Phantom looked at the thing in front of him in a mixture of horror and confusion. It looked like human vomit that had coagulated into the shape of a patty and been cooked in a pan just to taunt him with its monstrous appearance. He really had no taste for food anymore since he was a ghost, more so now that he couldn't turn into a human, but he didn't even think this qualified as food in the first place. Brandishing a fork, he poked at the thing, almost certain that it would rear up and attack his face. "Sammy, what is this?" he asked, looking up at her from across the table, and then nearly gagged when he saw her happily munching down on her own vomit-patty in between two slices of bread. At least, it looked like bread.
She rolled her eyes and swallowed down a mouthful. "It's a burger, obviously."
"No, it's not." He shook his head and stabbed the thing with a fork to kill it in case it really was alive.
Sam grinned wickedly. "You said food would help you heal, so eat it."
Phantom shot her a vicious glare, which she happily ignored, and pushed the plate away from him in disgust. She'd done this on purpose and he knew it. "No thanks. I'm fine," he said dryly, resting his elbows on the table and propping his chin up on top of his mummified hands with a pout on his face. He'd really been looking forward to eating her food. Well, not so much the food part. He'd just been looking forward to her cooking for him. But, of course, she had to go and make the most disgusting looking thing she could find. It was even more obvious with the way she was grinning from ear to ear. She'd won this round and was relishing in the triumph. Undoubtedly, he was going to make her pay for this. Justice would be served.
Sam finished her own burger and then delved into his, starved after her ordeal with the clones and being Vlad's prisoner. When she caught him staring, her eyes crinkled with a smile. He stuck out his tongue in response, making a mental note never to ask her to cook for him in the future.
"I'm curious," he said, leaning back in his chair. "What brought about your meatless ways?"
She took a swig from her water bottle to wash the food down and gave him a cursory glance. "A deep concern for the environment and its inhabitants. Why do you ask?"
"Your dedication to this diet is admirable, is all. How you can eat Mother Nature's vomit is unfathomable to me."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Can't say I haven't heard that before. I just don't eat anything with a face, is that so bad?"
Phantom shook his head. "Like I said, admirable. But why? What instigated the concern?"
"It could be that I happened to see a chicken being butchered when I was a kid…" She stifled a laugh when Phantom's jaw dropped. "But it's really just because I love animals and believe their rights should be defended. I spoke to the mayor about cutting down on meat's availability and lowering the prices of healthy foods. Hopefully it'll make a difference—" She cut off when she noticed the dark expression on Phantom's face. "What?"
"The mayor isn't who you think he is."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means he can't be trusted. He's in league with Plasmius."
She snorted. "No way. You've got to be kidding."
"Why would I joke about that?" he snarled. "Vlad—the mayor has made it his goal to catch me. What better way to get to me than through you?"
She ran her fingers through her hair, narrowing her eyes at the table. "But that's… So even the mayor knew?" She looked up at him incredulously. "Are you saying my meeting him wasn't an accident?"
Phantom stared at her silently for a moment. He wasn't sure how much was safe to share. If he delved too deeply in Vlad's past then it would inevitably lead to him, as Danny Fenton. There was no way he was going to carry on that conversation now. He figured it would happen sooner or later anyway, but he would put it off for as long as possible.
"At this point in the game," he said. "Nothing is an accident."
Sam lowered her eyes to the table again, shaking her head in disbelief. A short laugh escaped her. "Is everything I know a lie?"
Instinctually, he opened his mouth to say that he wasn't a lie but that really wasn't true and, for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to lie about it now. Averting his gaze from her, he clenched his jaw and stayed quiet.
Sam heaved a sigh and stood up, gathering the plates to wash in the sink. "So what exactly is the plan? How long will I be here?" she asked with her back to him.
Phantom leaned over, crossing his arms on the table and resting his head on top of them. His eyes, glowing eerily in the dim light, flickered from the back of her head to her hands as she washed the dishes. "I don't know. Haven't planned that far ahead," he mumbled into the sleeve of his shirt as his eyes traveled from her hands to her wrists where the marks still were from Vlad's cuffs.
Before he could venture into any dark thoughts about what he would do to Vlad if he ever saw him again, Sam's soft-spoken comment caught his attention. "I guess I might not graduate then."
He stared at her, mildly taken aback by the thought. He hadn't considered the repercussions of her missing school. In all honesty, he hadn't thought about any of the repercussions of her sudden disappearance. Regardless of her missing parents, people were still going to be searching for her after the fall of her apartment building. When she didn't turn up dead or alive, would he have humans after him too? And Tucker. Oh, hell. Tucker knew everything. He'd flat-out told him he was really Danny Fenton. When would that come back to haunt him?
He groaned and burrowed his head in his arms. What the hell had he done? He didn't think he could handle all of this pressure. As if a ghost who controls time wasn't enough. If it weren't for the time medallion he kept with him, he would have already lost Sam. No, scratch that. Clockwork was probably just messing with him, giving him a headstart before the game really began. When it did begin, he wasn't sure what he would do. All he wanted was to have her by his side. That's all that mattered now.
Sam finished cleaning and turned, bracing her hands on the counter behind her. "I'll be stuck in here forever, won't I?"
Phantom fixed his eyes on hers. "No," he said.
Her only response was to lift an eyebrow.
He smiled briefly and straightened his back, wincing as he did so. "As much as I'd like to have you all to myself—ow, that hurts—I know you'll want your alone time every now and then."
Her eyes widened slightly and her lips parted. Lowering her gaze to the floor, she folded her arms in front of her and rubbed them as if she was cold. "I was always alone," she murmured so quietly he could barely hear. "I've never liked it."
Phantom froze in place, feeling an odd sort of twinge in his chest. It didn't make sense. His body was dead. He shouldn't be feeling any tightness in there, but he did, and at this point, he didn't care. "You…like being with me?" The words came out almost as a whisper.
Sam's eye twitched and she lifted her head up to pin him with a steely glare. "I didn't say that."
"But you said you don't like being alone—"
"That doesn't ultimately mean I like being with you."
He rolled his eyes. "What else could it mean?"
"That I'm just tired of being alone all the time."
Phantom watched her as she absent-mindedly rubbed her arms and shifted her weight from one leg to the other. If there was one thing he knew with absolute surety, it was that she was practically an open book around him. He could always tell what she was thinking, even if she chose to deny those thoughts herself. This was no exception. He knew he was right and it left him feeling lost. It was odd. He was supposed to be happy, right? If this had happened a few days earlier, he would've teased her incessantly. But now, he wasn't sure what to do. It was like he'd gotten one step closer to her and then finally realized he'd veered off the path marked out for him. The next step he took would either bring him closer or keep him at the same distance, maybe even push him farther away.
His head ached and his eyes stung. He rubbed his temples with his bandaged hands and closed his eyes to try to alleviate the pain.
"Phantom?" Sam whispered.
"I'm fine. Just tired."
"Do you want to sleep?"
He shook his head and looked up at her with a tiny smile on his face. "I'm going to spend time with you," he said softly.
Her cheeks turned pink. She frowned and pushed off the counter, quickly making her way into the living room area. "I don't need you to spend time with me," she muttered as she passed him and plopped herself down on the couch. Like a cat, she curled up against the armrest and kept her eyes on the fireplace in front of her. The fire cast a hazy orange light inside the cabin. The way it darkened her skin to bronze and highlighted her hair made her seem to glow, warm and inviting.
Phantom couldn't resist the pull of being so close to her. Silently, he sat down on the opposite end of the couch. Nervous energy coursed through him. The muscles in his body were taut, ready to bolt if she wanted him to. Every few seconds, he glanced over at her. But she didn't acknowledge him or make any move to get away from him. She stayed perfectly still. Only her chest moved up and down as she breathed. Slowly, he relaxed.
After a few minutes, when he finally leaned back into the couch, she let out a sigh of contentment and nuzzled her face against the armrest.
It was a start, at least.
Jazz spent the whole rest of her designated study time, worrying about whether or not Technus or Skulker had noticed the strange event that happened in her room. She'd jumped at every sound she'd heard, even when the sound came from her. All her worrying was for nothing though, apparently, because no one showed up to reprimand her, which she appreciated since she hadn't been the one who initiated contact in the first place. Technus had a thing for Dora, so he spent a lot of his time with her, something she'd never thought she would have to be grateful for. Skulker, on the other hand, worried her a bit. She'd rarely ever come into contact with him and she didn't want to get to know him now.
Once midnight came, she was more assured that nothing was amiss. The ghost, or whatever it was, that had visited her had seemed to manipulate time, so the camera most likely hadn't caught any footage of what happened since the stranger had no desire to be seen and the powers to do so.
Nodding to her herself reassuringly, she cleaned up her desk, neatly tucking her books and papers away, and then went in the closet to change into her pajamas. It was the only way to avoid the camera's prying eyes. If she spent too long in there, Technus or Skulker would appear. She'd become adept at quick-changing to keep any suspicion at bay and left her closet doors open when not in use.
The picture of Danny and the Manson girl was still on top of her bed. She lay down and held it out above her, staring at Danny's face. She tried to imagine the other picture she'd seen with Phantom, but the image wasn't as clear in her mind anymore.
The stranger had mentioned computers. One of the pictures was obviously a fake, edited in some way, but why? And which one? He was showing her something with them and someone without her knowledge probably would have immediately jumped to the conclusion that Phantom and Danny must be the same person. It was a ludicrous thought, really, though she granted that it had certain groundwork. To say she hadn't noticed any similarities between her brother and the notorious Phantom would have been an insult to her eyesight. They did look a bit alike, once you observed them side by side. But that's a common occurrence. Some people just look relatively the same. And when a person is actively searching for similarities, they're bound to find them.
Still, she could kind of understand why people would think Danny was somehow masquerading as Phantom. They were both a bit on the thin side with the same hairstyle. But Phantom as she remembered him was more muscular, more athletic-looking. His shoulders were a little broader. Of course, that could have been the suit he wore. Danny's baggy clothes always made him look scrawny. But she knew that Danny wasn't athletic at all really. No. The similarities meant nothing. And to pin the crimes of a ghost on an innocent human being, on her brother of all people, was wrong.
Jazz sighed and dropped her arms to her sides. It was wrong to even think about comparing Danny to someone like Phantom. Regardless of any physical similarities, there was no way Danny would do the things Phantom had done. Their personalities were radically different. Danny never showed signs of being prone to violent outbreaks, and Phantom lacked any of Danny's compassion and loyalty. He was kind and good-hearted and just that little bit awkward enough to make him seem troublesome, but he was actually far from it when people got to know him. That was who Danny was. He would never have abandoned his family. He would never have hurt his parents and, though it may have been vain to think so, he wouldn't have hurt her either. Danny had always gone to her when he felt he had nowhere else to turn. He wasn't a bad guy. She knew that. Besides, Danny was a human. Phantom was a ghost. They were two completely different species.
She lifted up the picture again and squinted, trying to imagine white hair and a hazmat suit on Danny's body. If she wasn't supposed to wrongly assume Phantom and Danny were related in some way—really, she was angry for even considering it a possibility—then maybe the stranger was pointing her to something else.
A thought struck her then. Ghosts like Dora were able to make themselves look human. And, essentially, ghosts were human. They were the remnants of a human soul. Maybe somewhere along the line, evolution had occurred. Maybe there actually were ghosts that were partly human, that had retained more of their human half or something.
She sat up, biting down the urge to jump out of bed in a hurry. She'd have to try to be subtle when going about this.
Jazz went out the door, shuffling her feet noisily across the carpet just so no one would think she was sneaking around. Her room was at the end of the hallway. Dora's was diagonally across from hers. She knocked, but there was no answer, so she went further down the hallway, passing her parents' bedroom.
Coming out of the hallway put her in between the living room on her left and the front door to her right. The kitchen and dining room were on the opposite end. The huge widescreen TV hanging on the wall in the living room was on, but the sound was muted. Since the living room, kitchen, and dining room areas weren't separated by any walls, Jazz could see Dora clearly. She was sitting on a kitchen stool, dark blue eyes glued to the screen. When she saw Jazz, she waved and smiled. Technus had probably already warned her that Jazz was up so she wasn't surprised in the slightest.
"Hello. Having trouble sleeping?"
Jazz shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "I have too much on my mind to relax."
Dora nodded sympathetically and gestured to the stool next to her. "Sit. I'll warm some milk for you."
"It's all right. Don't trouble yourself on my account."
Dora smiled at her again. "Oh, it's no trouble. I was trying to find something to do anyway. Not like I was going to sleep anytime soon." She laughed and stepped towards the stove, choosing not to use the microwave as usual. Dora preferred doing housework slowly, though Technus was always introducing new technology to make her job easier. "I've never understood how some ghosts are actually capable of sleeping," Dora rambled on, sweeping her bangs to the side and tying her blonde hair back in a ponytail. "I suppose I'm like you. My mind is full of too many things to settle down."
Jazz leaned forward, resting her elbows on the kitchen counter. Sometimes she had a hard time remembering Dora was actually a ghost since she pretty much always looked human. Her skin was fair, a human color, not sickly green like other ghosts she'd encountered, with the exception of Phantom.
Jazz's eyes widened. That was it. The skin of all ghosts was usually green or blue, but Phantom's was peach, like a human. He must be a new type of ghost. A type of ghost that was closer to being human than the rest.
She rubbed her eyes, pretending there was something there irritating them. She chose her next words carefully. "Dora, I've always wondered how you make yourself look human. Is that something all ghosts can do?"
Dora looked at her over her shoulder, brows knitted together in confusion, as she set a kettle down on the stove. "I'm not sure. I've only known three other ghosts to do it. But I would assume others can too…" She turned her attention to the microwave. "Technus, can you make yourself look human?" she asked.
His voice reverberated around the kitchen. "I've never tried. I've never had a reason to. Humans are pathetic creatures. It would be a shame to alter my all-powerful self to meet their standards," he said, always the braggart. "But if you'd like me to try…"
"If you would, please."
Technus's head poked out of the microwave door, unsettling Jazz despite all the times he'd done so before. "Your wish is my command, Princess," he said with a grin, the dark lenses over his eyes flashing. The entirety of his body poured out of the microwave and he stood imposingly in the middle of the kitchen. His grey cape flared out behind him and he tugged on his green gloves. "But remember, I'm Technus 2.0." He smoothed back his white mullet and rested his hands on his hips.
Dora rolled her eyes. "Just do it already."
Technus frowned. "One of these days you'll succumb to my genius, and together we'll become unstoppable. The perfect merging of past and future!"
"Yes, yes. Hurry it up."
He heaved a sigh and muttered something under his breath. If it had been anyone other than Dora, Jazz assumed a battle would have been initiated. Technus lowered his head and his brows furrowed in concentration. He stayed like that for a minute before shrugging his shoulders. "I have no desire to look like one of those humans."
Dora turned to open the fridge to stifle her laugh and get a carton of milk. "All right. Nevermind. I guess only certain ghosts can do it." She poured milk into the kettle on the stove then returned the carton to the fridge. "I wonder why that is."
Technus snorted a laugh and dived back into the microwave. "It doesn't matter. The almighty Technus 2.0 doesn't need to hide behind the disguise of a human. You should embrace your ghost self, Princess."
Dora waved her hand dismissively. "Yes, all right. Go back to work."
Absently, Jazz tapped her fingers on the counter. Her mind ran a mile a minute, debating the necessary qualities for a ghost to look human and how Phantom factored into the rest of the group. "Since ghosts are pure consciousness, it probably has to do with their associations to humanity," she said aloud. "If a person is called or treated like something specific, then eventually the person becomes exactly that. A ghost fully aware that he's a ghost and can never mingle with human society wouldn't be able to suddenly convince himself otherwise and pretend to be a human."
Dora glanced back at her skeptically. "I don't know. That's more of a human response to a ghost problem."
"But ghosts are human! Or, at least, they were."
"True… So then, because I still think like a human, embrace their emotions, and sympathize with them, I can make myself appear to be human?"
"Yes. That's what I'm hypothesizing. But there's one problem with this idea."
"And what is that?"
Jazz steepled her fingers over her mouth, wondering just how far she could go until the line was crossed. But Technus would never have granted her online access to this kind of information. She needed answers and this was the only way she knew how to get them. She met Dora's gaze unwaveringly. "Phantom," she said. "Phantom already looks more human than most ghosts and I don't understand why."
Dora blinked rapidly, eyes wide. "That's true, I suppose," she murmured. "Now that you mention it." She spun around and focused on the stove. "But I don't understand why either."
Jazz sighed. This was going to be difficult. Dora had been known to be sympathetic towards Phantom. During those first few months when all the Fenton family did was try to escape, Phantom was harshly criticized and cursed by them and Dora had always been the one to stop it. More than once, she'd transformed into a dragon. If it weren't for the high ceiling, the house would've collapsed on top of them. Jazz knew she had to act neutral, pretend this was all purely for theoretical purposes. It technically was, after all. She had no idea what purpose this information would serve when she was trapped there with no hope of escape.
"That's all right. I didn't expect you to," she told Dora as reassuringly as she could. "But it makes me wonder how closely connected ghosts can be to humans. Like maybe a ghost that was partly human or something."
If Jazz hadn't been watching closely, she would have missed the way Dora's body twitched. But Dora played it off well, immediately relaxing her shoulders and busying herself with getting a mug from the cupboards to pour the milk into.
"That sounds like a stretch," she said as she placed the mug down on the counter.
Jazz shrugged and took a sip of the milk. The warmth traveling down her spine boosted her courage. "I suppose it is. But evolution works in mysterious ways. If there are ghosts so closely connected to humans that they can take on a human appearance, what goes to say a ghost can be more than that? That sort of creature would have a ghost's powers, but all the qualities of a human being too. They could grow even stronger and bigger and easily hide amongst humans. Human adrenaline would make them do the impossible. All of their bodily processes would still be intact. They would be capable of mating with humans and continuing the evolutionary chain!"
Dora shook her head, her eyes narrowing. "But you're forgetting that ghosts are just…dead humans. How would that new species of yours come about?"
"Contact with ghostly material, I guess. That person takes on a ghost persona with all the benefits, but still retains his or her human half. A ghost within a human body, per se."
Dora sighed and sat down on the stool next to her. "It sounds plausible, but where are you going with this?"
Jazz reigned herself in, realizing she'd reached her limit. Dora was beginning to get wary. "Just speculating. Even I was able to notice that Phantom wasn't a typical ghost. Sorry if I've bothered you. Maybe I've been working too much." She forced herself to laugh and gave Dora a smile. "I just can't help but speculate about everything nowadays."
Her words seemed to help Dora relax and that, in turn, made Jazz relax. "I see. But maybe you should keep your speculations about ghosts to yourself," Dora said softly. "Though they may be innocent, they might give some people the wrong idea."
Jazz plastered the perfect look of embarrassed surprise on her face. "Oh. Right." Her eyes drifted down to the mug and she wrapped her hands around it. "Sorry. Once I start, I just can't seem to stop. But don't worry. After all, I'm studying humans, not ghosts." She flashed Dora a bright smile and stood up. "I'm going to sleep now. Thanks for the milk."
Dora stood up as well. "You're welcome," she said. "Sleep well."
Jazz felt Dora's eyes on her as she walked away. It took all her willpower just to keep her feet shuffling along at a leisurely pace. She really hadn't learned much, but Dora's hesitant reactions were enough for her to assume she was on the right path. Now if only she knew where that path led.
When Jazz opened the door to her room, she could have sworn her lungs stopped working. Skulker was standing there in the dark with his bulky metal arms folded over his chest. His green eyes narrowed into thin slits as he glared down at her. The fiery green mohawk at the top of his head flared dangerously, casting green rays of light across the walls.
In the silence, Jazz's legs began to tremble. She clutched the door frame, but kept herself locked in place. She had no reason to be afraid. She'd done nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. She repeated it like a mantra in her head.
Slowly, Skulker leaned down to her eye level. His voice rumbled from within the armor. "Don't stick your nose into things that don't concern you, girl. Keep your questions and speculations to yourself."
Jazz gulped and nodded her head. "Y-yes, sir."
Skulker continued glaring at her. Finally, he straightened his back and jerked his chin in the direction of her bed.
She moved around him and slid onto the mattress. He was gone by the time she pulled the covers up to her chin.
She must have done something wrong without realizing it. Even though she hadn't discovered anything, Skulker had found her actions suspicious enough to threaten. That theory of hers must be true then. Phantom was a whole new type of ghost. Quite possibly, Phantom had both ghost and human halves. That's the revelation the stranger in her room had been pointing her towards. Skulker's presence here now and Dora's reactions earlier confirmed that.
Maybe Phantom's contact with ghostly material had been her parent's fault. Their inventions often malfunctioned. Maybe one of them had dire consequences and, once Phantom had been declared an enemy of Amity Park, he'd turned on them for their part in his ruin.
Maybe they thought she knew Phantom's human identity. Maybe she did.
Her thoughts turned back to the picture and a cold chill ran up her spine. She felt under her pillow for it. With all the colors masked in the blackness of the room, she could almost imagine it was Phantom she was looking at. Frowning, she shoved the picture into the pillowcase and turned to lay on her side.
Phantom could be possessing Danny to get closer to humans. There were ghosts that could shape-shift. He might even be masquerading as Danny. Or maybe Danny was dead, had been dead this whole time, and they were using Phantom as a body double in these pictures since they looked alike.
But why? That was the only word that kept coming to mind. Why?
Why did it have to be her little brother?
Phantom dreamed of the future. That bleak future where only death waited for him. Where cities were nothing but ruins and the air was thick with rot. He saw that hideous monster he'd become, saw Sam's body turn to ice. Screaming in rage, he tried to snatch her away, but his future self turned on him with a red-eyed glare powerful enough to stop him in his tracks.
"You did this," his future self hissed and ran his hands over Sam's frozen body, melting her into nothing. "Humans aren't worth our time."
"NO!" Phantom screamed and Sam's screams joined his own, as if her slowly melting body was releasing the sounds from their cage. His vision blurred. Those red eyes flew at him, drowning him in red. He screamed again, trying to overpower Sam's screams with his own, trying so hard not to listen. Madly, blindly, he thrashed his limbs to fight his unseen, unfelt adversary.
Suddenly, hands were on his shoulders, trying to push him down. Without thinking, he shackled them in his grasp—as tightly as he could with bandaged hands—and wrenched them away from his body, throwing whoever it was aside. The cry that followed, thought soft and barely breaking through the nightmarish screams in his ears, sounded a lot like Sam. A younger Sam.
As soon as he thought that, the screams steadily turned to silence.
He cleared his eyes with sharp, quick turns of his head and saw her—still young, still alive. She was sprawled on the carpet with her arms up in front of her defensively, holding one scarred wrist in her hand. Lips parted, her violet eyes were open wide, though not in fear. She stared at him with a look that he could only decipher as concern, and it made his own eyes widen to realize that he'd hurt her.
"Your wrists," he said and leapt off the couch, taking two long strides before kneeling in front of her feet. "Are you—"
"Okay?" She finished the question before him, still staring worriedly as if he would break any second.
He felt that twinge in his chest again and struggled to breathe even though he had no need for breath anymore, it was only out of habit. "I'm fine," he told her, feeling one side of his mouth lift just barely into a gentle smile. "It was just a dream." Not breaking her gaze, he reached for her hands and guided them towards his body. Her bottom lip quivered. She bit it and glanced away. He took that moment to examine the broken skin of her wrists. She was bleeding a little from the force of his throw. Nothing dramatic, but he still didn't like the sight. He should have taken care of this earlier, but because she was so downright stubborn, it hadn't crossed his mind how raw the wounds still were and how much they must actually sting. He hadn't been human in so long, he'd forgotten how slowly they heal.
Muttering a curse under his breath, he stood and headed for the bedroom to retrieve the first aid kits. She was still sitting on the floor when he returned, cross-legged and straight-backed. She eyed the first aid kit warily.
"You shouldn't waste any of that of me."
His eyes narrowed. "Why not?"
"You need it more than I do." She poked her wrists, grimaced at the sight of the bruised and broken skin, and shrugged. "They don't hurt that much. It just looks bad."
Phantom was torn between feeling intensely pleased that she cared so much about his well-being, and irritated that she cared so little for her own. Irritation won out in the end. With a cross expression on his face, he sat cross-legged in front of her and held out his hand. He gestured for her to let him see her wrists, and she sighed, relenting.
"You really don't have to," she muttered.
"You're welcome," he said bluntly, and lowered his head over her arms as he smoothed ointment over top of her wrists with a Q-tip. The fact that she was so readily giving him access to her wrists meant that she was obviously in some pain. If not, she would've tried to fight him on this. Besides, unbeknownst to her, Frostbite or one of his ghosts had already gotten four more first aid kits and left them in the bedroom while they were sleeping. Log cabin or not, Frostbite's hearing was impeccable.
Sam pulled her hands away from Phantom as soon as he was done and laid them in her lap. "Thanks," she murmured, turning her head to stare down at the carpet.
His lips parted, his instinctive reaction to tease coming to the surface, but he bit it back. He realized that he'd reached his limit. If he did anything else, she would push him away again, and he knew how difficult it had been to even get to this point. Since they were going to be in such close quarters for a while, he was treading softly, deliberating over everything he would say and do in the hopes that soon she would start initiating contact with him. Maybe then they could start meeting each other halfway in this convoluted mess of a relationship.
Curiously, she glanced up at him, probably wondering why he was just staring at her in silence. There was a frown on her face and her brows were furrowed. She was still worried for him and now he allowed himself to be pleased by it. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked.
A smile lifted his lips, just enough to reassure her. "As long as you're safe, I'll be fine."
Sam's cheeks grew hot beneath his gaze. His emerald eyes shimmered in the dark, not the eerie glow that brought fear bubbling to the surface, but a warm sort of light that made her heartbeat quicken for whole other reasons. He cared for her. Deeply. Either that or he was an exceptional actor. She wasn't sure what to believe anymore. His mood swings gave her whiplash. But he'd been calm so far. In fact, he seemed wary. There was a permanent little crease between his brows, and his eyes seemed to flicker every now and then, darkening and losing their glow. He moved and spoke deliberately, as if measuring every action he took. As if he was balancing on a tightrope.
Nervously, she wrung her hands. The weight of his stare was suffocating. "What were you dreaming about?" she asked, knowing the effect it would have. His eyes moved down away from her and she took a deep breath in relief.
"I'd rather not say," he murmured and absently ran the un-bandaged tips of his fingers over the carpet.
"Then what will you tell me?"
His eyes snapped up to meet hers again and her breath got stuck in her throat. "What do you mean?"
Trying to mask her nerves, she rolled her eyes, letting out a sigh for good measure. "I mean, will you at least tell me who we're hiding from?"
"Clockwork. The master of time."
"Master of time?" She heard the disbelief in her voice—after all that had happened, she really shouldn't have been surprised by anything anymore—but Phantom was patient with her and nodded his head.
"He lives outside time and can alter it to his will," he explained. He reached his hand down the front of his shirt and pulled out a medallion. "This protects me from his powers. If he stops time, I'll be immune to its affects."
"But if he can stop time, why didn't he do anything when you were gone and I was alone with that wolf ghost?"
Phantom's jaw clenched as he inhaled deeply. Exhaling, he shrugged, feigning nonchalance, but she could tell he was just as baffled by it as she was. "It was a headstart, I guess. Clockwork loves to play games."
Sam shuddered. "What did I do anyway? Why's he after me?" She looked up, but Phantom's gaze was glued to the floor. "Do you know?"
Phantom squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "It's not you, Sammy. You don't do anything."
She waited for him to say more, but he stayed quiet. "Then…who does?" she murmured, leaning towards him.
He shook his head again, mouth twisting into a frown. His eyes opened and he looked at her as if pleading for forgiveness. "I do," he said, and the words sent a chill down her spine. "I ruin everything, Sammy. Clockwork thinks—he knows—that killing you now will inevitably kill me too. So that's what he's set out to do. Destroy us both."
She scooted back an inch, trying to avoid the guilt radiating off of him in waves. She didn't want to feel bad for him. She wanted to understand what was happening. "Wait. So you're just saving yourself by saving me?"
"NO!" He shouted it so loudly, she jumped. "I'm saving you because I can't live without you! If you died, I would hunt him down. And if I hunt him down, he'll put an end to me one way or another."
"Then what happens in the future? What is it Clockwork's trying to prevent?"
"Chaos," Phantom spat. "He's trying to stop a monster."
The gears working in Sam's mind clicked into place. She scooted back another inch. "Who is that monster?" she asked.
A bitter smile crossed Phantom's face. With his back curved and shoulders hunched, he looked defeated. His eyes looked just the same. "Who do you think?"
He dropped his head into his hands, hiding his face from view. She heard him breathing deeply in an effort to calm himself down.
This wasn't right. This was Phantom sitting in front of her. Phantom, the one who terrorized Amity Park. Phantom, Public Enemy Number One. Phantom, the one who stalked her day and night. The one who brought down her apartment building just to get close to her. The one who threatened Tucker and nearly strangled him to death. The one who did who-knows-what to Danny and his family. The last person on earth she should have been with at that moment. Phantom, the ghost.
And here she was, fighting back the urge to hold him in her arms.
"I don't understand," she mumbled, more to herself than to him. "How could you get any worse? You're already a murderer." She nodded slowly, assuring herself that it was the truth. Giving herself a reason not to comfort him.
But it had the opposite effect. Phantom's hands dropped into his lap and he slouched over even more, like a new weight had been dropped onto his shoulders. Listlessly, he stared at the floor. His voice was raspy and soft when he asked her, "Why do you keep calling me that?"
Something tugged at her heart. She couldn't bear looking at him that way, so small and pitiful. Where had the real Phantom gone? The one to be feared. The one who did as he pleased. Or was the person she was seeing now the kind of person Phantom actually was?
Gritting her teeth, she stood up with her hands balled into fists at her sides and hurried over to the kitchen to busy herself with some menial task. She needed a distraction before she lost sight of everything she'd thought was true. Pointlessly, she decided to reorganize the food in the cupboards.
She didn't hear him come up behind her, but felt the cold air gather at her back. Intending to ignore him, she sidestepped over to a different cupboard. He followed her, so she did it again. This time, his fingers caught her arm. She stilled beneath his touch. His grip was loose. She could've easily broken free, but she didn't. And he didn't move either.
"Sammy?" he whispered. Her body trembled at the sound.
Suddenly, for no reason she could determine, she felt angry. She tore her arm out of his grasp and whirled around to face him. "It's to remind myself, okay?" she snapped. "I call you that to remind myself of who you are. Because when I'm with you, I just… You're acting so weird! I don't get it."
"You are a murderer."
"All those people—in the apartment—"
Phantom's face crumpled. "Injuries, yeah. And that's not good, I know. But I've never killed a human. Not even that scum of a landlord. I gave him the shock of his life, for sure, made him thought he would die, but the blast I shot wasn't actually aimed at him. He wasn't worth it. I'm sure he bolted out of the hole in the wall as soon as—"
"Just because it's never been your intention, doesn't mean you haven't killed anyone!"
His eyes narrowed. "Then who have I killed? Name one human being who I've killed."
"I…" She had no answer. Despite all the times she'd heard of his notorious deeds, she didn't recall any mention of fatalities. "I'm sure you have," she hissed.
His lips tightened into a thin line. "Then you give humans less credit than I do."
Her eyes widened. For a moment, she was speechless. Then she muttered, "Whatever," and turned towards the cupboard again.
Phantom moved to her side, ducking his head to try to catch her eye. "Sammy, I'm not a murderer. I get angry. I do stupid things. If I've killed anyone, it was one of the ghosts that kidnapped you. I turned him to ice, blew him to pieces. I was furious. But ghosts are just...spectral vapor. Who knows what happened to him. Sammy. I'm not a killer."
Sam shook her head. She could see him in the corner of her eye, that pleading look on his face. "Then what are you?" she asked, glancing at him sidelong.
"I'm just…" He gazed down at his hands. Who was he, really? Aside from his identity as Danny Fenton. Aside from being Amity Park's most hated enemy. Who was he? He wasn't sure. He'd never been sure. "I'm just a guy," he said softly. "I'm a guy who can never hold on to anything. Who's lost everything." He curled his fingers and lifted his head, eyes burning into hers. "But I won't lose you." It was the most honest thing he'd ever said.
Sam's eyes widened at his words, stunned in silence. He'd expected that. What he hadn't expected was for her eyes to grow even wider, fearful even. Her lips parted, but no sound came out. The expression on her face sent a jolt through him and he stood upright. "Sammy?" Thinking they might have an unexpected visitor, he scanned the room, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back at her and saw that her eyes were glued to him. "Sammy?"
Dumbfounded, she shook her head, as if trying to convince herself she was wrong about whatever it was she saw. "Your eyes."
He blinked, confused.
Her face scrunched up, just as confused as he was. "Your eyes turned blue."