Although the cheers, piercing screams, and gasps of astonishment still permeated the boy's ears, he'd learned by now not to associate them as anything other then a meter for just how many rations he received later that night.

The sea of heads fifty feet below the swinging specter were turning in synch with the flow of the trapeze as it glided swiftly across the ravenous darkness of the tent, Lydia still clinging lazily to the bar, expression jaded.

Clinging to her feet, beneath his dark hood, Danny could hardly even see his fellow performer's expression, but he knew what it would be well enough by now. While he knew the Ringmaster's lover took her job quite seriously, and was one of the more popular entertainers in the cult following this wretched circus had, she'd done this routine close to seven hundred times in front of a live audience. Lord knew how hard the ghosts had to train in practice, let alone, how-

Oh. The tattooed specter was peering down at Danny, red eyes aglow like twinkling embers, strong with the contrast of her emerald flesh. If Lydia were known to have a sense of humor, and if she hadn't already marked the teen with scars very much the way she decorated her own body, Danny would have said she looked like a Christmas Tree.

How long had it been since he'd seen one of those?

But a ravenous, starving specter raspily drew its bony knuckles across Danny's insides and moaned. Cringing lightly as he remembered last night's mistake-he'd been four minutes too early for the finale, meaning the encore had had to scramble to end the show with a slightly dulled finale.

It was still magnificent-a perfect fantasia of darkness. But Freakshow had been furious, and it had cost the hybrid just a bit more then his supper that evening.

Danny felt his backside prickle in reminder as Lydia dramatically swung the two trapeze ropes around the center banister, twirling the two of them around it faster and faster, like a tetherball of glowing color. But just as the two were running out of freed rope, and were rising higher and higher into the air, Danny allowed himself to let go of Lydia's ankles, which disappeared in a burst of luminous, twinkling bats, which fluttered over the screaming hordes below.

Danny flipped through the air quite elegantly, but the sharp gasps from below indicated the audience had at last noticed that Danny had no other trapeze nor other performer to seize him. He heard shouts, shrieks, and desperate cries expand into a frenzied wall of collective chaos from below him as he began to plummet through the air, towards the Ringmaster's center.

Already bored, Danny stared dully at the tips of his black slippers as he fell, the long sleeves of his Grim Reaper onsemble fluttering madly in his wake. His hood tore backwards, and his brilliant, starlit hair caught the flew spotlights following him as he shot like a meteroite to Earth.

Three, two, one-

Shrieking, Lydia's bats swarmed towards him, hiding his dark form in a dazzling array of color, and then-

This was the one moment he could actually live for.

Hidden from Audience view, the bats discreetly phased Danny's robe away, and the boy soared into the air in a shower of sparks, right leg comfortably folded over the other as he ascended, faintly hearing applause ripple out from below him, a few strangled swear words, and one or two people calling upon their ancestors for deliverance.

The seventeen year old cooly surveyed his pathetic kingdom-his temporary kingdom, the only place he had any true power-below, and lifted his chin up in the eerie spotlights, hands plastered to his sides as he rose a few inches upward, in synch with the thunderous music the undead pit band was now playing.

Now dressed almost entirely in skin-tight, black leather tights, his silvery gloved hands clasped together, as if in prayer, he glanced idly behind himself, being sure to nonchalantly tuck his shining white spikes behind an ear. He wasn't at all certain why Freakshow insisted on it, but, considering the screams from the female entourage of the audience had increased...

Not quite touching his back, there were ruinous, silver feathers in the air around him, in the shape of wings. True to form, Lydia had sent the feather tattoos of the wings on her back glittering over Danny's from below. That meant he now had his cue...

The picture of an angel, Danny spun around and around the entire tent in dizzying circles, moving faster and faster as the bats flapping behind him began to fly into each other, creating a huge mass of dense mist in the middle of the circus ring, around which Danny was still soaring. The percussion swelled, and Lydia had reappeared in the mist's center in a flurry of black flames. Danse Macabre, the song of the dead-was now beginning, so it was time to...

Trembling, Lydia slowly raised her arms-and sent the dark mist around herself into an erruption of stars and shadows, which then began to shower below. As the audience leapt onto their seats, some jumping, eagerly grasping at the air and the 'illusions,' Lydia bent her head back as all the shapes began racing back to her, dragons, rodents, fanged terrors and eyeless beasts had their frightful shadows glide back to her flesh. Danny had stopped circling, and, as the crescendo for the classical music began, majestically pretended to conduct the flow as some of the monstrous illustrations grew enormous, with growing fangs, glowing eyes, and monstrous roars...

Other members of the Circus were now gliding through solid concrete, emerging from tiny boxes with steel barbs nailed from the outside in, and arriving in skeletal chariots of fire, pulled by horses with rolling red eyes. An extremely realistic looking skeleton began to play the violin, and in wintry, rustling winds that drove everyone in the audience to shudder, flew cackling into the air, twirling about after Danny, the leader of the parade of the night.

The crescendo swelled through the air as Danny ducked, dodged, and hurriedly spun away in aerial zigzags from jets of thunder making their cue on the stage. Perspiring, he rose his large eyes to the audience, watching a ghost race by one of the balcony seats available in the facility, and a dark little hand slip out as it tried to reach for it-

A ghost from behind accidentally bumped into Danny as the boy froze, staring at a little girl leaning dangerously over the old balcony, pawing longingly where the pretty specter had just been. It was far, far too noisy for him to discern voices, but he thought he heard a scream as a pair of pale arms reached out for the little girl-

Too late.

The little girl squealed, lost her balance, and slid over the edge, and fell like a stone. Most of the audience was too enthralled with the oncoming barrage of the supernatural to notice her slip-

Danny heard a scream of terror, but he was already shooting through the air like a silver star, ghostly core hammering frantically as he slipped out of place, and seized the small child before she could hit the ground.

Not remembering where she'd fallen from, and feeling the steel appliance over his right leg vibrate warningly, Danny had no choice but to rise back to the procession, now clutching the whimpering little girl.

Hearing whoops and applause explode again-clearly, they believed it was all part of the act, Danny took another look down at the child, who had big purple orbs, a heart shaped face, very pale skin, and dark hair, which was in pig tails. He mentally groaned, and slapped himself upside the head.

What kind of parent would bring their kids to a place like this-let alone let them nearly turn into pavement paint like that?

Rising in the air like a dove, Danny tightened his old reassuringly around the girl, who was now clutching him for dear life as he lead the ascension higher and higher into the air. He bent towards her ear, praying that she could hear him:

"Don't worry. I've got you."

The five year old just nodded, and buried her teary face in the phantom's shoulder as the finale rang out-and, in a hailstorm of fireworks, it at last did. Danny knew that he was supposed to take a bow to end the performance, but considering the girl was clutching onto him so tightly he probably would have lost consciousness were he in human form, he simply allowed the music to finish, and floated serenely in the air as his fellow performers bowed.

There was a split second of stunned silence. Then, roaring applause broke through, louder then the riptides of a major tsnunami. Danny moved his hand comfortingly over the back of the little girl's head as he surveyed tonight's audience of misfits, teenagers, emothatics, and goths. Roses (Many of which spraypainted black) were flying from the stands, and Danny guessed more then a few hands would be left raw and chapped from the tumtulous applause still piling on. On every face, there was amazement, and on every face, he could see delight.

But Danny in no way or form took part of their cheer. Looking down apprehensively at the direct ring below, he could see the dark form of his pitiful human master staring up at him-said pitiful human master holding the key to his life.

And the expression on his face made Danny feel an all-too familiar sense of sickening dread, and he was left, much, much more afraid of the Ringmaster's repercussions then he was of any old reenactment of an apocalypse.

Danny was at least allowed to help seek out the child's family; turned out, her now absolutely terrified elder sister brought her kid sister along after their parents had left her behind to babysit. Weak at the knees with relief, Danny watched the little girl's sister pull her up into a fierce embrace, affectionately nooging the little girl while the child-Samantha-cried out in abject annoyance.

A knot tightening deeper and deeper behind his throat, Danny had soberly watched the scene, before harshly telling off Sam's sister. In a way, he wished that she hadn't responded with feverish head nods and countless hand-shakes and words of gratitude.

Cruelty is so very, very easy to interpret. Kindness, or at least the sort kindness Danny remembered-had simply lead him into a new circle of hell. The ghosts who willingly served under the Ringmaster's order were cold, hardened spirits-or at the very least, they were unfeeling, unemotional, and strictly calculating. Danny couldn't remember the last time he'd seen one of the troupe members smile in genuine content, or cry.

That had rubbed off on him just a bit, he supposed. He didn't do either, much.

His hollow green eyes narrowed as Tina-the elder sister-had her collection of gothic wannabe friends (Probably sustaining their angst through their parents' money) bend over Sam, the girls fussing and cooing.

Uncomfortable, Danny watched the emotional scene for about as much longer as he could bear (i.e, three seconds) before turning around and soaring away, inexplicably aware of Sam happily waving goodbye in his wake.

At the very least, his punishment was the Strongman, and not the whip.

After the Circus had been successfully evacuated, and everybody left the smoky, popcorn-covered lines of plastic seats, the crews had been gathered together near the caravans, same as usual. Freakshow normally had an overall analysis of the performance that he wanted to run through, and 'correct any thoroughly undesirable anomalies, as to prevent them from occuring again.'

In this case, it normally meant pain. However, Freakshow never, ever beat Lydia-though he was often known to criticize the female ghost almost unmercilessly. It made Danny want to snort when he was alone. Lydia, while stern, was not overtly sadistic, and had taught Danny most of the performance arts that he knew.

But considering most of the performers that Freakshow were already dead, and were able to shake off one of Freakshow's temper-attack blows with a few shakes of the head, it meant that the young halfa was customarily prime target for the Ringmaster's wrath.

An enormous green specter with bulging muscles was now bending over Danny, one of his recycling bin-sized fists raised in silent warning. Then:

Danny saw stars; and thought that he were flying once again, though this time, it certainly wasn't of his own volition. His lungs burned from want of the breath that had just been kicked out of his lungs, and-

"Aaah-!"

His voice was a muffled gasp.

Hitting the ground, and skinning the Earth a few times before he stopped accelerating, Danny lay back on the ground, pitiful chest heaving as spots bloomed in his vision, blocking out the beams from the nearby spotlights.

The Strongman grunted, and slowly dragged his body across the floor, to where the ghost boy was now lying in a crumpled heap. Heap spinning wildly, Danny staggered to his feet, outrage and indignantion coursing through his veins.

"H-How did I d-do wrong?" he demanded, struggling to speak through his gasps as something warm trickled over his eye. Probably ectoplasm. The halfa struggled away from one of the Strongman's right-hooks, and instictively sent a brilliant green energy blast towards the Ringmaster, who was lazily leaning on his walking stick nearby.

With the prowess of a tiger, Lydia leapt in front of her Master, effortlessly knocking aside the blast with a scowl. But just as she crouched into a battle position, fists clenched, the deathly pale human flicked open his cane top with his thumb, and pressed the large red button that greeted him.

He wasn't to be disappointed; a sneer curled his unpleasant features as soon as he heard electric thunder, and a scream echo from behind him, before a thud resonated shortly afterwards.

It was now a symphony of silence, underneath the spotlights. No ghost sent the quivering teenager cowering on the floor a look of sympathy, though Lydia did raise her eyebrow at her Master just a bit. But just the same, Danny Phantom phased helplessly back into human form, now wheezing instead of gasping on the filthy floor.

The spotlights were burning holes in his vision...

Like an insect that's been stepped on, but isn't quite dead yet, Danny twitched madly, crying out as a large brown boot suddenly appeared in his vision, burying its steel toe into the boy's chest cavity. Danny cried out, and blindly threw his hands over the perpertrator's foot, desperate to tug him off. But the foot only applied more pressure, and the teen's screams filled the room until the boy finally let go, and the foot relinquished just a bit.

Blood now pouring from the cut over his left eye and from both nostrils, Danny stared blankly at the Ringmaster, who was smiling coyly at him from above.

"Oh, bad, bad move, little boy." He tsked condescendingly, rubbing one index finger against the other, still tutting. Danny cast him a deathly glare, but all it resulted in was another blow-this one, most unfortunately, to his face.

It burned; for a moment, there was numbness, and then, Danny's hands raced to cup his wound, which now stung like a thousand bug bites.

Smugly, Freakshow lightly dusted his sleeves, as if he were afraid that he'd dirtied himself.

"You simply MUST get over your gluttinous love for punishment, Danny! The Good Lord says that gluttony is a sin-I'm quite certain that you'll perish in hell for it."

Danny let out a wild laugh as he slowly pulled himself into a sitting position, and dragged himself across the stage, sheer, unadulturated hatred bubbling in every fibre of his being.

"Hell? Really? You mean that in hell, I'm not stuck with sad, ghost-envious jerks who go around ordering the Undead even though you couldn't float half an inch off the ground? Sign me up!"

Silence. Freakshow had been striding away from the adolescent with a smirk, but then, the Master froze, his face freezing into shock.

But slowly, very slowly, he turned around, his face going purple with anger. There was a collective gasp from some members of the troupe. Everyone knew that the boy had gone too far.

Danny's smirk slowly died away upon seeing the Ringmaster's expression, and his swollen face turned deathly, ashen pale.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly, as the Ringmaster slowly began to advance on him. Danny slid back a few more inches, attempting in vain to stagger to his feet. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. I-"

He bumped into something; three pairs of hands grasped him by the shoulders. Three dark clowns with skulls painted over their bloody attire were staring at him with dull, glassy eyes. They only knew this drill only too well.

While he writhed and kicked at his restraints, yelping with desperation, Freakshow only came closer and closer, device still clutched in his gloved hand. But instead of triggering the machinery strapped to Danny's ankle again, he only seized the frightened hybrid by the chin, forcing him to look up into a pair of mad red eyes.

"There's another rule that the Good Lord enforces, Danny," he said quietly, tightening his grip to vicelike standards when Danny tried to pull his head away, baby blue eyes still being boiled into.

The pale human stood up straight, staring down at his star performer with something akin to disgust.

"Obey your mother and father, Danny, dear. For you see..."

His lips curled into a grimy, truly evil smile while Danny still fought at the clowns' hold, wincing when their talons dug into his shoulders:

"...while your Mummy and Daddy might have sold you to me, I'm sure they'd like to know my money's worth, hmm?"

He trailed over to Danny's side again, smirking at the young boy's detesting stare, not missing the familiar flash of agony in the boy's eyes.

"Do you remember that your Daddy didn't look back at you when your DOG CRATE was being loaded into my Caravan? Do you remember how Mummy counted out every single bill I gave her in her gloved little hands? Personally, my parents would have been thrilled to find out that I was a ghost, but considering that they already have a Yale bound daughter, I'm sure a little mistake of birth is easy enough to pull out of the picture-"

Danny struggles became much more violent, his eyes blazing emerald slits, highlighting the dark shadows beneath them.

"SHUT UP!"

The bald man leaned his hand on the top of Danny's head, peering inquisitively off into space.

"Hmm? Why, don't tell me you haven't been doing your homework again, you stupid, stupid little boy. Surely you realize that's no way to address the Master of the Ring?"

Quite cheerful nonetheless, he pressed the red button again, sending ectoplasmic bolts through the boy's system, listening to his screams.

Then he pressed it again.

And again.

By now, Danny was sobbing dry sobs-he'd figured he'd emptied his tear vaults a long, long time ago. He curled into a ball, shaking as the occasional spark of electricity raced up his pearly, bruised flesh. Whimpering, he buried his face in his hands, willing more then ever to shut out the lights glaring in his eyes, the painful vibes of his empty stomach and broken skin, and the ever, ever present cackles of the man still smiling satanically down at him from his ears.

At last, Danny spoke, knowing that he now had nothing left to lose:

"T-t-that little k-kid could have d-died. It w-wouldn't have l-looked good for the s-show crew i-if there-there'd been a genuine d-death."

Freakshow tugged a piece of string off one of his cuffs, looking bored.

"Oh, I definitely appreciate that-but I do wish you'd stop insulting my intelligence, boy. I was watching your face-you REALLY have to do something about that heart on your shoulders-and I saw your fear."

Genuine excitement blossomed in his voice, and the Cheshire Cat Smile grew.

"Poor, dear Danny wants to play hero again and save brat from toppling to an early and well-deserved grave. You didn't want to save face-you wanted to save HER. You flew out of line. You disobeyed me."

All childish teasing drained out of his voice and expression.

"You backtalked your master. And...what else did he do, children?" asked Freakshow sweetly, turning around to face the mutinous multitude crowded around Danny's shaking form.

The answer came immediately and monogamously from everyone, in lifeless tones:

"Had the nerve to correct our Great and Magnificent Ringmaster, King of the Ghosts."

Freakshow sighed contently.

"Yes!" he exclaimed, lovingly fingering something in his pocket. "And Danny, I do believe three years of our super happy fun time together would have at least crammed something into your miserable little blockhead..."

He bent to pinch at Danny's cheek, mockingly swinging the boy's head back and forth.

"...I don't handle constructive criticism very well. Particularly yours, when you happen to be a disgrace of nature."

Danny tried to bite his fingers, but Freakshow simply patted him on the head, tsking once again.

"Particularly one that Mummy and Daddy aren't coming back for. You see, Danny, you're mine. Your body is mine, that lovely little ghost of yours that brings in so much money in is mine, and..."

He withdrew a small, glowing stick from his coat pocket, and a long, barbed cord flowed out from the base. Freakshow licked it teasingly, enjoying the sight of Danny's face going starkly white in terror again.

"...the blood that I'm about to spill is mine. You three, turn him around."

Danny started to shake, but the spectral hands simply turned the boy over, and phased his white T-shirt away, revealing Danny's pale, shrunken stomach.

His back scars had, at the very least, converged into one enormous mark. The whip wounds from Freakshow's 'toy' were impossible for even his quickly-recovering halfa body to heal.

Listening to Freakshow breathe from behind him, Danny closed his eyes, blue orbs stinging.

"Please. Don't," he whispered, through unmoving lips.

He almost thought he could hear Freakshow shrug.

"Terribly sorry, but bad, unloving little children deserve to be spanked. Or sold off to the Circus-whichever one works. However, should you finally acknowledge my status as the 'Ghost King,' I promise not to be TOO rough."

Danny only softly scoffed under his breath, managing another bitter smile. After a moment, he heard a sigh from behind him.

"Ah, well. There's always next performance."

Danny braced himself as he heard the whip whistle back in the air, and fly down.

He woke up several hours later in his 'caravan'-a wagon with glowing green bars that had once held an undead Siberian Tiger or two.

It was unnaturally still tonight-normally, there were a few crew members milling about out back after a performance. But tonight, Danny could hear nothing from the other wagons, caravans-not even from the large Circus Gothica tent rippling in the late evening breeze nearby. He shivered, gooseflesh bumping up over already half-healed, violet bruises.

Lying on his stomach on a series of filthy towels, he ignored the sparse pile of half-filled popcorn bags lined up in the corner of his caravan-occasionally, Lydia grabbed a few before clean-up for him. Still trembling, stomach dry heaving, he attempted to stand, and bend his back, which had freshly woken welts gleaming in what little light there was to be found outside-and the series of lanterns the crew left by the cars.

A bolt of agony left him winded, and he fell senseless for a moment or two. After ten minutes of staring down at his wooden floor and old towel, he at last feebly grasped the nearby bars, and very, very gingerly, began to slide himself up.

Now only in slightly bloody jeans, he continued to crouch like a hunchback, afraid to bend his back into position. Careful not to bump his head on the ceiling, Danny quietly reached for the towel he normally slept on, eyes unusually pensive.

How many nights had he spent himself crying himself to sleep, asking himself the same question over and over again?

How had he now-just now-finally received his answer?

Reaching for an old, crooked post on the ceiling, Danny carefully tied one end of the towel to it, and, after tugging it a few times, began to twist it into a rope. Darn it, he wished he had some water. This would be a lot easier otherwise.

Danny set about creating a noose, face almost tranquilly calm as he carefully measured his neck. He was almost surprised he wasn't humming.

Three years ago, he would have never even considered this.

Three years ago, he would have responded to one of Freakshow's punishments with shouts, anger, and tears.

But he was accustomed to being locked up-what was the point? Thanks to the scanner Freakshow had had surgically attached to his leg...

The teen paused in his work, and slowly raised his foot upwards, his face crumpling as he beheld the ugly scars the machina had left behind on the strap. His boots hid it well enough, but it still linked him to the old spawn of Satan-still shocked him whenever he'd tried to get close enough to a human, or drop a message with a plea for help.

His punishments had gotten increasingly worse; now, he lived no better then a common animal. A flea-ridden, diseased animal.

The bitter smile returned, but so did the trembling. Danny rested his sore back against the bars once again, feeling the night air brush soothingly at the stinging.

He smiled again.

And then, he sank to his knees, and wept under his makeshift noose.

How long he sat there, he did not know. It was a while yet before he discerned a soft sound coming out from the wind murmuring and moaning outside:

"Daniel."

The voice was low, but like velvet-and certainly quite unlike any of the crew member's voices, or like Freakshow's, whose normal tone could be compared to that of a trapped cat's.

The poor boy started like a jackrabbit; and, forgetting his painful back, tried to jump to his feet, only succeeding in accidentally knocking his head against the bars. He lay against for a few more seconds, stunned.

He'd finally cracked up. Well, he supposed it DID have to happen sooner or later-though he wished it hadn't started with a name he'd almost forgotten he technically had.

A pause. Danny swallowed with difficulty, throat very dry.

Might as well confirm said insanity. After a moment, Danny reluctantly spoke up, looking warily about him in the empty cage-the empty caravans, the silent circus tent, where Freakshow and the others were probably having a drink.

"...hello?"

A pause. Then, Danny felt the wind ruffle against his hair from the bars he was leaning against., his heart hammering.

Then, an exceedingly cautious, an exceedingly gentle touch on the back of his neck. By a warm, human hand.

Danny shouted, and twisted around, spots fluttering in his eyes again, but he took no matter as he anxiously inched to one corner of the cage, glancing about for a weapon.

He raised his voice again, addressing the darkness:

"Who's there?"

Had circus patrons come to gawk at him from inside his cage again? Danny seized at a bar, tugging vainly at it, much as he always had in his free time. Damn, if there was a way to phase through the ceiling or floor-!

Danny's breathing esculated as he wildly surveyed the outdoors, watching the trees rustle from overhead, the black Circus Gothica pennants fluttering.

Silence. Silence, save for the wind's nocturnal lullaby.

After a moment, Danny uneasily sank to his knees again, scooting away from the bars, where he'd be safely out of reach.

He wasn't sure why he was so frightened. Teenagers sometimes came to the caravans-and, upon finding a human Danny, assumed that he was something akin to the 'Freakshow.' What lovely irony.

In the beginning, he'd tried to seize this golden opportunity, and beg his spectators for help-but that had never worked, either. They'd only gawked at him, shoving fistfuls of popcorn in their mouths. Occasionally, they admired the vast collection of 'body art' that he had collected, but they usually called his 'act' rather lame. Sometimes, they hurled garbage at him when they wanted to see him do a trick.

Danny's jaw tightened in anger, but just as quickly elapsed into despair. Hanging himself was looking rather appealing once again...

A chill ran down his spine upon recalling the foreign touch-one that had been seemingly gentle, one that belonged to some other kid; a kid who wasn't a performer of Circus Gothica. It was probably the touch people gave another before you got seriously bruising.

Danny slowly rocked back and forth, uneasily eyeing the space before him, where he'd sworn that someone had called out his old name. Visitors to the Circus Gothica usually called him Phantasma-the stupid name that Freakshow had dubbed him.

Was this another of Freakshow's tricks?

Frowning lightly, Danny moved his hand back, only to brush it against something soft. He glanced down in surprise, before his eyes widened in bewilderment.

No way.

No freaking, friggin' way.

It was a peach; a lovely, unspoiled, fuzzy, golden peach. It rolled slightly as Danny sharply whipped his hands away from it, certain that it had to be an illusion. Amorpho sometimes played these sort of tricks on him whenever the shape-shifting actor felt particularly upstaged by Danny in a performance. Sometimes, he'd see one of his parents standing outside his cage, gazing at him.

Except he'd never seen the Actor become anything but another person before. Could he transfigure into a peach-or be stupid enough to try?

He stared at it for a moment or two. Then, he poked it. After cautiously verifying it as a solid, he hesitantly picked it up, cupping it in his hands.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten a real peach. One Halloween, when he'd done a particularly grandiose performance in St. Charles, he'd been given all the apples he could eat for an evening. He'd made himself practically sick, but just recalling the experience made his mouth water.

Confused, he gazed outside again, towards the stars he could see speckled in the distance.

Why in the world would Lydia bring him anything? Certainly Freakshow had to have forbidden his usual rations again-and the tattoo artist was probably still angry at him for attacking the Ring Master. So who-

He heard his stomach moan, and he stared at the peach the way a man dying of thirst might look at a pitcher of water.

What if it were poisonous? But hadn't he just been prepared to kill himself moments ago? Oh, the heck with it-

Danny swooped down, and immediately took a huge bite, shuddering as the peach's unbearably sweet juices touched his tongue. If he'd been any hungrier, he would have lapped at his own sticky hands.

Guzzling sweet nectar, Danny groaned in bliss as he ate around the peach core, wondering if the little stone were edible, too. It was a somewhat sad thought, but it was kind of hard to make much reasoning in a state of ravenous euphoria. He tore off the skin, not caring that he ate that, too-

"Hungry, aren't you?"

Mouth full of peach, Danny jolted, a bit of peach juice running down the corner of his mouth. Immediately, he stood up once again, sending drops of peach and blood scattering on the floor.

Alarmed, Danny scanned about his cage again, determined that he would not make a fool out of himself. Some audience members had once tried to get him dancing for a bit of rotten food, but Danny had simply lay there, tolerating their insults. Starving seemed an acceptable alternative to further humiliation.

His eyes, so superior to a normal human's-moved to a dark, lanky silhouette draped a few feet away from his caravan, much taller then the normal teens who haunted Freakshow's caravan. Danny squinted slightly, attempting to make out a face.

But the man had seen him looking, and began walking towards him. In the soft glow of the few lit candles flickering around outside the cage, Danny could make out a pair of gleaming black shoes, a finely pressed, articulate tuxedo, and...

He stared suspiciously at the man's face, not quite able to articulate how old he was. Although there were deep shadows underneath the man's hooded, midnight eyes, and he had long, white hair-his face didn't look so very lined at all. Probably meant that Moneybags got himself botox, or something.

Danny snorted lightly, and his visitor gave him a small smile in return. Immediately, Danny felt wary again, and turned to give the man a calculating stare.

His eyes were brimming with what looked like joy, and the unblinking gaze was starting to make the boy uncomfortable. What business did the man have to come down and-

But the man spoke up, interrupting Danny's train of thoughts.

"How's your ankle doing?" he asked gently, motioning at Danny's right ankle, the one unmarked by Freakshow's steel 'shock collar.'

Confused, Danny twitched it in response, not understanding where the man was getting it. Of course, essentially everything else was blazing under a wave of welts and fresh bruises, but his ankle didn't hurt at all.

The man's pale hand slowly slithered through the bars, and lightly stroked the appendage. Jumping, Danny went white, and hurriedly dragged it out of reach before beginning to slide away again. The tuxedo-clad man bit his lip, and slowly withdrew his hand from the caravan again.

"Terribly sorry," he murmured, staring at the drops of blood on the floor with a small frown beginning to grow on his face. "It's just that during your performance three weeks ago in New Hampshire, you were favoring your left foot over your right when you started to dance. I noticed there was a bandage draped over it, though it was made to accent your newest costume."

Danny's jaw dropped, mind going blank for a second.

...yes, he had injured himself in practice, but just how had the man known that, or known that he'd had another costume fitting? Something uneasy was looming on the surface.

Danny merely glanced down at the peach remains in his hands, wondering if it would be considered bad manners to continue eating it in front of his possibly-stalker visitor. Plenty of people followed the Gothica around on Tour, and he'd seen several visiting men disappear with some of the female troupe in their caravans before, but...

He closed his eyes, wishing that he'd thought to wipe off his stupid eye makeup.

"Really? Well, I'm doing well enough, now, thank you all the same." he said curtly, wondering when the weird man would get bored of Q&A.

He could still feel the man gazing at him. Unsettling. He thought he heard the man chuckle.

"Yes, well, I do make it a point to pursue Circus Gothica's perfomances, and regularly check into the events. I scarcely grow tired of it."

He paused, a small, ravenous smile curling onto his face, as if he were enjoying his own little private joke.

"Well...not so much for the performance, as for...well, you might say my particular venture is my guilty little fascination."

He must have been ogling one of the Female Stars. Danny's brow furrowed.

"Doesn't a grown man have anything better to do then to follow a stupid circus?" the boy muttered, before goosebumps began rising at the back of his neck.

Wait a second...wait just a darn, bloody-!

"How did you know I was Phantasma?" Danny angrily demanded, his mouth forming into a small O, accidentally dropping what was left of his peach outside the bars. Mentally cursing himself, he wished he had it back-to either devour it, or huck it at the man. How did he...?

The man simply smiled again, which was all the more unnerving.

"The first time I came to Circus Gothica, I admit, I was more then a little skeptical concerning the validity of the act. However, when I saw actual ghosts performing for your sad little employer, I was rather intrigued. Begging your pardon on my slight to your boss, Daniel."

"Believe me, nothing taken," the teen mumbled, now starting to feel a little scared again. Another good question: While people admired the Gothica actors as unworldly skilled, few people recognized them as ghosts.

And yet another good one: How the heck did the man know his name?

But the man had not yet finished. His hands were draped over the emerald bars, never taking his gaze off the teen.

"However, my interest soon waned...until your number came on, dear boy. I thought I'd already died when I saw you ascend up those lanterns, into the air. You do ballet magnificently, by the way."

"It's not ballet, it's performance art!" Danny snapped, his face flaming. The man simply shrugged, and Danny scowled, inching back to a corner of his prison.

"And you're still not answering me!"

Vlad gave the boy a gentle look.

"As I was saying, I literally believed I'd died-and that you'd died-when your hair turned white, and you took off. I'd never actually believed in the possibility of a human and spectral hybrid coexisting naturally in the same body!"

Danny opened his mouth, and then shut it as Vlad went on to exclaim,

"Such a miracle! It was beyond fantastic! When you swooped overhead, I had to resist the urge to tug you down myself, and confirm for myself whether or not those ridiculous wings were actually apart of your body. Your skin was so pale-and then, your entire body lit up like a candle-"

"Stage Art, dude," said Danny nervously.

The man cast him an annoyed look.

"Do not insult my intelligence, boy. When the performance ended, I tried to get to you-speak with you-but you'd already disappeared, and when I went to the Caravans to affirm your location, they had already disembarked."

The man shuddered at the memory, and drooped his head, allowing his forehead to rest against the glowing bars as he miserably stared at the ground.

"I knew then that I had to follow the elusive haunt. It's been close to seven months, now-I've been following you from Orlando to Quebec."

Stalker. Stalker Fruitloop. Instead of a new towel, why didn't he just ask for a nice can of mace for the Christmas Truce?

His visitor looked up, seemed to take notice of Danny's expression, and worriedly commented:

"Forgive me, Daniel, if I'm upsetting you. Truth of the matter is, I'm retired, now-and a rather eccentric specterologist. I simply have the means to pursue my interests."

Danny cringed, not at all enjoying the term. So what was he-some fascinating phenomenon to lock up in a lab and study?

"Y'know what they call a lot of homeless people?" Danny snapped, watching the man give him a bewildered look.

"I...I, well, ah-"

"A lot of people call the majority of them crazy. But when a wealthy person starts acting 'crazy,' people simply call him 'eccentric,' which, of course, is all right then."

The man stared at him for a moment, and then, burst out laughing. Raising an eyebrow, Danny watched as the man clutched at his side, still chuckling as he clung onto the bar. Once his fit had subsided, he turned to look at the boy again, smirking, and wiping his eyes.

"So very true. You really are just as brilliant as I heard."

Immediately, Danny was back on his guard.

"And how do you know my name? And what's YOURS, for that matter?"

That wiped the smile off the man's face. He uneasily cleared his throat, not quite looking at the boy from the cage.

"...Daniel, I needed to know more about you. I wanted to know if you had parents who traveled with the circus; whether or not you went to school, whether you stayed in comfortable..."

He trailed off, and his unhappy frown spread across his face as realization finally broke through his euphoria upon contacting the halfa.

"Daniel. Are you staying in that revolting...thing of your own volition?"

No answer. The man's eyes flickered to Danny's chest cavity, and his expression darkened. Cursing himself, his visitor struck his forehead, eyes narrowing into blue slits.

"Daniel. You did a marvelous job in your performance this evening. But you're covered in..."

No answer. Danny seemed to have found an immediate interest in the full moon outside. The aristocrat trailed off, before hurrying around the other side of the caravan. The teen attempted to twist his body back around, but it was too late. The man had seen his back.

For a moment, Danny could only hear the crickets sleepily chirping to one another, and the grass rustling in the breeze.

Then, he winced, as a frightful roar echoed from behind him, loud enough to break the sound barrier. He shoved his palms over his ears as the entire caravan began shaking wildly back and forth on its wheels-screeching a jagged, shrill rhythm on the tracks beneath it.

Numb with disbelief, Danny tried to twist around again, but his back stung violently, and his stomach heaved; his concentration was then focused on avoiding the peach's returning for a visit.

He shook, and gagged, as the Earth continued vibrating, making the wooden floor rock violently back and forth, sending Danny's face straight to the ground.

"Ooof!" he gasped, feeling a concourse of anger and confusion sweep through him once again as a stream of strangled swear words that all sounded suspiciously like dessert titles echoed out behind him. Still nursing his sore back, Danny winced as the wind swept into a gale, plastering his raven spikes behind him.

What was this? An Earthquake? No, Earthquakes didn't make the wind howl like this, nor make such a bone-biting chill in the air.

What happened to the man? What was he doing? Was he alright?

"Where are you?" Danny shouted over the wind, shuddering as cold vibes began to rack the air once again.

The wind picked up, and started to whistle in the boy's ears, making him plaster hands over his head as a new voice echoed out:

"Wait here."

The new voice was gaunt, hoarse, and carried a ragged edge, as if its owner were slightly hysterical. Who else had come to the caravans?

But just as Danny finally stumbled to his feet, and spun around, he found himself alone once again.

The sky rumbled overhead. Considering the number of clouds slowly swarming over the stars, it was going to rain soon. And hard.

'Wait here.'

Lying on his stomach again, the boy kicked his legs back and forth in the air, wondering, as was his wont, if he were dreaming. The man had all but disappeared a few feet away from him-and it had already started pouring outside.

'Wait here...' What else was he supposed to do? Danny would have laughed; would have cried if the situation had not been so serious. Watching a small bruise fading away on his wrist, he stuck out his hands from behind his cage, cupping them so as to collect water. Hurriedly, he drew them back in, took several hasty, gulping sips, and repeated.

By tomorrow afternoon, things would be much the same as they always were. He'd wake up, Lydia would put ointment on his back, and they'd get practicing for tomorrow's show.

He cast a curious look at the looming circus tent nearby, wondering why none of the performers had yet to return back for the night.

Curling up under one of his two towels, Danny waited for the rain plattering on his roof to lull him to sleep, but tonight, the heavy curtain of plummeting rain was far too noisy. Thunder kept booming overhead, which made the boy a little nervous. Weren't the Ghostproof bars on his prison electrical conductors?

He thought he could hear some heavy explosions emanating from the nearby circus-he supposed that they were practicing their cannon routine. He wasn't at all sure why they were bothering in the middle of a storm.

Biting the inside of his mouth to keep himself from making a noise, Danny thought he could faintly hear screams overhead, but surely that was the thunder. He curled up into a warm ball, remembering the creepy visitor's words.

If he had indeed been real, he knew who and what Danny was. Of course, there was no feasible way to get anyone to believe him-though dying under the Guys in White and dying under Freakshow's thumb were essentially one and the same...

If the man cared enough to stalk him, what was he after? There was the obvious, but as Danny didn't need another nightmare, he was not going to dwell on that. What if the man were willing to continue following them? What if he were-

Danny chuckled softly.

He'd learned by now not to hope. Perhaps the man was simply just like the other Emo-wannabes who haunted his existence-a cruel lunatic. If he just forgot about him, and-

He started; he could hear footsteps moving towards him in the long, wet grass. Danny immediately shot his head up, staring at his sober visitor once again.

He was steadily getting soaked; his hair, which was not white, but silver-was plastered to his head. His expression was unfriendly, to say the least, and on his arm...

"You're bleeding," Danny faltered, wondering where in the world the large gash had come from. Had the man simply run off with the other man who'd followed him to Danny's cage?

The man simply shrugged, still managing to look somewhat debonair, even if the slanky man DID look remarkably close to a drowned cat.

"As are you. But I don't see anyone doing anything about that, mmm?"

Danny flushed, but the color soon drained out of his cheeks. Vlad was now pointing a titanium pistol directly at the cage, lines under his eyes more accented then ever.

"W-What the heck are y-you doing?" he demanded, nervously inching away from the man's aiming rage, considering screaming for help. They'd never come before, but...

The man only gave him a cold stare.

"Move, Daniel" was all he said, before he pulled the trigger.

BANG!

With a burst of ectoplasmic energy, and the ground rumbling beneath him once again, Danny flinched, throwing his arms out before him to avoid the inevitable-

The entire Caravan vibrated wildly, and now, the scent of burning metal and wood reached his nostrils. Knocked down into the corners by the force of the blast, Danny parted his trembling fingers slightly.

What he saw convinced him at last that he was dreaming.

The door had become an enormous, smoking crater-half of the caravan had been blown away into a pile of blackened cinders, with the ghostly metal twisted in melted, unrecognizable shapes, with green fire still lapping at the edges.

The man gestured impatiently at the boy, but Danny was still stunned in the corners. With a sigh, the man carefully navigated his way inside past the shrapnel, and slowly reached downwards for the teen.

At last recovering some feeling in his numb legs, Danny did not permit the man to pick him up, but did take his hand, and allowed him to guide him out into the rain, underneath the dark skyline; free.

Danny lay on the wet grass, watching dully as the man approached him with a glowing green key-the one that Freakshow had taunted him with so many times.

"How?" he asked feebly, as the man bent over him, warning him not to move as he set about unlocking the mechanical tendrils from Danny's flesh. "I d-don't understand. What happened? Where's the other-"

But the man ignored him.

"Daniel. Be quiet. This is going to take a little time-I assume, of course, that you can't phase this off?"

It took Danny a moment to realize that the man was still talking to him. Rain still flying down, he watched in disattached disbelief as the man began unlocking some of the many seals on the boy's shock collar.

Something warm was streaming down Danny's face again, but he couldn't tell if he were crying, or if that was simply rain. Maybe both.

Danny glanced towards the tents again, questions still buzzing inside of him like a horde of angry bees. But desperation was more prominant.

"How did you get this back?" he asked quietly, wincing as the man withdrew a screw from his leg. Maybe it was good to be so numb. While the screws were bloody, they didn't seem to be causing him much distress. It was kind of hard to see what the man was doing, though.

The man peeled away a few wires, being careful not to shock either of them, particularly in the rain.

"Oh...the Ringmaster of Circus Gothica and I had a little chat. We decided it was in everyone's best interests if I were to take you under my custody."

Ignoring that last line, as Danny knew he was going to get as far, far away as he possibly could from this man and this evil place as soon as he could, he asked another question:

"You bribed him?" Danny asked hoarsely, voice cracking in disbelief. There was no way in hell that the deranged freak would let his star go. He would have had to offer a gross billion before the ringmaster would even consider the possibility.

The man scoffed, before slowly withdrawing the penultimate piece of Danny's shackle, a cord flexing in his forehead upon seeing the skin that had been eaten away.

"Depends on what you mean by 'bribing' dear boy. I simply introduced him to an old friend, is all. There. You're good to go."

Staring at the bare, though heavily scarred flesh of his ankle for the first time in months, Danny sat there for a moment, and then, attempted to go ghost. He half-expected a surge of fire to rush in, as was the restraining device's wont to do so when he tried to transform outside the Circus Tent. Phasing through the tent flaps would be suicide, too, considering that they were ghost-repellent.

But nothing happened.

Breathing borderline hyperventialation, Danny stared at his gloved hands and silver feet, underneath the heavens. With no shackles. No spectral bounds.

It was just...him.

He smiled, standing up uncertainly, not noticing that the aristocrat's eyes were still following his every move. Like he did in the ring, he slowly extended his arms out, closing his eyes as he felt the raindrops plaster over his eyes.

And then, he promptly fainted.

Still dreaming...

He heard a strangled sound, an irritated snarl, and found himself floating. The pain in his back was all but gone now, because he was still dreaming.

He had to be. Only, this dream would kill him if he left. Maybe, just maybe, Freakshow had whipped him into a coma, and he'd be sleeping for the rest of his life. Ah, but what a blissful alternative!

He heard a car engine slowly purr to life, though he didn't comprehend what it was. Something cold and wet draped itself around him, then went away, before an annoyed voice answered: "Franz, just fetch another one. We're soaked."

That didn't really mean anything to the boy, at this point. Delirious from delight, pain, and hunger, he opened his eyes slightly as he found himself adrift on something warm. He heard a car door slam, a set of footsteps hurry away, and another door open and slam several feet away.

Hands began moving through his hair, and he opened his eyes a bit more, smiling faintly at the looming lights overhead. Face growing pink in color, he felt a hand press into his cheek, and he unconsciously nuzzled into the touch, spots coloring his vision once again.

He had a genuine moment of lucidity as his mouth opened one last time, not comprehending where he was, or who he was, for that matter.

"Who are you? What's your name?"

The hands withdrew, and then, Danny felt an icy breeze drift over him once again, as a pair of unfamiliar gloved hands seized him by the midrift, lay his head on something soft, and began stroking at his hair, albeit a bit more roughly then before.

Before he drifted off, he heard a voice rumble from overhead, so different then the man's catlike purr:

"Vladimir Plasmius. At your service."

In the silent, outdoor practice Ring, Amorpho surveyed his new kingdom, not at all sorry by the scene that lay before him, though admittedly, a little nauseated.

Ectoplasm. Green ectoplasm everywhere, running in little pools, the rain helping to spread it trickling downhill in all directions. He could taste the smell of gore. Thank heavens he'd been lurking in his own caravan when this had all started, elsewise, he the faceless ghost knew he would not be alive.

He'd watched the terrible ghost from a distance, shuddering at the great and awful memory of the slaughtering. The vampiric ghost with red, red eyes had been in a fury-and had left only moments ago, when every single performer lay dead. How sad, that even a ghost's best techniques should omit to nothing against such armagedon.

'Day of wrath, day of mourning! Heaven and Earth in ashes burning...'

He hummed lightly under his breath, passing a few spleens that had been torn out, a clown's face that had been premptively ripped off, and...a door that had been knocked off its hinges, marked with a cliche star and the words 'Manager...'

With his umbrella, Amorpho kicked over the door, and drew back, aghast at the scene.

Covered head to toe in bruises, burns, lacerations, there lay the remains of the Ringmaster, next to the motionless figure of his beloved Lydia. She was covered in emerald stains; he in red. Both of their hearts had been torn out.


Whoa. O.o That was...whoa. *Cowers under bed.*

Okay, yes, a little cliche, I know. But it's my first M rated fiction, so please don't hold it against me, peoples.

Let's clarify a few things, shall we...?

Uno: Danny and Vlad can touch the bars in human form. Otherwise, they just get a good shock.

Dos: Vlad still has a LOT of 'splaining to do. And he's actually unaware of what truly happened to the circus. O.o Plasmius and Masters are kind of...complicated to explain. Not so much that they're different entities...they're just not one and the same.

Tres: Danny doesn't really want to go with Vlad; he's just a little high on happy right about now. And sick.

Quatro: I KNOW that the spelling might not be great. I don't have Word. Get off of me.

Cinco: Yes, I do realize this is something akin to Monster House. But the Plot Bunnies won't go away.

Seis: Please review! :D *Eyes get watery* Please?