Note: This is the 2017 prank chapter for SoaD - it picks up right after SoaD Chapter 49.
Ah, Nothing is too late, till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A high clear note struck Danny's ear, so piercing that it blocked out all else― pain, fear, senses, feeling― blinding white and all-encompassing. He sucked in a sharp breath and everything rushed back― the rain-slick alley, the reek of fire and aerosol and stale fries, the distant wail of sirens.
The fight― Danny whipped around, searching for the blond and the gun, but they were gone, all of them. Instead strangers crowded around him, murmuring in voices his still-ringing ears couldn't follow. Danny blinked, opened his mouth reflexively to offer some excuse, but they weren't paying any attention to him and his paint-stained clothes. All of their eyes trained on something just behind him, deeper into the alley.
Sudden, sour dread made Danny's mouth go dry. He turned around. An old man knelt in the alley, wispy white hair in disarray, layers of coats pushed up to his elbows. Gabe. He was― Danny's eyes followed the gnarled old hands to the bloody blouse they pressed against, one high heel, one stocking foot, straight hair flattened into the damp pavement. Nicki.
Danny felt as if the ground had dissolved beneath his feet. His ears rang. Nicki was hurt.
She lay on her back, ashen-faced, her chest blossoming scarlet under Gabe's palms. The old man looked up, his odd mismatched eyes watering. "Sorry, boy. I didn't come fast enough." Gabe's chin shook as he mouth the words. He looked old and frightened and frail. "I came too late."
Danny swallowed hard, and shook his head. Nicki was still breathing. It wasn't too late. It wasn't too late, they could do something.
"Help," he said, mind quickening as urgency set in. "We need to call for help." 911. Nicki needed medical attention, and fast. He reached for his pocket, then remembered that he hadn't had a cell phone in months.
It began to rain, rattling on the tin roof of the warehouse, hissing against the pavement, changing the smell of the air. Danny didn't feel it.
Suddenly remembering the crowd of strangers, Danny spun to face them. "Does anyone have a phone?" he called out. "You need to call 911!"
Danny glanced around, but no one spoke. No one moved. They all just stared at Nicki, hands limp at their sides, doing nothing. Saying nothing. Just… standing there. Fear and anger flared in Danny's chest. He spun on his heel, taking in the crowd around him, all passionless and blank and useless while Nicki was still bleeding. "Why won't anyone do anything?!"
Danny stared them down, fuming, but no one moved. Maybe they were too shocked. Maybe they didn't care. May be they were all psychopaths.
He scowled and turned away, looking back at Gabe. He was shaking his head, shoulders bowed, eyes on the girl on the pavement as her blood kept seeping up through his fingers. "Don't try asking them. It's my fault, boy. It's too late."
Nicki looked pale― paler than even a minute ago. A puddle of rainwater gathered around her, stained with lazy swirls of red.
Fear speared through Danny. He would have to go get help. Find a store, borrow a cell phone, stop a car. Something. Anything. It just had to happen now.
Danny sprinted toward the mouth of the alley. He shoved past the nearest strangers. They let him pass wordlessly, their clothes whispering as they backed away. Danny looked toward the opening, a patch of brightness framed with brick and rusty steel― then he saw it.
Danny froze mid-stride, struck with terror. He saw it.
Something lay there on the concrete inside the alley. Blood swirling into the puddles around a sodden orange hoodie, peppered with black paint. White hands sprawled out at odd angles. Pitch black hair. White face.
Danny felt like his breath had been sucked away. He drifted closer, peering into the upturned face. Blank blue eyes stared back, like a twisted mirror. It was him. Fear thrilled into the core of his being; it was him.
It reminded him of that time he flew through the Fenton Ghost Catcher by accident and split himself in two― the same eerie sense of displacement, staring down at his own face, feeling hands that weren't his hands, recognizing the ground underneath him but not feeling it. It had been so strange, feeling that sense of wrongness and dismay and seeing it mirrored in his other face. Even weirder remembering it from both sides.
This was different. These eyes didn't look back. They were wide open, unblinking, staring out from a face gray and bloodless. No part moved, not an eyelash, not a twitch of the mouth, not a hair. The pupils stayed unnaturally dilated. Nothing looked back at him. Nothing was in there.
Danny shuddered. The numb feeling dissolved into pure, unmatched fear. He― he had to get back. He dove toward his body, reaching for it with both hands outstretched― and drifted, like smoke on a breeze, with nothing to do but stare at his own dead face, stiff with terror.
Three feet. Two. Ten inches. Six. Five. Four. Two.
Danny could almost brush his own chest with his fingertips. He looked down, and recoiled at the sight of his own fingers― wispy, vague white shapes like airborne ash. What the― The moment he stopped, his fingers curled back into his arms like so much fog, coiling and twisting and dissolving. Danny stared, heart in his throat, fighting the terror that bit through him. He wasn't Phantom. He wasn't a ghost right now, he was… something else. Something less. Not even corporeal. He barely existed.
Danny glanced back at Gabe. The old man had pulled Nicki into his lap and cradled her like a child, her head lolling against his layers of coats, wet hair sticking to her face. Red oozed through Gabe's hands and stained her white blouse in darkening ribbons. Sirens wailed in the distance, by the sound of it still a dozen blocks away. They'd take another five minutes to get here―if they were coming here at all. In five minutes...
Danny looked back down at his own lifeless face. If he could just― go back in, he could help. He could call Jazz, like he'd meant to. He could see Mom. Talk to her. Fix things. Do everything he'd meant to do and had been too much of a coward to face.
He reached out again and plunged a hand into his body's chest. That should be enough. It was where he belonged; his spirit wanted to be in his body. He'd snap back into place and then the paramedics would come, and Nicki would be fine, and he'd go to the hospital and tell them everything, and Dad would come, and Jazz and Sam and Tucker, and Mom. He had to see her again. He couldn't leave things like this. He wouldn't, if only―
The sensation that rang up Danny's arm chilled him to the quick. He yanked it back, ignoring fingers that coiled into smoke, shivering, staring down at himself―or not himself. His body. His body that was… no longer a person. A thing. A dead thing. As he stared at it, it felt more and more like some alien object, utterly strange and awful. His fingers crawled with the sensation of that icy, lifeless skin.
Danny glanced around the alley at Gabe, at Nicki, the strangers with their blank white eyes, the alley that was growing strangely dim and vague. Panic battled against the ringing in his ears. He couldn't leave things like this. He couldn't leave.
Gabe had pulled out his pipe and he was carefully lighting it, the crook of his arm still supporting Nicki's head. His bloodied hands left darker smudges on the dark brown wood. Danny couldn't stop staring at Nicki. Her head and shoulders in Gabe's lap, her legs draped across the asphalt. A single high heel. The blouse that might once have been something other than red.
He ought to feel something. Sad. Angry. Guilty. Those emotions flickered like flames over embers and faded. Even the fear waned, ebbing away with the last of the rain. He felt… Danny blinked. Blank.
Gabe sighed, looking up with his odd mismatched eyes. "I'm sorry, boy. Danny. I tried."
It's not April without a graphic, gratuitous Danny death, eh? Like all of them, it's a semi-serious could-have-been taken to its darkest possible conclusion. The very last SoaD prank chapter, and most likely the final chapter of this side series. It's been a good run, folks.