Silence stretched across the room like a tightly pulled elastic band.
The urge to make a quip or dry comment was overwhelming but somehow I couldn't force my vocal chords into action. Instead, I found myself frozen, watching the three students stare back at me.
"Bloody hell," Ron breathed after a few seconds, his jaw slightly drooping. Hermione, realising how close she was standing, took a step back, the same look of wonder on her face as the first night we met.
The lack of talking was setting me on edge. No one was saying anything. No questions, no comments on my appearance or who I was. Even Hagrid looked as though he were at a loss for words. What kind of response was this? Did I make a mistake?
After flitting around the room a few times, my eyes met Harry's. He must have sensed my panic because he chose that moment to step forward from his spot beside the table.
"You are The Phantom, right? There isn't some other creature roaming the school that the Ministry doesn't want us to know about?" he mocked, easing a little of the tension in my stomach.
"Not that I know of." My voice croaked as though I hadn't used it for days. "It's Danny Phantom, though. The Phantom makes me sound like a comic book character." I lifted a hand to the back of my head as though that would somehow shield me from the awkwardness of being assessed. Again.
"Danny," Harry repeated with a smile. "I'm Harry, this is Ron and that's Hermione. Nice to meet you. You know, properly."
"Uh… yeah. Same," I murmured, unsure if that answer even made sense. Realising my hand was still weaved in my hair, I let it drop. "So… Were you just here to warn me or…?"
It wasn't that I didn't appreciate their apparent acceptance, but something about them being here still put me on edge. What if Dumbledore or some other teacher, or anyone really, decided to pay Hagrid an unexpected visit? It wasn't unheard of. If someone saw them here, with me? I shuddered to think. No one else seemed particularly concerned, Hagrid having turned to make drinks and the trio just… standing there.
"I hope you don't mind me asking but why are you here?" Hermione asked, face set in curiosity. I frowned.
"Yeah, you're gonna have to be a little more specific."
"In Hogwarts," she refined, "Malfoy said something about a Ministry official making some kind of agreement?"
Ah, good old Stubble.
"Oh that. Uh… apparently according to magical law or whatever, it's not legal for a foreign… magical creature, such as myself to roam Britain without a responsible witch or wizard alongside them, or a licence. As someone who didn't know that witches or wizards existed, let alone that they had laws, I had neither of those things," I couldn't suppress the tone of resentment that made its way into my voice as I spoke. "So after… an altercation… I was brought here and because I'm… what was the word? A communicative creature, Dumbledore proposed I stick around for a month to prove that I'm not a danger. Or something. From what I hear, the Ministry isn't all that fond of the arrangement."
"Must have been some altercation to have even the Malfoys on your back," Ron commented, almost appreciatively. The name snagged on my mind once more and after a few seconds, I finally remembered where I'd heard the name before.
"Malfoy. He's the kid I launched that Skrewt at, right?" I asked Hagrid, just as he began handing out pumpkin juice to the guests.
"That he is," he confirmed, something of a grimace on his face.
"That was you?" Ron all but yelled, earning a sharp look from Hermione. The familiar pang of guilt I felt over the incident rested in my chest as I nodded.
"Yep. It was partly an accident. I didn't expect the thing to hold on to him like that."
"Mate. Don't apologise, that was the highlight of my week." A grin split the red-head's face and a short laugh of agreement from Harry eased a little of my guilt.
"Are you also the one who healed him?"
I glanced across at Hermione whose eyes were firmly on mine. I shifted uncomfortably under her stare. My healing powers were something that I desperately wanted to kept hidden from the Ministry, more so than I had my ice. But, if I was trusting them this far… I gave a short nod.
"What are you?"
And there was the one I'd been waiting for. I squared my shoulders, ready for the argument I'd gotten fairly used to since being here.
"I'm a ghost."
"Huh. You were right."
I blinked at Ron's words, unable to make sense of them until Harry gave him a playful slap on the back.
"Of course she was. She's Hermione."
"Wait. You… what?" I found myself incapable of forming a sentence as I gazed back at the young witch in awe.
"I guessed," she shrugged as though it didn't mean anything. "Your abilities – the invisibility, passing through things… and you give off the same cold energy. I just joined the dots."
Well that was unexpected. I was expecting a fight, not a confirmation. I don't know how long I stood there looking like a fish out of water, but it was Hagrid that eventually broke me out of my stupor.
"It goes without sayin' that you kids can't say a thing abou' seein' Danny here tonight," he grunted, settling back down into his chair at the table. As I was in ghost form, he'd neglected to pour a drink for me, leaving the jug on the side so that I could get to it as soon as the students left. "If the Ministry knew yeh was here, he'd be in more trouble than a bowtruckle in a desert. Not that we won' be havin' words when yeh head back to yer dorms." He gave me a dark look that indicated I wasn't in the slightest bit off the hook.
"Oh, c'mon! I told you it was an accident. You can't seriously be mad at me for this," I whined, almost forgetting the three spectators. Hagrid shook his head.
"Not on'y did you get yerself caugh', you kept it from me. I though' we were past secrets, you and I?"
"Oh yeah, 'cause I'm just gonna bring up the fact that I broke the golden rule on day one? Despite everything, you're still a teacher, aren't you? You still report to Dumbledore. Excuse me if I didn't want to risk living out the rest of my afterlife locked away in some Magical government facility."
The flash of hurt in the half-giant's eyes was enough to make me instantly regret my outburst. It was just… frustrating… all these rules and pressures and… I sighed. Taking it out on the one person who stood up for me from day one was cruel.
"I didn't mean…" I started, voice having lost its earlier venom. "Sorry, I just… I'm..." scared.
Hagrid didn't respond, opting instead to inspect his beverage. Great. Another thing to feel guilty about. The quiet stretched on for longer than anyone was comfortable with.
"So, uh…" Harry stuttered, rubbing the side of his thigh with the palm of a hand as though trying to wipe off the awkward atmosphere. "What exactly is it you did to cause the Ministry to want to lock you up?"
Yes. Because that wasn't going to make things all the more uncomfortable. Stalling for time to order my thoughts, I pulled away from the wall and made my way to Hagrid's bed. Without my own hammock to rest on, I settled down into a cross legged position in the centre of his duvet, dropped my backpack on the floor and began fiddling with my gloves.
"I… might have… knocked out a few of their hunters when they tried to… arrest me or whatever..."
"Hunters? You mean the Ministry's Magical Creatures tracker force? Those people are mad. They wrestle dragons for sport. You knocked them out? That's insane!" Ron had the same glee on his face as he had when I'd mentioned the Malfoy incident.
"A few of them," I corrected, though I didn't share in his excitement. Despite my apparent achievements, I'd still managed to get myself caught. "I can't really tell if the Ministry admires or hates me for it. Either way, Dumbledore seems to think they want me so that they can use me in some way. Like some kind of pet weapon." The last part came out far more bitter than I'd originally intended. I grimaced as the temperature began to drop around me. As if I needed another reminder of how abnormal I was.
Before I could register what was happening, Hermione had slipped onto the bed beside me. I turned to face her, her brown eyes glistening with something I didn't quite recognise.
"We won't say anything. I promise. It's not right, how they're treating you. But you don't need to be afraid of us. We're on your side." Her voice held a note of sincerity I found difficult to ignore.
"So long as you don't turn out to be a crazy killer ghost or anything," Ron added, with a lopsided smirk. I felt my eyes narrow as a small, mischievous smile made its way onto my face.
"Or a demon who sneaks into bedrooms and feasts on toenails, right?"
The younger boy paled as Harry burst into laughter. I shrugged at his accusatory glare.
"I may or may not have eavesdropped a little on your conversation that night."
"I take it back, I'm going straight to Snape," Ron bit, though it was obvious there was no truth in it.
"Snape?" I probed, wondering why of all the teachers he could have picked, he picked the sadist potions teacher. Ron lifted his head as though he were about to pout.
"Worst teacher I could think of," he confessed.
I nodded in understanding. "Good choice."
After that the conversation went from how awful Snape was as both a teacher and human, to more mundane things like what lessons they took each week and which classes they'd recommend sitting in on. Hermione's suggestions were quite frequently met with groans of distaste from her companions. All the while, Hagrid sat with an odd mix of satisfaction and solemnity on his face while he watched us talk.
Despite Hermione's obvious interest in who and what I was, she resisted probing, perhaps sensing that it wasn't something I was ready to open up about. I was thankful for that.
It wasn't long before the trio were getting set to return to their dorms, the night having stretched for longer than I'd anticipated. As odd as it was, after getting over the initial shock of it all, I realised that I'd actually missed talking to people closer to my age. I actually enjoyed spending time with all three of them. It felt amazing, so much so that I almost forgot my fear of being discovered. Almost.
"So… I guess I'll see you around, maybe," I murmured as Hagrid pulled open the front door. I couldn't understand the pit in my stomach at the thought of not speaking to them again. It was reckless to, wasn't it? Dangerous even. Before I could solidify the thought in my mind, Harry was shaking his head.
"No maybe about it," he declared in a voice that would not be argued with.
"If you're going to be here for a few more weeks, you're going to need someone to talk to other than Hagrid and Snape," Hermione added.
"No kidding. Snape isn't someone you should have to deal with alone. We'll sort something, right?" Ron gave me another smirk that somehow set my core alight with hope.
"Definitely," Harry confirmed. My grin refused to be subdued. I'd never expected to find friends around my age in Hogwarts, never expected to be allowed and yet, as I peered across at Hagrid, the small smile on his face was undeniable. This was a thing that was officially happening.
"All right then," was all I could think of to say.
The trio quickly said their goodbyes before Harry pulled out a cloak from the bag I hadn't noticed he'd been wearing. Without a word, he slung the material over himself and his friends. I blinked, unprepared for what came next. As soon as they were encased in the fabric, the three vanished from sight.
"Huh. Guess I'm not the only one who can do that..." I muttered, an impressed smile replacing the grin on my face.
Hagrid shut the door.
"Yeh could do worse than those three. Good kids."
I watched silently as Hagrid moved to the cupboard he'd stored my hammock in and pulled it out, ready to set up once more. The air suddenly felt heavy. This wasn't the first time I'd seen Hagrid hurt, but it was the first time I'd been the one to inflict it. I chewed on my lip as be began to fasten the bedding to the wall.
"Hagrid, about what I said…"
"Yer right. I'm still a teacher."
I winced at the harshness of his declaration but forced myself to push on.
"It's not that. Not really. I just. I was scared. I didn't want to tell you because I wanted to hide from it and pretend it hadn't happened." I ran a hand through my hair as the words got harder to form. "Yeah, okay, I didn't want to tell because I thought you might get mad. You've got to understand though, this whole thing is crazy for me."
Glancing at the door behind me as though to check that my apparent new friends were really gone, I allowed myself to change into my human form. The bright flash was enough to draw Hagrid's attention from the hammock.
"I've been keeping secrets for a long time. I've had to. I'm used to being on the defensive but here? It's so much more than that. Back home I've got somewhere to hide. I have this whole life away from my ghost half that I can run to if it ever gets too much. Yeah, I've gotta be careful and watch what I do and say but… I'm free."
Unable to hold his eye any longer, I gazed down at my worn sneakers. While I simply intended to make him understand, the more I spoke, the more my heart hurt at the truth of it all.
"Here… I can't even walk outside without having to be invisible. I can't just take a stroll around the grounds because I feel like it, or sit and talk to people in the dinner hall. Every minute of every day I'm being watched and assessed. It's maddening. If it's not the teachers, then it's the ghosts. I'm forced to abide by the whims of some Ministry I didn't even know existed a few weeks ago and keep my mouth shut about it. Not only that but now I have to sit through whatever tests and experiments Count Dracula comes up with on a daily basis and he's loving every second of it. I'm scared and I'm angry and I'm… lost."
I sighed, fighting back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. "I didn't tell you because it was easier. You know about me being a halfa. Only like… four other people alive know that. Yeah, you're a teacher, but you're also… you're also my friend and I just… I didn't want you to be disappointed in me."
A shudder racked through me before I could stop it. I wrapped my arms around my chest as though that would stop the pain that was building within it.
Neither of us spoke for a long time. Hagrid, having frozen throughout the remainder of my speech, went back to work on setting up my nest. With a grimace, I moved over to the jug of pumpkin juice and poured myself a mug, trying to ignore the way my hands shook as I attempted to distract myself. I took a swig of the cool liquid as I perched on the end of the table, watching Hagrid work.
I thought about offering to help, but something in the man's demeanour told me it was best to leave him to it.
Before long, the hammock was back to its original state. While Hagrid turned to face me, his eyes remained on the floor. He sank down onto his own bed.
We sat like that for a while.
"I'm not disappointed in yeh," Hagrid eventually announced, under his breath. By his sombre expression, I could tell he wasn't finished. I waited.
"I jus' wish yeh'd have spoken ter me about it. I could've maybe put yer mind at rest. Those three, they're somethin' else. Beat He Who Must Not Be Named twice and fought off more threats than any kids their age should have ter deal with. If yer going ter put yer trust in anyone, Harry, Hermione an' Ron are yer best bet."
I frowned, at the 'He Who Must Not Be Named' but at the twinge of sadness in Hagrid's voice I figured now wasn't the time to question it.
"I trust you, Hagrid."
Hagrid's gaze rose to meet mine, like a rejected puppy seeking assurance. I tried to push as much sincerity into my expression as I could. After a few seconds, he sighed.
"It's late. Yeh should sleep if yeh want ter survive yer second round with Professor Snape."
Oh great. Another thing to look forward to. I groaned and took another gulp of the pumpkin juice. I did not want to fall asleep with images of that guy's face in my head.
Hagrid stood and picked up the trio's discarded mugs on his way to the sink. I felt like maybe I should have said something else. Of course rambling on about my own personal insecurities instead of just telling him outright that I was scared of being found out wouldn't work. What was I trying to do? Pull the pity card? I shook my head bitterly, a wave of self-loathing coursing through me. I had to get over myself. Stop wallowing.
I pushed myself from the table and walked over to the spot I'd discarded my backpack earlier. With my insides still throbbing from the emotional offload, I took my time in pulling out my stashed pyjamas.
"Danny," Hagrid called softly. I spun to find him gazing back at me with eyes that looked close to tears. "I trust you too."
AN: N'aww. Bless 'em. Bless all of 'em. I love these guys. I feel like Danny's little emotional offload was kind of overdue. While he's spoken to Hagrid about his fears before, I don't think he's really taken the time to express everything that is going on in his head until now. And maybe saying it out loud will help him overcome it in the future. We shall see!
Would you look at that, though. Two weeks. I actually managed to update within the space of two weeks. Who'd've ever thunk it? Not only that, but I actually got around to replying to quite a few reviews! I'm on a roll! I can't thank you guys enough for the colossal amount of support you've given me. It's phenomenal that there are still people reading and actually enjoying this. You lot are amazing. Truly.
So Danny and the trio finally officially meet! They're going to be appearing a lot more from this point on I believe, and although that is daunting (for me), I hope you guys enjoy it!
With nothing more to say, I shall bid you all a fond farewell!
Thank you so much for reading! You give me the strength I need to carry on.