What does Freakshow use all that stolen money for?
Danny stared. And kept staring.
Unblinking, the large blue eyes of the toddler in front of him stared right back. He was dressed in red footy pajamas and sitting in a large burgundy armchair almost big enough to be his bed. His little mouth hung slightly agape, his round cheeks lacking any of the healthy rosiness that should have glowed there. Danny would know; he'd seen enough pictures of himself at that age to know he'd never looked so pale and… sickly.
"Cute little fellow, isn't he?" Vlad said conversationally, taking a seat in the plush chair behind his desk. He moved a few papers off to the side and set them in a neat stack, then clasped his hands on his cleared desktop and observed the two boys in front of him with a friendly smile.
Danny couldn't even bring himself to point out how absurdly creepy that comment sounded coming out of Vlad's mouth. Especially since he was talking about a younger version of Danny.
Danny reached out hesitantly to the little boy, both nauseated and fascinated in a disturbed sort of way. Slowly, the toddler's vacant blue eyes followed his arm down to his hand, uncomprehending. Danny decided to give him a little bit of help, taking his small fingers and giving his fragile hand a little shake.
The boy didn't respond.
Seeing this, Vlad gave a wistful sigh and leaned back in his chair. "Sadly, he has almost no mind to speak of," he said. "He lacks even the most basic instincts. He won't eat, swallow—even when his body needs it. But I do believe I'm close with this one. His structure is a far cry more stable than Danielle's, at the very least. Aside from the mental deficiency, I'd even say he's perfect."
Danny carefully let go of the toddler's hand, stomach churning. "How old is he supposed to be? Physically, not chronologically, I mean."
"About eighteen months. Just old enough for his little brain to begin a better comprehension of language. That is, if he were more… aware."
The little boy suddenly slumped sideways against the cushion Vlad had propped up beside him, as if he'd forgotten how to sit up properly. Danny winced, pity filling him with such intensity it caused a tangible ache in his chest. The kid was a vegetable. Even for Vlad, this was a whole new level of creepy.
"Why did you make him so young?" Danny asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the little clone. He looked so much like Danny, and yet… he didn't. His raven hair was too dull, his skin too fragile, almost translucent, his huge eyes devoid of any spark. This little creature was just a shell. A pale imprint of the boy Danny used to be.
"I should think that would be obvious," Vlad answered. "You, Danielle—You were both too old for proper molding. Old enough for that teenage rebellion to kick in." He spoke so nonchalantly, as if talking about something as mundane as the weather. Danny vaguely wondered why this surprised him. "I reason that if I start with a much younger child, I can plant the necessary seeds of thought more easily. I can raise him as if he were my own."
Definitely a whole new level of creepy.
"It's sick," Danny said.
"Yes, he does get sick rather frequently—"
"No, I mean what you're doing. It's sick." Danny finally looked away from his clone to Vlad, too disturbed at the complete emptiness in those dull blue eyes to continue looking at them. Vlad just shrugged.
"Hopefully, the next will be an improvement. But I've lost hope for this one.'
"So you're just gonna melt him down."
Another shrug. "What must be done, must be done."
Danny was about to argue that purposely ending the very life Vlad had forced into existence was beyond inhumane, but when he glanced back to that vacant little face he couldn't help but think that this pitiful clone would probably be better off as a pile of ectoplasmic goo. And that was saying something.
"But enough of that," Vlad continued, giving a little wave as if to brush the topic away. "As exciting as it is discussing your failed clones, you didn't come here just for that, hmm?"
Danny reached out for the little clone, standing from where he knelt on the polished wooden floor in front of the armchair. The boy didn't even grab Danny for support, even though he should have feared slipping to the ground when Danny picked him up. Danny took the toddler's seat, settling the little version of himself on his lap. He couldn't just sit there and have it stare at him. By holding him Danny didn't have to see his eyes. By holding him, he could pretend the child was a little more… human.
"No," Danny agreed with a tired sigh. "Freakshow wants a progress report."
Vlad actually rolled his eyes. "Of course. And he thinks that… how long has it been, three weeks? He thinks three weeks is enough for anything to have changed?"
"I tried to tell him it wasn't enough time. It's like he's senile or something."
"Or perhaps just too obsessed for his own good," Vlad scoffed.
Danny raised both eyebrows in disbelief. "Uh, hello?" he said, holding up the toddler on his lap. "Pot? Kettle? Any of this ringing a bell?"
One side Vlad's mouth twisted up. "Point taken," he admitted.
For a moment they sat in tense silence, the ornate clock on Vlad's office wall ticking loudly to remind them of the time. Danny, eager to cut their meeting short, spoke up again. "So, now what? I just go back and tell him you haven't got anywhere, or what?"
"I suppose. Although…"
Danny held back a groan. It was never good when Vlad ominously trailed off.
Vlad leaned forward on his desk again, steepling his fingers in thought. "I suppose you might say I've made a small amount of progress. Though it's not really in the direction Freakshow intended; I don't know if he'd be interested."
Danny narrowed his eyes. "Explain."
Vlad complied. "I may have found a… temporary solution to the problem." Something in his eyes gleamed at that, just a touch too malicious for Danny's taste. "It might—and I stress, might—be possible to create some sort of injection that could bring about the desired results. But the effects wouldn't be permanent, and each injection after the first would have to be of a greater concentration than the last to reach the same level of change. Almost as if it were a drug." He cleared his throat. "Mind you, this is mostly theoretical at this point."
Danny mulled this over, glancing down at the child he held to avoid Vlad's calculating stare.
That's not gonna make Freakshow happy, he thought. Too many ifs. Too many maybes. And what happens when it stops working because of a built up tolerance? If it works the first time at all? It isn't anything like he wanted.
At last, Danny shook his head. "That's not going to be good enough for him."
"I realize that. It has only been three weeks."
"So three weeks is enough time for you to create a clone, but not do what you were hired to?" Danny retorted, nodding down to the Danny-toddler.
Vlad dismissed this with another wave of his hand. "Nonsense. I've been working on that clone since I got your mid-morph DNA sample. Five months ago, if you recall."
Danny scowled. I recall alright. Too well. "Well now you need more of my DNA, to make yet another clone to satisfy your fruitloopy idea of a perfect life, but you don't have anything to deliver. Freakshow's not gonna give you another sample until he feels like you've actually done something."
"And what if I need a mid-morph sample to further his interests?"
Danny laughed. "Yeah. Right. Because Freakshow can trust you not to use it for yourself."
Vlad, ever the persistent one, kept pushing. "Well perhaps if he gave me two samples at a time, I wouldn't be quite so tempted to abuse his trust."
"Pfft. Sure. I'll just make that little suggestion. Should go over real well."
"The sarcasm is hardly necessary."
"Just trying to make you realize how full of it you sound."
Vlad heaved a sigh, standing from his chair and giving Danny a look that might actually have passed as sympathetic if Danny hadn't known him to be incapable of it. "You know, it does pain me to see you like this. Reduced to an errand boy, a petty thief. A circus performer, of all things. You had such potential."
Danny said nothing, just glared, his jaw clenching. Because Vlad was right.
"You realize that if you'd joined me at fourteen, none of this would have happened? That if you'd given up the childish heroics, there would have been nothing to use against you? No way to trap you?"
Again, though his perspective was slightly twisted, Vlad made an undeniably excellent point. Danny's attempts at heroism had been used against him. Danny stubbornly pretended he hadn't noticed the logic. "As if being your puppet would have been any better than being Freakshow's," he said coldly.
"You make it sound as if I wanted to enslave you," Vlad said, feigning hurt as he placed a hand over his heart. "I'm no crazed ringmaster. I wanted to train you. Teach you, guide you. I wanted to help you."
Danny's voice began to rise. "I must have missed the memo between the kidnappings and the death threats against my dad," he snapped. "Oh, and let's not forget the time you had me and my mom shoved out of a plane. And how many times have you electrocuted me, by the way? I think I've actually lost count."
Vlad's lip curled into a slight sneer, his eyes flashing dangerously. He was about to rejoin when suddenly the toddler in Danny's lap let out a little moan, his right foot twitching. Danny froze, wondering if he'd somehow hurt him.
"What was that?" he asked, nervous.
Vlad frowned, genuinely confused. "I'm not sure. Perhaps…" A faint, hopeful lilt entered his voice. "He's reacting to our negative tones?"
Danny turned the child so that he could see his face. His expression remained blank, his eyes empty. But if he was bothered simply by the tones of their voices…
"Are you sure he's completely… not there?" Danny asked.
Vlad immediately came closer, thoughtfully rubbing his chin as he bent to look the little Danny intently the face. "This is the first time he's ever made that kind of reaction. I'm not sure what it means. Maybe he's just hungry. Or tired."
"Either way, you said he was lacking basic instincts. But not if he can tell something's wrong. Right?"
Without warning Vlad reached out and plucked the clone from Danny's grasp, creating a seat out of his arm. For a moment the boy slumped against his shoulder, then slowly, carefully, he sat up on his own. His head turned sluggishly back to Danny. He blinked. His mouth opened a little wider, he took a breath that was a little deeper. Then nothing.
"Interesting," Vlad remarked. "For whatever reason, he's actually focusing his attention on you. What little attention he has, anyway."
Danny stood cautiously. He would never directly choose to help Vlad. Not with anything. But the little thing Vlad held was not an evil whack-job. He didn't inherit his creator's sins. And Danny couldn't help but feel, even if it was just slightly, responsible for the boy—they were, after all, sort of related. Like family, in a freaky, messed-up sort of way. Like Danielle.
If this clone wasn't a lost cause, would Danny be able to just let it go if he were destroyed?
He knew the answer to that the moment he thought it. Battling with a moment of pride, Danny held his arms out. Vlad quirked an eyebrow but didn't comment as he handed the toddler back over to Danny. Little-Danny continued to sit upright in Bigger-Danny's arms, his huge eyes never leaving Danny's face. The fingers of his pale left hand curled, once, twice.
"It's like he recognizes me or something," Danny murmured.
"So I see."
A pause. "Are you still going to melt him down?"
Vlad didn't answer. He turned abruptly, a ponderous look on his face, and walked back to his desk. Once there, he reached underneath to push a hidden button. Instantly, two of the bookshelves on the wall began to slide apart with a nearly inaudible hiss of sound.
"Tell Freakshow about the possibility I mentioned," he said as an open space behind the bookshelves revealed itself. At the back of the space stood two white poles, crackling with electricity. "And tell him I want to make a change to our little arrangement."
Danny watched as the two poles began to glow, flashing with a blinding light that faded to reveal a swirling wall of green stretched out between them—a portal into the ghost zone, set up to put Danny right outside the gateway to Freakshow's portable one.
"What kind of change?"
Vlad scrutinized him, his face suddenly closed, hard to read. "He can continue to fund the research I do for his sake. That part stays the same. But as far as my other payment… I may not require another mid-morph sample. I want you to regularly come visit the clone."
"What?" Danny sputtered, aghast. "Are you crazy? No way I'm coming here any more than I already have to!"
"Unfortunately for you, that's not your decision to make anymore."
How he hated it when Vlad was right.
Fuming, Danny took a deep breath to keep himself from doing something rash. He'd always been too quick to throw a punch—or a ball of flaming ectoplasm—at Vlad when his temper got the better of him. Vlad strode forward and once again relieved Danny of his clone, his face dead serious though a glint in his eye said he understood just how much Danny had to restrain himself.
"I think that will be all then," Vlad said.
Like he's the one who called the meeting in the first place that smug, arrogant…
"If you really care so much about having a half-ghost for a son, why don't you just clone yourself?" Danny snapped, crossing his arms to keep his fists from smashing Vlad's stupid face in.
Vald gave him a look of disbelief. "Because it's not actually the half-ghost part that's the most important," he explained, his tone suggesting that Danny was not all that intelligent. "Your DNA is not just half ghost. It's half Maddie."
Shaking his head without comment, Danny passed Vlad and headed toward the portal.
"Speaking of Maddie, actually," Vlad suddenly said, stopping Danny in his tracks. "I almost forgot to mention. I spoke with your family just yesterday. Your little girlfriend's as well."
Danny froze. He kept his back to Vlad, not wanting the man to see the mixture of emotions that no doubt crossed his face. Surprise. Longing. Sadness. Anger.
"Yes, it seems that yesterday was the exact one year anniversary of your disappearance," Vlad elaborated. "As both friend and mayor, I felt it my duty to check up on our two distraught families. Would you like to know how they are? Hear another progress report, of sorts?"
Yes, Danny thought, though he'd never say it out loud. I would kill to know how my family's doing.
In answer, he turned halfway back to Vlad, just enough to look sideways at him.
Vlad smiled. Danny pictured himself smacking the look right off his face.
Feeling a little violent today, are we?
"Miss Peterson will be happy to hear that her family is doing well, all things considered," Vlad said. "Her parents seem to have accepted the reality that their daughter will probably never come home. It is, after all, so rare to find a child who's been missing for a year. They've recently bought themselves a purebred bichon puppy, although Mr. Peterson originally wanted something a little more sporty."
Danny gawked, hardly believing his ears. What a nice way to say they've stopped caring, he thought sadly. That's the absolute last thing Star would be happy to hear…
Star frequently made comments, in reference to one thing or another, that lead Danny to understand that her parents pretty had much ignored her all her life. The Petersons lived life as if it were a checklist—Graduate high school, check. Go to college, check. Get job, check. Get married, check. Have child, check. Wait for retirement.
Vlad went on. "In contrast, the Fentons are not doing as well, I'm afraid," he said. Danny looked down at his feet, not sure he wanted to hear anymore. But he failed to convince himself to leave.
"Maddie and Jack maintain the slight hope that their son will return to them. They've even come up with a rather fascinating theory as to exactly what happened to him." Purposely dragging it out for Danny's sake, Vlad paused, shifting Danny's clone to his other arm.
"Just spit it out, would you?" Danny growled, knowing Vlad was searching him for any signs of emotional distress. Danny did his best to keep his face unreadable, knowing he did a poor job of it.
Vlad grinned, enjoying himself. "Through a combination of Maddie's brilliance and Jack's idiocy, the two have concluded that it was none other than the infamous Danny Phantom who 'spirited away' their son, and with a very surprising motive."
Stunned, Danny finally snapped his head up to look at Vlad, who kept up his narration jovially. "After months of Danny Phantom's rather noticeable absence in Amity Park, the Fentons realized his disappearance coincided with that of their son and his friend, Star Peterson. After making this connection, they put two and two together and began to notice an uncanny number of similarities between their son and the ghost in question. The apparent age, the physical similarities, even the names.
"From these observations, they theorized that some sort of connection existed between Danny Fenton and Danny Phantom. That perhaps the ghost had deliberately mimicked their son's likeness. That perhaps the ghost had even been haunting their own son!"
Danny's head spun. Was Vlad just making this all up? Why would he do that? He couldn't be making it up. His parents actually thought he'd kidnapped… himself? How could they be so close to the truth, and yet be off by a mile?
"It would explain the changes in their son, they realized," Vlad went on. "The falling grade point average, the often haggard appearance, as if he'd been losing sleep. The attitude changes. It all made so much sense once they realized that young Danny's slump coincided with the appearance of the ghost boy.
"It was only logical, therefore, to begin considering the possibility that Danny Fenton was actually Danny Phantom's ghostly preoccupation—his obsession, his anchor to the mortal plane. And of course, that would explain why the ghost finally stole the Fenton child away."
Danny couldn't take much more of this. As if they needed another reason to hate Phantom. Unbelievable.
He was about to leave in an angry huff when he remembered something and hesitated. "And Jazz?" he asked.
"Honestly I couldn't say," Vlad replied. "I haven't seen her in quite some time. I assume she's still busy with her studies. According to Maddie, she hasn't visited home since the spring."
Figures. The one person who could defend me against their crazy accusations isn't there. Knowing it was selfish and a little immature, Danny tried not to feel hurt that his older sister had continued with her life at college instead of coming home to help their parents after he'd left. She must have had a reason.
"And before you ask," Vlad said, the mock geniality falling from his expression, "I haven't seen or spoken with your ridiculous friends since they barged into my office demanding to know where you were several months ago."
At this, Danny felt a little better. Good old Sam and Tucker, he thought, almost fondly remembering the day Vlad had told him about their unexpected interrogation. At the time, Vlad honestly had no idea what had become of Danny, and informed Sam and Tucker accordingly. Too bad for Danny they didn't try and get the information out of him later.
"Well then. I do believe that brings us all up to date," Vlad said, looking down at the child he held and moving a dark lock of hair out of his eye. "I'll spare you the details of your mother's slow decline and her frequent nightmares about the state of your well-being and let you on your merry way."
He just can't let me have a moment, can he?
With a last, vicious glare at the man who used to be his arch-enemy, Danny leapt into the air and shot toward the open portal.
"Don't forget to tell Freakshow about you coming to help the clone!" Vlad called loudly after him, the words just barely reaching Danny's ears before he vanished into the ghost zone.
He flew the short distance to Freakshow's portal at top speed, as if hoping to expend his anger along with his energy.
I don't know who I hate more, he thought as the green and purple around him passed in a speeding blur. Freakshow, for making me do this, or Vlad. For being such a freaking ass.
All things considered, it was probably the latter.
GASP! Danny! You can't swear, you're TV-Y7!
Sometimes, there's just no other word for it.