Disclaimer: No, I don't own Danny Phantom or the original idea for this story. It's a challenge I accepted from Ghostanimal.
Reasoning behind skipping straight to Val is at the bottom. Hope you guys enjoy-this chapter's a long one. ;)
What had started as a desperate attempt to make a few bucks to pay for Doomed had definitely become something drastically different. The more people Danny had a "date" with—for really, what he'd quickly learned was that only about half of the people who had come had any interest in even trying to date Phantom—the more he learned about them. It was amazing how many people were willing to talk to him and how many were willing to tell him their darkest secrets. He just hoped he could be worthy of the trust that they had in him.
Still, it was kind of nice to have a lot of different people talk to him and tell him that they admired him, that they looked up to him and respected him, or even to be told that they didn't like him or believe in him and why. It wasn't that he needed people's thanks—he'd always protect the town because it was right, regardless of what people thought of him or how they viewed him—but it was still nice to be appreciated. Somehow, knowing that there were people who cared about what he did everyday and who acknowledged him as a hero just made his job easier.
Most of the people who came in after Star Danny didn't really know. He recognized the faces and a few names, but very few of them were people that he knew very well even though he'd gone to high school with them for years. As interesting as it was, though, sitting and talking with so many people was starting to get exhausting. Just when Danny was beginning to think he'd lose it if he had to sit through one more speed date with someone, Tucker shooed out the second to last girl and grinned at him.
"Just one left, and I'll give you two guesses who it is," he teased, and instantly Danny perked up. This was it. The chance that he'd been waiting for all night, the one person that he'd wanted to talk to more than any other, the one person that he'd never expected to come and participate.
The minute she walked in, Danny felt as if someone had taken his breath away. She looked beautiful tonight, even more so than usual as she sat down across from him, her dark skin looking soft and warm beneath the light from the lanterns, her eyes sparkling and filled with fire as she gazed upon him, and he silently wondered if she knew how amazing she truly was.
Even though he knew that it had been partly Technus' doing, Danny didn't regret the time he'd spent dating Valerie. He liked her a lot more than he ever wanted to admit, and from time to time he still found himself looking at her, remembering the feel of her soft lips pressed against his, of her warm hand heating up his constantly icy fingers. He really wished that things hadn't ended the way they did between them.
"I'm surprised that you're here, huntress" he said, for Valerie and he were both aware of her true identity, something which he'd made clear during the Pariah Dark incident when he'd revealed Valerie to her father. "I thought that you hated me."
"I do hate you, spook," she grumbled as she took a seat, "but I promised a friend of mine that I'd be willing to listen to you."
"A friend?" he repeated, knowing full well who she meant.
"Danny Fenton," she said, the words coming out more like a growl, and inwardly he flinched. He knew she wasn't going to be too keen on talking to him, but still, he'd really hoped that she would be at least a little more open minded than she was acting so far. "So talk. You've got five minutes."
"Well . . . um . . . I guess I should say that I'm sorry. I mean, I've said it before, but you've never really been interested in listening before today," said Danny. "All of the things that happened to you were things that I never meant to happen,. Like the ghost dog. It was just an accident, and if I could fix it now and change what had happened then I would."
Danny fell silent, and Valerie stared at him coldly. "Is that it, ghost? What a waste of time."
"Waste of-argh!" he snapped, losing his temper. "Are you kidding me?! What more do I need to say to you to prove that I'm not the bad guy?! I've spent months fighting every day trying to protect the people of this town from getting killed while you've shot at me along with all of the other stupid ghost hunters—"
"—oh, so now I'm stupid, huh?!" she growled, jumping to her feet and slamming her hands against the table, and she was about two seconds from walking away. "I knew this was a bad idea! I should've just attacked you already, but no, I had to give you a chance because a couple of friends convinced me that it might be a good idea. Well, no offense, but I've done just as much as you, and all of that was without some evil plot—"
"—what evil plot?!" yelled Danny as he, too, jumped to his feet and glared at her. "What the hell kind of evil plot would involve me pretending to protect the town for months?! What kind of plot would be so good that I'd spend my afterlife getting attacked by my own kind and hunters every day?! Don't you get it, Valerie?! I'm not evil!"
"Oh, you're not, are you?" she snapped. "Then what about the mayor, and those robberies—"
"—FOR THE LAST TIME, I WAS FRAMED!" he shouted. "And when those robberies happened, I was being controlled! By a human, no less! I mean, seriously, Valerie, what the hell does a ghost need with jewels and money, anyway?!"
"Maybe it's just your obsession!" she argued, gritting her teeth.
"My obsession?!" he shrieked. "That's rich, coming from a girl who's so blinded by revenge that she's turned ghost hunting into a never ending obsession!"
"I am not obsessed!"
"Oh, yeah?!" he snapped. "Then prove it right now!"
"You heard me!" he proclaimed as he thrust his arms out wide. "You can destroy me right now if you want, but only if you promise that once I'm gone, that once your revenge is complete, you'll quit ghost hunting for good! If you can actually do that, then maybe, just maybe, I'll believe that you're not obsessed!"
For a moment Valerie was stunned into silence, and she almost considered pulling out her blaster and doing just what he asked, but then she frowned at him and chuckled darkly. "Oh, you almost had me, ghost. Nice trick. I shoot you and what? Your duplicate gets destroyed? Your fellow ghosts destroy the town after I quit?"
"I'm not a duplicate," he told her, his voice echoing as his anger slowly began to die, "and if another ghost comes and tries to hurt you or your friends after I'm gone, then you can pick up your blaster and take care of it. But otherwise, you have to leave it to the Fentons and the other professional ghost hunters. No going out late at night and spending all of your free time tracking down a ghost. No spending all of your free time upgrading your weapons. You have to quit, permanently."
"And if you do that, if you swear that you'll do it, then I'll let you destroy me right now," he said, his voice trembling, because honestly, he was really scared that she would call his bluff, and if she did . . . well, then he'd be dead. Really dead. "Give up your obsession and take me out, or admit that your addiction to ghost hunting goes way beyond just getting revenge on me."
"You would really let me destroy you, spook?" she wondered, whipping out a blaster to see if he'd flinch, but Danny didn't so much as blink. "Just like this?"
"If it's what you really want, and if it'll get you to stop putting yourself at risk, then . . . yeah," he said softly, the last of his anger fading away as his arms slowly fell to his sides, and for the first time he truly saw just how much he'd screwed up her life. When had Valerie—cool, smart, popular Val—gone from being just another innocent teenage girl to a person who had dedicated her life to fighting ghosts? When had she become so consumed by her passion that she'd destroy a ghost in cold blood like this? When had destroying ghosts become the only thing she thought about?
Of course, the answer was simple: it happened the day that Cujo came crashing through her life with Phantom in tow, but never before had Danny realized just how wrong it was to see the way she was now until he spoke to her after so many other, seemingly normal girls who were generally more concerned with falling in love or the latest fashion trends. That wasn't to say that Danny wanted her to be an airhead like Paulina, nor did he even want her to completely give up ghost hunting since she was actually pretty good at it, but he sure as hell didn't want ghost hunting to be the only thing that Val cared about in her life.
After all, as a fellow ghost hunter, he knew how precious those moments of peace and quiet were, but there were moments like this when he doubted that Val remembered just how good it felt to be, well, normal. To be human. To be boring.
"I—I'm worried about you, Valerie," admitted Danny, "and while I'd rather be there to try and help keep you safe, I'm willing to give up my li—my afterlife if it means that you'll quit putting yourself through this."
Valerie stared at him suspiciously, not sure what to think. She knew that this had to be a trap. Somehow, Phantom was misleading her, lying to her and trying to convince her to give up her life's purpose on the pretense that it would keep her safer . . . and while she couldn't deny that she'd gotten hurt in the past or that she'd put herself in harm's way more than once, she still didn't believe that he cared enough about her to give up his afterlife so that she would stop what she was doing.
"I'm not obsessed, and I'm not going to destroy you like this," she growled, putting the blaster away at last and sitting back down, but she was trembling slightly, her anger still present even as she was forcing herself to calm down. "You still have a couple of minutes, spook, and I'm still not convinced that I should trust you."
"So how can I convince you?" he asked, sitting back down as well as he resisted the urge to argue that it was her obsession that had stopped her from wasting him. It would be pointless. A waste of time. This was supposed to be a chance to get her to stop hating him, and he wouldn't be able to do that if they just fought for five minutes.
"Tell me something, spook," she said after a brief second's thought. "Why do you protect the town?"
"That seems to be a popular question tonight," chuckled Danny, his own frustration slowly fading away, but Valerie wasn't laughing. "And it's the same as you. There are people here that I want to protect and keep safe, and I have a responsibility to use my powers to do what I can to make sure that they get to keep living the life that I'll never have."
"None of the other ghosts seem to think that they need to do it, though," said Valerie.
"Yeah, well, they don't have any reason to want to protect Amity Park," Danny replied. "I do. I have friends here, family—"
"—ghosts can have families?" she interrupted.
"I was alive once, you know."
But Valerie hadn't known—or at least, she hadn't thought about it before. From what she knew, most ghosts were nothing more than mere imprints left behind when someone died and little more than an echo of the person they had once been. The only thing left of them was their obsession, a fixation so powerful that it overruled what loyalties they might have to the people and places they once cherished, and that same obsession left them hollow and incapable of feeling complex emotions. There were a few ghosts that were created in the Ghost Zone and that emerged naturally there—or so Vlad Masters and others claimed—but most ghosts were created the old fashioned way when someone died. Valerie had never once given a thought to who Danny Phantom might have been while he was still breathing.
"I guess I kind of forgot," she admitted, her eyes locked on the boy for a moment as she studied him and tried to think if she'd ever seen anyone like him before, but for some reason the only person she could come up with was Danny Fenton. That was ridiculous, though. Danny was still alive—there was no way Phantom could be his ghost—but maybe they were related somehow. Maybe that was why Danny was so desperate to believe that Phantom was a good ghost. If Phantom was actually the ghost of his cousin or something, then that might be why Danny was so determined to believe that he was good and not evil, because who would want to believe that someone they cared about might have become a monster?
"Do you remember much?" she wondered.
"More than most ghosts," he said, skirting the question ever so slightly.
"Do you remember how you died?" she pressed, partly because she was now interested and partly because she hoped that she might be able to use the information against him later, if it came to it. She didn't even consider whether it might be rude or not to ask. After all, he was just a ghost.
"In an accident," said Danny softly, his eyes never leaving hers.
"Like a car crash?"
He shook his head. "No. It was an accident in my parent's lab. I was messing around with something I shouldn't have and I got electrocuted." He knew it might be stupid to give her so much information, but he just didn't want to lie to her anymore. He hated lying to her, to everyone, really, and he was worried that if he lied too much and she found out, then it would just make things worse instead of better.
"That must've been painful," she said slowly, feeling sympathy for the ghost boy for the first time as she considered how horrible being electrocuted had to be, and he nodded. "I'm surprised I never heard about it, though. This town's not that big. How long ago did it happen?"
"A long time ago, I think," he said, only sort of lying. "My memories were kind of messed up for a while after I became a ghost, and it's taken a while to get it all sorted out in my head. Sometimes, though, it feels like it just happened yesterday."
"But it was recent enough that you still have friends and family here, right?" she said, trying to get something more specific out of him.
"Yeah, but . . . but it's not like my parents know that I'm the ghost of their son," said Danny slowly, trying to figure out what to say to her without lying but without outright telling her that he was Danny Fenton. It might've been easier if he was willing to just be less than honest, but the whole point of this date with her was to get him to trust him, to maybe even like him, and that wasn't going to happen if he just kept misleading her. "I tend to avoid them . . . I don't want to make them upset."
"But you're a good ghost, aren't you?" said Val, and there was something about her tone that made Danny uneasy, like she was baiting him somehow.
"Yeah . . ."
"So why would they be upset?" she scoffed. "Their son is a hero, right? Wouldn't they be proud of you if they knew who you were, unless you're actually not the good ghost you—"
"—damn it, Val, I thought—" he began, but he stopped. No. He couldn't get angry with her again, not right now. It would just lead to more fighting, and that was what she wanted. Val was good at fighting and he knew that she wanted a fight right now because it would just be so much easier, but that's not what Danny wanted her to remember about this night or what he wanted to get out of it. He didn't want to keep doing this with her.
"You thought what?"
"How would you feel if the ghost of your mom showed up?" he said quietly as a flash of inspiration struck him, and her eyes widened. He knew he might be going too far, but he couldn't think of a better way to do this, to explain to her why he couldn't tell his parents without telling her everything about himself, and right now he just wasn't ready to trust Val with his secret. "Even if she was a good ghost and helping out the town? Don't you think that you'd be a little upset when you saw her even while you might be proud, too? I mean . . . she's dead. She died. If she was still here, then it would mean that she had something that she couldn't let go of, something that was keeping her here, but it'd only be a part of her. Ghosts . . . well, you know what the Fentons have said as well as anyone. Ghosts are nothing but echoes, nothing but the shadows of the people they once were. Would you really want to talk to your mom or see her if she was only a fraction of the person she once was, or heck, if she was even different than she once was because her ghost was a manifestation of one extreme part of her personality? My memories of who I was before I became Phantom are kind of vague, but I doubt I'm exactly the same as I was before the accident that killed me, and . . . I don't know. I just think that my parents wouldn't want to see me. They've moved on with their lives, but I haven't. Because I can't. I never can."
To be honest, Danny only understood some of what he said. He and Jazz had talked about this before, about what they would do if he actually died and became a full-ghost and was still around, and Jazz had been strongly against Danny telling his parents the truth for reasons he didn't entirely understand. He kind of thought it might be better if they knew, but then again, Jazz had a tendency to be right about more things than he'd like. After all, even though he was sort of half-dead, he didn't actually know much about dealing with death. The pain from that moment in time when his family had died had been intense, but it hadn't lasted, and he . . . well, he wasn't sure if he'd want to see them become ghosts or not. There were moments when he thought he would prefer to see his parents in any form after they were supposed to be dead and gone, but then there were others, like after he fought the Box Ghost or the Lunch Lady, that made him seriously question if he'd want to see his parents that way. Single-minded. Obsessed. Angry. It was a disturbing thought. There was just no guarantee what their ghosts would be like if they had one.
"I . . . I don't know," Val admitted softly, staring at the table, and Danny was amazed she wasn't shooting or screaming at him instead. He really thought she'd be angrier that he brought up her mom, but it seemed like she was actually thinking about what he'd said and considering it carefully before she spoke. It was kind of unnerving, really. Valerie was the sort of person that shot first and asked questions never, and seeing her thinking so deeply about something made him truly realize just how big a question he'd asked. "My mom's been gone for a long time, you know. I . . . I don't know how I'd feel if she turned up as a ghost."
"Which is pretty much my point," he said gently. "I don't want to upset the people that I care about. I just want to protect them."
"Even if that means lying to them?" she asked.
"You lied to your dad about your ghost hunting, didn't you?" he said, making her flinch. "You probably had good reasons for it, too."
"Yeah, and you messed that up big time, ghost," she grumbled. "Do you know how hard it is to keep on hunting ghosts when my dad checks my room every twenty minutes to make sure I haven't snuck off to do just that?"
"I can imagine," said Danny drily. After all, he did have a pretty nosy, overbearing sister at home with a similar habit of worrying incessantly about him. His mom would probably be just as bad if she knew the truth, too. "I'm sorry."
Suddenly the buzzer rang, but rather than running to the door, Valerie frowned at him carefully. "You wanna know something funny, ghost?"
"I almost feel like I can believe your apology."
It was true, too, but that was exactly the problem. Ghosts weren't supposed to be capable of sympathy or remorse, so how was it that he actually seemed to be feeling those emotions? It was definitely suspicious, to say the least, and Valerie knew that there was no way he could possibly be sincere even though he sounded like he really was. But then again, maybe there was a way to check out how honest this ghost was. He did tell her a few things tonight, like about how he'd died and how he had family in Amity Park, and it would be easy enough to check out once she got home.
And if it was true, then maybe, just maybe, she'd start to believe him a bit more about being a good ghost. She doubted she'd be throwing him a parade anytime soon, but maybe they could have a truce. Maybe they could even work together someday. They did make a good team.
And Valerie of all people definitely understood the desire to protect one's family and friends, so if she found out that he was lying to her tonight about his life and about having family in Amity Park, then she'd have her answer about the kind of ghost he was. She would know that he was evil, that he was a manipulator and a liar, and that he would need to be destroyed. That she had been right all along.
For now, though, she smiled softly as she asked, "So, ghost, did I win?" Danny stared at her for a moment as she grabbed her things to leave, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and when it clicked at last he couldn't believe it.
"You actually want to go out on a date with me?" he chuckled, his cheeks flushing slightly.
"Five minutes wasn't enough to convince me that you're even half as good as you claim," she said as Tucker and Sam walked in and shot her dark looks. "But it was a start."
"Hey, you're time is up, Val," growled Sam bitterly, doing her best to avoid looking at Danny, and he knew she was probably still upset.
"Obviously," she sighed, rolling her eyes as she walked away, and a couple of minutes later Sam and Tucker let out a long breath as they sat down at the table with Danny. Two rings passed over him, then, as he let himself just be Danny Fenton once more. Although it had gotten a lot easier to maintain his ghost form over the past couple of years, it was still sort of tiring.
"So, super awkward?" asked Sam curtly, and Danny knew now that she was definitely still pissed and upset about their "date." He was amazed that she'd stuck around at all, but then again, Sam was a loyal friend if nothing else, and there was no way she would be willing to be too far when Valerie was hovering nearby.
"It was okay," he admitted. "She only tried to shoot me once." Mostly because I told her to do it, he added mentally, but his friends didn't need to know that. Besides, they thought he was just joking.
"I don't know, Danny, I think it was more than okay," grinned Tucker as he flourished a small stack of twenties in front of his friends, his eyes sparkling. "Dude, we totally made four hundred bucks tonight! If we figure that you take out maybe a hundred for the date or something, then that's still another three hundred for us!"
"So a hundred bucks each, right?" said Sam, holding out her hand.
"Hey, you're not getting paid for this!" he said. "You were against this thing from the start, and you already have more money than you'll ever need."
"Yeah, Tuck, but she did help, and you did make her pay for the date," said Danny pointedly, smiling at Sam, but she didn't return it. Oh, well. There was nothing he could do about it now, and honestly, Danny knew that he had to tell her the truth when she pushed him tonight. He just couldn't keep on pretending not to notice, but hopefully now they could move past it. "And technically it's her parents that are loaded, not her."
"So pay up," commanded Sam, and Tucker sighed as he reluctantly handed over a small stack of bills to Sam and Danny.
"Uh, Tuck, I'm gonna need the other hundred for the date," Danny said after quickly counting it.
"But—" began Tucker, but the dirty looks from both Sam and Danny implied that he had no chance of winning the argument. "Okay, fine. Here. I don't see why you'll need it, anyway, since it's not like Danny Phantom can go to a restaurant or something."
"Yeah, well, I am the one who did the hard part, so even if I don't take her out to eat, that's none of your business," teased Danny.
"Who'd you pick, anyway?" he wondered. "That Andrea girl was really, really hot. I can't believe I'd never noticed her before—"
"—not her, Tuck," interrupted Danny, who knew that it was better to cut him off now before he really got going. His obsession with girls that were out of his league was almost on par with his obsession with technology, and Andrea had definitely been out of his friend's league. "I'm going with Valerie."
"ARE YOU CRAZY?!" shrieked Sam and Tucker simultaneously, and Danny winced, flinching away.
"You're seriously going to go out with your ex, Danny?"
"An ex that wants to destroy you, I might add?" said Tucker, staring at his friend. "I mean, dude, if you want to kill yourself, there are easier ways to do it."
"Guys, come on, she's not that bad," he sighed, knowing that he was probably wasting his breath. Even when he'd gone out with Valerie before, he hadn't really been able to convince them that she was okay and that he would be fine. "And I think I started to get through to her today. If I go out with her on this date, then maybe I'll have the chance to actually convince her that I'm not just some evil ghost."
"Or maybe she'll just waste you without giving you a chance to say a word," argued Sam, jumping to her feet. "You know what, though? You do whatever you want, Danny. I mean, hey, why should you listen to your friends when they tell you that this is a really bad idea and that Valerie's just going to use it as a chance to destroy you?"
"Sam's right, Danny," said Tucker. "Don't do this. Even Paulina would be a better choice."
"Look, you guys, I know you don't trust her, but I do," said Danny. "And I'm sick and tired of getting hunted by her because of a few misunderstandings. This might be the only chance that I get. I have to take it."
"Fine, but don't expect us to save your butt when she starts blasting away," growled Sam as she stormed out. "I'm going home."
"Aren't you going to help us clean up?" groaned Tucker.
"Dude, we should totally get her to give us half of her cut tomorrow, then," said Tucker, glaring at her.
"She's just upset, Tuck," sighed Danny, watching her until her figure was out of sight. "Our date was kind of awkward."
"Yeah, I kind of got that impression," he admitted as he began to pull down the curtains, obviously not wanting to talk about it anymore than Danny did. "But she's still right about Val, you know. It's a bad idea."
"Maybe . . ." he mumbled as he began to help Tucker take everything apart. They hadn't really done much, so it didn't take long, but Danny still wished that Sam had stuck around to help. He hated having her mad at him, and now it was only going to get worse because he decided to choose Valerie. But he wasn't going to pick someone else just because it might be easier. He really wanted to do this, and Danny honestly believed it was the right thing to do. He knew that his friends would see he was right in the end.
A/N: So a climax but not. Essentially this ends the first part of the story, but there is definitely more to come. Mostly, I ended up moving on to Val because I struggled when I sat down to write the other dates. I got about halfway through each one, and thus far . . . meh. I just keep struggling to get them the way I want, but I've had Val's pretty much done for ages. Given that I didn't want to keep everyone waiting forever and that people were kind of divided in the reviews about whether I should or shouldn't move on, I ultimately chose to just go forward with Val. I still think I'll do a deleted scenes thing if I manage to work out those others (and then I might integrate back into the story once this whole thing is all said and done), but for now, it is what it is. I hope that you guys don't mind too much, especially those of you who wanted to see a few more dates.
It doesn't help that I've gotten distracted writing other stories, too, and with the DCI finals last week . . . gah. I'm doing my best to keep focused, but frankly, it's not my strong suit.
Thanks, as always, to my awesome reviewers: Teah no kitsune, TrekgeekDS9, Lord Jace, KraZiiePyrozHavemoreFun, Fluehatraya, Hebi R, Anne Camp aka Obi-quiet, Reid Phantom, 6Black Key Wings9, ChopSuzi, KimiUzumaki, MsFrizzle, lurkerlaine, Fugitive of Gray, The Samurai Prince (formerly known as TPOC), LTTHE4TH, nycorrall, Nysk, envyofclouds, Gammija, Panda Krios, Jennythe3, Lady GryphonInia, fanficfantasies, and randomonia.
And with the last chapter, this story officially passed a hundred reviews! That's a first for me, and I'm very flattered. I'm glad that so many of you are enjoying this fic, and hopefully I can keep on meeting your expectations. :)
'til next time!