He swears that if he makes it out of here alive, he will make it up to every person he has ever bullied.
He's out on the school grounds with the rest of the student body, staring in horrified wonder as Casper High burns. The ghost dragon has flown away, but the chaos remains—people are screaming, running, crying all around him. He barely notices; he's entranced by the dancing flames, green and deadly, as they roar ever higher into the sky.
One shrill voice finally rips him from his trance, and he turns, trying to find the source of the horrible noise. He sees Manson; her normal, apathetic scowl has been replaced with something he can only describe as sheer terror. She's screaming for Foley, asking if anyone's seen him—
And then he realizes—
Tucker Foley is trapped in his locker.
Fenton's home sick today. Deprived of his usual target, Dash decided to pick on Foley instead, cornering him when Manson was elsewhere and stuffing him in his locker. He walked off as usual, punching the locker for good measure and chatting animatedly with Kwan as they headed for English. Nothing, nothing, had indicated that today would be anything but a regular, boring Tuesday.
Then, not five minutes later, the fire-breathing ghost dragon had attacked. Dash had done the only thing that made sense at the time: run like hell with the rest of his classmates to the nearest emergency exit. The entire school had evacuated in under two minutes. Now, he can only wait in numb terror for the firefighters to contain the terrible inferno.
(Nobody notices the streak of monochrome as it hurtles into the school.)
Manson stops short only a few feet from Dash, fills her lungs, and screams her friend's name to the heavens. And suddenly, the far-away fact that Foley isn't outside is driven home.
(It's his fault.)
(Everything is his fault.)
He could tell a teacher. He could tell one of the firefighters. He could tell Manson. He could even wait for Danny Phantom to show up and save the day. (If only he had been more observant.)
But he acts on instinct, breaking away from Paulina's death grip to sprint toward the nearest hole in the crumbling school wall.
He's never appreciated, before now, just how dangerous a burning building is. The smoke is suffocating him and stinging his eyes, and he can feel the otherworldly flames beginning to burn his skin. But he can't stop now; nobody else knows, and he's come so far already; Foley's still there and burning and dying and—
(Everything is his fault. Why couldn't he realize that before?)
He coughs again; the smoke is overwhelming, and the strange, ghostly flames seem hotter than normal ones. He vaguely remembers a lesson from grade school—smoke rises; stay low to the ground in a fire—but if he's near the ground then he has to crawl, and he can't get to Foley's locker as quickly (he can't even remember where it is—is it 357, or 537, or...?) and for all he knows Foley could be burnt to a crisp already because he was too damn arrogant to realize just how dangerous his favorite pasttime is—
The fire roars to new heights, and something cracks above his head, but he doesn't dare look up. He just keeps running, hoping that some shreds of luck will keep him from getting crushed. He has to save Foley. He may be (may have been) a bully, but never, never will he become a murderer. He can't possibly answer to the Foley family, to Manson and Fenton and Lancer and everyone else who would hold him accountable (and rightly so) for the boy's death. Contrary to popular belief, he does have a heart, and he's either going to get to Foley or die trying.
He hears something—a human voice—behind him, but he doesn't turn to look or even slow down. If the adults are trying to get him to come back, he has to ignore them—he has to—he can't have Foley's death on his conscience for the rest of his life—
He stops short as he recognizes the voice. Danny Phantom is here. He turns to face the ghost, a cool rush of relief flowing through him at the sight of the glowing boy. "Danny Phantom!" he calls, seeing the boy's haggard face sag in relief. "Tucker Foley's trapped in his locker, I've gotta—"
"I already got Tucker outside," Phantom says quickly, running (running?) toward him. "Everyone but you is safe. C'mon, we have to—"
There is another crack from above them. He cannot bring himself to lift his head, but Phantom is brave; he glances upward, his eyes widening. He grabs Dash's wrist and turns them intangible just as part of the ceiling caves in. Lockers from the second floor come crashing down at deafening volumes, but Dash cannot look at the destruction around him. (If he sees it, it's real. If he only hears it then it's all in his head, he's going to wake up soon, they aren't about to die—) Instead, he decides to focus his gaze on the ghost boy in front of him.
Phantom's grip on his wrist is painful, and his eyes are squeezed tight, as if the usually-simple task of intangibility is costing him much of his energy. There are dark bruises under his eyes, and his face—odd as it sounds—is paler than normal. All in all, the ghost looks like he has caught that nasty strain of the flu going around town...which is odd, because Dash doesn't think ghosts can catch human diseases.
Eventually, the intangibility fades, and the two of them stare around at the wreckage of what was once the science wing. "We have to get out of here." Phantom sounds exhausted, spent; his glowing aura seems to be fading by the minute, and his eyes are a far cry from their usual neon green. "The nearest exit's over—here—let's get going—"
He pulls Dash along behind him as he runs the way both of them came from. Dash wants to ask why he can't fly them through the roof, why he can't phase them through the charred remains of the school to safety, but Phantom beats him to it.
"Can't—phase through fire," he gets out between labored pants. "And in my state, flying's out of the question..."
He almost asks him what he means by that, but then he realizes. Phantom really is sick. He's never really thought about how much energy all those powers must use up; from just watching all the ghosts soar around, shooting ecto-blasts at each other and phasing through solid concrete, anyone would think that it's the easiest thing in the world. But he himself just recovered from the flu two days prior, and he had wanted to do nothing but lie in bed and be miserable. For Phantom to be here at all in that state is impressive indeed.
The flames are reaching ever higher, and Dash doesn't even want to think how terrible their burns will be when it's all said and done. Phantom voices no complaints, even as his uniform is covered in soot and gashes, even as he's coughing every few seconds (ghosts have to breathe?), even as he looks on the verge of falling over in exhaustion. He doesn't remember running this long from the safety of the outdoors, but that might have something to do with the fact that they have to climb over debris every few feet and watch their footing, lest they fall and become victims of the supernatural flames.
After several minutes (that feel like hours), he finally catches sight of the entrance he had used to get into the school. It's a small hole, maybe five feet tall and two feet across, but he had fit through it. He's about to yell encouragingly to Phantom that they're almost there—because it looks like he could really use it—before there's yet another crack above their heads. Dash tries to keep on running—that's what he's done every other time, and it's worked so far—but Phantom gives a sort of strangled yelp and grabs Dash around the middle, holding him back.
He watches in horror as an entire row of lockers crashes to the ground not five feet from where they're standing. If Phantom hadn't stopped him...
"Let's keep going," the ghost rasps out, his face paler than ever. "C'mon, just another hundred feet and we're safe..."
It's obvious that Phantom's trying to keep his bravado strong, trying to stay brave for Dash, but he can clearly see his own terror mirrored in the ghost's face. It's only now that he realizes, with sudden, startling clarity, that Phantom looks no older than himself. He's dead, yes, and brave and heroic and strong and all those other wonderful things, but in the end, he's just another high school freshman. Fourteen years old. I wonder how he died...
The two of them start running again as the fire roars higher, getting ever closer to the opening that will save their lives. Ninety feet...eighty...climb over a toppled janitor's cart...seventy...
There's another crack from above their heads, but Dash has never had the strength of mind to look up, and it seems that Phantom's senses have been dulled by illness and exhaustion. It takes him a full second to look at whatever the ceiling is going to drop on their heads, and by that time, it's too late. Dash feels himself being shoved harshly to the right, crashing through a charred wall and hitting his head on the ground. He hears a strangled scream and sits up slowly, wondering if the dragon's returned and wants a round two. When he glances around and realizes Phantom isn't in his immediate vicinity, though, he slowly looks to where they had been standing, his stomach twisting in knots as he realizes—
There aren't supposed to be lockers there...
It takes him a moment to realize the implications of that, but when he does, he's up in an instant, crawling through the wall and tripping over the floor in his haste to reach that spot. He knows what he's going to see; he expects it; but for several seconds, he can't bring himself to look down at the awful sight in front of him.
Danny Phantom—incredible, unstoppable Danny Phantom—is half-crushed by the lockers, lying on his back with his legs and half of his torso underneath the massive metal blocks. He's taking short, gasping breaths; his eyes are squeezed tight; the hand that isn't crushed is balled into a badly-shaking fist.
But Dash doesn't see any of that; he can only stare in horrified disbelief at the lockers that have buried his hero. It should be him, not Phantom, under those lockers. Dash is just the local jerk who picks on other people for fun; Phantom is the savior of the town, protector of humans...
And now, he's lying on the floor of the school, sixty feet away from safety, sacrificing himself for the biggest asshole in Amity Park.
"Phantom?" He tries to get the ghost's attention, kneeling on the floor (it's so hot but he pays it no mind—that's the least of his worries right now) as Phantom's breathing slows, his fist relaxes, his eyes open slightly. Is he...dead?
He reminds himself quickly that ghosts shouldn't be able to die; but then, ghosts also shouldn't have to breathe, and ghosts shouldn't be able to catch the flu. He's starting to think of Phantom as a human, which doesn't make much sense...but everything he's ever seen of him has been distinctly human, not ghost. It makes it even harder to accept the fact that a human who is his age just sacrificed himself to push him out of the way of a horrible, crushing death.
There are so many strange things about Danny Phantom that Dash can't even begin to comprehend, but he can't worry about those now. He needs to focus on the fact that Phantom is moving—he's moving when by all rights he should be dead or passed out or too weak to do anything but cry. So Dash shifts to position himself in front of Phantom's face, because even if ghosts aren't supposed to be able to feel much pain at all, it can't be easy to move when half of your body is stuck under massive amounts of metal.
The ghost boy's head is tilting toward Dash now, and he flinches at the pure agony concentrated in those dulling green eyes. All of the things he's learned about ghosts—from looking it up on the Internet to listening to the Fentons ramble on about them—fly out the window as he realizes that Phantom is in pain. Ghosts can feel pain, or else Phantom is the best damn actor Dash has ever seen, because that look in his eyes can't be faked; he's never seen anyone look so tortured as Phantom is now.
It's all his fault.
"Phantom? Can you hear me?" he tries again, because he can't think of much else he can do. He has a fleeting, insane thought that he could try to tip the lockers off him so he can carry the ghost outside, but the huge block of metal has to weigh at least a thousand pounds, and Dash knows he's not that strong. So he does the next best thing, trying to talk to the ghost whose entire world is agony, trying to figure out if there's a way for him to set himself free before they both die here.
(Because he's starting to think that Phantom is more human than ghost.)
"D-Dash...you all right...?" Phantom croaks, and quite honestly, he's surprised that the ghost is talking at all. Surprised that he's conscious. Because now Dash can see that his sunken eyes are sitting atop cheekbones more defined than they had been before. And if he has cheekbones, that means he has knees and legs and a pelvis and a spine and dozens of other bones that could be—that are—smashed to pieces beneath those lockers. Dash wants to be sick.
"M'fine," he says, barely suppressing a sob. Of course the hero would put everyone else (even the lowlife assholes) before himself. "C-can you phase out from under there, or anything?" It's as if the fire isn't there anymore; he certainly can't feel the heat; his entire being is focused on the dying (dying?) ghost lying in front of him.
Phantom gives a humorless chuckle, but it doesn't last long; it seems to agitate some part of him that is broken beyond repair. He goes into an uncontrollable coughing fit (Dash can't even imagine how much pain that must cause him), and soon he's coughing up blood, which even Dash knows is a bad sign, and—
Wait. Phantom's coughing up blood?
When he looks more closely at the sickening mixture on Phantom's chin and jumpsuit, it's not all blood. It's mostly made up of that green stuff—ectoplasm—with some red, human blood swirled throughout. But the fact that Phantom—a ghost—is coughing blood—
Is he actually human? Dash can only wonder as he waits anxiously for the coughing fit to subside, begging Phantom silently to answer his question in the affirmative. The two of them will make it out of here, even if Dash has to carry the ghost boy in his arms. Phantom has saved his life (so many lives) too many times to count over the past several months; it's the least he can do to save him from such a horrible death.
Eventually, Phantom's fit subsides, his chest coming back under his control as he stares with unfocused eyes up at Dash. "Can't—phase," he chokes out, barely able to shake his head. His voice is horribly tight and strained with pain. "Too...tired...can't use powers..." He glances down at the ectoplasm-blood dripping to the floor, and a sort of half-smile appears on his battered face. "See...losing it...changing back..."
Dash doesn't have the slightest idea of what he means by that, but he understands the most important problem: all of Phantom's powers are dead. So if Phantom can't get himself out, he'll just have to try and get him free from the lockers himself. He stands up suddenly, with purpose. He doesn't know if it's the fact that it's something he has to do, or if it's just pure terror driving him on, but he goes to the side of the block of lockers, gets a grip on it (he barely notices as his palms blister from the heat), and heaves as hard as he can.
It barely moves a millimeter, but he is not perturbed. The fact that he could make it move at all—
"Dash." Phantom's weak, strained voice stops him short, barely audible over the continuing crackle of the flames and the skittering beat of Dash's own heart. "Even if you—free me, my bones...and I think something...got me...through my gut..." He coughs wetly again, proving his point. More of his lifeforce spills onto his jumpsuit and the floor, and he glances at it with wide, terrified eyes before continuing. "I'm dying...please...you need to get out."
"Not without you!" Dash lunges at the lockers again with the strength of desperation, causing them to move a couple inches to the side. Only when he hears a sickening, unholy scream from Phantom does he stop short, rushing around to face the ghost again.
"Told you...it's...attached," he gasps, his face the palest shade of white Dash has ever seen. "I'm not...gonna make it. Just...please..."
The horribly desperate look on Phantom's face is the only thing that stops him from trying to think of some—any—way to free Phantom. If he can get paramedics here in time, maybe they could—
"Can you...pass on...messages?" Phantom asks, his voice fading quickly. "Please...not much time...you have to...out..."
He's obviously losing coherence fast, and Dash can't possibly deny him something like this. (Even if he'll survive, if only because ghosts can't die...) "Of course..." His whole body is shaking in unparalleled terror as he kneels next to Phantom, unsure of what to do. He's seen scenes like this in movies before, but watching fictional characters experience it and living through it himself are so hugely different...he's not even sure what's real anymore. Eventually, he settles back on his heels, scooting closer to lay Phantom's head in his lap. Surely, anything—even burnt, soot-caked jeans—makes a more comfortable pillow than the rubble of a high school.
A sort of strained smile appears on the ghost's face; he seems to be genuinely amused. "Weird..." But then his eyes, incredibly, seem to grow sharper as he stares up at Dash. The radioactive green (usually so bright, but dulled now, almost beyond recognition) regains a bit of its spark. Although it's a far cry from his usual piercing gaze, Dash can't help but feel a flash of hope. If he gets out of here fast enough, Phantom will make it, he just has to—
"Tell—Jazz—tell her not to...hate herself...over this, and she's...the best..." Phantom finally says, breaking the momentary silence. Dash nods immediately; the words are burned into his mind. It doesn't matter that he doesn't know exactly what the boy means by that; he has no right to know; he only knows he will never forget his words.
"Jazz...Fenton?" he asks, just to be sure. It's not a common name, but this is not something he's willing to mess up. He's still clinging to his desperate hope that the paramedics will be able to do something, anything, for the ghost dying on the floor before him, but he's realizing...
Phantom's still bleeding his life out from too many wounds. Dash has been forcing himself to look away from the half of him crushed by the lockers, staying focused on the boy's pain-filled face instead. But something horribly wet seems to be soaking the knees of his pants, and he knows it's not just the blood that Phantom coughed up earlier. He can't possibly...he's just...broken...
"Oh...right..." Phantom almost seems to laugh, squinting up at Dash for a moment. "Keep this...secret...'specially...parents..."
He has parents? Dash doesn't have time to think on this, though, because there's suddenly a blinding flash emanating from in front of him. He shields his eyes, careful not to dislodge Phantom, and tries to blink away the stars once it dissipates. Something seems...different, but after being nearly blinded, it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust and find out why.
His whole world comes crashing down around him.
"Fenton?" His voice is a sick imitation of human speech; his mind is too far gone to form words properly. But Phantom—Fenton—Danny seems to understand, for he grins up at him despite the agony, his eyes shining in amusement. (Nononono they should be green, this is some gross illusion, some disgusting trick, Fenton can't be Phantom, he can't be—)
"Yeah..." Danny gasps out, "lab...accident...last year..."
Dash's mind is spinning with new information, and he can't hope to keep up. He remembers that Danny was in some sort of accident in his parents' basement at the beginning of the school year. He had made fun of him for it, calling his parents freaks and nerds and useless scientists, and Danny had taken it with nothing more than a deep, angry glare. Even when he could have (easily, so easily) pounded Dash to a pulp, he didn't, and Dash has no idea why.
"I'll tell her not to hate herself over this, and that she's the best...sister...?" Dash tries to finish what the boy had said earlier. He's trying to gain some semblance of control over his mind and body, if only for Danny's sake. He shifts his position slightly, laying the boy's head in a more comfortable position, and wonders at how pale he is. He's not any darker than when he was a ghost; if anything, he's even more white. Oh God, the pain...why did he save me? It should be Dash crushed under those lockers in unimaginable agony; it should be Dash choking on his own blood; it should be Dash taking the fatal blow for the town hero (who was only ever a teenaged boy), not the other way around...
Danny nods jerkily, pulling Dash back to reality. "The best...ever..." The weight of his head in Dash's lap becomes heavier, and he thinks for one horrifying moment that he might have passed out, but then he continues, "Tucker...don't let him...blame himself...best friend...I've ever had..."
Dash nods and makes a noise in the back of his throat to let him know that he heard. He's not sure he's able to form words at this point, because the suspiciously large lump in his throat feels like it will let loose the moment he opens his mouth. But he can't cry...can't let himself cry...Danny's the one who's staring death in the face...even as the school is crashing down around them, even as he's buried under a thousand pounds of white-hot metal, even as he's giving his last words to the boy who has never given him a chance...not a tear sweeps down his cheek. Dash is just a big baby, wanting to cry over something so small and insignificant (or so he has to keep telling himself) as guilt. He has to hold himself together for the dying boy in his lap who deserves so much more.
"Sam...I would have loved to...take her to that dance..." He coughs briefly, his face contorting before he composes himself again—"Tell her I'm sorry—we never got the chance..."
That brief spark Dash had seen earlier is back in his eyes, nearly covering up the torture saturating them. Dash doesn't have the heart to be upset or even surprised by this revelation. Paulina had often told him how Fenton and Manson were "meant to be," but he had never paid any attention. But now, as Danny lies dying in his arms, he can see the burning passion that makes Danny Phantom. Why has he never seen it before? The boy he's always bullied, the boy he's always written off as useless and weak, is the incredible hero he's always idolized. He cannot swallow his guilt as a few rebellious tears leak from his eyes, splashing onto Danny's face. I should be the one who's dying. But Danny seems not to notice as he continues, a different kind of pain clouding his eyes.
"My parents...and the town...tell them...Phantom is sorry...so sorry...please don't be mad..."
"You don't want them to know you're Phantom?" Dash blurts out, unable to help himself. He briefly wonders why his parents never knew...the idea of keeping such a huge secret from them seems absurd to him...but with ghost hunters as parents, he can't really blame him. God, his life...and I only ever made it worse...
Danny shakes his head minutely, wincing from the pain it causes. "Not now...Jazz...tell...later..." His body seizes again, and he curls up, lifting his head from Dash's lap as he tries to contain the agony. Eventually, he collapses backward, his head hitting Dash's knees with a slight thump. He stares up at the ceiling with unfocused, dulling eyes, and his lips part silently for a moment before he barely whispers, "You'd...get out...collapse..."
For the first time, Dash forces himself to look toward the smoldering sky. Sure enough, several large, dangerous pieces of the building are hanging precariously, looking ready to drop at any moment. He is prepared to argue—he can't just leave Danny here to die alone—but the boy nudges him weakly with his head, toward the hole leading to brilliant, sunlit safety. Something he'll never see again. "Go..."
Dash hesitates before he catches sight of the fading blue of Danny's eyes, not quite focused on his face anymore. His last request. That I get out of here alive. More tears slip down his cheeks as he realizes the cruelty of fate. "Thank...you..." Danny breathes, fighting to stay conscious as he smiles faintly. Dash forces himself to look him in the eye (he deserves that much; look at what he's done for you) as he slowly stands up, gently laying Danny's head on the smoking ground.
Danny's dulling eyes show no trace of hatred or remorse; there is only calm acceptance and relief. Dash must choke down another lump in his throat as he stares down at him, unwilling to leave him to die alone. Even if his friends, his sister, his parents can't be by his side, Dash can do him this small honor...paying tribute to the hero who sacrificed his life for a boy who never deserved it.
He swallows thickly again, suddenly feeling the heat of the fire. It's so close, yet so far away; he knows that he must leave soon, or else he'll perish along with his hero (which wouldn't be so bad, except that isn't what Danny wants), but he can't. He has to—Danny deserves so much more than this—he needs to apologize, to try and atone for everything he has done—
He blinks rapidly as tears cascade shamelessly down his cheeks. It's ready to spill out of his mouth, everything he has never been able to say. I'm sorry, thank you, I wish...
But Danny's already gone.