Ask and Tell
Putting his feet down from the ottoman, Dash leaned forward, his curiosity overwhelming his better instincts to keep his nose out of his employers' business. "Okay, yeah. I got a question for you. Why is everyone so protective of you? I mean, I get that the Guys in White suck and they're the feds and have the whole weight of the US government behind them, but why are they so scared of you specifically getting caught?"
Fenton's smile was cryptic as ever. "You told Kwan it was because I'd 'squeal like a fangirl at a Justin Bieber concert.'"
Waving his hand, Dash brushed that away. "Eh. Had to tell him something."
"Why didn't you just tell him I'd been shot?"
"Because the whole point of this entire exercise was to get attention off of you. Making you the hero? No way that wouldn't get out."
Fenton tilted his head. "You know, you're smarter than I ever gave you credit for in high school."
"And you're less of a wuss than I ever gave you credit for. So, I asked, you said you'd tell. What gives? I thought I'd figured it out tonight, that it was all because you'd rescued Phantom, but like I said, that just didn't justify the level of panic in your friends. Especially Manson. I didn't think anything could scare that chick, but..." He didn't want to say more than that, to share what he'd seen in his bathroom. That wasn't fair to her.
Even not knowing the full extent of what his girlfriend had gone through the previous night, Fenton looked grave. "I know. She's been afraid for me ever since the asteroid, really, when anti-ecto fears became part of national politics. It's hard on her, because she's a fighter by nature. She believes in making sacrifices to make the world a better place, but the government has a little too much power when it comes to ghosts, and she's afraid she can't change the world fast enough to save me."
"Save you from what?"
"You really haven't figured it out? You must have a theory, at least."
Dash sat back in his seat and blew out a huff of air. "Paulina once got it into her head that Phantom was somehow connected to you. We always figured it was part because of the ghost portal in your folks' basement and part her denial of those couple of days she went insane and was dating you freshman year."
If he was insulted by the insanity crack, he didn't show it. Instead, he looked like he'd had an epiphany of some sort. "You know, I never put those two things together like that before, but you may be onto something. Paulina's quinceañera wasn't very long after that whole thing with Kitty. Maybe she left just enough behind for Paulina to connect some dots..."
He shook his head. "Long story, ancient history. Continue."
"Okaaaaay. Well, anyway, we all thought Paulina was full of crap, but lately I've been thinking maybe she wasn't too far off the mark. Your mom and your sister talk a lot about ghosts having attachments, that that's kind of what keeps them going, and you and Phantom do have the same first name. Is he, I don't know, attached to you in some way? Like, is he some dead relative you were named after, or did he die in your bedroom or something? And can the feds get to him through you?"
"Close." Fenton let out a long breath of air. "The truth is, there was an accident with my parents' ghost portal when they first built it. I was fourteen at the time. Right at the start of freshman year."
"An accident? So, he died in your folks' ghost portal?" That thought creeped him out a little. He worked in that basement a lot.
"No. But in a way, he was sort of born there. See, the accident happened to me."
"You?" Now Dash was really confused.
Fenton just nodded. "My parents had wired some stuff wrong and couldn't get the thing to turn on. I had Tucker and Sam over one day and was showing off the portal, still shut down, and Sam kinda talked me into going into it and checking it out. So I did, and I accidentally turned it on—from the inside."
Dash's eyebrows shot up. "I've seen your dad's inventions. That can't be good."
"Not really, no. It was kind of like an explosion of ectoplasm. Hurt like hell. Way worse than that bullet did."
"Are you serious? You were seriously in an explosion? Sounds like something you'd get sent to a burn ward for! How'd you not get completely maimed by something like that?"
"Ectoplasm is weird stuff. It's unpredictable. It didn't really injure me—well, unless you count a mild concussion."
"Okay, but what does this have to do with Danny—" And then, it was like all his childhood comic books came to life in his head, and all the air rushed out of his lungs. "Jesus. That... that's an origin story."
Fenton didn't answer, and Dash leaned over even further. "You? You're— You'd better not be messing with me..."
He held up his right hand like he was taking an oath. "God's honest truth. Normally, I'd give you the whole ghost and pony show, but whatever they coated that bullet with really did do a number on my ghost powers." He grinned. "Kinda like when my dad accidentally shrunk us with that Fenton Crammer. Got my powers knocked out then, too. Remember?"
"You ..." Dash shook his head, trying to reorient himself to make sense of Danny Fenton talking in the first person about an experience he'd once shared with Danny Phantom.
"I can probably manage something small, though." And then, he vanished. Dash nearly toppled out of the chair, but seconds later, Fenton was back, sitting on the couch in his pajamas as if it were absolutely the most normal thing in the world to become invisible.
And suddenly, everything made sense. The way they all circled the wagons whenever the Guys in White were around. How Fenton seemed to know more about ghosts and the Ghost Zone than even his parents, despite the fact that Dash rarely actually saw him out ghost hunting with the others. The way his mother had gone chalk white when they'd said they'd shot Danny Phantom. Fenton with the bullet in his arm. Manson, sobbing in Dash's bathroom. They will make you disappear...
"Danny Fen-turd is Danny Phan-turd?" Dash frowned. "Whoa. Déjà vu." He shook his head more vigorously this time. "So, are you saying you... you died in that accident, and now you're a—"
"I'm not dead, no. We're not really sure what exactly happened. The ectoplasm explosion changed my DNA, but we're not sure how. My mom's been working on it ever since she found out the truth, but she doesn't really have any answers."
"But if you're not, you know... dead, how... what... what are you? Are you even human?"
"Yeah, I'm still human. Partially, anyway. I call myself a half ghost. My mom calls me a hybrid. Some of the ghosts used to call me a 'halfa,' but now they mostly call me 'Ghost Child' or 'Whelp' or whatever."
"Wait. The ghosts know? I thought the whole secret identity thing was to keep your enemies from coming after your loved ones."
Fenton rolled his eyes. "Not in this case. They've always known. They can sense it. Mostly the secret identity thing is because of the Guys in White and the anti-ecto laws. And at one time, my parents. They really hated ghosts before they found out."
"How can you be both? How does that even work, with the white hair and the... the... flying? Wait. You can fly? How cool is that?"
"Pretty cool, I gotta admit. Like I said, I can't really give you the whole show until I heal up from whatever they shot me with. But basically, I can change forms back and forth between ghost and human. The hair goes white and the eyes turn green when I go ghost. And my clothes change, too, for some weird reason no one has been able to figure out yet. And believe me, my mom has tried. Whatever I'm wearing just disappears, and I end up in that jumpsuit, which is a photo-negative version of the hazmat suit I was wearing when the accident happened. When I change back, the clothes I was last wearing as a human come back."
"What, like Wonder Woman?"
"Uh... not exactly the superhero I'd choose to compare myself to, but more or less. Without the spinning, though."
Dash squinted, studying Fenton in this whole new light. "You know, you do kind of look like him." For the third time, he shook his head. "I feel like an idiot. How did I miss this?"
Fenton—Phantom?—shrugged. "No one ever thinks 'secret identity.' I think it's because everyone assumes a ghost is dead and a human is living, so it just doesn't occur to anyone that they could be the same thing. After Vlad—you remember Vlad Masters, the mayor before Tucker, who turned out to be a ghost? He was a half ghost, too. After he revealed himself, I thought people who knew me would start putting it together, but even then, they didn't. They just assumed Vlad was impersonating a human. Even my parents had trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of a half ghost. All those years studying ghosts, and this just contradicted everything they thought they knew."
"And that's why the feds said they shot Danny Phantom, but you were the one with the bullet in your shoulder." Then, another thought occurred to him. "Wait. Don't tell me the Ghost Hunter girl is your girlfriend."
"Uh... there are two ways to take that question, and the answer to both of them is a resounding no. But that's all I'm saying. Not my tale to tell."
Another bolt of realization hit Dash. "Valerie. She's the Ghost Hunter! That's how she could get all the way from her place in midtown to Manson's place downtown, then back to my apartment in under twenty minutes!" Fenton didn't respond, but he didn't need to. Dash knew he was right.
A million new questions formed on the heels of that revelation—how did a girl he once hung out with in high school but ditched because her father went bankrupt end up with such wicked awesome ghost-hunting gear, including a jet sled? But Fenton had already said it wasn't his tale to tell, so Dash focused instead on the old questions this new knowledge answered.
"And that's why the feds thought there were only two other human accomplices, too. If you're Phantom and Valerie's the Hunter, that leaves Foley and Manson. Geez, now everything makes sense. Except..." His brow furrowed. "What about your cousin?"
He stiffened like Dash had just threatened to kick his puppy. "What about her?"
"That. Everyone's almost as protective of her as they are of you. What's the story there?"
It took him a moment to answer. "She's a half ghost, too. Only she... ugh. It's a really long story. Short version: Vlad made her his special project, gave her ghost powers, then pretty much poisoned them out of her. How I am right now, able to use small bursts of ghost power but not go fully ghost? That's her all the time. And that's really all I wanna say on that subject. You proved last night I can trust you with my life, but I don't really trust anyone with hers, not after everything Vlad put her through. So let's just leave it at that."
Dash nodded. "Sure. Sorry, didn't mean to get too personal."
Sighing, Fenton relaxed again. "No, it's fine. I'm the one who said you could ask anything." He cocked his head, giving Dash another thoughtful look. "And I do trust you, you know. Not just because of everything you did for me, but because of what you said earlier, about having to decide when it's time to hide and when it's time to come out, and that there are sacrifices either way. I think you really get that in a way my family and friends don't. Especially Sam."
This, at least, was familiar ground for Dash. "They only see the dangers of coming out. They don't see what staying in the closet costs you."
Fenton nodded. "That and... you said when it's time to come out, you'd have my back. Sam—well, all of them, really, but especially her—I don't think they really get that that day will come. Hopefully not soon. But someday. And as likely as not, before the laws change."
Suddenly, Dash could see the full weight of all he was carrying on him. What Dash had gone through coming out to his dad ranked as one of the worst experiences of his life, but when Fenton came out—well, Dash's dad's reaction would look affirming in comparison. But the weight of having to keep everything he was under wraps to avoid those consequences was harder than most people understood. That was a weight Dash knew all too well. "Living in the closet is hard."
"Yeah, but so's living in a fishbowl. I don't really want that, either."
"See, now, I was looking forward to living in the fishbowl. NFL first round draft pick, Nike Dash shoes, the works."
Fenton regarded him a moment. "Would you have come out if you hadn't lost your shot at all that?"
"Not when I did, no. Notre Dame's a Catholic school, and the bishops have been under pressure to take a hard line on social issues. No telling what they'd have done with my scholarship if they'd have known."
"How 'bout in the NFL?"
"Maybe. Hard to tell. Things are opening up now. DADT's gone, DOMA—Defense of Marriage Act—is under fire. Lotta vocal allies in the NFL. It's not anything like your situation. Another year or two, when I would've been drafted, who knows?"
"But you said you don't regret coming out, that it was the right thing at the time. Would you trade that, being free of hiding who you are all the time, to get back that life you'd planned?"
Dash looked down at his hands in his lap. "You know, I don't really know. A year ago, yeah, in a heartbeat. Hell, maybe even a few months ago. But now? I don't know. I kinda like how things are now, you know? I'm broke, I live in a basement, and I schlep crazy-ass ghost-hunting equipment for a crazy-ass boss, but... it's a good place to be. It's good to be around a family where everyone's got each other's back and you don't have to be something you're not. And I get to help people that do big things." His eyes met Fenton's. "You do big things. Even if it's not always saving the world or saving the town, but it's just saving one little kid ghost. That's a cool thing to be a part of, even in a sort of sideline way."
"Definitely not a sideline way, especially not last night. You know, when you first applied for the job, I couldn't imagine anything crazier than you working here. But I'm really glad my dad hired you. It's good having you on the team." He snorted. "Beats the hell out of you wailing on me, anyway."
Dash sat up straight as it hit him. "Holy crap! I spent most of high school beating up Danny Phantom. You could have flattened me. Why didn't you?"
"Because any time I did get a few licks in, Sam got on my case. Using my powers for the greater good, blah blah blah." He made a sock-puppet-talking motion with his hand. Then, he gave Dash a wistful smile. "Of course, she was right."
Rolling his eyes, Dash flopped back in his seat. "Here, I was all admiring you for not giving me what I deserved, and then you go and remind me how totally whipped you are."
"Oh, you're laughing now, but just wait. As soon as she finds out I told you who I am, she's gonna threaten you within an inch of your life if you tell anyone, and you'll be crying like a little girl. She is not happy when new people find out."
The image of strong, caustic, combative Sam Manson wrapped in a ball, sobbing on his bathroom floor killed any desire Dash had to fire off another shot in response. Instead, he just nodded. "I'll bet. So, who all knows?"
"Sam and Tucker, of course. My family. Val, her dad, and Mr. Lancer found out along with about eighty other people in Antarctica during the asteroid thing, but somehow word hasn't managed to leak yet. Tucker's and Sam's families—boy, was telling Sam's parents ugly. Her grandma was cool, though. Jazz told Nick when they came after me last November. And now you." Now it was his turn to shake his head. "Who'da thought, you and me, friends, trading confidences? How the hell did we get here?"
"I was asking myself the same question earlier, actually."
"Did you ever figure out the answer?"
"Pretty much by accident, I guess. Me accidentally ending up under the entire USC defensive line, you accidentally ending up in an exploding ghost portal." Smiling, he raised his hand as if holding an invisible glass. "To accidents."
Fenton mimicked the imaginary toast. "To accidents. And no regrets?"
"Nope." Dash looked around him at the strange house which suddenly felt less like a place he worked and more like home. "Not a one."