Author's Note: Sorry for the delay! Real life is getting crazy right now with school work, but I'll try to do my best to keep updates more stable in the future, for all my stories. Sorry, guys.
Paulina rarely went out to the one club in Amity Park shady enough to let teens slip in.
It wasn't her scene. It was too loud, too headache inducing, too crowded. There were so many eyes on her at school that the concept of going somewhere and putting even more eyes on her was stomach churning. Under the flashing lights she saw how much prettier all the other girls were, how no amount of make up or careful hair styling could make her truly stand out. The fact that Dash would usually hit on other girls while there, however playfully, just drove home that she wasn't good enough. A lot of things he did drove that home lately. She paused as she was changing clothes to go meet him, glancing at where the bag of still unfinished chocolate covered potato chips lay. Tucker never made her feel like she wasn't good enough.
But he was so much smarter than she was. He was building his own custom computer, he had modified his PDA until it was a handheld marvel, he had that effortless intelligence born of enthusiasm for what he did… one day he was going to be head of his own company in some computer or tech related field. Tucker Foley was destined for bigger things. She was just a cheerleader, something that used to make her happy until it turned out that cheerleaders were just as ready to eat their own as other popular girls were. He was incredibly smart and sweet. Paulina lied like she breathed. She was fake and she wasn't smart, and she knew it. She hated it. Time hadn't brought acceptance that this was who she was. It had just made her hate her own life more and more.
She didn't want to be Paulina Sanchez. She wanted to be herself. She just didn't know who that was anymore. All she knew was what she was: cheerleader, Dash's girlfriend, popular girl with a reputation to keep up, and pretty girl. The roles felt more and more plastic and less real as time went on. There was a time she'd been so happy to be any of those things, to not be a skinny stick of a girl with no curves with an accent picked on by her classmates. Now she was buried under the weight of keeping so many balls in the air at once and she wasn't sure she could keep this going for the rest of high school.
…if Paulina didn't focus on all this she'd have to face her mother being dead.
So it was better to be buried in that than to have to address the gaping hole in her heart where her mother had been. She finished changing into a dark teal dress with a flared hemline around her knees and a sweetheart neckline. Paulina had worn it when Dash had asked her out to Homecoming way back in seventh grade, their first actual dance together. She'd grown taller and filled it out better now, and her hair was longer, but other than that she barely appeared to have changed. How could so much have become different between them since they first awkwardly looked at anywhere but each other while they slow danced? Would he even remember where the dress was from?
He'd apologized, though. He was trying to do better. And if she just left him when he was trying to change, she couldn't live with herself. She'd spent a large chunk of her life alone. She didn't want to go back to that. Without the approval of a football star she was likely to come under fire by other girls, and he would be laughed at by his friends. She knew what that felt like. Did she really want to do that to him? To the sweet boy who'd been her friend since fifth grade?
She couldn't do it. She slipped into a pair of black, high heeled boots and grabbed her silver jacket, ready to face tonight, hoping for the best while, unknown to her, Tucker had sent her back up in case of the worse.
Danny could not believe he was doing this.
He had never considered Paulina the type to end up in this kind of relationship. Dash made sense as an abusive asshole; somehow, he was unsurprised. What he hadn't seen coming was the genuine fear, the excuses, the way Paulina would go back to him like it was all going to be better now. For all her shallowness, she had never seemed desperate. Why would any woman stay with someone like Dash? Why wasn't she just calling him, telling him they were through and going for some other A-list student? The rest of the football team were dense and sometimes jerks, but they had to be better than this. She could do better. And he didn't particularly like her; it wasn't a compliment. It was a fact.
As much as he still had mixed feelings towards her – not hate, just wariness, some bitterness, lately more confusion than anything – he had never wanted to abuse his ghost powers more than when Dash hurt her. It was just who Danny was. So really, he wasn't shocked at himself he ended up spying on her. Of course he would intervene. He couldn't let any girl be abused by any guy, even it was Paulina in question and she was getting harder and harder to figure out. Weirder still was how she apparently had a soft spot for Tucker, of all people. The way she looked at him was… unguarded. Gentle. Her smile was even different. He didn't know she could look so human. It was like she was in love.
If she broke Tucker's heart, he had no idea what he'd do. If she dated him, he had less than no clue what he'd do. This had never crossed his mind as even a joking possibility before. Danny wasn't sure how the two of them had ended up so close literally overnight. Neither of them made any sense. In that way, they deserved each other, he guessed. It still felt weird and a bit like being a stalker, following her as she made her way to the club.
He had to go invisible and intangible to get inside and not crash into people. The music's volume was insane. Danny recognized some people from school, but Dash looked like he'd had more than a few shots. Something told him then this would not be a good night for anyone involved. But the first few minutes seemed fine enough. Dash and Paulina hugged, they drank, and they nodded their heads and clapped their hands in time to more than one song Danny couldn't stand. Kwan and Star popped in, and Star and Paulina ran off to the bathroom, leaving Danny awkwardly watching the men for lack of a non-creepy option. Dash and Kwan were talking, their words overshadowed by the bulk of the music. What Danny did catch was that Dash was an angry drinker and as more of the alcohol entered his system, he was less and less of a good guy to be around. Kwan seemed to sense this, and started dragging them towards the exit.
It didn't work, and the second Paulina came out of the bathroom, make up readjusted and eyes sparkling, Dash manifested beside her, blue eyes glinting dangerously. Kwan and Star were hot on their tail as Dash opened some small side door that led outside, shouting for them to stay out of it. Kwan winced and did as he was told, always a touch too easily commanded. Star wrenched the door open and shoved herself inbetween Dash and Paulina bodily. One the Latina was free from Dash's grip, Star pushed her behind her and dug her heels into the ground.
"She came to the stupid party, what's your deal?" Star asked, flipping her blonde hair behind her back.
"She got Fenton and his friends to blackmail me-"
"I didn't know they were going to show up!" Paulina protested. The door creaked open and Kwan leaned against the brick wall, looking confused and torn. "I don't even know Fenton and Foley and Manson enough to get them to blackmail me. I'm pretty sure all three of them hate me, Dash."
"Then what was that little display in the hallway about? If someone had seen that I'd be in juvie or something. I thought you cared about me."
"I do-" Paulina started to say, but Star interrupted.
"I set it up," she lied boldly. All heads, even Danny's invisible one, turned to her in shock. "Foley was my boyfriend for a little bit, I had dirt on him. He owed me. Dash, do you remember that time in middle school you stood me up at the winter dance? Now we're all even and if you need to punch a girl, you're aiming for me."
Dash's fist recoiled as if he were going to. Kwan grabbed onto him by the shoulders. "Leave her alone, man! She was just mad. It was just a mistake. We don't need to fight about this."
"Then why," the blonde boy breathed, dangerously close to Kwan's face, "are you taking sides?"
"I'm not." Kwan's normally jovial grin hardened into a cold, angry blank stare. "But my mother always taught me not to hit a girl."
"Then you and Star go home so Paulina and I can discuss this in private."
Star stayed put in front of Paulina, and crossed her arms. "I'm sick of you jocks thinking cheerleaders are just your accessories."
"You're dating Kwan!"
"Because he's a nice guy, an optimist, a spoken word poet, and my best friend," Star explained. "Take away the football jacket and what are you?"
"Star, please don't get me in any more fights," Kwan muttered, which she ignored. "Come on, can't we all just let it drop, go home and sort it out later?"
Danny could see on Dash's face there was no chance of that. Still invisible, he crept around the corner and blasted some random garbage with glowing green ectoblasts, feigning a scream of 'ghost'. He took to the air and whipped around the corner to find Dash already bolting like his life depended on it while Star was dragging Paulina towards the parking lot, but something seemed to be wrong with the Latina girl. Her pupils were dilated, her balance unsteady and her focus seemed to be going. Kwan wrapped an arm around her to support her as she stumbled.
"What was in that last martini?" she asked, sounding dazed. Star's eyes grew large in alarm.
"Nothing. You're always like this when you drink," Star groused. "We need to get you home."
"I'll take her," Danny volunteered. "I can fly. Plus I already nailed that ghost tonight." He squinted at the three of them, using his best authoritative glare and voice combo. "Aren't you all a little young to be drinking?"
"I had half an Irish coffee and Kwan had some energy drink mix thing. Paulina doesn't even drink, Inviso-bill," Star explained immediately, covering for her friend. "She doesn't drink unless her boyfriend gets her to or someone's died. She's not a bad girl."
"Somehow, if that coward was her boyfriend, I believe it. Any bad girl would get someone less of a pansy. What's her address?"
Star gave it to him, handing him the swaying and clearly exhausted Paulina. Kwan put his arm around his blonde girlfriend and they watched until the two were out of sight. It was good to know the town's super hero wasn't above helping out normal people. Star took several deep breaths, and kicked the snow in front of her. Kwan watched her bite her lip and furrow her brow, taking several deep breaths. She'd been taking jujitsu lately for self defense, and after three months of work she'd like nothing more than to flip Dash over like a pancake. Paulina had been the reason she was popular, the reason she had friends, and to touch her was unthinkable. Star would throw her popularity away for Paulina in a heartbeat.
And Kwan knew that his own interest in poetry, accidentally instilled by Sam Manson, would get him booted from popular circles despite his parents being rich. That was part of how he ended up with Star. She was not afraid to fight her own bullies anymore; she was determined not to be a satellite anymore. She wanted to be Star. And the Star she wanted to be wasn't totally based in popularity or backstabbing, arrogant as she was, but she was interested in honesty. That was Kwan in a nutshell. He was almost too gentle and naïve to be a real person. They were both wildly out of balance in their own ways, but together, they seemed to fit.
Together they stayed out in the cold until long after Phantom was gone from sight, just watching the moonlight play over the silver clouds.
"Thanks for the ride, Danny," Paulina murmured, eyes fighting to stay open.
He swallowed nervously. "Your friends explained your situation pretty well. And it's not a long flight. No thanks necessary, really."
"It's true, you know. I don't drink. Things have just been hard lately." She snorted, looking at the ground. "Like I have any real problems. You're out there ducking ghost attacks and I'm just whining about nothing."
"Anything that would make an underage girl drink isn't nothing," he insisted firmly, trying to make his voice as un-Fenton-like as possible. "What happened?"
"Mama's gone," she said, the words slipping out weak and weary. "Lexandro's gone. Papa spends all his time at work and I just want him home. I only even got into cheerleading so Papa would come watch me, but lately I just… walk through life."
After a minute of silence and her awkwardly trying to fight back tears, he asked softly, "Who's Lexandro?"
"He was my brother." She shut her eyes. "The best brother in the world…"
She tried her best not to cry, and that consumed her. He couldn't get another world out of her. He almost thought she'd passed out as he phased through her window, gently setting her on her bed, where he awkwardly pulled her shoes off and pulled some blankets over her. Danny had turned to leave when she struggled to her feet, managing to get to the TV, retrieve a small bag of chocolate covered potato chips, and plop down on a pink bean bag chair. Danny could see how exhausted she was, but she had no intent of laying down on the bed. Instead she began turning the bag over and over in her hands.
"When Lex wasn't around anymore, I tried to be friends with everyone. So I'd never be alone." She looked at him, make up smeared, hair a mess, tears tumbling down her cheeks. Her voice was drained of all school ground alpha bitch superiority, and instead it sounded like a weight to push the words out at all. "So why am I more alone now than I ever was before?"
"You aren't. You have at least two friends willing to fight for you, and…" he hesitated, trying to think of other people that cared about her. "Tucker doesn't buy candy for people he hates."
She looked at the bag in her hands. "…yeah. Yeah, you're right. Leave the light on? I don't want to be in the dark tonight."
"Can do," he said, flicking on the bedside lamp as a hint she should get to bed soon. As he fazed through the window and flew out into the night, Paulina curled into a ball, slumped against her bean bag chair.
Chocolate covered potato chips had never tasted so sweet.