irritated squeak, but calmed immediately under the man's gentle pats.

"The guy said she was half-Siamese," Danny said, smiling. "You can just see the beginnings of the points on her nose and tail. Siamese are smart, elegant, and opinionated... figured she'd be perfect for you."

The older man raised an eyebrow, but it was obvious he was resigned to his pet-owning fate.

"Bravo, Daniel," Vlad said quietly, as Maddie and Jazz dragged Jack away to begin improvising a kitten-bed. "It's not often you're able to score a point off me."

Danny shook his head. "I just figured... everyone should have someone who loves them unconditionally. Even you." He smiled. "Merry Christmas, Vlad."

The answering smile was truer and more brilliant than any Danny'd yet seen from the man. "Merry Christmas, Daniel."