Hello, all! I tried really hard to get this chapter finished in a month's time, unfortunately it was one of those chapters that required me to take my time and just focus on getting it right. Hopefully that will show in the characters and how they interact with each other. This is a character heavy chapter, especially for Sam and Phantom.

Big thanks as always to Kris and Abby. When I completed the first draft, Abby found where the story was lacking and helped me turn it into the chapter it is now. Like, for real, it went from 12k to 16k words after I followed her advice, and it was definitely needed lol. Another big thanks to Ecto who helped me sprint through the rough draft so I had something tangible I could work with and then helped me with a quick edit on the final draft so I could get it posted this weekend.

Strong hints of unrequited DxS in this chapter, but it's not used to bash Sam's character. If you're hoping for Sam to be a witch, you won't find it here. She's a 16-year-old girl trying her best, and that comes with flaws, but the kind that should make you empathize with her. If I did this right, you should want to hug her by the end.


Chapter 27
Can't Move Forward; Can't Go Back


"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." - A.A Milne, Winnie the Pooh


Fighter or not, Danny was in no better shape than Tucker. Did that stop Danny from trying to run away from his problems, though? Nooo, of course not!

"Why does it…always have to be…running?" Tucker yelled between breaths.

"Stop chasing after me then!" Danny snapped back over his shoulder.

Tucker groaned and kept running. He was gaining on his friend, but at what cost? He wasn't built for this kind of exertion. They had only run half a football field across the lawn, and Tucker was already panting, his leg burning.

"Danny!" Tucker whined. "Stop. Can't we just—just talk?"

"No!" Danny shouted back. "Leave me alone!"

That so wasn't going to happen after Danny had made such a mess of things.

That fight had been totally unnecessary. Couldn't Danny see they were just trying to help? Couldn't he see how much Sam cared about him?

Tucker forced a burst of speed from his already protesting legs and jumped forward. Had Danny managed to dodge, Tucker would have landed face-first on the grass, but Tucker caught Danny's shoulders at the apex of his jump. His body crashed against Danny's back, his full weight bearing down on his friend. Danny yelped as they went down together. Danny tried to prevent a total fall, but his arms weren't strong enough to hold their combined weight.

The impact with the ground knocked Tucker's jaw against Danny's shoulder.

"Ow!" Danny and Tucker yelped at the same time.

Danny wiggled under Tucker before Tucker had a chance to recover. Tucker squawked, indignant. There was no way he was going to be able to successfully wrestle a self-proclaimed fighter, so Tucker spread himself over Danny's back and went limp. Danny swore at the dead weight Tucker had become and tried to push himself up by his knees—with little success.

"Would you just stop already?" Tucker whined.

"Get off me!"

"Not until you hear me out!"

"Fuck off!"

"Oh, that's charming," Tucker said sarcastically. "How does your lover half feel about that mouth of yours?"

Danny growled. An elbow struck Tucker's side, and he gasped in pain. His whole body tensed in reaction, no longer limp and heavy. Danny quickly shoved up with his legs. Tucker fell forward but wrapped his arms around Danny's shoulders and refused to be pushed off. Danny twisted, wiggling under him. They rolled onto their sides. Danny was a skilled fighter, clearly able to think two moves ahead of Tucker, but Tucker had little cousins. He quickly wrapped his legs around Danny's stomach too, clinging to him like a koala.

"Tucker!" Danny complained.

"Just listen!" Tucker yelled. "Stop running! Stop fighting! It's fine, okay?"

Danny growled again and tried to pull Tucker's legs apart. He pushed up with his hips, twisted in Tucker's arms, and squirmed worse than Tucker's cousins whenever they wrestled. They were only kids. They hadn't spent two years fighting ghosts, bullies, and the occasional fan who got too close. Tucker groaned, struggling to hold onto Danny's fighter half.

"I don't care that you like guys!" he continued. "You should have told me sooner, but, like, it's not a big deal so long as you're not checking me out in the showers." He paused, considered the fine shape he had struck in the mirror earlier that day, and amended, "Although I totally wouldn't blame you." Danny thrashed again, and Tucker's cheeks heated at all the rubbing their bodies were doing. "Er, you're not getting turned on, like, right now, are you?"

"Oh my fucking god, Tucker," Danny groaned. He struggled against Tucker with renewed vigor, kicking and thrashing in Tucker's grasp.

"Because, I mean, if a girl wrapped her arms and legs around me like this, I would totally—"

"Tucker!" Danny threw back his head, but Tucker managed to pull his own head back in time to avoid a collision. "Get to your point!"

"It's fine that you like your ghost half like that! Your taste absolutely sucks, man, but it's your business, and I'm not going to get in your way. Choose whoever the fuck you want!" Tucker grunted as Danny's elbow struck his side again. "Though, for the record, you're an idiot. Why would you choose your own ghost half when Sam is right there?"

"I'm not—she's—" Danny cut himself off, swearing viciously. He grabbed Tucker's arm, lifted it away from his collarbone, and ducked his head. Tucker assumed Danny was just going to try lifting Tucker's arm over his head.

No.

No, of course not.

Why would the fighter do something harmless like that?

Danny's teeth bit into Tucker's fucking arm.

Tucker shrieked. It hurt, but worse than the pain was feeling Danny's tongue against his arm, saliva on his skin, his breath—gross, gross, gross—

"Danny!" Tucker howled. He jerked his arm free and shoved Danny away from him, kicking at him for good measure. "That's disgusting! What are you; three? Just because you're gay now doesn't mean you can just go around biting—"

Danny shoved Tucker onto his back. Tucker yelled and tried to kick his friend away. Danny brushed his legs aside, pinned Tucker's shoulders to the ground, and leaned his hip on Tucker's stomach to keep him from wiggling free. Better than Danny straddling his waist, but Tucker still wrinkled his nose at all the physical contact happening between them. It wouldn't have mattered a week ago, but it felt weird now.

"I'm not gay!" Danny shouted above him. "I'm—I'm bi! There's a difference! And I'm not choosing anyone! Especially not—not Phantom. That's crazy!"

Tucker hooked his hands around Danny's wrists and scoffed. "Then why did you stomp all over Sam's heart and kick her for good measure?"

"I didn't!"

"You were a total jerk!"

"She was a jerk first!"

"You need to go apologize or you're going to lose her, you idiot."

"So what?"

"You still have feelings for her! Admit it!"

"I don't!"

"Then who do you have feelings for?"

Danny dug his fingers painfully into Tucker's shoulders. "No one."

"Not even Valerie?" Tucker taunted.

Danny clenched his jaw. His blue eyes darted away from Tucker's as if searching for an escape. "She's my girlfriend, of course I have feelings for her."

"Right," Tucker agreed sarcastically. "They're just all in Phantom's head right now, right?"

Danny's gaze jerked back to Tucker's face. "Yes. Exactly."

"So, right now, you don't have romantic feelings for her? For anyone?"

"That's right."

"Not Sam?"

"No."

"Not Phantom?"

Danny glanced away again. "Of course not. He's my ghost half. I'm bi, not insane."

"Uh, huh," Tucker said, unconvinced. "I want to believe that, man, I really do. But you're at least half insane because your lover half is fucking smitten with you. I just don't understand why."

"You and me both," Danny muttered under his breath.

"Ah-ha!" Tucker cried triumphantly. "See? It has to be because of the way the Ghost Catcher split you two. Nothing else makes sense!"

Danny groaned. "It's not."

"How can you be so sure? Like, what's the problem? He's the lover! Of course he'd fall for…well, I would have figured on Sam, but whatever. He's a lover so he's falling in love. Easy explanation. If you weren't overreacting so much, you would see it too."

Danny scowled. His gaze crawled back to Tucker's face, his eyes hesitating to meet Tucker's. "He was flirting with me before he became the lover half."

Tucker frowned. "You mean during kissing practice?"

"Leading up to practice, during practice, after practice…"

"But you said he didn't start falling for you until you punched him." Which, given any other circumstance, Tucker would have found hilarious. He wished he could have seen it.

Danny closed his eyes, his eyebrows pinching together. "The—the flirting came first. He was a-attracted to me before I punched him."

Tucker studied his friend's expression, noting the discomfort and the way Danny kept his head partially turned away from him. Shame? Or something else?

"And you?" he asked carefully. "Were you, uh, attracted to your—him? Are you attracted to Phantom?"

Danny clenched his jaw, muscles jumping beneath the skin. He shook his head, but he didn't say the words aloud, and he still wouldn't look at Tucker.

"Danny…"

Danny groaned. He released Tucker's shoulders and dropped onto the ground beside him. Tucker sat up on his elbows, but Danny rolled onto his side before Tucker could say anything, his back to Tucker.

"Hey." Tucker poked Danny's shoulder. It was stiff, barely moving at his prod. "Whatever is going on inside that stubborn head of yours, you can't shake me off. I'll be as annoying as it takes."

"You're worse than Jazz," Danny muttered.

"Good. I mean, we're basically brothers, right? I know all your secrets. I know your favorite animal is a duck, and you like to sleep with a teddy bear when you get lonely. You ate cake off the floor with me when we were kids, and you've been scared of clowns ever since Freakshow's circus. You want to drive a motorcycle because you said it's like flying."

Danny grunted.

Tucker nudged his shoulder. It was looser that time. "C'mon, Danny. Or do you want me to believe the Ghost Catcher changed this too?"

"It didn't—" Danny swallowed and finally glanced over his shoulder at Tucker. "Of course it didn't. I just…what do you want me to say? This is weird for me too, but you just keep making it worse."

Tucker smiled sheepishly. "Bro, the thought of you kissing your ghost half fries my brain a little. I gotta fall back on jokes to get through it.

Danny scowled. "Your coping method sucks."

"Ha! Like you're one to talk." Tucker sat up the rest of the way and crisscrossed his legs. "Come on, Danny, stop moping. You don't know how you feel about him, and that's fine. Totally understandable. It's a really weird situation, but we got time. We can figure it out together. Let's just go back to Sam so you can apologize."

Instead of following Tucker's example, Danny wrinkled his nose and glared up at Tucker from his place on the ground. "Apologize? For what?"

For what?

For what?

"Dude!" Tucker exclaimed. "For being a total ass to her! She's had this, like, major crush on you for years! And you just threw it back in her face because you lost your temper! Seriously. What the hell, Danny? That's not like you."

Danny scowled. "Well. Maybe the Ghost Catcher changed a few things after all."

"Not this. Not where it counts." Tucker grabbed Danny's shoulder and gave it a small shake. "You're not a jerk. Don't start acting like one now."

Danny groaned, but on the next tug on his shoulder, he allowed Tucker to roll him onto his back. He glared sullenly up at Tucker. "I meant what I said."

"Sure, fine, I could see that, but it was the way you said it. If you don't like Sam, you could have just let her down gently, you know?"

Color flooded Danny's face as he avoided Tucker's eyes again.

"Unless…" Tucker said slowly, "…you do still like her."

I knew it! he crowed in his own head.

"No," Danny said quickly. Too quickly? Or was that just Tucker's wishful thinking? "I know I used to. Back when we were fourteen. Phantom thinks there should be something now too, so, I don't know, maybe? She's pretty. She's cool. And we're friends. But…"

"But?" Tucker prompted.

"She was just being so unfair." Danny glanced at Tucker and then away again, scowling. "I mean, yeah, I get why she was too afraid to say anything this whole time, but that makes it just as much her fault as mine—er, ours. And the stuff with Phantom? It's like she was trying to hurt my feelings! She doesn't have to believe his theory, but she could at least hear him out about it, especially if it means he's a real person who's desperately trying to find a way to not fucking die. She should be helping him!"

"Yeah. Well." Tucker shrugged. "She's a girl. Girls never make sense. There are things going on inside their heads we men can't possibly understand."

Danny gave him an unimpressed look. "Sam has always made sense."

Tucker grinned crookedly and pointed a finger at his friend. "Ah-ha, and that right there is why you two are lovebirds."

Danny's cheeks reddened. He knocked Tucker's finger away. "Knock it off, Tuck, I'm being serious. What's her problem?"

"You want me to guess?"

"Please. You've been spending more time with her than I have."

Tucker's cheeks warmed, but his darker skin would, thankfully, keep his blush better hidden than Danny's. "Alright, well…" Tucker tipped his head to the side and rolled his shoulder. "I think she wants normal Danny back. You know. The one that is half ghost?"

Danny grunted. "The one that is special."

"No, it's not your powers. Well, not just your powers. They probably had something to do with it in the beginning, because what girl doesn't swoon over your ghost half?"

"Valerie," Danny deadpanned.

Tucker coughed. "Er, anyway. It's not just your powers. We talked a little about it before the locker room thing. She misses who you were when your fighter personality and Phantom's lover personality balanced each other out, and she's worried she'll never, like, get to see him again if you and Phantom don't merge."

"We're merging on Friday!" Danny sat up quickly, his expression incredulous. "I'm not going to just—we have to at least try to merge. And if it works, we are never, ever, ever going to do this again."

Tucker arched an eyebrow. Danny looked fierce and determined, blue eyes narrowed, his jaw set, but really? Really? "Uh, dude? Your ghost half doesn't seem too keen on that idea. He's—" the words caught in Tucker's throat. He had to cough them out, "—in love with you."

"Falling," Danny corrected. The fierce look in his eyes softened before he broke eye contact with Tucker. "He's not in love, he's just…falling in love."

"What's the difference?"

"The landing?" Danny offered dryly. "He's—it's not going to work out. He knows it can't work. He's just going to crash on Friday because I can't catch him. I can't let him know I…" Danny glanced briefly at Tucker. "If I let him see that I might—how much I'm—" Danny pinched his eyes shut and buried his fingers in his hair. He clenched and bared his teeth in a grimace. "Fuck. Why does he have to be so—so—"

"Charming?" Tucker suggested. "Suave? Annoyingly perfect in everything he does?" He sighed dramatically and braced his arm on Danny's raised knees. "Danny, man, how rose-tinted are your glasses? Because from where I'm sitting, your ghost half is cool, but he's not so cool I'd be willing to give up having ghost powers for him."

"You haven't seen how fucking romantic that asshole can be. He just—" Danny groaned and pulled on his hair. "He just has to fucking look at me, and it's like my stomach flips and my heart starts racing—"

"Extremely rose-tinted, got it!" Tucker interrupted quickly. "I don't need to hear how my best friend experiences attraction to his ghost half, thank you very much!"

Danny jerked his hands out of his hair and glared at Tucker, scandalized. "I'm not attracted to him!"

"Bro, that is classic butterfly fluttering. You're either attracted to him, or you have a crush. Might be both."

Danny slapped his hands over his face and groaned. He fell backward onto the grass.

Tucker poked his hip. "Hey, man, c'mon. It's not the end of the world."

"Yes, it is," Danny whined. "If Phantom finds out I maybe, sort of, possibly like him, he'll do everything he can to tempt me out of merging with him. And he's fucking good at it, too. Like—like during kissing practice? I didn't want to kiss him, but he kept somehow making it feel so good, I—"

"Don't really want to hear about what you two got up to during practice either!" Tucker interrupted.

Danny groaned, his face going red beneath his hands. "We just kissed Tucker. That's all."

"Uh-huh. Don't actually answer this, but how many times, and what did you two do with your hands?"

Danny swallowed hard, his blush spreading down his cheeks to his throat.

"Okay, so," Tucker said brightly, trying to brush past all…that, "if Phantom knows you like him, he'll try to seduce you away from merging. Got it. One problem." Tucker held up his finger. "Everyone can see you're at least a little…let's say…flustered. By his attention." That was putting it mildly, but whatever. "For all his flaws, Phantom isn't blind. If you've been feeling things around him, he has probably already noticed something."

"Fucking damn it," Danny whispered.

"Look." Tucker patted Danny's knee reassuringly. "If Phantom starts making moves on you, and you need help resisting his charms, we got your back. Let's just go back to Sam and get this whole mess straightened up. You two can apologize for being blind idiots, I can gloat about being the least troubled friend, and the three of us can start working on a plan to corral your lovey-dovey ghost half through the Ghost Catcher again. Heh, we can use you as bait."

"No," Danny whined. "That's not what…I can't just force him to merge with me. What if he's right about us being separate people?"

Tucker shrugged and scratched absently at his jaw. "Well. So what if he is right? What does that really change? You still want your powers back, don't you? You still want to fight and protect the city, and you can't do that without merging with your ghost half."

Danny finally removed his hands and looked at Tucker. "Yes," he admitted quietly, his brow furrowed above his suddenly intense gaze, "but the merge requires who we are to fade. How can I force Phantom to die a ghost's death just to get what I want? How can I call myself a hero when I'm basically murdering him for my own ends?"

A chill raced up Tucker's spine. "Um…"

Danny sat up and hugged his knees to his chest. "I'm not an idiot, okay? Whatever Sam thinks, I'm not giving into some stupid romantic fantasy just because Phantom is, uh…"

"Really good at making people swoon?" Tucker offered, grinning.

Danny wrinkled his nose. "I'm not swooning."

"You're swooning a little bit."

"I am not!"

"Danny, dude. You just said your heart races whenever he looks at you. You're fucking swooning."

Danny made a disgusted noise. "Fine! Whatever! Point is, it's not just because he's making me feel things. The ghost powers are really cool, and I liked feeling like I could make a difference, but the weight of that responsibility was crushing us. Why should we go back to the way things were when there's another way? The longer we're apart, the longer merging seems ridiculous. I mean…" Danny gestured at nothing with his left hand. "What do we actually gain from it? Go back to being a freak who doesn't belong anywhere? Go back to feeling like it's all on me? Go back to being alone?"

"You had us," Tucker pointed out. "You never had to deal with this alone."

Danny sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. And you guys are great, but it's different with Phantom. That's why watching the meteor shower with him meant so much. It meant a lot that he was finally letting me get away from all the kissing and romance crap, sure, but it was also that he was there. Him, me, both of us. We were there together. Just two people who really loved the stars watching meteoroids fall into the atmosphere. It was just us two above the clouds. It was just us. And…and we weren't alone anymore."

Danny's voice had softened as he continued until was almost whispering the last few words. Tucker shifted uncomfortably. It wasn't just Danny's voice. His eyes had softened, and his lips had formed that tiny, tender smile again as he lost himself in a memory.

Why?

What could possibly be so special about watching a meteor shower with yourself?

Tucker cleared his throat. "You could, uh, take Sam up to see the stars sometime. I'm sure she'd love to be alone up there with you, too."

Danny blinked and seemed to snap back to himself, his gaze refocusing on Tucker. He coughed and gave his head a little shake. "It wouldn't be the same. Phantom and I, we just…watched. We didn't really speak at all, we just enjoyed the moment. It was peaceful. So peaceful I fell asleep, right there on his lap." Danny blushed again, but he also smiled and rubbed a hand against his cheek, his gaze somewhat distant. "I guess that meant a lot to him…"

"Sam…" Tucker tried again.

"Sam would have insisted on talking—which is okay! I like talking to her. It's just, I've never really had that kind of peace with anyone before. There wasn't any pressure to do or say anything. Can you imagine what that's like? Being so comfortable with someone it's like you're alone but you're not? I could feel his arms around me, his powers holding us aloft, I knew I wasn't alone, but we barely spoke. We didn't need to speak."

Tucker bit his lip. Don't say anything, don't let your feelings about this get in his way, don't— "Sounds boring."

Danny hugged his legs tighter to his chest, and the softness in his eyes, at the corner of his lips, vanished behind an emotionless mask. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Maybe a little."

Damn it.

"Talking to Sam up there sounds way more fun," Tucker added hurriedly. "And romantic. And, and aren't you the fighter, anyway? Why would you want something peaceful? Doesn't sound like your speed, honestly."

Danny sighed. "You're right. It's not. Forget I said anything." He released his legs and climbed unsteadily to his feet, dusting the grass off his jeans.

Tucker scrambled to his feet as well. "Danny, wait. I didn't—I'm not trying to get between whatever is going on between you and Phantom, honest."

Danny snorted. "Yeah, you are. And you should, right? This is stupid. I shouldn't—" He cut himself off and shook his head. "If I keep thinking back on our time together, it just gets more real. And it's not supposed to be real. I can't feel anything for him. It's stupid. There can't be anything between us. We're…we're the same person. It can't work."

Tucker stared unhappily at his friend, his chest aching for him. Danny was clearly unhappy with what he was saying, and yet they both knew it had to be said. It wasn't fair. None of this was fair. Tucker just wanted his friends to be happy, but Sam wanted Danny—all of him—and Danny…well. It was as if Danny didn't know what he wanted anymore.

"Let's just go back to Sam," Danny said, subdued. "I'll apologize. She was just saying what I should have known all along."

"Danny…"

Tucker grabbed Danny's shoulder, but the fighter half of his best friend brushed his hand off. He frowned at Tucker, giving him a stern look that warned him not to push.

"It's fine," he said. "Just forget it, alright?"

Tucker didn't want to forget it…but he also didn't know what he could say to make this situation more bearable for Danny. He tried to think of a joke. Something to lift Danny's mood, even just a little.

"At least this didn't happen the first time the two of you split, huh?" he said, trying on a shaky smile. "Can you imagine what a mess that would have been? The full-time superhero falling for the fun dude? Talk about a disaster."

Danny rolled his eyes. He took a single step toward the picnic tables and then froze. Tucker turned and followed his gaze. Sam had stood up from the bench, but she wasn't watching them sort things out. She was looking around herself as if searching for something.

A moment later, she vanished from sight.

"Or not," Danny said sarcastically. "Never mind then. Guess I won't be apologizing."

Without another word, Danny turned his back on the school and walked toward the road. As if nothing had happened. As if Sam hadn't just vanished.

"Hey!" Tucker chased after him. "Wait, wait! Shouldn't we do something?"

"Like what?" Danny demanded. "Phantom said he needed to talk to her."

"That was Phantom? How can you be so sure?"

"Because Sam wasn't worried, duh. She probably texted him for a lift home or something because of her ankle. Maybe she'll corner him about his feelings now."

"And…" Tucker said slowly, "you're okay with that?"

"What?" Danny gave him a strange look. "Want me to chase after them? Demand they include me in whatever they're talking about?"

"Well," Tucker began hesitantly, "yeah? I mean, you and Phantom are supposed to be the same person. Whatever happens between him and Sam is your business too, right?"

Danny huffed and started walking faster. "Where was that attitude when you two tried to make me talk about Phantom when he wasn't even there?"

"Whoa now." Tucker jogged a few steps ahead of Danny and turned to face him, walking backward. "That was different. We were just trying to figure out what the heck was going on. A private conversation between your lover half and Sam is a little more romantically charged, and kind of important!"

"More important than my best friends digging into my sexuality?" Danny asked incredulously.

"Well, not when you put it like that, no," Tucker admitted grudgingly. "But whatever is going on between you and your ghost half is only temporary. That—" Tucker gestured at the empty picnic tables, "—is something that has been developing for over two years!"

Danny rolled his eyes. "Nothing is going to happen, Tuck. Phantom probably just wants to heal her ankle and make sure she's okay. He's like that."

"But he's your lover half! And he's going to be alone with Sam!"

"He's Phantom," Danny corrected, his blue eyes glaring at Tucker. "He's crazy about Valerie, and maybe a little crazy about me. He's not into Sam like that. Hell, he doesn't even remember why the fake-out, make-outs were such a big deal!"

"But he's the lover! And Sam is really into you two. You don't think something new might click between them? Like when Phantom starts feeling up her ankle?"

Danny crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. "No."

"No?"

"No!" Danny walked faster, maneuvering around Tucker. "And—and if something does, then that's great. Maybe then he'll stop fixating on me and start chasing after someone who won't accept him. Not that I would either, but. I mean. Why should I care if he likes Sam? He already likes Valerie. He's the lover. He loves everyone. He can develop a crush on anyone. Even me. Even…even Sam."

Tucker ignored his friend's subdued tone and slapped Danny on the back. "See? Now you're getting it. It's just the split making your ghost half all lovey-dovey."

"I didn't…say that…" Danny protested awkwardly. "I just mean he's—if he develops feelings for Sam, he'll have to merge with me. She wants both of us, not just my ghost half, right? So…So he'll have to merge with me to get anywhere."

Tucker nodded quickly. "Oh, good point! I guess I shouldn't worry then. So long as you don't mind missing out on them finally talking about their feelings."

Danny ducked his head and didn't respond. Tucker anxiously eyed his friend, but he told himself it was for the best. Sometimes, you just had to sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of your friends. Tucker knew that better than anyone.


Sam flopped onto her bed with a relieved sigh.

Danny Phantom levitated a few inches above her floor and gazed down at Sam with an amused smile. The late afternoon sunlight streaming in from her window washed away the ethereal glow that usually surrounded him, making him look almost human. Then he floated over her bed, and his glow reappeared as he entered the shadows, removing the mortal factor from his appearance.

"Before anything else happens, I think I should heal your ankle," Danny said.

Sam sighed in relief. "If your healing trick will work on me too, I'm willing to try just about anything." She sat up on her bed and began to unlatch the boot that had protected her ankle throughout the school day.

"Are you sure?" Danny asked. "Fenton and I defeated Undergrowth only two months ago. Overshadowing is another form of control. It won't be pleasant."

Sam slipped her foot from the boot and carefully touched it to the ground. "It's fine. I trust you."

Danny smiled at that. "Ready?"

Sam tossed her boot to the side. "Ready."

Danny fused his legs into a spectral tail, appeared to gather himself, and then he dove into Sam's middle. The chill of Danny's presence spread throughout Sam's body like snow getting dumped down her shirt. She tensed—and then her muscles relaxed against her will, obedient to a mind not her own. She tried to flinch away, but all she managed was to twitch her finger.

Fear sparked in her mind, terror that screamed like a caged animal. Her body didn't react to her emotions, however. Her breathing remained steady, and her heart continued beating its usual pace.

It was surreal.

Terrifying.

"I'm going to stand and put weight on your ankle," Danny warned, using her mouth, her voice.

Sam couldn't respond. She could only try to control the panic inside her own head.

It's Danny, she told herself. It's Danny. Calm down.

Except it wasn't. He was only half of Danny. Danny's ghostly half, specifically. A ghost who insisted he wasn't Danny and never had been. He could do anything while inside her body, and she couldn't stop him.

He's not Undergrowth, Sam told herself, changing tact. He's not going to use me as a puppet. He won't hurt me.

Danny forced her body to stand from the bed and bore her weight down on her sprained ankle. Pain shot up her leg in complete defiance of Sam's thoughts. Even then, Sam couldn't gain control of her throat enough to react. She couldn't scream. She couldn't jerk away.

Danny must have felt the pain—that was the whole point of this exercise, after all—but his only reaction was to make Sam's face wince. He lifted the weight off her foot and then stepped forward onto it. Sam's legs nearly crumbled beneath her, but Danny kept Sam from collapsing or otherwise saving her ankle from the agony of her sprain.

"Wow," Danny's ghost half said through her voice, "you really injured yourself."

No fucking shit, Sam thought.

Danny eased their weight off Sam's ankle, but even without the pressure, it continued to throb. Danny spared her further agony by floating her body toward the bed. He sat her against the headboard and spread her legs out across the mattress. Sam wanted to tense. She wanted to pull the ghost out of her body, but she couldn't even twitch her hand.

How had Danny's human half managed to rip the ghost out of him during the date? Sam felt completely helpless, yet somehow the Fenton half had managed to pull the ghost out of his body on two separate occasions.

Danny exited her body as smoothly as he had jumped in, freeing Sam to clutch her arms to her chest and gasp with her own lungs.

Danny floated back from her, his brow furrowed in concern. "Are you alright?"

Sam nodded quickly. "Yeah. Of course. Just never knew overshadowing was like that."

Danny brushed his fingers over his neck. A familiar, nervous tick. "It's not, usually. I didn't take over your mind, so you were fully aware of the experience. The people I—we—possess are often confused afterward about what happened." He blew out a hard sigh. "I thought perhaps it would be kinder to let you keep your awareness."

"No," Sam said firmly. "That was awful. I couldn't move or do anything except freak out while not feeling myself freak out."

Danny raised an eyebrow and tilted his head slightly to one side as if considering her words from a different angle.

"Do you need to overshadow me every time I have an injury that needs healing? Or is just once enough?" She shuddered. "Please say it's only once."

Danny shook his head. "I don't know. I am still figuring out the details of this power. All I know is I must overshadow the human I wish to heal in order to trigger my healing ability."

"Unless you're healing your human half," Sam muttered under her breath.

Danny heard her anyway. "Well…yes. But I was fused with him for so long, I have already felt how his body reacts to many of his injuries. I know how it hurts, what I can do to heal him. It's different with other humans. Each human body is unique. They experience pain differently."

Sam sighed. "I know. I know. You've said as much already. Just please do something about this ankle now."

Danny floated a few inches closer but then paused. "Wait. Will there be any trouble from your parents when you are suddenly healed and no longer wearing your boot?"

"Oh," Sam said, dismissively waving her hand, "there will be trouble. Especially once I tell them Danny Phantom healed my ankle. But what are they going to do about it? Sprain it again? Ground me? That hasn't worked since I was twelve.

Danny bobbed unhappily in the air before her, still frowning.

Sam rolled her eyes. "Let me handle my parents, Danny. I'm almost seventeen, now. I'm not going to let them control me anymore."

Danny bit his lip, nodded, and didn't question her further. He always tended to worry about her relationship with her parents. Having grown up with parents who loved and neglected him, he couldn't understand what was so frustrating about Sam's parents wanting a say in everything. It was just something they disagreed on. He felt she should give them a chance. Sam knew she never would until her parents learned to respect who she chose to be.

Danny floated along the length of her bed then sat on the mattress beside her feet. Sam grimaced but didn't pull her legs away when he reached for her ankle. He lifted Sam's foot onto his lap, otherworldly green eyes flaring with light. His hand and fingers glided over her heel, feeling the swollen muscle and tendon beneath.

Sam fought down her feelings, firmly shoving thoughts and daydreams into a mental trash bin. Her body was less easy to control. A rush of heat flooded her veins and brought a vibrant blush to her cheeks. Fortunately, Danny's attention was focused on her ankle.

Despite being the lover, Danny failed to notice his position on Sam's bed could be taken as suggestive. He was still blind to how this situation could be reinterpreted into a more romantic setting.

When it came to Sam, anyway. He understood perfectly well when his actions flustered his human half. According to Danny Fenton, he reveled in those moments. He was the one who first recognized romance was needed to make their little kissing session work that first time, and it was the ghost half who started it all by flirting with and then seducing the human half into their first real kiss.

Real. Not practice. Sam didn't care what Danny tried to label it as. If it took Jazz to make them stop, it wasn't practice.

Danny slid his hand a little farther up Sam's calf, feeling the tender muscle beneath her purple tights. Sam almost jerked her leg out of his grasp, her blush deepening.

"Just get it over with," she hissed.

Danny finally glanced up at her face. A blush of his own spilled across his cheeks, green light shining from his face as he finally understood the connotations of him touching her leg. "Um, Sam…"

"I know," she interrupted quickly. "Just—just heal my damn ankle."

Danny nodded and looked down again. Green ectoplasmic energy filled his eyes and flowed around his hands. It felt strange on Sam's skin. Cold, and with a little tingle, like static crawling along her skin. It wasn't painful, but it was irritating. This was as far as he had gotten the first time he had tried to heal her.

Sam pulled her lips back in a grimace. Danny hummed thoughtfully, and then the energy sank into Sam's ankle. Cool liquid soaked into her flesh and washed away the pain like water washing away dirt. She gasped. She pulled on her leg, but Danny's grip held it firm in his lap.

"Not yet," he warned, his eyes still glowing.

He poured more energy into her ankle and dragged his left hand along the aching tendon while the right held Sam's foot in the air. Sam shivered, her heart pounding. Danny's ghost half stared at her ankle in rapt attention, either unaware or uncaring of the way his white hair had begun to drift as if blown by the wind. Green light shone across his face and brought his features into sharp contrast.

Those thoughts and fantasies Sam had pushed aside rose from the bin and haunted Sam's mind, encouraging the feelings she was desperately trying to suppress.

Why? she asked in the privacy of her own head. Why couldn't it be me?

Her brain couldn't process what Danny was doing to her body. It hurt. It felt good. It felt like a massage and like he was traumatizing her nervous system. It was easier to let her mind drift to thoughts of what could have been if things had been different. If the lover half of Danny had looked to her instead of himself when Valerie betrayed his trust.

What if he had given up practicing on his human half and found me instead? Would he have developed feelings for me then? Could everything have been different?

Sam bit her lip. She would just hurt herself with those thoughts, and yet…

The green light faded from his eyes and hands. Instead of lowering Sam's foot to the bed, he delicately rolled her foot around in a circle, testing the joint.

"Does it still hurt?" he asked, inspecting his work.

The blush had faded from his cheeks.

"No," Sam said quietly.

Danny glanced up at her. Although Sam's face was no doubt still sporting an impressive blush, a responding blush didn't color Danny's cheeks this time. He didn't even acknowledge her awkwardness.

"I felt the power take hold," he explained. "I felt your ankle healing beneath my hand. It was…strange." He smiled ruefully. "A little gross too, but knowing that I'm saving you from the pain of that injury is like…finding purpose." His smile widened, and Danny ducked his head as if his own words made him feel shy. "Ghost thing, probably." He lowered her foot to the mattress and levitated into the air again, backing away. "Go ahead. Give it a test."

Sam scooted to the edge of her bed and threw her legs down over the side. She tested pressure on her ankle, pushing down with only a fraction of her weight. There was a slight twinge, but no other sign of pain. She pushed off the bed and stood carefully, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She took a step. Then another.

Danny beamed at her from above the bed. "It worked?"

Sam nodded and offered him a much smaller smile of her own. "It worked."

Danny pumped his fist into the air to celebrate his victory. Sam walked around her room, further testing the mobility of her ankle. It was a little stiff, but she wasn't sure if that was from Danny's healing power or because she had been unable to really move it all day.

"That's a handy power," she observed.

"It is." Danny lowered himself onto her bed, watching her. "I discovered it only after I had been separate from Fenton for a time. I'm not sure I would have learned to harness this ability if events hadn't played out as they had."

Sam's smile faded. "You mean, if you hadn't begun falling in love with yourself."

"I wouldn't put it like that, but…yes." Danny looked at her in concern. "Sam?"

She sighed and walked toward her bed on a freshly healed ankle that Danny's ghost half had been unable to heal the day before. If this power had arisen under any other circumstance, if Danny wasn't falling in love, if he wasn't determined to remain separate from his human half, this power would have been amazing. She would have been proud. Pleased. She loved when Danny discovered new powers.

Instead, Sam resented each pain-free step and the success he had found in harnessing it. It just brought Danny's ghost half that much closer to what he wanted, who he wanted. Someone he never should have wanted in the first place.

She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed again. "Why wasn't it me, Danny?"

"You?"

"Your human half explained how this all started," Sam said quietly. "Kissing yourself had to be weird. Why not just—why not come to me for help?"

Danny floated over to her side. "Sam…we would have been cheating on Valerie."

Sam laughed bitterly. "And you're not cheating on her now?"

"Now, maybe," Danny admitted, shamefully avoiding her eyes. "I think Fenton and I might be now. But it didn't start out that way. None of this was supposed to happen. If Fenton and I had known what kissing each other would lead to, we would never have gone through with it. Especially Fenton." Danny tilted his head as he smiled. "He was scared that first time. Did he tell you? He was afraid he would make a fool of himself in front of me. Me! I was only supposed to be a reflection of himself, but he saw me even then."

Sam frowned. Through Danny's excitement, she understood he meant for her to appreciate something about that, but whatever he was trying to convey, it escaped Sam's grasp.

Danny sighed and shook his head. "The point is, Sam, we did not seek an opportunity to find someone else. We practiced on each other because it should have been no different than using a duplicate." He brushed his fingers through his white hair. "If we had better control over duplication, that would have been the better option, truthfully…"

Sam rolled her eyes. "Idiot. The better option would have been to practice with your girlfriend."

Danny smiled sheepishly. "Perhaps. But Valerie had already betrayed Fenton's trust. His half of whoever we were wasn't comfortable letting her laugh at us a second time."

"And your half?" Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I wasn't either, though my reasoning had more to do with pride. I didn't want to disappoint her."

"So, neither half felt comfortable kissing Valerie?" Sam laughed bitterly. "And you still thought dating her was a good idea?"

"Yes. Because we like her, Sam. Dangerous as she is, cruel as she can be, we like her. Or we did. Fenton… Things have changed for him."

"Not by much." Sam looked down and discovered she had curled her hands into fists on her knees. "You said to ask him how he feels about me, and guess what? I'm too late. I wasted my chance. He doesn't feel anything for me."

"That isn't what he told me during the lunch period." Danny sat on the bed beside Sam, his weight dipping the mattress. He closed his fingers around Sam's balled fist, gently lifted her hand, and brought it to his lap. "He seemed surprised. Excited by the idea. It wasn't until he considered what it would be like to kiss you that he lost his nerve and concluded he didn't know how he felt."

Sam closed her eyes. Her heart soaked up the words, but Sam wasn't one to let her heart lead her astray. If she was, maybe she would have told Danny sooner how she felt. Maybe then she wouldn't have lost him.

"Why are you telling me this?" she demanded. "Don't you want your precious Fenton all to yourself?"

Danny chuckled. "Would that I could, yes. But you're still my friend. I can see how much this is hurting you."

Sam snorted. With her free hand, she brushed at her eye. There were no tears—yet—but her eye felt wet. "See. That's where you're always messing up. You're getting my hopes up again."

"Is that so bad?"

"When you're in love with yourself, dating Valerie, and I'm left out in the cold? Yeah, it's bad."

"Sam, I meant it when I said I'll be okay if Fenton chooses you. So long as it means I won't lose him forever, I can let him go." Danny closed his eyes. "So long as I can still be his friend and not his alter ego, the heartbreak is worth seeing him every day. Just like you were still willing to be our friend when we started dating Valerie."

Sam shook her head and pulled her hand out of Danny's grasp. "No, see. That's what you don't get, Danny." She stood from the bed and moved away from Danny's ghost half. She turned to face him, hands balled into fists at her side. "I don't want him. I don't want you. I want Danny. The real Danny."

Danny looked at her from beneath his white fringe, not lifting his head or standing to join her. "If you understand the difference, I find it strange why you can't understand why my name is Phantom, not Danny."

"You're still Danny. You're just a splintered piece of him."

"It's a complicated situation," he said slowly, "but giving us different names would at least make talking about the three of us easier. Simpler."

"Names are important," Sam said in a firm, quiet voice. "If I start seeing you as Phantom…"

"You'll start seeing me as real?" Danny's ghost half—Phantom—nodded. "Why do you think I keep insisting? I want to be seen, Sam. I need who I am to be recognized, even if it's only until Friday."

Sam felt a tug on her heartstrings and quickly shook her head. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because you're still Danny. If I let you forget that, you'll never be whole again."

Danny pressed his lips into a thin line. "Even if we merge, I won't be whole. We can't go back."

"Why not?" Sam demanded. "Why the fuck not? Because you're scared? Because you don't want to go back to being a so-called freak? Because being half ghost was too hard for you?"

Danny stood, shaking his head. "No."

"Then why? Why is everything different now? Why are you so sure the Ghost Catcher can't stitch you two back together?"

"Because," Danny paused, sucked in a breath, and then spoke in a rush, "because I'm falling in love with Fenton!"

Sam grimaced, her nose wrinkling.

"Don't make that face," Danny groaned. "I'm being serious."

"So am I. What are you going to do about Friday? Keep fighting the merge? Because of some crush?"

Danny wavered on his feet, looking uncertain. He floated off the floor as if seeking comfort in levitation. "I don't know. I promised I wouldn't, but…Sam, I can't lose him. It was bad enough feeling myself slip away. It was worse to feel Fenton's personality being stripped and reshaped into…someone else. I can't sit back and let that happen again."

Sam raised an eyebrow. "Even if that's what he wants?"

Danny blew out a harsh breath, the air gusting white hair off his forehead. "I don't know if you noticed, Sam, but Fenton isn't sure what he wants."

"And who's fault is that?"

Danny flashed her a sarcastic smile and shrugged.

Sam grabbed a black pillow off her bed and threw it at him. He caught it before it could smack into his face.

"You're deliberately making him second-guess the merge!" Sam accused.

"Yes."

"Well stop! Stop confusing him!"

"Why?" Danny's smile faded and his eyes narrowed. "Afraid of what he'll choose once he knows he has another option?"

"What other option?" Sam demanded. "To stay separate like this? To be only half of himself for the rest of his life?"

"He is half of your Danny, maybe," Danny said. "He's not half of anyone to me."

"He—that—that's not how this works!"

Danny laughed bitterly. "Sam, since when have Fenton and I ever followed the rules of what is or isn't expected? Half-ghosts aren't supposed to be a thing either, remember? We make our own rules here."

Sam made a disgusted noise and scowled at him. "This isn't something that's up for debate. You cut yourself in half, Danny!"

"Phantom," he corrected.

"Whatever! The point is, you can't just determine what is or isn't real based on how you feel about it. Facts don't work that way."

"Facts?" Danny waved Sam's pillow between them. "What facts? There's nothing so clear-cut in this situation as facts."

"Fact one," Sam growled, "you cut yourself in half."

"Oh, really? If Fenton went to the doctor and they took a blood sample, do you think they would determine half his DNA had been ripped away? If they scanned him, would they find half his brain missing? He's remarkably healthy for someone missing half their brain, half their DNA, and probably half their organs too. I wonder who got his liver…"

Sam opened her mouth but the retort she wanted to make didn't automatically materialize on her tongue or in her mind. She struggled with it for a moment, annoyed Danny was even arguing this. It was so obvious he was split in half. Why was he questioning it?

Danny raised an eyebrow and waited.

"You split your soul in half," she said instead.

Danny rolled his eyes. "Souls aren't a fact. Supposing you are correct, however, would that not make Fenton my soulmate?"

"Soulmates aren't a fact either."

"Then," Danny pouted his lips and fluttered his eyes, "why does Fenton complete me?"

Sam threw a second pillow at him. Danny deflected it with the one he held, and the pillow fell harmlessly to the ground. He snickered and Sam sighed.

"Fine," she said, "how would you define what happened?"

"The Ghost Catcher did its job," Danny said easily. "It expunged the ghost. Whatever Fenton and I were, it ripped me out of my human vessel. Our unified mind was splintered in the process."

"'Our unified mind,'" Sam echoed. "Nice way to distance yourself from your original self."

Danny shrugged. "I believe the only reason Fenton and I behave erratically after splitting apart is because our minds had gotten used to each other being there. We were of one mind, but we weren't necessarily of one body. That is why our ghost form and human form stayed separate all along. The only physical change rendered by the Ghost Catcher is that we're no longer stuck together."

"You're not the same person you were last week," Sam said. "Neither is Fenton. You're obviously missing something or you would still be the Danny I know."

"See, that's where we differ," Danny replied. "You think of Danny as the original whereas I'm starting to believe Fenton came first. When I merged with him, we became Danny. When we separate via Ghost Catcher, we stumble and act in extremes because the accident that combined us was so all-consuming our minds had temporarily fused into one, but our minds can recover. We haven't lost anything. We're not missing a vital piece of ourself by being apart, we're simply regaining our independence."

"Because you want to believe you and your human half are separate people," Sam concluded. She crossed her arms. "There's no facts here either. You're just guessing. It's wishful thinking."

"Perhaps. Until I find a way to prove it, Fenton doesn't want to believe me either. That's why the healing thing is so important. If I can prove it's me, something unique to me and not our combined self, Fenton will see me as a ghost independent from him. I'm not broken, Sam."

"I didn't say you were, I said you were missing half of yourself!" Sam gestured at her window. "Do you really think it's normal for your human half to get into fights with Dash in front of everyone? Do you think it's normal for you to develop feelings for yourself? Face it, Danny. The two of you are a mess."

"Are we? Who says? Just because Fenton is unwilling to let Dash push him around doesn't mean he's less of a person."

"And me?" Sam demanded. "When he fought with me when I was just trying to help?"

"It would hardly be the first time we clashed," Danny observed dryly. "You have strong opinions, Sam. Fenton isn't the only one willing to pick fights when he finds something worth fighting for, or will you now tell me your antagonism toward Paulina is without cause?"

Sam drew in a sharp breath. "He wasn't fighting for you, and I wasn't—I don't—" She shook her head, quickly dispelling the idea. "What about you? You're falling in love with yourself!"

Danny laughed. "So you say! Fenton isn't me. There's nothing unnatural about falling in love with another boy, is there?"

"Don't even try that," Sam said warningly. "That's not what's going on here."

"But why can't it be?"

Sam crossed her arms again and gave her friend an unimpressed look. "Seriously? You don't need me to point out all the reasons you can't have a crush on yourself. Stop being an ass."

"On Fenton," Danny corrected, lips curled in a teasing smile. His eyes, however, were hard. "You don't see me duplicating myself, do you? I want Fenton, not myself."

"It's the same thing!"

"We," Danny said in a low voice, his smile fixed in place as if he were baring his teeth at her, "are not the same."

Sam glared at her friend's unnatural eyes. He wasn't going to budge. If she kept pushing, what would happen? This was Danny's ghost half, but he was also the lover half of Danny's personality. How dangerous could he really be without his human half providing the anger necessary for a fight?

There was a part of Sam that wanted to find out. She wanted to push and push and push until Danny's ghost half broke under the pressure. He would surrender in the end because he was no fighter, and then he would have to admit she was right.

But there was a cost. The ghost was smiling, but the warning Sam had seen in blue eyes was present in these green ones too. Stronger, perhaps, for all that Fenton had snarled at her and Phantom had a false smile.

She had already pissed off one Danny. One side of her friend. Whether this side was capable of fighting back, he was still her friend.

Sam turned from Danny and paced away from him, hugging her arms tight to her chest. "You're doing it again," she scolded herself quietly.

"Sam?"

Sam kept her back to Danny, but she jerked her head side to side. I swore I would listen, she scolded herself. So, listen. Ask questions. Figure this out.

She half expected Danny to come up behind her, perhaps touch her shoulder, offer her reassurance, but when she turned to face him, Danny still hovered beside her bed, hard green eyes watching her. His white glow cast a soft nimbus around him, drawing Sam's gaze in a way few others had. Danny's ghost half had always fascinated her. Even now she couldn't stop the uptick in her heart, the excitement tingling across her skin.

She was attracted to him, but mind and heart weren't so easily misled. This was only half of Danny. A strange, idealistic half who thought he only needed love, and the universe would rewrite itself. She needed the fighter too, the half of Danny who couldn't ignore a cry for help.

Listen to him, Sam reminded herself. Figure this out before you judge him.

"Why?" she asked, her voice softer than she intended.

Danny raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Why are you falling in love with…him," Sam elaborated. "Your human half explained what happened, but he struggled to convey why it was happening when you two are…similar."

Danny cautiously sat on the bed. His hard gaze watched her as if waiting for a trap. It was unnerving when paired with his curious smile. "I can explain but answer me something first. Why does it matter so much to you? Obviously, your feelings for me are getting in the way—"

Sam bristled. "They are not—"

"—but you protested less when I—we—began dating Valerie. Why do you now resent me developing feelings for someone other than you? Is it only jealousy, or is there more to it than that?"

"There's more to it," Sam almost growled. "Obviously, there's more. Like. Hello? Valerie—" Sam laughed. To her own ears, it sounded bitter. Mocking. "Yeah. Sure. She's hot. She's a badass. I'd probably have a thing for her too, if she weren't trying to hunt down my best friend. But she is. Plus she's cruel, half the time without meaning to be, the other half because she's used to getting her way. The day you started dating her, it felt like my heart had been ripped out, but worse was waiting for the moment she would hurt you."

Danny lost his smile and pressed his lips together. His eyes brightened as if he wanted to argue in Valerie's defense, but he kept whatever response he intended locked behind his teeth.

Sam felt an itch crawling up her spine, and she began to pace, willing her anxiety to be dispelled by motion. "I might have feelings for you, Danny, but I'm not a monster. You're my friend—you'll always be my friend. I don't turn my back on the people I care about. Break my heart, date someone who will never accept you, make me watch it all go down from the sidelines, I don't care just so long as I can be there when you need help picking up the pieces."

"So, this whole time," Danny said cautiously, "you haven't accepted my relationship with Valerie, you have just been waiting for it to fail."

"No!" Sam jerked to a stop and glared at Danny.

He arched an eyebrow again and tilted his chin upward. "No?"

"You don't know everything," Sam said, annoyed. "You can't read me as easily as you read your human half."

Danny barked a quick laugh. "Oh! No. No, Fenton is much harder to read than you are. Every time I think I understand him, he twists out of reach. You, on the other hand, are more predictable."

Sam stiffened. She turned to fully face him and forced her arms apart, letting them hang at her sides instead. "Oh, yeah? Then you tell me. Why am I so upset?"

Danny leaned back on his hands. The pose caused his jumpsuit to pull tight along his chest and shoulders, lean muscles displayed in a way that made Sam's heart stutter and race. "About Valerie or Fenton?"

"Both!" she snapped.

He smiled, and Sam wished she had something soft she could throw at him. "I think it is because both are a threat to me. Or rather, to the half ghost version of myself. Valerie, because you fear she will pull the trigger if she ever learns my secret, and Fenton because my feelings for him and vice versa could prevent us from merging, taking the half ghost, half human friend you had grown to love forever out of reach. You're afraid for my safety. Our safety."

Sam relaxed a little, her shoulders easing their tight posture. "Okay, so you do understand."

"More than you would like," Danny replied, one corner of his lips inching higher than the other. "You are also threatened by Valerie on a more personal level. She is beautiful, she is a badass, and she can match me in ways you never could, constantly pulling my attention away from you. Worse, where you are afraid to act on your emotions, Valerie has always been upfront about how she feels. Cruel as she can be, she knows who she is and what she wants. She makes you feel like a coward."

Sam scowled. Her gut twisted, a familiar sickness making her feel nauseous.

"You are not a coward, Sam," Danny added, gentling his voice. "You simply weren't ready. There is nothing to be ashamed of."

"That's not what your human half thinks," Sam muttered.

Danny shrugged one shoulder. "He has no room to criticize, honestly. If he starts pressuring you about why you waited so long, ask him about his feelings for me and watch him flounder like a landed fish."

Since that was pretty much exactly what she and Tucker had done by accident, Sam couldn't resist snorting air through her nose in a brief laugh.

"You didn't protest when we started dating Valerie because you told yourself it didn't matter," Danny continued. "Either I was too blinded by hormones to notice how dangerous she was, or we would break up after she figured out my secret. Either way, I would come back to you in the end. With Fenton, it's different. My feelings for Fenton represent change. The end of your hopes. That's why you're fighting back this time, am I right?"

Sam brought her arms up and crossed them over her chest again. She couldn't help herself. "One reason," she allowed. "It's not the only one."

Danny frowned. Slowly, he nodded, his green eyes thoughtful.

"Now, answer my question. Why is this happening? What's so special about your human half that you would fall in love with him?"

Danny's expression softened. Little by little, the crease between his brows eased, and his lips formed an almost shy smile. "Strange, is it not? I didn't even realize it was happening until it was too late. Ah, no, wait." Danny tipped his head back and aimed his dreamy smile at Sam's ceiling. "I knew something was happening. I was attracted to him, I knew that much. He still took me by surprise when he struck me in the restaurant, though."

Sam huffed. "Seriously? Your human half kept insisting that was the moment that changed everything for you, but seriously? He punched you and you fell for him? Just like that?"

"Hardly." Danny's dreamy smile grew a little wider. "The punch merely opened my eyes, that's all. I finally saw him."

Sam shook her head, not understanding.

"Sam." Danny sat up and leaned forward on the bed. His green eyes were intense, almost shining with power as he gazed at her. "You need to understand. Up until that point, I saw him the way you and Tucker see us. He was my human half, nothing more. I thought all our worst flaws must have been pulled into him when we separated. He was too awkward, too afraid to take charge, and too focused on being a hero to be a good boyfriend. I truly thought his half must have been the reason our first kiss was such a failure."

Sam tried to hold Danny's gaze, but he was so passionate about what he was saying she had to look away. So, you were a jerk, and he was too scared to stand up for himself? she wondered sarcastically to herself. What a great start to a romance…

"I didn't care that practicing made him uncomfortable. I insisted on us practicing for longer than we should have because we had to be perfect. I made him feel so inadequate, Sam. All because I kept pushing him to act against his nature, and then pushing him out of the way when he didn't measure up. I ignored my growing attraction, ignored how much I enjoyed bantering with him, and instead I focused on our date with Valerie and pretended none of it mattered. I pretended he didn't matter."

Sam listened to the words and felt them forming a picture in her mind. It made her uneasy. Uncomfortable. She hugged her arms tighter against her chest and marched toward her balcony doors.

"When Fenton punched me, it shocked me out of that certainty. And then when he started scolding me I finally saw him, this…" Danny laughed a little shakily behind Sam, "this shy, passionate boy I had treated cruelly in pursuit of my own ends. And once I saw him, I was lost to him. I kept seeing more and more of him, details I had taken for granted but stood out to me forever after. I liked who I saw, Sam."

"You saw the other half of yourself," she said. She braced her shoulder against the door and stared out through the glass windows. "Of course you liked him."

"Perhaps," he conceded. "I will not deny the familiarity between us is appealing, but so are the differences. He is my other half, my missing half, the one who completes me. That is our greatest obstacle and our strongest pull. The longer we are apart, the harder it is for me to remember why I fought my attraction to him in the first place. Why was I so afraid? Once I started seeing Fenton for who he is, not what he is, falling in love with him felt so natural. I only needed to let go."

Sam clenched her jaw and focused on the horizon. Clouds drifted lazily across the sky, calling to distant, happier memories when she and Danny were just fourteen and everything seemed so simple. She was tempted to throw open the doors and step out onto the balcony, just to get some fresh air, but if she stepped out, it would be all too easy to close the doors and block out Danny's soft words.

She didn't want to hear this. She wanted to scream. She wanted to break something. There was a black, bitter seed taking root in her chest with every word spoken, and it made it harder to control the destructive urge to just lash out at Danny.

She had asked him to explain himself. She had asked for this.

"Why is it?" Danny asked, his voice quiet, tone directing the words inward rather than at Sam. "Why is it that others can say 'I found my other half' or 'he is what I'm missing' and it is upheld as the most romantic thing anyone can say about their partner, but when I say it, I'm deluding myself?"

"Because most people don't mean it literally," Sam snapped. "When they say they found their other half, they don't mean they split themselves in order to do it. They aren't actually missing a part of themselves, they're just pretending. You split yourself in half, and now your head is all screwed up."

He laughed as if it were all a big joke. "I don't mean it literally either. Fenton and I used the Ghost Catcher to split ourselves apart, but if I'm right about our origins, then I feel this way because we have a bond like no other, an understanding as deep as the ones romantics claim to have with their partners."

His theory.

Sam grimaced. Danny's human half had only touched on it near the end of his explanation, but Sam didn't need to hear more. She hated the concept and how it rewrote her past, feared what it might lead Danny's split halves to decide.

Open the door, Sam silently urged herself. Just get away from this.

"I wanted to tell all this to the users on Paulina's website," Danny added, sounding amused at himself. "They were wondering what must have changed, how I could possibly find Fenton so attractive when he's supposed to be such a loser. I created an account and everything. I wanted to tell them. I still do. I want to let these feelings out, I want to shout about it. They just don't see him the way I do. I mean, have you seen the way his eyes shine in sunlight, Sam? They light up like glass. Like crystal shards. And, gosh, in moonlight?" Danny sighed dreamily. "You should have seen him during the meteor showers. The stars were in his eyes!"

Sam fumbled clumsily for the doorknob and opened the balcony doors. A cool wind breezed across her face, pulling at her hair, cooling the heat on her cheeks. The sick, twisting feeling in her stomach remained unaffected, twisting tighter and tighter no matter how much fresh air she pulled into her lungs.

"He has this, like, quiet smile when he thinks no one is looking. You must have seen it. It softens his eyes, his lips. Sometimes this faint blush spreads across his cheeks, and you can almost see the light dusting of freckles he retained from childhood. He doesn't even realize how beautiful he is once all his defenses come down. He wore that smile all through the meteor shower. How could I not start falling that night, looking at him in the moonlight? Now he's aiming that smile at me through my text messages, and I—" Danny laughed gently at himself instead of finishing the sentence.

Sam stepped out onto the balcony, crossing the threshold, but her hand didn't leave the door, and Danny's soft voice kept her from closing it behind her. Danny spoke to her, but his words weren't for her. They were for his human half. Fenton. Envy, longing, and a deep, painful disappointment kept her on the edge. She listened to Danny praising someone else, closed her eyes, and almost, almost, almost imagined it was her.

It could have been her.

"When he gets angry, his eyes almost flash. Not like mine, of course, but the intent is unmistakable. Thrilling. I've never seen human eyes behave like that, not even Valerie's. And then when he opens his mouth, his nose scrunches up as if he has to make room for whatever he's about to say. It's so adorable I can't resist riling him up just to see it. It makes this tiny crease form between his eyebrows, and all I can think about is smoothing it away with a kiss." He laughed softly again. "It would fluster him. Could he hold onto his anger then, or would he falter and trip over his words? I want so badly to find out before the end."

Does he even realize I left the room? Sam wondered.

She turned her back to the horizon and faced into her bedroom again, but whatever she had hoped to see, expected to see, it wasn't Danny reclining on her bed as if he had simply fallen backward during his monologue. He had tucked his hands beneath his head like a cushion. His tail swept lazily across Sam's sheets, content as a cat. He gazed blindly up at Sam's ceiling, his eyes half-lidded, not truly focusing on anything in particularly.

"He's a fighter, always coiled and ready to jump into the fray in someone's defense," Danny continued. "He was the one pushing us to protect this city for two years without thanks, and now that I see him from the outside, he's so much more. It means so much more. I saw it as a burden, but on Fenton, on someone so unassuming and presumably powerless, his heroism is so much hotter and inspiring than I ever imagined. He's so protective, so willing to brawl with anyone he thinks is wrong, even if that someone is himself. Even if that someone is me, and he has to punch me to make me realize my actions were cruel."

Sam stepped cautiously into her room again, her heart pounding in her chest. She couldn't take her eyes off Danny's soft expression. There was a hint of a smile around his lips, a hint just at the corner of his mouth. Gentle warmth and affection curled around every word he spoke. It shone in his eyes. He was staring up at Sam's ceiling, but she had an uncomfortable feeling it wasn't her ceiling he was seeing.

"He's so stubborn, always refusing to back down." Danny's smile widened. "He gets flustered around me. All the time, but it doesn't stop him. He stutters his words, but he clings to his morals like he's drowning. He gets just a little breathless when I get too close. I sometimes wonder if he's having trouble breathing in those moments, if I'm affecting him as much as he's affecting me."

Danny's tail swished along the bed, whispering across the sheets. Sam had reached the bed by then, but Danny didn't notice, his eyes still enchanted by his memories of Danny Fenton.

"And then his emotions snap back to fighting the moment he catches himself. He tries to recalibrate, tries to find his footing again, like the adorable idiot he is. Can't just admit it, not even to himself. He overcompensates. He gets so flustered. If he would just let me catch him, I could—"

"Oh, shut up!" Sam grabbed one of her pillows and slammed it down on his face.

Danny yowled like a startled cat. His legs popped out of their tail shape. He jerked his hands out from beneath his head and pushed the pillow away from his face, but Sam was already lifting the pillow and taking aim elsewhere.

"Hey!" he spluttered, his distracted gaze finally focusing on her.

Sam brought the pillow down on his chest, and Danny woofed out a breath.

"I only asked why you're falling for him!" Sam said angrily.

Danny started to sit up on his elbows. Sam brought the pillow down on his shoulder, creating a dull thump from the force. He quickly grabbed it before she could lift it over her head again. They tugged on the pillow, both refusing to let go. Danny laughed, and Sam scowled. Her face felt flushed. Hot with anger or embarrassment, she wasn't sure.

"Sam—"

"I didn't ask for a whole fucking monologue about how cute he is. I know he's cute! You're not the only one with a crush, damn it! I don't need to hear you getting all sappy about—about—" She suppressed a yell, released her grip on the pillow, and threw her arms above her head. "Forget it! Just—just fuck you. That's what. Fuck you."

Danny's grin slipped. He spluttered, "Why?" before he rolled onto his knees, sitting up before her. "Are you jealous of Fenton or me?"

Sam set her hands on her hips and glared at him. She didn't bother answering. She wasn't sure how she could answer. It was all so confusing.

Danny huffed out a breath. It almost sounded like a laugh. "Alright, alright. I'm sorry. You asked about my feelings, so I assumed you could handle it."

Sam crossed her arms. "This doesn't have anything to do with that."

Danny arched a brow. "Oh, I see." He lifted Sam's pillow. "You just attacked me with a pillow for no reason at all."

"Oh please, it didn't even hurt."

Danny shrugged and pulled her pillow to his chest, hugging it close. Sam tried not to have any feelings about that. "Better than being hit by a building, I'll grant you."

"We have a fucking problem here," Sam said sternly. "You're so…besotted with yourself you can't see the bigger picture."

Danny laid his cheek on top of the pillow. "What bigger picture?"

"Danny!" Sam shouted. The ghost blinked green, vibrant eyes and twitched his lips as if mocking her. Sam scowled and added, "The real Danny!"

"And I should care about him…why?" The ghost side of Danny curled his lips into a thin smile. "He may fade for all I care. He's not the one I have a crush on—in fact, he's the one getting in the way of my crush. I have no problem letting him go."

Sam stared at her friend as if he had lost his mind. "What?" she exploded. "He's you! You're him! You can't just let him go!"

"Well. I could if you all would stop telling me what to do."

Sam pressed her hands over her face and forced out a breath between her palms.

"The only downside is losing everything I have ever known," Danny continued, his tone turning thoughtful. "No family. No home. No dreams… I will be starting over. A fresh beginning as a ghost."

Sam jerked her hands down and asked, incredulous, "And you want that? You want to be fully dead?"

"'Not human' doesn't mean 'not alive,'" Danny huffed. "But…yes? Maybe? It has been working out pretty well for me so far." He hugged her pillow tighter to his chest. "Well. Aside from my responsibilities as a full-time superhero. I'm not so fond of everyone relying on me for protection, but I understand how necessary it is now."

"As opposed to before?" Sam demanded. "Were you just defending the town because your human half told you to?"

"More or less." The ghost's green eyed-gaze slid away from her and directed itself at the floor. "I protected the town for Fenton. He was relying on me to keep everyone safe, just as I'm counting on him to maintain our relationship with Valerie."

"It should be reversed." Sam crossed her arms to fight back the urge to hit something. "You two have really messed things up. The lover fighting, the fighter needing to be romantic? It's no wonder you two are confused about who you are."

"No," Danny said softly, "I know who I am. We started out that way, but I have become someone who wants to help others. I may not be a natural fighter like Fenton, I may not like fighting, but there are other ways I can help. Healing, for one. I can find other ways. Ghosts aren't the only threat people face."

Sam opened her mouth, but Danny's words were slow to process. She fell back on an old standby: "What?"

"I'm still toying with the idea," Danny admitted, his voice growing quieter and quieter as if he were unsure of himself. "But after what happened with Noah…" He closed his eyes and sighed out a soft breath. "I need to get better at defending others from ghosts, I know, but what truly hurt Noah was a car crash. Shadow damaged his breaks, his power steering. Accidents like that happen all the time, and it has nothing to do with ghosts. What if I could help them? What if I could save lives by reaching people in time? Fires, car accidents…there are any number of dangers." One green eye cracked open and peered up at Sam. "I don't have to fight in order to be a hero, do I?"

"Uh…no…" Sam said slowly. She stepped forward, paused, and then cautiously sat on the bed beside him, setting her hands on the mattress. "You said you weren't willing to protect the town when you first split from your human half. That changed?"

"Yes." Danny sat up a little straighter and opened both eyes, but he still cuddled Sam's pillow to his chest. "Partly because of Fenton's example, partly because of Noah, but mostly because it feels right. I am lacking Fenton's fighting skills and his blind willingness to sacrifice himself for others, but I can't fail these people again. That crash nearly killed Noah, and it was all my fault."

"But," Sam deliberately began to shake her head from side to side, "you…aren't…"

"What?" Danny prompted. "The fighter? The defender? I have been telling you and Tucker from the beginning Fenton and I don't fit into those boxes. They are just a rough guide."

"That's not the part that has me worried." Sam absently touched her fingers to Danny's arm and stared at her stereo system without truly seeing it. "Let me think a moment."

"Uh, sure?"

Danny's ghost half hadn't had this resolve when she and Tucker helped him hunt ghosts the night before. Half the time, she had needed to call him and Tucker back on task. He captured ghosts, but he treated it like a chore, like something he had to do because someone had demanded it of him.

"I have become someone who wants to help.'

That was what Danny's ghost half had said. 'I have become...'

She leapt from the bed and began pacing back and forth. "No," she whispered softly. "No, no, no, don't do this."

"Sam?" Danny asked worriedly.

She rounded on him so suddenly Danny flinched back. "You have to merge with your human half!"

Danny clutched the pillow, digging his fingertips into the cushion. "I promised Fenton I would on Friday, but—"

"Not Friday," Sam interrupted. "Now. Tonight!"

"What?" Danny tossed Sam's pillow to the side and stood. His additional three inches of height gave him an advantage, forcing Sam to tilt her head back to meet his eyes. "Why would I—I just told you what he means to me, why would you ask me to cut our time short?"

"Because you have to." Sam grabbed Danny's arms and stared desperately up at him. "You're…changing. I don't know what will happen if you wait too long."

Danny backed away from her but didn't pull his arms free. "That is what I have been trying to tell you. Fenton and I are real. We can't go back."

"You can!" Sam shook his arms. "You can go back!"

"No," Danny snapped, "it wouldn't be the same. We wouldn't be the same. I'm not sure what the Ghost Catcher does when it separates us, but it affects our personalities in some way."

"That wears off! You said it wears off!"

"Yes," Danny agreed unhappily, "but it still influences us, and I can't be sure how much or how little of my current personality is due to the Ghost Catcher and how much is me. What will it matter if I'm right? I'll be gone. Fenton will be gone. Who we are now may never be achieved again."

Sam closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her forehead. Self-awareness. A fear of dying. She didn't want to see it. She couldn't see it or it was all over.

"Either you and Fenton are separate people who resurface the longer you're apart," she said quickly instead, "or the Ghost Catcher separation has shaped you. Which is it?"

Danny slipped his other arm free. He levitated off the ground, seeking comfort from his powers again. He floated in place, unsure and silent for several long seconds. He drifted into the sunlight streaming in from the open door, his glow dimming to almost nothing. The few inches he floated above the ground, however, broke the illusion of a normal teenage boy.

"I don't know," he finally whispered. "And that's why I can't risk it. Can't you see?"

Yes.

"No!" Sam snapped aloud. "I don't see. If your theory is right, you two should separate just fine. If you want me to believe you, prove it."

Danny fused his legs into a tail and floated back from her. "The last separation already proved Fenton and I separate in the same way. We spent Sunday night and all of Monday merged, and we still separated exactly the same. Or so similar we don't notice a difference."

"The merge didn't go right, though." His wide green eyes dug into Sam's heart, and she quickly turned her back on them, pacing back and forth. "You two said it yourself. You were struggling to be one person, and you kept losing control of your powers because you and Fenton were still fighting for control. So, of course you separated the same way! You two never fully merged!"

"Sam, I can't," Danny insisted. "I will if I must because I promised, but merging with Fenton feels like—like watching him die and being powerless to do anything about it. I can't let him fade—I don't want to fade. Merging will be like a double-suicide."

Sam's heart pounded in her chest and applied pressure to her lungs. She shook her head again and again and again and forced herself to keep moving. She didn't look at Danny's ghost half. She wouldn't turn around. She wouldn't look behind her.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she forced out. "You're using dramatic language and using one of my worst fears against me to manipulate me, I get it."

Danny bristled. Sam knew he bristled without turning to look because the air behind Sam picked up a charge that made her hair stand on end. "I am not—"

"But have you considered what will happen if you don't merge?" she demanded. "You don't want to merge because you'll lose the person you love? Fine. What about the person I love? What about Danny? The real Danny? If you don't merge with your human half, I'm never going to see him again! I'll never—" Sam's voice wavered, and she stole a moment to suck in a breath before continuing, "I'll never get to say goodbye to him! He deserves to live! He had a life—friends, family, and dreams. What do you have?"

"The same things!" Danny snapped. "I have the same things, just—just in different ways."

Sam pinched her eyes shut and sucked in another ragged breath.

"You can't weigh us against each other to determine who has more right to live than the other," Danny continued. "That is—that's…" He made a distressed noise. "I don't know the word for it, but it feels wrong."

Sam's skin prickled, and she started shivering. "I'm not—"

"You are! Even if he came first, that doesn't mean my existence is meaningless!"

Stop it, Sam thought desperately. Stop it, stop it, stop it!

"I've been apart from Fenton so long I—I can't just forget and go back, Sam. I can't erase myself. Even if I'm wrong and I'm just the splintered piece of the boy you knew, I'm still real! I'm still," now Danny's voice wavered, and Sam's chest—her heart—sent a fissure of pain against her ribcage, "I'm still afraid to die."

Sam's pacing ground to a halt. She stared fixedly down at her feet and let herself shiver as fear and empathy warred within her. She didn't want this. This wasn't supposed to happen.

"You're not dying," she said. It sounded mechanical even to her own ears, devoid of emotion. "But if you don't merge then Danny will."

Danny's ghost half flowed around her, cold air brushing across her skin until he floated a foot in front of her, green eyes shining. Not glowing yet, not his signature Scary Eyes, but there was emotion there that caught and held Sam's gaze, forcing her to meet the eyes of the boy she couldn't save—wouldn't save.

He pulled back his lips, exposing his teeth in a sneer. "So. This really is where all your talk about individuality meets its end."

A hot tendril of anger and defiance cut through the grief suffocating Sam, and she desperately grabbed onto it. "Stop trying to manipulate me!"

"I'm not!" the ghost shouted back. "Just because you don't want to hear it, doesn't mean it isn't true! You're being a hypocrite."

"Because I'm saying you have to go through the merge to prove your point?" she demanded.

"Because you're so focused on getting what you want you won't consider I might be right!"

"No, I just want you to prove it before I'll believe you. Is there something wrong with wanting proof now?"

"It is when your proof destroys me and Fenton in the process!"

"It's just merging with yourself!" Sam snapped. "You've apparently done it half a dozen times by now, what's one more?"

"Do you even hear yourself?" he argued. "Sam, come on. Stop this."

"Danny," she groaned.

"Phantom," he corrected.

"Danny. I get it, okay? I—" Sam clenched her teeth shut on the words and shook her head, her hair whipping around her chin. Don't, she told herself. Don't give him an inch or you won't hold your ground. "This is the best and easiest way to prove your theory once and for all," she said instead. "If you're a real person now, you won't fade, even when you two merge."

He shook his head too and backed away from her, falling into shadow again, his glow illuminating him in the dark. He kept backing away until his back pressed up against the wall farthest from Sam. "It's too risky," he whispered.

"You'll have to merge with him on Friday," she pointed out.

The ghost tried to smile, but his lips failed to hold the expression. "Only if I can't convince Fenton otherwise."

Sam widened her eyes. "You have to at least try merging on Friday! You swore you would!"

"I only promised Fenton," he corrected. "If Fenton agrees to stay, I won't have to endure that torture ever again. That's my whole plan, remember?"

"But you have to!" Sam said desperately. "At least give me the chance to actually say goodbye to my best friend before you murder him!"

Danny laughed bitterly. "How are you able to understand it's murdering him, but you can't see how it's murdering us?"

"Because," Sam groaned, dragging out the word, "by separating, you two ripped Danny in half. Merging is—or should be—just stitching him back together. Why do you have to make it so much more complicated than it needs to be? He's you, and you're him!"

"I'm not him!" the ghost shouted. "I'm—I don't want to die. Why aren't you listening?"

"I am listening! I just disagree with your decision." Sam folded her arms tight across her chest and rolled her eyes. The resentment burned hot in her breast, giving her the strength to resist the twist in her stomach. "And apparently, you—you can't handle that."

He clenched his fists then forced his hands to relax again. "You disagree? Really? You have an opinion on something you yourself never experienced? What a shock."

"Danny—"

"Phantom!" the ghost shouted, slapping a hand to his chest. "My name is Phantom!"

"It's the same fucking person!"

"No, I'm not! I'm—" He clutched at his white hair with both hands and pulled. "Why can't you see me, Sam? You of all people should understand!"

I do, Sam thought as she forced herself to swallow down bile. I do. That's the problem.

"I can see you!" she snapped aloud. "Maybe you're the one who has forgotten who you are while pretending to be someone else, but I haven't. The sooner you merge back, the better for everyone."

"Better for everyone, or better for you?" he countered.

Sam's temper flared, the hot resentment bursting into a flame. "You might be a ghost now, but you're still Danny. You're his lover half, and you fell in love with your human self. That's the only reason you think this is real. It's not, though. We can fix this. You're just incomplete without your fighter—"

"STOP!" The ghost jerked his hand down. His fist struck the wall with enough force to crack the plaster.

Sam jumped, her breath catching in her throat.

"Stop treating me like I'm not a person!" The ghost opened his eyes, and the blazing light of his Scary Eyes shone like a threat. "Whether I existed all along or if I was Danny before I separated from Fenton, I exist now. You can't force me to be someone I'm not, Sam. It's too late. He's gone."

Sam sucked in a harsh breath through her mouth. Her wide eyes locked on the cracked plaster and refused to move.

The ghost closed his shining eyes and balled his hands into fists at his side. His tail waved like a flag caught by the wind. "I don't know where I came from, fine. But I know who I am. I know who Fenton is. He—Fenton is so much more than a fighter. If you would just give him a chance to stop living in the shadow of who we were, he can show you. I can show you. I'm falling in love with Fenton, yes, but I'm not just a lover. I am…I can…"

"Lose your temper," Sam breathed softly.

The ghost winced. He lifted his fist to his chest and held it there with his opposite hand. "Yes. I'm sorry. I will, uh. I'll fix it if you can get me the supplies."

She didn't care about the wall.

The lover had lost his temper.

He had lost his temper.

He had separated from his human half, his fighter half, but he wasn't missing anything.

Not anymore.

Sam slapped a hand over her mouth and only realized as her breath gusted back and forth between her fingers that she was hyperventilating. Too late, she thought. It's too late.

"Are you—are you crying?"

Sam raised her eyes to meet the glowing green pair in front of her. Danny stared back at her…but it wasn't him, was it? Just like Danny's image on her phone, it was just an illusion of her friend. He had changed. He was someone else now.

It's not fair! she thought. I can't lose Danny! Not to this! Not to something that never should have happened!

The tears spilled from her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. It was too much. The fight with Fenton, the rejection of her feelings, and now this. It was too much.

"Sam?" Phantom sank onto the floor and approached her one slow step at a time. "I'm—I'm sorry. I will fix it for you. It's the least I can do after losing my temper. I don't know what came over me."

Sam shook her head. More tears flowed from her eyes, and she didn't try to stop them.

When she had first seen Phantom's feelings in the locker room, she had feared he would break his heart—break Danny's heart. Now she knew there was far more at stake.

If I had been braver, if I had spoken up about my feelings sooner, could I have stopped this? Sam wondered to herself, salting the wound. If I had just asked him out before Valerie could make him feel like kissing was such a big deal? If I had just been there for him, could I have stopped them?

Phantom's cold hands cupped her shoulders. Sam resisted for several agonizing seconds before she leaned forward. Phantom's arms encircled her, drawing her against his chest. Sam buried her face against his shoulder. Her own shoulders shook, but she only gave voice to her tears.

"Hey," Phantom whispered softly, "hey, it's okay. I didn't mean to upset you. Whatever is wrong, we can fix it. You're my best friend, Sam. Don't cry."

Sam shuddered. A sob wracked her frame before subsiding. She wrapped her arms around all that remained of her friend and let Phantom's gentle voice soothe the raw ache in her heart.

Everyone had a right to be themselves. Everyone, even Phantom.

But Danny…

"I'm sorry," she whispered, unsure who she was apologizing to.

Phantom placed a hand against the back of her head and kissed her temple, displaying an easy affection that had always eluded Danny. "We will figure this out. Have faith, Sam."


So, does anyone else want to hug Sam? Poor lass...

I dropped many parallels and hints in this chapter, but my main focus was on portraying Sam and Tucker as real, concerned friends. Much as I wanted them to just accept Fenton's and Phantom's right to make their own choices, it didn't feel right that they would just let go of what they had with Danny. They have to work their way through this new development before they can accept change is okay. I drew Sam's grief from comments where reviewers admitted feeling sad for halfa Danny. If anyone would feel the same, I felt it would be Sam. She understands identity on a personal level, and she would see what is happening more keenly than anyone else, if not necessarily how or why. Loss is difficult. She will get through this, though, I promise.

I wanted to get more depth from Tucker, but sadly that will have to wait until...*checkes notes*...Thursday afternoon.

There's a lot I want to talk about, but I don't want to give anything away, so I want to address something real fast instead. Like...hmm, thirteen? Chapters ago? I said, "Yeah, there's about eight chapters left to go in this story..."

HA. HAHAHAH.

Okay, so, to set the record straight, I have the whole story plotted out. The turning point, the climax, what needs to happen to get there, ect. ect. That hasn't changed. It's been there since Chapter 2, and the story moving in the same direction it always has. So, what did change, and why such a drastic miscalculation on my part? World building and characterization, mostly.

When I came back from my four-year haitus, I realized the story felt really contained within Fenton and Phantom's sphere, and I wanted to fix that, so I pulled Sam and Tucker deeper into the plot. Great! We love a friendship! Unfortunately, that began stretching out scenes I thought would be quick (all of chapters 15 and 16 were supposed to be ONE SINGLE SCENE at the beginning of chapter 15, but NO!) I dragged it out so Sam and Tucker could be more involved, highlighted their friendship in chapter 18 and it kept growing from there. That eventually led me to ta-daaaa, here. This chapter and the last where I am rounding out Sam's and Tucker's character arcs. They aren't finished, but they are where I need them to be for now.

Likewise, the entire school saga was originally plotted to be one chapter in which the events were captured in texts messages between students/Fenton and Phantom, but that didn't work well in practice, and I might have, possibly, gotten carried away including so many scenes of Fenton interacting with his peers? Whoops, lol. But, you all seemed to have enjoyed it, and I certainly enjoyed writing it, so I don't really regret writing it lol.

As a result, Fenton and Phantom getting caught in the locker room happened much earlier than I had planned it, but I needed them to be seen in order for Sam and Tucker's arc to move forward. The original plan did not have any sort of struggle for them, they just saw it, and were determined to help. I like this way much better.

BUT, because I moved the locker scene forward, that also means I advanced Fenton and Phantom's development because they were able to talk during lunch. This means we are actually further ahead than I had originally planned for this slow burn. You'll see what that means for the characters soon.

What does this mean?

Mostly, that I am still on track. I hate reading stories where it feels like the author is making it up as they go, so I wanted to assure you guys I'm not getting lost in my own story. I am adding more to the story than I had planned, but it is in pursuit of making the characters feel more fleshed out. Paulina, Dash, Kwan, Mikey, Sam, Tucker, Valerie, ect. Every character scene has a point in the story, and they are driving us toward the conclusion of this story in a way that hopefully feels more organic. From the get-go, this was a character driven story where Danny, Fenton, and Phantom make choices that present us with conflict, tension, and hope.

How far away is it to being finished?

I will no longer be guessing chapters! I have no idea how many chapters I will end with! But I would estimate the story is about...65-70% complete at this moment. We have actually been wobbling on this mark for a while because (*sigh*) the school saga really filled this story with extra content.

With this, Sam's crushing moment, we are BACK. We are MOVING FORWARD. Valerie is back in the game, and it is going to be wild, my friends. This arc is going to feel like a climatic moment, and I am SO EXCITED AHHHH.

Right. Anyway! Rambling over. I love this story, I'm sorry it's taking so long, but I really appreciate all of you who have joined me for the ride!

Thanks for reading!