"Dirty Habits"

It's a dirty habit. He knows that. As far as dirty habits go, he has plenty, and has much fun indulging in each. Each transgression is marked with pride, with devious buoyancy at betraying the social norms.

But this...

This is something tainted with shame. This isn't something that rewards him with a quick burst of joyous satisfaction and punishes with lingering doubt later. This burns him with bliss, with something almost sublime in its intensity. It leaves him shaking afterwards. A different type of burning. A dull and sullen smolder that lingers for days.

But when has Dan ever let a little thing like guilt hold him back?

He'll go through the same ritual every time. Lurk and skulk and check. Clockwork is always watching. He knows that. But he'd never be able to do it with Clockwork actually present. So he waits until the other ghost is gone or invisible or off plotting another annoying errand. Sometimes Dan will do it while off on those very errands.

Shift and slough and change. Normally just a ring of light and scent of burning ozone to change his form into young Danny. But a different sort of change now. Smaller and younger still. Not a teenager. Child. A little boy, ten perhaps, with a shock of white hair and dark brown eyes that almost glint red.

Run and scream, a child's shrieking laughter. Clockwork's dull and forbidding tower transformed for a brief time into a vast castle explored by a young knight and his faithful dragon companion. Or perhaps the last free colony on a world held imprisoned by giant lizards, aided by a traitor turned comrade. Or his favorite, hidden away in a room far from the portals and gears and floating doors of the Ghost Zone.

A room where a little boy lays curled in a ball holding a stuffed dinosaur to his chest. Waiting. Drifting in a lazy, dreamlike way. Waiting for someone to wake him up and take him away. For a kind voice and gentle touch to stir him awake. Waiting to sit up and rub his eyes and reach up for strong arms to cradle him and carry him off to bed. Waiting for someone to take him home.

But he gets so cold. Curled up tight on the floor. And it creeps along the edges of his mind that the form will break and he'll emerge like a snake shedding its skin. He shakes and shivers and bites his lip to hold back a whimper. Not alone. Not afraid. Over and over. Mantra. Not alone. Not afraid. Over. Not alone. Not afraid.

"Dan."

Clockwork. No. No, no, no. Nonononono!

"It's time to go to sleep."

His game! His dirty, disgusting game! Go away!

"Hush now, I'll carry you to bed."

Squeezes his eyes tight. Doesn't dare. Doesn't breath. But strong arms pick him up and cradle him tight and lay him down on something soft and warm. The stuffed dinosaur tumbles from his grasp and he cries out, no no! The cornerstone to this illusion! But gentle touches. Smoothing his brow. Tucking the toy back into Dan's desperate arms.

And he sleeps and wakes.

And remembers.

It's never something he can hold on to for long. Unlike the crash that lingers, the disgust at weakness, the shame at needing it so badly, revulsion at his own expense. But there's something else that lingers, something else that remains.

The dinosaur has grown haggard and stretched at the seams. Patches of fluff worn to raw smoothness. Stuffing clumped at the tail and in the head. Horns drooping. But it's eyes remain bright and warm.