His students, always, have been the most important part of his career and of his life…and he's always sworn to himself that he'd shield them from harm in any way possible.
He's always admired Danny Phantom.
No matter what the Fentons say, what the press claims, what every dollar in property damage shows—he sees something other than malice in the boy's eyes when he scares people away during his stand-offs with other ghosts. He sees fear, and determination, and it doesn't take Lancer long to realize that he's making sure nobody is around to get caught in the cross-fire. He sees the way he only allows shots to miss him when he's sure they won't hit someone else—someone human, someone terrestrial for whom the ectoplasmic energy could be fatal. He sees the way Phantom does everything he can to keep the city free of ghosts—screwing up sometimes, yes, but who in any world is perfect?—and protects the people with his every breath.
It's ironic, then, that Amity Park's first fatality due to a ghost attack is Phantom himself.
He is counting and recounting his students as the school burns—as far away from the building as they can get—and the worry choking his throat only grows as he comes up one short each time. Daniel Fenton, he knows, is home sick with that awful flu, but there are twenty-three children in his class, and he is only coming up with twenty-one.
It's only when Sam screams, and Dash's face turns white as a sheet, that he realizes exactly what must have happened.
He's not fast enough to catch the football player as he sprints toward the school like hell itself is at his heels, but it's only moments after Dash disappears that there's a burst of activity from the roof of the school. It's Phantom, come from nowhere, shaking and pale and gaunt but holding onto Tucker Foley with an iron grip.
The boy is burned—horribly burned, from what Lancer can see, though he is quickly surrounded by his friend and the paramedics, shielding him from view. But his eyes are open, and he is moving, speaking quietly with the others, so he is…he is alive. Not well, but alive, and that is far more than Lancer had been hoping for in those few horrifying moments.
But now he only has eyes for the school—where Dash Baxter has disappeared into the inferno to try and save Tucker. He never would have thought it of the boy—heroic though he may be on the football field, he's never seemed like the hero type in the same way as Phantom. But, he realizes, perhaps life-and-death situations change people this much.
(He just wishes his students didn't have to go through this to realize their true potential.)
Kwan is terrified, half-yelling at a clearly ill Phantom that his best friend is still inside the school. And Lancer knows Kwan is justified in doing so—Phantom is naturally so pale, so thin, that it would not be immediately obvious to someone that he is sick…and when has the ghost not thrown his entire being into saving someone? But Lancer has been a teacher for a very long time, now, and he can tell when students are not feeling well. This, clearly, is one of those times.
Phantom's eyes aren't as piercing as they have been these past year; Lancer didn't miss his less-than-graceful landing when he carried Tucker to safety; his hands are already shaking from over-exertion as he nods tersely to Kwan…but it's a scarce few moments before he is heading back into the building as fast as he can.
He's running, and that, more than anything else, tells Lancer that Phantom is not all right. Ghosts—they fly, everywhere, always, and most don't seem to have legs at all. Phantom does, evidently, though he usually swaps them out for that wisp of a tail that allows him to move even faster toward or away from a dangerous situation.
The fact that he's a scrawny ghost with such a human image, with chicken legs and a face that looks barely older than his students', rattles Lancer to the core, and he half-opens his mouth, wishing to call Phantom back, say that someone else can go in his stead. The clearly ill ghost (who looks, more than anything, like he has caught the flu that's ravaging the humans of Amity Park) has no business rushing into a burning building after someone, no matter how young, no matter how reckless.
But it's too late, and that flash of white hair has ducked through the hole in the wall, and William Lancer never sees Danny Phantom again.
He visits his students in the hospital, the next week—it may be odd, but he finds himself anxious and jittery, the next several days, with nothing to do in his small house but spend time with his books and his dog, a huge, loveable pit bull whose favorite thing in the world is to curl up on his feet and doze off exactly when he has decided to do something else. He is not used to sitting around doing so little—even in the summer months, he vacations, does administrative work for the school and for the entire district, keeps himself busy.
But his school is smoking rubble now strewn across the ground, and Ishiyama is still tallying the students and the faculty to make sure everyone made it out alive—everyone but Phantom, that is. Lancer saw Dash's face when he left the building at last—came out alive when they had all but given up hope.
He made it out alive with sooty hair and charred palms and an unsteady gait, but his heart was beating and his lungs drew in breath, and that, more than anything, brought staggering relief to the rest of the student body. The fact that Phantom did not return with him was inconsequential at first; Lancer assumed he had simply run off the other way, wishing to avoid the media, the rest of the students…he probably wanted to go rest up, sleep off whatever ghostly (human) disease he had caught.
But when he saw the tears staining Dash's cheeks, when he caught wind of the words that made Tucker vomit and Sam scream and Jazz Fenton nearly pass out—he—
What is he supposed to think? That a ghost is able to die?
That's impossible—should be impossible on principle—but it does not clash with his mental image of Phantom as much as it should. The running, and the eyes, and the haggard face that agreed to go back in with barely a moment's hesitation—
Lancer spent that night poring over pictures of Danny Phantom on the internet, and came to a sickening realization of exactly how young the ghost looks.
A freshman—sophomore at most, he would estimate, though without an exact estimate of his height it's a bit harder to tell. But his cocky grin speaks volumes of his youth, even if his selflessness and courage say otherwise…
It's a puzzle—and Lancer can't quite discard the disturbing thought in the back of his mind that he's seen that face before somewhere else—and he needs a distraction from it, so he decides to visit Tucker Foley and Dash Baxter in the hospital.
The former is nearly non-responsive; just as he and Fenton enjoy slacking off in class, passing notes and speaking in quiet undertones together, he clearly doesn't have any interest in speaking with Lancer. There's a haunted, grieving pain in his eyes (and Lancer is reminded uncomfortably of Kwan's face, when Dash was inside the school for much longer than he should have been) that he does not in any way know how to deal with…so he only leaves his student with a small package of his own favorite chocolate, and a quiet wish that he feels better soon.
(He pretends not to hear the sob from behind him on his way out, though it wrenches his heart to hear it.)
Dash isn't much better, and Lancer starts to wonder whether his visit may be doing more harm than good. The boy's hands are scorched, much worse than the first degree burns across much of his body; his palms are burned away nearly down to the bone, and he explains quietly—a word never before associated with him—that he will need skin grafts, at some point, but not now, probably. It doesn't matter, he says, and his eyes are downcast, staring blankly at the foot of his bed.
Lancer knows football season is upon them, knows how much the sport means to Dash, and knows there is something else going on here. But it's something he shouldn't ask—not now, when the scars are so raw—and instead, he asks, very quietly, "How did you burn your hands so badly?"
He thought it would be a safer question than anything else, and anyway, he's honestly curious, because the wounds are so severe compared to the rest. But Dash flinches violently, and his eyes are far away; it's only several moments later that he replies—"Phantom…he was crushed, by—by some lockers. That fell, from the second floor. I thought—I tried to lift them, get him out."
The rest of the story is clear all over his face—it wasn't enough, and Phantom was gone anyway, and what could Dash have done? Absolutely nothing, despite his best effort, and Lancer can see the guilt all over his face even as he struggles to reply. The boy's openness, above all, is shocking to behold, because only last week, Dash would have eschewed speaking with his teacher even about school—but now he's speaking openly, plainly, of things that clearly cause him great distress.
"It wasn't your fault," he says at last, because this, at least, is the truth. It is, in part (because if Tucker had never ended up in his locker, none of them would have been in danger in the first place), but none of them could have known the circumstances that arose scarce minutes later, and such awful combination of circumstances and bad luck cannot be blamed on anyone.
(The fact remains, though, that the ghost boy is dead and gone.)
Dash scoffs, still not meeting Lancer's eyes, and his fingers twitch weakly against their bindings, fighting the ruined tendons. "That's what he said, too. He fucking thanked me, you know? He was dying, and he—I'm the world's biggest ass, and he died to save me, and I don't care what anyone says, it's my fault he's dead."
(Lancer leaves soon after, a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes, and pretends not to hear Dash's shuddering breaths as he attempts to hold himself together…pretends not to notice the tears on Sam Manson's face as she walks by, only nodding in respect to her as she clutches her purse strap tighter, turning her face away.)
There's something going on here, he knows, but it's not yet his business to pry, and these teenagers are hurting in ways beyond anyone's help.
(He doesn't know what to do, and it's killing him.)
It's only later that he realizes—Phantom wasn't killed instantly, because how could he have given his last words to the city; how could he have thanked Dash?
(How could he have possibly stayed coherent through the agony, enough to apologize—for god knows what, that boy has done more for the city than anyone has in decades—enough to thank Dash, for…
There's a missing piece, and it struggles to enter the forefront of Lancer's mind, but he does not have the time—after all, the mayor has procured a beautiful statue of Phantom and is requesting it's set up in front of the school, which means there must be a memorial and the rubble must be cleared faster and—
He forgets to think about Phantom properly until more than a week after the ceremony. The trailers are finally coming in from Chicago, and they've scraped together enough equipment to hold classes, and he's just figuring out how to piece together a lesson plan that will keep them relatively on track but not rush through things...this is when he truly remembers that Phantom isn't here anymore.
He feels guilty for forgetting—after all, the ghost has been such a staple of their everyday life that he feels like the loss of his presence should be overwhelmingly strange. But it isn't—at least, not yet, and he's on tenterhooks, waiting for the next ghost attack to come…and, after all, who will defend them now?
(But the more pressing question is this: it has been nearly a month since the dragon, so why have there been no attacks since then?)
Classes start the next week, and the October wind is brisk as his normal first hour sophomore class files into the trailer, looking around cautiously at their new classroom. He does a quick headcount out of habit, and comes up with twenty-two—Daniel Fenton is late, again.
He barely holds in a scoff as the students sit down. So much has changed in the past month, but some things, at least, will always stay the same.
But there's something strange going on with the boy's friends. Neither look like they have slept a wink since the fire, though Tucker's burns are well on their way to healing and he is clearly out of any danger, even if he will have scars to show for it. But they have always—always, they sat one seat apart, saving the middle for Daniel when he inevitably flew into class ten minutes after the bell, homework half-done and backpack askew. But today they sit directly next to each other, and Sam looks near tears as she stares determinedly down at the scratched tabletop that substitutes for a desk. Tucker is silent, too, and he squeezes his friend's shoulder gently as he takes his seat in the corner, scooting his chair a little closer as if to offer comfort.
Dash is seated across the room, but his eyes are flickering around as if waiting for someone to appear. Lancer would have guessed, two months ago, that he was looking for another target, another smaller boy to pick on to entertain his friends. But Lancer can see the careful bandages still wrapped around his hands, the dark circles around his eyes, and thinks it likely that he's merely jumpy, waiting, perhaps, for the ghost dragon to appear again.
(Mayor Masters made an announcement, weeks ago—the dragon has been eliminated permanently by the Guys in White, and there is nothing left to worry about.)
(But Lancer can't help but think—how many ghosts are still in the Ghost Zone, waiting for their time to strike?)
But Dash looks like hell, and Sam and Tucker look even worse; and as he does another sweep of the classroom, he sees that Valerie Gray is different as well, for she tucks her backpack close to her feet protectively, and there is something metallic and high-tech wrapped around her wrist.
(She's always sat near the front, has always been one of his best students. But he sees her twist, once, to look at Sam and Tucker in the back…and her face crumples before she quickly turns back around, wiping at her face with both hands.)
She, too, looks frazzled; her hair is messily pulled back, unwashed, and her eyes are dulled as her hands finally fall, shaking, to the desktop.
He wants—needs—to know, but he cannot ask now, for there is a classroom full of students who are shaken up by the fire, trying to adjust to this new system, but clearly not traumatized by whatever has affected these four. So he resolves to corner them later—individually, if he can, though he suspects Foley and Manson will be inseparable (where is Fenton?)—and ask what is wrong, whether they need to speak to the psychologist the mayor has sent to the school, free of charge, to counsel anyone who may be having trouble coping with the tragedy.
It's a thoughtful gesture from a man Lancer has always considered cold—but when Masters met with him and Ishiyama last week, the day after the memorial, he seemed honestly shaken by all that has happened. It's odd—he was always a very vocal opponent of Danny Phantom—but, Lancer supposes, even the Fentons seem shell-shocked in the wake of the fire. After all, whatever your opinion of the ghost boy, he saved two lives in that fire by sacrificing his own.
(He only wishes the child hadn't needed to die to gain the full respect he deserves.)
But he has students here, and class is due to start in mere moments, so he breathes in deeply, moving toward the old, cracked chalkboard, and does his best to put on a smile for them. He's the adult, here—he needs to be in control.
He will help them in any way he can, even if it's only teaching them everything they never needed to know about Shakespearean sonnets.
He's been planning this out, throughout class—which of them should he speak to first? He imagines that Dash, after the incident in the hospital, will be loath to speak to him again, especially in front of his friends, and he is proven right; as soon as the clock on the wall turns over to the end of the hour, he has picked up his backpack gingerly with his elbow and is out the door before any of his friends have even packed their bags.
Sam and Tucker, similarly, seem to have no interest in speaking to him—or to anyone. Both of them have been able to contain whatever emotions are overwhelming them, but it's obviously a close thing; Sam's eyes are still brighter than they should be as she stands up, and Tucker's hands are trembling badly as he packs his bag.
Soon, they are out the door as well.
He sighs, resigning himself to cornering them later, when he finds Valerie standing in front of him, metal glinting off her wrist and steel flashing in her eyes. Lancer raises an eyebrow, wondering what could have provoked this confrontational mood, but only asks mildly, "What can I help you with?"
She seems to deflate, slowly, as if only just realizing what she's doing. "I…I'm going to need to be excused from class, sometimes," she says, and she glances over her shoulder, ensuring the classroom is empty. "If there's a ghost attack."
Lancer blinks at her, feeling as if he's missed a step here, because he's not sure how these two things are correlated at all. "Excuse me?"
She breathes a heavy sigh through her nose, glaring at some point to Lancer's left as she crosses her arms defensively. "I'm a ghost hunter," she says, her voice low, as if she didn't want to tell him this and doesn't want anyone else to hear. And before Lancer can register anything but surprise, before he can even think of saying anything, she continues—"Mister Masters asked me to handle any ghost attacks on the city now that—now that Phantom is gone, so if any show up I'm going to have to take care of it, even if it's in the middle of class."
Lancer simply continues to blink at her; something begins to churn in the back of his mind, but he doesn't give it the chance to take form. "Why you?" he blurts, and perhaps it isn't the most pertinent question, but he's just been told his fifteen-year-old student is putting herself on the front lines of this battle with the supernatural, and he supposes he's allowed some measure of shock. "Couldn't the Fentons take care of it?"
She raises an eyebrow at him even as her jaw clenches, her face pale. "The Fentons have sworn off ghost hunting, I thought you'd heard."
What? Jack Fenton—Maddie Fenton—leaving behind all of their invaluable research, all of the potential test subjects? He doesn't know them well, but he thinks he knows them well enough to know that the supernatural is their passion, their lifeblood, and something they would never, under any circumstances, leave behind.
What is going on here?
But he supposes Valerie is not the one to ask, and anyhow, he has Jasmine in his AP English class this afternoon…he could ask her then, if he were so inclined. Valerie doesn't seem willing to explain, anyway; if anything, her rigid back and clenched jaw show she is staving off tears just as much as Sam was, earlier. "I suppose that can be arranged," he agrees, because who is he to argue, when not two hours ago he was worrying about a repeat attack? "I have to tell you, though, be careful. This isn't some sort of game."
She gives him a scathing look, her eyes full of sudden fury; she bites out, "I know," before turning sharply on her heel and slamming the trailer door behind her.
It's not until much later that he realizes—Daniel never came to class.
It's not such a strange occurrence, all things considered, because the boy has missed classes—entire days—before with no excuse of absence note or phone call from his parents. He always came in the next day though, with a lopsided smile and a half-assed excuse, and took whatever demerit or detention he was handed with a careless shrug.
(More often than not, he skipped out on detention as well, just as he "visited the bathroom" for half an hour every other day in class. It irritated Lancer to no end, but a sickening sense of wrong is wrapping around his heart, and he thinks he'd be happy to be blown off by the boy, if only he were here.)
But Tuesday comes, and Sam's tired eyes are still red, and Valerie keeps one eye, always, on the tracker encircling her wrist, and Daniel Fenton does not come to class.
"Mister Foley?" he calls as the bell rings, and though the boy has clearly been doing his best to get out the door before Lancer could stop him, he sighs heavily and steps toward the front. Sam joins him, and Lancer isn't surprised—the two (three) of them are together, always, and perhaps that is why Daniel's absence has shaken him so terribly.
(What is going on here?)
"I hope your recovery is going well?" he asks awkwardly after several moments of silence, during which Sam glares resolutely at the ground and Tucker stares somewhere past Lancer's right shoulder. "You look much better than you did in the hospital."
Tucker gives him a half-shrug, his backpack dangling from one shoulder as he still refuses to meet his eyes. "All right, I guess," he mumbles, not really an answer at all, and his hand clutches the strap ever-tighter.
"I think…there's no point in asking either of you if you're all right," Lancer says, once it's clear nothing else is forthcoming. Sam flinches, though she clearly tries to hide it, and Lancer knows better than to bring it up. "I don't know what's going on, but I want you to know that if there's anything any of us can do, I would be happy to help. You just need to ask."
Sam scoffs, then, a mirthless sound that's deadened and so much more real than her goth façade. "We'll definitely do that, Mister Lancer," she says, the first time she's spoken up since school started again, sarcasm dripping from her every word.
Lancer knows he needs to ask after their friend, even though both of them are clearly itching to sprint out the door, unwilling to speak to him. "Where is Daniel?" he finally asks, because he needs to know—both for his duty as an administrator (for he has received no phone calls from the Fentons, and Jasmine was all but catatonic in class yesterday) and for himself. "I know he's not the most punctual student, but usually one of you has an excuse ready to hand to me."
He meant it as a light joke, perhaps not to make them laugh, but to let them know that he's not upset about it…not really. But Sam's jaw clenches so hard that Lancer is sure she's biting her tongue to keep the tears at bay, and Tucker swallows thickly, his grip only tightening on his backpack. Something is so wrong here, but neither of them break the silence, and Lancer eventually dismisses them, with a reminder that they're allowed to ask for help.
(Even if he's certain they never will.)
Thursday brings a break in the monotony; there's a small light blinking from the front row—from Valerie's tracker—and it's mere moments before her hand shoots into the air, her sharp eyes meeting his.
"Mister Lancer, I need to use the bathroom."
It's obviously a cover for her ghost-hunting duties, and he sighs before dismissing her—she nods minutely at him before all but running out of the trailer. Sam's eyes are sharper, more focused, than they have been this past week, and her gaze follows Valerie out the door. Tucker, also, is fiddling with something beneath the table (his PDA, but Lancer has long given up on confiscating them), a small frown marring his features before he leans over to Sam and whispers something in her ear.
He wants to ask them, but he has a classroom of students to teach, and anyhow, the familiarity of the scenario is jarring, because Valerie isn't the only student who's abruptly asked to leave the classroom in the middle of a lecture.
(Where is Daniel Fenton?)
He hasn't had the heart to corner Jasmine after class, even if it's the last hour of the day and he would need no excuse to do so. Whatever Sam and Tucker look like—hell twice over, for sure, but miles better than they did when Lancer saw them in the hospital—Jasmine looks a thousand times worse, and more than once, her friends have glanced at her nervously, taking diligent notes for her when she seems unable to do it herself.
But—how many times did Daniel raise his hand abruptly, in the middle of a lecture or discussion, and announce that he needed to go to the bathroom without really waiting for an answer? How often did Lancer think of refusing him, if only to see what he would do about it?
(How often, he realizes with cold horror, was there a ghost attack on the news that night?)
Daniel had no tracker wrapped around his thin wrist as Valerie does; though his parents are (were) ghost hunters, he never showed even the slightest interest in the profession. Abhorred it, even, and rebuked it as his parents' fantasy and a waste of time…
But he can't help but recognize the similarities, and when Valerie comes back to class fifteen minutes later, looking rather out of breath but nodding slightly to Lancer as she takes her seat again, he blinks and has to bite his tongue to keep the questions down.
(It doesn't help that Sam corners Valerie, after class, just outside of the trailer, and though Lancer cannot hear their conversation it's clear they're talking about the hunt.)
(What is he missing?)
That night, he turns on his computer, ignores the stack of paperwork waiting patiently for him, and searches ghost hunting without regard for sleep.
Partway through, his search turns to Danny Phantom; he pulls out last year's yearbook to get a better look at Daniel Fenton's face; and his heart stutters to a stop.
This can't be. It's—
Daniel is human, isn't he?—
There is no one he can possibly ask about this—no one at all, because the resident ghost experts haven't been seen in days, and are Daniel's parents besides; Tucker and Sam and Jasmine have made it abundantly clear that they have no desire to speak to him…
Dash, Valerie, Mayor Masters…he has his suspicions, but no proof that they know anything at all, and this idea is so absurd, so…
It's ridiculous, but why does it make so much sense?
The second week of school comes around, and Daniel still hasn't come to class; nobody says anything (the looks on his friends' faces deter any questions they might have asked, after all), but there's an uneasy sense of growing panic penetrating his first-hour classroom.
Daniel is truant, but never for so long. He's flippant about school, but always makes at least a show of effort…
(Lancer can't keep the image of Danny Phantom out of his head—for when he took the picture to Paint and colored the hair black, the eyes blue, he was the spitting image of his missing student.)
Sam and Tucker are…better, if slightly less catatonic and hysterical can count for anything. They still don't participate in class, but both are clearly making an effort to get back into some sort of routine, something…something familiar.
(Jasmine is as well, to a lesser extent, because too often her eyes are far away and pained and shot through with red. She's been crying, and losing sleep, and Lancer knows that nothing short of the worst tragedy of her life could do this to his strongest, brightest student.)
His students worry, mutter amongst themselves when Sam and Tucker, again, do not save a seat for their friend, and put their heads together, speaking too quietly for anyone to hear. But they are not the only ones who are different; Valerie, of course, has taken over Daniel's sudden bursts of bathroom breaks, and Dash has not even vaguely begun bullying anyone at all…
(He's also quit the football team, still bears terrible wounds upon his hands, and Lancer knows that whatever happened inside that burning school, it has scarred the boy forever.)
Everyone is still reeling from the fire, from Phantom's death (Fenton—and he realizes, now, how eerily similar the names sound), but most of his students have been able to adjust. And when he considers the fact that Dash has always been his cockiest student, that Valerie and Sam and Jasmine have been some of the strongest…
His mind comes to the inevitable conclusion, even as his heart screams at him to find a different answer.
It's been two weeks since classes started, and he has stopped watching the door with half an eye, waiting for Daniel to come flying in, out of breath, with a half-smile and a half-assed apology on his lips. He's stopped waiting for an explanation from one of his students; he's stopped waiting for someone—anyone—to prove him wrong.
He's stopped pretending everything is okay, because it clearly is not, and right now he needs to help his students figure out how they will live the rest of their lives without Daniel Fenton.
Because the boy was something to everyone in this class—whether he was the weird kid who always seemed to melt into the background, or the scrawny boy with the chicken legs and the narrow shoulders who was too easy to stuff into a locker, or—or—
The town hero, because that's what he was, and Lancer feels that it would dishonor the boy's memory to remember him as anything but.
He cannot ask, but he knows nonetheless, and so is not surprised when the truth eventually comes out.
Daniel hasn't been to class since the fire, and he always left in the middle of class just like Valerie (and it's an open secret of his class, now, that she's a ghost hunter), and he wasn't visually accounted for after the fire, because his family swore he was home sick with the flu…
(Phantom had been ready to keel over, clearly nauseous and light-headed and far too sick to be saving lives that day)
Most of his students know the truth as well, he thinks, by the time Mayor Masters finally makes an announcement at Casper High two months after the fire, and…
As Jasmine is conspicuously absent, and Sam and Tucker cling to each other like they're the only ones holding the world together, the mayor tells them all with tired eyes and a heavy voice that Danny Phantom was Danny Fenton, that—
That a fifteen-year-old boy is dead, because a city relied on him far too much…because nobody stopped to wonder whether he was anything less than the hero they all assumed he would be.
(He was a hero.)
(Just not an invincible one from all the stories.)
Lancer is humbled, but not surprised, by the announcement, and wipes his eyes a few too many times that day, and does his best to stay strong for his students, even as their whole world shatters around them.
(Not everyone liked Danny Fenton—some didn't even know him—but every student in this school knew Danny Phantom, knew him like a constant held in each of their hearts, a stronghold and a promise and a savior for each citizen of Amity Park.)
(Now he is gone, and every one of them is feeling that emptiness ripped anew.)
Classes are dismissed early that day, because the students are shell-shocked, and the teachers are shell-shocked, and nobody is in any sort of mindset for learning. So Lancer leaves his trailer early, leaving every ungraded assignment and everything else he has to do behind on his battered desk, and walks slowly toward the memorial, out on the front lawn of the school grounds.
The ghosts' gifts are still there, arranged like an honor guard around the statue, and it takes everything Lancer has to stare up at Phantom's (Fenton's) face, grinning smugly and determined to protect his city at…
…At any cost.
And Lancer wonders, now, how could he not have known? How could none of them have known, that their hero was far too young, and far too vulnerable, and—
He was only a child, and now he is dead, and Lancer—he—
He wipes his hands across his face but feels guilty for it, because Daniel deserves his grief—he deserves everything and more that this town can give him...
(He deserved their protection in return when he needed it the most, but where were they?)
Daniel was only a boy, but Lancer feels so—so inadequate, standing before this beautiful memorial to his most frustrating student, standing over the earth where his charred remains (gods above he cannot do this) were laid to rest forever—
This—this is too much, and he closes his eyes, blocks this jarring memory of everything he could have done—everything he didn't do—
Everything nobody did to repay this boy, who was only too happy to die for the people he swore to protect.
("He fucking thanked me, you know?")
He cannot bear it, and so blinds himself, and feels awful for it because doesn't Daniel deserve this much from him and from all the rest, at least?
He wants to leave the statue behind, but gives one last glance to the boy's epitaph, written by his—his friends, or his sister, or—
And it is different, now—it fills in that empty space in the marble and in their hearts, and it makes too much sense, and Lancer nearly breaks then and there:
Daniel James Fenton
In loving memory of a true hero
May he find peace beneath the stars
And soar among them forever
The tears flow freely—he can't stop them, and he doesn't try; he only whispers a wretched thank you (too late too little you could have done more) before choking and turning away.