Disclaimer: No, it's not mine.
The flames danced higher and higher into the night sky as they spread and devoured the apartment building. Valerie watched in a numb sort of horrified stupor, still unable to move from her initial shock, as she stood on her jet glider some twenty feet off the ground. Firefighters swarmed around the collapsing structure like ants, their long hoses looking feeble and pathetic against to the wall of fire. And Valerie knew somehow, without even needing to be told, that somewhere deep inside the building people were still trapped, unable to get out, the heat too intense and the structure too unstable for rescue workers to be able to reach them. If she'd only been able to get here sooner, she might have been able to do something, to help, but now not even the fire retardant abilities of her ghost hunting suit would be unable to protect her from those flames let alone the person she was trying to carry.
Diving slowly down Valerie retracted her board when she was only about three feet off the ground letting gravity pull her the rest of the way and landing lightly on the balls of her feet. Even from where she was, at least seventy feet back from the flames, Val knew that if she didn't have her suit on she would have been able to feel some of the heat of the fire. Ambulances were parked everywhere and exhausted emergency aid workers ran from victim to victim trying to comfort crying children and calm panicking adults. She watched silently, feeling awkward and out of place, like an intruder on someone else's tragedy. And then she saw him. Phantom.
He was bent over with his hands on his knees, back to her in an empty area on the pavement. Phantom's head was turned slightly to watch a small, sooty, crying child who was running away from him towards its nearby parents with out stretched arms. Suddenly Valerie's mind could take in no more details about the scene or Phantom as she noticed one final thing – his shoulders were shaking. He was laughing. Rage consumed her and she automatically reached for one of her ecto-guns as Phantom began to slowly straighten up.
Damn ghost! Damn spook! He was enjoying this! Laughing at people's pain and death! Hell, he had probably even set the fire because he was bored and needed some entertainment! Snarling in fury Valerie took aim at the dead center of Phantom's back and –
"NO!!!" Small hands grabbed and wretched at her weapon causing it to misfire harmlessly straight up into the air. Before Valerie could figure out what was going on, whoever it was who had misdirected her shot continued talking tearfully while still trying to wrestle the gun out of her grasp, "Don't hurt him! Please, don't hurt him! He's gone back for Emmy! He has to save Emmy!"
Only then did Val realize that it was the little girl that she had seen running to her parents before who was now pounding on her chest and sobbing. Gently pushing the girl away she scanned the area for Phantom, but no such luck – he had disappeared. She had lost him again. So close, Valerie had been so close to finally getting rid of him once and for all!
Shouts and the sudden pointing of many of the people in the crowd watching the fire directed her glaze upwards just in time to see Phantom burst backwards through a top story window in a show of glass, flames licking at his heels. There was something, a bundle of some sort, clutched tightly and protectively against his chest. He flew unsteadily, in bursts, occasionally falling for several seconds before he was able to catch himself again. Phantom landed with an inelegant stumble that nearly sent him sprawling face first into the pavement. People backed away slightly almost unsure if they should be too near to him. Slowly he raised his head and Valerie caught a glimpse of his face. It was soot stained and weary, tear streaks etching rivulets down his cheeks. The tears were what calmed Valerie's blind rage, made her able to take in her surroundings once more in excruciating detail.
"Medic!" Phantom's voice was hoarse and raspy from smoke and exhaustion. "Please! I need a medic here! She's not breathing!" Three medical personnel responded to his call for help, leading Phantom quickly to a nearby ambulance before taking the small child from his arms, Valerie following unnoticed behind them at a discreet distance. One medic began to perform CPR while the other two turned their attention back to the ghost boy. He started to turn to walk back towards the burning apartment building but one of them placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
"What happened to your uniform?"
Indeed, Valerie now realized that Phantom was not in his normal black and white jumpsuit as he had been before he'd entered the burning building. The top half of his outfit was the same but the bottom now consisted of a pair of old blue jeans and black and white sneakers instead of boots. All of his clothing was ripped and torn and burned and he appeared to be bleeding in numerous places. The white D insignia on his chest had been almost obliterated by soot and there was a long, diagonal slash right through its center. The young huntress began to wonder just how long he had been helping to rescue people from that building.
Phantom looked down at himself and suddenly looked panicky and uncomfortable. "It's… um… it's nothing – just a little tired." He gave the two adults a shaky smile. Neither of them accepted his excuse. They exchanged a glance and with a barely perceptible nod the medic who had yet to speak a word began to edge slowly behind the young ghost, while the other kept talking, gently taking a hold of his wrist so that he didn't leave.
"Do you breathe?"
"Y-yeah, why? I- I need to get back. There might be more people…." But even as he said this Valerie saw his already glazed green eyes which were dulled from fatigue begin to slide shut and roll up into his head. Phantom collapsed limply into the waiting arms of the second medic who caught him, wrapping one arm around his waist and using the other to press an oxygen mask to his face. The one who had been talking reached out and stroked his hair soothingly for a moment before speaking again even though Phantom could no longer hear her.
"You've been going in and out of that building for four hours straight. I think you've earned yourself a rest."
Next to Phantom the last little girl he had saved also had an oxygen mask on but the medic was looking very relieved. It looked like the child was going to live. Then a photographer appeared out of nowhere and hastily snapped a few pictures, that Valerie knew would be on the front of the paper the next morning, before being chased away. Only a few moments after the photographer left, Phantom began to stir once more and make rather feeble attempts to push away the medics as well as the oxygen mask. Finally succeeding after several failed tries he took a couple of staggering steps away before stopping still sway badly on his feet and breathing a little harder than normal.
"And just where do you think that you're going?" asked the talkative medic putting her hands on her hips.
"I- I have… to go back in… need to check… that no one else is trapped." The ghost boy looked at the woman pleadingly, another tear threatening to escape from the corner of his eye but he blinked it hurriedly away. The medic looked like she was about to cry, too.
"You can't go back in, you'll be killed! You barely have enough energy to fly anymore!"
"Killed? I'm… a ghost… remember? Already dead." There was a familiar, determined look on Phantom's face and Valerie somehow knew that no matter what the medic said he would go back into the burning building come Hell or high water.
The ghost hunter wasn't sure what made her do what she did next. Maybe it had been Phantom's tears. From all her experience, ghosts couldn't cry, couldn't really express any emotions other than anger and rage, but his tears had been real. Before, when she had been preparing to shoot him, Phantom hadn't been laughing like she'd assumed – he'd been crying. And something in that knowledge suddenly made Phantom seem more human to her than Valerie ever would have imagined possible.
She took a step forward and spoke for the first time since her arrival, "He doesn't have to be able to fly as long as he can still make things intangible." The huntress activated her rocket board and hovered about a foot off the ground suddenly very glad to have a visor to hide behind. "I can get us in."
Phantom's eyes widened in surprise at her words and a smile twitched tiredly at the corner of his mouth, "Sure, I can… still do… intangibility."
Valerie glanced over at the medic, who sighed her shoulders slumping in a defeated manner, "All right, go – there's nothing I can do to stop you. Just please," here she looked Val directly in the eye, "if there's no one left in there, bring him right back here. He's still suffering from a bad case of smoke inhalation."
With a stiff nod to the distressed medic, Valerie turned her attention back to Phantom motioning with one hand to the back of her board, "Hop on, Phantom. We've got people to save."
After a valiant try on Phantom's part which ended with him landing more or less face first on the pavement, Valerie put out a reluctant hand and helped him up. She stiffened and then forced herself to relax the ghost boy took a hold of her shoulders for support. The coolness of his hands reached her even through the protection of her suit. Well, this was going to be interesting. Somewhere in all the smoke and the heat and the shock, Val decided as the two neared the burning building, she had lost her mind. Or maybe she hadn't lost her mind, maybe she'd just finally realized the truth that she had always sort of known in the back of her mind but refused to believe. Or maybe she should be trying to figure all this out at a better time instead of when all of her attention should really be on flying.
The burning apartment building loomed over them and Valerie had to yell to be heard over the deafening roar of the flames and the crashes of the falling structure from within the building,
"Any time now would be nice, Phantom! You know, before we get fried alive!"
The coolness in her shoulders suddenly intensified and spread until it had seeped through her entire body and the heat of the flames seemed to melt away as if it had never been. Distantly she heard Phantom's voice over the thundering of the fire,
"We only need to check… the top three floors… I already got… the others!"
"Gotcha!" Valerie kicked her board into high gear and zipped up another two floors before hesitating a moment. Crashing into walls was what she was used to, not flying through them and she took a half second to psych herself out before once more launching her jet glider forward. They passed through it as easily as if it had been a hologram. It was eerie to pass through physical objects as if they were mere shadows.
The first two remaining floors were checked quickly and easily and it wasn't until they were almost done that something went wrong. Just as Valerie was about to kick her board once more into high gear and get the heck out of there since there had been no one left on the top three floors, she felt a flicker of heat and then the coolness which had been cloaking her was gone. What the-? Oh no…. Twisting in place, the huntress glanced back at Phantom. The spook, who hadn't said a word since they had entered the building, looked ill and was clinging to her shoulders so hard it hurt with his eyes squeezed tight shut in concentration and probably pain, too. And she could see him… which meant they weren't intangible any more. Overhead the ceiling groaned, bits of sooty plaster raining down on them as it threatened to fall. The whole structure could collapse around them at any minute.
Dodging falling chunks of ceiling Valerie sped towards the windows at the far end of the room. This was going to be close.
"Hold on, Phantom, this is gonna be a little rough!!!" Hoping that the ghost boy had somehow managed to hear her over the thundering of the roof caving in, Valerie crouched forward tucking her chin against her chest and crossing her arms so that she had a hold of her own shoulders and both of Phantom's hands. After hunting him unsuccessfully for so long, she'd be damned if she was going to let a measly burning building finish him off!
She hit the window at full speed. Glass exploded around her as with one last rumbling moan the roof caved the rest of the way in sending pieces of burning debris flying in every direction. Her trusty board gave a lurch and then began corkscrewing towards the ground at an alarming speed as a jagged piece of metal sheared off one of her rear jets. Less than halfway to the ground, Valerie felt panic begin to rise in her as the uncontrollable spiraling fall became faster and faster. There was nothing she could do, she was going to die. Somewhere in the back of her mind the huntress felt Phantom shift his hold on her so that his arms were circled around her waist but most of her mind was too focused on the fact that she was about to die to pay much attention to this.
A completely unintentional yelp escaped her lips as the board was suddenly kicked away from beneath her feet. Her previously uncontrollable freefall seemed to slow gradually until it felt like she was gently floating down instead of plummeting to her doom. Until she only about six feet off the ground, that is. Behind her Valerie heard Phantom let out a very vivid curse and he twisted them in midair just as gravity took hold of them once more with a vengeance. She landed hard on top of the ghost boy and then quickly rolled off of him wondering if ghosts have bones that could be broken. If so, she was fairly certain that she had just fractured a large number of Phantom's ribs. Valerie sat up slowly, her entire body trembling from the adrenaline rush of her very close brush with death. And speaking of death….
Valerie turned back to her ex-archenemy. After purposefully nearly making himself into a ghostly pancake by taking the impact of her fall and saving all those people until he had literally collapsed and then had still wanted to make sure there was no one else trapped, she just couldn't see him as her enemy any more. Something had finally clicked and then changed in the back of the young ghost hunter's mind and it over rode even her eternal skepticism.
Phantom was looking in even worse shape than before, if that was even possible. His normal uniform had changed once more replacing his white gloves and long sleeves with a black t-shirt that was all but torn to shreds with the D insignia still faintly visible underneath all the grime in the center. Luminescent green eyes cracked open and peered up at her. There was a faint grin on his face,
"Ouch… You're… kinda heavy…."
She glared at him. How the heck could he be trying to make jokes at a time like this?
"Come on." Val helped the ghost boy to sit up and then put his arm around her shoulders so that she could help him stand and walk. "You've got a date with an oxygen tank to go to."
"Aw… I can't… do that…. What would Sam … say… if she… found out I… was cheating on her?" Phantom's eyes slid closed once more as Valerie began to walk forward, allowing her to guide him. Val rolled her eyes and then frowned.
But Valerie's question was never answered because at that moment the medics from before came running up to them with a stretcher which, despite his protests, Phantom was quickly hoisted onto and then, much to his annoyance, dragged away for another session with the oxygen mask. A new medic came and fussed over Valerie for a few minutes but seeing as her most severe injuries were some rather bad bruises she was soon left alone.
In the shadows on the edge of the fire light, Valerie watched silently as another section of the building collapsed sparks and rubble flying into the air. Then she turned her back on the scene, deactivating her ghost hunting gear. She had done her part; it was time to go home. Her father was probably worried about her by now and she had a lot to think about. Valerie walked away, tuning out the shouts and yells behind her and let her brain buzz with everything that had just happened and been said. Her feet came to an abrupt halt.
"Wait a minute! Did he mean Sam Manson?!?"